I 'Heart' the Mekons
Left to Right: Tom, Jon, Rico, Sarah, Sally You have to admire a band that sticks it out for a good 20 years and is still making great music. Of all the bands to come out of the U.K. punk explosion, the Mekons were probably the least likely that you'd think would carry on. They were a scraggly bunch from Leeds who barely put out two records, after fights with Virgin Records, and broke up. Then managed to reform in the '80s and put out some of their best music (after a few more fights with record companies). Impressively, they exist today as a group which isn't just putting out music but also putting on art exhibitions and writing novels. If that's not enough, the band members are invovled in enough side and solo projects to make up the output of a label (which they also do with Bloodshot Records).
Interview by Jason Gross (September 1997)
Excited as I was to meet them, the 'curse' of the Mekons extends to any who comes in contact. I couldn't get to see their two shows in the area because they were sold out- I did get to see their sound check where I witnessed Sally Timms leading a calisthenics work-out, heard what what accordian feedback sounds like and watched the group eat a cold pizza. This did mean missing a show where half the band stage-dived, demanded 'something from the audience' (they got money and a bra that Sally wore later with the money stuffed in), rattled off loads of Princess Di jokes and did other fun things.
I managed to drag the band out a deli for pleasant conversation and coffee. Most of the meal was spent with the group discussing how much the paintings for their exhibition should go for while I chewed a dry, fatty roast beef sandwich. They reckoned that it would be good to sell one painting for ten grand and then let the rest go for ten bucks. When I asked about the band and its activities, eyes rolled and jokes flew around. When I brought up politics though, scuffles ensued over who would get to speak. I'll say this for them: they're the nicest bunch of anarchist cut-up's you'll ever meet.
CAST OF CHARACTERS Jason Gross (interrogator) Jon Langford (singer/guitarist) Tom Greenhalgh (singer/guitarist) (Eric) 'Rico' Bell (accordian) Lu Edmonds (odd instruments) M.I.A.- Sally Timms (singer), Sarah Corina (bass), Steve Goulding (drums)
JASON: What's the story behind the art exhibiton that the band's doing now (Mekons United)?
JON: We did an art show in Florida in May 1996 which was effectively our next album. We did an album that was an art show and a book. It was quite interesting because it was in Florida. It was fraught with technical problems in actually making it happen. The art world was as difficult to negotiate as the music business. We actually met some really nice people who took an interest in it and were very supportive of it.
RICO: We'd been talking about doing an exhibition of visual art for ages, just as a project. When the opportunity came, we thought that we might as well do it. The curator of the gallery at that time said that we could have an exhibition there and it just turned into Mekons United. We started to work on it then. We all produced work for it and we did work on the book, the colloborative novel. We also recorded the CD to go with it. It all stemmed from the fact that a place, which could have been anywhere, had a Mekons fan who was a curator.
JASON: Was it different for all of you to work together on an art project rather than an album?
TOM: In theory, it should be the same. People are bringing different things to whatever it is. So that kind of worked in the same way really.
JASON: Do you think it was successful?
TOM: Well, that depends on how you gage success.
JON: Financially! (laughs)
TOM: Finanacially, no. Good for the heart and soul? Maybe yes, I don't know.
JON: When the band (originally) formed, we were all at art college. Basically, we didn't do any art, we just formed a band. Touring, making records then. Then at this stage a couple of years ago, we realized that we didn't want to tour anymore. We were fed up with it so we sat around, waiting to see what would actually happen to a band that didn't want to tour and make records. This show happened then so we all started doing visual stuff independently. We're more interested in doing visual art (now) than when we were at art college.
JASON: How do you think that's going to work out though with the group waiting around for things to happen?
TOM: I think it works better just doing your thing now and again and see what people offer. I can't just see touring around all the time. It's too much.
JASON: You see it as vicious cycle? Tour and record and tour and record...
TOM: Yeah, it's like any job then. It's much more interesting to do a specific project, like a one-off. After awhile...
JASON: You have no life.
TOM: Exactly. You're touring and you just kind of end up in this weird bubble existance and it's no good for anybody really.
JASON: What other kind of projects would you think of working on then?
TOM: There's this novel that we're working on. We're also talking about doing a film as well. Anything really.
JON: Opening a coal mine. Hair dressing. Interior design.
RICO: A range of clothing.
JON: Floral deliveries seem to be on the up in Britain right now.
JASON: Is there going to be another record?
TOM: Yeah, it's called Me and we're going to record it next week. We're just trying to write a different type of song, different lyrics. We just generally have a different approach from the previous one.
JON: It's going to be a soft-porn easy listening album.
JASON: Any plans for the re-release of older material or a singles compilation?
