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Enter Sandman: An Interview With Jon Langford Of The Mekons
Mark Andrews , April 1st, 2019 09:13

The Mekons are 42 years young and about to release Deserted their first album in eight years. Mark Andrews talks to Jon Langford about “weird white people”, The Sweet, stargazing and The Prince of Darkness himself

The Mekons in 2019 by Ricky Malpas

You can hear Jon Langford’s history in his voice: clearly Welsh, but with hints of Yorkshire and the Midwest of America: raised in Newport; art school and his twenties and early thirties in Leeds; Chicago thereafter.

Wherever he’s lived, he’s created visual art and made music. When tQ spoke with him, Langford was mid-way through his working day at his studio in the Near North side of Chicago. For the vast majority of his 61 years, Langford has been in bands – often more than one at a time - in both the UK and the USA. Apart from the little-seen Katastrof and Pig’s Britches, The Mekons were his first band and are still his best known.

Formed in The University of Leeds Fine Art department in 1977, they exemplified the DIY aesthetic and leftist political strands of punk. Ex-Mekon Kevin Lycett once described their rehearsals as resembling “a mix between a tedious Marxist-Leninist splinter group and somebody who was tone deaf and couldn’t keep his guitar in tune.”

They quickly tired of three-chord thrash-and-bash and in the middle of an experimental synthesiser phase jumped the tracks to explore folk music. This has now been their primary mode for over thirty-five years, although it is often leavened by anything that takes their fancy: dub reggae, country, outright noise, rock & roll, electronica, spoken word, even back to punk again.

Their new album Deserted roams through most of the quarters of Mekonville.

Chewed up and spat out three times by major labels, with members spread across the globe and their existence always financially precarious, The Mekons abide. Through all the buffetings they have received, their line-up has remained remarkably stable: Langford and Tom Greenhalgh (vocals and guitar) are original members, Steve Goulding (drums); Sally Timms (vocals); Susie Honeyman (violin); keyboard player Eric Bellis (aka Rico Bell) and multi-instrumentalist Lu Edmunds have all been in the band since the early 80s. Bass player and studio whizz, Dave Trumfio first came on board in 1998. In fact, they all could be described as multi-instrumentalists, or at least multi-taskers: The Mekons do indeed function as a collective.

The bulk of Deserted was made at Gatos Trail, an isolated ‘destination studio’ in Yucca Valley in the Mojave Desert, just outside The Joshua Tree National Park. The title refers not just to the location of its recording, but also more broadly to the album’s themes and imagery. There are musings on desert landscape, its flora and fauna and the constellations in its night sky. There are also references to pyramids, Rimbaud in Abyssinia, a ‘Lawrence of California’, the Iraq war and its aftermath. And there is a story about Iggy Pop accidentally buying a small packet of sand from a West Berlin vending machine.

But Deserted isn’t a concept album about sand. “It’s about extreme conditions and the possibility of surviving under harsh conditions,” Langford explains. “There are no sandcastle references, unfortunately. There’s “no happy beach sand” on Deserted .

On the album, there seems to be as many references to stars and the night, as sun and heat.

Jon Langford: I'd been in the Outback in Australia a couple of years before. The track ‘How Many Stars?’ came from that. I was standing out in the middle of nowhere, where there are no lights on. I just thought about those people before Captain Cook arrived: thousands and thousands of years of just sitting out, looking up at the sky. I was with some aboriginal people. They were showing things to me and because it's the other side of the planet, they don't have the same constellations. Just the sheer number of stars was extraordinary.

Some of Deserted seems to have a psychedelic tinge.

JL: I think it's more just a site-specific thing to Gatos Trail studio where we recorded. When you go there, you really don't need any mind-altering drugs because your mind is just altered. For me anyway, it was like that. I just thought it was incredibly beautiful. It just made me think differently. I found we were getting up very early to watch the sun come up and staying up really late and having bonfires. It was really idyllic in that way.

Deserted is another of The Mekons’ rural studio albums. You’ve recently recorded in Devon, Bethesda in Wales, on the island of Jura, Brackenrigg in Cumbria...

JL: When we record in cities someone has their normal day-to-day responsibilities and it's hard to dedicate all your time. We find it easier to get out of town and be somewhere where nobody lives. It makes it easier to get everyone in the studio. Deserted was during a tour. We booked four or five days and while we were in the studio we were leaving to play gigs at night, which was kind of strange.

Dave our bass player is one of the co-owners of the studio. He set it up and designed it. It's run by this guy Dan The Yuccaman, as we call him. We had these Airstream trailers, places where we could all sleep. It was this crazy compound, not really near to anywhere, just a couple of little towns. It suited us. We like the idea of hanging out together.

