Ever want something really badly, and when you actually got it
you didn't know what to do with it, so you broke it? Well, that's
how I felt when I hung up the phone after interviewing Jon
Langford of the Mekons. I mean, I wanted for so long to interview
this band. When I put out the only issue of '92, thinking it was
going to be the last Splatter, I wanted them to be the cover
story. I even went to England and talked with the head of their
UK label, Blast First. But one thing led to another, and,
obviously, it didn't happen.
Why did I want to interview them so much? Well, aside from their being more than brilliant songwriters, it has mainly to do with our sharing, as I see it, a similar position in life -- I think. You see, the Mekons have tried really hard to exist in the music business while staying as honest as possible--always being true to themselves first, as everyone should be. But, by trusting the other people the deal with to act on their words, they have incurred more than their share of disappointments. (Hence the title of their '91 release, The Curse Of The Mekons; the first Mekon album I heard, and the one that made me a fan.) I, too, fell that I've tried to do things...well, this isn't supposed to be about me, but let's just say I can definitely relate. Especially when Ken (Scrudato, the advertising director of Splatter Effect) goes on about how advertisers don't really care where you go, or what your press run is; they just want to know that their ad is going to look good, etc.
The majority of the record industry, the part with most of the money anyway, wants bands to fit in certain categories, and they want them to be lyrically "safe," too. The Mekons' "problem" is that they don't fit so nicely into any one sound. They play with, and mix, sounds to match their interests and mood of their songs. They started doing the Punk thing in the late 70s, inspired by local townies like Gang of Four, and taking the Sex Pistols' example that anyone can be in a band. As they became proficient at their instruments, they incorporated more influences and more members, and were soon getting a reputation in the press as a country influenced outfit. (For those keeping track, there have been reports of over 75 Mekons and associate "deputy Mekons" -- Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh the only consistant members.) If there is one category you must place them in, it's Rock 'n' Roll (don't cringe too much for that reference, fans): it's been their most consistent musical base, and was also the name of thei A&M debut back in '89. And their lyrics are far from safe: a listen to Curse's "Brutal," a song that implicated the CIA as part of the international drug trading system (and not opposers, either), will illustrate that for you.
But here it is 1993 -- almost 1994. The Splatter Effect is still around and the Mekons have just released a new album, I (?Mekons, on 1/4Stick Records. I was the first one to respond to the label's interview inquiries, but then I procrastinated and procrastinated. John (sic) was very cordial about it all, however, and I finally did the interview. Here's what happened...
So, how were the Palace Brothers?
Oh, yeah, Iwent last night. How did you know that?
Stacy, over at 1/4Stick/Touch & Go. She said you were invigorated by them, revitalized, or something like that.
It was great, actually. I was impressed with them, but I wouldn't go as far as "revitalized." I was more revitalized by having three pints of Bass. But it was nice to meet young people and they [were] not Deadheads. It just fuckin' pisses me off, when you see like...I don't know. I feel like I'm in this weird position -- part of a generation that is squeezed in between two generations of hippies. It's very odd.
Why do you think that is?
I think it's due to punk rock, to be honest. Punk rock was kind of like this beacon of awareness -- I'm talking about in 1977 and 1978 -- and a lot of things came clear to a lot of people at that time. And I guess some people haven't shaken things off...a blind acceptance of the possibilities of life most people seem to enjoy now...I don't know. I was thinking about it last night when I was drunk. It probably doesn't mean much.
There seems to be a lot of drinking associated with the band. Has that caused a problem yet?
No, it's actually saved my life, probably. You see, if you drink a lot, and you consume a lot human feces, you actually don't get dysentery because it kills the germs. The other people who don't drink, they get dysentery. They can get very sick and go to the hospital, like an experience I had a couple of weeks ago at a restaurant in Chicago that I shan't be going to anymore. Some friends of mine got dysentery because they don't drink. So that's my health warning. Keep drinking, kids.
That's an interesting twist on things.
I wouldn't advocate drinking as a kind of solution to things, but it's an enjoyable recreation.
The problem is why you're drinking and not that you are drinking. So when you see blind slogans, like...
It suits some people. I actually like the taste of it, but I wouldn't be able to deal with anything if (I let it) get in the way of what I do.
One of the things that I was happy and surprised to see on the back of your "Millionaire" single was the mention of a Mekons movie.
I just actually put the phone down, we're making the final edits.
When you were the A&M Records you had the concept of doing this multimedia touring thin that they didn't get...
We did it and it's happened and it's gone. (laughs) We kept saying we were going to do it, and we just needed to do it and then...that was it, and we could forget about it. We had a lot of other problems, and Club Mekons kept coming up [Club Mekon was the elaborate idea for a multimedia multiple member tour extravaganza]. It was a great idea if we'd had some support, financially, but a lot of people just waffled about it, talked about it, but didn't actually put anything into action. We just did it ourselves, in England, as a one of thing. It was more like a funeral for the idea.
When I saw the movie mentioned, I thought it was going to happen.
People keep asking us about it, and it's just like, aahhh. It could have been a really exciting and good thing to do, had we actually had a chance to do it.
How did this movie idea come about?
The movie was kind of an accident, you know? It really was! A friend of ours had filmed a couple of gigs of ours before and wanted to come along and film a show, so he chose the Metro. We didn't know he'd show up with five cameramen. He really did an amazing job, because it's usually like the death of a gig -- we usually play really badly. But as it turned out, another friend of ours -- someone I worked with as The Three Johns on a live album back in the middle of the 80s -- turned up with his 24-track mobile recording studio in a truck. The same night! And it was completely unplanned. And we did a good show! You know? We should have been, like, the weak link in the chain, but fortunately we kept it together. It was really a great show! So we had it all on film. We thought, "This is it. We definitely have to put it out." It was kind of like the ending of an era for us, as well. Susie was still with us -- playing live at that time -- and the Curse LP had come out, but it was before we had this long layoff...[he pauses slightly for the right words]...because of our negotiations with various people that shall remain unnamed.
OK. Is that something you want to talk about?
Not particularly. [Slightly peturbed] It's a bit boring to talk about what an idiot you've been.
I guess, but that whole deal has become part of that Curse Of The Mekons mystique.
Once we got of A&M we thought it would be smooth sailing, but we didn't realize that the music industry...actually we did realize, but we didn't think we could fall into another trap so quickly. It was kind of an expectation trap, you know? Where we were being advised to hold out for this great deal and negotiate in this...[he stumbles for an adjective]...Like Thatcher economics or Reaganomics. It was just this great big puffed-up bubble that burst, and nobody was better off at the end of it. We spent the best part of 14, 15 months thinking "this" is going to happen and nothing happened.
Option, in one of their Mekons watches that they do, said that you weren't going to put out the record.
We nearly split up, really. Then it was kind of like [laughs], like someone said last nihgt. Steve Goulden (sic), who used to be our drummer up unil we left A&M -- he left mainly because he was so disillusioned with the music industry. I was talking to him last night [and he said], "You know we nearly split up?" [Then} he said, "Why, you just couldn't be bothered to split up." I said, "Yeah, it's too much trouble." It's kind of true. [laughs] We were so in despair that we couldn't even be bothered to split up.
I understand, because, in a way, I'm going through the same thing. On one hand, you have the people telling you you're great, and then you wait for that financial payoff, so you can continue it, and it's never there, or worse, it's there a little bit. And you wonder, "What else do I have to do?"
It's a lot about buying people, you know. They want to buy you! The only language they understand is money. They don't understand or have any interest in music. They want to buy your magazine; they want to buy the Mekons. They think, "Give them enough money, and we can have them." It's kind of like this weird greed thing. And it is true. If they offer me enough money, they can have me. That's what we were holding out for. But the guy who was dangling the money didn't have it, and he was using us to try and procure the money. Which, again, is like, "Where is the logic in that? Why on earth is he dangling the Mekons to somebody? Does he think he's going to attract a lot of money?" We've been doing it for 15 years, and we've never made any money. [laughter] We make more money touring Europe selling t-shirts then we do [selling records].
The industry can be so frustrating to someone who actually cares about what they're doing. How do you keep going?