JON: The stuff we own the rights to will eventually appear on CD - only a couple of things are currently unavailable. Some rare stuff will come out after ME. But there's going to be no singles compilation ever, ever, ever.
JASON: You sure?
JASON: Why do you think the band's stayed together for so long?
JON: Very high standard of living.
JON: Strong sedatives.
TOM: It's never really been worth giving up because there's nothing really to give up.
JON: We tried to give up a couple of times but we always wind up doing something anyway. You're still with the people you hang around with. Even though we're all living in different places now, it's the same people that we hang about with.
JASON: Do you find that the same kind of things still inspire the band and keep it going?
JON: Sort of. There's a thread to the Mekons I think. It's kind of interesting because it was a punk band that DIDN'T break up and cash in. That's slightly different. It's a band that tried to keep going and see where it would lead and see where you could take being a band.
JASON: Things changed a lot though, didn't they?
TOM: Everything's changed but the attitudes are still the same.
JON: Yeah, we're still spitting! It's an attitude of being critical towards the industry. You find yourself working within the music industry and then trying to be critical about what you do and the way you relate to that industry. That's a thread I think.
JASON: You find that this backfires sometimes? The band had problems with A&M and Virgin records before.
TOM: It's inevitable. I think every band has problems with record companies because when you get to be part of the music industry, you're kind of offering yourself up to be exploited and fucked over anyway. All that's different about us is that we probably made more out of it a subject for what we do. It's more reflexive or critical.
JASON: Is that self-defeating though?
JON: Eminently self-defeating!
TOM: I don't know. I mean, I can't imagine that any record label would be interested in us, apart from Touch and Go.
JASON: They've worked well with you, haven't they?
TOM: Oh yeah.
JON: That's the longest relationship that we've ever had with a record company.
TOM: Their whole thing is to be totally seperated from the whole music industry and to behave in a reasonable kind of way. So, it works then.
JON: There's no reason that there can't be lots of labels that could put out lots of records by lots of bands that sold in fairly small quantities that could keep the bands going. But the system leads people to have one band that everyone in the world has a CD by. So they make a lot of money off that one band and fuck over all of the other bands. It's a hierarchial thing like a pyramid. But that doesn't necessarily have to be that way.
JASON: Mekons always seemed to have a strong political character. How would you describe your political outlook?
JON: Serb-Nationalist. Non-aligned lefties, I guess. We'd like to be aligned lefties but we always get thrown out for asking difficult questions.
JASON: It seems that there's a lot of situationist thinking behind the band.
JON: When we went to art college, there was a fellow who as a professor who was actually a member of the Situationist International- a fellow named Tim Clark. He was quite romantic and exciting and interesting. Around 1977, Malcolm McLaren flirted with a very shallow understanding of situationism.
JASON: How is it different for the Mekons then?
JON: For us, it's different because we're interested in a lot of different things and not just situationism.
JASON: Through a lot of the '80s, Margaret Thatcher was a big enemy. What about the politics in Britain today?
TOM: The new Labor are the same really. Like Tony Blair invited Thatcher around for tea so she could give him some tips.
JON: It's a non-socialist socialist government.
TOM: You're not allowed to say 'socialist.' They don't exist. There's no left-wing politics. It's just total center politics.
JON: It's sad because he (Blair) doesn't even eat too much and have sex with people. He's not very interesting. He's a pious version of Clinton. Give me Clinton anyday. If we had Clinton, he'd have a pizza then go out and shag some birds and it'd be much better.
TOM: The whole scene in England has changed beyond recognition.
LU: It's almost like a one party state. In Thatcher's time, you had whole waves of the media that were really against her with the intelligentsia. Even in the end when she started undermining the monarchy, the whole upper class and the Church got against her. The whole thing's now united. New Labor has taken bits and pieces of Thatcher. You can't stand up and say anything and criticize. You can't criticize Lady Diana or Elton John or Tony Blair. There's a HUGE list of things that you can't criticize anymore.
JON: It's a bunch of middle ground, middle-class wankers.
TOM: And the New Labor party is organized in such discipline. If anyone steps out of line, that's it. They're really hammered.
LU: Where is the voice of opposition to this goverment now? I can't find it.
JON: What's going on in America is much more fucking interesting. The U.P.S. strike and the unions thinking that they actually have a chance to get some power back. They're actually organizing transient workers and bus boys and working together. It's much more interesting over here the way that the tide has turned against the corporations. People are very pissed off at the corporations and they're very aware. There's actually an economic revival going on but they're still fucking people over.
TOM: In England, there's been a dock strike that's been going on for practically a year but there's a news blackout about it. You don't even hear about it. It just doesn't fit in with the new right-wing Stalinist Labor party.
