Group’s latest, a Bandcamp exclusive, “recorded in splendid physical isolation on mobile phones, broken cassette recorders, clay tablets and other ancient technologies”
In Paris, in 1925, Yves Tanguy, Jacques Prévert, André Breton and Marcel Duchamp invented a game they called ‘cadavre exquis,’ derived from a phrase that came up when they first played: ‘le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau’ (‘the exquisite corpse will drink the new wine’).
Basically each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence, either by following a rule or by being allowed to see only the end of what the previous person contributed. In the current plague year 2020, after a planned rendezvous in Valencia was necessarily cancelled, mekons adopted this method as a means of collectively assembling lyrics and tunes and recording their new album.
Locked down in various locations, scattered from the West Coast of California to the East End of London, they sang and played into their mobile phones and emailed, uploaded and Whatsapped their wailings, beatings, scratchings and strummings around the globe through the billions of interconnected nodes of our networked panopticon.
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. Continue reading →
This legendary group from Leeds, have written contemporary music history for the last 40 years as radical innovators of both first generation punk and insurgent roots music. Their new album was recorded in the desert environs of Joshua Tree, California and is drenched with widescreen, barbed-wire atmosphere and hard-earned (but ever amused) defiance. The return of one of the planet’s most essentil rock & roll bands.
When punk exploded in London, fast and brash and full of fury, up in Leeds the Mekons came blinking into the light at a much slower pace. Singles like “Where Were You” and “Never Been in a Riot” (both from1978) fractured punk’s outlaw myth with the ordinariness of real life. During the next decade, as country singers donned cowboy hats and slid into the stadiums, the Mekons celebrated the music’s rough, raw beginnings and tender hearts with the Fear and Whiskey album (1985) and went on to demolish rock narratives with Mekons Rock’n’Roll (1989).
For more than four decades they’ve been a constant contradiction, an ongoing art project of observation, anger and compassion, all neatly summed up in the movie Revenge of the Mekons, which has ironically brought an upsurge in their popularity around the US as new audiences discovers their shambling splendour. And now the caravan continues with Deserted, their first full studio album in eight years.
And desert is an apt word. This time there’s an emphasis on texture and sounds, a sense of space that brings a new, widescreen feel to their music, opening up songs that surge like clarion calls, like the album’s opening track, “Lawrence of California.”
“We were recording at the studio of our bass player, Dave Trumfio,” Langford recalls. “It’s just outside Joshua Tree National Park. Seeing Tom [Greenhalgh, the group’s other original member] wandering in that landscape looked like a scene from Lawrence of California.’ And then, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a song in that.’”
The band arrived with no songs written, only a few ideas exchanged by email between Langford and Tom Greenhalgh, the group’s other original member.
“Things emerged. At one point we had a sheet with a few words written here and there. Everyone added bits and by the time it was finished, it only needed a few changes to be able to sing. Somewhere else there are two lyrics sung over each other.”
Even during the mixing, Dave pushed us into some new sonic territory all the way through,” Langford recalls.
The tweaking and effects take them about as far as they can go from 2016’s Existentialism, which saw all eight members crowded around a single microphone in a tiny theatre in Red Hook, New York, recording live in front of an audience. Deserted offers a different kind of freedom. Of space and stars and wide-open land. Of possibilities and past. But mainly of the future. It’s fresh territory. But that’s always been what attracts the Mekons. They show that four decades doesn’t translate to becoming a heritage act.
Instead, they keep experimenting, from the jagged, spaced throb that powers “Into The Sun,” revolving around the drums of Steve Goulding and Trumfio’s bass to the barely controlled anarchy that’s “Mirage,” or a countrified homage to “Andromeda.” Everything is possible, everything is permitted. 41 years after that first single they’re still moving. Still defiant, still laughing, still joyful. Never underestimate some happy anarchy, and never write off the Mekons. Deserted, perhaps, but they’re back to tip the world on its axis. Again. – GlitterbeatTV
The packed out crowd at the Lewes Con Club tonight witnessed the rare spectacle of an evening in the company of the original 1977-1980 line-up of The Mekons, known currently as The Mekons 77.
The Mekons formed in Leeds in the late 1970s as an art collective and are one of the longest-running and most prolific of the first-wave British punk rock bands, although during that time they have moved across many music genres.
Through the years, The Mekons musical style has evolved, incorporating aspects of country music, folk music, alternative rock and even occasional experiments with dub. The band has experienced several changes in line-up since their formation over 40 years ago, and although the current line-up of ‘Mekons’ are writing and recording music, playing shows and touring, the original ‘The Mekons 77’ have reunited and are playing live shows for a limited time and the Lewes gig is one of those.
The band were responsible for the totally epic ‘Where Were You?” single which has truly stood the test of time – I never got bored of it. If anything I have always felt that it was just never long enough and I would immediately pick the needle up and place it at the start of my prized 7” vinyl and listen again, oh and errr again.
The six-piece politically and socially aware Mekons 77 are more like a collective on stage rather than a solid band, having been off on their own separate projects. It feels that they got together for the fun of it, for possibly one last tour and one last album – ‘It Is Twice Blessed’. As the singer stated at the Lewes gig tonight, that it was probably the punters last chance to see them as by the fiftieth anniversary they might be dead. This was typical of the bands sense of irony and humour. [ . . . ]