July 24th, 2009 | Interviews

emily ryan

Download: The Mekons “Dickie, Chalkie And Nobby”


(from Natural out now on Touch And Go)

The Mekons lived Leeds but dreamed Texas and Tennessee and after finding their feet in first-wave punk songs like “Where Were You,” they left the world of Rough Trade for the open range. They are working on a new album tentatively called 100 Years and singer-guitarist-activist Jon Langford speaks as he takes his dog to the vet. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

Is it true that the son of Donald Rumsfeld is a really big Mekons fan?
Jon Langford (guitar/vocals): That’s a good question. It might be true, but he has not revealed himself to us. I never got to the bottom of that but I heard he was wandering around the clubs of Chicago with a Mekons t-shirt on. Donald Rumsfeld sort of wandered around Chicago as well. He was a congressman from here so he was occasionally spotted in sushi restaurants. And I know people who actually know him and I always wonder what I would do if I actually ran into him.
Do you think you could beat him up? Mekon vs. Rumsfeld?
He’s kind of like some sort of crazy cockroach. You’d probably keep treading on him and he’d just get up and run around.
Do you think that might be an effective way for art and music to provoke social change? By specifically targeting the hearts and minds of the children of the rich and powerful?
I’d like to think something of what we’ve been singing about for the last twenty years may have rubbed off on him—he’d probably want to wrestle his dad to the ground as well, you know? But you know what? I think I know about as much about that as you do. I don’t know. Our songs were never particularly aimed at the sons of the rich and famous.
Where were they aimed?
They weren’t really aimed at anyone. They were aimed at ourselves, I think. Most of the songs we made to sort of please ourselves or to exorcise things that are in ourselves. I think a lot of the Mekons songs are quite sad, which is interesting because we’re not necessarily sad people. I think what’s good about the Mekons is that there’s always been a kind of cushion—the fact that there are a lot of people and we all kind of share the duties. There’s never been one person with the whole burden. A lot of the people in the Mekons have been through quite a lot together. I wouldn’t even say our politics are necessarily the same or our life stories are the same but there’s definitely a shared instinctive feeling about the world. Obviously, or we wouldn’t be doing this project together so long.
What is the essential sadness in the Mekons discography?
Well, we don’t come together and act sad. We come together and have a good time. But the music that comes out is often very—I don’t know, maybe gallows humor? We always try to describe the world we live in and anyone with half a brain would find it pretty difficult to write happy songs all the time.
I’ve heard that they did a neurolinguistic study of various genres of music and that country music is overwhelmingly objectively the saddest type of music they found. Do you think there’s anything to that?
Have you ever heard the music from the Bahamas? There’s some traditional vocal and solo vocal stuff that’s mostly unaccompanied that I think is the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. People who are poor and have crap lives will probably make sad music. I guess rich people who have lots of money and an easy life, they might be sad as well—but they probably don’t bother to write songs about their lives. Probably too busy spending their money.
In ‘Big Zombie,’ is the line ‘I’m just not human tonight’ a Chandler reference?
Absolutely. Yeah. It’s an L.A. song and we’ll be playing it. When we kind of started up again in the mid-’80s, we were very interested in Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. We were touring the States a lot and that was our reference for what we thought the States should be like. Dashiell Hammett was our version of San Francisco and Raymond Chandler was our version of L.A. Every time I walked into a room, I’d expect to find a body. Most of the time we didn’t.
What drew you to honky-tonks like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge when you came to America?
When we first came to the States we got obsessed about music and it was kind of like… most of the cowboy shops we went to seemed to be full of black people, Hispanic people, Asian people and English rock bands. So it was funny—just how you can literally claim a piece of this fantasy mythical America by buying a Stetson or a pair of cowboy boots and then going back home to Leeds and strutting around in your cowboy boots. They’d ask, ‘Where did you get those?’ and I’d say, ‘Aw, I got these in Chicago,’ you know? People would come ’round my house after the pub and I’d be playing Ernest Tubb and Merle Haggard, and these were all people who thought they wanted to go listen to acid-house or something. They thought we’d lost our minds.
There’s a quote from Ernest Tubb I wanted to ask you about. People would say, ‘Aw, Ernest, you’re so flat, anyone could sing the way you can. You just got lucky.’ And he would say, ‘Well, I sing that way on purpose. I want everyone who hears this to think that they could do it. I want them to feel that I’m no different from them.’
Is that from that Peter Guralnick book? Lost Highway? There’s another great quote in there where he says he’s singing for the boys back on the farm but he says by the end of his life the farm wasn’t even there anymore. But he wanted those farm boys to be able to sing his songs. Yeah, that’s a very Mekons-type thing. When I read that, I thought, ‘There is a connection between that and punk.’ It’s been said before that there was a connection between the Mekons and country music and I thought that was ludicrous, but as I listened to that stuff and really began to love it, it became more and more interesting to me. And then to have someone articulate it like that… We always meant the Mekons to be like ‘Anyone can do it.’ Anyone can pick up the guitar. There’s a quote from Mary Harron about the Mekons that kind of sums it up: ‘Rock ‘n’ roll is probably better played by people who can’t play it very well.’ She said the Mekons were the only people to base a band solely on that fact. It was kind of a jab as well as a compliment, but I think that’s true. That really struck a chord with me—I’ve always being drawn to music that was functional rather than virtuoso. Music that kind of has to be made because there was a need to make it.
Who are you thinking of?
