From Chicago Citysearch
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 passing year.
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
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 simple.
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 main
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 that?
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
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 histories.
Q: So there's nothing distinctly British about you guys anymore?
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 here then?
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 of weeks.
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
A: [Pause] No, I can listen to it quite easily, actually. [Laughs]
Q: You'd admit that the Mekons are an oddly constituted group, yes?
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
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
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
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
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.