A Chat with Cowboy Sally

by Tim Quirk

A Sally Timms' interview from the Bay Insider:

Tell a Friend this week's column is about the new Mekons collection: I Have Been to Heaven and Back: Hen's Teeth and Other Lost Fragments of Unpopular Culture Vol. 1. Since I'm a proud and slobbering devotee of this band, I can only manage about two sentences in the standard, slightly jaded tone of critical detachment. Here goes: If you're unfamiliar with the Mekons, who formed in Leeds over twenty years ago, then Hen's Teeth is probably not the best introduction, consisting as it does of seventeen b-sides, live tracks, and alternate versions of songs recorded between 1982 and 1998. They get to put out a record like this because a lot of people think they're gods, but records like this rarely convince the uninitiated.

Mekons mania
For their small legion (can legions be small? I'm not sure. But Mekons fans are certainly militant about their love for the band, so I think I can get away with it) of admirers, Hen's Teeth is impervious to criticism. So what if "Born to Choose" is strident ("Mr. Pro-Life/ beat up your wife") and "Roger Troutman" is so art-damaged as to be (almost) unlistenable? Even the Mekons' least successful songs always offer something to love -- a stray lyric which haunts you for days, or an undeniable riff, or maybe just the happy conviction that someone somewhere shares your inchoate rage and its equally nebulous yet joyful counterpart, and is struggling to give them both some form, a voice they can use to scream or laugh.

This is a testament to the Mekons: they make you wish your real friends were half as interesting and funny. Besides, Hen's Teeth begins with a powerful one-two punch: "I Have Been to Heaven and Back," a succinct and supernal bit of power-chord magic which was bizarrely left off the domestic release of 1989's The Mekons "Rock n' Roll," followed by "The Ballad of Sally," an unreleased theme song for the Mekons' anima, Sally Timms, which begins, "People say I'm frightening/ It's only cos I'm scared."

Rather than blather on for 500 more words about just how wonderful and important and necessary this (and every other) Mekons record is, I figured we could use the space to find out if Sally really is scary. Actually, I just felt like talking to her, but again, this is a testament to the Mekons: they make you wish your real friends were half as interesting and funny.

She spoke by phone from the band's semi-home-base, Chicago. She seemed more than happy to blow off work for a while and chat about the Mekons. But she warned she's never thought as much of the band she joined in the mid-eighties as most of their fans seem to.

Happily everlasting

Sally Timms: The Mekons aren't necessarily a band I ever sit down and listen to myself. I wouldn't say I am the biggest Mekons fan. I think often we're more interesting conceptually than anything else.

BayInsider: How'd you hook up with them in the first place?
Timms: Just being at college in Leeds, everyone knew everyone else. We used to go to the same bars, like the Gang of Four, the Delta Five, the Mekons. I actually never thought the Mekons were very good, although I think that was my fault, because whenever I listen to that earlier stuff I really like it now. But I used to go with my cousin and we used to just laugh our heads off at how bad we thought they were. We thought it was the most ridiculous band we'd ever seen.

BI: How've you kept it going so long?
Timms: I think because we ignored the mainstream structure of the industry. So we weren't subject to having hits or commercial success. We basically just carved out our own route. I think there are times when people have found us very frustrating and irritating, the fact that we're even still around. It kind of goes in weird circles, cause people go off us and then they come round again and they go off us. I think they're as curious as we are about how it manages to just keep stumbling along. It's getting old now, so it can't do as much as it used to, but it's still kind of pottering about with its walker.

Witchy woman

BI: Are you really frightening?
Timms: Well, people think I am. That's what I've been told. Everyone's intimidated.

BI: Nonsense. You're a sweetheart.
"I suppose I have an intimidating exterior and a soft interior. It's just getting to it that's the problem."
Timms: I am really, but I suppose I have an intimidating exterior and a soft interior. It's just getting to it that's the problem. And I can be a bitch, as all the best people can.

BI: If you say something to hurt someone, do you really cry alone for days?
Timms: I do think about it a lot. I'm actually weedy like that. I don't go as far as crying.

BI: "The Ballad of Sally" was written for you by another band member. Are all the songs you sing written specifically for you?
Timms: With us in the studio it's generally like, here are the lyrics, go and sing this. You've probably never even seen it before. "Rock n' Roll" was the only album we ever rehearsed before we did it. Generally everything is just written either literally before we go in or as we are in the studio, so people look at each song and they think which would be good for her, and which would be good for him. It's a very hit and miss procedure.
We're just very used to winging it. Anomalies are generally the most interesting thing in recording. If you practice and practice and practice you kind of beat the life out of it sometimes. But it means you have some stuff that's great, and some stuff that could be much better.

BI: You have to explain the Sally Dance to me. Even when you're not singing, you bounce around like you're totally happy to be there.
Timms: I get really excited. I'm retarded. Easily pleased. I just like bouncing around. A childhood thing, I suppose.

BI: Do you have any personal highs or lows from your time with the band?
Timms: I've had amazing times touring with the band. I suppose the foreign travel and constant sex with extremely obese men would be a high point.

BI: Obese men in the band, or in the audience?
Timms: In the audience AND in the band. Obese men and women. I've been in this band a long time, I've managed to sleep with nearly every one of them.

BI: This is what the fans want to know. So who's best?
Timms: I don't know.

Go to the top