The Long and Winding Road
by Stephen Slaybaugh

Formed as a comparatively sardonic take on punk in 1977 in Leeds, the Mekons have continuously morphed in varied directions throughout their long existence. After lying dormant for several years in the early ’80s, they have since explored realms as wildly different as deconstructed Americana and unhinged synth-pop, as well as anywhere else there collective muse might take them, with only a restless spirit seemingly connecting the dots. With singers and guitarists Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh being the only remaining original members, the fluctuating line-ups of their early years no doubt contributed in part to their constant evolution. But even after solidifying a core group, the Mekons have never ceased their adventuresome progress. In past years, they have both re-explored their punk roots (on the pragmatically titled Punk Rock) and delved into a softer, folk palette (the nearly as self-explanatory Natural).

For their latest album, though, the band has returned to what it does best, namely a bit of everything. While thematically attempting to make some connections between the Edwardian era of a hundred years ago with present times, Ancient & Modern, like much of the band’s best work, strikes a prickly balance between delicately rendered reveries and more unruly impulses. Indeed, it is this kind of ying and yang tug o’war that has characterized the band on both a macro and micro level, and here, those songs that encompass the competing interests succeed best.

In anticipation of the album’s releases, I caught up with singer Sally Timms, who joined the band after 1985’s Fear and Whiskey, but whose ties to the band date back even further.

Most times when someone writes about the Mekons, the band is discussed as being part of the first wave of punk. But the version of the band that’s been around for most of its existence really formed in the ’80s. When that version formed, did it feel like a new band or did you still feel tied to the band’s prior incarnation?

Sally Timms: People came and went very slowly. Initially, the main members of the band that remained were Jon, Tom and Kevin (Lycett), but the rest of the people who were in the band had been more fluid. The band didn’t play for a long time in the early ’80s, and at that point, Andy (Corrigan) and Mark (White) had gone off to London to do other things, so slowly other people came into play. It graded from one band into another. Kevin left eventually, but that was after awhile, so it didn’t feel like there was suddenly a new band. I had sung with the band long before I joined, and I’d known them for a really long time. Even though musically it was pretty different, there wasn’t a big disconnect, like six people are leaving, two are remaining, and we’re getting a whole new set of six people. Through that period—since the mid-80s—people came and went. Lu (Edmonds) left for awhile, Steve (Goulding) left for awhile, and people came in and played instead of them. Susie (Honeyman) came and went depending on if she was having kids. So people have always kind of come and gone. Obviously, there is now a core band, but I didn’t feel it as a sudden change when I came in. It was always a loose idea with some core structure.

The eight people who are on Ancient & Modern have been, for the most part, the same since the late ’80s. As I said, people came and went for awhile. Lu went off to play with PiL and other people, and Steve went off out of disgust, I think, and then rejoined. There was a lot of irritation—there still is, but no one leaves anymore. They can’t leave. They’ve all realized there’s no leaving.

It seems like the attitude towards the band is pretty relaxed these days, but is there something that instigates the need to make another record?

ST: I think we always have it in mind, even though sometimes the gaps get longer. There’s moments when I’ve thought that I wanted to quit for various reasons, but I don’t think I’ve ever thought that we won’t get together to make another record, even if it’s crossed my mind. We’ve had this record finished for some time, and it was quite a slow recording process anyway because it was done in stages. We started in 2009. We rented a house very near to Tom’s in the countryside in Devon, and that’s when we started writing. Then we went to a residential studio in Wales to do more that year—or maybe the next year, I can’t remember. After that, people slowly added things over time; we did some work in Chicago and Lu worked pretty hard on it on his own. There wasn’t a huge pressure to finish because in the interim Touch and Go said that they weren’t going to put out anymore records. We were worried about who was going to put it out, but there wasn’t an impetus to get it done. Touch and Go actually helped us. They gave us the money to finish it, even though we weren’t going to be putting it out with them, and we paid them back when it was done. All this caused it to take some time to come out.

When these records finally come out, we are usually already talking about what we are going to do next, but when that is going to happen isn’t necessarily planned out. We’ll get an offer of some shows in Europe and we’ll take four days to sit together and do some writing, which will get the ball rolling. It’s kind of project-based. You finish one project and let it out into the world and do the things you do associated with it, which is go and play some shows to promote it, but really, it’s like it’s done and there are already ideas about what to do next. We work in a way that is easiest on all of us because none of us are making a living being in the Mekons. We fund these projects when there is time and money to do it in a way that fits our schedules.

Are the songs then not actually written until you get together?

