Jon Langford Offers A Global Perspective (and Talks About Music)
The American political system is in complete disarray. George W. Bush--the first president of the new millennium--will carry the baggage of illegitimacy until his PR team can convince the public that his reign is warranted. Constant legal bickering amongst partisan candidates and their contingents has marred the reputation of our once seemingly infallible institution of government. Ironically, the balance of power in the so-called Free World has been a legal nightmare, determined by one state, Florida, whose shape resembles a handgun.
Offering insight into his own politics, as well as his personal world of sound, Jon Langford sat down with musictoday.com after a Waco Brothers CMJ showcase gig in New York City. After an exhausting day of BBQ, beverage, and tunes, sponsored by the good folks at Bloodshot Records, the remaining soldiers moved on to Brew's Pub. In an empty music hall, above the madness of toasts and menu confusion, Langford, a self-proclaimed "cultural protagonist," let his feelings be known.
For those unfamiliar with Jon Langford, the outspoken political agitator has been part of the arts community for many decades in both the UK and the States. In addition to his work with musical entities such as the Mekons, Waco Brothers, and other various bands and solo projects, Langford is also a father and visual artist. Langford's art has been on exhibit at numerous galleries worldwide; in 1998, he released a collection of pop music comics entitled Great Pop Things.
musictoday.com: You all have a new record out, right?
Jon Langford: Electric Waco Chair came out last week. We had a record release party at Fitzgerald's in Chicago.
mt: Is there a concept behind the record?
mt: It wouldn't have anything to do with Texas, would it?
JL: We have been doing a few gigs for anti-death penalty stuff in Illinois, which has been a focal point for that campaign. Illinois is where the Republican governor actually came out and put a moratorium on the death penalty and stopped executing people, because the system was so screwed up; something that George W. wouldn't consider doing. It's been pretty healthy. We're hoping that it is the start of bigger things. I'd like to see the death penalty banned here. I'm not an American, I'm from Europe, and they don't have it there. I find it very frightening, and I've got a kid here, and I feel very invested in American society now. I don't want him to live in a society that is alienating and inhuman, as the one that George W. would continue.
mt: It sounds like you're fairly involved with politics, although slightly on the periphery?
JL: You have to be. I can't vote, but I pay taxes. It's kind of a joke. I'm an illegal alien. I suppose that I can apply for citizenship, which is probably what I will do. I want to be a citizen of the same country as my son. He's American, and I think that he can get joint citizenship until he is, like, 18, so maybe he will get British citizenship as well. I don't want to give up my British citizenship, because they actually have health care in England and little things like that, which seem far beyond the richest country in the world to get together.
mt: Do you think that there is change in the future?
JL: There's got to be change. You know, this election campaign is showing people that it is Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. You've got these two dudes that are just in the pockets of the corporations. There are differences between them—fair enough—but I know I would probably end up voting for Gore if I could vote. I really think that there has to be someone else. The issues that I am worried about, they are not addressing.
mt: It sounds like you might be interested in seeing a third party candidate emerge?
JL: Absolutely. I think that Ralph Nader is really interesting. It's sad. It's like we don't want Bush to get in, so what do you do, vote for Nader and let Bush in? It's a very difficult thing. I think people should maybe vote for Nader and forget about Gore, you know.
mt: Back to a more musical note, your other projects. How are the Mekons going?
JL: The Mekons are doing some gigs in England, which will be interesting. We haven't really done a tour over there for a long time. The new album is out over there now, and it is getting some good reviews, and it did really well over here. It's a funny thing.
mt: I guess an interesting question—myself being from the U.S.—how would you describe the differences between the U.S. and European press?
JL: I think that whole atmosphere toward music in say, USA and Germany, is a bit more relaxed. In Britain, there are some cool people in the press, but mostly it's a bunch of jerks. I kind of think that some are really moronic, elitist, pseudo-intellectuals, which is fine because I'm sort of a moronic, elitist, pseudo-intellectual myself. [laughter]
mt: What do you think about the state of music over there?
JL: I just think that it is kind of alarming how life-and-death it is to people in England. It's like, something is hip and then everything else is crap. Over here, and in Germany and places like that, people have a better perspective. It's entertainment, it's interesting, it's the way musicians make a living, and it's a craft-based thing. I think it's like a Friday night—going out and giving people a good time; and with us, it's like we've got some interesting songs and we try to do things in an interesting way. The biggest kind of message that we have is, "Keep it small." You don't have to sell a million records and you don't have to be playing stadiums. The point of it is that it can interesting, intelligent, and it can be controllable, and it can be in your hands.
Presently, the pop charts in the U.S. are ruled by childhood actors posing as musical deities, while grown men who would normally be GQ castaways dance their asses off for the pleasure of pre-pubescent gals half their age, and sell more records out of the gate than at any point in the history of records. The reality is that music truly is an industry, often void of artistic merit. For these purveyors of popular music culture, it's a numbers game that focuses on moving product, and not necessarily distribution of art. Fortunately, there are musicians able to "earn" a career rooted in music, surviving just beneath the radar while releasing honest work.
mt: It sounds like you are a proponent of self-management to a certain degree.