We only had a few days to try to make a decent, coherent album. It wouldn't have been the end of the world, if we hadn't achieved it. We just wouldn't have put it out. It's always a bit of a tightrope walk with The Mekons. Sometimes we do go away thinking it's a load of crap but when we ferret through it, we find all these gems in there. We came away from the main sessions for Deserted unsure. It was such a rush of slamming stuff down.

So you had to work quickly. Did the band have a structured working day?

JL: It never ends up being like that. It's always at night. I don't know why. There's a lot of eating, going shopping, “Let's do this, let's do that”, a lot of prevaricating before getting everyone together in the studio. And then, we go back in the evening and get most of what we want. However, when people are sitting around they are talking about the album, discussing what a song should be or writing lyrics.

The Mekons in 1978 by Mick Wixey

What did you have ready before you went to California to record?

JL: There was a broad concept and there were a couple of songs that were slightly formed. That was me and Tom phoning each other and leaving messages on each other's phones. I sent Tom some lyrics and he sang a tune into my WhatsApp. That's kind of crazy but we are geographically challenged.

There are several references to colonialism or neo-colonialism on “Deserted”.

JL: I think these were inevitable. When you think of the desert, you think of weird white people wandering off into it. Another thing Tom was talking about was these nature boys, these German nudist pre-hippies from the 1930s, who would go off and live in the desert, which was quite attractive to us.

‘In The Desert’ links Bush and Blair to chunks of Shelley’s Ozymandias.

JL: We are very thievey. What happens is someone will bring something in which is just stolen out of a book and other things will get put on top of it.

The Sisters of Mercy also repurposed the line "a lone and level sand stretch far away" in ‘Dominion’, another song about the failure of power. Is that a co-incidence?

JL: To be honest, I'd forgotten about ‘Dominion’. It was Tom who brought in the Ozymandias and I doubt he listens to The Sisters of Mercy. But it's a theme that deserves picking at. I used to be in the Sisters of Mercy, you know.

I knew you were briefly in The Sisters and were friendly with Andrew Eldritch. The Mekons’ album Honky Tonkin’ has several Eldritch references on it.

JL: He hated ‘Prince Of Darkness’ but ‘Charlie Cake Park’ – "In a flat above the chemist’s, Andy and Claire are dressing to kill but they don't come out till after dark" - he liked it, he told me.

Continuing this goth digression for a moment, isn’t the music of ‘Trouble Down South’ from Fear And Whisky lifted from ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’?

JL: It was written in 1982. When did ‘Bela Lugosi's Dead’ come out?

1979

JL: Then we definitely ripped off ‘Bela Lugosi's Dead’. (Hums riff to ‘Trouble Down South’) Well, it's just three notes. It could be a Sisters of Mercy song as well.

What you’re humming sounds like ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’. Monkeys and typewriters – to quote a Mekons’ album cover.

JL: Exactly. Metallica probably own those notes so don't tell anyone, otherwise we’ll get sued.

End of digression. The Mekons are often referred to as a collective. That even extends to the writing of lyrics, I believe.

JL: We write together. One person will poke their head up above the trench and then get the shit kicked out of them. People go, “What the fuck does that mean? That doesn't mean anything. You can't have that.” Usually there’s a big debate. There are some people who generate material and people who edit. People have certain jobs. I think I'm one of the people who just spews stuff out and other people have to mop it up. Sally's very good at that. She's very good as an editor. A lyric session could be me and Tom and Sally - like a triangle - and Sally will demand explanations. I'm like, “It doesn't have to mean anything. You wouldn't ask Dylan Thomas what it meant, would you?” For Deserted , there were lyrics being scribbled on pieces of paper and handed to people in the vocal booth.

In the band is there a demarcation between the artists who play music and the musicians?

JL: That's something we struggled with in the beginning. When we first formed The Mekons we were really anti-musician. We didn't have enough brains to realise that what some musicians do is really great. Basically, we were just sick of prog rock. We thought reggae was really repetitive and simple. We didn't know they were brilliant musicians who had decided to do that. That was something we had to learn. And that country songs aren't simple because the musicians can't play loads of chords but they're simple because that's the best way of approaching the content of the song.

We started getting musicians on board the ship Mekon in about 1983. We realised that these people can play really well but their reasons for playing are not about virtuosity, it's not about showing off, it's not about being the dude in the guitar shop playing a solo. They want to find out what you're doing and see how their playing helps.