ST: They are not. We do not work like a lot of other bands, I suppose, where someone would write the lyrics, someone would come in with a melody and everyone else would pitch in. What happens is we get together in a room and it is kind of an unwritten rule that no one comes in with a finished or even a semi-finished song. The ideas will be dealt with at the time. Then people bring in books and ideas and there will scribbling away on bits of paper coming up with things. It's like old Hollywood, where people are changing the script the minute you’re onstage. You’re singing and someone says, “Okay, where’s some lyrics?” and someone will grab a piece of paper off the floor and say, “Well, do these fit?” There are certain songs on that record that the first time I sang them was when we were recording them.

Did you have any inkling of this concept for the record going into it?

ST: Yeah, there are ideas of what this might be about, though it won’t be fully formulated. I think that develops through the project coming to life, but people have some ideas in mind. Jon brought in books by Arthur Machen, who was a Welsh writer at the turn of the century that wrote weird ghost and supernatural novels. There were elements of that, and then a lot of thinking about the repetition of history, the idea of “How long do we have to be fighting a war in Afghanistan?” You can wander around England and find war memorials from a hundred years ago that have “Kandahar” written on them. It’s like, “Okay, does it ever stop? Do those poor people ever get a break? What the hell does it mean, this imperialism, this endless intervention in other people’s lives, and do we learn anything from it?” I suppose that could have fed into the idea about what is really different from a hundred years ago. Jon and Tom were very interested in the advent of the modern world, which really came about around the time of the first World War, and what it means, as modern warfare came about then too and all these things were changing in the way people lived.

Would you say the Mekons subscribe to the idea of “If you don’t know your past, you are doomed to repeat it?”

ST: I think even if you know your past you’re doomed to repeat it! Aren’t a lot of people who run the world relatively intelligent?

Well, there was George Bush...

ST: Not George Bush, but definitely the powerbrokers behind him. They’re not dumb. I mean, is it really that hard or are people just blinkered? Sometimes I think about it and think maybe they actually are really, really blinkered. No one really wants to look at the longer view of history and the longer view of the future, not what we do in 10 years time or even 100 years. A hundred years would be a pretty great place to start, but no one seems to be able to think past the immediate to look at what the consequences are of doing the things we do. Then I think they actually don’t care. Disaster is much more profitable than peace and calm.

You were talking about how you come together to work. Say you haven’t talked to Tom in eight months, do you find that you are thinking about the same things? Do you have moments of weird synchronicity?

ST: Sometimes there is, but I think that’s really common in people who have similar interests. I read about that new PJ Harvey record. I thought, “Damn, we finished our record long before she did!” because her record is about very similar things. It’s about the first World War. I mean, it’s not the same thing, but the same ideas. Then there’s been all this stuff about Harry Patch. He was the last serving British soldier in the first World War, and he died last year. Radiohead released a record about him, and there were loads of articles in the newspaper about how there’s no one left from that period. It’s hard to say how those things feed in, but there are moments when something starts to build and ideas bubble. As often has been the case, we’ve made records that have seemed to be very much in tandem with others that we had nothing to do with. It’s like, “Oh, that’s strange they did that too.” So I think that’s happening for us as people who know each other and definitely have similar interests, but it seems also to spread into the wider sphere.

On that PJ Harvey album, she deals with being British too. With a good portion of your band having lived in America for awhile now, do you feel like you write from an American point of view or do you still have a British mindset?

ST: There’s a bit of both for those of us who live over here, but we’ve definitely been changed by being here. We’re kind of—it sounds very cliche—citizens of the world. I am very aware of what goes on over there, and all of us go back a lot and we all have family there, so part of us is still tied to England. And of course, what goes on in America, goes on in England, at least on a policy level. I could still write from a British perspective, I think, though I’m sure there definitely are things that have been altered from being here.

“Geeshie” sounds kind of old-timey, like perhaps you were trying to conjure 1911. Was there a divide between songs, like some from the perspective of 1911 and some from the perspective of 2011?

ST: I don’t know if there was, but I’m not the person to ask because I don’t write the music. But I will say—I’m going to sound like an idiot, but that’s okay—we just had that track released on, and Jon described how the song came about and I knew nothing about it. Apparently, Jeff Tweedy had come in with this song written by an old blues singer called Geeshie Wiley to a radio show that Jon was doing. Jon played it to Lu, and they said the chord changes were extremely strange. They spent a long time trying to work out what those chord changes were. They decided to write a song where all the chords change at times when you don’t expect them to. After we recorded the song without the vocals, Lu went off and took the song and made it far more complicated, almost impenetrable. It took me so long to be able to sing it correctly because the changes are different every single time. He played all the piano after the event, so when it came back to me to sing it, it was a very different thing from what we originally recorded. He fiddled with it for a long, long time so that was perhaps his idea to make it sound like some old barroom song. I don’t think we necessarily divided things up to sound old, but possibly he did with that track.

You rented a house close to Tom to make the record together, when I think some bands, if they were in your situation, might have attempted to do an album via email. What are your feelings toward technology as it relates to music?

