From warehouses to Wembley: A day with Sleaford Mods, voice of a troubled nation
Sleaford Mods are one of the UK’s most important bands. When they supported Blur at Wembley Stadium, The Big Issue was there – with an exclusive access-all-areas pass – to bring you the inside story. Here’s what happened
Nine years ago, Jason Williamson was working as a benefits adviser. He’d seen the effects of changes brought in by the coalition government, and had tried to help people how he could. But in 2014, aged 43, the success of his band allowed him to quit. He’s half of Sleaford Mods, along with bearded beatmaker Andrew Fearn. His lyrics, delivered with East Midlands venom, take aim at the grim state of the country, the failings of politicians, class, benefits, and beyond. It’s music chronicling the state we’re in, and it’s not always pretty.
Fast-forward to July 2023. With three top 10 albums under their belt and a reputation as outspoken, debauched stalwarts of the music landscape, Williamson and Fearn are at a sold-out Wembley Stadium in London, about to support Blur on a landmark day.
And they’ve invited The Big Issue along for the day to witness it all.
UK GRIM, Sleaford Mods’ most recent album, reached number three in the charts when it came out in March. This rainy Saturday marks the second time the pair play Wembley Stadium – they’re reaching bigger audiences, with increasing success. It’s the high water mark of their career so far.
To understand where they’re coming from, it’s worth noting things weren’t always like this. Working as a benefits adviser, just as the Tory-Lib Dem coalition took over and austerity began eating away at the help on offer for the vulnerable, shaped Williamson’s outlook.
“You’re tryna help people out that have been caught in the crossfire,” he says. “It’s quite horrible, you know, and it did fuel it, it really did fuel the lyrics.”
Before that, he worked in shops, factories, warehouses, and at a Little Chef. Among Fearn’s jobs were call centres, swapping trolleys on trains, and a cleaner at a masonic lodge.
“You see real life in all jobs don’t you,” says Williamson. “Unskilled labourers, it’s pretty much on the front line. Working with people, getting to know people at work… they’re all windows to the world aren’t they.”
‘It’s not going anywhere nice, is it?’
Since Williamson and Fearn started making music together in 2012, the UK has gone from the affable austerity of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition to a more demented place. People can’t afford to feed themselves, food banks can’t get the food to feed others, while politicians try to obsess over culture wars.
“It’s not going anywhere nice, is it? People are still not getting a break,” says Williamson
“It’s got worse, a lot worse, but we’ve become so numb to it, haven’t we. And there seems to be something that’s always, put a nice little sheen over the top of it, and made people forget about it, but that’s social media, or the same old tricks that capitalism keeps inventing. It’s worse, it’s worse than it was.”
There’s a place for music shouting about that fact. It wakes audiences up. But is that something they wanted, deliberately, to provoke in their music? “It was a reaction, we were living it,” says Williamson.
“This whole presentation of, you know, how, how he wanted to put himself across. The people that relate to that, the political aspect of it, the people whose voices that weren’t being heard. It was already stuff that was out there. That was the problem at the time,” says Fearn.
“People are slowly cottoning on to what’s actually happening in the world. That’s what’s changed now.”
A glimpse at the glamour of a Wembley dressing room
For years, the anger in Sleaford Mods’ music was matched by their persona. Getting pissed on stage was the order of the day. Williamson has a tattoo on his bicep marking the previous occasion the Sleafords took the stage at the country’s biggest stadium, and Fearn admits being slightly more nervous than before.
“I was stoned off my face last time I was here,” he says.
After developing a prodigious – three or four grams in a night – cocaine habit while on the dole, Williamson has been sober for eight years. Fearn rarely drinks nowadays. They’re both in a much happier place. Are they still as pissed off as before, I ask?
“No, I don’t think so. Not like that. No. Not at all,” says Williamson.
“That hardcore fan expects me to be like, you know, a borderline alcoholic and you to be smashing your head against the wall,” Fearn adds. “It’s that weird thing… you’re a snapshot and they expect you to be like that forever. And people change, people evolve, don’t they.”
