the Floydian Device
Jon Langford of The Mekons and Waco Brothers and Kat Ex of The Ex have both made careers playing complex, uncompromising music that stretches the boundaries from English punk to African rhythms to American alt-country. They have joined forces for their debut release ‘KatJonBand’ with a collection of songs that are tough, stripped-down battle-cries to a world gone mad. Jon Langford is a musician, artist, radio host, and observer of all things pompous and corrupt. He is a serious man who can rail against the evils of the world with a smile on his face and a beer in his hand. Punk Globe was lucky enough to catch up with Mr. Langford before the upcoming release of ‘KatJonBand’.
“If you can’t join them, you’re going to have to beat them.” - ‘Moonscape’ KatJonBand.
Punk Globe: The Village Voice once said about The Mekons: “Here’s to a band who have it all: tunes, creativity, humour, politics, brains, reliability, sex appeal.... as their musicianship has deepened they have only made the old stuff sound better.” Tell us, Mr. Langford, what’s it like to have it all?
Jon: Didn’t mention money did they? The Mekons is an amazing band to have been involved in for the last 30 years. Most of my life really. We all have other projects on the go, but I’ve really enjoyed the last few years, making and touring the Natural album.
Punk Globe: What was it like coming of age in the working class town of Newport, England in the ’70s? Did your family encourage you to be creative, or was your path some kind of rebellion against what was expected?
Jon: Newport is actually in Wales. It’s a seaport town with all the benefits that brings. My Mum never liked me going down to the wild part of town by the docks, but as a teenager I loved it. Reggae Music, Irish Folk, Jazz, really hot curries, Soviet cargo ships pulling into town at the height of the cold war… My parents were always a bit confused by me and my brother’s activities.
Punk Globe: There seems to be a lot of creative juice in your family. Your brother David is a well-known writer of science fiction. In his career, he’s received over 25 Hugo awards for his works. You, on the other hand, have recorded over 25 albums with The Mekons as well as being involved in countless other projects. Question: When the Langford boys go out on the town, who gets the chicks?
Jon: There’s no time for that nonsense, young man. We’re too busy with the Strongbow. We are actually working on a book together based around the Skull Orchard CD I released in the late 90s
“Destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late. . .” - The Mekons
Punk Globe: The Mekons and The Ex were both borne out of the late ‘70s punk scene in England. You formed a band shortly after seeing the ’77 tour that featured the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, and Johnny Thunders. At this time, was there still an underground feel to the whole scene; or was there a real, tangible feeling among everyone involved that this was something new that was going to explode?
Jon: We were completely ambition free and everything that ever happened to us was a surprise (not always pleasant). We had one single semi-explode then we crawled off to the fringes to burrow around for the next 28 years.
Punk Globe: Around this time, your mates in Gang of Four were already recording in Leeds and turned out to be a big inspiration for your band. GO4 had a very different style: Guitars and rhythms that sounded like assault rifles going off in all directions while taking aim at their lyrical targets. What was it about their music that you connected with more than the three-chord/straight ahead style of bands like the Sex Pistols?
Jon: We made a record before them (Never Been In Riot) but we would never have started if we hadn’t been able to borrow their gear. They were a proper band. WE were non-musician’s having a laugh and seeing how far we could push it. The Gang Of Four were probably the most exciting live band I ever saw back in ’78-‘79. We just wanted to open for them.
Punk Globe: The seeds of the Mekons and The Ex both seemed to be more about getting the right personalities together than finding people who could actually play an instrument; and from the longevity of both bands, this seems to have worked out rather well. What were the first practices like in the early days of your band?
Jon: Chaotic. Funny. Lacking any promise of commercial success.
Punk Globe: You originally played drums for The Mekons. How did your transformation to ‘guitar hero’ come about?
Jon: I could play a bit of guitar before I joined the Mekons. I started a band called Delta 5 with Ros from the Mekons, Simon Best our sound man and two friends Bethan and Julz. They let me play one chord thrash metal guitar to my heart’s content and it sort of grew from there. When the Mekons got dumped by Virgin and I went back to art school, me and some mates formed The Three Johns and I got more adventurous and invested in a bottleneck.
