What happens when anti-establishment punks grow older? They start playing country music. And if they make it far enough, as former Leeds iconoclasts the Mekons have, they celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary with all the pomp and circumstance it deserves. But since the Mekons are still vital, and because the band members much prefer creating new music to resting on their laurels, there's no need for a career retrospective. Instead, a new album of original material -- the dense, guttural OOOH! -- was released in August on Quarterstick, and the band has scheduled multiple nights in cities across the country to play two and a half decades' worth of music in chunks: a decade a night, when possible.
"I was nineteen when we started," says Jon Langford from his Chicago office in the back of a T-shirt printing facility. "It doesn't seem like a long time -- it wasn't like a prison sentence that we had to get through. It was always our choice to continue."
Langford and band mate Tom Greenhalgh are the only two founding members who have survived every twist and turn of a band that was never as overtly political as schoolmates Gang of Four, choosing subtlety over tongue-wagging. But founding member Ken Lite has returned to contribute lyrics to OOOH!, and the rest of the band -- Sally Timms, Rico Bell, Sarah Corina, Steve Goulding, Suzie Honeyman and Lu Edmonds -- have been Mekons since the 1985 release of Fear and Whiskey, a revolutionary record for the band, and, more importantly, for the indie rock world at large. The record, recently re-released, marked a distinct shift for the band -- from punk rockers with a funky side to pioneers of the post-modern country movement. The time was ripe for the change.
"In 1983 there was no one listening to the Mekons or interested in what we might be doing," Langford says. "We were very hip in about 1978, and dead by 1982. We always had this thing about being part of a tradition and being interested in where we fit in."
Country music seemed like the right fit: "Three-chord songs. We liked melodies," explains Langford. "We were never purely arty and experimental. I liked the content of country songs as well -- gallows humor. And there was a lot about drinking -- which was very important to all of us during that period."
What also jelled around that time was the four-person frontal vocal assault of Langford, Timms, Bell and Greenhalgh that assured everyone would have a chance to drink while someone else was singing, but also created a unique harmony team that is as memorable today as two decades past. Since Fear and Whiskey the band has been on a constant path of reinvention -- albums like The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll, Retreat From Memphis, I Love Mekons and even their "soundtrack" to Kathy Acker's book, Pussy, King of Pirates kept their sound fresh and the group excited. This is a band that has as much fun on stage as their rabid fans in the audience. "People are into this band as much for our new stuff as for the old stuff. It's not like they're only here for our punk rock side -- they don't just go to the lavatory during the new stuff," Langford says, laughing.
Because everyone in the band has other projects -- Langford plays with the Waco Brothers, Timms and Bell have solo projects, and all seem to find work with other likeminded musicians -- there's always a feeling of renewal when they come back together. "It's not like a professional relationship. No one depends on it financially," Langford says. "It's more like a family thing. It would be unthinkable to think that we wouldn't get together again."
The title of the new album stands for "Out Of Our Heads," which was the name of a touring art show that the members of the Mekons curated in the U.K. in 2001. All of them contributed work, and while the show was being designed vandals broke into a Manchester storage facility and destroyed most of the work. In true Mekons form, the band chose to display the bits and pieces of their work as the true art. New pieces will be on tour as the group hits their major fan hotbeds this fall.
And while any member of the band would be loathe to say so, OOOH! is a brilliant rebirth once again. Written before 9/11, but littered with religious iconography and language, all set to a dirgeful, dustbowl backdrop, the Mekons may have written the first non-denominational gospel record in history. From the call-and-response yearning of "The Olde Trip to Jerusalem," to "Take His Name in Vain" and "Hate Is the New Love" with its prescient references to "everyday battles" and "dangerous bibles all moving for you," this record seems somehow more prescient now than it might have a year ago.
"I think religion is pretty interesting," Langford says. "A lot of these songs dwell on the positive aspects of religion. There's also a feeling of, 'Why aren't there more militant atheists around?' I'm definitely an atheist and sick of having to watch what I say because of the religious faith in this country. It's not even faith, really, but a default setting of 'We believe in God.' [OOOH!] is the first step before wearing a 'God is dead' T-shirt in the supermarket. For us, poetic description has always been better than chest beating."
And so goes the gospel of the Mekons. There's no reason to expect the band will stop making music until after there are no more members left. "Pop music is a really weird field, where you're supposed to be over the hill in your thirties and turn into a treasured artist in your forties," Langford says. "We function so far outside of the mainstream -- we don't have to worry about being cute and seventeen."
Mekons tour dates:
9/3: Portland, OR, Berbati's Pan
9/5: Berkeley, CA, Starry Plough
9/6: San Francisco, Slim's
9/7: Los Angeles, Troubadour
9/12: Chicago, Fireside Bowl
9/13: Chicago, Abbey Pub
9/14: Berwyn, IL, FitzGerald's
9/18: Cambridge, MA, Middle East
9/19: New York, CBGB's
9/20: New York, Knitting Factory
9/21: New York, Mercury Lounge
9/22: Washington, DC, 9:30 Club