Last time the multi-faceted and multi-talented Jon Langford came to town, we let him tell his own story without any guidance from us. This time ‘round, we decided that since it’s the 30th anniversary of the first appearance of the Mekons in Leeds, England, we’d take a stroll down memory lane.
The Mekons kick off their 30th anniversary tour in Milwaukee with a "a quiet night" gig at The Pabst Theater on Thursday, Sept. 27 at 8 p.m. Hotcakes Gallery in Riverwest opens "The Art of the Mekons" on the same night. The show runs until Oct. 27.
The band's latest CD, "Natural," was released in late August on Quarterstick.
Langford, in addition to being a founding member of The Mekons, whose single “Where Were You” remains a classic of the era – at least in this writer’s mind – was also involved with The Delta 5 and, in the middle ‘80s, the brilliant Three Johns. Since then, he’s moved to Chicago, formed the Waco Brothers, continued to work as a producer and an artist. Through it all, the Mekons have endured.
Langford explains why…
OMC: Looking back at 30 years, what has been the thread that has united the diverse music of the Mekons?
JL: It's always been about the method and the motivation rather than any particular sound; bending the rules and trampling over the boundaries of how a band is supposed to behave. We went back to some of the old stuff we made in the late ‘70s when we played the 25th anniversary tour and we were actually quite proud of the decisions we made and concerns we'd addressed at that time. If anything the lid is on tighter now than it was then and its even harder for bands to break out of the music biz manacles.
OMC: How many former Mekons are out there wandering the earth, do you reckon? Ever consider having a family reunion?
JL: That figure has often been exaggerated due to the vast number of false names provide in sleeve notes to distract dole spies and taxmen. We do have an open door policy for any Mekons who have wandered off in search of more lucrative employment to return whenever they desire and we like to think the only way you can really leave the Mekons is in a box.
OMC: Are you each grooming a replacement to take over for the next 30 years?
JL: Fantastic idea! Some band members have children but they all seem too smart to follow us down the Mekon path.
OMC: Not a lot of bands from the '77 scene have endured (not counting reunions since that's not really enduring), what do you think accounts for the Mekons' ability to keep fans and the band itself interested?
JL: We never spilt up and never had any real commercial success and have never really had to do much but please ourselves. Thank the lawd there are some people out there still interested in what we do BUT if there wasn't we'd probably just keep on doing it anyway.
OMC: Let's talk a little about the turn the band took in the mid-1980s, when it arguably became the first -- or one of the first -- alt.country bands (cowpunks like Rank & File excluded). What led to that pretty dramatic change in the band's sound?
JL: We suddenly saw ourselves as part of a long tradition of folk/roots'functional music rather than just bratty year zero punks inventing the wheel and sticking it to the old farts. Our pal John Gill who we met in a studio in Yorkshire told us we were a folk band and compared our enthusiastic but inept racket to Cajun music -- something about the limitations of our technique becoming the style, mistakes being handed down etc. Then Terry Nelson, a DJ in Chicago, told us we were a country band because all our songs were about getting drunk and pissing off our girlfriends. We jus stated listening to lots of Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams at that time -- everybody in Leeds thought we'd gone mental.
OMC: Was there anyone in the band that was unhappy with the change?
JL: Oh, all of us I'm sure.
OMC: It's been a long time between the two most recent records and a lot of members have quite a few projects going ... what is the status of the band these days?
JL: Sarah is the new girl and she joined in 1991. We work when we feel like it and there is some money in the pot to get everybody where we want to be on the planet. Sarah (Corina) has a band called Striplight, I do the Waco Brothers, Tom (Greenhalgh, who is the other surviving original member) has a solo project called King Tommy's Velvet Runway, Rico (Bell) paints like a mofo, Lu (Edmonds) plays in The Blokes for Billy Bragg, Steve (Goulding) plays with loads of people in NYC including Megan Riley.
OMC: Speaking of other projects, when you come to Milwaukee Hotcakes will also exhibit a show called "The Art of the Mekons." Can you tell us what's in it?
JL: We've done a bunch of collective Mekons art shows and collaborations over the years and -- most notably with Vito Acconci in NYC, The United Show in Lakeland Florida in 1996 and the OOOH show in Leeds and Manchester in 2001. So the offer from The Pabst and Hotcakes Gallery to have an art show on the opening night of our first U.S. tour in over three years seemed opportune. There'll be work from various Mekons including large collaborative paintings and souped up, doctored up pages from our illustrated lyric book.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.