Punk Globe: Was there a feeling on your side of the water that the English punk scene was more authentic than the American scene as the English bands seemed more concerned with politics and class struggle, while many of the American bands seemed more focused on sex, relationships, and drugs?
Jon: That’s true. Most of the Mekons early songs were about sexual failures and drinking so we were really just a country and western band even then.
Punk Globe: Were there American bands that inspired you in the early days?
Jon: Pere Ubu, Ramones, Television…
Punk Globe: During the early ‘80s, The Mekons took the mantle of the thinking man’s punk band. . . A band that could really do anything. How did you go over with the punk crowd that was out looking for a drunken fight on a Friday night?
Jon: The only people who really hated us in Leeds back in ‘77 and ‘78 were the National Front kids, pathetic racists who thought it was cool to do Nazi salutes while we were playing. They thought we were a bunch of art school lefties who deserved a good beating and they were probably right. They always used to run off when my big mates showed up.
Punk Globe: Does the word ‘punk’ mean the same thing to you today that it did 30 years ago?
Jon: Surprisingly enough I’d have to say yes. It was always the idea of making your own entertainment, defying the music biz and doing what you like… I feel the same way now.
Punk Globe: After gaining a lot of respect in your home country during the 1980s, you moved from England to Chicago in the early ’90s. Were you consciously looking for a city that had the same kind of blue-collar, English working-class feel as your home-town?
Jon: I just felt very comfortable in Chicago after living in Newport and then Leeds. Dirty working towns full of cool weird people seem to suit me.
Punk Globe: When you began playing with the Waco Brothers in Chicago in the Early ’90s, there was a diverse music scene going on: Smashing Pumpkins, Wilco, Liz Phair, the Handsome Family, and Urge Overkill were all part of the scene. What was the camaraderie like between these bands in Chicago, as compared to the bands in the punk scene in England?
Jon: I think there’s much more support and cross-pollination between the bands, clubs, studios and labels in Chicago than anywhere I’ve ever been. There’s space to do things here and so many people put the music first and the bizness last…
Punk Globe: ‘How Fast the Time’ and ‘Drinkin’ Cheatin’ Death’ on The Waco Brothers 2005 release ‘Freedom and Weep’ sound like the Clash playing at the Grand Ole Opry! The Wacos have found a style that is a beautiful blend of ’70s punk energy and old American country. Tell us, what do Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash have in common?
The punk country connection is really obvious to me – Direct lyrics
and simple chord structures and a willingness to tackle real life
head on with a smattering of humor and loftiness…
“So naive, this white boy's dream, Tucked up in bed Inside the whale.” - from Skull Orchard, Jon Langford
Punk Globe: Your 1998 solo album ‘Skull Orchard’ takes a look back at your hometown of Newport in South Wales with some sadness and longing for the days of old: “They shut down the docks/Thrown our lives on the rocks/ But my good eye is wandering still/Past the pubs where I festered all day." When you recorded this album, you had already been away living in America for several years. Did South Wales change drastically in those years, or was the decay made more apparent when looking back in from the outside?
Jon: I started writing a whole bunch of songs that had no place with The Mekons or The Wacos so I decided to make the Skull Orchard solo album – It wasn’t until I got way into it that I realized all the songs were very specifically about South Wales and the people I grew up around. Doing that CD in the states allowed me to have the exile-eyes, some distance and some perspective. I saw Newport go down the toilet year by year from the time I left for art school… But the people are so great there – I always play a show when I go back and have a number of ongoing projects with Newport musicians…
Punk Globe: The policies implemented by Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980’s combined with free trade agreements have eroded the middle class in both England and America. A large segment of the population of both countries have sacrificed their way of life in order to buy cheap products made in third-world countries at Wal-Marts and dollar stores. When Thatcher and Reagan implemented their policies, do you think that they really believed in the ‘trickle-down economy’; or was it all simply a way to help their rich friends get richer?
