‘My whole life people have told me I wasn’t good enough to do this’: Slowthai on fatherhood, public scrutiny and unaffordable gigs
It’s 9pm on a Wednesday, and a man with a mullet is crowd surfing across the George Tavern in Shadwell. The weekend has arrived early in this corner of east London, it seems – and it came with Slowthai.
The punkish, 28-year-old Northampton rapper is four nights into a six-date tour of pubs, social clubs and back rooms that’s so far touched down in Sunderland, Blackpool and Milton Keynes. He’s blitzing through tracks from his scuzzy new post-punk leaning album, Ugly, which no one in the 150-strong crowd has heard yet – but that, evidenced by the man with the mullet, doesn’t appear to matter. “Everyone put your phones away, so we can just be in the moment,” says Slowthai, born Tyron Kaymone Frampton. It’s more demand than request: people nattering at the back get booted out to the smoking area not long after.
As with all the dates on this short jaunt, tickets are a cost-of-living-busting £1. He’s got form with these cheap shows, having previously sold out venues, including the 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy, with 99p and £5 entry stubs. “Right now, everyone’s going through it. It’s been a tough three years,” he explains over the phone ahead of the tour, with a touch more diplomacy than his previous political statements have carried (in 2019, The Sun likened him to the terrorist who killed Jo Cox, after he brandished a cartoon dummy of Boris Johnson’s severed head at his Mercury Prize performance).
For Frampton, whose rise to fame has seen him take up the mantle of unofficial spokesperson for the overlooked, the tour serves a few purposes. There’s the functional, obvious stuff like promoting the album and gelling with his new four-piece setup of drums, bass, keys and guitar (prior to this shift in sonic direction, he’d be backed by just a DJ and a hype man). Then there are the tangential benefits, like stuffing out spaces that could do with some extra midweek punters – this place is fighting luxury developments on all sides; “Save The George Tavern” T-shirts are on sale at the bar. “Any way I can give the opportunity to people who come from a similar place as myself and are struggling, why would I not? For me it’s about playing music and sharing them moments with people, rather than, I don’t know, doing like Taylor Swift and having a hundred quid tickets that no one can afford.”
Mostly, though, it’s just about getting Slowthai’s people – “I f***ing hate the word ‘fans’” – together in a room and connecting. It’s simple: he just wants to “shut all the s*** out and be in the moment”. These shows are about bottling chaos and leaving it all in the room.
For a long time, chaos was the compass for Frampton’s life. He liked to party, stripping off at his shows, spitting in fans’ mouths (when they asked for it), and scaling the rafters. He liked a drink and other things, too. He didn’t mind making a scene to make a point, emerging from a landscape of bland, Boris head in hand, to remind everyone of the value of kicking off. His debut album, 2019’s Nothing Great About Britain, marked him out as a singular, snarling voice in a world of sanitised soundbites. Acolytes flocked to his messages of freedom and collectivism. But over time, touring and the appeal of all-day drinking, all-night adulation obscured what was becoming, well, a problem. The chaos, along with his worst impulses, was taking over. In 2020, he told Vice magazine that life on the road “made me into a f***ing w***er”. And by the moment of that realisation, things had all already come to a very blunt head, as he sat in the back of a car spiralling his way through Twitter watching the fallout of that year’s NME Awards. Lewd jokes aimed at the show’s host, Katherine Ryan, turned sour, and a heckler in the crowd took the violent brunt. Frampton was promptly turfed out, Hero Of The Year award still under his arm. He apologised, and gave his award to Ryan, but what hurt most was that there were so many people apparently waiting for him to fail.
He’s over talking about that incident. It already shaped much of his 2021 album, Tyron, a record split down the middle between all-caps tracks with titles like “VEX” and “WOT” and “DEAD” and “PLAY WITH FIRE” on one side, and the more tender, reflective, lower-case efforts of “i tried”, “nhs”, “focus” and “feel away” on the other. But life, and people, are more complicated than binaries will allow. Tyron went to No 1, but for those who’d been there since the beginning, there was the creeping feeling that Slowthai’s public image was beginning to overshadow the reasons he’d captured so much attention in the first place. His status in the public realm was sliding rapidly from incisive, working-class voice of a generation to shallow tabloid bad boy. This wasn’t what he got into this for. He tried therapy (twice). It didn’t work for him.
“It’s hard to be scrutinised, but at the same time, f*** it, bruv; if it’s gotta be me, it’s gotta be me,” he says, fiddling with a lighter, describing what it’s like to have a target on your back. “And if it’s not, then it’s not – but I’m just happy to keep on doing what I’m doing and people are either gonna love me or hate me. And I can’t be anything else but myself. It’s like Kurt Cobain said, I’d rather be hated for who I am than loved for what I’m not.” He takes a crisp drag on his cigarette, winding up to something profound. He grins. “It’s like that thing about Jesus, who was it that said that?” he pauses for a millisecond, weighing the opportunity for comic effect: “Soulja Boy, bro. He said, ‘They hate on me, but they hated Jesus’.” He lets out an infectious giggle before checking himself, as if on some newfound instinct. “I’m not comparing myself to Jesus, before that gets misinterpreted.” The scrutiny is a permanent fixture now. “It’s like a constant cloud,” he says, sounding like someone who’s sick of being soaked. “You have to be conscious of everything you’re doing.”
A week before the Shadwell show, we’re on a video call. Slowthai sounds bunged up. He is bunged up. “I feel knackered,” he says, his eyes ringed with bags and a new tattoo: “UGLY”, in thin black capitals. He tilts his phone camera to offer a view up a bloody nostril. The day before, on top of the bloody nose, he was thrown off a roof, manhandled by a bodybuilder therapist, tarred, feathered and dragged through an enormous line of cocaine. This isn’t a tabloid scoop, though. He’d been filming a music video for “Yum”, the claustrophobic, glitching, industrial opener to his new album. It’s a song that documents his unsuccessful attempts at therapy, and a track Frampton says he wanted to “sound like a panic attack”. (It does.)
