Formed more than two decades ago, the Mekons have established a rabid following, pursued whatever they pleased with no regard for prevailing trends, consistently changed the face of music with ideas and execution that took years for anyone else to follow, and had absolutely more fun on tour than just about any other band in the recorded history of traveling musicians. Name another act that's left such a legacy.
As it turns out, it's almost as hard being a Mekon as it is to think of another group like it. Singer-guitarist Tom Greenhalgh sets the record straight with a dark honesty. "You don't want to know the grim reality, mate," he says via phone from his London digs. "The horror, the horror, the horror."
Like everything with the Mekons, the truth likely lies somewhere between reality and Greenhalgh's reference to the track "Powers & Horror" from the new disc Journey to the End of the Night. Any musical entity that survives for a quarter-century is in for the occasional bumpy ride, and the Mekons' rotating membership certainly has ridden out its share of turbulence. Greenhalgh is equally dour when it comes to the subject of the band's longevity and the secret of its ability to withstand the fickle nature of the industry. "Our lack of success means we do what we want, because we like doing it," he says with weary conviction.
There is the faint scent of cynicism in Greenhalgh's assessment, borne out of the treacherous path the group has had to travel since its late-Seventies inception in Leeds, England. Following a handful of politically charged punk releases, the Mekons toured the United States and were exposed to hours of real country music while driving across the nation, realizing they essentially were making loud honky-tonk music with punk guitars. Gradually the band shifted from an overt punk sound to a covert country flavor, while retaining its left-of-center political stance. Their 1985 masterpiece, Fear and Whiskey, and their subsequent albums from the Eighties, were almost a decade ahead of the insurgent country sound, and received little attention outside of their cult fan base and college radio.
After a decade and a half of critical acclaim and a string of label contracts that always ended in the band being dropped, the group's demise seemed certain with the news that Mekons frontman Jon Langford, smitten with an American woman, was relocating to Chicago, and that half of the act would be in tow. It didn't seem possible that the Mekons would continue at all. Oddly enough the band and its extended membership has flourished in the new situation, with five projects (including a collaboration with the late Kathy Acker) plus a host of related but distinct side projects resulting from the relocation to Chicago. Sally Timms and Rico Bell both have released a pair of solo albums in the eight years since the move, while Langford has formed a number of interesting diversions (such as the Waco Brothers, Skull Orchard, and Pine Valley Cosmonauts).
A lesser band's focus would be diffused if it were to involve itself in the amount of outside material that the Mekons routinely produce. "Members of the Mekons have always been involved in other outside activities," Greenhalgh says. "Perhaps not always as high profile as some just now, so I don't think that's an issue, except maybe as a clue to our longevity." Through it all the Mekons have remained a tightly knit musical collective, resisting all attempts to categorize their direction or channel their potential into anything other than what they decide it's going to be at any given moment in their history. The move to Chicago also netted the Mekons a contract with Quarterstick/Touch and Go, the label that has released all of their work since 1992; it's the band's longest label affiliation on its tumultuous timeline.
The Mekons' new album is certainly among their finest and most cohesive of the past decade. The band's usual working relationship remains intact on Journey, as the individual members collaborate and share musical ideas on the way to the finished product. At first Journey seems to be something of a concept album, with connective prose linking together the noirish lyrics. But Greenhalgh explains the group's long-distance method of working has more to do with the outcome of the album than any conscious effort to create a concept piece. "We're so spread out. When we get together, we have to work very fast for economic and logistical reasons," he notes. "We need a few guidelines discussed beforehand to keep things in focus: general mood, type of song, basic sound and feel, et cetera. It's not really a concept album as such."
Night is certainly a prevalent theme on Journey ("Out in the Night," "Cast No Shadows," "Ordinary Night," "Last Night on Earth"). The disc's title is taken from the book by French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine, but Greenhalgh insists that is all the Mekons gleaned from the literary work. "We took the title because it's a good title," he says. "The book itself is fairly irrelevant." Journey was, by necessity, recorded in the band's dual home bases of Chicago and London, with the basic tracks recorded in England and vocals and drums added in the States. But once again, because of the structure of the Mekons' work process, the finished product becomes an amalgam of both cities' influence, favoring neither one nor the other.
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"It's not a case of some songs being recorded entirely in one city or the other," Greenhalgh explains. "All the songs have elements that were recorded in both, depending on where people live. All the bass, violin, and some piano and guitar were done in London and put together with the drums, vocals, et cetera, through the miracle of modern technology, like Pro Tools and hard-disk recording, in Chicago. We couldn't afford to get the band all in the same place."
Journey to the End of the Night ultimately may be considered one of the best works in the Mekons' voluminous catalogue, and Greenhalgh concurs that everything seemed to click with this one. "Each Mekons album is a unique project in its own right, in terms of its particular ambition, structure, and aims," he says. "Journey, I think, picks up on a lot of themes that have been explored over the years and puts them together in different ways. I'm personally very pleased with it, in that I think it is the record we set out to make, which is not always the case."
With a formula that most bands would find maddeningly fragmented, the Mekons have managed to find greater success as a group separated by an ocean yet bound together tightly in a creative pursuit they all believe in with the same vigor and passion that brought them together in Leeds in 1976. By any yardstick the Mekons' legacy is easily one of the true marvels of the modern age of rock and roll.