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Sleaford Mods

Recording UK Grim By Tom Doyle
Published April 2023

Andrew Fearn (left) and Jason Williamson at JT Soar Studios in Nottingham, where UK Grim was recorded.Andrew Fearn (left) and Jason Williamson at JT Soar Studios in Nottingham, where UK Grim was recorded.Photo: Phil Booth

As their new album reveals, there’s a lot more to the minimalist, abrasive sound of Sleaford Mods than meets the ear.

Instantly recognisable by Andrew Fearn’s minimalist, post‑punky electronic beats and bass lines and Jason Williamson’s ranty, aggressive vocals — cleverly and often hilariously detailing his views on the decaying state of the UK — Sleaford Mods have been one of the most unlikely British musical successes of the past decade. Since releasing their first proper album together, 2013’s Austerity Dogs, Williamson and Fearn have taken their partnership from a bedroom operation releasing CD‑Rs and playing in Nottingham pubs to a deal with Rough Trade Records, Top 10 albums, and sell‑out tours.

“We’re a bit of an anomaly,” says Fearn. “We’ve just come from a weird place... Lincolnshire!”

Williamson says of their idiosyncratic sound: “People perceived it as being really influenced by the Fall or whatever. No disrespect to Mark E Smith and God rest his soul, but that just wasn’t true.”

Instead, Williamson lists as key inspirations the Jam circa 1980 album Sound Affects, especially Bruce Foxton’s distinctive, rumbling bass lines, and Keith Tenniswood and the late Andrew Weatherall’s Two Lone Swordsmen project, particularly the 2004 album From The Double Gone Chapel. Fearn, meanwhile, had long specialised in making stripped‑down electronic tracks.

“Sometimes I’ll have a bit of an idea... just like a drumbeat, for example,” the latter explains of their working methods, “and then he’ll start shouting something on it and the melody will come out of it. Other times, I’ll have one of those kind of eureka moments where I just write a whole piece.

“I do think once you create a musical concept,” he adds, “which is not really something I’ve done this sort of powerfully before, things just do come to you.”

Jason Williamson: I’m constantly conscious that, although there’s not that much to Sleaford Mods, it has to be thoroughly investigated every time we come to do another album. It needs to be thoroughly thought about. There’s no half measures.

As is evident on their latest album, UK Grim, minimalism remains key to their sound. “It’s timeless, innit?” Williamson stresses. “But I mean, it’s how you use it, isn’t it? This is why I’m constantly conscious that, although there’s not that much to Sleaford Mods, it has to be thoroughly investigated every time we come to do another album. It needs to be thoroughly thought about. There’s no half measures.”

Hands On

Sleaford Mods album: UK Grim.Andrew Fearn grew up on a farm in the village of Saxilby, Lincolnshire, before studying music at Newark College (dropping out after a year when he says he “got led astray by people in the pub”) and then moving to Nottingham in 1989 after he enrolled on a recording course. “You would learn electronics for two days and then sound recording,” he remembers. “The first day I was standing with a pen and a pad, having to jot down notes of a mixing desk, and thinking, ‘I just want to play with it.’”

Before long, he’d invested in a Fostex X‑26 cassette four‑track and began dabbling with recording in his bedroom. “A mate of mine lent me an Alesis MicroVerb, which was absolutely brilliant,” he says. But a lingering memory stuck in his mind of seeing Paul Hardcastle (responsible for 1985’s UK Number 1, ‘19’) on TV in the mid‑’80s demonstrating an Emulator, and Fearn became fascinated with the notion of sampling.

“The idea of being able to sample something was a lot more interesting to me then than synthesis. I mean, I’m a lot more interested in synthesis now. But just the fact that you could record any sound... it was, y’know, kind of a frontier, wasn’t it? Just mind‑blowing.”

Keen to dive into learning about sampling, Fearn began using Music X software on a Commodore Amiga 1200. “You could play four 8‑bit samples at once,” he recalls. “So it was a bit like using a four‑track in a digital sense, because you could bounce samples together for certain parts of a track. A lot of people used OctaMED, which was more popular. I mean, I’ve used trackers before, but it can be a bit brain crunchy sometimes, especially to write a song in. They’re OK for writing loops and whatnot. But Music X was basically like a modern sequencer now where you’ve got a screen where you can put notes in [via piano roll].”

