Sally Timms of the Mekons spoke on Aug. 13 with Robert Loerzel of Pioneer Press by phone, eating takeaway Thai food at her home in Chicago as she was interviewed.
Q: Back when the Mekons were first starting out, were you aware of them or were you an acquaintance of theirs?
A: Yeah, I knew them from about 1980 onwards, so not right at the very beginning, but_ Sorry, my cat's trying to eat my Thai food. Get out of it!
I knew them because we used to hang out ... We all went to different colleges in Leeds. They were at the university, and I was at the polytechnic...
I got to know Jon (Langford) and then all the others and the Gang of Four, and there was just like a million bands who all existed in Leeds at that time, and everyone kind of socialized together... I used to go see them play a lot, along with everyone else, and never thought I'd actually become a member.
Q: What were they like back then as a band?
A: Kind of shambolic. It was good. I mean, if I saw them now, I'd think they were great. At the time, I just thought they were ridiculous. I couldn't get it at all. They were just such a mess in a lot of ways. But they were cool.
Q: During that stage, I know they got written up by some rock critics, but I don't know that they were all that successful compared to the other bands we know of from that era.
A: No, they were always like a more marginal band. They were kind of like on the art-rock bit. They were a lot of other bands that were far more successful than they were...
They kind of continued with that lineup for three or four years, but eventually people started to leave, and they had a few changeovers in personnel.
And then they kind of went underground for a while, and they didn't do anything _ or very little _ and then they just kind of put out sporadic records. And then the miner strike was the thing that got them kind of re-formed, to do benefits.
Q: So how did you get roped into this?
A: Roped. Literally.
Q: Did you have musical background before this?
A: Well, you didn't really need one, because anyone who was around at that time in England and particularly in that circuit in Leeds _ I didn't know one person wasn't in a band. Everyone had a band. There was just like, nobody was not in a band.
The first thing I did musically was a record I did with Pete Shelley, and that was in 1980. We did this avant-garde _ God knows what it was, really. Supposedly a film soundtrack for a film that never existed... "Hangahar." It's unavailable... It's a very odd piece.
And then I had a band called the Shehes, an all-woman band, and basically we used to do spoof country covers. And so I think I just got drafted in after that.
Q: So you were interested in country music_
A: No, I wasn't. No, we were mocking it then. I didn't know any better. It was just, we wrote all of these stupid country songs with pseudo-gay lyrics.
Q: I assume at some point you did start to appreciate country music, because it's definitely on the Mekons and also on your solo work. Was it a gradual thing or do you remember some moment when you realized there was actually good country music?
A: For me, it was kind of mercenary, really. Because I just am quite good at singing country, so it seemed like a decent genre to pick up on in a lot of ways when I was first introduced to it. I did some solo stuff prior to being in the Mekons. That was with Jon.
And he was the one who was getting really, really into country, and then this other guy, Brendan Croker, who ended up in this band, the Notting Hillbillies, he was a big country fan. And so they basically brought songs to the table that I would sing. So I can't really claim that I'd gone away and researched country music, because I haven't.
Q: But beyond the fact that you felt you could sing it well, what about it that appealed to you?
A: I suppose the subject matter. But I mean, we're talking to an extremely lazy person here... Now, I do make decisions based on things like that. But before then, I think just because I was in that silly country band, it really wasn't something that I thought, "Wow, this is a genre I should really embrace."
It wasn't like that. It was more that I had a pretty classic English folk voice, and that seemed to kind of suit it. Jon was the one who was really converted. Jon and Tom (Greenhalgh) were the country converts. It took me a long, long time to really get to the point where I was more conversant with country music.
Even not long ago, I was sitting with Rob Miller from Bloodshot in his car and he was playing something, and I went, "Oh, this is good. What is it?" He looked at me in disgust and went, "It's Hank Williams, Sally."
But, you know, I don't claim to know a lot about country music. I know most of the people who are very, very conversant with it, but I'm not. I'm just more like, I know what sounds good for the things that I sing, and the subject matter seemed to fit, especially on traditional country.
So the reason the Mekons got into the country stuff, partially, was through this guy, Terry Nelson, who's from Chicago. I think they must have met him on tour or something, and he started sending them tapes and kind of made the connection for them. And then it seemed like there wasn't that big of a leap from what they were doing to actually doing country songs as well. It seemed to fit.
Q: I don't know how many people were aware of the Mekons in the first place, but if they were, when they started doing country music, it was quite a big change.
A: In a way. But you know, I mean, this has been quoted many times, but Jon's always made the point: They're songs about drinking. They're songs about failed relationships. And they're played in a very primitive way with only a few chords. So it kind of did make sense.
Because the Mekons were always really more of a folk band than a punk band, in essence. And so that older aspect of country music kind of made sense.
Q: So, you actually became a member of the band was when they were touring right after "Fear and Whiskey"?
A: Yeah, it must have been... It was about '86 or '87.
Q: Was the experience of playing in the band back then pretty similar to what it's been all along in the years since then?
A: In some ways, yes, and in some ways, no. It was different then in the sense that, for one thing there was a different lineup. And we were all younger, so we were a little more _ I know, maybe I was a bit more idealistic. No, that's the wrong word to use. Um, green.