It's like...I don't know. It's kind of our revenge on the whole situation: We refuse to die. All logic and good sense would say we split up any number of times and just cease what we're doing what we're doing. But fortunately, there are some good people out there who occasionally dangle us a lifeline -- like Touch & Go. It's actually refreshing to speak with people directly, who actually mean what they say and act on it! Don't say to hings to me because you think I want to hear them -- which is the way the music industry runs. They'll tell you everything. They'll say they love your band when they haven't even heard you, you know? Our first conversation with Cory at Touch & Go was, "I don't really like the Mekons very much, as far as what I'm interested in, but I am interested in your situation." And then he listened to the album, [I (?Mekons], and decided he liked it, you know?
Well, it is a good record. At first I thought -- and this could be because of the advance cassette -- but I didn't think it was as flowing as Curse but after number of plays...
I think it's very different.
It seems to get loud at times; maybe that's the industry angst getting out.
"It seems to get loud?" [chuckles] We're known for our loudness, but yeah, there is some noisy stuff on it. Curse is, like, cinematic -- a broad screen thing -- and [I (?Mekons]...I'm not sure...It's about love. It's kindof like a cold brutal sort of record.
Obviously, you don't have a...fondness for "love?" You don't think love can be...
I disagree. I think it is all things to all people. I'm not sure whether it exists in that sort of Hallmark industry sense of it; I mean, there is an industry and there is a myth. But I believe people can love people, and objects, and [he pauses slightly] animals. [laughter] [I mean] physically expressing one's love with "meaningful" gestures toward animals.
I guess with Sally's songs there are suggestions that she hasn't been in a good relationship, or, if she was, it wasn't long. There's a constant sadness.
Well, her "songs" aren't hers, as such, as we all write the songs. [Just] so you know. There are songs that I sing that she wrote the words for on this record and Tom wrote the words that she sang.
Oh right, Now I remember reading about that confusion in an interview of yours reprinted in the press packet.
But then some of them are about Sally anyway. Like the bit in "Millionaire," about "I can count my money"; that's definitely about her. She definitely likes -- not that she likes the idea of money so much, [but she likes] the physical touch of dollar bills. She likes to spread them out and count them over and over. When we're on tour, she'll just go into the motel room and lay out all the money from the tour, and roll around in it. [laughter] You don't believe me?
It's true. She kind of mumbles too. Kind of a purring sound.
There seems to be a fascination that the band has for the darker images of life. Your own label was named Sin...
Realism, that's all it is. We're the other people sitting on the other side of the train. To make sure it doesn't fall off the cliff. A balance, you know? I was reading an interesting article -- you know, I read a lot. It inspires me to think about things. I was reading about the blues. It was about some old guy who had done a lot of field recordings in the 30s, and he was saying, "Why do you think white people's music is all about 'love' and not about the broader issues? Because that's all they really have to think about: adolescence; and whether the boys like them or whether the girls like them. And [the reason] why blues music and folk music are so important is because they're made by people who haven't got time to worry about things like love. I mean, they do, but there are broader issues -- fundamental life-threatening things--going on too." White American pop music from the mid-50s and on is kind of lightweight. It's usually about things that don't really mean a lot to me anyway.
What drew me to the Mekons was your song "Brutal." I found it amazing how you effortless ly sing about the CIA's involvement in drug smuggling. It's not like it's been officially revealed.
There is a lot of documentation about that, actually. It depends on where you look; it's not on the Channel 5 News.
It was just refreshing to hear such ideas in such a beautiful, flowing manner, as a form of entertainment. I just thought it was very important.
I think most people are blinded. I don't see why the "popular" song, or pop culture, has to be a thing that avoids the outside world. It's like the Deadheads; they're looking for an escape. I go to bookshops now and look at what kids are buying, and [especially with] this comics revival that's going on, a lot of it is just fantasy stuff. Again, I feel out of time in a way. The Mekons are from an era where politics -- realism -- was much more. We were trying to be realistic about the world, and trying to connect with the world, rather than sit our rooms reading fucking fantasy comics. It's sad to me. It's not the world is any better, you know? People just want to cocoon themselves to the very harsh realities that are going on.
If they don't see it, it's not there, which is why radio programmers play the light, silly stuff so they don't...I don't know. They create this "perfect" world. It is discouraging, especially when there was so much hope back in the 70s.
It was like, "Roll your sleeves up and get involved." And there was actually a feeling that music could subvert [the establishment], you could intervene and change things. I think we learned a lot of lessons about what the actual power of singing is, but we can still do it. It is actually the only voice we have, short of having nice haircuts and becoming politicians.