Tom Greenhalgh, singer, guitarist and founding member of the Mekons, answered questions from Robert Loerzel of Pioneer Press via e-mail from England, where he lives.
Q: How did you guys view the way you fit in with (or did not fit in with) other punk bands during your early years?
A: Different people in the Mekons liked different bands. I really liked the Buzzcocks. It was a very fluid creative time. Alliances shifted subtly all the time, but basically punk meant just doing your thing, so it wasn't really about having to fit in with anything.
Q: When you look back now on the first three albums by the Mekons, what do you think of those records?
A: I haven't listened to them much at all until recently. Some stuff seems to stand up surprisingly well. I like the scratchy guitar playing and all the weird timing and energy.
Q: You're scheduled to do that early music in some of the concerts next month. What do you anticipate that will be like?
A: I'm really looking forward to playing that old stuff again. I hope it will be refreshing.
Q: When the Mekons re-emerged in the mid-'80s, you were playing music strongly influence by old-time country music. Where did this influence come from? Did you view it as a major stylistic break from early Mekons records?
A: For me there was very little stylistic break _ I don't think we were playing country music, anyway. It was more of an influence that came about at the time, after punk had ceased to breathe. I saw a picture of Hank Williams when I was about 16 and liked him since then.
Q: When you first started playing country rock (or whatever you prefer to call it), what kind of reactions did you get from audiences?
A: I certainly wouldn't call it country rock. That's at best the Flying Burrito Bros., at worst the Eagles. We played it in such a shambolic/furious/etc.-delete-as-applicable kind of way, people thought it was just fine.
Q: Do the Mekons ever set out to make a specific kind of record, or do things evolve more informally than that?
A: Things evolve informally but we generally have a pretty strong idea of what a record is going to be about, what's allowed and what is or isn't appropriate.
Q: I've read that the Mekons had played the songs on "Rock 'n' Roll" in concert for some time before recording them. How did that influence the way the record turned out? How do you view this album now, looking back on it?
A: The songs are more developed if they've been played live before recording them but then you miss out on fragility and accidents.
I think RnR's OK, but it's by no means my favourite Mekons album.
Q: As a Mekons fan, I found the next few years in the Mekons story to be a frustrating period. You were having distribution problems with the "Curse" and "I (heart) Mekons" albums. How did you guys cope with this?
A: If it was frustrating for you, you can perhaps imagine what it was like for us. If we had any illusions left, they were thoroughly purged.
Q: The Mekons have used many different musical styles, including reggae, punk, country, electronic and folk. What ties all of this together into music that still sounds like the Mekons?
A: It's just about being into music generally, listening a lot, to anything, and working out what relates to your own music and feeding it into the process.
Q: How do you manage to address fairly intellectual concepts with your songs without coming off as eggheads?
A: Anglo-Saxon culture has a deep phobia of anything that whiffs of intellectualism. We're probably inhibited by that, but also it should be possible to think about deep things without having to take yourself too seriously.
Q: Describe the concept for the new "OOOH!" album.
A: That album relates to the art show we did last year also called "OOOH!" For lots more info on that see: www.oooh.org.uk.
So lyrical ideas came from that and stuff like William Blake and radical religious groups like the Muggletonians. The historian E.P. Thompson has done a lot of interesting work on this area.
We also had the idea we wanted to do a kind of weird gospel album, but I think it's turned out more like a "Chapel" album. Nonconformist, of course.
Q: Why do the Muggletonians and such things interest you?
A: It's about reclaiming (rediscovering) a tradition of radical dissent, about trying to know your own history... Things haven't always been the way we're led to believe.
Q: I don't get the impression the Mekons are concerned at all with achieving commercial success. What is it that motivates you to continue recording and performing as the Mekons?
A: We are as concerned as anybody else about making money to live, but experience in the music biz (see above) has taught us these are ****/shark-infested waters. Loads of money would be great, but you don't get something for nothing.
Er, we like doing it. It's interesting.
Q: I get the feeling the Mekons are almost more of a loosely organized artistic collective than just a rock 'n' roll band. Would you say that's an accurate perception? How do you view the Mekons?
A: We are certainly not your average rock 'n' roll band, this is true. My personal view of the Mekons is constantly shifting. It depends what's going on at the time. At best, it's about friendship.
Q: Chicago is proud to serve as the home for a couple of Mekons. Since you're one of the guys off in Britain, I'm wondering what you think of Chicago.
A: It took me a while to get used to Chicago being so flat and spread-out, but having been there so many times I like it now and feel almost at home.
Q: What's it like being in a band with musicians so far spread out?
A: These days it doesn't matter where you are.