JON: When U.P.S. went on strike, the Teamsters built up all this support. All these other unions came out and they had no choice but to deal with them. Clinton just stood back. So they won that strike really easily. It just changed everything.
LU: I'd add one person that list of taboos (that you can't criticize)- Richard Branston (head of Virgin). He's an amazing human being. If you add up all the people in Tony Blair's orbit right now, they're all in there for the same thing.
TOM: Oasis too.
LU: Right, Oasis is in there as well. There's a huge list of people and there's no way in. I can't imagine anyone getting up and criticizing them.
JON: You heard David Bowie's jungle tribute to Lady Diana? It's very good.
JASON: Are the Mekons going to do a tribute as well?
JON: We'll do 'Wreck on the Highway' (covered by Jon's side project The Waco Brothers). Or 'Di and Doodie Dead as Dodo's.'
JASON: The band started out in Leeds. What kind of effect did that area have on shaping the group?
LU: It has everything to do with the band. I'm not from there originally but I spent a lot of time there. Leeds isn't London. It's like... Manchester and Leeds each have different mentalities. London is full of these really snotty people who think they're good because they've got all their Clash duds on. 'I've got my special bondage trousers on.' We just dress normal. Leeds is like a small town with loads of industry.
JON: The biggest thing was just that Leeds wasn't London at that time (when the group started). It was interesting- really weird, different things happened. It's like Manchester where industry-led things happen. Anything you do is the product of many, many different things. I'm sure the environment you're in is really crucial.
TOM: It was a very lively scene going on. There were a lot of bands playing in Leeds.
RICO: There's Leeds Univerity too.
JON: Yeah, there's a big, huge university/polytechnic right in the center of the town. In Britain, a lot of the universities are shoved out into the suburbs or the out-skirts of a town. With Leeds, it's right in the middle and that's kind of interesting. That's where we were all going to school together. Some of us stayed there and some of us moved out to London.
JASON: How's the music scene changed there?
TOM: You had the gothic music with dry ice and echo machines in the '80s.
JON: It was a good scene. It was good for us. It was a good place for us to get doing again. Suddenly, this scene came up. It was pretty different from the punk scene. I had a another band called the Three Johns then and that got me back into gigging. Then the Mekons started gigging as well because it was like putting your foot back in the water and saying 'oh, it's not so bad.' At one point, it was just hideous- I hated the idea of gigging. By 1980 in England, it was ultra-violent maniacs everywhere like Sham 69, Angelic Upstarts.
LU: Gary Bushell, a journalist, started it up.
JON: The whole Oi movement- a bunch of disillusioned socialists who became fascists, promoting ignorance and stupidity. Tom got his nose broken by one of those guys.
JASON: What happened?
TOM: Somebody hit me in a dressing room. There was a massive riot going on with cops bursting through the doors. Just mayhem.
JON: Angelic Upstart fans didn't like us.
LU: (singing) 'GUNS FOR THE AFGHANS RE-BELS!!! WE USED TO HAVE AN EMPIRE, NOW WE'VE GOT FUCK-ALL!'
RICO: I heard that playing in the back of a car before.
JON: Really? That's brilliant.
JASON: A lot of people have gone through the band over the years yet there seems to be a nucleus of members.
JON: We've had dozens and dozens of pseudonyms.
RICO: I've had three I think.
JON: There haven't really been that many if you count. Most of the people that have been in the band over the years that's here tonight. If Susie (Honeyman, violinist) was here with us, it would still be the same band that we had in '84. The Mekons Story gives that impression of having a lot of people but they weren't really a lot of people there. People have had a nice time counting it up and it gives people something to do. But it is actually all the same people.
JASON: With all the solo projects going on with the members, is there center-point for your work?
JON: Bloodymindedness, an unwillingness to get a day job, scant regard for the material pleasures this world has to offer, stupidity, unbending political, purism, lack of a clue what else to do.
JASON: How do you see the Mekons as different from other bands around today?
LU: Most bands use their P.A. and their instruments as a weapon. The Mekons has always been a band without a wish to kill anyone. You see a lot of times where the music gets mixed up with sport. A lot of bands might as well be football players. That whole sporting or jock mentality of music. The Mekons never had anything to do with that. That's what makes it very easy for me to play with them. It's really easy to just come in and just play because there's always space. With a lot of bands, if you came in to play with them, there'd be nowhere for you to play. You couldn't actually put your instrument in there anyhow. There's always a space in the Mekons to add another instrument that's doing another thing. It's designed on a different mentality, sense of humor or a different feeling if you like. That's what I like about African rhythms- you can always add or play another thing. There's always space for someone else. It brings people in.
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