Regrettably, the name Jon Langford doesn’t tend to ring many bells. He’s one of those anomalies; names you should know but don’t. He was a founding member of the late ’70s pivotal British punk group, The Mekons, who adopted the “fuck you” attitude of the Sex Pistols, but with genuine political angst.
The Mekons are also known for being forefathers of the musical monster called “alt-country” due to their critically hailed ’85 release, Fear and Whiskey. So why did Langford move to the seemingly resolutely “red” state of America, why does he shrug at the term “alt-country” and why the hell should you care?
So concerning The Mekons, with the recent Delta 5 reissue, and the spate of Gang of Four albums constantly influencing current bands, much has been written about the “Leeds University” scene. Any idea why it was such a breeding ground for British punk?
There’s a real history of art-school bands in the U.K. We were just a particularly argumentative bunch with huge critical muscles and what with the Sex Pistols and all that it was inevitable there’d be some punk rock rumblings in the fine-art department.
At the time, did The Mekons consider themselves punk?
Probably not but we would have been lying to ourselves.
Why move to America? More specifically, why move to the “Heartland”? What makes Chicago conducive to your musical career?
I followed my girlfriend from France to Chicago and we got married and I stayed and I had no idea what I was going to do but the great city of Chicago gathered me up in its huge hog butcherin’ arms and presented me with the space to exist. I think Chicago is a bit like the north of England. Lots of blue-collar inverted snobbery, alcohol abuse and sausage. The idea of America as the land of opportunity was very real for me, and the bar owners, box-car thieves and cowboy musicians of Chicago cut me a lot of slack while I was working out what to do next –
So judging from past lyrical content and projects like The Executioner’s Last Songs, you seem to be quite a politically astute, liberal-leaning individual. So why the musical shift into country, which could easily be described as a Republican’s artistic haven?
I disagree. I thought of country as boring right-wing old-people’s music until it was explained to me that I’d been listening to the wrong stuff. I think Bob Wills is an avant-garde genius, Ernest Tubb is a proto-punk D.I.Y. egalitarian and Johnny Cash is God.
How was your stance against the death penalty and the subsequent protest album received?
A few people called the label and vented their bile, which isn’t an easy thing to do, but mostly people have been pretty reasonable even if they are for the cruel and unusual punishment. A few people were for it but did things for the CD anyway just so they could still be my friend! Support for the death penalty in the U.S. is a mile wide and an inch deep. It’s on the way out –
So what do you think about the term “alt-country”?
Just another box to climb out of daddio!
In the back of my mind I’ve always associated you with John Doe, in that two backbones of pivotal punk groups chose to go semi-country once solo. Have you ever discussed this with him?
I do a radio show in Chicago on WXRT and John Doe was my guest but we really didn’t discuss our careers too much. I think country and punk just have a lot in common. The connection to the audience, the confronting of reality, the snarky humor –
Coupled with your lineup involving the bassist from Pere Ubu, it could seem like punk-rock royalty is turning to the “sunny side of life,” not to imitate the Carters. Is it?
The new record isn’t really very country if you ask me – I wanted to make a record that sounded nothing like anything I’d ever done before.
It seems like you are becoming the Robert Pollard of alt-country, i.e. you’re amazingly prolific through your various projects, be it the Waco Brothers, The Pine Valley Cosmonauts, etc. Is it a love for touring, or collaboration, or what inspires you to contribute so frequently?
I have found the only way to avoid having to work a proper job is to keep a bunch of plates in the air. I enjoy touring but I love my kids and would rather be around while they grow up. Collaborating is the real fun for a musician.
How long have you been cultivating the mustache?
It comes and goes. It is currently on the way back.
John Langord plays tonight at the Towne Lounge, with fellow Mekon, and Chicago expatriate, Sally Timms.