Jon: It’s still going – ask the same question about McCain. I think they truly believe that their way is the only way but the wheels are coming off the capitalist camper van as we speak…
Punk Globe: A William Burroughs quote from 1997: “Skull Orchard. . . sounds vaguely Cambodian.” You met William Burroughs at his Kansas house during the late 1990s. How did this meeting come about? Did you feel a kindred connection with this icon of the beaten generation?
Jon: I actually went round to his house in Lawrence, Kansas (with Alan & Steve, my wife Helen and Alan’s wife Pony) at WB’s invitation and was amazed to find Allen Ginsberg sitting at his dining room table eating grits and eggs. They both died soon after but that one day was very sweet. Talking about goldfish with Burroughs is one of the high points of my life.
Punk Globe: In the years before he died, Burroughs began creating abstract works of art by placing spray paint cans in front of a blank canvas and then shooting at the paint cans with a shot gun. This takes a great faith in the power and beauty of random chaos. It also really seems to parallel your approach to music and life. Whether it be with your art, comics, or music, you seem to make instinctual connections with whatever is around you at any given moment, and work at a breakneck speed to finish a project and move on to the next thing. Can you tell us a bit about your creative process? Do songs often enter your imagination as nearly finished pieces that simply need editing; or do you start with a riff or rhythm and methodically build from the ground up? Do you still listen to music you’ve created in the past?
Jon: Anything can happen! That’s the secret. WE keep the planning to a minimum! Every song has a different process behind it. We try to never repeat our working methods… I listened to a bunch of old Mekons stuff when we were putting the lyric book together and I was pleasantly surprised BUT I think most of us feel the forward thrust is more rewarding.
Punk Globe: Your 2002 album ‘The Executioner’s Last Songs’ was a strong voice in the wilderness against the death penalty in America. Your adopted state of Illinois has been one of the most progressive in stopping this practice. Almost a decade ago, former Illinois governor George Ryan halted all executions in the state after the courts found that thirteen men on death row had been wrongly convicted since 1977. Studies in the state also found that for each defendant executed in Illinois, almost ten death sentences had been overturned. Do you think it is any coincidence that this barbaric practice is allowed to continue in a country whose most popular forms of entertainment revolve around violence and reality programming?
Society dehumanizes from the top down. Nothing is a coincidence in
this pit of snakes. I heard George Ryan speak and was amazed to see
myself giving a Republican a standing ovation. So they locked him up!
Punk Globe: About The Mekons, you once said. . . “The secret of our success is our lack of success.” How do you think your path would have changed if you had achieved huge success in the early days?
Jon: We’d all be dead now.
“Teach people with bullets, all because of the ugly doll.” - KatJonBand
Punk Globe: ‘Machine Gun & the Ugly Doll’ on the new album is a guitar and drumbeat that sounds like a frenetic mix of Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin, ’70s funk, and The Clash all mixed up into a beautiful, angry anthem. Who is the ‘ugly doll’?
Jon: Someone else’s plaything.
Punk Globe: You’ve been taking on political causes in your music for 30 years now. Your partner in crime (Kat Ex) debuted almost 30 years ago with a song called ‘Stupid Americans’. How could it have taken the two of you so long to set aside some time to make an album together?
Jon: Kat didn’t join the Ex till the mid-80s. She played drums for the Three Johns once, but we’ve never thought of playing as a duo till The Ex invited me to A’dam for their 25th anniversary. They forgot to learn my songs and decided that Kat would be my band! We’ve been playing together on and off in Europe and the States ever since.
Punk Globe: KatJonBand was borne at this gig in 2004 at Amsterdam’s Paradiso. That night, you and Kat went onstage together with no set-list and no rehearsal and completely wowed a packed house. Did you know that first night on stage that you had something special that would eventually lead to this project?
Jon: It certainly got us thinking.
Punk Globe: With both you and Kat being so busy with other projects, what was the writing process like for KatJonBand? How did you find time to put the songs together?
Jon: The problem was finding the time on the same continent. Kat and her family came to stay with us a few years ago and we went into the studio for the day to see what would happen and wrote 7 or 8 instrumentals… We exchanged some words by e-mail went back in the next couple of times when The Ex came to Chicago…
Punk Globe: You played ‘Hank Williams Must Die’ recently on the ‘Hideout Chicago’ show. It was amazing to watch so much going on with just you and an acoustic guitar: Loud, soft, tempo changes - dynamically all over the place and sounding almost like a full band was on stage. KatJonBand is a similar experience. It’s really amazing how full the music sounds for a two-piece band with just drums, guitar, and vocals. How do you pull this off?
Jon: Keep it simple, don’t be shy…
Punk Globe: The song ‘Moonscape’ on your new album repeats the line: “Deal with the skeleton, forget the surface.” This seems an apt description of how you might like people to hear this album: Stripped down music; minimal production; and the underlying, urgent messages about the deteriorating state of the world. Our whole society - from The Pussycat Dolls all the way up to vice-presidential candidates - seems to have put the lipstick on the pig. Can you pinpoint the exact moment when the Western World ‘jumped the shark’?
Jon: It’s been creeping up our leg for a long time. Palin is the icing on a crap cake.
Punk Globe: The Mekons and The Ex are both bands who offer up songs of desperation, anger, and sadness on a regular basis; but there usually seems to be a light somewhere at the end of the tunnel. The songs on KatJonBand are no less desperate or angry, but there seems to be more resignation that things may not get better. Are you starting to feel that the light at the end of the tunnel may actually be a train coming straight towards us?
Jon: We both have kids so we are going to hijack the train and drive it back in the opposite direction. I will not resign.
“A flag flying free in the vacuum” - from ‘Ghost of American Astronauts’, The Mekons
Punk Globe: In the anti-war song ‘Rotten Apple’, there is a line: “Pointing the finger, but sooner or later, we’ll all work out just who is the traitor.” Many might see this as a direct reference to George Bush; but in a greater sense, do you think that Americans have let Bush off the hook because controlling the oil in the Middle East is currently the only ticket to keeping their SUVs, airplanes, suburban homes, and high standards of living? Have people really been fooled or have they just chosen to look the other way? Or is this giving the average citizen too much credit?
Jon: I think you should ask me this after November…
Punk Globe: In America, it seems that one puts their career in peril if they criticize the Bush administration. To be palatable in the mainstream, it almost has to be done with a sense of comedy or irony: Green day’s ‘American Idiot’; The ‘fake news’ from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert; Jack Cafferty on CNN calling the administration on their lies, but acting like the crazy uncle that is let out of the closet at the end of every hour. Why does American culture seem to have to criticize with irony and humour, while British ex-patriots like yourself can come over and tell it like it is?
Jon: There’s a lot of cowardice and fear of offending in this society. Nobody really enjoys a good argument. I quite like Stephen Colbert. There are many roads to the mountain.
Punk Globe: In the KatJon song ‘Crackheads Beware’ the line “before I’m extinct, I’m going to roar like a lion” shoots out like a battle cry for the last generation. With all the issues we’re facing today - the coming end of the oil economy, global warming, overpopulation, growing political tensions around the world - what do you foresee for your children in 50 years? Are they going to be guests at the final party of a world gone mad; or is there still time that they could somehow be part of the solution that begins turning the world back in a more sustainable and responsible direction?
Jon: I saw this as a song about yuppies being killed in their SUVs by hopped-up street people. I shudder to think what parties my kids will be taking me to in 50 years. I hope there’s soft toilet paper and soup. I think major systemic breakdowns will cause huge suffering and hardship BUT trigger necessary solutions to maybe not quite yet insurmountable hurdles… that’s the optimist in me speaking – god my fingers are hurting….
Punk Globe: In addition to your prolific musical career, art projects, hosting your own radio show, and generally being a man-about-town, you have also done some great work in the world of comics. Under the pseudonym ‘Chuck Death’, you spent several years illustrating a subversive comic strip with Colin B. Morton that was eventually made into a hilarious book: ‘Great Pop Things: The Real History of Rock and Roll from Elvis to Oasis (1999)’. It’s been said that Morrissey picked up a copy of a strip about himself and threw it across the room in anger because his chin was drawn too big. Tell us Mr. Death, what do you think has given the children of England more nightmares: The size of Morrissey’s chin, or the sound of his voice?
Jon: Yes he once threw a copy of the Record Mirror across his dressing room in pitiful anger at our superior satirical chin mockery. What a prat. I would love to hear him sing Take Me Out To The Ballgame.
Punk Globe: You recently wrote an essay about the senator who represents your state entitled ‘Why Obama?’ for the ‘Largehearted Boy’ website. In this essay, you ask the American people to give themselves a gift and elect Obama. To the American people, who have elected the Republicans into office twice in the last eight years, I say: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. If November comes and we, God forbid, have to say: Fooled me three times . . .How would you end that sentence?
Jon: I’m off to Spain! If people don’t get out here and make their voices heard it will happen again.
Punk Globe: We look at fascist regimes like Iraq and Iran and believe that we are completely removed from this level of inhumanity: Daily acts of terror and blood in the streets so ugly that a brutal dictator is eventually seen as the better option. But these countries have become what they are after hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years of ongoing conflict and violence. In America, things move a little more quickly. After September 11, people had no problem turning their heads as the government opened secret prisons; began to torture people; started illegally spying on their own citizens; punished anyone who disagreed with them; and jailed people without trials or access to a lawyer. It took a long history for Iraq to become the 'evil' society that was so easy to hate. How do you think that this could happen in America in only one day?
Jon: People got scared and the Republicans spent vast amounts of money to keep them that way. Anything can happen. This country’s blinkered cretinous chauvinism and toothless self-confidence in its democracy, its humanity, its bitterness will probably be the death of all of us…
“Like rabbits frozen in history's headlights, they are trapped beneath layers of nicotine and neglect.” - Jon Langford on his art
Punk Globe: You’ve gained great respect as an artist in recent years for your portraits of subjects like Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline. Your paintings of Nashville legends are amazingly lifelike in their attention to detail. Yet surrounding the subjects of your paintings, there are backgrounds filled with stars, flowers, and printing that looks like it might be the work of a 5-year-old. It seems to be the statement of a man with amazing talent, who knows he can do anything, but doesn’t take it all too seriously. In this juxtaposition, are you making a conscious statement, or is that just the way it all comes out?
Jon: You don’t like the flowers. They are really hard to draw! I usually take these background images from western-wear designs so blame Nudie and Manuel. It’s hard to draw good with an embroidery needle.
Punk Globe: Where do you think music is going in the next 30 years? Do you think that the present decline of the music industry will eventually be a good thing for artists?
Jon: It is already.
Punk Globe: Will there be a ‘next wave’ of punk rock? And if so, what will it sound like?
Jon: Funky inter-species jam bands
Punk Globe: Your music often plays with the line where melody and structure meet dissonance and oncoming disaster. Is this also the way you live out your life; or is there a strong sense of order in the middle of all the chaos? What is it that gives Jon Langford the calm inside the storm?
Jon: I’d like to say drugs but I don’t have time to buy them.
Punk Globe: In the end of it all. . . if you could take one thing to the next world to show that you did o.k. while you were here, what would it be?
Jon: There is no next world, but there’s always next week!
Punk Globe: Jon, thanks so much for your time. Any last words for the punks of tomorrow?
Jon: Play the drums like Kat. She is the best.
KatJonBand arrived in stores September 23, 2008
For our readers on the West Coast: Jon Langford and Rico Bell will open the art gallery at the Cafe du Nord in San Francisco on October 3 with an exhibition of their paintings. That same night The Waco Brothers will be performing at the café. Upstairs at the Swedish Hall, Jon Langford’s Skull Orchard will be performing, featuring Sally Timms and The Burlington Welsh Male Chorus, opening for Bonnie Prince Billy.
The Waco Brother and Skull Orchard will also be playing at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Park on October 3-5.