Sleaford Mods and Dry Cleaning: Jason Williamson and Florence Shaw in conversation

Sleaford Mods are back with new album UK Grim, as bleak a record as they’ve ever made, and among the collaborators this time around is Dry Cleaning vocalist Florence Shaw. Both artists open up about their work, preoccupations and anxieties – and how their respective approaches overlap

[This article originally appeared in issue 157 of Loud And Quiet. Published January 2023 ]

“In England,” warns Jason Williamson during the opening track of Sleaford Mods’ 12th album, UK Grim, “no-one can hear you scream.”

Though it’s a decade since Sleaford Mods’ breakthrough release Austerity Dogs, Sleaford Mods have never sounded quite so skeletal and haunted as they do here. The undeniable national decline tracked across those records is now complete. If you thought it was bleak last time, well – as our 2020 cover feature with the duo portented – it turns out that things can’t only get better. Happily, UK Grim is an album that continues to progress the group’s wilfully stark sonic blueprint, most notably on ‘Force 10 From Navarone’, which features a guest spot from London art-rock group Dry Cleaning’s Florence Shaw. Though Sleaford Mods may not always be known for their warm and hospitable attitude towards their contemporaries – check the violent fantasies on UK Grim’s absurdist ‘D.I.Why’, aimed squarely at post-punk acts and “white bloke aggro bands” that Sleaford Mods may or may not have influenced – Williamson is notably proud of collaborating with Dry Cleaning. On latest album Stumpwork, Shaw’s free-associating Rolodex of pungent imagery and anxious recollection made that record one of our albums of 2022. Here, her laconic, deadpan sprechgesang is the perfect foil for Williamon’s chanted punk fury. In mid-December, I sat the pair down to discuss ‘Force 10 From Navarone’, the writing process, therapy, horror films and “adult Christmas.”

Florence Shaw: Have you had a haircut?

Jason Williamson: Yeah (runs hand across shaven head) I went to the barbers and he went, “This is really in fashion at the minute.” I don’t want anything in fashion at the minute! What you on about?!

FS: I bet that made you feel really stupid!

JW: I still tipped them like £10 because they’re really good. Ha.

Fergal Kinney: You’ve collaborated for a new track on UK Grim, ‘Force 10 From Navarone’. How did you two working together come about?

FS: It was quite a while ago wasn’t it?JW: It was an Instagram DM. I thought, “Should we do this properly, through managers?” Then I thought, “Fuck it.” I heard the song, and it was quite apparent that your presence on it would be really good. Being as we were acquainted anyway through the tour, I didn’t have a problem DMing you and popping the question.

FS: Sometimes it being through managers it can feel more like the unknown. Or sometimes you can say a reply that’s really blunt and the manager makes it sound really polite [laughs]. That can be handy. But on this occasion? It felt very normal. A very normal request and very normal to say yes.

JW: Because we’ve been going for years and years you do get concerned that people are like, “Yeah, you’re okay but no.” So I was extra chuffed when you said yes, as you can imagine.

FS: From very early on, when we put out our first EPs, we noticed that you’d put us on playlists that you’d made and that always felt like a big deal. In our band we always felt unsure if anyone would listen to it. We weren’t overly confident. We were confident that we liked what we did but in terms of an audience? Not at all. So that was very exciting for us. We noticed you and Andrew would always do things to show support for us.

JW: It’s nice when bands come along that you really like, a lot of the time stuff doesn’t really click with you. Your EPs, it was prominent, but it was work-in-progress, without being insulting. I love stuff that’s slow burning, you can see it, and as a unit from a spectator’s point of view you come across as quite tight and definite. There’s lots of honest application going into it – do you know what I mean?

FS: That’s nice to hear, that something we’re trying to do comes across. Because more than half the things I’ve made in my life haven’t come across at all! I’ll have made this drawing and thought everyone would be blown away by it, and people don’t really get what it means, so it’s nice to make something that strikes a chord with somebody.

JW: Your drawings are really skeletal aren’t they. You’ve got to look at it and figure out why you’ve done it. That’s what people do with art I guess. I’ve got some on my laptop though, I get them totally.

