Of Cakes & Men: Sleaford Mods Interviewed

Luke Turner talks to Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn about masculinity, pornography and home baking. Photos thanks to Alasdair McLellan

We take what kicks we can to get through lockdown. My life was significantly improved by the regular appearance of culinary depravity in my Instagram stories. A man with thick tattooed arms and a leer through a lived-in but handsome face, naked except for an apron, squeezing butter through his fingers, gasping as he pounded an egg, groaning to the gentle drift of flour from sieve, and presenting his resulting cakes tarts and pies as if they were… well, you can find Baking Daddy on Sleaford Mods’ Instagram yourselves.

This pervy purveyor of light Victoria sponge is a wonderfully unhinged yet arousing key to unlock just what makes Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn’s project so unique. All the chat about class, rows with Fisher Price political punk troupe Idles, and reputation for aggressive music that gives a voice to the disenfranchised left behind blokes of Britain and so on, is to do them a disservice. Sleaford Mods are so much more than that.

Like Baking Daddy, they’re curiously sexy, provocative, camp, embracing the absurd and the grotesque to explore modern masculinity while making serious examinations of the way society works, or rather doesn’t. I get a sense that Jason Williamson uses Baking Daddy as an exorcism of some of his neuroses and fears, perhaps the ones he’d normally deal with by adopting the role of Jason From Sleaford Mods onstage. If on social media he seems like someone constantly on the verge of exploding, then I suspect it’s because he’s an over-thinker driven round the bend by the trite blandishments of so much contemporary discourse. As we chat on Zoom for this interview, I notice he’s an inveterate hair twiddler. As one of those myself, I’m familiar with compulsive habits as a clockwork key coping mechanism.

That a band who started out releasing records on a noise label but now count Robbie Williams among their fans and sell out gigs to thousands while being one of those rare things – a musical proposition that feels entirely peerless, original, brave – is something to cherish. Even better, they’re about to release their finest album yet. Spare Ribs’ 13 tracks are all wiry pop melodies, rolling bass, lyricism that pops at the government (‘Shortcummings’), musicians who play the music biz game (‘Elocution’), and a haunting portrait of English streets where "asbestos acorn trees hang high" (‘Fishcakes’).

It’s a comment on 2020 yes, but says so much more about the ever grinding madness of contemporary Britain, and how Sleaford Mods exist as men within it. What with the record being packed with earworm after earworm, it ought to push Sleaford Mods even further into the mainstream. But where did the increase in melody in Spare Ribs come from? "Jason wanted to take it that way," says Andrew Fearn, "he was sick of shouting and I’ve always had the duality between pop and making anarchic music. Shit pop music has always annoyed me, and I fell out with pop in the late 80s when Stock, Aitken & Waterman just obliterated the charts with their synth trumpet, but pop is part of me."

"I got bored with rap and started listening a lot more to singer-songwriters on tour," Jason adds, "verse-chorus singy-songy stuff, more melodic – I’ve got The Quietus to thank for that as I read a review of Alex Cameron, listened to it and didn’t put it down. I embraced that approach to songwriting. I love hip hop and the more aggressive side of what we do, but you get to the point of feeling like, ‘I’ve done that, how can we change this?’ You can’t change overnight, but I’m trying to push the limits of what I can do over what Andrew gives me."

Whereas in the past Fearn constructed his backing tracks from offcuts and unfinished tracks, on Spare Ribs he used new modular equipment, a bass app, and a cheap second-hand guitar – "it’s got to be a bit crap," he says with a chuckle. "It’s good for us to not have too much pressure and remember what we were doing in the first place, which was J popping round after work for a couple of hours and it was fun, it was being in this little world. It’s important to create that feeling."

To an extent are you trying to prove wrong those who think you’re working from a very limited palette wrong?

Jason Williamson: It was accidental that we sounded punk, had all the social conscience, were class conscious. I thought if we can accidentally do that we can do something else. We’re musicians first and foremost, we’re not just angry men, we got into this to write music. We love pop music and I don’t see why we can’t push it further.

Do you worry that lyrics to a track like ‘Shortcummings’ might end up dating Spare Ribs?