In 1997, Fearn progressed to a Casio FZ‑10M sampler. “It had eight outputs, so it was great if you had a mixer,” he says. “I’d write the whole track on the Amiga, have that running 8‑bit samples, with the FZ, and two Zoom effects racks. I used to try to make stuff with the FZ that sounded like riffs. Like, sampling guitars and things and just make a chuggy loop. I’d be writing a lot of control changes for the effects, and everything would be programmed, so I’d just be pressing Play and it would run a track. But at one point, I realised it was too complicated. Everything would be really glitchy.

“So, it was a slow evolution of, like, making lots of stuff on cassette, until the MiniDisc came out, which was a bit of a revolution. After that, I’d just WAV things on the computer, then I could edit them later.

“I feel like up until I met Jason really, I was part of a massive crowd of people that were known as bedroom artists. That’s basically what you were. But having a boundary is quite a good thing for making music, because you work around different ways of doing things.”

Andrew Fearn’s home studio is still relatively modest, though host to an ever‑growing modular rig. Visible far left is Andrew’s now‑ancient Yamaha MD4S MiniDisc multitracker.Andrew Fearn’s home studio is still relatively modest, though host to an ever‑growing modular rig. Visible far left is Andrew’s now‑ancient Yamaha MD4S MiniDisc multitracker.

Meeting Of Minds

For his part, Jason Williamson had struggled for years to have a music career, both as the singer in bands and as a solo artist. His creative breakthrough came when in 2005 he booked Rubber Biscuit Studio in Nottingham and, together with Simon Parfrement, began messing around with the ideas that would lead to Sleaford Mods. Often it involved working with bootleg samples. The first track they made together was titled ‘Ashtray’ and featured Williamson rapping over a heavy metal loop.

“It was ignited by basically me and Simon twatting about with somebody’s CD that they gave us,” says Williamson. “We just looped a bit of it, and I turned it into a song. I just started moaning over it about, y’know, the cult of David Bowie and all this bullshit. I took it to work the next day and people were like, ‘Oh, this is actually all right.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, OK.’ So, it just went from there. I kept getting segments off records that I really loved.”

Jason Williamson made four low‑key Sleaford Mods albums with Parfrement between 2007‑2011, involving illicit samples lifted from the likes of Marvin Gaye, Jeff Beck, the Sex Pistols, the Verve and Dr Octagon. “I wasn’t in a position to get clearance for any of these things,” he points out. “It was always an Achilles heel that you could only press about 50 CD‑Rs at a time when you released an album. So I was looking for something more homegrown and original.”

Williamson had begun performing alone as Sleaford Mods, rapping over CDs. One night in 2010, after his set supporting LA noise artist John Wiese at the Chameleon club in Nottingham, he was having a cigarette outside when he heard Andrew Fearn playing some of his own tracks in the basement. “I would turn up with a laptop and just play my stuff,” Fearn says.

“It was really grimy,” says Williamson. “Not grimy as in grime music. But it was really dirty. It was a remix of the George Michael song ‘Careless Whisper’. It sounded so horrible, so industrial, but there was something quite warm about it as well. And I thought, ‘That sounds perfect.’”

Together the pair collaborated on the fifth Sleaford Mods CD‑R, the colourfully titled Wank, before many of the tracks were re‑used for their first official release, Austerity Dogs. “It came along just at the right time,” says Fearn. “I probably would have given up! I was literally just hanging in there, really.”

Dust To Dust

Fearn and Williamson’s studio in the early days of Sleaford Mods was situated in the former’s flat. “It was really small, and I had my monitors on wall stands,” Fearn remembers. “So Jason would literally be stood right in front of the speakers with a 58 and there’d be loads of spill.”

“He would sometimes say, ‘Oh, can you move back a little bit?’” Williamson laughs.

“I felt like it really added a bit of liveness to a lot of those older albums,” says Fearn. “Y’know, it added this sort of weird top end to a lot of the tracks. Because you’re basically putting the whole track back on the [vocal] track.”

“It needed to sound raw,” Williamson adds. “He took a bit of spill out, but the mistakes were just as important as the song ideas, in the sense of little glitches. That was something that I really enjoyed doing and still do, y’know. If I mess up on a vocal line, repeat a line or if I trip it up, so long as it’s not blatant, then we keep it in.”