FS: I’ve probably got a short attention span for some things.

JW: Yeah, totally, I lose interest very quickly. Though over the years I’ve learnt how to water a song. Plant it, start watering it, start feeding it, a bit like a Christmas cake. If it’s not gelling straight away I’ve learnt to be more patient, to give them more time and not just bin them, which I used to do.

FS: I’ve honed this process where I spend five minutes on something and if I start to hate it I stop, and then I put it away and try again in about a week. In that way, I tend to work on songs for about a year, but obviously not a year. I’m popping in and out. I just start to totally tear it down and find everything wrong with it, which I need to fight in order to put things into the world. I used to think that something had to be really good to show it to someone. I learnt that if you wait to like something, you’re never going to show anyone anything.

JW: No, ever, ever.

FS: A lot of times I’ll share something with the world and I’m like, “I don’t know about this. I don’t know if I like this.” But at the same time it’s what I’ve made. It is what it is.

JW: What do you try to convey in drawings? Is there a general theme or are your individual pieces all differently themed?

FS: I think it’s the same as writing. This is maybe true of everybody but I’ve got an inner world, a way of seeing things – and I don’t mean in, like, an amazing way – just the way I interpret things, which is often wrong and different to more right-headed people around me. Doing drawings or writing is trying to externalise it, make something that feels like me – it’s quite insular really. Talking to myself, almost like a comforting thing. Sometimes tour can be not very creative and I find on tour I’ll start to get a bit bleak, and I figured it’s because you don’t make or do anything. Recently I’ve tried to do a drawing or talk into my phone. That really helps.

FK: Jason, are you able to be creative and write on tour?

JW: Sometimes, I wrote a lot of the new album on tour. Lyrics anyway. If Andrew sends me music and we haven’t got to get up at 7AM and we can just chill in the room til midday, then I might. If I don’t, I just end up watching horror films and it’s not productive. I’m useless at reading, I do read but I get through four or five books a year.

FS: That’s a lot for me, I’m terrible. I’ve felt very self-conscious about it since I was a kid, that I’m not a reader. I’m relieved to hear that you don’t read loads and loads.

JW: I think that I could gain so much by reading loads. I don’t know, you can have too much information sometimes. Perhaps. If you want to polish yourself up on a subject fine, if you’re looking to win arguments on Twitter then I think that’s a problem [laughs].

FS: Somebody, at some point, gave me some advice that it’s possible to look at too many references, if you’re trying to be yourself in your work. If you consume too many things it’s confusing. I do find that. I’m too easily like, “This is really cool, I should make something like this.” I’m very susceptible to that way of thinking. It sounds borderline spiritual, but it’s about referring to your inner voice rather than too many other things.

JW: You can’t ignore that though can you, that approach.

FS: Have you always watched horror films?

JW: Yes. I don’t know why. The idea of utter dread and terror. Absolute doom. The best horror film ever is [1982 John Carpenter masterpiece] The Thing. That sense of impending dread, the fact you can’t do anything about it. It’s horrible, but totally enjoyable to see what kind of macabre, nightmarish thing reveals itself and reveals how it’s going to do away with you. Why did it come to that conclusion? What made it do that? I shouldn’t laugh! Stuff like that.

I also get really inspired by the mundanity of things around me. I really get into motorways, especially motorways in Europe. Looking at how people are in their houses, if I’m able to fleetingly look into a window. I really enjoy doing it. You feel like you’re part of everywhere.

FS: I’m a bit doomed in that I always feel perpetually not part of things. Probably, at a push, I feel part of my family. I did a lot of therapy for a few years. We talked a lot about being in or out, part of things or not part of things, feeling like an outsider. We always came back to that subject. They decided it would help for me to think about being a visitor everywhere, to fret less about belonging or trying to belong, and just accept being a visitor. A mindset of being different is fine. And if you just act like a visitor or are a visitor in different situations then that’s kind of fine. Overnight I stopped worrying so much about not being in groups.

JW: Were you having that feeling of not belonging to something that had become obviously dominant?

