|Net Magazine 1993|
All you need is Mekons
Attention all doom- prophets, gloom- mongers and pessimists of the music world! We're about to burst the bubble of your jaded worldview with somc "bad" news. But, since down for you is up, this is actually good news for the rest of us: The Mekons are back. Against all possible odds, they're back, as loud and focused as ever before, with a new, full- length album. And to top it all off, they're even in love.
Late 1993 at last marks the long- overdue arrival of I (heart) Mekons their first album in two years. It also marks what promises to be the bands permanent breaking free of the seemingly endless, Kafkaesque legal and financial hassles that plagued them throughout their time in the maze- like major label corridors of A & M.
While such freedom is certainly good news for the Mekons themselves, it may be hard to grasp for some of the narrower minds of the music industry, who have often typecast the band as the eternal underachievers of rock (sort of like the Replacements of Leeds). Similarly any and all rock journalists can perhaps put aside the band's business side for a while and focus their time and column inches instead on the music. In this case, I (heart) Mekons is an album of unusual directness, intensity, spontaneity and soul that does the Mekons' punk roots proud.
But is it really love? To discuss these topics and others, we caught up with guitarist and vocalist Jon Langford at New York's Cafe Orlin (a prime Mekons- spotting location by the way), in the week leading up to a few gigs promoting I (heart) Mekons. Even the new song titles seem to indicate that there's one thing on the Mekons minds: "Love Letter, "(I Love a) Millionaire . "I (heart) Apple", St. Valentine's Day . Is this indeed what it seems, a Mekons concept album? 'Yeah! Definitely.' Langford asserts, I love concept albums. He goes to cite Tommy, even Yes's Tales from Topographic Oceans, but hastens to point out the Mekons' stamp of individuality here. 'We just wanted to write an album of love songs for our own perverse reasons."
Of course, perspectives on love throughout the album are as multi- faceted as those on any Mekons project. As Langford emphasizes. 'The essential thing about the Mekons has always been it being a collaborative effort. Still, perhaps thc most eye-opening aspect of I (heart) Mekons is its streak of real, heatfelt optimism. Never before, for example, have we heard Iyrics like those on "Wicked Midnite": "Yeah, driving through the city / the neon looks so pretty / l want to be with you / flipping through stations on the radio /...l fell in love!" Here is an album of Mekons 'love songs' meant to be neither tongue- in- cheek nor ironic. As the climax of the track "Special" plainly announces, 'This is no fantasy."
Can it be? All this from the band that foretold on 1985's Fear and Whukey that "darkness and doubt just follow us about'? Fear not: Longtime fans can rest assured that I (heart) Mekons does not feature any sappy re- makes of Billy Joel's "I Love You Just the Way You Are." Quite the opposite: "I Don't Know" features a 3- chord blitzkrieg right out of 1978, 'Honeymoon in Hell'' evokes a disturbing tale of ''unwanted gifts and coded messages'': Sally Timms' vocals throughout convey, as always, both majesty and melancholy. As Langford explains it, "Love, Iike anything, is very complicated, and the only way you can write songs about it is to explore some ot the contradictions.. that's where the interesting things lie." Simply, the bottom line here is an album of great rock and roll that is both honest and real all the way through, whether bitter or sweet.
After years of tribulation, could 1993 finally usher in a period of clarity for the Mekonso? Langford talks about the band's hard- learned Iessons about the music industry with the decisiveness of someone whose group has made a clear and definite break with the past. "Let's just say we'd been screwed around pretty badly for two years, promised a lot of things which we were naive enough to believe_This year has been quite an interesting experience in removing obstacies from our path. We've just had to say literally 'Look, if we're gonna do this, we can't continue working in this way. We've got to take control of things ourselves.' It was pretty crucial as to whether we'd actually continue as a band or not...lt was just a survival thing. Our back was totally to the wall."
In terms of record contracts, Langford suggests that the contrast could not be greater between the Mekons' past dealings with A & M and their current arrangement with Touch and Go. 'Having got involved with Touch and Go, I feel really confident that we can do it with people who will actually get behind us...lt's very different and doesn't feel like such a compromise." Is this really a Mekon sounding cautiously optimistic about a record label?' 'Yeah! I really like them, and I really like the stuff they put out. It just makes sense.'
With the Mekons' apparent success at 'putting their own house in order", the band looks better positioned than ever before to create music on its own terms. On I (heart) Mekons, this freshness and power comes through, despite the two years in the album's making. The record's sound comes closer than ever to the intensity and immediacy of the Mekons' live shows, which is an impression that Langford sounds particularly gratified to hear. Gone are most of the broad, subdued acoustical layerings of 1991's Curse of the Mekons album (of banjo, violin, accordion and bagpipes, for example), in favor of the rawer, more focused. electric sound of 1989's The Mekons Rock'n'Roll. As Langford admits. "I like a lot of purely sonic stuff...we indulged ourselves. He points out that the band is also quite conscious of the difference in sound "The Curse was kind of a broader thing. It wasn't focused on one subject. This is tighter. We decided deliberately to limit the palette because we liked the way the live band sounded.'' The new material, in fact. blends very well with tracks from Rock'N'Roll, like 'Memphis, Egypt' and "Amnesia", which were very much songs "written on the road" and are still bulwarks of the group's live set.
So, what's next for the Mekons? While one of the blessings of the Mekons' current state is their ability to take things one stage at a time, Langford did indicate a few projects, including an album nearing completion for early 1994, and the finishing touches on Mekons: The Movie. The later, reportedly, roughly combines the approach of the live Mekons New York cassette on ROIR with that of the band's early videos, such as those for 'Hello Cruel World', "Hole in the Ground". and "Ghosts of American Astronauts", with which the band was quite pleased. Priority # I for the Mekons, however, seems to be maintaining their ability to control their own artistic lives as the collaborative. open-ended group they've always been. Or, as Langford sums it up, 'We know exactly what we're gonna do next, but it's a matter of being given a chance to do it, instead of fighting for the ground you stand on. If we could just keep it so it's the way we want it, then being in a band is a pretty cool thing to do. We can make the Mekons do and be what we want. More people should have that kind of control over their lives."