Jon Langford of Mekons

by April Fox

Ask a dozen fans of the Mekons what kind of music they make, and you're likely to get a dozen different answers, all of them correct and barely scratching the surface of what makes the Mekons, the Mekons.

Formed in Leeds, England, in 1977 as a rejoinder to punk rock (which makes more sense now that The Clash are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), Mekons have a pattern of imploding just as a trend is catching up with them - they did it with art rock, electronica, alt-country and alternative. Starting with Virgin, they've churned through several record labels; they're now on Bloodshot, home of Andrew Bird and Neko Case. They've survived through critical acclaim, a cult following, and a structure that encourages side projects. Their latest album, Deserted, has the feeling of sitting next to a dirty window on a sunny day, half-listening to old records while your mind cycles through a mix of good memories and nightmares spawned by what you've witnessed on the news.

Founding member Jon Langford talked with us about what really is at the heart of the Mekons, from their roots as a group of art students riding the highs and lows of the punk rock explosion, to their current expression as mature artists, accomplished musicians, and perhaps most importantly, a cohesive and collaborative unit that values the input of each member of their innovative group.
April Fox (Songfacts): A lot of bands have one or two primary songwriters, but I've read that with the Mekons, it's a completely collaborative thing and no one takes individual credit for it. How does that work, with so many members in the band?

Jon Langford: Yeah, we're the Mekons, it works like that, and I don't know why. In other projects I have it's a bit more normal, but I wouldn't take a song as a finished thing and present it to the Mekons, and no one else does either. We all have ideas about how things might go, but they're often far more abstract or just really simple ideas about which direction the band might go in, and then we'll write together to fit how we see it going.

It's actually great, because we don't have to do anything until we meet, and we don't meet all that often. People live all over the planet. We talk while we're on tour. We spend a lot of time cooped up together, and then we'll talk about ideas, but there's not even that much pressure to do that, really. We usually deal with the tasks at hand, but stuff will come up about what people might like or what they're interested in [in terms of writing songs] or ways it might go. I'm looking forward to that now, because we're doing a bit of recording on this up-and-coming tour, but I think it's stuff that's already written. Really, we'll just spend a lot of time in each other's company, which we enjoy, and see what happens. There's never really a big plan.

Songfacts: It sounds like you all have a really good relationship, not just professionally, but personally. You hear about other bands where there's a lot of strife and conflict, and the Mekons have been together a long time without that. How do you make that work?

Langford: I look at it like there are two eras of the Mekons. There was a period when we were a punk rock band in England, and that ended around the end of 1980. After that, a few of us were fiddling around in the darkness, and then the band we have now came together around the end of '84, beginning of '85.

People always say, "Oh, you've had loads of people in the band over the years." Well, people come along, and usually people come along and stay. It's hard to leave.

Songfacts: I can see why. It's a really cool project that you guys have. I've been watching some of your videos, and of course they're really artistic and creative. One that I really enjoyed was the one for "In the Desert" [from Deserted]. It's so weird.

Langford: [Laughs] Yeah, it's weird. That was my dream, to do the stop animation. It's very Harryhausen and all that. All those TV shows on British TV, I was always fascinated by that and I never found a way to do it. Then my son showed me a really simple thing you could do with a program on a regular computer. I was like, "Oh! Now I can do that. Now I can spend weeks of my life in a room making a video." So yeah, absolutely.

I think it was before the album came out, that winter in Chicago. It'll drive you to do things like that. It's kind of a homage to Terry Gilliam. I like the Monty Python stuff, the way it's very simple, just flat shapes moving around on a two dimensional surface.

I'm glad you like that one. I'm hugely proud of it - it's one of the greatest achievements of my life. [Laughs]

Songfacts: You should be proud. I've watched it several times, it's very cool. And the song itself...

Langford: The song is very weird.

Songfacts: I read the lyrics first, and was imagining more of a punk rock sound. And then when I heard it, I was in my kitchen and it was playing in the living room, and I ran in to see what it was, because it was so haunting and surreal. It felt like a weird juxtaposition between the way the lyrics read and the way the song was put together. Can you tell me about writing that song and coming up with the music?

Langford: Tom [Greenhalgh] wrote those words. Before we actually went to the desert, we had some ideas about what it might be like to go to the desert, and a lot of those ideas went out the window when we got to there, so we wrote a lot of other stuff. But this is one of the ones that survived.

I tried to put some kind of tune to it, mainly so we could just have something when we got there. I like the words. I like the line, "My name is Blank." I knew that had to be a big, rousing bit, but I wasn't sure what the rest of it would be like. Then I had this idea that it should be really dirty British folk music, that it would sound like somebody listening to a British folk record at the wrong speed.

I worked out a little melody and then Sally [Timms] came in and said she didn't want it to be like that, so then she started singing it in a totally different way that didn't fit. We all got really frustrated, and we scrapped it. It wasn't going to be on the album, because we hate it when we get into... not conflict, because it's not, but we reach a dead end with something, and we'd got to a dead end with that.