FS: Without realising, yes. I was getting stressed about not fitting in everywhere, I became really preoccupied with it. Why do I feel itchy and weird in a group? Almost pretty much straight after is when I joined a band, which is obviously a group. Which is weird. It’s nice because you’ve got a role, you know why you’re there. So touring can be more comfortable than being at home. I feel very relaxed being a visitor.

JW: It’s quite exhausting though. I get to the point where I feel quite bleak about it all on tour and you do devolve a bit. The conversations become more and more basic in their intelligence. You’re in a van with four other people constantly. Do you carve out your own space in the van?

FS: It’s sometimes like a family where there’s a lot of friction, but then you do feel very bonded. It’s not like a friendship, though we are friends, it’s like this weird thing where you’re just linked forever. There’s a lot of love because you see each other at vulnerable moments all the time. Being nervous, being embarrassed, or meeting a hero of yours. Every five minutes something happens where you have to be vulnerable in front of people. How do your family feel about your work?

JW: “Are you famous, Dad?” No. “Are you a little bit famous?” A little bit. “Are you rich? My friends think you’re rich and famous.” Well, I’ve got a bit more money than I used to have [laughs]. I think it’s brilliant that they’re experiencing that when they grow up though, that’s the idea isn’t it? My dad was a paramedic, my mum was in and out of part-time jobs in shops, it’s nice to have this lift in your landscape as a kid. It opens up the idea, perhaps, of creativity. At the same time I think creativity came from circumstance for me. I do worry, perhaps, that they’ll grow up and view it as a career option, rather than something you need to do to get it out of you.

FS: You’re doing what you want to do, and I think that’s powerful from the child’s point of view. Even more so that you’re not rich. It’s a really unpredictable job, it’s not mega secure; it can obviously bring things that are challenging when you’re a kid, if you’re not earning a super duper stable wage. But then again, who is at the minute? The older I get, the more I think about my parents – I’m now the age they were when I was a kid. I think about what they were doing. Both my parents were artists and taught in art schools. It was a bit unpredictable at times but it’s very inspiring to me now. Their decisions were based on their gut feelings. I think I worry less now about having an unpredictable income than some people I know whose parents were really capital-P providers.

JW: Are they still teaching?

FS: My dad’s retired, but they both still make art.

JW: Did you learn a lot from them as a kid? Did it shape what you wanted to do?

FS: I always wanted to do what they did.

JW: I don’t think you could do anything else though. You’re one of those people that walk it like you talk it, I think.

FS: Making things looks like too much fun. Coloured pencils everywhere, scissors, papers, glue. I’m not going to go, “Oh that’s not for me.” It seemed like a really obvious conclusion.

JW: And are you spending Christmas at home?

FS: With my mum, yeah, she lives quite near me. I don’t have kids so I’m in that zone where it’s just loads of adults.

JW: It’s different innit. It’s like a Pinter play innit, constantly. Adult Christmas.

FS: It can be really like that. It can get heavy.

JW: It’s good for boozing. When I used to drink I used to love Christmas. I’m just about to feed the Christmas cake with some brandy, it smells beautiful. Really cheap brandy. It smells gorgeous!

FS: Oh yeah, you bake don’t you.

JW: More so over the Christmas period yeah.

FS: In the nicest way… why did you start doing that?

JW: When I met [my wife] Claire she was like, “Why don’t you start doing some baking?” I was like, “Fuck off.” When we first got together she’d come over to mine and she was quite clear that, like, “You’ve got to sort yourself out, why don’t you get some food in, cook me a breakfast, prepare that the day before, go and get your stuff.” So that’s what I’d do. Bacon, eggs, whatever. Then she was like, “Why don’t you bake a cake?” I thought it was quite nice and soothing. There I was, baking Victoria sponges, lemon tarts, carrot cakes. That’s been a constant thing throughout now since. Over lockdown we started doing ‘Baking Daddy’, a video where I act like a weirdo in a pinny with nothing underneath, cooking. It’s the right side of weird [laughs].

FS: I have baked, but cooking is not my strong suit. I’m at my best making something up from what’s in the fridge.

JW: It was reassuring when you turned around in the studio and said, “I’ll eat anything.” I’m going to get some food, what would you like? I’ll eat anything. It was brilliant. [Laughs]