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.rico, tom, and sally

      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. 

H:  When did you first join the band, Sally?

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.

H:  There’s been mention in Mekons bios about unpleasant experiences with major labels.  Care to comment on that?

Sally:  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.

sally and jon      Rico:  Quarterstick even released our book, which not a lot of labels would have done.

H:  You guys are famous for the number of members you’ve had over the years.  Any idea of a rough count?

Rico:  Actually 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.

H:  Where did the inspiration for the lyrics on the latest record come from? tom and sally

Sally:  70’s porn magazines.  And the Internet.

H:  Is that a group interest?

Sally:  Yeah, we all sit around with one finger tapping away at the computer and...(smiles)

H:  How 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 unlikely.

Sally:  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 electronic music.

                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.

Jon:  Didn’t you say they were hypocrites?

Sally:  Never!  Which one is Boff, anyway?  Is he the angry looking one? mekons

      (reflects some)

Sally:  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.”)

H:  Are you doing a tour over here?

Sally:  No, just this one show.  Well, we’re doing something tomorrow night and Monday, but they’re not really shows.

Sarah:  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 together.

H:  Yeah, I heard about that.  When Chumbawamba played David Letterman, they ad-libbed “Free Abu-Jamal” at the end of Tubthumping. 

Steve:  Some of us still aren’t sure what we think.  It’s a bit sus.sarah

           (This 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.

Sally:  (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.  song of the dogs 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 night.)Mitch

H:  Which of you were with the band when it started in ‘78?

Tom:  Myself and Jon.

H:  Did you have any idea at that point what kind of longevity you’d enjoy?  That was all “no future” then.

Tom:  No, I had no idea.  It was just what seemed to be happening at the time, and it seemed totally natural.

H:  Were you successful straight off?

Tom:  In 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.

H:  And that got you a major deal with Virgin?

Tom:  No, 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 bullshit.

H:  That only lasted a year or two?

Tom:  Yeah, 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.

H:  What bands were you playing shows with back then?

Tom:  There used to be big bills with The Fall, the Human League, we played with the Specials when they were starting out.

H:  How did the band hold together over the years?  Were there any points you thought of cashing it in?

Tom:  At 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.

H:  Where did the country influence that took hold in your music in the mid-80’s come from?

Tom:  I 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”.

H:  I 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?

Tom:  We’d 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 happy with.

H:  Among eighteen songs, I’m not surprised.susie, rico, and tom

Tom:  It was just done really quickly, so it’s not my favorite, but I love certain stuff on it.

H:  Sally 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?

Tom:  Sally, 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 capitalist society.

H:  Speaking of capitalism, what kind of political activism has the band engaged in over the years?  I see you’re doing this benefit tomorrow night.

Tom:  Well, 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.

(Rico walks in and announces to the tape player “Jon Langford just walked in and requested all the drugs he could handle.”  Next I expect him to say “forty miles before you sleep, Trobovitch” or whatever the idiotic line was that Bronson kept repeating in Telefon.  Instead he wants to make sure I mention he has a new album coming out, too.  And he’s moving to San Francisco.  The interview ends.)