Sleaford Mods

Recording UK Grim
By Tom Doyle

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

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.

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...

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Published April 2023