The Collapse Board Interview: Jason Williamson (Sleaford Mods)
Thursday 12 March 2020 and I’m at Sleaford Mods sold out show in Brisbane at Triffid. The coronavirus is coming, shows are already being pulled. Pixies have cancelled their two Brisbane shows due to take place tonight and tomorrow, as well as the remaining dates on their 2020 Australian tour. It seems very strange that it’s been more than 10 months since I last went to a gig; easily the longest gap between shows since I was 18, more than 30 years ago. There are still shows happening in Brisbane but I haven’t been interested in going out into the midst of a crowd for obvious reasons, even though Australia has done a really good job at managing COVID-19. Still, as the last gig of the year, a Sleaford Mods show is a great way to end it, albeit nine months from its conclusion.
Ahead of the release of their latest, and arguably best album to date, Spare Ribs, we spoke to singer, Jason Williamson about collaborating with other singers for the first time, recent influences on his lyric writing, and why he never gave up on making music.
Collapse Board: The last show I saw before lockdown was your show in Brisbane, were you going straight back to the UK after your Australian dates or did you have to suddenly rearrange everything?
Jason Williamson: Yes, we went back after the last date in Fremantle, flew back the following day I think and straight into lockdown..
CB: Given the anger and disillusionment in your songs that you have to channel night after night, how do you feel when you come off stage?
JW: I feel great. It’s all about the show really, about the performance. So if that’s good, and it usually is, I’m satisfied, you know?
CB: So singing those songs night after night, doesn’t take any toll on you?
JW: No, because I think the emotional side of those songs has been dealt with already. I’ve had a lot of time to think about why I wrote those songs. The energy that goes into them is more or less usually powered by whatever current frustrations I’ve got and that’s how I do it really.
CB: When you say you’ve dealt with the emotional side of the songs already you mean when you first write the lyrics down?
JW: Yeah. They’re usually songs about whatever I’m thinking at the time, which has either been processed or disposed of or understood better. Do you know what I mean? So when it comes to performing those songs each and every night, they’re usually injected with whatever and however I’m feeling at the time.
CB: When you are writing songs, how do you turn it off at the end of the day and just go back to normal family life?
JW: Just step back into it, there’s no other choice. My wife is not going to put up with some kind of pop star walking around the house, she never has done, and that is what grounds you really. It’s like it’s a job, obviously it’s not your average job but it’s still a job. I think if you can contain it, then it serves you well. If you don’t contain it, if you let it overtake, that might look good in the newspapers for a short amount of time, but generally speaking, that never ends well.
CB: Were you always planning on making the new album when you did this year or was it because of lockdown and not being able to tour?
JW: The new album was booked in to be ideally released for January, so we knew we had to record one. Before we went to Australia, we’d recorded five songs already, so a lot of it was already done.
CB: The press release for the album says that the first set of song ideas that you worked on that Andrew had sent you weren’t very good. Why did you think that they weren’t working and what did you do to change that?
JW: Well we put two of them on the album. ‘Top Room’ and ‘Out There’ were part of that session, and they’re ones that reviewers have said are probably two of the best ones on the album, but I didn’t see it. I don’t view those kinds of songs as something that is pushing the sound along, although people might disagree with that. I just found there was a lot of songs like that and some of them didn’t work, where it’s just one loop and you’re just going through the whole thing vocally. The lyrics were good but it just didn’t seem to gel well with the music apart from ‘Top Room’ and ‘Out There’, so they’re the ones that survived that first week of recording. And then after that we just banged heads in studio and managed to finish the rest.
CB: You’ve got some guest collaborators on the album, including a song with Amy Taylor from Amyl and the Sniffers. Was she was someone you’d met on the festival circuit or you knew through the label [both bands are signed to UK label Rough Trade]?
JW: We’d met before, or rather Andrew had met her before, a couple of years ago, maybe a few years ago, but obviously being on the same label kind of opened up that communication, but I was a fan of what she was doing. It reminded me of myself in a lot of respects. It’s very uncouth and there’s nothing glamorous about it. It’s just just sort of like street music almost, so that really appealed. We talked about collaborations and Amy was potentially someone that could perhaps gel with us and could work with us. I was very worried about the idea of collaborating because it could just fall on its arse, but thankfully it didn’t.
CB: So were those songs written with other singers in mind to come in and sing on them?
JW: No, not really. ‘Mork n Mindy’ [which features UK singer Billy Nomates] and ‘Nudge It’ I guess were, but the rest of them, no. When I started writing those, it was like these two could work as potential collaborative tunes. I’d written the chorus to ‘Mork n Mindy’ and although I could sing, it just didn’t sound the same. I just thought it’d be better if someone else sang it.
CB: Amy and Billy have both been guests on ‘Late Nights with Jason‘. What is ‘Late Nights with Jason’ about?
