TIMELESS TRUTHS The Mekons

With
new album Ancient and Modern, the long-running band blurs the line between past
and present.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

Some bands are considered timeless, if for no reason than
their music transcends the sharply defined boundaries of taste and trends.
Others earn that distinction simply by slogging it out indefinitely and
refusing to give up. Then there are those who keep their relevance intact by
continuing to comment on the issues of the day, fueled by their determination
to stay in touch with the changing times.

 

The Mekons qualify on all those counts, given a history that
dates back nearly 35 years and a career continuum that includes a consistent
roster, a varied musical stance and a tendency to pontificate borne from their
punk beginnings and a fierce journeyman’s perspective. Formed by a group of art
students from the University of Leeds, and borrowing their name from a
villainous character prominently featured in an old British comic strip, the
band – vocalists Jon Langford and Sally Timms, violinist Susie Honeyman,
drummer Steve Goulding, accordion player Rico Bell, bassist Sarah Corina,
guitarist Tim Greenhalgh and multi-instrumentalist Lu Edmonds – has maintained
their unerring trajectory ever since, spawning no less than two dozen albums as
well as the various offshoot outfits sired by Mekons members. Committed
socialists, their communal approach to recording is still intact, despite the
fact that Langford and Timms reside in Chicago
while the rest of the outfit still lives in their native U.K.

 

Not surprisingly then, the sound of the band continues to
evolve, and while their insurgent attitude is still informed by their punk
origins, their fascination with folk, Americana, country and various sounds
in-between reflects a fluidity that’s always been essential to their stock and
trade. The Mekons’ current effort, Ancient
and Modern
, tidies up those loose threads and makes a seamless transition
between past and present. The album takes listeners back to the turn of the
last century – the 20th century to be precise – prior to the First
World War, when the British were living in their insolated, idyllic environs,
unconcerned by events elsewhere. For a band so well versed in contemporary
commentary, it seems, at least at first glance, like an unlikely muse. But is
that an unreasonable assumption? Blurt spoke to Mekons mainstays Langford and Timms to get their perspective.

 

***

 

BLURT:
The new album seems to draw on a specific theme, one that takes the listener
back a hundred years or so with songs that take on a historical perspective. So
did the songs come first or does the concept come first?

Jon: The
concept really came first. I think we all kind of sat down and agreed on what
we’d write about before we actually started writing. With this album, there was
no fixed rule and in fact with the Mekons, it’s kind of the exception that
proves the rule. Me and Lu actually sat down in my basement at the end of a
tour and just started messing around. We actually did write few little doodly
tunes. Those were things we just kind of stuck in the back a bit, but when we
came to sit down, we kind of had these things we were working on. They were
like chord progressions and nothing else. I don’t think any lyrics were
written, so we sat down and things were just made up on the spot. So that gave
us a little kick start so we could start working on and some of those we didn’t
use anyway. We went to this cottage in the middle of nowhere and some of the
best songs on the record came about very quickly and were kind of first takes.
The opening track was this little tune we’d kind of been fiddling about with
and we expanded it. We were at this little cottage in Devon
and we wrote some words sitting around the dinner table and Tom sang it.
(chuckles) And then it was pretty much done.

 

BLURT:
So was the historical concept the idea from the beginning?

Jon: It was
kind of a conceit on which to hang the songs on but we just thought it was an
interesting point in history, similar to what we find ourselves in now, what
with the anniversary coming up of the first World War. One of the things that
went through our heads was that the people who had fought in that war are all
dead now. The last British soldier who fought in it just died recently. So it
was sort of the dawn of the modern world. Back in 1911, it was sort of a
similar time to what it is now. We realized the threads, as it were. The people
were happy and elegance in their sort of Edwardian lifestyles, much like we’re
so comfortable in our consumerism and faith in our technology.

 

BLURT:
What seems so interesting about that is that the Mekons have always been a band
that’s so much in the moment, and one that’s been unafraid to comment on
contemporary events. And yet, here we have you shifting the era back over a
hundred years. It seems a sort of drastic switch in strategy both
philosophically and strategically. 

Sally: I think
that’s the point, that the moment now is the same as the moment then. What
we’re saying is that there’s not that much difference between what’s going on
now and if you look back now to a hundred years ago, it’s the idea that history
is kind of repeating itself. If you go back a hundred years you can see a
period where it was almost an identical situation where it was a very, very
shallow period of history and that’s what we feel this is as well. So we are
commenting on the now and saying it happened before, so you can slip between
the two things.