JW: I’d already been thinking about Dominic Cummings, especially when I read his blog trying to recruit weirdos to Number 10. I thought of all these aristos going [adopts posh accent] ‘yes yes Dominic do come in’ and how mad that was, and then I read a bit of his manifesto, oh God, Jesus Christ. You can see Cummings’ need to apply his own ideology onto society to anybody that’s in charge. Will the lyrics date? The way that society carries on we seem to be repeating ourselves, it’s more a question of what kind of jacket the crisis is going to wear, as opposed to the content of the crisis. Everything seems to be very familiar, in the sense of the different levels of oppression that we experience. I just feel like I’m expendable, and obviously those on lower wages are going to get fucked about more than me, currently, but you get the impression that we’re all potentially expendable collateral – spare ribs, so to speak.

One of the striking aspects to this record is how grotesque the lyricism is, the horse’s cock, the milk in children’s tears, asbestos acorn trees, the yelps and grunts you do in ‘Fishcakes’. I really like this, it’s always been there, but on this record it really contrasts with the pop. To be slightly grand, it fits with a tradition stretching back to William Hogarth’s etchings, that grotesque wrongness of England, and I wonder how that connects to how you see the country?

JW: I’ve always tried to aim for that. All of my experiences are of dull colours, brown and greys and dark greens, small areas that you exist in, whether it be your house as a child, moving into other places when you leave home, the areas around these houses that all look the same because it’s made out of the same brick. Even round here, I live in quite an affluent middle class area now, but it’s still there, you can’t get fucking rid of it. Is it an English thing? I’m not sure, but when I go travelling everything seems lighter. Perhaps it’s because I’m a guest, and I know it’s a small island, but everything feels claustrophobic, as if it’s closing in on you, just grey and crap. I try and bring that over. What the last eight years has done, and in particular what the referendum has done, is bring out the true nature of the English person, the small-minded bigot that doesn’t mind that they’re living in their own shit, they don’t mind that their masters aren’t living in shit at all. I want to bring that across, especially in the Brexit line, ‘let’s get it fucked with a horse’s penis’. I’ve got to convey the anger I felt about it.

There’s a realism to that, not a nihilism. And because you have the absurdity of the grotesque, there’s a bleak humour to Sleaford Mods that feels like a very English, working class thing, it’s quite Essex, it’s Viz, to have humour in how horrible everything is.

JW: Totally. I’ve managed to get better and better at refining how I look at it, and how I communicate that into words.

And a question about language, I’ve noticed in ‘Elocution’ and ‘Top Room’, there’s a sense of insecurity in language, where does that come from?

JW: I think it’s because I’m quite critical of other people. I’ve regressed [during lockdown], everything became claustrophobic and insular. I started questioning myself. I went through a period of thinking the way I talked was just horrible, and measuring my own worth in the face of my criticisms towards other people in the music industry. I went through a period of thinking I’m just as big a cunt as they are. All of this started seeping into the lyrics a little bit. ‘Elocution’ is talking about people who really play the game, who are ambassadors for whatever fucking social justice campaign or giving out awards at whatever ceremonies or being sponsored by Marshall Amps, and using that to climb the hierarchy rather than simply writing good songs. I didn’t want to get into that kind of thing, I didn’t want to network and hobnob because it’s just bullshit, but at the same time I was aware that these people are going to get further.

Thinking about how artists get involved in the political, I saw you saying on instagram that if people wanted to come on Sleaford Mods’ social media and be misogynist, they can fuck off. You talked very openly about how you used to have misogynist views and have had to work on that. Someone commented that you were looking for praise and took it all in bad faith – does it frustrate you that there can’t honest about difficult issues without being shot down for it?

JW: People don’t want it do they? We’re in such a backdrop of cynicism, I’m just as bad, I’ve made a living out of it. I’m quite clearly not looking for fucking praise. It means a lot to me to try and understand my attitude towards women and how that has changed in light of the fact that I wanted to change. I’ve still got a lot of work to do but I don’t think I’m as heinous as I was, and I think it’s important sometimes to say shit like that isn’t it?

That part of left wing politics can be very judgemental, and the way they condemn people when what we need is more understanding is depressing.

JW: Social media isn’t the best place to say things sometimes, people can engineer [what you say] into [having] whatever meaning they want. People know us, we’re not wankers. There are some people out there, let’s not mention any names, who are heinous, you can just tell, but come on, we’re not like that.

What changed your views? Was it to do with getting more successful, and losing bitterness?

JW: A lot of things centred around sex, these ideas that you’ve got, presumptions – do you need me to open that door? ‘No I can open it myself thanks’. It’s alright for me to go out and shag three people in one night but I’m looking at you, and you’ve done it, and I’m thinking twice about it because you’re a woman, that kind of thing. My wife Claire has made me more conscious of this wave of consistent oppression that women have to face.