In terms of direction for their early recordings, Williamson told Fearn that he was a fan of the “dusty appeal” of RZA’s productions for Wu‑Tang Clan. “But he never quite nailed the Wu‑Tang sound,” the frontman reckons. “There was something quite clean about it as well. But also quite ’80s, quite aggro. Which is obviously his style.”

Fearn, meanwhile, was at the time using a combination of bits and bobs of equipment: the cheaper, the better. “I had a jailbroken iPad, so I had loads of free stuff. I had a mate that used to crack lots of software for me, so everything was cracked basically.”

At the same time, he also began sampling beats from cassette tape loops that he’d made back in 2009 on a beaten‑up Fostex four‑track he’d borrowed from a friend. “I had to take the screws off the bottom of it because the rubber band kept coming off. So, I’d have to keep repairing it all the time. I started making tape loops, undoing tapes. On the track ‘Donkey’ [from Austerity Dogs] the beat is from a tape loop album I made [in 2012, under his ongoing solo name Extnddntwrk].

Quick Steps

Fearn’s preferred DAW for Sleaford Mods is Magix Acid, although he works in Ableton for his Extnddntwrk records. “I mean, you’ve got to have some kind of system,” he says, “so I still use Acid to build the tracks with Jason. I’d do a lot of stuff in Acid where I’d just be chopping a lot of small notes up, and re‑rendering things. Making my own WAVs and regurgitating stuff back into the computer.

“Jason just wants to get on with it. Y’know, so if I turn up and I’ve got one or two or three WAVs in Acid, then all we’ve got to do is get on with it. If there’s a bit that’s not working, I can easily chop it out.”

It’s pretty clear from the intensity of Williamson’s performances that the frontman works at a furious pace. “Yeah,” Fearn laughs. “I mean, he’s not as bad as he used to be, because he kind of understands the process. Definitely in the early days, there was very little time. If you hadn’t done three tracks by the end of the night, then it hadn’t been a good night.”

When it came to 2014’s Divide And Exit and the following year’s Key Markets, Sleaford Mods began to slowly develop their sound. ‘Tied Up In Nottz’ in particular, from the former album, featured Fearn playing a skeletal, Joy Division‑styled guitar part and a live drum loop.

“A friend of mine had a studio in Nottingham,” he says, “and we were kind of sharing it. He bought loads of these affordable mics and had the whole kit set up. So one day, I just played beats. But even though we did lots of beats and recorded for a few hours, once you’ve used that sound for a track, you can’t really use it again. That’s been kind of part of the learning curve of like, ‘Well, OK, we’ve used that sound. You could maybe steal the snare from it and put it with a different hi‑hat and kick to make a new sound.’”

Down The Money Pit

Searching for new ways to make beats is a constant process for Fearn. ‘Mork n Mindy’, from 2021’s Spare Ribs, for instance, employs the unmistakable tones of Teenage Engineering’s PO‑12 Pocket Operator mini drum machine. For the new album, UK Grim, he created some of the rhythms while on tour using a Nintendo DS Lite loaded with Korg M01D software. Elsewhere, Fearn has moved into the modular world. “I can lose days using this modular stuff,” he admits. “I can fall down a rabbit hole with one of the things that I’ve bought. The great thing about modular stuff is it just makes what you do so much more instant. I mean, it’s a bit of a money pit, I have bought more than I need, but I haven’t gotten that crazy with it.”

Some of the rhythms on UK Grim were composed using a Nintendo DS Lite, which served as a super‑portable drum machine for writing whilst on tour.Some of the rhythms on UK Grim were composed using a Nintendo DS Lite, which served as a super‑portable drum machine for writing whilst on tour.Photo: Ian Tatham

Along with his array of Mutable Instruments modules, some of the key sounds on UK Grim were created using a 1010music Bitbox. “It’s a sampler, and you get a touchscreen on it,” he says. “It’s the dream device. I’ve tried to buy things that were more affordable. I’m not stinking rich or anything, but I’ve got some money. But I wouldn’t know what to do with a pair of Neve compressors. I just want something that I can be creative with.”

Similarly, Fearn is a fan of Erica Synths’ Sample Drum. “That’s like a more basic version of the Bitbox. You can CV everything. I mean, it’s nice to be able to control panning and volume and reverb, and the amount of reverb, when you want it.”