ST: We wouldn’t be able to do what we we’re doing without the advantage of digital technology because it’s so much more portable. No one’s having to cart around great big master tapes from country to country and find a machine to then play them on. So that aspect makes it possible for us. Sending tracks over the internet could in theory work very well were it not for the fact that initially we do need to get together. I don’t think anyone is against doing things differently in the future, but it wouldn’t be a Mekons record. I think we always have to start off in the same room. And it’s important to us, because we don’t see each other that much. Most bands live in the same town and rehearse with each other on a regular basis, but we may not see each other for months or a year. We like to get together in the same room.

I read an interview you did for one of the other records and you said that there were four or five good songs on it, whereas most bands in interviews always say that they’ve just made their greatest record. Does that come into play at all? Is there a desire to make the greatest Mekons record ever?

ST: We did try to do that with Journey to the End of the Night because the previous couple of records had been, frankly, pretty shitty. Jon always says, “I remember you coming in, Sally, and saying, ‘We better make a good record this time.’” Having said that, there is an element of hit or miss with us because really there are no spare tracks. Everything that’s worked on ends up on the record because there is no time to write tons of extra material. Basically, we have to do what we can with it. Most of the records, when I listen to them initially, I don’t know if they’re any good, but over time I will get to like them more. It’s a good thing I don’t grow to like them less. I'd say 60% of the time it works out really, really well, and some of the time, it doesn’t work out very well at all. But it’s not about us making fantastic records. There’s always something in it that people can pick up on and enjoy, but we’re not always musically the most amazing band. There’s elements to it I love, and I think there are really good musicians in the band, but we don’t always make fantastic songs. There’s been times when they suck.

Do you have a favorite Mekons record?

ST: No, I don’t think so. I like Cursed a lot, but then I don’t listen to Cursed much, so I might go back to it and decide I was wrong on that one. I think we are interesting to people because of our ideas and because it’s a warm and friendly band. And we are a really great live band—I do believe that. People might hate the music, but I can’t believe people wouldn’t say we are a really great live band. Most of the time we’re on. We have some duff shows sometimes, but there’s always something in there. Most bands to me are just boring. Most of it is just dull. It goes on, and people don't know what to say.

Given the country leanings of the band and knowing how major labels think sometimes, did A&M ever try to market you to a country audience?

ST: No, at that phase of our existence, we weren’t making anything that sounded particularly country. I don’t think we ever really sounded country, though there have been moments. Edge of the World and Honky Tonkin’ had that side to them, but not the records we released on A&M. Rock ’n’ Roll really had no country elements and Cursed... they couldn’t understand Cursed. To me, it sounded very normal, but they didn’t like it. That was never going to work.

I was talking to a high-powered publicist I know, and he laughed and said, “How do you expect anyone to market you? You have like five different singers, and your records all sound different. No one is going to want to deal with that!” It’s true. It’s too hard. But it works fine the way it is. The times it’s gone wrong are when we try to push it. When we try to make it more than it is, it always backfires. It almost has an existence of its own. Things come up and we get asked to do things on occasion, and as long as they fit with the idea of the Mekons, it works. If we actually try to push it through the traditional behavior, with a label and an agent the way most bands do, it just doesn’t work. So we are destined to always be tiddling around on the margins, and that’s fine with me. The margins are always more interesting.

When you took up with the Mekons, did you think there was a possibility you’d still be doing this 25 years later?

ST: No, but I didn’t think about anything then for more than five minutes. I was young and wild—who thinks about those things then? I just thought it was a laugh.

What do you think is the main difference between the Mekons of today and the Mekons of 20 years ago, if there are any differences?

ST: I think there are differences. We’re all different as people because we are older. Every single person has changed, and things that were important to us then have probably become less so. We became much better musicians. Playing songs without knowing them has become harder for us than it used to be as there’s been an increase in standards. In some way, it’s almost become structured, which could be a negative. When we were all living in London and meeting up on a regular basis and playing shows for the hell of it, it allowed us a little more freedom. The fact that we are geographically challenged in the way that we are perhaps hasn’t allowed us to develop as a band as we might have. I just sometimes wonder what would happen if we lived in the same city and were able to write in a way that wasn’t so intense. Then again, we’ve gotten really good at working the way we do. It’s like a little military operation: record, write, go! But I’m curious about what would be revealed if we had more time to work on things. Perhaps nothing. It could be worse. Who knows?

I interviewed Ana from The Raincoats, who also have a relaxed approach these days, and she said that it can be very claustrophobic to always see yourself as part of a band.

ST: We don’t have that, and I don’t know if that would happen even if we were all together. Unlike a lot of bands, we do get on pretty well. You can’t be in a band this long and not be making any money and not get along. It is something that we really enjoy. Otherwise, what would be the point?