JL: It's like the thread goes right back to the early days of punk rock with do-it-yourself. The only time it has made sense to me is when it's like that. I really like that, and I really don't care for English journalists who come along and say, "that style is completely out the window and now there is only techno music. You funny men with your obsolete guitars, you are so amusing." Now they want us to go and play in Europe all the time. It's like, "hang-on, three years ago we were obsolete and now you want us." Now, we're hip again. I cannot be bothered, especially when it's a bunch of f**king uppe-class rich boys who write for stupid newspapers that I wouldn't want to read….see, now you've got me talking about the British press.
mt: On another note, with all of this talk about self promotion and self management, the Internet has been on the rise over the past couple of years. How do you feel about that or how has it helped you personally?
JL: On one level, it eats up a lot of my time. The whole concept of e-mail is another demand on my time. "Oh, I've got to check my email" It's great. It's very useful for certain things, but I think that people can use it really wrong. I don't want to chat on the Internet. I don't want it to be a substitute for my social life. I'll go out to a bar and meet people. I'll meet people flesh on flesh. I am more interested in that; flesh is good. I think there are really interesting possibilities with it, but it is almost like people are blinded by this revolution of it all. "This has changed everything, man, it is just so cool." I mean, everything has got to be Internet. Art schools now have everything on computer, everything is Web art, and that's fine as long as you are doing something different and interesting with it. It's just not enough to say "Internet" every f**king five minutes.
mt: So, do you think there might be more hype than it is worth?
JL: I think that people have not seen through the hype yet. I don't think that people have seen the downside of it. I think that it really eats up people's time, and I think that it is very anti-social and also really exciting. I love the prospect of people being able to distribute their music really easily. I get a lot of great feedback from it, because people can write a review of a gig. Someone who has been to a gig will post it on a Web page and it's kind of interesting. I can send people our music. Some sites will say, "you've got a couple of tracks, you want to let people download them?" The record industry is freaking out about it. We're like, "s**t, somebody can tape our CD for tens of thousands of friends." I don't care. We make sure that our stuff is available. I think that we give away like three tracks off of the new album. People can just download them. I like the idea that we are a small concern. We're not a big multi-million dollar enterprise that has to be protectionist about our work. We don't have to protect our copyrights. You know it's out there and people are interested, and they are going to buy the record anyway.
mt: Maybe they'll come out and see you play live.
JL: True, and if they are that enthusiastic about the band, they are not going to just download three tracks and think, "Hey, I won, that's the end of it." For fourteen bucks, they can get the whole album. I think that the major labels are really f**ked up and I hope that they all become obsolete, because they really have very little to offer. I like bands like the Backstreet Boys and 'NSYNC and Britney Spears, because they really show the divide. I think that they are very interesting in a sense of what they do—they provide mass culture. It's like, "you want music, here we are"; incredibly popular. They sell more records than anyone ever sold any time they put an album out, and that is fine. They're over there doing that, and we're over here doing something else. It's not like a load of f**king crap bands like U2, who want to be hip and want to sell millions of records at the same time. That's kind of offensive to me. "We're hip and we're really cool and ironic, but we also want to sell a million records. We sold 20,000 records and we're jumping for joy;it's great. We don't have a lot of profit to share and we don't spend a lot of money recording. We've got home recording equipment. We all do stuff on pro tools and there is no tape to buy anymore. We've got programs for that s**t. It's like you can make really good sounding records for nothing."
mt: So, it sounds like you've had some good results with records. How has Bloodshot treated you all?
JL: Bloodshot is great. They're just enthusiasts and friends of ours. I got involved with them when they first started the label. They didn't know what the hell they were doing. They kind of wanted me to be involved because I was this guy from the Mekons, and they saw the Mekons as a figurehead kind of band for that roots music thing. The Mekons were tampering and pilfering from country music in the '80s. That was cool. They liked a lot of those records, and they wanted me to be involved it that, and I thought it was really flattering. I didn't really have any clue what I was doing. They said, "write a country song." I was like, "I can do that."
Thankfully, for music enthusiasts who can recognize true talent, Jon Langford is a workaholic who has put out an ever-evolving style of music for more than two decades. How he finds time for all his artistic endeavors is a pleasant mystery.
mt: What's the next project for you, Jon?
JL: There's another Waco's album that we're going to work on, which is quite interesting. There are going to be a lot of covers, but from a lot of different sources. Also, a Mekons live album. We have been recording all of the shows that we have done in Chicago for the last 15 years, so we've got some material.
mt: An impressive DAT collection?
JL: Yeah, DATs and stuff that people have put on a CD for us. A lot of different sources—tons of shows, and hours and hours of material. Most of it will be s**t and unlistenable, but I want to do something that is kind of definitive and sounds good. And Sally (Timms) is doing a new album, and we're doing an anti-death penalty album with people like The Pine Valley Cosmonauts—a band [with whom] I have that done an album with Kelly Hogan—we did an album of Bob Wills covers, a Johnny Cash album a few years back. It's kind of experimenting in country music a little bit. Now we're doing a thing, which is all death songs for the artists against the death penalty in Illinois: David Yow, Rebecca Gates, Edith Frost, Sally Timms, Diane Izzo.
mt: So, a bunch of people from Chicago?
JL: Yeah, but class acts.
Langford will always be in the center of some happening—musical, political, social, and/or artistic—as his muse guides him toward new creative paths. With all of the political turmoil, the death penalty issues, and countless other creative spurs for a "cultural protagonist," chances are real good that we will see this all filter into future Mekons and Waco Brothers projects. Here's hoping that Jonboy keeps rockin' 'til the grim reaper cometh.
By Bret Booth