And, I don't know, that's kind of hard to say. There's a lot of it that's the same, in the sense that I think when we got on a stage, we really need to enjoy the performance, and I think that's always held through, that every performance kind of had to be different in order for us to get off on it. So I don't think the motivating force behind playing live has really changed.
But we're definitely at times not as lively as we used to be.
Q: You still can manage to be lively.
A: Yeah, but we used to be really lively. And really over the top. We used to **** around to no end on stage, which we don't do quite as much.
Q: At that point, did you envision the band becoming a big commercial success? Or was that never something that you were too concerned about?
A: (Laughs.) It wasn't something that I was concerned about, and I'd be an idiot to think that we could ever be a commercial success. So, no...
I mean, you know, there were times when we've done better or worse, depending on the period. I don't think anyone's been unhappy about that. But the whole kind of ethos of the band was never to make money.
Otherwise, we'd be doing something different. We would have definitely tried to be more commercial. It's not a commercial-sounding band at all. Especially not in today's market. But even then.
Q: What was it like in the period when you were on A&M?
A: It was OK. I mean, there were things that were frustrating. But there've always been things that were frustrating.
A lot was made about that whole A&M thing. Our major-label experience was no different to anyone else's major-label experience. It's just that journalists like a story. And so that seems to be a convenient story that ran and ran and ran.
Obviously, because we're so kind of hyperaware of our environment, there's no way we could find a major-label deal without it affecting what we did. And we kind of cannibalize ourselves, so that's going to come out in the music. And we had a lot of very stupid conversations with major-label and independent-label people over those years.
But I don't know anyone who's been in a band any length of time who hasn't gone through that. You know? It really, truly wasn't any different. It's just that so much has been made of it. But we didn't get rich off it, obviously.
Q: How do you rate your albums looking back on them? I know the album from that time period, "Rock 'n' Roll," is one favorite of a lot of people.
A: I know, it's strange, because that isn't one of mine. I think it's OK. I think it's a bit turgid-sounding.
I prefer "Curse" far more, which is the record that didn't get put out here. I like a lot of the early stuff now, which I didn't then. Looking back on it, now I go back to it and I say, "This is great." You know, the more experimental stuff, which was even prior to me being in the band.
And, I don't know, I think we've been lucky in a lot of respects. I think there's always things in the records. I think some of them have been weaker than others, but we don't seem to have been hit too hard critically on people's assessment of that.
I liked "Pussy, King of the Pirates," and people in America hated that record. I thought that was a great record, with Kathy Acker. I was really proud of that one, but it didn't go over well here at all.
Q: I knew one person who had seen you guys live and then bought that as their first Mekons record.
A: Oh, that would be a bad introduction... I wouldn't start on that, but at the same time, I just think as a stand-alone record, I really, really like the way it sounds.
And I like a lot of "Journey to the End of the Night." I think that's really good. That came out well.
But, you know, ... I think the things that are really consistent about the band are the ideas and the lyric writing. I think that's always the really, really strong element... We've just done a book of lyrics that's coming out, and looking at that, I thought, "My God, you know, those are pretty strong songs. I wish that I could write songs like that." I don't write the songs.
Q: Do you contribute to the songwriting?
A: Yeah, kind of. I have more of an editorial role, you know, in a way. And sometimes concepts.
Q: Talk about the lyrics a little. It strikes me sometimes listening to Mekons records, there are lyrics that would probably sound pretentious if they were a little bit different or if they were being sung a little differently by Bono or someone. But somehow, you use some very academic-sounding terms in it, but it comes off very natural-sounding and it doesn't seem pretentious. What's the trick to how you guys pull that off?
A: Um, we're not pretentious, maybe. I don't know. Maybe some people would think it is pretentious. I'm not sure...
How does that happen? Really it's not for me to say. I don't know how, I don't know it happens. It's for someone else to kind of work out in a way. I think one thing we do: We don't take ourselves out of the equation. That's the problem with people like Bono.
Q: What do mean you don't take yourselves out of the equation?
A: We're making a commentary, but we don't assume that we are outside of that commentary. It's like saying "Everything sucks. And if people would listen to me, things would be better."
You know, you assume you are part of the problem as much as you are part of the solution. So people like Bono are kind of preaching, you know? You don't ever hear Bono say, "God, maybe I'm a complete ******." You know? You'd like him to. Or say, "This sounds incredibly pretentious. I'm a rich guy. Why am I doing this? How much money am I giving away? Maybe I should tell people that if I am, because it might make them feel better." So I think the thing is that we don't have a holier-than-thou attitude to our politics. It's accepting that we're as compromised as everyone else.
Q: Plus, you also have a fair amount of humor, especially during the live shows. I think that lightens any pretension that people might sense there.
A: I don't even feel it's pretentious. The songs I really like, if there wasn't an element of humor, they'd be so incredibly dark that you'd feel suicidal. So it's good that they come out that way.
And I just think it goes back to that point I just made. It's an acceptance that we're as much part of this as anyone else. It's not like we've suddenly come to this great realization that we're better than anyone else. That's always kind of left in, that we're as ****ed up and loony as the rest of the world.
