Mercifully, Christine Franz didn’t take the advice of a good friend who told her that Bunch of Kunst was a “shit title” for her documentary about Sleaford Mods.
If you know the U.K.–based two-piece, and how gloriously rude and searingly clever it can be, then the German filmmaker’s title is genius—"kunst" being German for "art", and Sleaford Mods being covert artists underneath Andrew Fearns’s gratingly tinny beats and the rampant and near autistic sweariness of Jason Williamson’s lyrics.
“I thought, ‘Is this some kind of KLF art project or some fed up music journalists or something? Is it a prank?’” Franz recalls of her first encounter with the unlikely Brit stars, via the 2013 album Austerity Dogs, handed to her by a friend who told her, “This is your new favourite band.”
Shortly after, Franz was witnessing a Sleaford Mods appearance at a squat in Berlin with, as she tells the Straight by Skype, "200 people cueing outside who couldn’t get in. It was one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen.” Which raises the question: how does a regionally specific band that pours venom on the collapsing institutions of British life, in a frequently impenetrable British vernacular, manage to find an audience in Berlin?
“When we toured with them in Germany, we had lots of people saying we may not get all the details in the lyrics, but we definitely get the anger,” offers Franz, pointing out that the recent German general election ended with right wing extremists Alternative for Germany (AfD) taking their first ever 94 seats in parliament. “They’d say: ‘We know what he’s on about.’ It’s so local that it’s almost universal, I think.”
Following that first gig, Franz—a music editor by day for ARTE TV—dragged a small film crew to Sleaford Mods’ now fabled Midlands UK hometown of Nottingham, the start of a no-budget, two-year labour of love that matched the band’s commitment to DIY in every way.
Her timing was perfect. She catches the duo—along with manager Steve Underwood, who had recently quit his day job as a bus driver to cope with the band’s success—as they all make the wobbly transition to a kind of pop stardom, heir to the splenetic gutter poetics of John Cooper Clarke, Mark E. Smith, and Shaun Ryder, but with an infinitely worse version of Britain to gob all over, and a much hungrier audience, evidently.
“Obviously they never expected any of this,” says Franz. “They were just thrown into it. Steve said at one point that they never expected to sell any records outside of Nottingham, and then they did, and it just grew, and I think the Rock City gig and Glastonbury—that was the turning point. It was, like, ‘This is proper music business now.’ I wonder how they will cope in the future, but they’re actually there now, aren’t they? We’re all going to the Q Awards next month.”
By the end of Kunst, the Mods have signed after much gnashing-of-teeth with legendary indie label Rough Trade. Meanwhile, mainstream outlets like the BBC, hilariously, are asking them to clean up their lyrics for radio; a mindboggling notion since, once all the fucks, shits, and cunts are removed, there’s not much left except, perhaps, for the names of the public figures Williamson so satisfyingly puts in his crosshairs, most of them appalling Brit politicians/crooks like Boris Johnson or privileged and generally annoying twits like the bassist from Blur.
Best of all is the unfiltered glimpse Franz's movie gives us into the lives of Fearn (warm, open, lives on a boat), manager Underwood (major record nerd), and Williamson—a loving father-of-two and a genuinely sweet man once you get past the rock hard stare and hooligan clobber. Franz points out that Williamson just published a book of short stories, and adds that he quit drinking when his wife Claire complained about the “cunt flu” he’d come home with after touring.
When she showed him the finished version of Bunch of Kunst, Franz reveals, Williamson wept. “He had to be on his own,” she says with a fond smile.More