The violin playing for example?

JL: Well, Susie always comes up with things fast, which is just baffling to me. We will throw something out and she will just play something and when you're mixing it ages later, you realise she just did one take, that she’s put something down and it's perfect.

Lu has commented that in The Mekons “no one person can have an idea.”

JL: We've always said we don't have leaders because people have different areas of responsibility, which we know now you don't tread on. I really like the idea that Dave cared so much to put the hours in - he was the last person working on the record, rather than me and Tom unconscious in some studio somewhere at four in the morning trying to get the final mix done before we run out of money. Dave mastered it as well.

The Mekons in 1985 by Jon Ingledew

‘In The Sun’ has an obvious dub reggae influence.

JL: Some records you could go for an authentic live sound. When we were mixing we said let's not do that. Let's not make it sound like a hot little band in a room. For ‘In The Sun’ we didn't want the vocals to sound naturalistic. We were listening to some Lee Perry stuff with the full-on delay echo all the way through a vocal track and it sounded great. Sally sang very differently on this record. Her voice is very piercing and that sounds brilliant with a bit of delay on it.

There’s also someone with a great baritone voice. The first male voice on ‘In The Sun’.

JL: That’s Eric. He’s done a few lead vocals over the years. Me and him sing together a lot. He's very good at harmonies. Lu and Steve are singing a lot more on this record. On ‘In The Desert’ there's a high voice, but actually it's two voices together: Sally and Steve. He came up with the melody for that one because we had a disagreement about how that song was going to go and we almost shelved it. Steve really liked it and came up with a tune.

With Deserted was the band trying new things or re-using existing Mekons elements?

JL: There’s no intention. We just do what we do and find out about it when it’s done. With Deserted , what I like about it is that kind of a punk element to it. Sally pointed out that ‘Mirage’ sounds really old fashioned, but new at the same time. It's a hard track to place where it will have come from. That's one of my favourite tracks on it.

Do you think you might have gone too far at times?

JL: No I wish we’d gone further. There are bits that I really like, like the very end of the album, which is this weird clicking sound. It’s people fiddling around in the studio. It was like some automatic music. It really works but I don't know what it is. It doesn't really sound like we're playing a tune and it doesn't sound like us jamming either. No-one is showing off or trying to lead it, it's just this noise.

On ‘Weimar Vending Machine’ - which is quite comedic and seems to be verging on parody – are you attempting a Bowie impression?

JL: Well, there's something definitely glammy going on. It might be Bryan Ferry crossed with Steve Harley crossed with Iggy. It might be Bowie but I can't really sing that well.

You’re a big fan of Glam, I believe.

JL: Yeah. I was a 13 year old kid playing football 3 times a week - and rugby - reaching puberty and suddenly all these men in make-up appeared on the TV, playing ridiculous music. Bowie and Roxy Music - lots of people started dressing like them, even the football hooligans, in my town anyway. Us kids all had Bay City Rollers haircuts and we hated the Bay City Rollers. It was a weird time. Glam rock was very direct and it was fun and it was a little scary; your parents didn't like it. And the records sounded good. I liked The Sweet a lot. There's a bit where Eric sings on ‘Lawrence of California’ on Deserted , where I said to him in the studio, “Sound like the bloke from The Sweet.”

Brian Connolly?

JL: No, the guy who did the really camp bits, who sings (Langford imitates ‘Blockbuster’ in a high voice) “Haven't got a clue what to do.”

Did The Revenge Of The Mekons documentary five years ago make an impact on the band. Were you able to use any of that momentum?

JL: We're governed by people's availability. We can't really plan anything like that in a cynical way, but we did start touring again in The States. The film wasn’t just a thing for the fans of The Mekons, although fans of The Mekons did enjoy it. We had a lot of people coming to see us on that tour who’d never seen us before, so there was a benefit having gone through this torture, when we all wanted to kill each other. It was nice that it actually served some purpose.

Did the band enjoy making the film?

JL: It's a really unusual thing to have somebody pointing a camera at you and making a film about you, so people were justifiably ill at ease and didn't really want to be in it. I'm a big fat idiot, so I didn't care, if the director wanted to come round and film me, but for other people it was an invasion of their privacy, which is fully justified. When it came out it got really great reviews and that relieved everyone.

It's a warm, positive portrait of the band.

JL: I didn't think he [Joe Angio] was going to do a hatchet job. All I could say was, “Don't make it boring. If it's really worthy and boring it's going to be terrible and that would upset us more than if you say we're a bunch of fools.”

There’s one utterly Spinal Tap moment where the audience informs The Mekons mid-gig that the next night’s show is cancelled.