That evolution is clear in their rider. Tales of outlandish riders are commonplace. Beyoncé apparently has a blanket ban on Coca-Cola products, and requests her dressing room be set to 78 degrees. Justin Bieber’s includes a private jet. Iggy Pop and the Stooges asked for seven dwarves, a pack of cigarettes to be thrown in the bin, beer, wine, and a Bob Hope impersonator. It’s Wembley. I reckon they’d sort you out if you wanted.
Apart from a few gluten-free Brewdog bottles in the fridge for the crew and a bottle of wine for the sound man, it’s a sober affair for the Sleaford Mods. Food-wise there’s packets of almonds, dates, salt and vinegar peanuts, and Brazil nuts. There’s small trays with lemon, ginger, mint tea and honey on them, and some Itsu crispy seaweed thins and a loaf of bread. All from Sainsbury’s, by the look of things.
If you haven’t heard their music, you’ll know what they think
The UK is gripped by shortages from fruit and vegetables to bricklayers and plasterers. But there is no scarcity of musicians media-trained into agreeable blandness. A conversation with Sleaford Mods offers something different and refreshing, a throwback to the feuding Britpop days of 30 years ago.
In other words, if you haven’t heard Sleaford Mods’ music, you might well have heard Williamson’s opinions. He’s not shy about making his mind known. Take tonight’s main act.
On Rupert Trousers, Williamson sang: “Idiots visit submerged villages in two hundred pound wellies/ Spitting out fine cheese by that tool from Blur/ Even the drummer’s a fucking MP/ Fuck off you cunt, sir.” Cheese being a reference to bassist Alex James’s second career as a cheese farmer, while drummer Dave Rowntree was a Labour councillor for four years until 2021. Graham Coxon, Blur’s guitarist, found himself in the crosshairs on Flipside, described as looking “like a left-wing Boris Johnson”. And, again, Williamson took aim at Alex James in a recent interview with NME:
“No, I don’t think I’d have a laugh with Alex James. He’s terrible! I really can’t forgive anyone who tweeted to an abundance of followers not to vote Labour,” Williamson said. “That’s just fucking ludicrous and reckless. I don’t think he’d be the type of person you’d have a casual chat with.”
Still, they were invited along for Blur’s big day out, apparently after Damon Albarn saw them play at Coachella. Albarn might be the only member of Blur they haven’t said something about, I point out.
“I think I have actually. I mean, you know, they know the score, it’s like pffft, whatever. You get a thicker skin, don’t you, as the years go by,” Williamson says.
“And apparently, he’s not even on social media so I would imagine he’s not even that fuckin’… who cares? Someone slagging you off. I mean, these days it’s…”
Fearn cuts in as Williamson trails off: “Someone’s probably told him. It shows their maturity as well, don’t it, you know what I mean. They see past it. And it’s only a bit of a joke.”
“This is it,” says Williamson. “And if it wasn’t a joke, then it’s just like…”
“Again, it’s a measure isn’t it,” Fearn agrees.
“If you’re actually alright, it’s a bit of a joke, and if you’re a massive cunt then you deserve it.”
The pair are due on stage at 6.40pm. Neither have been showing nerves all day, but there’s anticipation as they mill about to the side of the stage. Williamson chats to his kids, now sporting brightly coloured ear defenders, and blows air through his lips. All Fearn has to do is set up his laptop.
They walk on stage, Williamson greeting a full floor area with a “Hello Wembley.” Earlier, he had described what it feels like standing on a stage that’s played host to so many: “You get on that stage and it’s just like, fuck me it’s massive.”
I’d asked them beforehand if they had any surprises in store. They said no. As the last song finishes, I realise they were being coy. On the projected screen behind them, a giant cartoon cock and balls appears; they walk off, drenched in sweat. It is, they reckon, the first ever cock and balls displayed on stage at Wembley. The same people who do Coldplay’s graphics were drafted in to do it, I’m told.
For all the luxury of Wembley – although in truth its bowels are more a mix of a conference centre and a multi-storey car park for lorries – there is one noticeable absence in the dressing rooms.
“Showers are downstairs?” says Fearn. “You’re joking.”
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