photo: Nero's House of Women
interview by Diane RokaInterviewing Jon Langford is no piece of cake. There are difficulties. It's not the Welsh accent. That's actually sort of nice and even melodic. The fact that he tends to be funny can pose problems. Trying to listen to what he said on the tape recorder and hear under your own cackle of laughter can take many listens. But that's not all.
You know that he started the literate punk band The Mekons in the late 70's. Who doesn't? But then there's all those other bands. The Waco Brothers. The Pine Valley Cosmonauts. And that's just this week!
Then, besides hosting a free-form radio show on Chicago's WXRT (called The Eclectic Company), he goes and releases a 144 page book of his paintings (Nashville Radio) the same day that he releases his new album "Gold Brick". Which is during the same time that he's touring "The Executioner's Last Songs", an anti-death penalty multi-media performance piece commissioned by the National Performance Network .
His publicist, a very nice young woman, asks me, with a voice slightly shaking, what I plan to "focus" on. Well, good Lord, Woman! I don't know! So, we just had a chat. About many things. Including his new projects, the wonder of office supply stores, and the secret of Chickie Chickie Honolulu.
JL: So, how can I help you today?
PSF: Well, I wanted to talk to you a little bit. And, I know I should probably be talking to you about the death penalty and issues like that, but I recently…
JL: Ah, you don't have to talk to me about that! I'm kind of bored with that!
PSF: Oh, good! (laughs)
JL: It's wrong, and they should end it. That's about it.
PSF: (laughs) Yeah, pretty much. I interviewed John Doe recently, and he talked about your radio show…
JL: Oh, right, yeah! We had a great time when he came in.
PSF: Yeah, he's something else. I laughed pretty much laughed throughout the whole interview!
JL: Yeah. He's a very charming old L.A. punk rocker.
PSF: Very much, you know? (Both laugh) So, having my own radio show is my secret dream. So I want to ask you about your radio show. How did that come about?
JL: Well, Norm Weiner at ‘XRT started askin' me about doing a radio show something like 4 years ago. And nothing ever happened! (Both laugh) He said, "If you want me to do it, I'll do it." The way corporate radio works is pretty glacial, you know, and they have to kind of eke out a space where they can put a show in that was totally free form. It's a heavily, kind of like, what's the word I mean? Heavily programmed station. It is a big commercial rock station. [They said] this will be two hours on a Tuesday night from 10 to Midnight, which was the old John Peel slot. When they say that, I was like, yeah, I'll definitely do it.
PSF: Yeah. He was something.
JL: He's what I used to listen to. It's just a great slot.
PSF: So, is it strange interviewing people now, after how many times you've been interviewed?
JL: I never really interview anyone. We just have a chat, you know? I never really ask any questions. People come in and play, and then I ask them what they just played, basically. Lots of people bring in their laptops, they have lots of music on their laptops. Tim Rutili from Caliphone brought in his cell phone. He had loads of messages people left. And the show is on this week, and we actually, he's done a lot of film and soundtrack music, so we wanted to play some of that. But he said it really wouldn't work without people acting on the top of it. So there was a play that me and him acted a little bit on top of his soundtrack music, which was pretty ludicrous. Basically, we can do anything we want on the show. So, it's good. (laughs)
PSF: Now, is it live or does it get edited?
JL: It depends. A lot of times guests come in and you can't get them in at 10 o'clock on a Tuesday night. So, I've done a few live ones. Sally [Timms] came in and did a live one, Kelly Hogan did a live one. When you've got people come in through town – like we had Robyn Hitchcock, Johnny Marr, Graham Parker. They come up whenever they can come in.
PSF: Who was one of your best people to come in? One of your favorite guests?
JL: It was great, actually, I think Robyn Hitchcock was probably the best. Because it was so early on in the process, I really didn't know what I was doing. He was just excellent, you know. So, it kind of set the tone for the whole thing, when we realized it was just, you know, two musicians havin' a chat, basically. And it wasn't like I'm the DJ or anything like that.