Then Steve [Goulding], our drummer, who doesn't normally sing very much, started singing it in this really weird, high-pitched voice, and he wanted to listen to it to see if he could get something to fit. He came up with that melody and then it was alright. It sounds like it's sung by some gender-neutral ghosts off in the distance. It's kind of good. So he and Sally sing it together, but it's so weird what they're singing. It's great, because that's the beauty of the Mekons: No one was really hanging on to an original idea. If we feel ourselves getting precious about something, we'll most likely scrap it rather than fight for something we believe in, in the sense of like, "I think my idea's best," you know? But Steve stepped in and I think it's really great, the melody he thought up and all that.

In the liner notes to the 1982 compilation The Mekons Story, Lester Bangs wrote, "The Mekons are the most revolutionary group in the history of rock 'n' roll." Bangs was a fan, but he was being sardonic; a few paragraphs later he explained that he was being paid $1,500 for his words and the group was, in fact, "better than The Beatles."
Songfacts: It does sound really cool. Another one I wanted to ask about that has a bit of a traditional folk sound is "How Many Stars," also from Deserted.

Langford: That was the other one that had already kind of existed. That one, I wrote the words. Tom and I communicate with WhatsApp because it appears on his cell phone wherever he is, so we can talk instantaneously even though he's in wildest rural west England and I'm in Chicago. We had this idea again about old folk songs, kind of modernized. We were looking at old lyrics that were in the public domain and twisted them up, and that line, "How many stars?" actually came from a reaction to being in the desert in Australia, and also in Joshua Tree when I'd been there before. You lie there and it's just outstanding when you're not in a city and you can see all these stars.

I scrabbled something together and sent it to Tom. Because of the nature of WhatsApp, you can't play the guitar and sing something back because you have to keep your finger on the button the whole time. So I was sending him bits of lyrics and he started singing them back unaccompanied, which made him sound even more like weird British folk music. He sounded like some kind of 18th-century agricultural laborer entertaining people in the pub.

Tom came back almost immediately with a chorus and a tune, and he wasn't playing anything, he just made something up, so that one was very spontaneous. I was with Dave Trumfio, who's the bass player in the band but also handled a lot of the recording on this record. I played it for him and he got really excited. He said, "I didn't realize this was going to be an album with tunes on it, and choruses!" I was like, "Yeah, it could be. We don't know what it is yet." He said, "Oh, this is going to be great!" and he had this whole vision for that little scrap of stuff that Tom sent over.

It's nice when people pick things up and run with them. I think one of the good ways that we're the Mekons is that we're not all competing over the same kind of tasks. People have a lot of room to move in whatever sphere they feel is their best strength. Sally's really good at editing. She never really writes any lyrics, but she's really good at taking a knife to it and throwing loads of them away. [Laughs] And forcing us to explain what a song might be about. A lot of that goes on as well.

Songfacts: "Lawrence of California" is another one I watched the video for. Tell me about that song.

Langford: Sally made that video with vintage footage she had on a Super 8 camera of us touring in the '90s, or the '80s, probably both. She used to always bring her little camera and film stuff and then throw the undeveloped film in a box and forget about it. It came in useful this time.

The song came about because we were in the desert and Tom looks a bit like Peter O'Toole when the light captures him right - he's got the same chiseled, classic English good looks. So I was like, "Look at you, Lawrence of California." It was kind of a joke, but then the song is kind of a description of our immediate experiences of being in the desert.

The first time we went to the desert and we expressed a liking for it, it was probably like '92 or something like that. We pulled up in Monument Valley in the van and everyone got out of the van and disappeared. Everyone just wandered off into the landscape and disappeared, so I was wandering and couldn't see where the van was. I couldn't see where anybody else was, and it was kind of cool. We also had encounters with wild animals, and getting lots of burrs and spikes in you because you're an idiot.

There's something in the album, a general theme, I think, which is about survival under very harsh conditions. The desert is like a metaphor: There are lots of deserts. Cultural deserts are springing up everywhere, especially where we live.

Songfacts: Can you explain what you mean by cultural deserts?

Langford: I see property speculators as the enemy of any sort of grassroots culture. There's a lot going on in Chicago right now with the previous mayor, and the jury's still out on the new mayor. There are hopeful signs, but the last mayor was just a money guy. He just wanted to develop the downtown into an internationally classy city, which in his mind was tearing down anything of any interest and replacing it with top-down, imposed environments and cultures that are doomed to failure.

There are bits of the town now where everyone looks like they've stepped out of some sort of architectural drawing. They sit in these kind of like generic coffee shops on their laptops and it's like, "Wow, isn't Chicago great?" Most people can't afford to live here now, and it's happening in cities all over.

Songfacts: It's happening here [Asheville, North Carolina] a lot too. We're known as a funky little city with an offbeat culture, and we're building hotels on top of hotels, kicking small business out of really cool historical buildings to make room for even more hotel rooms, and there's no room for anyone who lives here. There's some really amazing original music here, some really weird and interesting stuff, some authentic punk rock, some authentic songwriters with real stories to tell, but a lot of it, and the subcultures that create it, are being buried and shoved out of the way to make room for tourist rock and expensive condos.

