From: City Search:
Mekons' and The Waco Brothers' Jon Langford: Interview
Jon Langford came to Chicago with his new wife in 1991;
at the time he was a respected member of Leeds,
England's favorite punk cult band, the Mekons. As one of
the pioneers of the crossing-over of punk into country
and blues progessions, Langford—who hasn't lost his
stuffed, loose-lipped British midlands accent, nor the
accompanying sense of deadpan humor—is a link to a small
piece of music history that gets bigger with every
Since arriving in Chicago, he has become one of the
brighter stars in the city's artistic firmament, and a
little cover band project he began called the Waco
Brothers found itself with a following of its own.
Still, with the large-format Mekons spread all over the
globe (only vocalist Sally Timms also lives in Chicago),
when the stars align for a tour and album, we want to
know why. Chicago.citysearch.com music editor Jack Shay
caught up with Langford at his studio for some answers.
CitySearch: What does the new disc represent to you?
Jon Langford: Sally had the idea we should do a good
album. So we tried to accommodate her.
Q: You haven't been able to in the past?
A: Well, she's never suggested it before. I'm really
pleased with it. It's got a very consistent sound to it.
Very much a studio album, but the songs are pretty
Q: How will it translate to a live show?
A: They're pretty easy, nothing tricky about them. We'll
probably do half of [the album] live, and then some
other, unusual lost chestnuts as well.
Q: This album seemed to embrace melody, with heavy,
atmospheric production. Were they always in your music,
or is it different this time?
A: They've always been pretty melodic songs, it's just a
matter of how you treat them. A lot of times you go into
the studio having been on tour, and you're very much
keyed into the sounds of the live band. When we started
making this record, we had just come off a tour ... so I
guess that doesn't make any sense. But, no, we decided
not to make it sound like the band, to try to be more
open-ended and to make it about the lyrics. That was the
Q: I don't know why, but I kept thinking of Roger
Waters-era Pink Floyd with "Journey to the End of the
Night." British themes of alienation and all. Do you buy
A: It's our "The Wall"? [Laughs] Pink Floyd concept
albums! I think it's much more modest in its
pretensions. I always found it quite hard to get past
the music on those. They should have split up when Syd
Barrett left. I think it was all Dave Gilmour's fault.
Q: Some say the Mekons started punk, found country, and
now it seems there's as much New Orleans Cajun, or even
reggae elements. Does any label still apply?
A: The Mekons were always pretty influenced by country
tunes, but they always went through a filter. We always
kind of willfully misunderstood things for our own
purposes, yeah? I think the idea of punk rockers turning
to country as we did in the mid-'80s was kind of
interesting because there's parallels between the two
things. Especially lyrically, maybe not technique-wise.
The simplicity of a, like a Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle
Haggard or Johnny Cash song. And lyrical directness,
always the idea of someone like Haggard or Cash singing
for their peers. I always thought the whole thing about
punk was trying to break down the gap between audience
and performer. A lot of country musicians did it in more
subtle ways. Not now, I mean, now [country] is just
stadium pop, like fantasy music. I'm not too interested
in that these days.
Q: The core of the Mekons is British by birth. Punk was
probably more of an English experiment, while country is
an American kind of music. Is there an additional
perspective you think the Mekons had as Brits in
approaching country forms in the late '80s and '90s?
A: Well, I think punk was American. Ramones were
American, and most British punk bands just ripped the
Ramones off. For me, the music I was drawn to was the
music where barriers were broken down, a lot of Cajun
Louisana pop music, and honky-tonk, where it seemed like
it wasn't country anymore but where it was like bluesy
rock and roll, but it was like stripped-down and gritty.
We're interested in where genres blur into each
other—where cultures clash. A lot of reggae music came
out of Jamaican people listening to American music.
Having lived in this country for eight years, I've
suddenly realized I'm in the middle of a wave of ...
culture shock. If I do something, it's informed by both
[cultures]. There's no arguments about authenticity or
crap like that. Certain things go in and certain things
come out. If we were trying to play traditional
country-western like that band from Nashville, BR5-49,
if we were trying to do that, it would be pretty stupid.
We're a filter—that's what the Mekons are. Certainly not
divine music originals. We're just steeped in those
Q: So there's nothing distinctly British about you guys
A: We're all socialists, and I suppose that's bred in
us, you know. That's one thing: We're used to the idea
of history. Americans don't seem very used to that. It
seems to be, like, the culture that wants to pave over
everything. Everything amazing that's come out of the
20th century has to be kind of f***ing flogged to death
and sold to the highest bidder and then paved over. It's
kind of daunting.