 

BLURT:
The Mekons have had a very curious trajectory. You started out at the height of
the punk era and were very much a part of that era, and yet, you’ve since
transitioned to Americana
and traditional folk. What instigated these changes?

Jon: We were
never pressured about a Mekons “sound,” especially when you think about bands
of that era. If we were still doing “Where Were You,” which was probably our
biggest single for 30 odd years, we were more about the process of working
rather than critical response or any notions of how a band should behave. We
were never all that interested in developing some kind of sound or some kind of
style. After the mid ‘80s, we saw ourselves as a reflection and part of a
history and a certain tradition of music making rather than simply being a part
of punk rock or reinventing the wheel.

 

Sally: And I
think, right at the beginning of the band’s existence, the folk connection was
always there. The places where we recorded were very old studios and the
producers would say, “Well, you sound like a folk band.” It was a very simple
three or four chord structure by people who maybe couldn’t play that well and
were self-taught. And we sang songs about real things as opposed to romance or
something like that. I think that’s been there for some time, and I think there
are definitely those connections going through, so even though the band initially
fell under the punk umbrella, we were never what I would classify as a straight
ahead punk band. But I would say the sound of the band has been rather
consistent for the last 20 years or so and the line-up has been consistent, but
we’ve chosen to play different styles of music within than group of musicians.
But it doesn’t sound like a different band to me. It sounds like a band that’s
playing around with different genres of music.

 

BLURT:
It’s interesting that you hail from the U.K.
and yet Americana
informs so much of your music both individually and collectively. So what draws
musicians from the homeland to this indigenous American sound?

Sally: You can
say that about pretty much every British band that’s been around since the ‘50s
and ‘60s. If you look at Britain or anyone in Europe — but Britain in particular
— the influence of American music has always been huge. But I think with our
band in particular, Country was something we came to after having been
introduced to it by a good friend of ours. Jon, you liked Country in a lot of
ways before anyone else.

 

Jon: We
were into Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmie Rogers and things like that. There was a
time when the Mekons thought everything old was just crap and should be
destroyed because that was sort of the punk way. And then we thought maybe what
we’re doing is part of a broader tradition along with the political elements
and the kind of ranting was a kind of experimentation. So it was all stuff that
had been done before, but we were just doing it in a different way. That’s how
it was in Britain
after the Second World War. When I was a kid, there was still rationing. It was
sort of a drab, black and white world. American never really got touched in the
Second World War. Yeah, you lost a lot of men, but Britain got bombed to crap. It took a long time to recover.
One of the things that helped guide the direction of culture after the war in Britain was a direct reaction to America. So we
were kind of programmed to look towards America. After the war, America was kind
of this gleaming beacon and in the ascendency. Things have very much changed
now (laughs). It’s not surprising. I’ve lived here 20 years and I feel able,
because I’ve got American kids, to be critical of America. But I’m also sort of
fiercely proud about America’s
contribution to the culture of the 20th century. The music that came
out of America
has had a huge influence on the culture of the world. It’s been every bit as
influential as your militaristic, imperialistic fucking snipes.

 

BURT:
Well, perhaps…

Jon: I
didn’t mean you personally.

 

BLURT:
I didn’t think you did, but I am reassured. Thank you, Jon. So Sally, do you
live in Chicago
as well?

Sally: Yes,
we’re both speaking to you from Chicago.
I’ve lived here twelve years.

 

BLURT:
And where was this album recorded? You mentioned something about retreating to
the country?

Sally: It was
recorded near where Tom lives, in this beautiful thatched cottage in the middle
of nowhere. A little hobbit house in Devon.
Tom has a very young family, so we rented a house that was basically a mile
from his house. We moved in there for a few days so that he could come and
record with us in the evenings. That was the first stage of it, and after that
we took it to various other places. We came back here to Chicago
and then we went back and did more recording, sometimes individually, and then
we did more recording in a residential studio in North
Wales, which was also in the middle of nowhere really. We found
all these different places, so it actually took quite a long time to record. So
it’s been a very long process.

 

BLURT: With
all the projects you seem to juggle simultaneously, you are both supreme
examples of dedicated multi-taskers. How do you do it?

Sally: That
would probably be best answered by Jon.

 

BLURT: Okay,
that’s to you then, Jon.