Shouting at people on the internet is never going to achieve anything, but I wonder if Sleaford Mods, with what I imagine is a largely male audience, can affect change by being honest about failings – I feel that everyone who is over their mid-30 is going to be in that boat, we grew up in a very different time in terms of gender roles and so on. I suspect that Sleaford Mods are going to be able to influence people in a way that’s far more positive than just slagging them off as being toxic males, or whatever.

JW: You’d hope so. But there’s alway been a decency in people. Intelligence is born out of reason and decency, and there’s a lot of blokes like that who look like absolute hoodlums, and I know a lot of them. There’s a general consensus to their attitude to women that’s down the line – if a woman is walking past and someone’s looking at her arse that’s not right, that’s not fucking right, whereas four or five years ago I wouldn’t even have thought about the fact that it wasn’t right.

As I wrote in my review of Eton Alive, I see a tendency for people to lump blokes in a big shitty box and say they’re all scum and I worry about that – If you condemn a load of people as toxic, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – tell people they’re scumbags and they’ll behave like it. Even that phrase ‘gammons’, I get where it’s come from, but I think it’s unhelpful.

JW: I’ve started thinking that. I used to use it a lot and I still do occasionally, but not for a while. I’m particularly conscious of that now.

There’s also that tendency to condemn, and not allow the possibility of redemption.

JW: That’s in everything, it’s not just with misogyny. Do people need writing off straight away? No, generally no. People should be given another chance if they’ve said something that’s not agreeable. I put up a tweet the other day saying ‘open shops, open the gyms, you useless cunt’, within about five minutes I got about 80 tweets, ‘Woah you fucking anti-masker, you wanker, I didn’t think you were like that Jason’. Fucking hell. I had to take the tweet down and apologise.

How do you process all this in terms of your own mental health? You attract a lot of flak for being quite outspoken

JW: It’s impossible. It just gets to you and you have to deal with it. If you’re criticising other bands, which I still believe you should do if you feel something needs saying, you’re going to get their fans, people on the fence, and all of that fucks with you properly and it takes a week to process it. It’s that constant thing of ‘Am I wrong and they’re right?’ and you’ve got to battle with that and find the truth of why you’ve said it, and how you feel about that at the end of it. Generally it doesn’t change, but it also helps you understand yourself.

One thing that strikes me, after years of listening to Sleaford Mods, is that the thing that seems to really get your goat more than anything else is smugness.

JW: Oh yeah totally, but then going back to saying about retracting into myself, do I come across like that? I probably do. Who needs to hear about me feeling happy on a Tuesday morning when they’re going to work? There are levels of smugness, but I hate it, I really hate it. If James Brown or Prince walked in acting smug I’d say fair enough, but these days it’s rife with any old bastard isn’t it? As if you weren’t annoying enough anyway. Fuck off. It sends me into overload. I take it really personally, I feel threatened by it because I know in this game it pays to be like that, you get to places quicker if you’ve got a really basic message, if you’re cheesy, if you’re smug – all of these things are attached to the still powerful image of a rock & roller or a pop star, and the masses love it. I see it as a threat as well.

And thinking of your being quite outspoken in criticising smugness, how does that reflect back to you? There’s always an issue with the self that makes you criticise someone else.

JW: I think when it comes to criticising your contemporaries there’s a bitterness there, and jealousy, but that’s by-the-by. At the same time, a lot of the reason why I got into this game was because I wholeheartedly disagreed with the content of others, I hated it, it made me so angry, and that doesn’t change. It’s a criticism of what was, and still is, lazy creativity and clichéd bullshit, and that goes on. Why would you want to do something so crap and commercial when we live in such a complicated and horrible world like this? Surely you can get something else out of it?

To bring it to Idles, then, I find it strange with them because they’ve become a bit untouchable because people say they’re engaging with masculinity, but I don’t feel like they get the complexity of it, or Britain, or what’s going on, it’s very simplistic. Yet maybe for some people that’s fine and it works?