Well, actually I was talking to Peter Hammill of Van der Graaf Generator who came to town the other night. I got to hang out with them and I was talking to them about what they were listening to on the bus and they were telling me about Olivier Messiaen who is an avant-garde composer who wrote something called The Quartet for the End of Time while he was in a P.O.W. camp or a concentration camp. As Hammill said, that was music that had to be made. It was a quartet because that’s what he had at the camp and they thought they were going to die, so they wrote this music. I’ve been listening to it and it’s like—you’ve got something as primitive as the Mekons when we first started and then you’ve got Ernest Tubb and reggae music that was there because it was on the street with a message that people could dance to. And then you’ve got Olivier Messiaen which is like music that couldn’t be kept in. It had to come out. It wasn’t anything to do with any commercial desires or all that. It’s just music that had to exist. There’s a lot of music like that and I find that I’m just drawn to it. It was actually great talking to those guys because they’re much older than me. To be sitting on a tour bus with a bunch of old guys drinking wine and talking about things you’ve never heard of—it was really, really cool. Peter Hammill said, ‘Yeah, that’s the secret, as long as you don’t pander.’ ‘No pandering allowed!’ he was shouting. ‘That’s the trouble with all this bloody music nowadays. It’s all just fucking pandering!’ And I thought that was pretty good. That’s what the Mekons do.
Steve Wynn said that it’s better to make a record that is just one person’s favorite in the entire world than to make a record that everyone thinks is just pretty good.
I totally, totally agree with that. I think that something happened to music when the idea was that everyone would like it. I think that’s completely unnatural. When we were on A&M, they told us that 25,000 records sales wasn’t very good and we were like, ‘That’s good enough for us!’ We’d feel very uncomfortable if more than 25,000 people bought our record. That’s more people than ever go to see any of the football teams I supported! But that was a failure. There’s a hierarchy in the music industry where you have all these people floundering around not making a living who are—to me— doing what they should do and doing a good job of it. And then you have these people who managed to hit on the magic formula—finding what it is that everybody wants and it’s all backwards. They should be punished for learning that secret. Paul McCartney should be taken out and punished.
What particular punishment would be appropriate for that?
A good lashing. No, I’m only joking, I’m only joking. Again, the structure of the industry is the problem. That’s what it’s geared to—it’s just not geared to having lots of different types of music for lots of different types of people to enjoy. It doesn’t recognize the fact that people are different—that not everybody wants to listen to the sort of crap that’s on the radio everyday. It’s very hard anywhere in this country when you listen to the radio to find stuff that’s worth listening to. I don’t think that makes me weird.
You said once that ‘society dehumanizes from the top down.’ I’m wondering if that reproduces within pop culture.
Yeah—most of the stuff that I’ve written and the paintings that I’ve made about country and western music, it was kind of about using that as a microcosm for the whole society. The trend is there and you can see it so obviously in what happened to country music. I think that goes through everything. And actually that quote, that’s not me—I didn’t say that. John Peel said that. I might have been quoting him because he said that about ‘God Save the Queen’ when that record came out and everyone was up in arms and he made that quote defending the record. He said it was a pretty simple record and that the message was society dehumanizes from the top down.
I have to commend your memory for quotes.
I know where I pinch all my best stuff from. You know, Peel was a Radio One DJ and to come out with something that profound was pretty powerful. To have somebody in the BBC defending the Sex Pistols when it looked like—when that record came out, you know… they could have been hung from lampposts and the majority of people in the country would have been really pleased. It was a very scary time for a little while.
Have you seen that kind of response to anything else in music?
Ice-T’s ‘Cop Killer’ was kind of interesting as well. It brought up an interesting debate about whether he really wanted to kill a cop or talk about someone else. It brought up the debate about what you can write about. Why is a song always in the first person? People always think when you write a song that it’s you talking. I had that problem singing ‘Cocaine Blues’ which, you know, is a Johnny Cash song. Obviously I’m not someone who takes cocaine and kills people, but it’s still a great song. The history of those songs is old and ancient.
Someone once asked you if there was a light at the end of the tunnel and you said that now that you have kids, you’re going to hijack the train, turn it around and drive it back.
I just felt like a lot of people tell me to shut my mouth because I’m not from here. I’ve got that a number of times. Mostly in hate mail, especially when we were doing the anti-death penalty stuff. I really got some quite extraordinarily vicious and unpleasant stuff. But I just felt like having kids was definitely a galvanizing moment for me. It made me feel like this is when you have to get involved. I can’t just be like non-American anymore and just shrug my shoulders and go, ‘Oh yeah, they’re just all fucking crazy.’ Because I’m one of you now.
What kind of world do you want to build for your children?
We need to dismantle what was created over the last fifty years, really. The food industry for a start. It’s a fucking hideous Frankenstein that’s killing us all, you know? I really believe that. I don’t think I’m some kind of freak. I’m not some kind of hippie vegetarian. Not that there’s anything wrong with hippie vegetarians, to be honest. I was always prejudiced against people who had, like, strong views about things like that. Now it’s kind of like, ‘Fuck, things are really, seriously wrong.’
How do you avoid becoming discouraged?
I see a lot of people feel the same way. I see the election of Obama, which I thought was impossible, you know? I’m encouraged because it wasn’t just me sitting in my bedroom. Wow, that’s change. That’s real serious change. A lot of sort of naysaying cynics that I know were like, ‘Aw, it’s never going to happen in America. The only reason this happened is because he’s just the same as the other people.’ I don’t think he is, you know? I don’t think he can be. It’s got to change, you know?