Jon: Yes,
well… I’ve gotten to this sort of peculiar position in my life where I don’t
really have much choice. Time is very short.

 

BLURT: What?
You’re hardly an old man.

Jon: No,
I’m incredibly ancient. I think about what things I want to do in my life.
That’s why I’m going back to medical school…

 

BLURT: Ummm…
really?

Jon: No,
I’m just joking.

 

BLURT: Well,
one never knows. You are a bit of a renaissance man. That recent book of your
original art was quite lovely. Perhaps the better question is, how you decide
where to plant your material? You have so many different bands and guises… how
do you decide which avenue to pursue?

Jon: When I
write my stuff on my own it goes on my solo stuff, or it doesn’t go anywhere. I
may throw it all away. In the Mekons, we usually write together. Although we
don’t have many rules, the one we do have is that nobody does anything until we
get together.

 

Sally: The
ideas are formulated together somewhat, but the idea that people come with sort
of half a written song just doesn’t work. It’s really a collaborative effort.
It takes place when we’re all in the room. For the last couple of records, we
just rented houses in the countryside and moved in them for a few days and
wrote the songs from scratch. And that’s the way it seems to work in the studio
as well. We have bits and bobs that we bring in there, but nothing that would
qualify as even a semi-complete song.

BLURT: And it’s been four years since
your last album. So what beckons the Mekons and brings them together? What
tells you it’s time to record a new album and how do you go about gathering
everybody together to make it happen?

Sally: It’s
like the migration of the wildebeest, what causes us to migrate from one side
of the Serengeti.

 

Jon: There
was some reason we were in England
at that time…

 

Sally: We
were playing and we had a gap, so we thought we’d take advantage. When we go
home we tend to stay put, so when are called over to do shows, we like to take
advantage and make a record, or at least start it, and so we book additional
time to stay over.

 

Jon: I
think we were on our way to Spain…

 

Sally: Yes,
you’re right. We had a sort of four or five day gap between shows, so we had to
think what we were going to do. So that’s when we booked the initial session in
Devon. Once we finish a record, the idea will
always sort of be in the back of everyone’s mind as to when we’ll start on the
next one. You know, we started this three years ago, so it’s taken quite a long
time to get it finished. It’s also been finished for quite a while, but we had
issues with (former record label) Touch and Go because they stopped putting out
records, and so we had to find a new label. This has been the first time we’ve
had to deal with this for a really long time. It’s been quite a stressful
process. Instead of having this long term home where we just go, “Okay, we’re
about to spend $5,000 on our next record,” and “yes, okay, as long as it’s not
more than that,” we would go ahead. There was the freedom we had for being on a
label for a very long period of time, with people who were really, really
supportive and we made sure we didn’t spend tons of money. We were able to
function in a way so that we always recouped and we made bits of money for
everyone and we could kind of work within that structure and have this home
where they were very kind to us. That was a great thing for a long period of
time.  

        It’s a great
thing to be with Bloodshot now. We know them. We’ve worked with them. It’s not
as large as Touch and Go, but in some ways, especially musically, it’s a more
appropriate home for the Mekons.

 

Jon: We
had to be somewhere where we didn’t have to constantly explain what we were
doing.

 

BLURT:
How do you account for the band’s remarkable longevity? It’s been well over 30
years that’s you’ve been together.

Sally: Well,
not all of us have been in the band that long.

 

BLURT:
No, but Sally, you’ve been with the band for a good portion of that time.

Sally: Sarah
is the group’s newest member and she’s been in it for 20 years. I think there
are a number of reasons, and some of them are pragmatic. First and foremost, we
don’t force ourselves to work when we don’t have to. Our own lives are allowed
to exist; it’s not like we’re out touring four or five months a year and
because there’s no pressure to do that, we can make it fit around everyone’s
requirements. Another thing is, we actually really like doing it and we really
like each other. So why not? As long as the band feels like there’s something
to be said, regardless of response, we probably will continue playing, even if
it’s in an empty room, although eventually I’m sure that would get strange.
We’ve been in that position before, where no one was really interested, but we
still carried on. There’s been no period where this band has talked about
splitting up. We’ve had a hiatus, but that’s it.

 

Jon: I
think the band’s kind of gotten to the point now where we’ve managed to
insulate it from any kind of commercial or real world pressures. It’s just the
choice we’ve made that we’ll do whatever it takes, you know? It’s not worth
analyzing and thinking if there are reasons worth doing it. That’s just not the
point of it.

