Mekons: The legendary band you’ve never heard of live in a desert all their own

It’s a good practice — at least it’s turned up some gems in this writer’s decades of interviewing. So while asking, “Is there a question you wish I’d asked but didn’t?” at the end of an interview mainly turns up a polite, “No, I think you’ve got it,” sometimes, just sometimes, you get a sweet (or sour) addition.

When Welsh-born, Chicago transplant Jon Langford — artist, songwriter, spiritual anchor of punk talisman come fierce-some recorder of politics, shagging and the human heart, Mekons, who were chronological, geographical, and metaphysical peers of that band that wrote that line about England’s dreaming when it was more like screaming — barely pauses but puts two questions forth and then answers them, we both laugh. Hard.

And as anyone who spends time listening to Langford in his many musical projects, from The Waco Brothers to Pine Valley Cosmonauts to Four Lost Souls (who along with Mekons also play the Calgary Folk Festival this weekend), laughter is often on order due to his hail-fellow-traveller-well-met attitude and keen Welsh wit. None of which diminishes his bands’ parallel, disjointed, and non-linear existences as weapons of mass instruction.

Nor does the fact that Creem Magazine’s Lester Bangs once called Mekons the most revolutionary group in the history of rock and roll, or that Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus, years into their career, said of them “they still play as if they are discovering their music,” which, by the way, they still do and still are. It doesn’t even matter that Cynthia Plaster Caster made Langford’s cast number 000039 to go alongside of the er, private commemorations of Jimi Hendrix, Jello Biafra and others. Mekons are, by and large, the most legendary band you’ve never heard of.

So when Langford says, “How are the Mekons at the moment? Are they at the very peak of their powers? Yes! We are! Are you doing the best shows you’ve ever done, playing to your strengths? Yes! We are!” both of us snort, even though, no doubt, he is speaking the truth.

It’s a truth that is at once wholly transparent while being tough to grasp for many listeners of music, apparently, when you look back at Mekons’ existence. They formed in 1977 as art students at the University of Leeds, and while it seems as if the members are changed like tires at times, they still carry the whole shaking, third, fourth, fifth and sixth-hand vehicle forward without becoming, cough cough, tiresome.

Far from it if your ears are blessed to be caressed by their most recent album, Deserted, released in March this year. The band pulled itself together from a few continents, as has been their habit for decades, and ended up at a recording studio near Joshua Tree National Park in California, a site which by virtue of its Gram and Emmylou history is already a Garden of Eden franchise with regard to American music — a sacred place serving up a little slice of original sin at the rock and roll drive-in.

And to listen to Deserted is to partake of that slice, no, to relish it, tasting the dust from Steinbeck’s footprint while moving through mist in pursuit of the spectre of Pop — that’s Iggy Pop in this case — while tripping over a broken fender from Hank Williams’ Cadillac on the way to peek at Iris Dement bathing in a desert waterhole while the serpent rests nearby.

There’s the shatteringly, sweetly broken After the Rain, calling out to Woody Guthrie with its simplicity and bare instrumentation that could be peeled off until only a campfire and the truth could accompany it. Or Andromeda, with its bones propped up by lilting Mekons fiddle while a beer bottle somewhere nearby is surely being waved in time. And then there’s How Many Stars — a question we asked ourselves before time added a 1, then 2, then 3 in front of our years on earth, a song that mixes up movement in our bodies and our hearts — in boats, in cars, in writing, in drinking, or in fucking, while asking just that question, “how many stars?” That question sometimes abandoned when our wristbands get sweaty and the grass gets trampled as we pick up our hoodies from beneath our crossed legs and trundle to the next stage, the next set, the next job, the next lover, the next casket.

Listening to Deserted, much as listening to most of Mekons’ vast, swerving, unnerving, baffling, simple, variegated catalogue conjures these images. So conversing about one of the longest standing and least listened to bands (hey, the fact that their 1978 song Where Were You? turned up in an Acura commercial a few years ago or that the 2013 documentary Revenge of The Mekons was petted and feted in New York doesn’t create a honeymoon for a four-decade old bride’s maid, does it?) is to be savoured.

The biggest challenge, Langford says, was, as usual, getting the band members, many of whom hold various day jobs, together from several continents into one place, a place where the musicians ended up tossing out any pre-planned songs and building them up from the desert air that begged to inform them. Somehow, in only five studio days the band managed to play gigs in San Diego and on the edge of Los Angeles while writing the nine songs that appear on the album.

“It just seemed like the perfect place to get us all condensed together and focused instead of being in Chicago or London where people live. It was kind of try and get ourselves out of normal life a little bit. It’s hard to focus and stay focused when everyone’s dealing with their own normal existence.

