"My mother always wanted me to be a lawyer – and I could fall back on art,” Mekons frontman Jon Langford says. “I ended up playing music and falling back on being a painter, which is kind of useless, financially.”
Since forming – while Langford was studying art at the University of Leeds in the late ’70s – the Mekons have released records at a prolific rate. Over 40 years, the group has dropped nearly 30 records.
The Mekons’ most recent release, 2019’s Deserted, exemplifies the group’s ability to continue to keep their sound fresh from one record to the next, while avoiding mainstream input. Also, most of what you hear on the record – the same is true with most of their previous records – is the first time that particular version of the song has ever been performed.
“If something works, we tend to want to destroy it and take it apart to reassemble in a different way,” Langford says. “We also don’t prepare that much prior to getting together [to record] – very limited discussions and abstract concepts.”
Deserted was recorded at a new studio the band set up outside Joshua Tree. Elements of desert and stoner rock naturally take shape within the Mekons’ valley of folk-punk narratives.
“Things get created and you don’t really see what it is until it’s finished,” Langford says. “We plow on, hopefully – a lot of times, things just happen and some of the limitations of the instruments are the joy of [the music].”
The droney psychedelic “In the Desert” is a world beat cornucopia doused in fiery fuel; think The Pogues meet Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. The Middle Eastern-tinged, fiddle-led “Lawrence of California” is a noisy exploration of echo, feedback and dissonance that reads like a knee-slapping, drinking singalong.
“I don’t want to hear something that’s like other things I like,” Langford says. “I want to hear something that I don’t know about.”
The Mekons move beyond straightforward punk. Fear and Whiskey – one of the group’s greatest records – resembles more alt-country than punk.
Whether it’s folk, punk, dub reggae or country, Langford says the band never really feared losing a fanbase because they don’t believe they have a fanbase.
“We were almost operating in a vacuum while we were working on Fear and Whiskey,” Langford says. “We felt like nobody was listening to us at all – we had no expectations.”
The record ended up doing well in the U.S., both critically and in sales, particularly in cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
“Fear and Whiskey was the first great statement of ‘shambolic punk’ band the Mekons, and yes, it is as great as all their rabid fans have always said,” reads Pitchfork’s 2002 review, which nostalgically revisits the 1985 album.
“How much more is there left to lose?” Langford croons on the Fear and Whiskey number “Abernant 1984/5,” honky-tonk punk-twang about striking miners, which may or may not share a dual meaning related to the band’s perception of itself.
“We never had the pressures of real commercial success,” says Langford, explaining the secret to the outfit’s longevity. “We had a couple brief stints with major labels, and though we made good work, I felt that we were unhappy.”
Members of the group wanted control over their music. According to Langford, the dynamic of being beholden to a label to make decisions seemed like the wrong way to go.
Langford says that kind of thought process was directly inspired by the disposition derived from the lawlessness of punk rock’s formative years.
“We just thought we were changing the rules of the game,” he says.
Meanwhile, Langford is still at work on his fall-back plan. He’s currently finishing some original artwork for an exhibit in Seattle that’s coming up in August, followed by a September showing in Los Angeles. He also has an exhibit in Austin. The multi-talented rocker, who makes his permanent home in Chicago, says lately he’s focused a lot of attention on his artwork.
“I paint a lot these days,” he says from his Chicago art studio.
Langford’s mixed-media outsider art features uniquely approached portraits – there’s one of bluegrass icon Bill Monroe and another one of old-school bluesman Hound Dog Taylor. Then there is work that’s more reflective of the Mekons – sardonic, humorous and one that poetically intertwines words into the imagery, including pieces named “The Achilles Heel Of A Dream That Is Unreal” and “I’m Stopping This Train.” The multi-talented Wales native’s artwork has appeared on CD covers (the Mekons and other bands), book covers and Dogfish Head Brewery beer bottle labels.
“I try to cross-pollinate between [art and music], and I’m able to play on my own [solo] if I need to,” Langford says. “It’s always been a word-of-mouth grassroots thing with [the Mekons], like so many other things I like.
“Corporate or Top 10 placement of culture on our shoulders has never worked for me. It’s cool to find out about things that you’ve never heard, which has always been the thing about music.”
MEKONS 7pm (6pm doors) Tuesday, July 23. Henry Miller Memorial Library, 48603 Highway 1, Big Sur. $40. folkyeah.com