The righteous anger of Sleaford Mods

Musicians Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn visit Ace of Cups in support of the career-best ‘Spare Ribs’

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Jason Williamson (left) and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods

In the eyes of Sleaford Mods, we’re all spare ribs: chum for a capitalist machine that refused to slow its relentless grind even when confronted with a global pandemic, which has now lingered more than two years and killed millions amid general indifference from government leaders.

This idea festers throughout the British duo’s latest, Spare Ribs, from 2021, singer/ranter Jason Williamson raging against bankrupt political systems, hipsters who glamorize blue-collar life, the xenophobic voices that have gained deeper footholds amid the pandemic and the relentlessly numbing monotony of life in lockdown.

On the title track, for one, Williamson bemoans the unending "tragedy of life,” barking lines about being forced to stand while waiting on the 4 a.m. bus because the bench has been removed to prevent the unhoused from finding even temporary comfort. From Williamson’s point of view, it seems the cruelty is always the point.

The real tragedy, though, is it didn’t have to be this way. Interviewed not long after the release of Spare Ribs, on the day a British citizen received the very first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, Williamson projected something approaching optimism. “I’m hoping that it will be the start of civilization trying to recover from this,” he said.

Fifteen months later, much of that hope has cratered.

“It just seems to have gotten worse, hasn’t it? You just get the impression that we’re in a mass state of denial about what’s going on,” said Williamson, who will join his Mods cohort Andrew Fearn in concert at Ace of Cups on Thursday, May 12. “We’re pretending the pandemic is out of the way, but now, obviously, there is the looming threat of climate change, and an ongoing war [waged by Russia against Ukraine] that seems to be slowly dragging in all of the nation states. So, I think if anything’s changed, it’s people’s willingness to be on the right side of things.”

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Since forming in 2007, Sleaford Mods have released 11 LPs documenting this relentless backslide, pairing Williamson’s agitated rants (toned down significantly on the comparatively melodic Spare Ribs) with stark, buzzing beats courtesy Kearn, the two drawing upon post-punk scuzz, bouncing hip-hop and everything in between. “We’re not just into punk, and we’re not just into noise or industrial music,” Williamson said. “You get a lot of these genres where you have these purists, and I find that a bit tedious.”

While the albums differ stylistically — Williamson also spoke of being loath to repeat himself — the band’s catalog is shot through with a degree of bile undimmed by success.

“It’s like, what is it? Why do I feel like this?” Williamson said. “I’m not necessarily connected to political things, in the sense it affects me, because I’ve got money now, and once you have money, politics is sort of secondary. … Once you have money, that alienates you from the frontline politics of whatever country you live in, and it alienates you from hardship, obviously, because there aren’t any. So where does this anger come from?”

Ultimately, Williamson said it boils down to an intimate connection he continues to feel to humanity, which remains unaltered by the more comfortable lifestyle he’s able to maintain now. “Anybody that is conscious,” he said, “can of course feel that sense of displacement and dissatisfaction, the depression, sadness, loneliness. And so, all of that comes into it.”

While Williamson's words are central to Sleaford’s sound, the frontman said he didn’t grow up with a fascination for language, turning to writing later in life largely driven by a growing sense of desperation. “There was this hopelessness, and a sense it was all over,” he said of the malaise that had settled in prior to the formation of the band. “But still running underneath was this massive passion for music, this massive obsession with wanting to be recognized.”

Not long after Williamson started working with Fearn, he started to home in on his musical voice, which took shape around the types of blokes who spun yarns from their barstools in Nottingham.

“Just the tone of people, and the speed at which they talk, there’s almost a slickness to it, where without knowing it, they talk in a way that’s very inspiring, very cool. And you generally get this with people on the lower end of society, whether it’s criminals or just your mates down at the pub,” Williamson said. “And it wasn’t until my mid-30s that I started to take notice of how people talked, the patter of people who really have no life, where all they do is work and go out on weekends. But there’s a lingo, a kind of jargon that’s created that helps make life bearable, and it’s something that separates them from the rest of the crowd.”