Williamson looks like he’s just been kicked out of a Wetherspoons, but his onstage persona is genius.
Someone has lit a spliff close to the front of The Exchange, and the ceiling fans blow the smoke around the interior. By the time it reaches the stage, Sleaford Mods ranter-in-chief Jason Williamson yells ‘that wasn’t part of the Conservative manifesto!’. He’d arrived about five minutes beforehand, pushing through the crowd, as Andrew Fearn, the other half of the duo, waited on stage texting on his phone, possibly telling his partner to hurry up and get his arse in gear.
The evening had started with the industrial soundscapes and experimental electronics of Putrifier, whose set was in-keeping with the venue’s open-minded musical policy, but overall had a slightly alienating effect. Seminal Bristolian hardcore band Chaos UK then proceeded to take the vibe into rowdier territories, assisted by the cohort of ageing punks in the audience. Not long after Sleaford Mods launch into their first hyperactive number, a mosh pit erupts at the front, the crowd propelled by some of the band’s better known tunes such as ‘Fizzy’, ‘Tiswas’ and ‘Jobseeker’ as well as upcoming single ‘Tarantula Deadly Cargo’.
In many ways, Sleaford Mods really shouldn’t work as a band. The backing tracks that Fearn ushers in with a click of his laptop are rudimentary – mostly consisting of eight-bar bass and drum loops. Over the top of this, Williamson swears, howls and jabbers his way through a bleak depiction of meaningless, soul-crushing jobs, punctuated by periods of unemployment and counterbalanced with weekends spent in a drug-induced delirium. Williamson looks like he’s just been kicked out of a Wetherspoons at closing time, but his onstage persona is actually a minor act of genius: combining the potential aggression of a deranged pisshead with the eloquence and satirical eye of a John Lydon or a Terry Hall. This balancing act is perhaps what gives Sleaford Mods their appeal, to a certain demographic at least.
Looking around at the predominantly white, male and middle-aged audience, it seems as though the band’s songs chime with a particular kind of disgruntled masculinity, adrift in a sea of beer-swilling nihilism that could easily find expression in very ugly ways. And while there is an ugliness in many of the lyrics, the honesty, humour and directness is refreshing in itself and an antidote to the photo-shopped predictability of so many of today’s bands.
Meanwhile, Fearn’s role of pressing play on the laptop and then standing back to enjoy a beer is a nod to the DIY aesthetic inherited from punk, a reminder that anyone could do what they are doing. In contrast to Williamson’s frenetic energy, it is almost a kind of anti-performance, a sly two fingers up to musical convention. Yet this strange dynamic seems to work, and makes the performance all the more compelling.
As the Exchange empties, I’m still left with the feeling that Sleaford Mods should be a bad joke, an insult to musicality. Yet the precision with which the tap into feelings of boredom and frustration, and the confidence they exude while they do it, allows them to get away with it.
Check out ‘Tiswas’ right here: