Punk Planet interview
To me, there's nothing more intimidating than having to write an introduction to a band that have been around since I was a three-year-old. When I was just mastering how to use the toilet, Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh (the only current original members of the band) were dropping out of school and re-cording the song "Never Been in a Riot"-a tongue-in-cheek, middle-finger-raised-high response to The Clash's "White Riot".
The Mekons have come a long way since they were I9-year-olds in the working class town of Leeds, Eng-land. Unlike their punk rock contemporaries (the seminal Gang of Four were also from Leeds), the Me-kons have managed to stay together through countless line-up changes and three (yes, three) painful stints on major labels. In the process, the Mekons have transformed their sound from the anarchistic pounding of blokes who can't play a lick to a powerful group of folks versed in a wide variety of styles-from punk to country and folk to reggae. Through it all they've managed to remain some of the most down-to-earth, earnest, and honest people you'll ever come across.
So where does Chicago fit in? It's the missing piece of the Mekons puzzle. While only members Sally Timms and Jon Langford live here (the rest are spread between England, San Francisco and New York), it's the home to the one record label that's ever done the band justice, Touch & Go records, and hosts Western Sound Labs (formerly Kingsize Recordings), the studio the band uses as a defacto base and where their last seven records have been recorded. Plus, there's something about the city and the band that just fit together-like Rodney Dangerfield, neither get any respect.
While they've been around for 25 years, and have amassed more than a dozen albums in that time, I get the distinct feeling that the Mekons have had to claw, kick, and scratch their way to the small amount of recognition they've gotten. The position of perennial underdogs seems to be one that the band has em-braced (as Langford explains, more than one record has been made for "revenge"). It that's what It takes to make music as continually amazing as the Mekons have produced (even if they won't cop to just how good much of it is) then, like the second city Langford and Timms call home, underdogs the Mekons will be.
On a cold and rainy March evening, I sat down with Timms and Langford in an intolerable yuppie bar in Chicago's Ravenswood neighbourhood. Over beers and margaritas the two spoke at length (I barely got a question in) about the band's history and mystery.
Interview by Daniel Sinker
Photos by Michael Coleman and Daniel Sinker
You guys are an unlikely Chicago band. A British punk band horn the late '70s that somehow doesn't break up and then, a couple decades later, ends up mostly living thousands of miles horn their home. Al-though you're not all completely in Chicago.
John: We're not completely anywhere.
It strikes me as an unlikely end to that story and an unlikely home for at least part of the band.
John: I think Chicago is a bit like the north of England. It reminds me of somewhere like Manchester.
Sally: I felt like I'd moved back to Leeds when I came to live here. Because it's a second city-and while Leeds may be further down the charm than that, they both have a town feel although they're really cities. It doesn't have the cosmopolitan feel of New York. It's got a more working class fee! to it; a blue-collary feel that New York or London doesn't really have.
John: The thing about punk rock in England was that the industry took notice of it in London. Everyone thought it was a London phenomenon, but most of the interesting bands, I thought, came from outside of London. It was just that you had to get to London to do a gig. I think it's a bit like that for people in Chi-cago. But what the north of England, Wales, and Scotland share with somewhere like Chicago is that they -re not that bothered- they're self-contained. I didn't move here to play music or as some kind of a career move. I moved here because I had reached the end of the line with what I was doing. We toured almost constantly in the late '80s and by I99I we were tied up in a lot of legal problems. We had been on a major label-things were pretty screwed up. We had the wind knocked out of us on a number of levels . . . I mo-ved over here for reasons that had nothing to do with music, but I found myself in a situation where it became apparent I was in a better environment. I was further away from the music industry than I had been before. England being a pretty small country. you're constantly going back and forth to London to get anything done. Chicago is a se!f-contained atmosphere. It seemed like everything we needed was here and the music industry wasn't. I think for the people in the Mekons it became easier-even for the people that never moved here-to do stuff.
It seems like a really appropriate place for you guys and as a partial home for the Mekons because I see a lot ot parallels between the band and the city. Always being in the shadow of something bigger; always being overlooked by everyone unless you're really looking; being somewhat in the perennial "also ran" category. I don't mean that to sound as harsh as It may, because in the same way that I think the city blos-somed because of this stuff and became an entity unto itself, I also see the band shining and becoming self-sufficient, instead of having to look outwards.
John: It's been the most interesting when we haven't had any attention from anywhere. When it's been the most boring is when we've been on major labels. We're not as perverse as some people think we are. We didn't sign to major labels to try to...
Sally: . . . screw with them. Everyone thought that It was some great tactic and wrote endless, about the whole A&M saga. For some reason that became the focus of journalists and it became easy to put us in that "martyred" position. But that wasn't necessarily the case. John: We were actually bending over backwards trying to understand what they wanted. It wasn't even like they were evil and trying to screw us up, it's just that a big corporation like that is basically inept and the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. They have ways that they behave and expect bands to behave and we were just trying to find out what those were and trying to fit in.
Sally: We should never have been on there. The reality was that we happened to get signed by people who thought it would be cool to have us on their label.
John: A tiny little feather in their cap.
Sally: But the minute that you don't sell and they start losing money, the accountants rule and it's "Get this band out of here."
John. They didn't even really lose money on ts 'cause they didn't really give us any money.
Sally: Of course they lost money. They didn't give us much money, but it costs so much for a major to release anything. They probably have piles and piles of our CDs somewhere. I think Chicago is interesting because people seem to come here to work. I lived in New York prior to this and I didn't do anything musically. People seem very segregated musically there. They didn't play on each other's records. Here there is definitely a less self-obsessed attitude-a more open attitude. People came here because it was cheap and it was central and It made It easy to just hide away doing what you did. It definitely had a work ethic of its own.
That's one of the things that I love about the city. It's a city where people just do their work. They don't crow about It and they don't go out to have people see them. It can be Isolating In a way, because there isn't a real cohesive sense of this community of people working together to achieve a larger end. But at the same time, that larger end has been achieved anyway. It's an interesting contradiction of a city. Kind of like you all are an interesting contradiction of a band. I spent much of the day today listening to everything that you all have released ‚ . -
John: I thought you looked a bit frazzled. [laughs]
Sally: (laughs] Sorry!
John: You're none the wiser for it. are you? [laughsl
There are such distinctive points in the band's catalogue that it's almost not the same band. There's hardly anything that will link one point to another other than that there's a small core of people operating as a continuum throughout. John: It's a funny thing though. The album we just recorded is basically the same line-up, apart from the bass player, as when we did Fear and Whiskey in I985. It's not just the same few people. it's the same eight people, which is quite a lot for a band. There would actually be quite a few more people if we were able to work in England more. We recorded this whole new album in Chicago. so some of the people that might have been involved weren't. But with the Mekons, because there are so many people, there is always room for people to drop in and out. There's enough space. It's another analogy with Chicago: It's big and un-wieldy, but it works.
Sally: I think it's a band of people that don't approach music in the same way that a lot of musicians do. It's more like an ideas band, weirdly enough. People come in and out with ideas and it's very conceptual.
John: We used to always start with a title. We'd start with a title for the album and then we'd write song titles before we wrote any songs.
Sally: It's a backwards process. It's an idea that you don't alt down and strum a few chords and then build a song, it comes from a group of people exchanging ideas about how they feel about the world. Or we'll have instances where someone else will come in and pull it in a different direction, like Kathy Acker. We do not approach it jn the way that most musicians approach writing an album.
John: It also often starts as a complete joke as well. [laughs] Sally had an idea that my solo album should be called Me. And then it would say "recorded by me" or "all songs written by me." But then it turned into a Mekons album. It was a silly joke in the first place about what a pompous ass I am, but It turned into an album about the concept of self-self obsession and the notion of "me." "Me" seems to be really important to people, as opposed to "us" which is something that the Mekons would actually be more interested in.
That Me started as an idea for a solo album for you, raises a question I've had for a while: how do you know you're writing a Mekons sang when you both do so much other material?
John: It depends on who's in the room. We don't really write any Mekons songs unless everybody's there. Each thing's a process. I don't think we've ever said "I've got this really good song for the next al-bum." I don't know what the next album is going to be like or about, so how could I have a song for it? I might have some tunes that I've worked out on the guitar which may then pop out halfway through when we're writing stuff. But It's not like…
Sally: . . - someone comes forward with a selection of songs that then get put through some process of decision making. A lot of the time we write in the studio. I've satin the studio while people are lift- ing lines from books, writing them on paper, cutting them up and handing them to me to sing that minute. That's happened a lot. The way we work in the studio is pretty scary to anyone that's not familiar with it. Everything's done extremely fast. On only one occasion that I've been in the band did we go out and tour an album before we recorded it, and that was Rock and Roll That's the only time I can think of that we actually played the songs for any length of time before we went in the studio. Most of the time the songs are really only half or a quarter written. We don't work like a conventional band. We've never rehearsed! Never in this band's history have I known for us to rehearse more than say a day before we go on tour. John: And it shows. [laughs) We usually start our tours in Boston. No one comes to see us in Boston anymore
Sally: Because it's crap!
