Jon Langford on Drone Warfare, Alternative Astronomy, and Honky-Tonk
Feb 26 2014
Jon Langford has been one of my favorite artists for more than a decade now. He is also probably my favorite punk rocker, though you might not immediately recognize his new record, Here Be Monsters, as punk. Langford is a founding member of the Mekons, a band that began in Leeds in 1977 and went on to essentially establish the alt-country genre in the mid 1980s, on records like The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll, Fear and Whiskey, and The Curse of the Mekons—which fused the group’s punk ethos and radical left-wing politics with the sounds of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Ernest Tubb. Working in the deceptively simple forms of punk and country, Langford and the Mekons described a world that was irrevocably hopeless and doomed, yet still fun and containing the possibility of love. The novelist Jonathan Franzen put it best when he said that the Mekons were his favorite band not because they give you any hope of winning the battle but “because they teach you how to be gracious and amusing losers." Lester Bangs put it more hyperbolically when he dubbed them “the most revolutionary group in rock 'n’ roll.”
While the Mekons still get together every few years to produce a new album, hit the road, and raise hell, Langford spends the majority of his days in Chicago, where he paints, teaches, and records music with the Waco Brothers, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, and as a solo artist accompanied by the band Skull Orchard. I had the pleasure of talking with him on the phone after listening to Here Be Monsters, his latest album with Skull Orchard, which comes out in April on In De Goot Recordings.
VICE: The Mekons began as a punk group in England before embracing elements of classic American country music in the mid 80s. When did country music become important to you?
Jon Langford: Well, I listened to that stuff a lot in the 80s. We were never trying to imitate American country music, but we found it incredibly powerful. People like Hank Williams, Jimmy Rogers, Johnny Cash. The Mekons were kind of like the flipside to the “cowpunk” movement in England, which was people blacking out their teeth and putting dungarees on and yelling “YEE HAW!” and thinking that country music was incredibly funny and kitschy. To us, it was very serious stuff. With the album Fear and Whiskey, what happened was, we had been punk rockers who thought any other type of music was shit, and then we discovered that there was all this other music that was dealing with the same sort of things we were. Classic honky-tonk music—there was very real power in the simplicity of the structure. The fact that Ernest Tubb was terribly concerned that his songs weren’t too foofy or flowery, and that the boys back home on the farm would be able to sing them, that had something to do with what the Mekons were trying to be. And to deal with politics in a kind of small-p, everyday-life sort of way. I could feel these similarities, even though it probably didn’t sound very much the same.
The most spiritually, if not stylistically, punk-rock song on Here be Monsters is definitely “Drone Operator,” which embodies the strain of dark political humor that you and the Mekons have long specialized in.
“Drone Operator” is politics with a capital P. I was trying to work out what it might be like to be a drone operator, and felt like someone who did that might have some serious issues in their personal life. I liked the idea of thinking about the drone operator going home, and what would he do? I knew as I was writing the song that this was really fucking wrong, but nobody was really talking about it at the time. Everyone is finally talking about it now that there’s been that interview with a drone operator, which was done by Glenn Greenwald. This particular drone operator realized that he was killing American citizens without due process, and that he was violating the Constitution in a way where the regime might find him to be an enemy of the state. It was interesting that he was actually a thoughtful drone operator and managed to get out of it. He’s also kind of a whiney drone operator. The real pilots would mock the drone operators because they didn’t actually fly planes, and this guy is moaning about how he’s a real pilot; he really was flying planes. It seems like the most cowardly form of warfare you could imagine. God knows what people living in dirt and poverty in Yemen and Pakistan and Afghanistan think of somebody who would even do that.
In addition to being a musician, you’re a painter, and you make all the artwork associated with your records. I see that Here Be Monsters comes with a booklet featuring a painting for every song. Did the songs come out of the paintings or the other way around?
