For over thirty years, the Mekons have flouted the rules or exclusively followed their own. Their post-punk roots didn’t stop them from writing country songs, and the culture at large was never safe from their carefully-considered criticism, in any genre. This week marks the release of Ancient & Modern, 1911-2011, the band’s 18th album. Surprisingly, they’ve remained quite creative throughout their career. Take, for instance, the band’s interest in British folk, spearheaded by Mekons guitarist/songwriter Jon Langford, which must be one of the earliest and surprising left turns by a punk band. Hive had a chance to talk with Langford and vocalist Sally Timms about their new album, perverse music-making, and the sea change happening in the UK.
There seemed to be some confusion about your band makeup. So how many dozens of people have been in your band?
Jon Langford: Actually that’s something that came about very early on. We used to put fake names on the album sleeves. There’s been a lot less people in the band than people imagine, and the current lineup has been pretty consistent since… 1985. [Laughs.] Everybody on this record was involved in the mid-eighties except for Sarah [Corine, bass], she’s the new person, and she joined the band in 1991.
Sally Timms: She’s the twenty-year-old freshman. I understand why it happens, but it’s something of a journalistic myth that we have a big lineup change. We definitely have guests, people have guested at different times. Although on this record there weren’t really any.
JL: There’s a guest! The choir…
ST: Oh that’s true! I’m sorry, I forgot.
JL: How could you ignore them?
ST: Because there’s too many, it’s easy to forget millions.
What’s the story with the choir?
JL: They’re called the Burlington Welsh Male Chorus, and they’re from Ontario. A lot of ex-pat, kind of rugby players and beer drinkers, who sing together there. A friend of mine joined the choir a few years ago, and I’d been working with them, and then we had a bit on the record that just screamed for a choir. So we sent the tapes up there and they recorded their section — it’s on the end of “Ancient & Modern,” the title track.
2007′s Natural was a much quieter, brooding affair. What was your approach with Ancient & Modern?
JL: This whole record’s a bit more strident overall, although it was produced under fairly weird circumstances. We started this record in a similar way to how we did Natural; by going to a secluded, rural place and recording ourselves, acoustically. But we immediately saw the danger signs of that, of doing another version of Natural, so then we basically took the stuff to big studios and put loud instruments on it as well.
What was the process like putting Ancient & Modern together? Eighteen records is a lot of music.
JL: Anything we do is odd, because people live on different continents, and it’s very hard to get people together for large amounts of time to get things done. So with this one, it was started in southern England, in a rented house near to where Tom [Greenhalgh, guitars, vocals] was living. Sally found it. It was somewhere within walking distance of Tom’s house, so he could come after work and record with us.
ST: It was in the middle of nowhere, in Devon. Is it Devon? It is Devon. Beautiful, really gorgeous countryside. So we rented a house there for about four days, so that Tom could come and join us.
Ancient & Modern, 1911-2011 is a pretty grandiose-seeming title. Is it reflective of the content, or is it a more poetic or imagistic device?
JL: The title is pretty accurate because there’s ancient forms of music making treated in a modern way, and it’s all just completely perverse — and none of it is a labor-saving device. Using the technology to make things more difficult.
How do you mean, difficult? Perverse?
JL: I mean you know, people sitting outside, plucking instruments they don’t really know how to play. There was a bit of that, and there was a bit of high-tech messages flying through the ether. I don’t know, it’s just kind of like there’s no real rules with the way we do anything.
What’s the significance of those hundred years (1911-2011)?
JL: That it’s a hundred years ago? We’re celebrating one hundred years of the modern world.
ST: It’s more to do with the idea of the run up to the first World War, the Edwardian period, which was very similar in a way to the period we live in now. It was known to be somewhat … shallow. And so the ideas just kind of followed from that somewhat, that there were a lot of similarities …
JL: The calm before the storm.
Do you think we’re on the cusp of a similar sea change?
JL: I think there’s a huge sea change going on at the moment. People are scrambling around, while our leaders at the moment basically haven’t got a fucking clue. Like lions led by donkeys. It actually reminds me of the sort of first World War generals; people like David Cameron and Tony Blair and George Bush, they’re the sons of influence, yet they haven’t done anything in their lives. There’s nothing that they ever did to justify them reaching these positions of power, like the generals on the battlefields of the first World War, sending people to their deaths, because they just haven’t got a clue. It’s almost as if you can’t blame someone like David Cameron for what’s happening in England at the moment, because it’s like he’d dropped in from another planet.
How much do, or can, these things change though, honestly?
JL: Well the rich get richer but you know — unless they build a big spaceship I’m not sure how long they can maintain this. People in council estates in England weren’t in relative comfort in the first place, and telling them there’s no future and you’ve got to tighten your belts, when there’s nothing to tighten.
ST: And that’s an underclass. But now it’s moving into — we’re basically comfortable. But even for us, that’s going to change. There’s been an underclass for a long time who’ve just been simmering underneath, and I’m pretty sure it was a similar situation a hundred years ago, that there was a level of people who were relatively wealthy…
This is going to sound ridiculously cynical and maybe offensive, but do you think these unstable conditions generate higher-quality art?
ST: Misery breeds good art? It has been made a point of in the past, but I can’t say that it’s necessarily true.
JL: It’s hard trying to make any art when you’ve got to sort of scrabble all the time. I’m not hungry…
ST: You’re always hungry!
JL: I’m starving, get me a sandwich!
ST: I mean, obviously seismic things help people make better art than when everyone’s sitting around nice and quietly.
JL: In the Mekons’ world, I think we have difficulties, structurally, as a band. And I think they make us act in a different way, and I think it’s helped us make more interesting music by having to kind of overcome really weird structural problems.
How important is being wholly independent, in an age of corporate-sponsored everything?
ST: Well it’s definitely a perfectly fine thing to aspire to, to be able to say that you didn’t necessarily succeed by the terms that are laid out, and stick two fingers up to that, and still carry on. Which I think is probably what you’re referring to…
JL: It goes back to 1976-77 with punk rock — we’re making our own entertainment and we’re saying no to the corporate control that the music business exerted on cultural production. We said no, and we’re still saying no.
Ancient & Modern, 1911-2011 is out now.