After 20-some records in more than two decades, the Mekons continue to wander off the path of the formulaic, writing songs filled with bravado, scatology, skewed sexuality and dark beauty, yet never losing their Northern sense of dry bemusement. Their latest album, Journey to the End of the Night, is their most overtly introspective to date. Instantly clued in by the album's cover art, which shows bare trees and blue streetlight haze, you can almost hear the tremulous creak of brittle branches in the dusk. It's an album of mythos, war, catastrophe and city tales. It's also very English, even though founder Jon Langford and singer Sally Timms have lived in Chicago for some years.
Langford comes off as a sort of existential Joe Strummer, a slightly left-of-center raspy-voiced philosophe who'll drink you under the table. Tom Greenaugh remains from the original punk outfit, as does the "baby" of the group, Sally Timms (she joined in 1985). I catch up with Timms in Chicago, "The Ballad of Sally" playing in my mind. Timms has lent her strong, folksy vocals to the group since their golden age in the '80s (The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll is my fave, with Timms belting out the anthemic "Club Mekon"). She's droll, witty and understated--never the belle of the ball but the clever girl who put the fly in the punch.
"Jon and Tom are the more trained intellectuals in the band," Timms explains. Downplaying herself as "only a singer," she continues, "their [university] degrees were all in sort of Marxist art theory, so that's where they're coming from." Spawned from the same late '70s Leeds art/punk scene as the Gang of Four, the Mekons have continuously redefined themselves, incorporating violin, accordion, and even synths and drum machines, in their forays into country, dub, experimentation. What saves them from preciousness is the reckless, dilettantish glee of their delivery. The band's lyrics--ranging from Brit-bleak beat poetry ruminations to naughty vignettes--have cemented it a place in rock's cult enclave and a home on Chicago's Quarterstick/Touch and Go Records.
After 12 different labels and the occasional "shitty" contract over the years, the band is happy to operate on a handshake deal with Quarterstick. "They're philanthropists for musicians to put up with us," Timms says and laughs. Much has been made of the Mekons being screwed over by the music biz--records that won't see the light of day, money-free contracts--a tiresome question Timms nips in the bud by saying it's just the nature of the industry. "We've really been dicked over no more than any other band," she says. "You learn that it's better to own what you do and be able to control it." At this point the band has complete creative and contractual freedom: They make the sort of records they want and they can leave at any time. "It's more adult that way," adds Timms.
She puts forth a theory from fellow Chicagoan and producer Steve Albini (Shellac) that every band has its own natural audience. "I read an interesting interview he gave and he was dead on, really," Timms says. "Generally there's a natural audience for a band and that number is pretty fixed. Also, there's a natural location for that audience"--usually large metro areas and hip college towns. According to this theory, it makes no sense for a cult band like the Mekons to do long, slogging American tours. Continuing the theory, bands should preach to the converted rather than try to proselytize to the yahoos in Backwater, USA (an ultimately demoralizing gig). "It would be nice to sell 10,000 more records--it doesn't seem that hard--but obviously it's not going to happen," Timms says of their cult status. (Yes, they have jobs.)
Chicago has proven to be a good base for Langford and Timms; it's a fertile scene for trading band members, guest musicians and the like. Timms' solo outing, Cowboy Sally's Twilight Laments ... For Lost Buckaroos features songs by Robbie Fulks, Jeff Tweedy and the Handsome Family, while Langford's side project, the raucous Waco Brothers, has several raw country/punk releases out on Bloodshot Records. "Chicago isn't too cool, like New York. You can ask people to play on your record and there's no attitude about it," Timms says.
"How 'bout the Pumpkins?" I petition her brattily.
"Yes, I'm constantly asking them," she deadpans, "but they have a lot of attitude; they're all a bit dour and weird."
Timms spent much of '99 in her "Cowboy Sally" alter ego ("it was a chance to play a character") touring with Freakwater. I ask if she's in character on the new album's track "City of London," a rather creepy little ditty where--in a tremulous whisper--she cajoles the city of London to "take off your clothes."
"There's a really boring reason for the way my singing sounds," Timms explains. She was touring and had just one day in the studio to do her vocals. "I had an appalling cold so I was singing really quietly." It adds a nice dimension of real suffering. "But I don't sing the way I did five or 10 years ago," she adds.
I can't help wondering how they still tour after all these years. "Are they all still legendary tipplers?" I ask.
Timms laughs. "Some of us have grown old gracefully and some have not; some of us have to pretend we still drink a lot in order not to look like idiots. It's quite obvious who's been drinking a lot and who hasn't by just looking at the band. ... Color photographs give it all away," she adds. "I actually love being on tour; it's like being a child. It's extremely tiring, but you learn that your body can be extremely tired and still function."
In between reading snatches of Penthouse or "whatever they can obtain at the service station," she enjoys moments of heady contemplation while gazing out the van window.
Timms' next project is an "electro-folk primitive sequencer sort of thing" (think Nico's The Marble Index album). She's married. Her husband writes comedy; she's also a comedy buff--citing Strangers With Candy as a fave. Langford is now a doting dad. In times when midriff-baring, breast-enhanced teen sirens and misogynistic dude rockers rule the charts, there's something about the Mekons that's unrepentantly pure.
"There's always been a gloss of really crap music that sells to the majority of people, and most of it is pretty marginal. People want things to be simple ... sort of a background to their lives," Timms says. "At this point, we're not making music for anyone except us," she explains. "If you're aiming to please people, you'll come a cropper pretty quickly. You have to do what you think is right even if it's unpopular."