Both. I had very strong ideas about what the artwork would be like. There’s a painting for each song on the album, and the artwork features quite heavily, along with the lyrics and the guitar chords, if anybody wants to play them. I’ve been painting skies full of my own personal mythologies. While I was hanging out down in Australia with my friend Roger Knox, the great Aboriginal country musician, we would go outside at night in the Australian bush and look up at a completely amazing Southern Hemisphere sky, where I couldn’t recognize any of the shapes. I was a keen astronomer when I was a kid; I used to have a little telescope, and I knew the names of all the constellations. But in Australia I would look up and not know what was going on. When Roger was first pointing out shapes in the sky to me, I thought he was talking about making constellations by connecting the stars, but he was actually talking about the dark areas of sky. I thought it would be interesting to make a kind of alternative astronomy where you put your own myths up there. You could have Hank Williams up there if you wanted, so I imagined a painting of Hank Williams as a sort of zodiac sign. To me, it would be better to have Hank Williams up there than Mars, the god of war, or something like that. On the cover of the album, I had to put a drone buzzing around up there as well. I’m very realistic about these things, and I don’t think the drones are going away.
Something that people ought to know about you is that you’ve been active in using your art and music to campaign against the death penalty in the United States. The Pine Valley Cosmonauts recorded a series of albums in the 90s called The Executioner’s Last Songs, which raised thousands of dollars to help abolish the death penalty in Illinois. How did you get involved?
Just by coming here from England. It was actually the John Wayne Gacy execution in 1994 that stunned me. I didn’t know much about Gacy; I just knew the urban legend about the clown who killed people near where I was living. When he was executed there was a kind of vigil outside of the prison, and I remember watching the news and seeing them treat the people at the vigil like they were freaks. The attitude was that anyone who opposed killing this guy must be some kind of lunatic. I realized then that by moving to the States I’d fallen off the edge of the political map somewhat, because nobody was really for the death penalty in Great Britain. To see people baying for Gacy’s blood, and the parties that people had once he was executed, it kind of shocked me.
Some time later, I opened for Steve Earle at the Old Town School of Folk Music, and he said, “I haven’t got the time to do it myself, but you should make an album against the death penalty and I’ll be on it,” and I said fine. He came up to Chicago to spend a little bit of time in the studio with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and recorded a rendition of “Tom Dooley.” He was busy and couldn’t stay long, so he recorded his vocals and said, “OK, put some of that Mekons guitar on it.” I guessed he meant some distorted, out-of-tune guitar playing, so that’s what I did. The death penalty is abolished in Illinois now. It was a great campaign to be involved in, even just being a fundraiser and morale builder.
Are you involved in any political activism today?
Well, I’ve become very interested in working with the Aboriginal community in Australia through working with Roger Knox on his album with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. The album, which is called Stranger in My Land, was meant to reclaim those songs, which had mostly disappeared, and make them relevant by forcing people to listen to them.
How did you meet Roger Knox?
I met Roger at the Tamworth Country Music Festival. Tamworth is like the Nashville of Australia—a kind of racist, country town in New South Wales. Roger had been living there for a while and had all sorts of run-ins with the powers that be. His gig at the festival was actually in the Aboriginal Youth Center. Through various people I knew, we managed to contact him, and he was quite happy for the Pine Valley Cosmonauts to come down and play. It was a big, weird scene for the people at the Aboriginal Youth Center, because they weren’t used to white people even going down there, so when we walked in it was kind of a strange thing. We got up and played, and then Roger played his set and brought me up onstage with him. Afterward we sat around talking, and I asked if he’d ever thought about making an album of these great songs, and he was like, “Oh, yeah, that’d be good!” He came over here, and I went over there a couple of times, and we made the album.
I still can’t listen to it without bits of it making me sob. A lot of that music wasn’t really available; it was maybe out on cassette tapes that got passed around. Roger had made a couple of albums, but they were all out of print. There was no way to get hold of it. I thought, This doesn’t deserve to die; it deserves to be heard. It’s amazing the sort of disservice that mainstream, popular music does to these things. I’m not against pop music, but the idea of mass acceptance of a very few artists to the detriment of all this richness, that just seems to be what happens. I really believe the way forward is to make things that five or six people might really like. If somebody really likes it, I think that’s great, but it certainly doesn’t have to be everyone in the Western Hemisphere. The Mekons were on A&M Records in the late 90s, and we sold 25,000 copies of The Mekons Rock 'n’ Roll and were told that this was a major disappointment. I couldn’t believe we’d actually sold that many records! I thought it was extraordinary that 25,000 people had our record, and A&M thought it was just pathetic. I don’t really get how it works and I never have. I’m a 50-something-year-old man who’s probably never going to get a job, so I have to pursue this art and music thing in a way that makes sense for me. It’s a really privileged position, actually. It’s nice.
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