MEKONS INTERVIEW - Mean Fiddler, 1998
This show took place at the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden in early December
1998, during one of the Mekons occasional forays back to London. The
Mekons are a hard working band that’s put out 32 releases since they were
first formed in London in the punk explosion of ‘78.
Their musical stylings have ranged from punk to funky dance rhythms to
country to spoken word to straight ahead rock and roll to the pornographic
electronic rock of their latest release on Quarterstick Records, Me. They’re one of those bands with a devoted cult
following, primarily in the US now since half the band is based in Chicago, and
they challenge their fans continually to keep up with their unpredictable
musical twists and turns. It takes
a little time for most people to get into the band unless you start with one of
their more accessible albums like Rock and Roll or I Love Mekons
or Retreat from Memphis. The
only time I’d seen them before was with Man or Astroman opening for them at
the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC in 1994, and they were outstanding then.
They were stripped down to a five piece and they were incredible.A highlight was both bands joining together to cover the Rezillos "Destination Venus". Me
was the first proper album they’d done since then, though they’d put out a
book on CD with some accompanying music in 1996 called Pussy, King of the
Pirates. Their number of
touring members has varied over the years, and this show at the Mean Fiddler in
northwest London was up to a seven
piece. Longtime members Rico
Bell on accordion and Susie Honeymoon on violin joined the core of Sally Timms,
Sarah Corina, Tom Greenhalgh, Jon Langford, and Steve Goulding.
Since Sally, Jon, and Steve set up shop in Chicago at the beginning of
this decade, touring has become a little harder to organize, but when they do
get together the shows are always like old friends getting together for a party.
They’re relaxed, funny, and mix the wealth of instruments effortlessly.
And they drink. A lot.
The interview started with me
fumbling for ten minutes with the frozen record button on my recorder, while the
band fidgeted and talked to each other and drank some more.
Sally was explaining with gusto to Sarah and Susie that you could get
liters of vodka for only $7.98 in the US. “Only
five pounds! It’s a good thing
more British people don’t live over there, we’d all be dead.” Tom and Sarah wander off when my mechanical nightmare gets
too tiring. I don’t know who Rico
is, though he bears an uncanny resemblance to Charles Bronson.
Sally is the only one left in the room who I know at all, being a fan of
her gorgeous vocals and solo work on her album To the Land of Milk and Honey.
did you first join the band, Sally?
(muses) I don’t know. Sometime
in the mid-80’s. You’d have to
look on the Internet.
(The Mekons love the Internet.
It’s a place where all semi-official facts about the band are stored,
somewhat like a second brain, so they get get on with their hard drinking/hard
playing career with only the memories in their heads they want to retain.)
I’d been playing
with them for awhile, but Tom thought I should officially join the band because
he thought Jon and I had “relationship problems”.
I didn’t think we had relationship problems, but...that was the reason.
been mention in Mekons bios about unpleasant experiences with major labels.
Care to comment on that?
I don’t think it’s been anything unusual really.
We’ve had no more than any other band who’ve been around as long as
us. I don’t know what it was with
Virgin early on, but it was just the thing with A&M after that.
They didn’t like us at all, they didn’t know what to do with us. They recorded a second album after Rock and Roll
(1989) that they never released. We
were on Twin Tone when they got bought up by A&M, and they never really
wanted us. But in general it
hasn’t been bad at all, like with some bands who have been stuck in a bad
situation on a label for years. And
Quarterstick’s been great.
guys are famous for the number of members you’ve had over the years.
Any idea of a rough count?
that’s a misconception. There
haven’t been that many. We use a
lot of studio musicians on the records, but the actual band - the core - has
always been about the same eight people.
70’s porn magazines. And
that a group interest?
Yeah, we all sit around with one finger tapping away at the computer
did you in your solo work choose to cover Half Past France by John Cale?
Paris 1919 is one of my all-time favorite albums, but it seemed
That was Jon’s choice. Jon
was choosing my cover songs for me. But
I’m choosing my own now. (laughs defiantly).
I’m getting away from country, too.
I’m going to do electronica now. Primitive
Jon Langford walks into the room and announces to Sally that Boff, the
guitarist of Chumbawamba, is in the audience, reminding her gleefully of some
bad blood Sally had stirred up in the press between herself and Chumbawamba.
you say they were hypocrites?
I think I just said that they should have taken the money from Nike that
they refused. They could have given
it away to one of their causes. I
thought it was a waste of an opportunity.
(When Jon realizes the conversation is being
taped, he raises his eyebrows, walks over to the tape player and says carefully:
“We have nothing bad to say about Chumbawamba.
We LOVE Chumbawamba.”)
you doing a tour over here?
No, just this one show. Well,
we’re doing something tomorrow night and Monday, but they’re not really
We’re playing this acoustic benefit here tomorrow night, but they’re
only giving us fifteen minutes. It’s
for this Philadelphia man, Mumia Abu-Jamal, who’s been falsely imprisoned for
murdering a policeman, and he’s on death row.
It’s terrible. Chumbawamba
have been drawing a lot of attention to it, and they’ve put the benefit
I heard about that. When
Chumbawamba played David Letterman, they ad-libbed “Free Abu-Jamal” at the
end of Tubthumping.
was Sarah’s only contribution beyond a seeming fixation on a washing machine
she’d recently acquired. She kept
injecting the story of its acquisition at random moments, so I never quite got
what she was talking about. The
Mekons are not known for their linearity. Example:
“Where does everyone live?” Chorus
of replies: “Chicago! Brixton!
London! Leeds!” - tailing off at the end with Sarah in mid-sentence
“-but I don’t live with her but I got this washing machine from her!”)
