Jon Langford of the Mekons spoke by phone on Aug. 20 with Robert Loerzel of Pioneer Press. Langford was working at his Chicago art studio during the interview, occasionally hammering on frames in preparation for a Mekons exhibit.
Q: Could you reminisce a little bit about the early days of the Mekons?
A: People used to spit at us.
Q: You were all students in Leeds?
A: We were all in the art department at the University of Leeds.
Q: Did you have any aspiration at that point to be a rock musician?
A: I was very into glam rock and David Bowie and stuff like that, but it had kind of fizzled out, you know? When I was bit younger, probably like 14 or 15, I'd been in youth-clubby type bands, playing Black Sabbath and Hawkwind ...
I wasn't really doing that much at that time. We always called it the "Twilight of Cool." In '75, '76, things were pretty boring. Bowie and Roxy Music had kind of like fizzled out. Slade had gone. T. Rex had gone. Music was like singer-songwriters and really boring progressive rock and stuff like that. It wasn't much for me.
The punk rock thing was really great. When I went away to art college, almost immediately the Sex Pistols came out.
Q: Do you remember your first exposure to punk rock?
A: It was just the newspapers, you know? It was something that was like such a big media storm. I think the day I was going away to college _ it was sometime around when the Sex Pistols had been on the Bill Grundy thing and sworn on TV.
It had just polarized the whole country. You were either for it or against it, you know? I just thought it sounded horrible to me at first, you know? And then it was like, "Oh, actually, this is pretty interesting."
It was kind of hard to find the records or anything, you know. There was a big scandal about it before the records had even come out, so.
Q: When you got to college, were punk rock shows going on at that point?
A: Yeah, the whole first year, it started coming up, you know. So we formed a band. It seemed like the whole thing was about getting back to your roots... Simple, no-chords, rock 'n' roll music, you know.
We thought, "We could do that." And we took it to the nth degree of _ you know, we said, "We'll form a band because we can't play." Most of the guys in the band couldn't play instruments.
Q: You were playing drums at that point, right?
A: I was. I was like the musician in the band, which is a bit of a stretch, you know? Then the first gig we did, we got a record deal.
We were opening for a band called the Rezillos, and their road manager was trying to put together a label. And he just saw us and just decided. It was very extreme, you know, what we were doing.
It was that time when you were just like, "Right. That's interesting what you're doing. We'll put a record out." Bang, straightaway.
It wasn't quite as simple as that, but for us, we just decided we'll be this really radical punk-rock group. We're not going to put records out. And then somebody wants to put our record out, and we're like, "OK." (Laughs.) You know, immediately.
Q: How did the single "Never Been in a Riot" come about? That was a reaction to the Clash song, "White Riot"?
A: We really liked the Clash _ that first Clash album was a big influence, you know _ and loved that album.
But they, you know, had signed to this major label, which seemed a pretty horrible corporate nightmare thing, and then they were singing this song "White Riot." ...
At the time, the streets were kind of pretty charged in the North of England. Well, they are today still, with anti-immigrant, Nazi kind of thugs.
So it was the idea of giving them an answer. Like, "White Riot," "I wanna riot," I know why the Clash wrote it. But it was so clumsy and sort of nave to think it wouldn't be open to misinterpretation, you know?
So the song we're going to feature on this tour is "Never Been in a Jaguar." Our latest retort to the Clash.
Q: So where did things progress from there? How soon after that were you doing the album for Virgin?
A: Quite a long time, unfortunately. That was '77 when the first gigs were, and then we played a lot on that sort of punk rock circuit, went to London, and all this stuff happened.
In '78 we recorded another single. That came out in '79. Then we signed to Virgin. But by the time we recorded the album and it came out, it seemed to me that everything had changed and that was kind of dead, you know? What we were doing didn't seem that interesting, you know?
I have a bit of a problem with that first album. It's all right, but it's like, if it had come out a year before, it would have been much more relevant, I think, or exciting.
But just the idea of being on a major label was not anything we could have really planned for, you know. It just took us by surprise. The way they ****ed with us was the opposite of what we thought.
We were expecting, like, they'd want to change the music. We were real protective about the music, you know? Artistic control. But they didn't give a **** about artistic control.
Q: How did they screw with you?
A: The problem was we just ended up totally neglected on a shelf at the major label, you know, without any _ they weren't providing what we wanted, which was like the distribution and promotion.
And when they realized we weren't going to play the game, they weren't interested, you know. It was kind of a case of instant neglect, you know? So it wasn't what we thought.
