A Mekon reflects: 'We've always been stupid enough to keep doing this,' says punk survivor Jon Langford
A role as a Mekon isn't necessarily the greatest lot for a rock 'n' roller. Now into Decade No. 4, the Mekons have consistently been critically adored and commercially ignored. Multiple major-label deals have come and gone, and the luxury of quitting a day job -- or not having to make ends meet by scraping together multiple projects -- is one a Mekon has never really known.
Worse still is the nagging knowledge that multiple acts who came of age in the punk and post-punk scenes of the late '70s and early '80s have recently found new audiences. Artists such as Mission to Burma, PiL, which counts a Mekon as a member, and Gang of Four, which once had a Mekon, have all done the reunion circuit, benefiting either from festival stages, constant reissues or newfound idolization.
And the Mekons? The act's label for the last decade and a half, Touch and Go, was recently downsized into little more than a catalog-only operation.
"We’ve been saying we should pretend we’ve split up and then re-form," Mekon co-founder Jon Langford said this week from his Chicago home. "That seems to be the way to generate a lot of cash. You just need to take a couple years off. We’ve always been stupid enough to keep doing this. We believed our own hype, that anyone can do this and you don’t need to take any notice of the market forces."
If the Mekons members had, they likely wouldn't have jettisoned their late '70s punk rock sound for multiple decades of genre-hopping experimentation. The Mekons were playing with synths and pre-industrial dance sounds in the '80s, and then writing country records by the end of it. They scored a book, staged a performance-art concert in which everything was on backing tapes, and often wielded a violin as if it were the lead guitar.
When Langford, a native of Wales and a Chicago resident of 18 years, comes to the Los Angeles-area this weekend for a pair of shows -- a Saturday night appearance at Santa Monica's McCabe's and a performance Sunday at Hollywood's Amoeba Music -- he'll be doing so in more of a singer/songwriter guise. His "Old Devils," released this month by Chicago's Bloodshot Records, is a folk-rock effort that confronts aging, regret and the false romance of a life as an artist. It tackles it all with Langford's conversational, charmingly self-deprecating tone.
Think of it as the grown-up musical bookend to Nick Cave's recently issued sophomore album with his Grinderman project ("Grinderman 2"). Cave's effort is menacing -- an album devoted to late-in-life recklessness. Langford's effort is the sobering, country-tinged wake-up call. Characters are "overworked, overwhelmed, over here and over it all," and the narrator in the quiet lament "Luxury" is haunted by past mistakes. A "disposable income and weakness for drinking have disposed of me," Langford sings.
"That song," said Langford, "is like the invention of the teenager, and the myth that everything will get better and better. For me, I was growing up in the '70s and saw my friend’s hipster parents having wife-swapping parties and leopard-skin sofas and moving to Australia or South Africa for a better life. I remember those days fondly. It’s sympathetic. People were sold something, the belief that there was a better life."
"Old Devils" is only Langford's second effort under the Skull Orchard name, the follow-up to 1998's "Skull Orchard" (he has released numerous other solo projects in between). The first Skull Orchard release was an album that largely reflected on Langford's years in Wales, and did so with a dash of a sea chantey vibe. "Old Devils" also seemingly strikes a personal tone, and owns an intimate atmosphere, be it on the sharp roots rocker of "1234Ever" or the echoing twang of "Flag of Triumph."
One track even appears to take an insecure and self-hating swipe at Langford's career. A sense of bitterness permeates throughout "Self-Portrait," this despite the '50s rock piano and soothing backing harmonies. "I was famous for my portraits," Langford sings, "for the likeness that I drew."
Is Langford, whose wood-mounted scruffed-up works often capture country and rock icons, expressing cynicism toward his own modest success in the art world?
"Obviously I wrote it, and a lot of my experiences are in it, but it’s not autobiographical," Langford said. "That song is largely what I’ve noticed about artists. I’ve got a lot of friends who are artists, and I’m an artist myself, but artists can be incredibly vapid and opportunistic. It’s about the myths of the life of an artist, the romance of it. I like the idea of selling your soul."
Langford has paired "Old Devils" with a companion set of paintings, work that's more a character study than his artist depictions. Nevertheless, it's art that fits the Western motif that he has been exploring since the '80s. The Mekons, with 1985's "Fear & Whiskey," started in earnest to incorporate more folksy instruments into their songs. A full-on Mekons country album was released in 1987, and although Langford's flagship band has since shifted away from that sound, his myriad of side projects have only become more obsessed with American roots music.
For a brief moment, it seemed as if Langford's cow-punk outfit, the Waco Brothers, would be the band that finally hit a wider audience. Finding their stride during the rise of mid-'90s alt-country scene, the Waco Brothers won over cities such as Chicago and Austin with their beer-soaked, working-class anthems. So much so that Anheuser-Busch approached the band to score a Budweiser commercial.
The Wacos said yes. But the title of the song the band turned in? "Yuck, I Love It." Anheuser-Busch took a pass. Langford thought it was a brilliant attempt at reverse-psychology marketing, recognizing and embracing the beer's light body. Or maybe he was just flashing some punk teeth. After all, punk was the four-letter word that drove Langford to country.
"Being American was the coolest thing to be in the 20th century," said the Wales native. "It's problematic and contradictory, but at the height of the Reagan/Thatcher alliance, with market capitalism running rampage, and American imperialism having its second or third wave, there was a bunch of anarchist lefties in Leeds who were fascinated with Hank Williams and Bob Wills.
"I can’t really explain it, but it really resonated with us," Langford continued. "I found country music to be a very powerful form of folk music. It was about drinking, cheating and stories that seemed to be about people’s actual lives. We thought punk rock would be like that. We thought punk could address reality in a political way. But when I heard Merle Haggard and Ernest Tubb, and hearing the simplicity of those songs? That was punk rock, and they were doing it a long time ago."
Langford, of course, hasn't abandoned his roots. The Mekons have a new album, "Ancient & Modern," due in early 2011. It was completed this week in London, with mixing done by Mekons/Pil member Lu Edmonds. The Mekons have grown more domesticated over the years, and founding member Tom Greenhalgh, who has a family and a full-time job back in the U.K., is limited in his ability to tour with the band. To ensure Greenhalgh was a principal on the new album, the band recorded it in a rented house in the Devon country, down the street from Greenhalgh's home.
The band has been approached by a few labels, Langford said, and the act hasn't yet decided on its post-Touch and Go home. But maybe after 33-or-so odd years, "Ancient & Modern" will be the album that inspires a reevaluation of the Mekons catalog.
"It’s looking at what was going on 100 years ago, just before the First World War," Langford said. "It's about the terrifying new world ushered in at that time. It starts drawing parallels with trends in contemporary politics -– tribalism, fundamentalism and the death of liberalism. That was the starting point, at least."
Then again ...
-- Todd Martens
Jon Langford performs at McCabe's, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, on Saturday, Sept. 25. Tickets are $15. Langford appears Sunday at Amoeba Music, 6400 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, at 5 p.m. The in-store performance is free.
Upper photo: Jon Langford. Credit: Credit: Paul Beaty
Lower photo: Cover art for "Old Devils." Credit: Langford / Bloodshot Records