PSF: Yeah, I just love the whole concept, and that…
JL: It's like their reaction to what's going on with satellite radio and stuff like that. It's a lot healthier than this kind of extreme genre stratification they have on satellite radio now where you can just program in exactly what you want to listen to and everything else. If anyone listens to our show, you know, they never know what they're gonna get. The guy who runs the station really hates bluegrass and opera. So the first show we did was mostly bluegrass and opera.
PSF: (laughs) Oh, man. They don't tell you what to do at all?
JL: As long as there's no swearin' in it. [A small voice pipes up in the background, Jon's eight-year-old. "There's swearing!"]
JL: Fish? I never said fish in a song! [Jon's son says something else]
JL: (mock sternly) Oh. Hey. Silence.
PSF: (laughs) Can I get a quote there?
JL: My eight-year-old is tellin' me off for my language. So...
PSF: (laughs) I wanted to also talk to you about your artwork. Being someone that graduated from art school and then couldn't pick up a paint brush again for about eight years after going through all that mind stuff they put you through -- when I read that about you, I thought, "Wow, I really want to talk to someone who went through that too."
JL: With me, it was almost... you know what? It probably was about eight years. I kind of got out in '81. And it was about '87, '88 when I finally started just doin' little paintings for my friends as gifts, you know? But I really didn't do anything for the longest time.
PSF: And it makes you feel terrible – well, it made me feel terrible. Because people kept asking me, "But you went to art school! And you're an artist! And why aren't you…?" And I just couldn't even explain it. I just couldn't do it.
JL: Well, I did draw, but I drew kind of little cartoons. I got into drawing things for magazines and stuff like that.
PSF: Yeah, sort of what you do when you're a teenager and it kind of like relaxes you again. [mishearing him and thinking he said drawing from magazines]
JL: Yeah, but I never thought about making art with a big "A."
PSF: Well, what was your style like in art school?
JL: Not ‘til I came to Chicago did I really think about doin' art. When I moved to Chicago I just had a lot of time on my hands…for my thoughts, somewhat. So.
PSF: What was your – I know that you went to art school in England, what was your style like at that time?
JL: I was a wishy-washy hick. You know? I wanted to sit outside and paint trees and sunlight. That was my deal.
PSF: And that was a pretty conceptual time, I know. At least the art school I went to. Nobody wanted us to do anything that was representational. They wanted us to be very abstract.
JL: The first tutors I had in my first year – it's interesting. Leeds University is very interesting because I got there the same time that this guy TJ Clark arrived. Pretty famous kind of art historian. He was the only British member of the Situationist International in Paris in 1968. He looked like Che Guevera when he arrived. (PSF laughs) We arrived kind of like invisible, and he arrived in this big puff of smoke. The rebel inside the department. But basically, he had all these kind of idiots working there that he had to kind of shift sideways and get rid of. But, they were the people who were teaching me in my first year. And they were just these kind of Modernist, Pop Arty kind of loser guys, you know. They just had a formula for what they thought they should be crushing the life out of all the students. So, basically, they did me in. (PSF laughs) But he was more on the art history side.
When I went back – I dropped out when the Mekons signed with Virgin, and he actually really supported me through doin' that – Clark. And by the time I got back, you know, he'd filled the department with all these really interesting people like Terry Atkinson and Griselda Pollock. And they all thought we were great. ‘Cause we'd been off fightin' the Punk Rock Wars, you know. And they understood what we were doin' and that that was what was where it was going on at that moment. That I shouldn't be, like, sittin' in my painting studio doing gestural painting or whatever. We were actually more in tune with what was going on than the teachers, so... We got a lot of support from them. So, I actually went back in 1980. Was it 1980? Yeah. I actually went back and finished my degree. And I did some painting to get my degree, basically. But then as soon as I left, I formed another band.
[Jon's son pipes up in the background, "Who are you talking to?"]
PSF: Well, I just wanted to comment on your work now. I like that it's whimsical and yet disturbing.
JL: (Laughs) That just about sums me up!
PSF: (Laughs) I thought it was pretty neat too, how – all the scratching. Because it seems like there's a red underpainting, so it's almost like they're bleeding.
JL: That, well, I use red and gold. The two colors underneath. And, you know, if I was going to get really deeply symbolic about it, there was a song called "Blow the Man Down" I wrote which goes on about red and gold and blood and armor. You know, blood and money, stuff like that. But I don't know. There's different levels going on with the whole thing that sometimes things... you know. I don't want to be like Picasso and say what things mean, you know. (Picasso voice) "The blue is fascism!" A few years later he says, "The blue is the spirit of Pain!" Forgotten what he said 20 years before. They're whatever you want them to be, really.
PSF: Yeah. The colors look nice together. That's the important thing. (laughs)
JL: See, that was an allusion to the idea of songwritin'. ‘Cause, you know, melody. I thought there were so many – if I write a song that's got a good tune, you know, there's something kind of indescribably, I don't know, just cathartic about that. It's just like, oh wow, this is really great. The tune carries you around.
I wanted to make pictures that were kind of like, you know, eye candy? On one level. And then disturbing on another level. So... the scratching is not about really aging them. You know, people say, "Oh, you're just trying to make your pictures look like they're aged," or something like that. It's different to that. They're very deliberately scratched. And I write about that sometimes on the paintings. It's meant to be kind of unnecessary neglect. And, I don't know, the way things were erased. It's more about cultural Stalinism than it is about trying to make antique furniture, you know.
PSF: (both laugh) It reminded me of watching an old movie, too. You know, the way that the film stock gets kind of scratched. It makes your eyes jump around.
JL: It definitely hacks up the surface for me, and I like that. You know, the texture of the surface becomes more alive for me when I do that. And I'll say one thing as well, I got interested in the idea of nostalgia as well. Why? ‘Cause I thought, we look back at these old publicity photographs and it's got a nostalgic feeling. I'm sure I kind of got wrapped up in the whole Country and Western mythology and a certain nostalgia for this kind of age where when I thought about the people in the photos kind of staring out, you know, with this amazing optimism, like they're at the beginnin' of their careers, and they're hopin' they're gonna get, you know, a big deal and a hit record. And they're smiling out of these publicity photographs, which, you know, I first saw on the wall of a bar in Nashville [Tootsie's Orchid Lounge] all covered in nicotine and dripping and torn up.
And a lot of them were people that, you know, weren't really very famous. Or never really made it. Which is like foot soldiers who kind of got crushed in the wheels of the machine. And, I don't know, I just started thinking about nostalgia and optimism as being things that – maybe the same thing travelling in different directions, you know?
PSF: Well, I don't know if you feel this way, but it's sort of a strange feeling when you're looking at an image of somebody who had all the optimism in the world. And it's almost like you're God, because you know what turned out, you know what happened, they don't. So there's something kind of sad about it.
JL: Yeah, I found [that] with the experience of going to Tootsie's Orchid Lounge in Nashville -- I think it was about 1988 or something we went in there. And it was like, "Oh, God, I've finally found the authentic kind of thing I was looking for about country music." And as you're there, it's like a graveyard. Just pictures on the wall. And it was, like, great to look at it. But it was also, I found it really sad, you know. But really fascinating. The way they were all scrolled all over and other pictures had been nailed on top.
Airing a bit, just, the neglect. You know. It was pretty powerful stuff. So that's why I started doing the paintings. I just wanted to make paintings that looked like that. I didn't even really know why. It just seemed like, I had a little moment. One of those things that turn ‘round in your head. So I started making these little paintings. And I started giving them to friends. But didn't really think about them as "Art." (laughs)
PSF: How did the whole Yard Dog thing happen?
JL: Eh, Jason Cohen down in Austin interviewed me and said, "You should show at this place called Yard Dog. There's a guy there, he's a musician, it'd be perfect for you." I talked to him, and he was just a folk art gallery at that time. And he was skeptical about having, you know, someone who was obviously not an outsider folk artist. Someone who was like an insider. But, he persevered with me, and it worked out really well.
PSF: Isn't that the rub? That once you've gone to art school, you can't play the folk art card? (laughs) You're immediately suspect.
JL: Well, I've worked with a lot of people who you could describe as "outsiders." Like, the first time I showed it was with guys who were tattoo artists? You know? And I guess they are kind of outsiders on one level to the mainstream of art. And then, my thing was, to the art world, I'm a bit of an outsider on one level ‘cause I'm coming from the music thing. I decided very early on that if I was gonna make paintings they would have to embrace what I'd done and learned bein' a musician, you know. So, that's why they're kind of music-based things. Because I always wanted to make art that was about, you know, about what I knew about.
PSF: What I think is interesting is that you're a songwriter, you interview people, you create portraits --and in all of those, you're looking at something closely and trying to capture the essence of what it is. Do you find that?
JL: As an artist and a musician, I think the best stuff I've done maybe as an artist, or we've done in the various bands with songwriting would be when it's been descriptive. I think that's the best, the way it's only made sense for me as a songwriter, is to be kind of describing, you know, the world as I see it, or whatever. And describing incidents that have happened to me or things I could feel like could happen to me. Or, I don't know, I think the best art comes out of trying to explain or communicate things about your own immediate experiences. Other than trying to, like, set the world to right or have a clever message.
PSF: Let's talk about the new album. What was going through your mind when you created it?
JL: It was a free day in the studio. ‘Cause a guy walked into a bar and bought one of my paintings. And said he owned a studio and would I like a day in the studio for the painting. And I'm like, "Well, I've got all these songs. This could be really good." And I rushed and got my, you know, my "crew," and we went in there and bashed out all these songs in one day.
But the night before we went in, Alan [Doughty], who's the bass player in the Waco Brothers and used to be in Jesus Jones, nearly cut off his finger... cutting limes while watchin' TV at his bar job. He turned up at the studio with this kind of like terrible bandage wrapped round his finger and blood all dripping down his hand. And said, "Yeah, I'm fine! I can still do it! I can just play it with my other finger."
See, I don't know, I really believe that kind of made the whole thing click, because everybody -- I never played a wrong note or misplaced a lyric the whole day. Everyone was, like, on tenterhooks. Because we all see him, he was right in the window. I was about one side of this glass window and he was the other side. And I could see this guy sufferin' and havin' a terrible time, but determined that, you know, "the show must go on." And so everyone – there was this kind of weird tension to the thing where everyone was, like, determined. We were going to get it right the first take or the second take. So everyone was, like, playing their brains out. Now, usually you go into a studio and say, "Aw, I can fix it later." This wasn't like that. (both laugh).
You know, I just pulled together a load of songs that I wanted to record. Afterwards, I listened to it back – it was kind of obvious that some of them really didn't fit. But mostly it was all things that I had written and I didn't know what I was to do with. And I kind of recorded in this quite intense way. They all kind of really – they all sort of strung together. And I just needed to add a few other little things and change the lyrics a little bit on a couple of them. And just tweak it a little bit. And it seemed to be this whole other world we tapped into. It was, like, all the stories about people being displaced and shifting. And economic power and exploration. It was kind of a big, widescreen kind of view of history through, like, little individual stories of different people.
So, I don't know. I don't know why, but that's what I've been writing about. It wasn't conscious, ‘cause they were all written at different times. But they all seem to be telling stories that could all be in the same book.
PSF: It made me think of a merchant seaman coming to town. Which is why, maybe "Salty Dog" is in there. But there's just something about a stranger coming to town.
JL: Yes! Believe me. And that's why – you know, I came from a seaport town. And ended up, you know, moving thousands of miles to become some sort of weird American. Well, I feel very much like I invested in this country now, you know. For better or for worse. And that first solo album I did came about in a very similar way. I'd just written a load of songs which were about South Wales. I guess I was kind of pining for it a little. Kind of struck by what I saw going on.
I have this kind of like vision of it that I think was kind of exaggerated because I was away from it. And then, I don't know, this album seems to be going in the other direction. It seems to be me thinkin' about the whole sweep of history of people having to move – economic pressures forcing people to move. People traveling halfway across the world to make a buck. (laughs)
PSF: There was one line [in the song "Invisible Man"] that was about the yellow notebooks and the flash of the cameras – is that about having to do press junkets and things like that?
JL: I was actually looking at old photographs that had kinda gone – I was actually going back to my hometown. Standing on the... there's a bridge there, and it's a very high tidal range? And so sometimes, you can stand on the bridge and the river's goin' upstream. The rivers flows backwards. The tide comin' in, ‘cause it's a big seaport town. And I don't know. It was kind of a metaphor for, you know, goin' back somewhere and walking around.
And it's really funny, I love going back there. It makes me feel really... rooted, to some extent. I go back there and it's almost like I'm invisible. I just drop in. It's like I dropped in from outer space. I see all my cousins and stuff. They're all goin' about their daily lives. Everything's just goin' on. And it's like I don't fit in – I just appear. It's very odd. It's just an odd feeling.
I'll get on the bus, you know, I used to ride when I was a kid. It's like I'm completely invisible. You know? A bit like wanderin' around Chicago – I used to live in a big gang neighborhood. And I was a Welsh guy in a leather jacket, who, I don't think the gang kids could see me, you know? (laughs) Take a shot a me, or try to do anything – I was just so like from another world.
PSF: Well, I guess even if you never leave your hometown – if you're an observer, whether that means a writer, artist or musician – you always are sort of the invisible man in town. You kind of have to be if you want to observe people.
JL: Well, it wasn't intentional in any way. That song was actually about... we arranged that we would meet at this pub on New Year's Eve when we were kids in school, you know. And I was probably in Chicago and the other people I arranged to meet were somewhere else. None of us ever went. And none of us even discussed it. And I've seen all the people I was going to meet since. It was interesting, you know. That sort of...
[Jon's son pipes in softly, "Daddy?" Jon covers the phone and takes a minute to talk to him]
Sorry. My son's asked me if he can watch TV. Great idea! Very resourceful of you, Son!
PSF: (laughs) Do you bring them in the studio with you?
JL: He's been. He's actually on the new record. You can hear Jimmy, the eight-year-old. You can hear, I think he says "Chickie Chickie Honolulu." It's on "Lost in America." When it drops down, when I start goin' on about Columbus. He starts going "Chickie Chickie Honolulu."
PSF: (laughs) Was that his idea?
JL: Eh, it's a thing that our favorite musician says. We got a mate who's an Iraqi magician called Mr. Ash. A guy who came to the States via London in the ‘50's, looking for rock n' roll, you know. He wanted to be a rock n' roller. And this Iraqi guy ended up... he's Mr. Ash. And he's got a magic shop next to my painting studio. One of the funniest people I've ever met in my life. So that's what he says when he wants to do things. He doesn't say "Abracadabra". He says "Chickie Chickie Honolulu." I find that amusing.
PSF: Do you have the kids come with you to the painting studio also?
JL: Yeah, Jimmy comes every day. I pick him up – his school's right by my studio, so I pick him up.
PSF: And he's your older guy?
JL: Yeah, the older. And he comes and does his homework. And then when he's finished his homework, he just helps himself to the paints. He paints flags. I've got a book of flags and he really likes that. He gets bits of wood. I've always got loads of squares of wood lying around. So he gets a few colors and he paints these flags.
PSF: You know, that was one of the things that helped me to paint again. I was teaching art part time at a pre-school. And just seeing how much they just loved it, and that they weren't thinking about it, they were just playing and having fun – it made me realize, I can do that too.
JL: Yeah. Well, I think you mentioned Yard Dog, and I didn't really elaborate on that, but that was a big influence on me as well. Going down there and seeing all that stuff that he was showing, the folk art stuff. And I was goin', "Wow. It can just be some house paint on some plywood." And why not? You know.
And it's not – it doesn't have to be this or that with anything. It can just be whatever you want, you know. And I started usin' office supplies, ‘cause they made sense to me. You know, I always loved the office supply shop. I never liked the art store. It all seemed too, kind of, I don't know... poncey. (both laugh) The office supply store was always great. I liked hardware stores and office supply stores. I go in a hardware store, I just browse. I'm in there for hours just looking at things – I don't even know what they are. But I just... I don't know, just love hardware stores. (both laugh)
PSF: Well, let me ask you about the process of when you start a painting. Now I know that there's ink drawings underneath. Now, are you...
JL: I just get a piece of plywood and I just paint it, usually red. And then I put all pastels over top of that. Over the whole thing. So it's all red, but with a layer of all pastels. There's red acrylic, then the pastels, then I paint that gold. With a layer of clear or gold pastel over that. Then I paint the whole thing kind of off-white, kind of weird gray, off-white color. And then once that's dry I can start workin' on it. I just trace a drawing onto it. Start working in black paints. And then I use these white Pentel office wite-out markers.
It's like print-makin', except you don't... I've always said it's like the most perverse thing in the world. ‘Cause it's print-making where you only end up with one. I definitely got interested in printmaking when I met Tony Fitzpatrick when I first got to Chicago. And he seen some of my drawings and decided that I should be makin' etchings. And now, I've learned this process of making etchings. And then tried to transfer everything over into painting. So, I don't really sit down with a palette and mix colors. I never do that. I never think, "Ooh, this should be a different color." It's all process, you know. It's weird.
PSF: Yeah. What's great, though, is the blue that you come up with. It's such a retro blue.
JL: It's just a sky blue. But then I put all these layers of... I'm still trying to recreate that perfect nicotine snot color. I put that over the top, and then it turns to that kind of teal-y, turquoise-y blue.
PSF: But are you drawing the photographs free-hand at some point, or are you tracing? Because it's incredible, I mean…
JL: I trace an outline… No, I'm actually... this is not bragging, but I'm actually a really good draftsman. That's the one thing I can do, you know?
PSF: Yeah. I mean, they're incredible.
JL: When I was a kid I used to just copy photographs all the time. There was a competition once when I was about ten. I was mortified. There was a competition in a sports shop for, like, you could win a pair of trainers, you know? And I did this drawing of a runner from a photograph? And then they said I hadn't done it, and they disqualified me. ‘Cause, you know, a ten-year-old couldn't have done it. (fake bitter voice) And that's the burning bitterness within me for all forces of authority! I won't rest until I crush the fascists! It was really crushing, though, at the time. I said, "Yeah, yeah, I did it." And they said, "No." My parents complained, and they said, "No, it couldn't have been done by a kid."
PSF: Were you sort of weirdly flattered, though, even at that age? Could you tell that they were sort of complimenting you in a weird way?
JL: I just thought it was wrong.
PSF: (laughs) You just wanted those sneakers!
JL: You know, I could always draw really well. It's not bragging, it was just... one thing I could really do, you know. So, I went all through school on the strength of that, really. In high school, it was just, like, I was gonna go to art school ‘cause I could do it. (laughs)
PSF: Well, isn't it fun? It's sort of like pulling out a magic trick. You know, the people sort of gather around, and...
JL: I always do. I used to draw pictures of people as a student. The only time I really drew was in pubs. I'd draw, like, caricatures and likenesses of people in pubs and they'd buy me beers.
PSF: Yeah! It's got its good side!
JL: Yeah, it's got its good side – I like it. I'd draw someone and their nose would be too big, and they'd smash me in the face. That happened a couple of times! So, that's not such a good thing.
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