So we learned some hard lessons. And didn't sign to a major label again for another 10 years, where we had to learn the same lessons. (Laughs.)
Q: Your second album was hard to find for a long time. And then there was "The Mekons Story" album after that. What was going on with the band during that period?
A: The album that Virgin rejected, ... that was the start of the band that I think of now the Mekons, you know?
I have a problem thinking about the first band as the Mekons, 'cause I feel like we were just not really thinking about it that much, you know?
There was kind of like this one idea of "This could be a band where nobody plays." And that's kind of funny and kind of a joke, but then ... we ended up on a major label with none of the resources ... to kind of be able to exploit that, or use it to our benefit.
We said, "Oh, we're going to change them from within." And we were just actually kind of stooges, you know.
So when we presented them with the album where'd actually done something which I think was musically more interesting and more radical and lyrically more interesting _ which was, you know, the second album _ they just dropped us like a stone.
And then the whole scene was diffusing and you had these 4-foot-long-orange-Mohican punk bands, you know? And punk was this terribly negative cul-de-sac with a lot of violence around it. We were just horrified. We just wanted to get out. We didn't want to play live, so we backed away. We played in Europe a little bit, just because that's what you do. And that was fun, and we made some good contacts over there.
Basically, by about the beginning of '81, me and Tom (Greenhalgh) had gone back to college to finish these courses we'd dropped out of, being rock stars.
Q: You were still studying art?
A: Yeah, we went back to finish, because we had no way of earning a living. Being self-employed, ... they wouldn't even let us have unemployment, you know. We couldn't get on social security.
So it was kind of like, "Let's go back to college. Remember college? We had a really great time."
After that, the band sort of started to _ we thought we'd split up, I think, but we never formally did. And it turned out that me and Kevin and Tom were, like, hanging out in the pub together, you know?
And that was the start of the more independent, bedroom, DIY time. We just made the "Mekons Story" album as a kind of revenge thing.
It was like, "People don't think we actually should exist." We were actually hated and reviled. Gone to a major label and failed so miserably. And had been like one of the big-selling independent acts before that, you know, with "Where Were You" as a single. We felt like we were fairly humiliated...
We went to America as well around that time. Sort of half a band... Met up with Greil Marcus and Jerry Wexler and people like that. "Wow, this is just sort of surreal."
Q: Of course, most Americans had no idea who you were.
A: Some did, you know, and actually the American thing kept kind of bolstering us all through the '80s, you know? People would show up in London looking for the Mekons, college DJs and ... journalists and stuff like that. Greil Marcus wrote a lot about "The Mekons Story." And suddenly, it was like, "Wow. People seem to take us..."
It was like we were totally in isolation. We made the "Mekons Story" purely for our own benefit, you know? Not even thinking anyone would want to listen to it or hear it. It was kind of a good way to make music, when you really do think no one is listening. Kind of liberating. You can just do whatever you want. We were just having fun making music, you know?
Q: In the records after that, the country influence was more noticeable. Where did that come from? What was your exposure to country music?
A: This guy from Chicago, Terry Nelson, came over, and actually spent a bit of time. His favorite bands were the Pretty Things and the Mekons and he came to discover the Pretty Things and the Mekons and see where they were and what they were doing.
It was about '83 and he stayed for six months, brought all these tapes from him and we listened to all this stuff. And it was just, I don't know, a discovery.
At that time, when punk rock had been so "Year Zero," "All old music is ****," new music, "We're starting again from scratch."
Suddenly, you know, in our mid-20s, we were like, thinking about all this old music and all these traditions of music. And we worked at this amazing... traditional folk studio when we did the second album, and met a guy there named John Gill, who worked with the Sex Pistols and had worked with these giants of the traditional English folk scene. It was just an amazing kind of link-up.
He said to us, "You're like a folk band. Folk music, the way it's passed down, it's the mistakes that get passed down. That's what creates the style of the music. And the Mekons are like part of this tradition."
And then he named all these other bands, you know, bands that couldn't really play but _ the standard of musicianship in traditional English country dance music. We listened to a lot of that, and it was like, "****** ****, this is like the Mekons if we were old."
It was never just country music. It was a lot of reggae music that we were very into.
Q: It has occurred to me when I hear your music, when you're all singing, it reminds of something that might be sung at a football game in England, or a bunch of guys in a pub singing an English drinking song.
A: Well, we are a bunch of old guys in a pub.
Q: Are those influences there, football and drinking songs? Is that folk music, too?
A: You know what, it's like with the new album. That's a lot of people singing together, that's a lot of what we were thinking about with that.
Where I come from, a lot of that comes from the church. Wales, you know, the male-voice choirs and stuff like that. I really like that sort of stuff now.
I'm a brutal atheist, but I can recognize that influence, and that's what people sing at rugby games in Wales, is hymns. It's stirring and rousing, and it's great to have a crowd of people all singing. It doesn't really matter what they're singing.
Q: When you first recorded albums like "Fear and Whiskey" and "Honky Tonkin'," what kind of reactions did you get from people? Did you play in front of audiences that weren't used to hearing that country and folk influence?
A: When we first came to the states in '86, half the crowd got it and half the crowd were thinking it was going to be the band from '79, so it was pretty interesting.
We had fiddle, accordion, and we were doing like this kind of stuff from "Fear and Whiskey," which were _ I think they were punk rock songs. They had this different sort of feel to them. And we had this kind of rootsy stuff going on.
It definitely wasn't like a country band, but it still kind of upset the punk rockers, you know, who were becoming a particularly closed-off little bunch of people by that time.
So it used to be quite good. I'll tell you of a gig in Boston where half the crowd was shouting "*** off! *** off!" That was quite cool as well. It was so extreme.
Now we're so polite. When we play, I feel like we're being wheeled out. Everyone who comes to the shows knows who we are and likes us and they've seen us a bunch of times.
Those were kind of great days, when you were playing to people who were utterly, ****ing physically upset by what you were doing. We were just, you know, trying to play as well as you could. (Laughs.)
Q: How did things evolve from there to the period where you were on A&M recording "Rock 'n' Roll"?
A: We had the Twin/Tone deal. Twin/Tone had a deal with A&M, and we just kind of slipped into it. It felt like it would be a good idea.
It would make sense for us, because there would be distribution. A big distributor collapsed on us when we were in the middle of a tour in '88. And it was just like, it was ****ed, it was a waste of time, no one could get our records...
This guy who signed us talked a very good game... I liked him actually. He signed us to A&M. He had this idea. We weren't selling a lot of records, but they had this thing where they wouldn't give us that much money, but if we sold 30,000, then everyone would be happy. He wanted to create a model where major-label bands didn't have to sell 100,000 and then everyone was disappointed.
It made sense to us. We fell for it. And then he ****ing moved. He was gone. He got kicked out. And then we were signed to this label with a load of ****ing ******s in L.A., you know, looking at the accounts and saying, "Why do we have this band?"
Which is the same as what happened at Virgin, really... Some accountant came along and said, "Get rid of them."
And when we did an album for them that didn't sound like the previous album, you know, they were confused and they wanted to get rid of us. I don't blame them. We should have been gotten rid of. Put out of our misery as soon as possible.
Q: Looking back at "Rock 'n' Roll," what do you think of that record?
A: I think that was a good thing to do. It was a smarter way of dealing with being on a major label than what we did when we were with Virgin.
When we were with Virgin, we just made an album that was kind of like all the songs we'd been playing for the previous three years with some new ones that kind of fit in. You know? We were just nave and unaware.
With "Rock 'n' Roll," I think we did an album that really stands up today. And it actually comments on the whole business, you know? Which I think is the role of art, to comment on what's going on around you. You include yourself. You make art about what's happening to you and what's going on. You don't make grand statements... That's what we tried to do with that album. I really like that album.
Q: What was the process of making that? I understand you played those songs for a while before recording it?
A: Yeah, we worked them out and got them all arranged. We didn't want to be open to criticisms of like, we'd knocked off something on a major label. We were aware that if we didn't play the game to some extent _ We wanted to make a really good-sounding record with really good, tight songs. You know? And we knew we were capable of it.
So we just went in and wrote a load of songs and took them on the road for a while before we even went near a studio. We'd never really done that before, and it really worked. It's always been very haphazard, when we recorded before. We didn't have the resources for that...
But having done that, we didn't want to do that again. So when we recorded the next record, they freaked out altogether. The way bands are supposed to achieve success, the model then was like, you put out an album, you find out which bits people like, you get rid of the bits people don't like, and you polish up the bits that people respond to.
You end up with bands that do the same album over and over again, until they get the right hook and the right support from radio, and they sell a lot of records.
But we'd never had any interest in that. We were covering our ***** by making a good record for the first record on A&M, basically. We knew it had to be something that people could ****ing deal with. There'd be no point. We'd be ****ing off if we made some kind of arty thing that would be incomprehensible.
But the fact that the lyrics were very, very pointedly about the process we were involved in was important to us.