Q: How was it that you came to be in Chicago?
A: I was living in New York for five years, then I met the guy I got married to and moved here. And that was why. Essentially, that's just it.
You know, Chicago's a good place to live. It's cheap, a lot of musicians here, all our business is here, our label's here, our agency's here. So in a way, it kind of made sense at the time.
Q: What's it like being in a band where the members are so spread out in different places?
A: It's never been any different, really, not since I've been in the band. Even when we lived in England, no one lived in the same town. And this has never been a band that rehearses, so we don't function like bands who go to somebody's basement or a rehearsal room and practice three times a week. That's just not the case.
The only time we get together is when we're going on tour, or a day before we're going on tour, somebody tries to work out the songs. Most of the people can't remember them. Or we're in the studio and we're just kind of brainstorming. So it really hasn't been an issue at all, except for the fact that plane fares are expensive.
Q: Could you talk about the new record?
A: I could, kind of. I haven't been briefed on it yet.
Q: Is it a required briefing?
A: Mm-hm. Usually. Yeah, I mean, I wasn't that much part of it being written, so my chips haven't been put in so I can answer those questions. I mean, when people were trying to come up with the ideas for it, they were listening to a lot of the "Sacred Harp" choral singing.
And that was the idea, that we were going to do a lot of unison singing. The other ideas were, I believe, kind of gospel-y inspired.
But lyrically, frankly, I don't know yet. I haven't even sat down and thought about it. So you need to e-mail Tom and he'll help you with that. He'll help you with all of the intellectual stuff.
Q: Have you had enough of a chance to listen to it to say how you would compare it to other Mekons records?
A: I think it's good. I mean, it has about a good five or six tracks on it. Actually, I think it's pretty consistent. We've definitely done worse records. I'm quite happy with a lot of it. I don't know, you know. It's an oddy.
Q: You mentioned unison singing. It has struck me that it's something the Mekons, when you've got three or more people singing together, it creates the sound that is really identifiably the Mekons sound.
A: The idea on tracks like that track, "Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem" ... we were talking about (how) there were all these weird religions around the time of William Blake, the Muggletonians and everyone else, kind of really weird radical offshoots of Christianity _ well of the Church of England _ Christian-based faiths, and they were extremely ... radical.
They were politically radical, and a lot of them were sexually radical. The idea that you didn't stick to one partner; they were very open. This was obviously in the 1700s.
We kind of wanted it to sound like you had just wandered by a tiny chapel and heard a load of people in there singing and you were standing at the doorway going, "What the **** are they singing about?"
That was kind of one of the ideas we had, sonically, particularly for that one track, that you had just stumbled across some bizarre sect of people, who were just singing away to their heart's content, to themselves.
Q: On the last song ("Stonehead"), you get the feeling of people singing a song they've know for a long time.
A: I think the band is known for its ideas on community. It seems to almost come naturally as a concept now. I suppose that makes sense.
Q: Do you see the Mekons going on indefinitely?
A: Well, not indefinitely, because we're all going to die at some point. No, past our own deaths I doubt it. Unless we have those who will take over. Could be younger ones.
Q: You could always try cloning.
A: We could try cloning. I don't think that'd be an appropriate way to go. We need juniors to be trained.
But yeah, it will probably take different forms, but there's no reason why not to. Why stop? ... As we've said before, it takes more effort to stop than to keep going at this point.
But I think we'll get to a point pretty soon _ we're pretty marginalized now. I think we're going to go pretty underground for a while. Probably the best thing.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to say about the Mekons?
A: God help me. Get me out of here.
Q: Maybe you could tell me a little bit about all the other people in the band and what each of them brings to it?
A: (Laughs.) Oooh, how long is that going to take? Well, which ones are you referring to? There's so many...
Sarah (Corina), the bass player, brings her own inimitable take on life on other planets.
And Tom, what's Tom? Tom and Jon are the band intellectuals, really, and Tom's got a very sharp mind. Jon is the slave driver. Jon's the one, where if he wasn't in the band, none of us would do anything. He makes us work, which is good.
Eric (Rico Bell), well, he brings his colorful polka-dot shirts to the band, which is always fun to look at on stage.
And Steve (Goulding) is a great drummer, you know, so we're lucky to have him behind it, because there's no way he's getting in front of it.
And Lu (Edmonds) is interesting. He's probably the most musically trained of the band, with the exception of Susie (Honeyman), but Susie's barely around anymore because of her kids. But Lu is definitely a borderline musicologist, so he brings a lot. And then there's other people who don't necessarily play live, but come with ideas.
Kevin (Lycett), who was in the band for a long time and then left playing in the band but still comes up with concepts, he's pretty important in that respect.
So, there's people who sort of swing in and out who have all sorts of weird input that you wouldn't really know about.
Q: Is it possibly to actually leave the Mekons?
A: That's something we've debated and decided probably not. People have left and then they come back. You see the look in their faces, that we're dragging them through this horrible, ****** existence. They leave for a while, and then they realize they can't help themselves, so back they come.