Fearn is also a follower of Eurorack guru and module developer Ben Wilson aka DivKid’s tutorial videos. “I can be there all day watching those videos, and then going, ‘Oh, I’ll try and do that. I’ve got that thing.’ Often, that’s how I’ll make a piece of music now. Because a lot of modular kit things are quite Swiss Army Knife‑y. They do a multitude of things.”

At The Bottom Of It All

In terms of bass lines, Fearn has used everything from Moog and Korg Gadget iPad synths to an old Fender Squier bass. “It sounds like the Stranglers, it sounds like Talking Heads,” he says of the latter. “Which is kind of why I bought it. But I just try and use different basses all the time, just to get away from it sounding like a band.

“Even if I use the same bass, I’ll just run it through the [Positive Grid] Bias FX plug‑in, which is quite nice. You get lots of valve amps and things. I think it’s a bit more subtle than running it through Guitar Rig or something. Quite often now, because the fidelity of the music seems to have gone up a little bit more, I’ll run a sub‑bass sound along with the bass line to sort of give it a bit more oomph.

“It’s become a bit more important, I think, the production,” he adds. “I was quite prepared to just be in the background, making a trashy sound. But I think that if you do get an opportunity to progress as a band, it’s going to become more important, isn’t it?”

For the most part, Fearn likes to keep the effects processing simple and purposeful on Sleaford Mods’ records. “It’s often the case of less is more. The great thing about modular stuff is, just by using VCAs and things, you can make things sort of kick out. Like on ‘UK Grim’, I played the bass line, but then I sampled it. And then I played it back through a VCA with a trigger, which is why it sounds really, really sort of tight.”

Another important purchase was a Roland Boutique SH‑01A. “That’s the first thing I bought when I finally got a bit of cash,” Fearn says. “I thought about getting an original one, but at the time they were, like, 800 quid. But with the small one, it’s great because it’s got a CV/gate out on it, and it’s got a clock in. It’s a very useful tool. I probably use it more as a sequencer.”

Higher Fidelity

As time has gone on, Williamson has progressed from performing in the control room at JT Soar to the studio’s booth. Typically he uses a Peluso P49, a modern take on the classic Neumann M49. “Because he goes in the booth now,” says Fearn, “occasionally we’ll just tighten up his delivery a little bit. If he’s a bit off with the timing, we’ll jigger the note around.”

“Also, things are a bit more experimental now,” says Williamson. “I try and use my voice in different ways. There’s a lot more space between stuff, it’s not just out‑and‑out ranting.”

Jason Williamson in the vocal booth at JT Soar.Jason Williamson in the vocal booth at JT Soar.Photo: Phil Booth

In terms of vocal processing, on the early Sleaford Mods albums where Williamson was using a Shure SM58, Fearn would polish the tracks using iZotope’s Nectar. These days, he just has to add a tiny amount of reverb. “I’ve been using the Waves plug‑ins,” he says. “Now it’s more that it might need a bit of reverb to go with the tracks because the music’s evolved a bit more. Before, because the 58 is not that great really, the Nectar was just supplying a bit more lushness to the vocal sound. A lot of the time we were using it as a fidelity boost.”

One part of the record‑making process that doesn’t take Sleaford Mods very long is mixing. “No, it doesn’t need over‑labouring,” Williamson stresses. “Andrew near enough mixes a lot of it there and then [during recording]. He might take it home and have a tinker, but I always get the track at the latest, like, a week later. He just doesn’t spend too much time on it. Because it doesn’t need it.”

“I suppose that’s kind of one of the easier things about minimal music, isn’t it?” Fearn points out. “The music’s relatively mixed before we get together. So we’re just mixing vocals in and playing it a few times. Sometimes you can hit a problematic track, and something can take a long time. But, touch wood, it rarely happens for me.”

Keeping The Faith

Anyone who has witnessed the weird and brilliant intensity of Sleaford Mods live will know that Andrew Fearn has no equipment on stage apart from a Lenovo ThinkPad T61 laptop, from which he plays the mixed backing tracks and grooves away. “I thought about buying some new laptops for this next tour,” he says, “but I just haven’t got around to it. And they still work fine. They’re famous for being a workhorse, aren’t they? But they’re T‑range ones and I could get some X‑range ones, which would be smaller. So they’d be better, because they stay with me on the plane, and it’d make my bag lighter!”