JL: That's the only time that ever happened in the history of the band and Joe was filming that night. It was almost too good to be true. “Oh fuck, it's going to be Spinal Tap” That's what we all thought after that. I remember the next morning we were staying in some really grotty motel at Leicester Forest East and I'd walked out to go to the shop to get a Lucozade and a Mars Bar and as I was walking back into the lobby of this motel, Steve and Sally and someone else were talking about, “Oh my God, Sheffield has been cancelled.” And there's Joe standing filming them. And I went, “I do not want to be in this scene” and turned around and hid round the corner. “If this is going to be Spinal Tap, I think I might not want to be in it.” But I don't think we're that Tappy really because we never really cared about being successful.

The Mekons in 2010 by Derrick Santini

Is it true you were taught drums by a German POW in Newport?

JL: Yes. Well, he wasn't POW at the time. He was my grandmother's hairdresser and he became my mother's hairdresser. He was a POW but he liked Newport so much is stayed after the War. He was a family friend and a great drummer, a big band jazz drummer. I think he was a paratrooper - jumped out of an airplane and got picked up immediately. Stefan - a lovely man.

What was it like growing up in Newport in South Wales?

JL: It's a seaport town. As a kid it was very cosmopolitan. I grew up with lots of people who aren't from there. I would distinguish it very much from the Welsh Valleys which are more enclosed, insular. I was really scared I would end up having to go to Newport College of Art and never get out of Newport.

Didn’t Newport have a lively music scene though?

JL: When I was a kid there were never any bands in Newport, that's why we always had to travel go to Bristol or Cardiff. Cardiff was downright scary. I still prefer Bristol. When punk happened, I had already moved up to Leeds but clubs were opening up and bands like The Jam and The Stranglers were actually coming to Newport. I remember coming back down from Leeds one weekend to go to Generation X at The Stowaway and thinking, “Something is finally happening in Newport.”

There was a local band scene that came up as well. There were a crew of people who weren’t friends of mine when I was at school, basically kids from the other side of the river, the Ringland side, Catholics kids who had to go to their own school or just kids who gravitated towards the punk scene. Loads of them are my mates now.

When we had The Three Johns I used to play down there a lot. Cheap Sweaty Fun at TJs were putting on a lot of shows. It just seemed like a place where there was as much happening as there was in Leeds. Butthole Surfers even turned up in Newport.

It's still very lively. There are a lot of weirdos in Newport and I mean that in the nicest possible way. I've always kept strong links to Newport. The Mekons first gig on this tour will be Le Public Space, which is a community-owned venue, that I'm a co-owner of - and it's sold out, so that's fantastic. First gig on the tour to sell out. I fucking love Newport. It's a rough dirty little town, but there's a lot spirit there.

In Leeds you had to choose between art and music.

JL: Everyone else in The Mekons had finished their degrees when we signed to Virgin in 1979, but me and Tom left the Fine Art course. I don't know what Tom's feelings were about it but it was a disaster for my parents who were really, really upset. Tim Clark who was head of the Fine Art Department actually called my mum and said it was the best thing I could possibly do at the time. I thought that was really nice of him. He did me a good favour. He was the only British member of the Situationist International in Paris. When he turned up at our Fine Art department we were expecting somebody very fierce, but he was just this really nice bloke from Bristol.

You did go back and finish your degree after The Mekons ostensibly fell apart. What did you do for your final year show?

JL: I did a lot of paintings, lots of big paintings. When I went back, I got really stuck in. They were similar to what I do now, in a way. I went to Spain that summer. I was up in Galicia, northern Spain and there was a lot of crazy political activity going on - it was not long after Franco died and there was still fighting. The Galician independence movement was really big and federal troops had just killed this Galician Che Guevara type and there were posters of him everywhere; he was like a martyr, so I took loads of photographs of this street art and brought them back. I started making paintings on loose canvas, not on stretch canvas, throwing loads of dripping paint and stuff over it. It was great fun. I hadn’t painted basically the whole time I’d been in Leeds. So I got my degree in the end, much to my mother’s pleasure.

Around that time you formed The Three Johns?

JL: The Three Johns started just as I finished the course and was wondering what to do. John Hyatt and 'John' Brennan asked, “What are you going to do? You leaving Leeds?” “No, I'm just going to stay here?” So we formed a band on the day of Princess Diana's and Prince Charles's wedding. There was a ‘Funk The Royal Wedding’ gig on at the Hyde Park pub. So we went over there and worked out three songs and thought they’d let us play but no-one would lend us their equipment.

