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Sam Fender
Sam FenderPhotography Charlotte Patmore

Sam Fender: is this the heir to the throne of British rock?

The musician talks to James Greig about the death of guitar music, Northern independence, and his growing disdain for ‘smarmy middle-class leftism’

Sam Fender is the type of musician you don’t see so much of anymore. His music fits squarely into a long lineage of British rock songwriters whose lyrics explore the banalities and poetry of working-class life, stretching back from Ray Davies through to Paul Weller, Morrissey, Jarvis Cocker and, more recently, Alex Turner. But since The Arctic Monkeys traded in sketches of adolescent Sheffield for stoner rock, hanging out in the desert with Josh Homme and elaborate concept albums about space, this tradition has been left without an heir. This is mostly due to the fact that, in the last decade, it’s become harder and harder for working-class musicians to break through.I end up going to these awards ceremonies and stuff like that, and we know that we’re some of the few people there who are working-class kids. You can feel it. It’s like high school dynamics,” Fender tells me when I meet him in a rehearsal studio in west London. Despite the barriers he’s faced, the musician is fast becoming one of the UK’s biggest rock acts, with his latest album Seventeen Going Under becoming his second to top the album charts and a sellout stadium tour currently underway. He has enjoyed an extremely rare combination of critical and commercial success: these days, it’s not common for an indie artist to garner rave reviews from the broadsheet press while still inspiring mass singalongs from teenagers at festivals.

In fact, his widespread popularity was something which – to my shame – led me to dismiss him for a long time. Without having heard a note of his music, I’d taken him for a kind of Jake Bugg-esque, Brit School teenybopper, and it wasn’t until I listened to Seventeen Going Under that I realised how wrong this was: the album is a masterpiece, a luminescent and often devastating portrayal of English life in the early 2010s, as well as being in parts a pitch-perfect homage to Bruce Springsteen. There was a point at which I couldn’t listen to its title track without bursting into tears, so I was a little nervous last month when I went to meet him. But this nervousness was misplaced, as it turns out he is affable (surprisingly down to earth and very funny) and not unlike any number of young Geordie guys that I know (relentlessly self-mocking and often cheerfully employing the words ‘fucking’ and ‘cunt’). But regardless of how casual his demeanour is, Fender’s musicianship and talent are evident. Even in conversation, he regularly communicates through music, bursting into a line from one of his songs or grabbing a nearby Nashville guitar to illustrate what he’s saying. At one point, he leaps up from his seat to give an impromptu piano rendition of the motif from “The Dying Light” – a majestic, Springsteen-like ballad that forms one of the highlights Seventeen Going Under. It’s a moment which, I must confess, makes me grin like a buffoon.

Fender’s music captures something of the spirit of the north-east. Lindisfarne, a Newcastle folk-rock outfit founded in 1968, is an important influence for him, and he recently presented a BBC documentary about their late lead singer, Allan Hull, a man who still casts a mythic shadow over the city. Being in front of a camera wasn’t Fender’s “natural habitat”, he admits, though you wouldn’t know that when you watch him in action. Hull aside, his musical sensibility largely developed outside of what was going on in Newcastle when he was growing up. The mid-00s indie boom, which counted acts like Maximo Park and The Futureheads among its north-eastern representatives, mostly passed him by (“I’ll be deadly honest with you, I actually fucking hated it”). When he was 12, he mostly listened to old music: classic English rock bands like The Clash, The Jam, The Who, alongside soul music, jazz-rock and “loads of mad shit” that his dad, also a musician, got him into. The influence of Newcastle is felt most strongly in the accent he sings in, and the regional slang his lyrics are peppered with, something which is particularly apparent on the title track of Seventeen Going Under. “I don’t always sing with a very strong accent, but with Seventeen Going Under, I was less afraid to let my Geordie come out. It’s an autobiographical song, so it made sense. There’s also little moments of that song where it’s almost like spoken-word – it’s still singing but it’s very conversational, so it felt natural to use my own accent.”

