Interviewing an artist like Jon Langford of the Mekons is a definite “get” for an indie rock writer. I know this, because the day of the interview I found myself casually asking people if they had any plans in hopes they would return the question. I could then explain that Langford and his fellow musicians comprised the longest-tenured English punk rock band, and then add that they were so much more than that. I might throw in that the Mekons have inspired near-fanatic loyalty among their fellow musicians, critics, and a tight group of fans. Also worth noting is that the band recorded what is generally agreed to be the first alt-country album, Fear and Whiskey, and continues its musical exploration to this day, recently releasing Ancient and Modern, an album that delves into the music, events, and ideas of the Edwardian era. After nervously pacing around the kitchen table and rehearsing a few different hellos, interview nirvana is reached when Langford answers the phone and announces that there are “many Mekons at his apartment.” On a connection that seems appropriately gritty, we chatted about the new record and the price of being a constantly evolving musical outfit.
Would you characterize Ancient and Modern as a concept album?
I think so, pretty much, yeah. I know they’ve got a bad name, but I think it’s kind of weird to think of an album without a concept behind it. It’s definitely a group of songs that came about because we had an idea. It was a coat hanger to hang the songs on- the idea of the similarities of a hundred years ago and now. It was coming up on the anniversary of the First World War, and the time before that was kind of a shallow, distracted period. People really didn’t know what they were marching into. It was also the end of the British Empire. The British were sitting there, crapping their pants, looking across the ocean at the United States, and here we are, in a state of distraction, staring across the water at the Chinese.
For those of us not versed in the time period, what should we listen for on the record?
The leadoff track is a pretty good introduction to the album, because it covers that genteel Edwardian lifestyle. Toast and cricket and all that stuff, and then it kind of walks off into the horrors of modern warfare that nobody was really expecting. There was an idea in the British Empire that you could fight wars against tribal peoples and beat them really easily because of the superior technology, which is kind of what’s happening in the United States right now. Then they slid into the First World War, and the technology comes home to roost- barbed wire, tanks, heavy artillery. It wiped out an entire generation.
And really, with mustard gas, it was the first time science was used on the battlefield.
Yeah, it used to be gents in red coats lined up and charging at each other. There were some remnants of that, but this was a group of people unprepared to deal with the misery and destruction that was to be visited upon them.
Did this change your songwriting process at all? Was it hard to get the band in Edwardian mode?
It wasn’t that hard once we got the band together. We attempt to put things together via e-mail. Writing lyrics online wasn’t great, but once we got the band together it was better. What we do in the Mekons is kind of take a subject and come at it from different directions. It can be quite tangential. You have something to hang the idea on in the first place, but then it can go off in all sorts of directions. Most of the song writing was done while we were all in the same space. Our problem is always going to be that we’re so far apart. We’ve got three in the states, four in England, and one in Siberia at the moment.
Was everybody down with this time period?
Yeah it seemed like an interesting idea, and we all approached it with a spirit of cooperation. We all came at it together. Actually, would you like to say hello to Tom [Greenhalgh]? I’ve been doing all the interviews and he’s been something of a recluse.
Tom gets on the phone. Pleasantries are exchanged.
What sparked the idea for this album?
It had actually been around for a while. We worked on it in bits and pieces and left it for a while. We started it in January 2009 and then put it together whenever we could get time.
You’ve also said that you didn’t make this record to be a commentary on a specific situation and this isn’t supposed to be a “message” record. Was that reported correctly?
Yeah. We’ve never made what you would call a “message” record. This is just simply about the time before the war in England. It’s been a hundred years, and it’s time enough that we can look back and start to think about what happened as these people headed into the war.
Do you think that music can be used to affect social change?
No, absolutely not. I think that anything that’s a widespread phenomenon will affect society and vice versa, but I don’t think that you consciously set out to do it, though. And even if you did, there’s no way to predict how music will be perceived and what effect it will have.
Then what is the purpose of music as you see it?
I think you’re doing because you’re doing it because you’re doing it. It’s more of an exploration than anything else. Having ideas floating around and then seeing how they work out. Throwing things up in the air and seeing how they fall, you know. It’s not necessarily thought through from start to finish; it’s more of a process.
How does this record fit into the Mekons legacy?
I think it fits pretty well in that it’s the next record. Our history has always been to try something and then change tacks. When it comes time for the next record, we look back at what we did, and then usually head off in a different direction. I think it fits into that model quite nicely.
Would you ever trade your critical success for commercial success?
Yeah, I mean obviously the financial rewards would be nice, but realistically you have to work within the kind of world you live in. If you want commercial success, you have to give up any kind of experimentation. You have to be a package. We’ve never able to do that. People have to be able to listen to the track and be able to go “I know what band that is.” We’ve never been able to do that. The next album has to sound pretty much like the last album. We’re just not about that. I sometimes think that it would be nice to win the lottery, but then I have to remember that I don’t do the lottery.