Bitter Beats and Vitriol
by Dan Joseph
Sleaford Mods at Warsaw
Kicking off their first-ever North American tour in support their new album, English Tapas (Rough Trade), Sleaford Mods of Nottingham, U.K. appeared in late March before a sold-out crowd at Warsaw in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The Mods are not a band in the conventional sense, but rather a slightly vaudevillian two-man show, with frontman Jason Williamson on vocals and theatrics, and Andrew Fearn on laptop, essentially pressing play and stop every few minutes while grinning and drinking beer. Their cutting-edge sound—a bizarre mix of hip-hop, punk, slam poetry, slapstick, and electronica—was effectively delivered through a fast-paced, high-energy, high-volume set that lasted roughly seventy-five minutes.
Sleaford Mods was founded by Williamson in 2006 with musician Simon Parfrement, and this original partnership produced four releases between 2007 and 2011—all now out of print—before Fearn replaced Parfrement at the controls in 2012. Five releases plus a live album have followed, mostly on the Nottingham-based Harbinger Sound label, and with a tireless touring schedule in the U.K. and Europe, they have attracted a steadily growing following. While it’s difficult to get a clear sense of their early sound with only scant evidence remaining of their deleted catalog, their recent run of recordings offers a consistently well-formed and original style filled with minimal, scrappy beats and bass lines over which Williamson semi-articulately rants and rages about the decadence and decay of late capitalism and its many, many indignities. With his thick Midlands accent, excessive profanities, and rambling anger, he most resembles the Fall’s Mark E. Smith, though he delivers considerably more verbiage per measure, at a rate more typical of many rap artists—Wu-Tang Clan has in fact been cited by Williamson as a major influence.
As their profile has continued to rise on the continent, and following the move late last year to the larger London-based Rough Trade, a foray into the U.S. and Canada seems well timed. When I first heard of their booking at the relatively large Warsaw, I thought it a bit of an overreach. I might have taken more notice when I happened to hear their new quasi-hit “T.C.R.” in a SoHo Levi’s store late last year. As it happened, the show was packed and it turns out that the Mods have a rabid fanbase here in New York. Who knew?
As they hit the stage soon after the opening band, Chicago’s Negative Scanner, they seemed a bit wary and star-struck as the capacity crowd roared with an enthusiasm befitting a triumphant homecoming. This was in fact only their second ever appearance in the U.S., the other being a one-off in 2014 at the Wick in East Williamsburg, so it seems that maybe no one actually did know how popular they are here. Following a tentative beginning, the set progressed through a good deal of new and recent material, and it didn’t take long for the Mods to hit their stride. Following a few older tracks a half-hour in, notably the rousing 2013 single “Jolly Fucker,” the set moved into high gear, growing in force, energy, and enthusiasm. Towards the end, an impromptu slam-dancing pit even developed near the stage, and it was clear that Sleaford Mods are in fact here to conquer America (and Toronto).
As unique and compelling as their music is, what I find perhaps most interesting about Sleaford Mods is the fact that these two men are in their mid-’40s, which is an unusual age to be arriving as a pop artist. It’s no surprise then that a good deal of the audience at Warsaw appeared to fall into a similar age group. We have certainly become used to, sometimes awkwardly, old rockers continuing to record and tour well into middle age and beyond. But for a punk-hip-hop duo to emerge in middle age is, well, new.
Sleaford Mods have often been described as a political band, and at times Williamson’s words seem to support this. (When you can understand them!) But what kind of politics is this? The group certainly seems to project an authentic working-class identity, and their rage at the ruling class fuels much of their fire. But there’s also a broader critique: of commercialism, careerism, cruelty, and capitalism. In one of their most poignant early tracks, “Teacher Faces Porn Charges,” Williamson’s words paint a bleak portrait of an idle, seemingly unemployed “old bloke,” perhaps himself, surveying his and his town’s emptiness. Much of the time however, what comes through is merely swagger, anger, and profanity—of a decidedly male variety. It feels real, and it’s delivered in a punchy, high-adrenaline package. But in our current socio-political climate, with so many leaders trading in similar tones and sentiment, it’s not always easy to tell the real from the fake. And in an odd parallel, just a couple of days before this concert, punk legend John Lydon went on Good Morning Britain promoting a new book, and claimed his support for Nigel Farage, Brexit, and Donald Trump, going so far as to say of Trump: “Dare I say, a possible friend?” Anger can be infectious, and can even be a positive force, but let’s hope that Sleaford Mods don’t turn out to be more rotten egotists using anger and rage to sell us something.