As someone who has stood in the middle of the Texas desert and gazed up at the night sky, I can appreciate the near-drunken wobbliness with which Tom Greenhalgh sings “How Many Stars.” As the Mekons play a gently swaying, not-quite-reggae rhythm, the vocalist/guitarist/founding member sounds like a man overwhelmed by the brilliance of a clear night sky dotted with billions of points of light, and all he can muster in response is a fumbling, not-quite-rhetorical question: “How many stars are out tonight? How many stars? How many stars?” When the rest of the band abandon their instruments to harmonize with Greenhalgh, it becomes a besotted sing-along, which is another way of saying it’s a Mekons song.
The inspiration, according to the song’s author, was not Texas, but a desert on the other side of the globe: the Australian outback. “I was standing out in the middle of nowhere, where there are no lights on,” Jon Langford recently told the Quietus. “Because it’s the other side of the planet, they don’t have the same constellations. Just the sheer number of stars was extraordinary.” Fittingly titled Deserted, the Mekons’ latest album (and their first studio full-length in eight long years) is inspired by these remote places where civilization cannot easily thrive but humanity and wonder can.
Lately, the band has been fascinated with overarching, often charmingly unwieldy concepts. Their last album, 2011’s Ancient & Modern, compared the world of 100 years ago and the world of today, while 2014’s Jura,featuring alt-country Rasputin Robbie Fulks, was not only recorded on that Scottish island but addresses issues of isolation and the weighty history that comes with the dour weather. Deserted was recorded in Joshua Tree National Park in California, and begins with the raucous, recklessly paced “Lawrence of California,” which barely holds together as the band reimagine T.E. Lawrence organizing an insurgent army somewhere in Death Valley. “Harar 1883” offer a bleary vision of poet Arthur Rimbaud hallucinating in Ethiopia. The glam-stomping “Weimar Vending Machine” even traces a handful of sand that ends up in a baggie sold to none other than Iggy Pop.
Rarely do the Mekons get quite as loose as they do on Deserted, alternating between arid, nocturnal atmosphere that seems to emanate from Susie Honeyman’s fiddle and moments of near hysteria, as though their sun-baked brains have gone haywire. These songs take their time to wander about, even getting lost in the vast expanse — sometimes a little too lost, as on the rambling “Mirage.” But even that song reveals the Mekons’ versatility and imagination. There is an intoxicating beauty to the harshness of the desert, an inspiration to be drawn from the hardiness of the life found there—and that pretty much describes this unkillable band.
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 →