Today, thanks in part to the legacy of acts like Lindisfarne, Newcastle still has a strong folk scene, which you can hear traces of in Seventeen Going Under. “But I do cringe at folk nights most of the time,” Fender admits. “There’ll always be some cunt with a woolly hat and a mandolin. Oh shit... is that me?” Now increasingly recognised, he feels a little disconnected from the music scene in his home city. “I’m quite out of touch, to be honest,” he says. “When I go home, I tend to stay in the house, because I can’t really go anywhere in Newcastle now without getting fucking obliterated.” If someone has built their career around writing about the everyday experiences of working-class people, what does it mean to become so famous in your hometown that you can longer leave the house? Wouldn’t that sever you from the source of your inspiration? “The thing is,” he says, “I wasn’t living that life when I was writing Seventeen Going Under. That whole album was written when I was living in a nice flat and had signed a record deal.” It was starting therapy that made him able to articulate that time in his life, which he didn’t feel able to before. “Besides,” he says, “what the fuck else am I going to write about?”

Despite feeling out of touch with the local scene, he has noticed that Newcastle is changing and finally becoming susceptible to the kind of gentrification that has plagued wealthier British cities for years. “It’s really starting to fuck with the music scene,” he says. “There’s loads of new apartments being built around the Ouseburn [an area in the east of the city famous for its music venues and bars]. There are new curfews for noise [and] loads of complaints from residents in the new buildings.” But a boom in luxury flats and the occasional tech start-up hub is not the same thing as true economic regeneration. Newcastle might be a little flashier today, but the north-east is still one of the poorest regions in England, the consequence of decades of hostility or indifference from successive Westminster governments. As Fender’s music is often so political, I was curious to find out what he thinks needs to happen to reverse the region’s fortunes. Would he support, say, the Northern Independence Movement? “That is the fucking greatest idea I’ve ever heard,” he says. “How would we make money? Export Greggs? I think we should just restart England. We should go back to the old Roman idea, rebrand as ‘Bernicia’ from Sheffield upwards, and become a new country, fuck off London. We’ll pick Hadrian’s Wall up and just push it down south, slam it down around Nottingham.”

If you’re old enough to remember the early years of the current Tory government, you might remember how common it was to hear that, no matter how fucked the country was, we could at least look forward to a golden age of angry, socially conscious songwriting. Bar a few exceptions, this never really materialised (in indie music at least – grime is a different story). But Fender’s second album might provide some comfort to all of those perpetually disappointed music journalists who spent the last decade wondering when the resurgence of politicised guitar music would finally arrive. Seventeen Going Under was met with almost universal acclaim, with a number of critics praising the sharpness of its portrayal of life under the coalition government. In Tribune magazine, academic and author Alex Niven wrote, “If there is a better, more painful, more condensed summary of the callousness of British neoliberalism in the times we have all recently lived through, I’m not aware of it.” I agree with this: the album, and particularly its title track, really does feel like the pop-music equivalent to a Ken Loach film. While it was released after Corbyn resigned as leader, the album feels like one of the few mass cultural moments in keeping with the left-wing populism which came to the fore in 2015.  But while the political aspects of Seventeen Going Under are undeniable, he doesn’t see himself as an explicitly political songwriter. “I’d say I’m a social songwriter. I write about people.”

“I think we should just restart England. We should go back to the old Roman idea, rebrand as ‘Bernicia’ from Sheffield upwards, and become a new country, fuck off London. We’ll pick Hadrian’s Wall up and just push it down south, slam it down around Nottingham” – Sam Fender

“Obviously, songs like ‘Aye come from quite an aggressive place, but I wasn’t setting out to be provocative,” he says. In fact, he has started to regret some of his earlier stabs at political songwriting, particularly on his first album, Hypersonic Missiles. “I was striking while the iron was hot, which is normally a good way of writing songs because it’s the point at which you care about something the most. But sometimes my understanding wasn’t necessarily on-point. But that’s part of growing up. If you’re left-wing, in your 20s and angry, then you’re going to make some mistakes.” He views Seventeen Going Under as less “on-the-nose”, which feels accurate. Rather than hinging on grand declarative statements, the song’s politics are inseparable from its storytelling. In the title track, he doesn’t merely say “fuck the DWP!” (the Department for Work and Pensions), he embeds this idea in a personal narrative, which makes it a lot more poignant. It gives a sense of what it’s actually like to live under the boot of the UK’s brutal austerity policies, rather than simply denouncing them and leaving it at that. “I think that’s what makes it more accessible,” he says. The influence of Bruce Springsteen, which can be felt across the album, comes into play here. “Springsteen writes political stuff, but it’s almost always tied into a narrative,” he says. “Born in the USA, for instance, is told from the perspective of a Vietnam veteran. He could have just gone ‘fuck the Vietnam war’, but instead he goes, ‘I had a brother in Khe Sanh, fighting off the Viet Cong / They’re still there / He’s all gone.’ It’s incredible, and he makes his points more effectively through his characters and storytelling.” 