Q: Your next album, "The Curse of Mekons," was hard to find.
A: They owned the rights to that, and they never put it out.
Q: And then you were playing the songs for the next record, "I (Heart) Mekons," live for a long time before the album finally came out.
A: That's when we were in WEA. Our management dragged us out of A&M into an even worse situation, with a label that barely existed that was connected to WEA.
But they promised much and failed to deliver. That's often the case. So we were kind of totally screwed over...
By the time in '93, when we actually got "I (Heart) Mekons" out, even though it was great to have it out, I'd moved to the States, and everything in the mechanics of the band had changed.
We were really tired. We'd been touring around the country for two years without a record out. It was really kind of screwed up. Some people had left the band. Steve (Goulding) packed it in. Lu (Edmonds) packed it in. And then Susie (Honeyman) had babies. It was a while before they came back. It was just like, "Pfffff. This is not interesting." You know?
So that's when we got into the art stuff. We all went away from the band. The band was like this bloody terrible day job. And we were all making art. It was like, "I know. Why don't we just stop and re-evaluate what's going on?"
But fortunately, Touch and Go stuck with us and actually financed a load of really weird projects. Like the Kathy Acker thing ("Pussy, King of the Pirates"), the "Mekons United" project. Even the "Me" record was very experimental.
Q: I really like the "Me" record.
A: Yeah, it made total sense to me...
A lot of people really hated the Kathy Acker record. It was mostly people who were into the Mekons. Well, why are you into the Mekons if you want us to be making a 12-song album and going on tour? We're going to do something different.
For me, that was kind of a high point for the band. And the "United" thing and the Vito Acconci thing (a collaborative stage project with performance artist Acconci), it was very liberating.
Q: It's almost like the Mekons are more than a rock band. You do art shows together, and you were writing a novel.
A: We've got this lyric book, and that's been pretty interesting, going through all the lyrics, illustrate it, and combine all these things. This album is based on the art show we had in England last year.
Q: What was the concept behind the art show in the first place? I'm curious about how it evolved into the album.
A: It's a number of things. It's almost like the "Orpheus" song we did on the "United" album, that should almost be on this album.
I think it's about singing, it's about all those songs, all those myths about these sort of singing heads, heads that could be cut off but somehow are still alive.
Georges Bataille's a writer who writes about a lot of what happens when you lose your head. You chop the head off and ... you get in touch with the animal inside you or something. It's all pretty crazy stuff.
Q: Were you guys just talking about this stuff or how did it come up?
A: We all read stuff and we're all interested in history and definitely stuff like myths. There's a song called "Myth" on "Journey to the End of the Night," which is kind of about how, after a while, just being the Mekons, there's so much myths even about us.
It's about how people translate reality into a story that can be told or a song that can be sung. It's all myth.
And then I like the idea of the song surviving, you know? And the people singing together. The song is really like this kind of amazing thing. A song can entertain, it can distract, it can inform.
That was what the exhibition we had in England, which was accidentally _ not accidentally, deliberately _ destroyed by teen-age art critics in Manchester.
Q: The art exhibit was all around the idea of heads, right?
A: It was a lot of heads, portraits of heads, and there were little shrunken heads. There's a giant spinning head with speakers in it that sang.
We actually got a soundtrack for the singing head, we're going to take that on the road. It'll be available to buy as well.
We decided not to recreate the singing head, that would be too much. But we've got video of it. We're going to be showing that as these art shows.
Q: As at previous art shows, you had the various Mekons contributing? Obviously, you paint on your own. But if it's a Mekons show, rather than signing it as a Jon Langford painting_
A: Me and Rico (Bell) do paintings together. Kevin (Lycett) has generated images, he's sent them to Tom, Tom's painted on them. They come in a package to me. I've worked on them, I send them to Rico. He's finished them off.
It's kind of good. By whatever means necessary. I always think that if you enter a new process, no matter how tortuous and geographically insane it is, you're going to come up with something different, you know? You can't plan to make everything happen according to some grand notion. We're quite open to mistakes.
Q: So what happened in Manchester?
A: Some kids broke into the place where the thing was being shown and smashed up the giant singing head and destroyed half of the paintings. They were littered down the street. But fortunately, Kevin went over and documented it. We felt like. It was in a place called Salford, so we thought we would call it "The Judgment of Salford."
Q: Were these kids deliberately targeting this exhibit?
A: No, they were just ****ing morons who just wanted to smash it up. But we prefer to refer to them as art critics.