(My mechanical difficulties and
inability to keep the whole band in one place caused this semblance of an
interview to be doomed from the beginning.
Rather than make awkward efforts to keep the conversation rolling, I sat
back and drank my beer after each question and spent a minute thinking up
another question. This exasperated
Sally so much that she finally got up and wandered off.)
H: (to Steve)
Sally’s exasperated with me.
(throwing up her arms) I
can’t answer his non-existent questions anymore!
(I talked to Steve some about the
Waco Brothers, “the toughest country band in the world” that he and Jon play
in together. There’s a strong
neo-country scene in Chicago that Sally, Jon, and Steve have been a part of,
with Bloodshot Records and bands like the Waco Brothers and the Handsome Family.
The Waco Brothers have a new album coming out in the spring, which Steve
described as “our opus. It’s
not very country, though.” Not
surprising, since a number of songs on previous releases could have easily been
confused with the Mekons. The
strong English accent in Jon’s vocals are not likely to make them a big seller
in Nashville. Great stuff, though.
I told him that my aunt was Janet Reno, and thus I felt some family
responsibility for the band’s name. “Fuckin’
hell,” he said, his eyes widening.)
(The band went out to set up and I
took my place on the floor. Arch
from Bareface showed up to meet me and Ian, and within a few songs dragged Ian
outside to harangue him for the next two hours about the need to replace Ian as
singer with someone with more star power. I
tell you. Put some people on the
guest list and this is how they act. The
Mekons were in top form, playing songs from Me like Come and Have a Go
if You Think You’re Hard Enough and another one in which Sally chants in a
monotone the descriptions from a dildo catalog.
They also did some strange Macarena-like dancing and a song in which Tom
hid on all fours by the drum set and ranted while Rico and Jon crawled around
the stage like dogs, sniffing the others’ asses, lifting their legs to piss,
and humping the legs of anyone they could get ahold of.
For their encore, they finished with their traditional Rock
and Roll and then threw themselves back to 1977 with a hard-edged punk
number which their dreadlocked roadie/tour manager/hostile mascot Mitch did the
vocals on. It was a hell of a show.
Afterwards, I grabbed Tom to salvage a proper interview out of the
of you were with the band when it started in ‘78?
you have any idea at that point what kind of longevity you’d enjoy?
That was all “no future” then.
I had no idea. It was just what seemed to be happening at the time, and it
seemed totally natural.
you successful straight off?
a way, yeah. We basically did just one gig, and the next gig we did was
supporting a band who’s tour manager was starting a record label called Fast
Product. And this was really our
first gig, collectively. He saw
what the Mekons were like and he said “Do you want to do a record?”
I’m sure if it hadn’t been for that...but it was literally, our first
gig. That single (Never Been a
Riot) came out and John Peel said “this is the best thing I’ve heard in
ages” - blah blah blah - Tony Parsons made it Single of the Week in NME, and
there we were.
that got you a major deal with Virgin?
it wasn’t so much Virgin as one guy at Virgin who was managing director at the
time. He signed us, and the rest of
the label hated us. It was
only lasted a year or two?
a lot of stuff happened for us really quickly which kind of catapulted us into
making plans that we hadn’t really thought about at all.
bands were you playing shows with back then?
used to be big bills with The Fall, the Human League, we played with the
Specials when they were starting out.
did the band hold together over the years?
Were there any points you thought of cashing it in?
one point the band really retreated, when we got dropped by Virgin in the middle
of making our second album. Some
people in the band left, and we went through about eighteen months where we
decided not to play live. The scene
in England had gotten really ugly, there was a lot of bullshit going on, around
the time of the Oi movement. So we
stopped playing live. Then these
people in Holland asked us if we could play a gig and we said no a few times
then finally went ahead and played it.
did the country influence that took hold in your music in the mid-80’s come
remember reading this book - I can’t remember what it’s called - it was
paintings of rock and roll heroes and it had Hank Williams in it.
When I was an art student I got a Hank Williams album and had a big
picture of Hank Williams. That was
my thing before the Mekons started. I
listened to this radio program by this DJ called Charlie Gillett who wrote a
great book called Sound of the City which was all about the origins of
rock and roll. He used to play
country music and pub rock, so I had an ear for that kind of music.
And then it was ten years later that we kind of changed and got into
that. We met this guy from Chicago,
a DJ, who was into punk rock and everything but he was also into country music.
We just heard a lot of stuff from him and thought “this is cool”.
got hooked by Retreat from Memphis, which was one of your easiest albums
to get into because of the straight ahead sound.
Was that a conscious decisions to write more accessible songs?
just done quite a long tour in the US and we went straight into the studio and
recorded an album, just to see what happened.
We recorded too much stuff and we could’ve edited it down some and made
a more professional album, but we thought “why not leave it all on?”
That album, I must admit, there are one or two things I’m not quite
was just done really quickly, so it’s not my favorite, but I love certain
stuff on it.
mentioned that the material from the new album was inspired by 70’s porn
magazines. Is that Sally’s thing
or more of the whole band’s?
yeah! Sally actually went to some thrift stores in north Chicago,
Polish thrift stores, and got this giant stack of them while we were in the
studio. We already had the idea of
recording this album were all about “me” and the construction of self in a
of capitalism, what kind of political activism has the band engaged in over the
years? I see you’re doing this
benefit tomorrow night.
Rock Against Racism, that was a big movement in the late 70’s.
That was really important, doing something to defy the far right
fascists, that was really positive. The
next thing was the miner’s strike, that was a huge fucking cause, and in the
end it was totally defeated and things have never been the same since. And then later on there was a lot of Right to Choose stuff.
We don’t go out and look for causes, but politics is always around you.