But, in terms of developing Sleaford Mods’ stage act further, Fearn doesn’t see himself ever playing synths live, or even his bass guitar parts. “If we started playing instruments, it would totally lose any focus on what the band actually is. If we weren’t doing it the same way that we did it originally, then it wouldn’t be the same thing.”

Neither will they be making the sound of Sleaford Mods records much posher. Expect no orchestral arrangements any time soon. “I think if it went over the top, it would really grate with my voice,” Williamson reckons. “My voice is not the most glamorous of things. As is clearly demonstrated on the song with Perry Farrell. He’s got this really bright vocal. And mine is completely bleeurgh.”

Looking to the future, Andrew Fearn and Jason Williamson aren’t entirely sure how they’d like to move Sleaford Mods forward sonically. “Eventually you are going to push yourselves into a corner, aren’t you?” Fearn reckons. “But, then again, will we?”

“I’ve got no idea what we’re going to do next,” says Williamson. “All I can hope for is that it takes care of itself... it moves along of its own accord. So long as you are willing to walk with it, it usually goes into interesting fields.

“We’ve not done an overtly crap album yet. I think some have hit fans harder than other ones, but I’m convinced that we can carry this on forever. At the minute, my creative hole is depleted. But then, Andrew will send something through, and you’ll be off again.”  

Local Band

With the exception of 2017’s English Tapas, which was made at Pulp bassist Steve Mackey’s West Heath Garage Studios in London, Sleaford Mods have always recorded in Nottingham.

“I think we needed a change of scenery,” Jason Williamson says of English Tapas. “We tried doing demos for the album at the Chameleon, the club that we used to gig at, and it just wasn’t working. Andrew had moved out of his flat onto a narrowboat, so we couldn’t really record there. And so we went down to Steve Mackey’s place.

“It was great. Really, it was not too different to Andrew’s old flat, except that there were a lot more instruments, there was a lot more apparatus to use. I was trying to stop drinking and taking drugs. So that period there was a lot of change and disruption. But I think we did all right with it. It’s a good record.”

Since then, Sleaford Mods have completed their last three albums — Eton Alive (2019), Spare Ribs (2021) and this year’s UK Grim — at JT Soar Studios in Nottingham. “They’ve got loads and loads of old‑school kit in there,” says Andrew Fearn. “Loads of old synths, Russian copies of stuff, and loads of guitars. I’ll probably turn up with the goods anyway, most of the time, but if we do need something, we can use it.”

“It’s local, and we know it, so we don’t really need to go anywhere else,” Williamson adds. “Andrew likes to have his things in front of him and he’s up for the idea of experimenting with other stuff, but we don’t necessarily need a massively plush studio, y’know. JT Soar is spot on for us, really.”

Guest Passes

As with Spare Ribs, which featured singers Billy Nomates on ‘Mork n Mindy’ and Amyl & The Sniffers’ Amy Taylor on ‘Nudge It’, new Sleaford Mods album UK Grim features guest appearances. Dry Cleaning’s Florence Shaw appears on ‘Force 10 From Navarone’ and Perry Farrell and Dave Navarro from Jane’s Addiction on ‘So Trendy’. The latter pair’s parts were recorded in Los Angeles.

“With Perry, we wrote the song, sent it to him and said, ‘Just do what you want,’” says Jason Williamson. “And he sent it back and it fitted brilliant. But it took a while to edit it.”

“That track was a bit of a nightmare, really, in the end,” says Andrew Fearn. “We kind of got sick of hearing it because we had to redo it several times. Initially, he sent the verse over, and then Jason wanted to shorten the whole track. He was right to do that because it was a bit laboured, in a way, so he shortened his verse, but then Perry didn’t like the fact that it had chopped off... whatever the fuck he’s singing about. So he rewrote the verse.”

“It did go on too long,” Williamson admits. “It was a case of: ‘It needs to go bang, bang, bang, finish.’ It’s probably one of the strangest tracks I think we’ve done. It’s quite bright, which is unusual, but it works. Andrew had his guitar line that he’d done, and Dave Navarro just jumped on there and kind of mimicked that. But obviously, added his own little flair to it. What’s great is the fact that when you’re working with people like that, or with any of them, they always pay homage to the track, y’know, they don’t just piss all over it. That’s the sign of someone really good, I think.”