“Perfection shall remain the privilege of the Gods, while in our bungling, messy world every night shall be lived as if it were the last and every day as if it were the first” (Eduardo Galeano)
Maybe something like this could be the real driving force behind the beautiful journey of a band, that is approaching their fourth decade. Back in 1976 at Leeds University no one would have bet a penny that a bunch of non-conformist lunatics, without any idea how to play an instrument, would last for so long.
They’ve simply followed their own path, without watching back and what the people around them was saying, and just played the music they liked with honesty, heart and an open minded attitude. Sounds, melodies, arts, activism, hope, delusion, happiness, thoughts, reflections, laughs, irony, sarcasm, love, community, friendship, solidarity, innovation, curiosity, freedom…these words spring to mind when I think of them, all those values and social achievements that the current neo-liberal counter-reform would like to erase in the name of individualism and profit.
They’ve never had a hit single in the charts, they didn’t care after all, and you’ll never see their albums in the best of every critic’s playlist as they’d deserve, but if we had to single out one band that embodies the true spirit and essence of punk, this should be Mekons. Sometime when you feel negative and depressed and the world seems to fall apart, what better cure than their music to avoid sliding into the cynism and miserablism of ‘nothing will ever change’.
In the years at Leeds University, where punk also meant that all was up for grabs, was the idea to make your life as musician purely incidental? Did you already dream of it in your teens and what were your inspirations?
As a teenager although I loved music and listened all the time there was no way I imagined I would be in a band and certainly had absolutely no idea to be a musician. The whole punk ‘explosion’ really did give permission to do it yourself. We saw the Anarchy tour in Leeds and then day after seeing The Clash for the second time a few months later in early 77 myself and Andy Corrigan and Mark White decided to form a band. Neither of them had any musical background at all. I knew literally 3 chords on the guitar. I did not even own a guitar. However none of those things were even considered as barriers. I think that was the single most important thing about ‘Punk’ at the time was that it simply said ‘You can do this if you want…’
It never occurred to us that there was any reason not to do it. We had no aspirations other than to just to do what we were doing… absolutely nothing in terms of any concept of career or anything like that. The first gig we did was with The Worst and Gang of Four and featured Andy Gill on drums, Mark on bass, me and Kevin playing guitars and Andy Corrigan, vocals. We didn’t really have songs, maybe something about Dan Dare, but didn’t know what we were doing but whatever it was it felt quite exciting and part of something bigger that was going on around us. As we carried on talking about it through the summer, later in ‘77 we recruited Jon Langford to play the drums and Ros Allen to play bass. (She foolishly let it slip one time that she had played the cello in school). Mark switched to vocals with Andy. So there were 6 of us. Our inspirations at the time were anything and everything from Neil Young’s guitar sound to dub reggae, Can to Abba and of course The Velvet Underground…
In the mid 80s I was inspired, as many, to dig the traditional British/Irish/American folk music thanks to bands like The Pogues, The Men They Couldn’t Hang and obviously The Mekons in UK and Rank & File, The Blasters, Violent Femmes in the US and even Los Lobos in Mexico. All bands with punk roots that tried to revise traditional music with a new fresh attitude.
My ex-wife still hates me for the Irish uilleann pipes solo gigs around London pubs in those years…Did you have any relationship with them? Did you have any memories to share about?
I love the sound of Uilleann pipes! perhaps we should get married! Only joking … but have you heard Seamus Ennis playing ‘Valencia Harbour’? Just beautiful…
One of The Pogues was my neighbour in Brixton but we never hung out with those guys.
Maybe the greatest merit of John Peel is to teaching listeners to be free from any music genre boundaries. The Mekons had the privilege to record six Peel sessions during the period from 1978 to 1987. Do you have fond memories about those sessions and about the Man as well?
I was listening to John Peel from about the age of 11 or 12 when he had a show called “The Perfumed Garden” so when he played our first single ’Never Been In A Riot’ it was just crazy. Peel never actually attended the recording sessions but they were recorded in these beautiful BBC studios mostly in Maida Vale but we met him in the pub near the BBC in Oxford Circus. He was pretty dry but he liked The Mekons for a while.
Few weeks ago, while writing about the sad departure of Gong’s Gilli Smyth (what a bloody year is this!…more recently Prince Buster too) I was impressed by this Steve Hillage quote ‘Once you join the band Gong, you never leave!’. The same could apply to Mekons I guess. John Lydon recently said that Lu Edmonds, you share with P.I.L., “Everyone’s been a member of the Mekons. I can’t quite work out what the Mekons is. Neither can Lu. He cannot explain it. But it makes him happy, and it makes a lot of people happy”. What’s your secret ingredient?
We used to say, ‘the only way you leave the Mekons is in a box …’. I never heard that John Lydon quote before that’s pretty cool.
Secret ingredient ? I don’t know … no one is forced to do this we only do what we want…
Around 1990 before a The Pogues’ gig I assisted, Shane MacGowan was recovering at the hospital (not a flu and nothing new I guess) and was replaced by Spider Stacy, it was not the same but they played at least.
Mekons are one of the luckiest one in that sense, you have even five singers, not to mention all the musicians spread on just two continents, that’s amazing for a band, if you were a football team you’d always be at the top of the table…What about your ‘rules’ during a gig? Does everyone sing always its own songs or can all suddenly switch?
It’s not that chaotic, there are a lot of songs everybody sings on but the individual ones tend to be ‘owned’ by whoever sung them first. Very often the singer didn’t write the song but was made to sing it.
How big is the influence of the word “improvisation’ in both the band’s musical creativity and way of life?
Actually I wish we did more improvisation … The Mekons use more structures in a kind folk music kind of way than any pure improvisation in the musical sense. As a way of life I change the word to adaptability though improvisation is good…
I imagine at this point Mekons as a big family (the word ‘collective’ is too abused nowadays), everyone with its own things to do and its normal life, not long tours anymore, from time to time the joy and the luck (and you’re well aware of this) to meet each others in order to create new music and to get into new places and people… I don’t know if you do agree with me, if you do, is it sort of functional or dysfunctional one?
I completely agree with you … you’ve summed it up really well…Definitely dysfunctional tho’ no question!
The Mekons always had ‘hard feelings” with the record industry and their labels, with the only exception of Paul Smith’s Blast First. Have you finally found a fair and safe home at the glorious Chicago’s Bloodshot Records? The label has not long ago celebrated its 20 years of activity in a city, home of great indie record labels like Touch And Go, Thrill Jockey and Drag City.
The two co-owners share your same punk/DIY ethos and open-minded passion for music, how is working with them?
To be honest I personally don’t have a great deal to do with them. Jon certainly and Sally do tho’. I think they may have been forced to do the Mekons, because they owed them so many favours. We did many records with Touch And Go in Chicago. I knew Cory and Ed there really well, they were lovely, such a shame they packed it in.
How are you approaching the new technology and music platforms like Spotify, Soundcloud etc.? Record industry is agonizing but at the same time the record shops are disappearing and small labels are barely surviving. What’s your opinion about that?
The whole digital revolution is such a double edged sword. Suddenly you can find the most amazing obscure music you would never have previously found in years of searching specialist record shops in a matter of seconds. It’s totally weird and I think it will massively impact music and its creation in ways we simply can’t imagine. The old formats are collapsing and of course it’s the musicians and creators who suffer right now. That was actually the inspiration for our new album/book/film ‘Existentialism’ to work in a way that tackles those exact issues: Recording an album in one go with one mic. Technology mixed with capitalism is always a horrifically destructive beast but as Marx and Benjamin and a host of others know can be horrifically fascinating/exciting too! We shall see…
The American writer Jonathan Franzen declared he was always attracted by the Mekons music for ‘that theme of the loveliness of failure and darkness’.
We saw Jonathan Franzen recently, he came to a Mekons gig in Santa Clara, a lovely and amusing man…
In the current frightening ‘not so lovely” warmongering world, what’s next? an industrial darkwave album?
We have 2 new albums in the pipe line, both recorded out in the desert near Joshua Tree National Park in California. One is urgent harsh desert space rock, the other is primitive folk.
What’s your opinion about the current Brexit results?
An appalling disaster brought about by lying politicians telling BIG LIES, that would have made Goebbels proud, to people so fucked over by neoliberalism they didn’t know what hit them. Its unleashed ghastly fascistic maggots of racism crawling all over the place ugh!
Judging from your last album lyrics there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel…
The band’s last album ‘Existenzialism’ was recorded around a single microphone to keep the sense of urgency safe with a spontaneous ‘feral chorus’ of non professional singers/fans, a sort of unlikely successful ‘experiment’.
The funds will be scarce, but there is no shortage of fantasy and imagination in the Mekons’ camp…
Could you better explain it?
Mentioned in passing already it was the idea that a CD for a band like us will make us nothing so how do face these times and live? Improvise and adapt. heheh!
I’m Italian so I hope to see you soon over here and in South Europe too (or were you already here and I didn’t notice it?).
Next week two benefits concerts in Chicago, another LA gig at the end of the month…
What will be the Mekons’ next surprise and usual leap forward?
We would love to play South Europe again as soon as possible!
Photo credits: Paul Beaty (first), Jon Ingledew (second)