The “Yum” shoot was the latest in a series of trials Frampton has put himself through. “I was actually doing stunts,” he says, without the enthusiasm you might wish from a willing stuntman. Last month, he staged a David Blaine-esque endurance test for Ugly’s first single, the motorik, post-punk, self-flagellation of “Selfish”’, in which he attempted to spend 24 hours boxed inside a mirrored room with just paint and paper for company, and nothing to look at but himself. Fans gawped in from the outside via a live-stream, watching their idol unravel, waiting to hear something new.
I’m not trying to get the next TikTok hit or the next relevant thing in the world, I just want to make music that I like
It’s all a bit masochistic. Maybe giving therapy another go would have been easier? Frampton laughs. “It just pissed me off more.” At least he got some songs out of it. “Every day I would go to the studio and start off with, like, the misery,” he says, describing himself sitting with his head in his hands, not even wanting to be in the room. “And then the music would be the thing that pulled me out of it, and the people I was making it with.” Part affirmation, part invasive thought, new single “Feel Good” features a variation on the words “I feel so good” more than 50 times across its jerky 125 seconds. “Yeah, I wasn’t feeling good when I wrote that,” Frampton says.
Sessions for Ugly, which doubles as an acronym for “U Gotta Love Yourself”, represented a departure for Frampton. Not just in terms of looking inward, rather than speaking out, but also in the sound he was pursuing. Dan Carey was brought in to helm the production, having spent recent years steering envelope-pushing post-punk and rock bands like black midi, Squid, Chubby and the Gang, and Fontaines DC (the latter feature here on the title track). Frampton started putting together a band, picking out old friends from his hometown. He channels his inner Gallagher on “Falling”, monologues over Radiohead fuzz on “UGLY”, jangles his way through the indie-pop bop of “Sooner”, and on “Wotz funny”, he’s every bit the Oi! frontman. “I played the album to [A$AP] Rocky when I was in LA and he was like, ‘Man, but you’ve just dropped a hard album and you’ve got people where you want them, maybe you should mix a bit more rapping in?’ and I was like,” he pauses for effect, schoolboy grin creeping into his cheeks, “‘Nah!’”
Close listeners won’t be surprised by this guitar-led charge. Frampton’s crunchy Mura Masa collaborations, 2018’s “Doorman” and the following year’s “Deal Wiv It” advertised a propensity for yelling over feedback-heavy riffs, and are now nailed-on fan favourites. “I feel like I’ve always been trying to get to the point of making an album like this,” he says. “I’m not trying to get the next TikTok hit or the next relevant thing in the world, I just want to make music that I like and bring people that like it all together and for them to be like, ‘This is sick’. And even if they don’t, I like it, so who gives a f***, innit?”
My son made me want to do so much better, so he can do any single thing in life that he wants
He’s got The Breeders and The Jam, as well as Fontaines DC, on his imaginary mood board. He keeps coming back to Nirvana, too – they’re first on the list for when he can expose his son, Rain, who arrived like a cloudburst in 2021, to “some heavy s***”. For now, it’s Cocomelon. Frampton co-parents with his ex-fiancee, the Russian singer Katerina Kischuk, and spends his time cooking pasta and trying to tap into his boy’s sense of wonder. “He just marvels at stuff, man,” he says. “The smallest of details are crazy to him. And then it makes me think and value stuff, and actually take a moment to realise how amazing everything is – what a wonderful world we actually live in. And that’s the crazy thing.” He’s on a roll now, “because then you get lost in them moments, and nothing else matters except for seeing him smile and then trying to see what he’s so immersed in. Every single thing, you have to consciously be aware that it’s all new to him. Like sounds, a car going past…” – as if on cue, a motorist toots their horn outside and the noise leaks in through the window, gifting the conversation a moment of poignance that a car horn has surely never summoned before. “From him coming, it’s just made me want to do so much better, so he can do any single thing in life that he wants.”
The pub shows offer a way of capturing this sense of childlike wonder. They’re upfront, unfussy. Frampton admits he’s nervous about having to sing. “Rapping is like muscle memory, I know what I’m doing. It’s like when you’re good on a [video] game: I know my combinations, I know what moments are gonna get people going,” he says. “But when I was on the way to our first rehearsal, I’m not gonna lie, I was shook.” Since Frampton cut out drinking, this is where he gets his buzz. “Butterflies is such a good thing, but we neglect it,” he says. “You should really embrace that feeling of being out of your depth, because that’s the moment when it’s the most exhilarating, and that’s when you usually give your best.” Besides, he goes on: “Everyone should sing, even if you can’t sing. I think everyone can, they just think about it too much and they just haven’t found where they can sing. I’m just pouring out what I’m feeling. I just wanna sing my heart out.”
It’s a simple tonic. And, for Frampton, it’s working. When he’s not rehearsing, or with Rain, he’s playing the piano, making furniture and perfecting his recipe for the ultimate turkey sandwich (key ingredients: crisps and truffle mayo). “I think I’m less pissed off at the world. Probably in a better place,” he says. “I wake up and thank my lucky stars that I get to do this. Now we’re rolling into a third album, I didn’t ever think I’d get to make a first one. My whole life people have told me I wasn’t good enough to do this, I can’t do that, and you won’t ever be nothing.” This summer, he’ll walk out at Wembley, warming up the crowd for Blur – his biggest therapy session yet, ready to bottle that chaos and leave it all out there.
‘Ugly’ is out now via Method Records