Fender sees writing about working-class experiences as an expression of gratitude and an awareness that things might very easily have panned out differently. For all that his success is deserved, there’s also something of the fluke about it, something arbitrary or contingent: these days, people from backgrounds like his don’t become famous as often as they used to. His teenage years, chronicled in Seventeen Going Under, were difficult, yet he recognises that the challenges he encountered weren’t atypical and that the early years of austerity were a hard time for a lot of people. During this period, both he and his mother were unemployed. Suffering from fibromyalgia and depression, she found herself repeatedly hounded by the DWP, a situation memorably evoked in the line ‘I see my mother, the DWP sees a number’, from “Seventeen Going Under”. She was forced to appear in court on three separate occasions to prove that she was fit to work, an ordeal that eventually made her even more unwell. It’s no wonder that such a sense of anger pervades his work. “It was a really tough time, and if it wasn’t for the music, I could still be there, scrapping around on universal credit,” he says. “So I consider myself very, very lucky, and I suppose there is a part of us that feels there’s a duty to write about that life – a life that is a reality for the majority of working-class people in this country.”

Fender has come out in support of Corbyn before, but, as it stands, he’s not impressed with the world of electoral politics. “I feel like the whole system at the moment is not fit for purpose, it doesn’t feel like there’s any real alternative,” he says. “Boris and his sack of cunts are the worst Tory government I’ve ever seen. But then Keir Starmer is just pissing in the wind. I don’t understand how the guy hasn’t been able to nail them to the post every fucking week. The irony of them always saying that Corbyn wasn’t a strong leader – I think Starmer is even weaker! He’s not aggressive enough. Boris has all the dignity of a trapped rat, and Starmer still can’t pin him to the wall.”

But nor is he entirely impressed with the contemporary left, or at least its online representatives. On “Aye”, a blistering track from the new album which sounds a little like an updated version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” for the age of Epstein and drone warfare, he takes aim at “the woke kids” who are “just dickheads”, and declares, “I’m not a liberal any more”. Why so disillusioned? “There is a culture of smarmy middle-class leftism that alienates a lot of working-class people,” he says. “There’s a lack of redemption. I think a lot of people are so terrified that their own virtues are going to be called into question, that whenever someone is cancelled or semi-cancelled, they all jump on the bandwagon. They’re terrified of being perceived as wrong or as part of the problem, and it’s created this impossible world where we can’t really have a discussion without everything being split into two camps.”

His political concerns might be mostly domestic, but when it comes to his musical outlook he’s looking further afield. While he’s still early in the stages of writing his next album, he envisions it being an extension of the sound of Seventeen Going Under. “I feel like this record has opened Pandora’s box for me. I’ve been bringing in a lot more acoustics, stuff like mandolins and Nashville guitars. I’ve been listening to a lot of REM and The Waterboys,” he says. Fender sees his music as part of a wider resurgence of guitar music that is taking place on both sides of the Atlantic, taking in the likes of Phoebe Bridgers, Big Thief, and Fontaines DC. For a long time it simply wasn’t cool to like indie music, and thanks to the success of all these artists that is no longer the case. The long-proclaimed ‘death of guitar music’ seems to be dying a death of its own. There will surely be lots of young men around the country who have seen what Fender has done and think about giving it a go themselves; there hasn’t really been a role model like that since the 00s. Fender is a throwback figure, an anachronism, but one who could easily prefigure a resurgence of the very kind of songwriter he represents.

Sam Fender will headline Finsbury Park on July 15, 2022. Head here for tickets