“What we did was have very loose structures and then we kind of shifted instrumentation around and people played instruments they don’t necessarily always play. It was like a little adventure, it was, ‘Let’s go for it and see what happens. It doesn’t really matter.’ When we all have pressures, nothing good comes out of it.”

And while members later added more vocals or instrumentation from around the globe before the album was mixed in Los Angeles, the whole process was uncontrived. “I think we were kind of confused by what we’d done when we left,” Langford admits.

“A lot of it just comes; it’s pretty honest. We work at such a pace we weren’t really aware. There wasn’t much planning of much time for reflection. We ploughed into it and got a lot of stuff done.

“I think that songwriting is done unconsciously and it’s a very collaborative process with the Mekons. Lots of people have different roles and people do different things; it’s hard to keep a view of the big picture. You’re sort of scratching away at it.”

Unconsciously or not, the desert that surrounded the band soon emerged as a metaphor. Langford points out that cultural deserts and food deserts are currently spreading along with physical ones.

“Then again the actual desert itself is a place where people harden themselves and protect themselves and prepare themselves and survive. Creatures do anyway. I think we were playing with that idea as well. We’re kind of opportunists in a sense. It’s not always easy for the Mekons to do things, get things together. Sometimes it’s really hard. So I think we sort of feel like were survivors in a way — there’s not a lot of bands been going on this long.”

The artist’s own move to Chicago, which occurred in the early ’90s, is part of the band’s story. He says it didn’t happen in one day of up and leaving but rather over time as the band and also Langford’s visual art seemed more appreciated there than it was in Great Britain. He stated that he would leave if George W. Bush were elected, but he is still there, even in spite of Trump. Does he ever think of leaving now?

“Oh, I think about it all the time, but I can’t think of where to go, so there you go.”

He notices that things are not any better in his adopted land or in the land of his birth. “Presidents kind of lead by example so there’s a general debasement of everything. I think it’s given licence to very dark forces in this society to feel they can do what they want and I find that frightening.

“I see what’s going on in England and how politicians in England see the way Trump operates and they think, ‘Oh, that could work for me.’ So you’ve got someone like Boris Johnson there. You can be brazen, you can lie, you can position yourself above the law, you can bully your way through until people are afraid. They’re afraid of losing their jobs or not being on board the ship so they go along with it.”

And while Langford is hopeful that having conversations helps improve things, he doesn’t bet a packet on music as a cure all for desperate times. “Music is pretty powerful, but I have no great faith that we’re going to save the day with it at the moment. The forces we’re up against seem to be several steps ahead at the time.

“I think it’s a symptom of cultures heavily in decline. America’s in a post imperial stage, Great Britain has been in a post imperial stage for a long time. Rather than emerging into some kind of modern properly socialized society like Canada or Scandinavian countries or Germany, who have shaken off the worst aspects of their past, America and Britain seem to embrace it, be nostalgic for the darker aspects of what they’ve done. I see all of the symptoms of culture and society sliding into a toilet really.”

Some of that darkness occurs in Langford’s art, which, with its themes of American legends, some lost, some still found, like Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Johnny Cash and Joey Ramone, seems not so much parallel to his music as woven into it. He has started touring solo off the beaten track, playing places like Rockford, Illinois or Baker City, Oregon, where he exhibits his work and plays his music in conjunction.

“I go and have the art show and play music that a lot of the paintings overlap a certain way. I’m trying to set up a sort of model — I never really liked playing music on my own and sometimes I do now. I can actually go out and sing songs on my own. It’s not as terrifying as I used to find it.”

While his muse still sings, she does get hungry. “Financially there has to be a way to make a living. I don’t have a job and I’m well past the age of being able to get a job in this age of society,” he says, laughing. “I’m living by my wits.” It’s fortunate his wits are well developed.

And, after all these years, when the Mekons do come together, they seem to confirm the joking rumour that the only way out is in a box. “It’s got a feel of like family or a community. It’s almost like we haven’t got any choice now. We will continue doing it because it would be kind of a cop out not to do it. We like each other’s company.”

Family, community, or not, it’s easier to be together when things are going well and your contributions are appreciated. “It’s been nice that this album’s been really well received. We did a tour in Europe in April which was great and most of the gigs were sold out. I won’t pretend that we don’t find that kind of gratifying. We’ve got periods of the band which have been quite creatively good periods where no one’s cared about us at all or been interested. Sometimes that’s alright, (but) sometimes it’s nice when you do things and people actually pay attention.”

(Photo courtesy Ricky Malpas.)

Mekons and Four Lost Souls perform at the Calgary Folk Music Festival on July 27 and 28. For more information, go to https://www.calgaryfolkfest.com/

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.