You moved from Leeds to Chicago in 1991. Was that a cultural shock?

JL: I’d been to Chicago a lot by that point, so I knew what I was getting into. It was an industrial rust belt town when I got here. It was kind of up my alley. When I moved here it was very conducive to what I wanted to do. There was lots of room to make art, people had spaces, people were setting up labels. It was a very good place to be at that time. I got married in Chicago. That was more of a cultural shock.

Me coming here and having been in The Mekons was exciting to a lot of people, but for me it was, “That's all fucking finished.” I thought I was moving onto the something else, some other phase of my life, but I kept being asked to do things, produce records, asked to form a band. I didn't come here with any of that in mind. I was kind of burned out. It came out of The Mekons being dropped by both A&M and Loud Music. I remember me and Tom flying into LA during the riots in a futile attempt to sort out our deal with Loud Music who may or may not have been part of WEA Latina. They did put out an EP but we never got any money or signed anything - depressing stuff.

In a 1999 interview you said, “I think England is now a nation in some kind of psychological crisis.” Do you think of Brexit as the culmination of that?

JL: I’ve got many English friends so I don't want to be rude about England but yeah, I don't understand who the fuck they think they are. I'm disappointed with the whole thing. I got my kid a British passport because he's half British. He got an EU passport. He was really happy and then within 3 weeks of him getting his passport Brexit came through and I had to explain to him, “You know I told you with that passport you could go and live and work anywhere in Europe?  Well now you can't.” Why would anyone vote for that? I was trying to explain it to him. It’s because they think they're better than foreigners. Or because there are a lot of asset-strippers in charge. Stupid nationalism or rich people getting richer. Or it's the old left wing dogma, which seems to ignore the fact the EU really helped people in this country all the way through the Thatcher and Blair and Cameron years. Brexit was a whispering campaign by the fucking ruling classes.

I always felt I had somewhere to go back to, but when Trump got elected I thought I'd probably end up going back and living in Britain, but if a No Deal Brexit goes through and those Tory bastards gut the Health Service, I don't think I can ever go back there, which is sad. I don't know where I’d go. Nowhere else would have me.

Some Mekons records have been very overlooked, some almost ignored.

JL: Retreat From Memphis is a very under-rated record. Not very popular that one, for some reason. No-one ever talks about it. I was at a bar the other night and somebody played one of the tracks from it. It was kind of shocking how good it sounded. There are quite a lot of records that people wish we hadn't done, like Me. Whereas I think it's all jolly good stuff.

What are your expectations for Deserted?

JL: Actually, I haven't really thought about what I expect of it. We definitely aren’t expecting to make any money on the record. I hope the gigs are good and we don't lose any money and we have enough to make the next record; everything we make we funnel back in. It’s fairly expensive getting everyone over to do these gigs. We hope people come because no-one's got any money to lose on this.

I don’t accept the consensus around The Mekons that the band is unlucky or are heroic failures. You still perform music after four decades, you put records out, you have an audience. That’s a triumph.

JL: Yeah, I've always thought that with The Mekons. It depends on how you judge success obviously, but we've got a body of work that I’m pretty proud of. A lot of bands just don't exist for this length of time. We just did gigs with the original line-up (Mekons 77) and the current line-up on stage together. I think that's an achievement in itself, whether the music’s a load of old crap or not. It's people interacting with each other as human beings. That's been quite successful. We've always thought it's about how you act rather than what you produce.

The academic Gavin Butt is working on a book called Being In A Band on the Leeds art school bands of the late 70s. One of his key ideas is that for bands like The Mekons and Gang Of Four being in a band was a project for living as well as a vehicle to make art.

JL: I know Gavin. Yeah, I think that’s correct. The questions we thought were important weren’t necessarily musical ones or about content. It’s about how you behave when you're in a band: what's an ethical way of going about it.

Over the 42 years, I’m not aware of anyone leaving The Mekons in a fit of rage or because of insurmountable personality clashes.

JL: Well, there's been a few things over the years. It's not always been sunshine and light. But if you leave, you can always come back. Most people who have left have come back. No-one's ever really stormed out forever.

You’re a prolific and well-regarded artist, you play in numerous other bands and you certainly don’t make any money from being in The Mekons. Why are you still a Mekon?

JL: Because they're my friends.

Deserted is released on 29 March. The Mekons are on tour in the UK and Europe in April and in the USA in July

Mark Andrews is currently writing Paint My Name In Black And Gold: Leeds And The Rise Of The Sisters Of Mercy for Unbound. You can find out more here

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