Langford: That describes vast chunks of Chicago, too. It's a real shame. There's a lot of generic music everywhere, but it doesn't reflect on what anyone is really doing.

Songfacts: It's the musical version of hotel room art.

Langford: Exactly. I know exactly what you mean.

Songfacts: I want to ask you about your very first single. You mentioned that there were two versions of the Mekons. "Never Been In A Riot," going way way back, is very different from your latest record, Deserted. What can you tell me about that first Mekons single?

Langford: At that time, the Sex Pistols had just been to Leeds, and The Clash, and The Heartbreakers and The Damned, and there was this great groundswell of possibly misunderstood ideas about what punk rock was. It felt like for us art students, it was a license to actually form a band. That was new - before that, during my teen years, you had to be some sort of virtuoso musician to be in a band. You'd have to be in a progressive rock band or Led Zeppelin or something like that.

I wasn't really a musician. I could play the drums a little bit, but I was the only one who had really played anything before. We just said, "Right, punk rock's mainly about people who can't really play their instruments that well," which it wasn't, necessarily. It was mainly a lot of heavy metal bands taking their trousers in and playing faster. We believed the smoke signals that we were seeing. We believed the papers that were coming up all the way from London. It seemed like an opportunity to genuinely make some weird art.

It seemed like it was cool to be in a band, and lots of friends of ours formed bands. All across the north of England and Scotland and Wales this phenomenon happened where people got it slightly wrong. We saw it as kind of a cultural release, rather than just the next phase of the music business, you know: glam, prog, punk. For us it was something much deeper. Were like 19 and 20 at the time. You have profound Road to Damascus moments then.

That song ["Never Been In A Riot"], basically, The Clash were a London band. We all loved The Clash but we were also appalled that they were on this major label and then their first single that came out was called "White Riot." It seemed very naive to us that they would have written that. They were pledging solidarity with West Indian youth in London. It was about the Notting Hill Riots [on the last day of the Notting Hill Carnival in August 1976], but the same message in the chorus applied to where we lived in Leeds. It implied support for racism and fascism. A white riot in Leeds meant something really heavy. We were living with that reality as well. We were dealing with fascists coming to our gigs, beating up our friends.

It was a nasty time. My memories are not very happy of that time. I don't look back on it like, Wow, back in the day, man, it was so cool. It was a bit of a nightmare, to be honest. We were just these lefty art school punks, and that first song, I think Mark [White] just wrote it down on a beer mat in a pub. He wanted to write a song that reflected our reality, which was "Never Been In A Riot." Don't want to be in a riot. Don't glamorize violence when we were in the midst of a situation which was very violent.

The band is named after the evil-doer - The Mekon - in the <i>Dan Dare</i> comic strip. Thanks to <a href="http://www.dandare.org.uk/" target="_blank">dandare.org.uk</a>.The band is named after the evil-doer - The Mekon - in the Dan Dare comic strip. Thanks to dandare.org.uk.
Songfacts: Well, it ended up being a great song, and I enjoy listening through your discography and seeing how your music has evolved since then. You can see how you've influenced other bands. A lot of your songs bring to mind another favorite band, Camper Van Beethoven.

Langford: We played with Camper Van Beethoven years ago. '88 we played with them. They're a fantastic band. I think we're doing a festival with them in a few weeks.

Songfacts: That would be a great show. I saw them a few years ago and it would be awesome to see you both on the same bill.

Langford: How the Mekons progressed and evolved is that we slowly lost our fear and prejudices against real musicians. We suddenly realized that real musicians could be OK - not all of them just want to masturbate in public. Some of them actually like to do things that are in service of the song and the idea. We've been very lucky that we have fantastic musicians in our band, and coming from a band that prided itself on not being able to play any instruments, it's kind of ironic. I think that's how it's progressed.

In the beginning we were just really scared of that idea, of people being able to play their instruments well. We would denounce them. We would burn them in public. It was Year Zero, and then we found out that it wasn't Year Zero.

Songfacts: Well, you seem to be doing it right. You're heading out on tour very soon and will be on the road for a few weeks. What's going to be next for the Mekons?

Langford: I don't know, really. Hopefully something different. We got a new record label in Europe for this album, and we wanted to impress them that we could behave vaguely like a real band, so we went off and did I think 14 gigs in a row in Europe. Some of the drives were like 10 or 12 hours - it was pretty brutal. We thought we'd do the same thing now in the States to actually promote the album in a way that the record company can do something with it, and then hopefully that will give us the freedom to do something else. We have a good relationship with Bloodshot [Records, their label in the US]. Now we'll put them to the test and do something really weird that they can't market in any way. [Laughs]

July 22, 2019

The Mekons are:

Jon Langford
Tom Greenhalgh
Sally Timms
Steve Goulding
Susie Honeyman
Rico Bell (aka Eric Bellis)
Lu Edmonds
J. Mitch Flacko/Flacco
Dave Trumfio

photos: Ricky Malpas (2), Paul Beatty (3)

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