JW: Fuck all, just something to make me laugh! The next one I’ve done is even funnier. I mean I just sit there and laughing at it and I think that’s a good thing. If I’m laughing about it, then I don’t really care if anybody else, does. I was worried that it was making us look a little bit stupid but, you know, it’s like fuck it! I mean we do another thing called ‘Baking Daddy’ and it’s just trying to raise a little bit of humour, just trying to promote a record in a different way, as opposed to normal, boring, cliched bullshit. You know, I love being cool. I think I’m cool, I think Sleaford Mods is cool, but you get bored of being cool all the time! It’s just having a bit of a laugh!
CB: Watching your face during that Robbie Williams one, it’s like you just can’t believe that it’s happening, the look of joy on your face at the absurdity of it.
JW: Yeah, that was all sort of staged. I mean, it’s quite a surreal, weird thing, he sent me over those videos and I thought, “Well, how can I do this?” He’s a megastar isn’t he and I wanted to bring across the idea that we all are really, although it was a disaster, it was a car crash and we were all trying to make fun of it and try to pretend everything’s all right.
CB: Another guest on ‘Late Nights…” has been Aldous Harding and the press release for the album says she’s been a recent influence on your writing, which seems quite surprising as she’s obviously from a completely different musical sphere. What is it about her and her songwriting and lyric writing that inspired you?
JW: I think it was seeing her live. I think it would have had a really good effect if I’d just listened to the records, but seeing her live and how she performed. She just struck me as someone that is serious about it but also at the same time she’s completely committed to it and lost in it and is a very complicated person. All these things appeal. I just kept listening and the albums that she’s released, have made a massive impact on my willingness to now listen to singer-songwriters again, along with Alex Cameron as well, who released quite possibly the best album in 2019, Miami Memory. Again, that did the similar thing, they’re both properly into it, they are the real thing and that’s what it should be, I think.
CB: Are you someone who’s always writing lyrics or do you only set the time aside when you’re working on a album?
JW: I’m having a rest at the minute but I don’t know, you know. I could write them all the time, I guess, but I just don’t.
CB: Do you have a process?
JW: No, I just sit down and write. They’ve got to be really good and they don’t come that easily. So you have to usually wait quite a while and then something will happen and then everything will happen all at once and then you have a cooling off period again.
CB: ‘Mork n Mindy’ was the first single from Spare Ribs. Are you a nostalgic person or have you become a nostalgic person as you’ve gotten older?
JW: I think I am a little bit perhaps but I’ve been thinking about a lot recently about my childhood memories and how that shapes you as a person, the things you don’t like about it and the everlasting memories that are pinned to some of it. I think it’s a great way of trying to communicate how you see the world from the eyes of your childhood, because that moulds who you are to a certain degree and I think something really effective in that. I’ve done that from the start really, peppered it with lots of things that have come from childhood, mainly food and TV programs and personalities.
CB: And how do you go about asking Ben Wheatley to direct a video for you?
JW: We knew Ben, Ben was a fan of the band, and has been for years. He’d come to the gigs and I’d always put him on the list, and he’d always email me to thank me and then he asked me if I wanted a small part in one of his films and I said “Yeah, I’d love to.” Then I kind of asked him if he fancied doing a video and he jumped at it. It’s possibly the best video we’ve done, really. I mean it’s just brilliant, we just couldn’t believe it.
CB: That house in the video is real I assume and not a set?
JW: Yes it is, it’s in Nottingham. I wanted a house that kind of mirrored what I had been brought up in and it took a couple of months to find somewhere and we were really happy about it.
CB: You mentioned before that you had a small part in Ben Wheatley’s ‘Rebecca‘. How was that experience for you?
JW: Brilliant. I’ve done a few acting bits and I want to try and do a few more. I’ve been doing it a few more auditions, I never get the parts, but it’s just great to be auditioning really. It’s a real hard thing to get into in but I like it though. I like the creativity behind it and I tried to train as an actor when I was younger but I didn’t have the discipline, as well as other things such as money, et cetera, to go to one of these drama schools. So it’s always been a little dream to try and explore that a bit more.
CB: Sleaford Mods didn’t happen until your late thirties …
JW: Early forties.
CB: ….but You kept plugging away at music all that time. What kept you persevering?
JW: There’s nothing else, I really connected with it. I found it not easy to do, but I found that the abilities with trying were easy to connect with: singing, writing. I just couldn’t find a formula that was representative of me and I realised that that was the one thing that separated successful musicians from amateur musicians, that they had achieved the formula that completely represented them, they were themselves. Obviously you get a lot of people in music that aren’t but these are mainly corporate people what I’m talking about is actual creativity. I learnt to love music. I forgot about being famous, wanting to be famous and learnt to love music for what it was. And so it appeared to me that anybody that achieved a career in music, from an actual creative point of view, rather than some corporate dickhead,usually had found a formula that they were able to express their true selves in. Obviously with Sleaford Mods, I found that.
Spare Ribs is out now via Rough Trade / Remote Control.