Q: So how did this art exhibit turn into the album?
A: With us, it's nothing's ever like, "These are our 12 songs about beheadings." But a lot of the myths and stories we used for the exhibition are definitely in there.
There's a song called "Bob Hope and Charity," which is essentially about the myth of Bram, who was this king who entertained the troops. They chopped his head off and carried him back, and he sang for 80 years and while he was singing, there was no illness or disease.
They do the thing that they always do in myths, where they're told not to do something and they do it. In this case, these Welsh warriors open the window that looks across the channel to England. That's pretty ominous. They're opening the window to the English, basically.
And then the plague comes down on them and destruction, and they remember all the terrible things that have happened before as well.
There's a thing about music, where you can say maybe music sometimes can distract from all the terrible things that are going on. Maybe music should be used like that.
And we thought about Bob Hope entertaining the troops when we thought about that myth. We pictured it was Bob Hope's head on a plate telling crappy jokes about Bing Crosby.
Q: And there are references in this to William Blake and the Muggletonians.
A: Yeah, there's definitely a reference. You know what I said about hymns a great of the tradition of choral and the vocal tradition I grew up with in Wales.
On a song like "Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem," we're trying to get to grips with traditions, like socialism in Britain is not derived from Marxism. It's like Marx derived stuff from what was going on in England for ****ing years and years and years, you know?
It's an amazing tradition of radical thought in Britain. Eight percent of it stems from, maybe 100 percent of it comes from Christian writings.
And I said I'm an atheist. I also believe in the parallel of that tradition and those teachings. If you look at what Christ said, probably the reason I'm an atheist is organized religion is so perverted (against) the obvious things you would glean from reading the New Testament.
Q: Who were the Muggletonians? They were a radical sect?
A: Yeah, one of many. The Muggletonians, they believed in some pretty extreme stuff... There's a great book called "Witness Against the Beast," about William Blake. E.P. Thompson wrote it.
People think of Blake as this freak, you know? Kind of a one-off guy. Thompson's point is that he's not a one-off guy. It's a bit like Greil (Marcus') book, "Lipstick Traces," which is really interesting. It's a speculation. It traces all these things that happened and tries to link them together.
I think E.P. Thompson is, to me, even more real. It's really obvious that there's been all this wild, radical dissent. There were reasons why Blake thought the church was Satan, you know? There were reasons why he was right, which become all the more apparent.
Q: These are topics that the typical rock band doesn't usually get interested in.
A: Exactly. For everyone, it's about sex and cars. We'd sell some records.
Q: The Mekons have this intellectual side, but you perform it with such humor.
A: We like low-brow and high-brow. We think middle-brow's the problem. I don't see why history or intelligent thought is something that should be reviled. I really hate that anti-intellectualism that is so prevalent everywhere. It's almost like it's uncool to have a serious thought about anything. There's a lot of intellectual people who propagate that as well.
There's also a lot of thick people who think they can save the world by half-thinking things through. You know? (Laughs.) That's what I mean by the middle-brow. You put Bono and George Bush in a room together, and you've got like a middle-brow ****ing black hole.
Q: At what point during all this did you move to Chicago?
A: Ninety-two. I got married, and me girlfriend was living in France, and then I followed her over. It's been a great place for me to get things done.
I'm glad I came here. I was very aware of Chicago before I moved here. It was not a big deal to move here. It was almost like I woke up one day, and I was like, "Oh, yeah, I'm living here now." Because I'd been here so much and had so many friends here. Then again, it was quite strange when I got here, because I didn't have anything to do as such.
Q: Well, you've certainly kept busy. How many bands are in?
A: I've got the solo thing, basically, which takes many different forms. I've got the Waco Brothers and the Mekons.
I've got a bunch of people here who are kind of up for anything, really accomplished musicians with their own stuff going on who have the time and will to just get involved in interesting projects. People here, club owners, journalists, independent label owners, they're all enthusiasts, I think.
Q: The Mekons are spread out, but you get together to record and tour a few months out of the year. That works pretty well as a way of keeping the band up?
A: Definitely. It means you look forward to it. It's not anyone's main thing... We're not wage slaves to the idea of the Mekons. There's no pressure on the Mekons.
We get money from the Mekons, that's undeniable and that's great. Because we have a record label who are honest and can sell our records and pay us. We get very well paid for gigs, because we've got a really great agent.
But in terms of surviving on that money, we're not in a position where we have to. No one's saying, "Can't you write a better song? No one's going to want to buy this. Write a better song so we can make some money." No one's of that thought.