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A Quietus Interview

A Century Of Violence: The Mekons Interviewed
Jim Keoghan , December 28th, 2011 06:05

Jim Keoghan talks to post punk internationalists, The Mekons. Pictures courtesy of Derrick Santini

When The Mekons first started out in the late 70s you would be forgiven for thinking that regardless of their energy, this wasn’t a band that would hang around for long. A ramshackle, ‘can’t-play-their instruments’ kind of outfit, they seemed little different to the many punk and post-punk bands that appeared in a burst of energy and then quickly disappeared into the musical wilderness.

Forgiven yes but wrong nonetheless because from inauspicious beginnings The Mekons have survived and over three decades later stand as one of the most interesting and musically innovative bands that this country has ever produced.

Credited by some with the creation of alt-country [via cowpoke] and possessed of a back catalogue that has embraced genres as diverse as folk, punk and reggae, The Mekons have come a long way from the low-fi, urgency of their Clash-baiting debut single ‘Never Been in a Riot’.

The band returned this year with a new album Ancient & Modern, which according to lead guitarist and co-founder of the group Jon Langford, takes as its theme the period in England before the First World War (WWI).

“As we were writing the album we found that it was something that all of us were just talking about. I suppose it was because the country was approaching the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the war and the last living WWI soldier Harry Patch had recently died. The more we talked about it though the more interesting a period it seemed to explore. On the one hand you have ‘old England’ tea and cricket and all that. Whilst on the other you have the birth of the modern world, suffragettes, the death of liberal England; a birth that was at times quite violent.”

The Mekons have always been political animals (this was a band whose early career hiatus was ended by a creative spurt kick-started by the Miner’s Strike) so it’s unsurprising then that they draw parallels between the years preceding WWI and the world today.

“The casual use of warfare, the complacent, distracted perception of might as a tool, the shallowness, the calm before the storm... so many parallels” says Jon. “Having been used to imperial wars in distant lands” he continues “where technologically inferior foes could be shocked and awed into submission the Western powers slid into WWI in a highly deluded state... they were used to war bringing glory at little cost to the mother nation. The US is currently in a state of perpetual war: the government attempts to control the flow of information (& body bags) and hush up the real human cost while dazzling us with drone technology, the clinically clean modern warfare.”

In many ways the band’s unapologetically political stance adopted since their foundation is an ill-fit amidst the career minded indie-landscape that they find themselves today. We might be groggily stumbling through the worst recession since the thirties and suffering the kind of spending cuts beloved by South American tin-pot dictators but the music world has been surprisingly quiet about it. Politically conscious bands like The Mekons just haven’t emerged and so instead we’re left with the depressing prospect of Chris Martin or Thom Yorke representing the nearest this generation has to protest singers.

“But this could change at any moment” says Jon hopefully. “People are being offered nothing and at the same time being told to tighten their belts. And this is being asked of them by someone like Cameron, an entity that may as well have been beamed down from Mars; someone who has existed in a bubble of privilege for his entire life. At the moment the country is like a pressure cooker with the lid on. At some point it’s going to blow. And I’m hopeful that music will come to reflect people’s anger as it did in the sixties, seventies and eighties.”

Since the release of their seminal 1985 album, Fear & Whiskey The Mekons have become synonymous with musical innovation. The album, which saw the band blend their previously-established low-fi, punk urgency with a country & western sound, is widely credited as heralding the rise of alt-country. Since then they have continued their adventures in musical experimentation and according to bassist Rico Bells, this album is no exception.

“The Mekons like to deal in concepts and draw musical influences from all over the map, such as punk, folk, reggae and country. On this album there is a whole array of different musical influences evident. Sound wise, the up-tempo tracks are pretty intense, they’re not harsh but there’s a lot going on instrumentally. For want of a better description, it’s almost like a firework display exploding around the main pulse of the songs. It’s an ‘electric’ record which uses both electric and acoustic instruments in an unconventional way but still makes the best of their respective unique sound qualities. The overall atmosphere is really captured with the sound and delivery of the vocals which reflect on the past but arrive somewhere in the near future.”

Although they originated in Leeds, emerging from the same group of students that would also spawn The Gang of Four and Delta 5, The Mekons are now scattered across the globe living in locations as far apart as London, Chicago and Siberia. But despite their migration, according to Rico, The Mekons’ diaspora remains as united today as it was thirty-four years ago.

“We still really get along and respect each other. A lot of bands fall apart because of ego problems but that’s never been the case with us. The only difference the distance has made is that it means making an album is trickier than it used to be, there’s a lot more travelling involved. But the thing about the band is that it’s always worth it. We’ve always believed in what we’re doing and have never had much to fall out about. In the absence of commercial success, that sense of unity and camaraderie has been vital to keep The Mekons alive.”

Ancient & Modern is out now