 

BLURT:
Does it help that you have so many outside projects and you can divert your
energies elsewhere when need be, so that it doesn’t become a matter of all or
nothing as far as the Mekons are concerned? So if you don’t get all your songs
on the album, you have other places to place them

Jon: We’ve
all got our outlets for what we can do and everyone else has their separate
projects. Next year we probably won’t do the Mekons. Lu is very busy with a
project he’s working on and other people have stuff that they’re involved in,
so it’s quite possible that we won’t do it again for another year or so. But
there will come a point where something will come up, and someone will say,
“Ah, right, we should do something then.”

 

BLURT:
Will you be touring behind this album?

Jon: Yes.



Sally: We’ll be playing in Chicago, San Francisco and New York.

 

BLURT:
So the logistics of gathering everyone together, despite being spread across
different parts of the plant, is something that can be arranged?

Jon: One of
the major costs is airfare, but we have a lot of gigs that pay well and we’ll
have to drive between some of them. Some of them are subsidized and we’re
socialists, so we subsidize everything.

 

BLURT:
What do you think of the riots that recently transpired across the U.K.?
It must be painful to watch, no?

Jon: I
think it’s a fairly predictable result when you have a government run by a
bunch of people who have no connection to the people living in the country. You
have a class of people who have no idea what’s going on there.

 

BLURT:
It seems there hasn’t been this level of unrest in recent memory.

Sally: There
had been in the ‘80s. There have been plenty of riots in the past, but this is
certainly a lot more widespread. There hasn’t been anything quite as large as
this.

 

Jon: It’s
quite complex actually. There’s an element in the government that focuses more
on criminality, so it makes it easier for them to blame it all on that, but it
isn’t just that. These aren’t like revolutionaries that come from the council
estates. These are kids that have no education and no prospects and no future,
and they go in and take out their revenge on their own neighborhood and their
own people. It’s a classic mentality. It’s like what’s the point? They’ve got
nothing and they’re being told they’re going to get less. There’s no racial
element to it. There may be a racial element between the cops and the West
Indian youth; that’s always been an ongoing thread. I find it very sad. I don’t
find anything to be excited about with it. There’s this guy, the prime
minister, from Eaton and he’s wondering why these people are behaving so
violently. He just doesn’t understand.

 

Sally: You
can say whatever you like, but people in mass numbers don’t just suddenly
decide to go smash things. You have to get to a certain mindset and you’re not
born like that. Something’s going on obviously where some people just don’t
give a shit, some people are agitating and people are really unhappy. There are
all sorts of things going on where it kind of coalesces every so often and
people just go crazy. So this is what’s happening. Historically, it’s quite
common in England
when you think about the football hooliganism that’s taken place. There is this
kind of street violence that probably exists here, when you think about how
many people get shot in this country. There are whole neighborhoods here, which
are kind of no-go, but you don’t go into them so it doesn’t spill out into your
life. It happens in a kind of different way in this country. There’s definitely
as much crazy stuff going on but you don’t think of it because it’s part of the
static going on in the back of your mind. It’s not like everybody’s running out
and setting fire to Michigan
Avenue or whatever.

 

Jon: I feel
sorry for communities that have been under siege from the police or whatever.
The metropolitan police have been given carte blanche by David Cameron to do
whatever’s necessary.

 

Sally: There’s a lot of violence anyway. There are a lot of communities that are
really drug ravaged. There’s just nothing to do. If you sit there long enough,
maybe you will become dehumanized. So you can either say they’re inhuman, or
perhaps you can say this is a social issue.

 

BLURT:
It must be difficult, with you living here to worry about what’s going on over
there with your friends and family. It’s hard enough to worry about the country
you call home, but to have to worry a place that’s also your home in a sense…

Sally: A
friend of mind emailed me, and he just kind of sounded bemused by it. He lives
in central London
and he said, “Oh, we have to go home early because they said that Clapham was
going to riot, but it isn’t.” I don’t know, a lot of the trouble is happening
in these areas where there was always real trouble.

 

Jon: We
have to worry about what’s going on in Syria as well. And in Niger for that
matter…. But it could be worse. I spoke to my mother this morning and she’s got
this fantastic new flat screen TV that she ripped off at one of the department
stores. So there is an upside.

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply