Jon Langford: Interview

photo by Juan Perez-Fajardo
Interview  by Harry Kaplan
Jon Langford needs no introduction to me. Others may not be so lucky to know exactly who Jon Langford is so I will give a quick recap. Jon is a founding member of the band mekons. Originally the drummer, Jon moved to guitar as personnel changes led to openings. He is also a member of The Waco Brothers, Four Lost Souls, The Three Johns, among others. Our chat was a combination of some reminiscing as well as looking forward.
JL: Jon Langford                                                                                                                              TL: TwangriLa

TL: I wanted to congratulate you on the new album. I think it’s great.
JL: Oh, good. Thank you very much. We like it as well.
TL: So, before we go further, I need to clear something up. Is it mekons or The Mekons? Because I see it both ways, and my OCD is getting the best of me.
JL: Just mekons now. I think we just—people say The Mekons all the time but we’re identified as a band as mekons lower case.
TL: That’s what I thought. I just wanted to set the record straight.
JL: Yeah. It always adds it on the coverage as mekons. On the early stuff it said The Mekons and there’s actually another band called The Mekons 77 that me and Tom are also in, which we reformed with the original people from the mekons to make an album last year. It’s all very confusing.
TL: It’s good. It keeps us honest.
JL: It’s nice because we have a lot of people we have been involved with down the years. So I think it’s really nice.
TL: Recording and performing comes so naturally to you guys. This is your—am I counting right, 22nd studio album?
JL: You might be right (laughter). I have no idea. There’s been lots of different albums and little things. It’s quite hard to tie them all together really.
TL: But you’re still making fresh material. So what’s the secret for keeping it new?
JL: Well, that’s always been the idea, is that we would not worry about the past too much, and keep plowing on. So with this album, I think what we do is we kind of change the rules every time we try to make an album. If we do an album and people like it, then we don’t think, oh, we’ll keep doing that again. That, people seemed to like that. We will go back and reinvent the way we approach this, and how we work.
TL: Wow. So real experimental stuff.
JL: I think so. I mean, when it comes down to it, we have certain constant factors in the band. This lineup we have now has been—most of the people in this band have been doing it since back in 1984, ’85. So it’s going on a long time (laughter).
TL: Pretty steady lineup (laughter).
JL: Yeah. People always think well, they’ve always changed their lineup. You know, there’s the people who’ve joined and stuck with it like Susie Honeyman, Steve Goulding, Lu Edmonds, Rico Bell, Sally Timms. They weren’t in the original band, but it’s hard to say that—the original band is almost like a different project. In some ways.
TL: It’s almost like if you’ve lived in a place long enough, you become a local.
JL: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And they all brought things that we didn’t have in the original band. We were very scared of musicians in the first band. We thought—we didn’t trust them at all. And then we realized that it’s not how well you can play, it’s what you play, and we’re kind of really lucky to have great musicians that me and Tom can work with.
The Deserted album was done out in the desert. So it was a site-specific project where we decided to go to a certain place and then start writing about that place. The desert is kind of powerful. Powerful material, we thought at the moment.
TL: Can you walk me through the process of recording Desert? How long did it take, where you recorded, was the material ready to go or did you have a lot of improvisation? You know, the technical stuff.
JL: There were a few things we had with us. Ideas about—some of the things we had, we kind of threw out because we started writing lyrics when we got to the studio in Yucca Valley. A studio called Gatos Trail. It’s owned by our bass player and another guy called Dan, Dan The Yucca Man, as we called him (laughter). And he—we decided to go there in the middle of a tour in 2016, just before we went to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco.
We had four, five days there. But we also had time in that band we also had it out and did other gigs. So it was kind of broken up. But we had enough time to lay down a lot of ideas and spend a lot time talking about what the album might be about. What we—where it might go. And then there’s a bunch of improvised backing tracks and some basic songs that we’d taken there. They kind of expanded out then Lu Emonds took it and spent a lot of time editing the stuff down, sort of more coherent, removing a lot of stuff and putting together complete tracks. We worked on the lyrics more and we brought it to Chicago and I think people played—there were some overdubs in LA and in London. And then—but actually all this isn’t really a great length of time. It just took a long time to get it completely finished. But we mixed it last September in LA at Dave’s studio. That was about three or four days.
TL: So it took the normal time that an album takes to go from beginning to end?
JL: Spread out. Yeah, just spread out.
TL: Right. Because that’s the way a lot of bands do it, because everybody lives in different places.
JL: Yeah. We didn’t have much choice in that. So it’s really great when we can get everyone from the mekons together and we just had—I just came back from a European tour. But there was no real—you know the drives were so long and it was gigs every night. There was no real way to do anything other than—to get through what we had to get through. So hopefully in the future it won’t always be like that. But, yeah, this album was kind of conceived on tour and brought—
TL: So it’s the people’s album (laughter).
JL: Well, I—we function best when we’re all together in our own way, and that’s one of the—one of the great things about the band is that we’re not together all the time, which I think also helps. We don’t have time to get sick of each other, really.
TL: That’s true. I think—I talked to other bands and they basically said the same thing, that they do a lot of side projects and that’s what helps keep the band together.
JL: Yeah, we haven’t really forced the mekons to be our job. It’s never been a job. And at times when it’s got close to that, when we were on major labels, I think, those were the least satisfying times. Even though we did some quite good work when we were on major labels. I just thought that we were personally quite dissatisfied with the situation.
TL: I interviewed The Feelies
JL: All right. I love The Feelies.
TL: They are great. And Glenn [Mercer] said the same thing, basically, that when they were their most popular, being on a major, they were the most unhappy. It wasn’t fun.
JL: It’s a strange thing. But some bands just aren’t geared to produce and stuff other people’s bands.
TL: And I think all that record label control really—for a true artist, I think it’s a lot. Because the reason the most true artists got into music is so they can make their own music, not have somebody else tell them what to do or what songs to do, or whatever.
JL: Just the idea of, do this and it will be more popular. That’s gone out, well, why would you do that? We never really cared about being popular. We just wanted to have enough money to make the next record. And that sounds kind of ridiculous on some levels. But it has been the attitude with the band. I don’t know why (laughter).
TL: I think it’s worked. You obviously have a very loyal group of fans. I have heard the term “cult following” mentioned.
JL: They’re not very culty, our fans, I’ve noticed (laughter).
TL: No (laughter).
JL: They don’t appear to be in a cult. They appear to be, fairly free-thinking individuals who would probably resist being in a cult. With their last breath.
TL: As soon as I said “cult following”, I realized that was a (laughter) poor choice of words (laughter).
JL: Oh, no (laughter), but people say—people have said that to us a number of times. You know you’re a cult band, that’s gone out. Well, kind of the opposite, in a way (laughter).
TL: No, you’re more of a democracy.
JL: Yeah, I mean, it’s tried—we’ve tried to run the band, and have the way we work reflect what our politics are. And some, to some degree that’s been more important for us to sort of see what you can do as a band and how you can behave as a band. Sort of almost more important than the actual end result, as the sound. We’ve never felt we had to have a certain sound, it has to be this. So this is—we feel like we could do anything, you know.
TL: Well, like you said, when you have a certain sound, then you tear it down and start over again the next time. so you try very hard not to get into a pattern, which is easy to do.
JL: It’s too precious to us to let it get boring.
TL: That’s fantastic. It’s all about fun. It really is. And that’s great that you have that enthusiasm for it.
JL: Yeah. It seems like we still do (laughter). The band just did two and half weeks of the hardest work we’ve ever done, and everyone was really happy at the end of it.
TL: So the album Deserted”, it has almost a psychedelic vibe to it. Do you get that sense?
JL: I think we were thinking about that, you know? The desert. I don’t know. It’s just like that idea of—
TL: —Open space?
JL: Open space. Freedom. But also kind of like harsh.
TL: And scary.
JL: Harsh conditions. Partly scary. Yeah. So, I mean, yeah, inevitably there’s sort of—musically it’s very—yeah, it flies off in some interesting directions. I like that.
TL: Oh, yeah. Me, too. Definitely. So do you have any tracks on the album that are particularly special to you?
JL: I really like Mirage. Sally was talking about it that it sounds almost like an early mekons track on some levels. Then it’s incredibly up to date as well. It could only really have been now. There’s a real thread with that song, the way it goes back into other things we’ve done. It’s a culmination of a sort of series of things. And it doesn’t really sound like anyone else at all. So I like that.
I also like After the Rain song, to be honest. I think that—the way that goes into that instrument at the end. I’m not quite sure how that came about, like, can’t remember playing it. And I can’t remember who plays what on it. But it’s just a very effective piece of music, I think.
TL: Yeah. Well, they’re all good. My early favorite is Into the Sun/the galaxy explodes.
JL: Oh, right. Great. That’s a good one.
TL: It’s a really nice track.
JL: Well, it’s like two songs in one, and then they—we combined them.
TL: Is that right? Well, whatever you did, it worked—
JL: There was a lot of chopping things up. I mean, not, not digitally even. Just we had these lyrics, and we thought, when you have a chord sequence, sometimes you use quite simple chord sequences and then one would start in on the one to the four, and then the other one would start on the four to the one. And then we thought, we could just interchange these, and they could go in and out of each other. It was very much an improvisation. Started in the morning, and then people started working on it, and it just built up and built up.
TL: That’s great. It sort of—it reminds me a little—the album has like a little bit of a Cramps feel to it. Little garage-y, you know. Some psychedelic.
JL: Fantastic. That’s great. That’s a great thing to be compared to The Cramps (laughter).  I’ll take that any time. That’s good.
TL: So let’s talk touring. I see you have four east coast dates on the calendar so far. Do you have any more plans to play New York, DC, other cities on the east coast? Boston?
JL: I think New York’s in there, isn’t it? I think New York’s in there. Philly’s in there.
The tour dates are pretty much set. We have a short period of time. Because of other commitments. Hopefully, we will do some more, maybe later in the year, or next year, early next year.
TL: So that must be tough, I guess, because some of the members still live in England.
JL: Yeah, there’s three in the UK at the moment.
TL: Definitely a logistical challenge—
JL: —Five over here.
TL: Makes it tough.
JL: It’d be nice if we could get together more. But that also kind of makes it special when we do get together.
TL: That’s true. So about a year and a half ago, you probably don’t remember. We met at Americana Fest, and we were talking about the old 9:30 Club, and you mentioned rats—
JL: —Oh, right—
TL: —You mentioned the rats in the green room.
JL: Yeah (laughter). Yeah.
TL: And I’ve told some people that story, and nobody’s surprised, because (laughter). And they all say the same thing. That place might have been shit, but it was our shit. And everybody played there. It was such a great place.
JL: Yeah. That old, the old 9:30 Club was just a fantastic place.
TL: I know. It was one of those things I feel like, I was too young for Woodstock, so the 9:30 Club was sort of my historical marker.
JL: Yeah, well, frankly I always really loved playing there. The gigs were always good. The crowd was always great. I didn’t really mind if the alley behind it was full of rats. That was all right.
TL: And it smelled a little like vomit and urine.
JL: Yeah, you know, it was a punk club.
TL: It was. It was the punk club.
JL: Yeah (laughter), we used to have a good time there.
TL: And I think all your gigs were sold out there, from what I remember.
JL: Really? Probably. I wish I could remember it all (laughter).
TL: It was a long time ago (laughter).
So what are the next projects that you’re going to be working on?
JL: Well, the mekons were talking about trying to do some recording on this tour in July, so we’re just thinking about what that might be, whether it’ll be original stuff, or whether we might try and record some of the old stuff. A lot of the songs have changed over the years quite dramatically. There was talk about doing a live album of some sorts.
TL: Oh, so do like a reinterpretation. That would be fun.
JL: Maybe. I’m not sure. I’m not really sure whether we like that idea or not yet. But it’d be great if we take a long week where we could go somewhere quiet and make a new record. But I don’t know if there is enough time.
TL: I know you also have many side projects.
JL: I’m doing a project with a label called Tiny Global, who were in Budapest, but just moved to Valencia in Spain. That’s pretty cool. I’m doing a series of singles that will then come together and be an album.We’re just going to do 7-inch singles until we get sick of it, and then see what we’ve got and put an album out (laughter).
There is a lot of things like the Waco Brothers and the Four Lost Souls that are kind of—we just kind of play gigs, and no real cast iron projects to release anything at the moment.
TL: Got it. Touring and then promotion for this album is probably—that will take most of your time in the short term, I would imagine.
JL: Yeah. It’s kind of odd, it does fill up a lot of time. When we are away, we don’t really think about much else other than what we’re doing. And I’ve just got back, and I know there’s things to do, but I can’t quite remember what any of them are (laughter).
We’ll be off again early July, so I’ve got a bit of time now to sort myself out. But I paint as well, and I think I’ve got some art shows and some gigs, solo gigs, stuff like that.
TL: That’s great. Keeping busy.
So where can people find out about your stuff?
JL: The Bloodshot site is the easiest. They will be posting, like, probably have put together a full list of dates for the summer. And then they always have my stuff up as well.
TL: And then all the tour dates are on there, and all the merch is on there, too. So people can buy all of your—
JL: —Yeah. Anything. Yeah, whatever is available, they probably get it from Bloodshot (laughter).
I’ve been working with that label for a long time, now. It’s their 25th Anniversary, which is sort of terrifying to me on one level because I’ve felt like—when I met the Bloodshot people, that seemed like very late in the game to me, but that was (laughter) you know.
TL: Wow. It’s been 25 years?
JL: Yeah. 25 years ago I moved to Chicago and met those guys. Been working with them ever since. We have a lot of fun, to be quite honest, and then, yeah. When Touch and Go stopped putting out records. It was kind of an easy step to take the mekons over there, and they’ve been really good for the mekons as well.
TL: Yeah. Oh, yeah, I forgot about—Touch and Go was one of my favorite labels back in the day.
JL: We were with them for 15 years.
TL: With Jesus Lizard. And who else was on there?
JL: Didjits. Tar. Jesus Lizard. Big Black. Butthole Surfers.
TL: Oh, yeah, that was some good noisy stuff (laughter)—
JL: The Lack. Yeah. Really noisy bands.
TL: I pretty much had everything that they put out for a few years, there.
TL: Jon, I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to speak with me.
JL: Oh, it’s a great interview. Nice to talk to you, mate. Hopefully see you somewhere out on the road.
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