Q: That's something people say a lot about Chicago, that
it has no respect for its own history. Why do you live
A: It's because of all those amazing things that have
been paved over. Secondhand Merle Haggard albums.
Q: You're in the Waco Brothers as well. Where's the
balance between the two?
A: Well, I think the Waco Brothers is a bit of reaction
to being in the Mekons. There's a lot about the Mekons
you kinda have to "get it"; you have to know a bit about
the history. We do a lot of hideously experimental,
artsy kinds of things, which have been quite fun, but
kind of a mindf*** for your average Friday night punter.
The Waco Brothers for me was going to be a local bar
band. When I moved to Chicago, the Mekons were all tied
up in legal business—a deal which we couldn't get out of
with a major label—and it was all screwed up and I just
wanted something simple and local. We started out doing
covers ... We weren't even going to do originals or
record anything, but all that changed.
Q: And you're a visual artist as well?
A: I'm actually drawing a strip right now as we speak.
It's a cartoon that appears in the "LA Weekly," the
"NewCity" in Chicago and a paper in Cleveland. It's
called Great Pop Things. Been going on for years. Always
on the music page. Kind of a wordy, badly drawn thing
with lots of vicious comments about pop stars. [Laughs]
Q: Anything else on the artistic front?
A: I paint. Some of the other guys in the band do that,
too. We've had group shows as the Mekons.
Q: What place does that occupy in your artistic life?
A: Painting's kind of like my day job. I've had a lot of
shows—I've got a show in Norway and in Texas in a couple
Q: Do you explore different themes with it?
A: Mostly they're about music. Semi-autobiographical,
even though they look like classic country singers.
Distressed, f***ed-up looking.
Q: Anything you might say that's critical of the album,
that you wish you'd done better?
A: [Pause] No, I can listen to it quite easily,
Q: You'd admit that the Mekons are an oddly constituted
A: Yes, well, we're geographically challenged. At the
time being, we kinda get together when we feel we will.
We work quite hard when we work and then we don't for a
while. Other people got lives, and that's one of the
things that makes it interesting. It's not a full-time
job. When it has been a full-time job, that's when we've
produced our worst work, I think.
Q: What's your particular part of the Chicago music
scene like? Where's it headed?
A: Actually, it's hard for me to divide the scene up
into little parts, there's a lot of musicians who
cooperate and work together on a lot of things when
they're not necessarily stylistically similar or have
the same goals. There seems to be space to do what you
want. Sally's album is a good case in point: Johnny from
Tortoise playing drums on it, Brett from the Handsome
Family singing, Jeff Tweedy contributing a song, Robbie
Fulks plays guitar on it. It's very easy to just get on
the phone and say, "Do you wanna do something?" to
people. I just did a lot of stuff with Tim Rutilli from
Red Red Meat, and we're thinking of doing some more in
the future. It's kind of ideal.
It's not like your band is Your Thing and you flog this
one project till you make a million or until it smashes
itself to death against a brick wall. That's never been
my penchant. With the Mekons, we kind of wanna run the
whole race, yeah, and so we'll pace ourselves and we'll
work with other people when we feel like it. People have
a lot of side projects because it's healthy.
Q: Do you pay any mind to the amount of media attention
a type of music or scene is getting at a given time? I'm
wondering about countrified parts in particular.
A: I think insurgent country, whatever it is, had a
fairly lucky escape because after the Nirvana punk
thing, a lot of the Aes of our CDs. Bloodshot, other
major labels wanted them. We're like, just stuff it,
don't send them. Don't f***ing care. Some bands have
gone [big], but it was meant to be the next big thing.
And it wasn't a new thing, it was more a continuation of
something that's been going on, to the left of
Nashville, for years and years and years.
Q: The perfunctory question: What's next?
A: I'm working on an album with Sally. It's going be a
split-sets kind of thing. We got invited to play the
Calgary Folk Festival. I think folk is the way to go.
Every other form of music, you're too old when your 30.
Like, I'm 42 and I'm a young upstart in the folk world.
I'm figuring your fee goes up and up. By the time me and
Sally are 70, we could probably be making some good
money. And we'd have 30 more years to get our s***
together. So we think that's the plan at the moment.