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
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 Desertedunsure. 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. [ . . . ]