John: It's a fucking big public rehearsal. By the time we get to San Francisco, though. we're fantastic. It's always packed in San Francisco.
Sally: I think it really is quite important that everyone who came up with the way this band operates-and it seems like the band exists almost on its own, it's something outside of us-is because they carne from a fine-arts background. As a result, they didn't approach music as trained musicians, or even as people who satin their rooms practicing guitar for years and years. These are people that came from art school. That's where a lot of interesting punk rock came from.
John: The original idea of the Mekons was that we were a band that couldn't play, but the ideas would be strong enough that you could sustain it without being technically proficient. That rock 'n' roll could be made by people that can't play really, really well. What was wrong with rock 'n' roll in the '70s was that it was being made by people who could play too well for their own good. I We carne from a fine art background, but it wasn't much of a fine art background because we formed the band when we were I9. Basically you could say we came from a high school background. [laughs)
Sal: But that's not true. You were in a radical. left-wing art school.
John: But not for very long.
Sally: No, but it was a combination of things. Punk rock was happening at that time and it really fell in with a lot of the things that you were studying. I wasn't at art school. I just hung out with them all. But it just gathered everyone up in this movement that changed the way that anyone perceived making art or music or anything else-or even fundamentally how you wanted to live your life. Essentially, it was very political.
John: It suddenly made complete sense that a lot of dings were really boring. The reasons they were bor-ing was because they were I0 very complacent. There was a rigid class structure to popular culture-you had to pay your dues before you could become a rock 'n' roll millionaire. Punk was like "This is pretty point-less." It was suddenly exciting again-you had a bunch of little bands playing on a Friday night. Suddenly it was like your favorite band would be the band that was playing around the corner. You could go and see your favorite band play, rather than waiting for.
Sally: ... years for them to come around to a stadium.
John: It's almost what happened in Chicago with Bloodshot. A lot of my favorite bands and the music I really like turned out to be friends of mine. Someone hike Johnny Dowd or Lonesome Bob or Paul Burch or the Handsome Family, I think that's really great stuff and It was all informed by a lot of the ideas that came out of the late '70s. I It wasn't like there was a rigid manifesto saying what punk rock should be, It was more about what you shouldn't be. You shouldn't do this and you shouldn't do that,-and so you do what's heft. It's a bit like DaDaism or something like that-an instance where you have to say "this is all fucking shit."
Sally: You tear It all up and try and make something new.
Your background is really similar to many of the British punk bands of that era-art school, and being really young kids that didn't know what they're doing. But you're the only ones that are still here. Why?
Sally: We're too lazy. [laughs]
John: It would have been too much trouble to split up. On certain occasions, I thought we had split up. but I realized I was still hanging out with all the people in the band, we just weren't doing any music. They were still my closest friends though. so it was like "Let's do some recording."
Twenty-five years after you started though, It's kind of staggering to me that It can still be interesting and exciting. How is It?
Sally: Weil It isn't always. That would be asking a lot. When you do your magazine you probably have days where you think "Fuck this I can't be bothered to do it" or "I have nothing to write about." I think the process is more interesting than the end result. There's no doubt that we've put out records that I think ire really weak. but for some reason there's always something in them that I think is valuable. f It's weird to say it, but It is a kind of community now. We get together to do these dings. We've done tours where we have a great tune, and we've done tours where we've hated each other's guts and It's been a nightmare.
John: You can't really predict when that's going to happen either.
Sally: There's a few times where I've thought "Sod this, I don't want to ever do It again." But den I think "Why stop?" It's not like we're trying to Sell lots of records. I think if no one was interested we would still do It anyway. It's almost per-verse!
John: There have been points where no one was interested and we kept doing It because it would annoy people. [laughs) In the early '80s in England me, Kevin, and Tom just got together to make a record to piss people off. It was our revenge. The Mekons Story was purely our revenge on people who said we shouldn't make any more records. I love that record, I think it's great, but it was only done as a weird, per-verse "fuck you." Everyone hated us so much. We had made loath of mistakes and we bad done a lot of pretty crap dings. I can't listen to same of the early Mekons records.
Sally: But It doesn't matter. People perceive this stuff is something that has to be meaningful to a great number of people. I think that's really problematic. I don't think we ever wanted to do that. I think punk is hike folk music-there is a functional nature to them both. You can go and play a gig and actually enter-tain just those few people who have come I0 see it. It doesn't have to extend beyond that. It doesn't have to be about being famous-in fact it is the opposite. a rejection of that. The idea that you can produce mu-sic in your living room, which is what people used to do. I like that aide of it, that it's just functional and literally for just the people who happen to hear It. If It's three people or 300, it doesn't matter.
John: I never found anything I wanted to do more than that. The only tune this band doesn't work for me is when I've bad to do It full tune and when it's become where I earn my money. Then It's like "This is really odd that I'm earning my money by basically exercising my total rites of freedom." In the Mekons I can do whatever I want to do and the Mekona can be whatever we want it to be. It doesn't have to be a-bout anyone else's structures of commerce or dings like that. We don't even have to put out records-we can do art shows or do a book. The fact that we all actually love records is why we've made records so much.
Sally: It's kind of weird because I've only recently started thinking about what It all means because It is the 25th anniversary of dc band. I haven't even been in the band that long. I've only been in it I5 years.
John: No, you joined in I982.
Sally: I982? So I've only been in It 20 years. [laughs] It is like a bizarre philosophy...
John: It's not even bizarre to me. It's philosophy that makes complete sense.
What would you define that philosophy as?
John: That you can make music for reasons other than I0 try and become famous and make money. It's not a very radical idea. It's not radical in any century other than this one and halfway through the last one. Before that, a musician wasn't necessarily a foot soldier in the arsenal of big corporations. We're still trying to do that now. Sometimes it's fucking nearly impossible to do that. I know we're not pure and then and outside the capitalist system. but every time we've ventured closer to the center, we've gotten burned. It's a hard lesson to learn because you think, "Well there must be a way of making this work." There are some good people that are on major labels and have no qualms about It and have had good careers, but It does-n't work for us because we don't know what we're going to do next. We're not selling the product of one person's talent or one person's songwriting or one person's good looks or something like that we're selling.
Sally' a bad of ugly people who are old. [laughs]
John: I think we're a pretty sexy band, actually. [laughs9 I fancy everyone in the band but I haven't slept with anyone. Sally doesn't fancy anyone in the band but she's slept with all of dthm. [laughs] Except Rico and Steve.
Sally: Thank you for that. Please make that really clear. [laughs]
Looking at the band, the lesson of being burned does appear to be one that It took a while to learn. You signed to majors twice, and you got fucked twice.
John: Three times, actually. We signed to WEA after A&M.
Sally: Very briefly and quite bizarrely.
John: It wasn't brief. We were apparently signed to them for a very long time. [laughs]
Sally: We weren't even ever signed to them, I don't think.
John: We were in negotiations with them for about i8 months. It was one of the worst periode of my life.
What made that lesson have to be learned three times?
John: Frustration. I think what we we're doing is really good, It's really interesting- so then why are we fucking starving I0 death?
Sally: Three times over 25 years, that makes It every seven years for some reason we need to sign to a major. Maybe we forget.
John: The times we signed It was out of frustration with what the independents could offer. Major labels tend to be large and incompetent and screw you up by suffocating you in their bureaucracy and their. be-fuddling. Independent labels ire usually run by one criminal who basically wants to rip you off. I can't ap-ply that to Chicago though, because we've been very lucky here. We've boh been involved with two inde-pendent labels here who have been fairly honest and open in their dealings with us.
Those labels would be Touch & Go and Bloodshot?
Sally: Yeah. I would also have to say looking at Chicago labels like Thrill Jockey and Drag City, they're pretty fair too. That's pretty unusual.
John: It's almost like there's some sort of social sanctioning in Chicago where the norm is to be fairly honest and straight with people. If somebody here was running a business where they were acting like the independents did in England in the late '70s-or even now-I don't think they'd be the survivor in Chicago. Word would get around. I think the standards here are higher for honesty and enthusiasm about the proc-ess of making music. I We heard good reports of Touch & Go. I knew Gibby [Haynes of the Butthole Surfers] always said, "Touch & Go are the only honest label on the planet." Which is probably why he sued them. [laughs] It's almost like the independent music industry has come of age here and it has real-ized its position. It is sidelined to its own benefit. All the Nirvana crap went on and everyone was signing every band that ever existed. A lot of bands also got signed, strangely enough, because of the alternative country ding. I think a lot of the devastation that happened after both those things only made Touch & Go md Bloodshot stronger. They said "OK, that's pop music over there and this is what we do over her,."
Sally: That's how It used to be. There was phase where independents did fulfill a need and were able to sell records. Unfortunately, the outlets for radio disappeared. It seems like It is shrinking back to an under-standing that certain music is marginal, but that doesn't mean that It's not able I0 be sold or heard. It doesn't have to be gathered up into the majors and lost. Which was kind of how things were going. Is was getting really homogenized and people were thinking about giving up because they didn't know if they had outlets for their music. I wonder if we're seeing a swing back to a time when you'll hear more variety.
John: Take something like this 0 Brother Where Art Thou album. It's interesting because that's a massive seller but there's still nowhere for It on radio. It's vaguely worrying on one level-as someone who's a fan of that kind of music seeing it in the jingle houses and people trying to do "0 Brother" music-but at the same time realizing that people are open to something like that and they like it.
Sally: And it's not N'Sync.
John: You know what? I have no bone to pick with manufactured Pop whatsoever. I think It's great that that kind of stuff is going on and it's so clear-it's not even dressed up. To me, something like U2 is much more insidious, 'cause that's manufactured crap pop music.
Sally: Here we go. [Iaughsl
John: - . . it's pretending to be something eLse and it's pretending to have some sort ofsocial values al-though it doesn't recognize its own hypocrisy. It pretends it's out'side the system it's auacking.
Sally: Why don't you say "he"? It's Bono that you hate!
John: Well, yeah. But there are a lot of bands that dress themselves up in the second-hand clothes of radical rock. But they're really just major corporate entities acting like N'Sync. In a way. something like N'Sync or Britney Spears is much more honest. And actually make better music!
There's also a long tradition of manufactured pop bands.
Sally: There is, but Pop music used to be Motown and now it's Jive records! I'm sorry, there isn't a comparison. It's a little bit of a shame. I just think they've got It down now, how they can market everything at once and it almost eradicates everything else. I'm just hoping that whenever things get too large, they eventually crumble.
John: It's like the last I0 years of country music in Nashville. It's crumbling now. All the sales are down, the radio ratings are down, because they've been so greedy and complacent and have been turning out skit. They've been so exclusive and not allowing anyone else in.
Sally: People's tolerance for shit, I hope, does have a limit.
John: I don't think I'm being an old fuddy duddy when you say look at Top of the Pops in England in about 1973. It was pretty fucking great music. You had Mott the Hoople, Elton John, the Stylistics, a load of great black solo acts, Roxy Music, Slade, T-Rex, David Bowie - - . That was the commercial peak and there were a lot of weird things going on in that. I was a 15-year-old and was probably quite smart. All the thick football hooligans that were my mates, they were into David Bowie and Slade and stuff like that. They were into David Bowie's Station to Station, one of the most challenging albums of the '7os. Guys with Bay City Rollers pants on and feather cuts were into that! There's no real comparison to that now, with stuff like Creed and Limp Bizkit - -
Sally: . - - they're not pushing the musical boundaries. And I think that bands, even in the pop facility. used to do that. There are some things you hear and you think "Wow, l'm amazed they got away with that."
John: The first time I heard "Virginia Plain" by Roxy Music, I couldn't fucking understand what it was. I had to go and listen to It 20 times before I could discern what was even going on in it, It was so weird and so odd.
l think a lot of the reason why we don't have that now in mainstream pop is because the music industry has accelerated its rate of retum. They've gone from giving a band a couple albums to giving a band one sang. It you don't break it on that one sang, you're gone. And while there have always been one-hit wonder bands, It seems like bands used to be given time to gestate and to become something more. I mean what would have happened had David Bowie been only allowed...
John: . . . "The Laughing Gnome". [laughs]
Sally: Essentially, if you look back in the '70s and '80s-and I'm sure it still goes on-you did have a bunch of people working in the music industry who were very similar to the bands. They were more into the mu-sic than being industry. They were very into taking a lot of drugs and fucking around and doing all those dings. But I think that the whole thing-the idea of the music industry being an industry-was different. It was more music-oriented. Now it truly is about units. They're owned by Seagrams - what do you expect? Synergy has killed off those independent functioning units and now it's all about money.
John: In Chicago, a lot of the people running the labels and running the clubs are not under the thumb of the industry. The industry is far away-it's on the West Coast and the East Coast. That makes Chicago interesting because you can have dub owners who would never dream of making people pa~ to play or dream of making their dub into a showcase for major labels. In New York and LA. that's the norm.
Sally: It's the same in London-people pay to play because there are so many bands. People get treated like shit.
John: It was actually like that in London a long time ago too. We played the Rock Garden and we'd get tickets and anyone that came in with your ticket, you'd get money. But basically you'd end up with no money.
With such a wide-angle view of the industry, what makes you say "Well, let's continue to contribute to this, even in our own small way." You've obviously gotten enough from It that It makes you want to continue to contribute to the lineage of music in general. It seems like there must be times where you say "Fuck this, this is all so corrupt, this Is all so awful."
Sally: There have been moments where we've been pretty depressed about stuff because it hasn't gone our way, hut it doesn't ever come to a point where we go, "Oh god, maybe we should stop making music." That really doesn't seem to be the way that we function at all. This is a hard point to make be-cause I wouldn't say it applies to everyone in the band, but I would say we're enthusiasts about life. I don't think any of us subscribe to that ultra politically-correct ideology that you can't do anything because you're tainted. Life is about contradiction. You accept that if you make music, there are contradictions inherent in it, but it doesn't mean that you don't do it.
John: There are responsibilities as well. We signed to a major label with A&M and our first thought was "let's make an album about the industry." RockandRoll was about that. We're not very good at being di-rect, we all cringe away from too much chest beating, 'cause we're aware of the contradictions.
Our discussion has been a lot about the band Itself and the music industry as a whole, but to me another thing about the Mekons that really stands out is the band's dedication to explore and expand musical boundaries. Whether that manifests itself In a more electronic aspect like the Me album, or a continuing dedication to country with Fear and Whiskey and some of your solo work... where does the aspect of ex-perimentation fit Into It all?
John: I think that's the core of it. The idea that we can do what we want to do and there's no rules to the type of music we should make. A lot of bands try and get something right and try and get their sound down and make it perfect and make it as accessible as possible. I think we're a litde more chalienging than that. And that's a compliment to our audience. Not that many people like us, but the ones that do like us because sometimes it's a bit surprising what you're going to get. We don't consciously think "We should do an album like this" or "We should do an album that sounds totally like that." It's about ways ofworking and ways of working together. It's not about me and Tom saying "This album should be about dii and this is how we should do it." We get bored easily. [laughs] When you do something once and it works really well, it's usually the act of finding and discovering it that makes it interesting and den when you try and repeat it, it doesn't work so good. It's almost like you have to change the ground rules every Urne. You can't just go in and do the same album again.
That same philosophy applies even now?
Now you do all know how to play your Instruments,..

Sally: l'd say that's still debatable. [laughs]
In a way it seems like the Mekons is a very big and very public learning process.
John: I don't think we feel any obligation to conceal our process.
It seems like a lot of bands are sort of afraid to acknowledge process or acknowledge their stylistic influ-ences. They want everyone to think that they operated in a vacuum and this Is true, unadulterated art that came out of nowhere. And of course, that's bullshit.
John: I think for us It was always about recognizing that. When we started as a punk band, we didn't think we sounded like any other band. We did the second album, which was pretty off the wall-the album that Sally used to play and roll around on the floor laughing-and there were loads of influences in there. Someone once said that what was interesting about the Mekons was the bits in between the notes. It was-n't about whether the notes were right, it was like the mistakes were more interesting than what was inten-tional. It was like we were falling into *tradition of a lot of folk music where mistakes became part of the style and the limitations of the instruments and the limitations of the playing became a part of the sound. A mate from Chicago named Terry Nelson carne over to London in the early '80s and he thought we were like a country band. He said "All your songs are about being in bars." It's true. Our songs weren't these chest-beating, punk anger, smash-the-system type songs. We thought that stuff was pretty funny. Our songs were more descriptive and more personal, hut the personal is political.
Sally: I've been thinking about why there's almost an element that's a little clownish in the way we pre-sent ourselves. I was listening to Entertainment by the Gang of Four and I was thinking about them be-cause I knew them and I thought about what I used to think of them when I saw them play. How incredi-bly serious they were an stage when they played. I thought How come when we played, they couldn't take us seriously?" And I think it's because if we ever presented the songs that we did in * more serious way, it would seem really grim. The Gang of Four and all those bands, everything is slightly detached-none of their songs are personal. whereas we tend to sing more about things that happen to you. Ifwe really sang those in a serious manner, it would be so dismal that you would never really want to listen. It's like a con-versation with someone in a bar-you say things that are very serious but then you might make a joke about them because you have to balance it out.
John: We just try to debunk the whole seriousness of it all. There was a lot of posturing in punk rock. Even some of my favorite bands did that, like the Club and the Gang of Four. We always felt like we needed to debunk the idea of the band being on stage. One way of saying we're no bettr than you are was to be slightly clownish and act like idiots. Sometimes we acted like idiots because we were out of our minds.
Sally: . . . or because we actually are idiots. [laughs]
John: Well, yeah, there's that as well. On our first American tour we went on, it was just ridiculous. It was I986 and we were touring the states and there was no possibility that it was going anywhere whatso-ever, so we figured we should just have a good time. I've listened to recordings of that tour and the music that we're playing is pretty barbaric. A lot of the talking doesn't make any sense whatsoever. But it was quite funny to us at the time. I think everything we've ever done, up until when we started working with Touch & Go, we always thought everything we were doing was the last thing, so it never really mattered.
Implicit in that statement is that there's a certain recognition that now It does matter. That now, 25 years later, you're pretty much assured that the next record you put out won't be your last record unless you want It to be your last record.
John: That definitely has changed. Which is a blessing and a curse.
In what way?
John: I think it's nice being somewhere safe where people look after you and are nice to you, but I also think it was quite interesting being in really hostile situations and still have to produce stuff. I wouldn't want to do that again, but sometimes I think some of the good things that came out on records was a re-sult of the turmoil and complete lack of interest. The Mekons Story or even Fear and Whiskey - those records were made with the ghosts of all different types of music, but were made in something of a con-temporary vacuum. We didn't have an audience so we were making the records for ourselves. We weren't even sure that Fear and Whiskey was going to come out. But now, we do have an audience. We put a re-cord out and it sells a certain amount. It never really sells more than that amount, but it doesn't sell less than it either. But it means we can continue doing it.
Sally: But we'd continue to do it anyway, we'd just have to change the way we do it. Which wouldn't nec-essarily be * bad thing. I think we've gotten to the point where we realize that we've done things a bit of the same way for a while and now it's time to tear it up a bit and do it differently. Sometimes having to be resourceful produces interesting results. For a while, we've known that we can fly people over and we can do what we do in the towns that we live in, but for me personally-and I think that everyone else feels this way too-it's time to try something completely different. Because you do get interesting results from making due with what you have.
Do you ever see the Mekons stopping?
John: Death.
Sally: I really don't think I do see it stopping. Why stop it? It doesn't mean that we have to make * re-cord every two years. It may be that we go I0 years without making a record. But I don't see why I would-n't carry on singing with the Mekons when I'm 6o years old. It's not about rock music, so I don't feel con-strained by age- it is rock music, hut not with whatever youthful requirements.
John: It feels really interesting the longer it goes. There's no model for a band like us. There's absolutely no stereotype that we have to fit in with. We can really make it up and if we don't feel like doing it, then we won't do it.
Sally: But I don't think that anyone would say "We are never going to walk into a room and make a re-cord together any longer."
John: Certain people in the band, if they said that, then we wouldn't.
Sally: But they've said it before! People have gone, but they come back. It's always been that way.
John: It depends who it is and for what reasons they wouldn't want to do it. Some people drift off be-cause they've got other things to do and that's fine-it's like an open door policy.
Sally: I think if Tom and John, if neither of them were involved then it wouldn't happen. But aside from them, I don't think it's reliant on the other members to have to be there. They're like the elders.
John: What's never happened is to get some younger people in the band. We could be like a basketball team-we could become the coaches for the younger players. But that's just never worked out. Maybe there will be a big shift in * few years time. It could be kind of nice if it could continue on after our deaths.