JW: I think for their fanbase it’s fine and it works. The band and the fanbase are the same thing, they’ve not looked into it – you buy the book but you just keep looking at the cover. Connecting to a cause is mostly a silent thing that you don’t promote, it’s something you do, but you get the impression with them that it’s all in neon velcro, they like to stick it to their yellow wall, there it is, in bright letters, but anything past what the letters say… there’s nothing there. But it’s a brilliant marketing ploy, it’s made them vast amounts of money. I don’t know if they do it subconsciously, I think they believe every word they say, but it doesn’t connect. It’s like getting in your car on the driveway, putting the key in the ignition, but there’s no engine. I think that’s how his mindset is, they don’t get it, but accidentally they’ve stumbled on this brilliant capitalist plan which has earned them adulation across the board. The more people you pull in, the more diluted your message tends to be, and with all these bigger bands you get that, people love the cliche and the generalisation and the diluted imagery of all of these topics centred around social justice, but that’s where it ends because they don’t want to engage too much with it.

I wanted to talk about how you present yourself as a man, especially onstage – first time I saw you I was amazed at how camp your performance was, and then of course you’ve got Baking Daddy. I’m interested in these versions of you as a man, and how that it’d changed over the years.

JW: Initially it was just for a laugh, I was quite influenced by how Lydon did the Richard The Third thing, it even makes a mockery of people who I really admire, like Liam Gallagher or Ian Brown, just stood there trying to be cool. Then it occurred to me that I liked acting quite sexy, and particularly as I sobered up I became more connected to the sexual nature of it – I’m not saying I’m sexy, it’s just something to get it out there. I don’t want to sound pervy or anything, but it’s that feeling. With Baking Daddy, when I used to do a lot of drugs I’d watch a lot of pornography – I couldn’t not do drugs and not do pornography, and it influenced quite a lot of my twisted outlook then, on how I viewed things. I think Baking Daddy is that ultimate nasty sex scenario, particularly in modern pornography. It’s getting that out there, that sinister vibe.

Alcohol and drugs can be such a feeder of sexually compulsion, especially now porn is just all there, tonnes of it – that feels like something under-discussed when it comes to masculinity. We live in a time where everything’s supposed to be sex positive, but porn can be an addictive substance.

JW: Completely, and porn isn’t something I’ve been able to turn myself away from completely, but it did greatly affect me in my attitude towards sex, towards women in the sex industry. People talk about the sex industry opening up, but porn, the way it’s produced and the way it comes over, is nasty.

But then Baking Daddy is weirdly kinky, and funny, and hot. I was interviewing Andy Bell from Erasure once and said that it was amazing how he always got Essex geezer Vince Clarke to dress up in saucy outfits and feather boas. Andy Bell said there’s nothing as kinky as the working class straight male.

JW: It’s fucking damn right. In my years and years of cocaine, pornography and everything that came with it, it always struck me that the football lads were the worst, the most sexually diverse – the day-to-day was just a pantomime and the real stuff was underneath.

Andrew, Sleaford Mods’ music deals with small-town British life, but you grew up in a rural area. How do you feel your sexuality fitted in there?

AF: Gay or straight, there was nothing, there was no education – people are still figuring things out for themselves and there’s still a nasty older generation of close-minded people. It was hard, but I was lucky as well because I had friends at school who were cool about me being gay, but it was more me. I couldn’t deal with myself. It’s still like that for people now, you get people saying ‘It’s fine now, anyone can be gay’, but you have to be the person, and you can’t bring it out of yourself, it’s stigmatising. It’s self-acceptance, if you can’t do it yourself you’re still trapped in a state of mind. People didn’t know I was gay and it annoys me now, people say ‘Oh well you’re not like other gay people’, but there’s absolutely tonnes of us straight-acting, non-camp gay people. it’s another stigma, another judgement that people have.

Do you worry about these stereotypes of masculinity?

AF: I do, it’s very dangerous. Bisexual men for example – it’s there, and it’s good that gay culture is starting to change. I remember in the 90s on dating sites like Gaydar bi men would be shunned, gay mens’ profiles would say nasty things about them. Ultimately when are we all going to accept ourselves and each other, and stop making these different categories? When is the spectrum going to be fine enough for it not to matter what category you’re in? I’ve got to say as well, and I know it’s a bit of a dodgy movement, but this men’s movement, there’s a serious side to it – to be a straight man feels like it isn’t allowed in this society, it’s a taboo subject. Obviously you don’t want to associate masculinity with being a dick, or being stubborn, or all these traits, but there’s nothing wrong with being masculine.

Spare Ribs is released via Rough Trade this Friday, 15th January. For preorders etc please visit their website

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