Mary Lucia interviews Jon Langford

Mary Lucia with Jon Langford in The Current studio
Mary Lucia and Jon Langford in The Current's broadcast studio. (Brett Baldwin | MPR)
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Mary Lucia interviews Jon Langford
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Jon Langford is a true artist. As a musician, Langford founded punk-rock band the Mekons, who eventually morphed into a groundbreaking and highly influential roots and Americana act. Today, Langford continues to perform with the Mekons and well as a solo act and with his other projects, such as the Waco Brothers and the Four Lost Souls.

Born in Wales, Langford attended the University of Leeds (where the Mekons were formed) and eventually moved to Chicago, where he continues to reside to this day with his wife, architect and artist Helen Tsatsos.

Beyond music, Langford is a visual artist (he earned an arts degree at Leeds); his work often reflects his longtime fascination with Americana.

During a recent visit to the Twin Cities, Langford stopped at The Current to talk to Mary Lucia about the many facets of his life: his music, his influences, his visual art, and his recent recording experience in Muscle Shoals, Ala., with his band, Four Lost Souls.

Use the audio player above to listen to the complete interview, and read a transcript below.

Interview Transcript

MARY LUCIA: I just saw this dude in a yard over in Bryn Mawr last night.

JON LANGFORD: I was going through people's bins.

Going through a little garbage, uh, the one, the only Jon Langford, of the Mekons. You're one of the most Renaissance dudes in terms of everything prolific you have done. I know it's impossible to get to the root of this, but I was thinking about this last night as I was watching you guys perform and then also gazing upon your artwork and I thought, a dude from Wales, you're growing up and, maybe this is an unanswerable question, but the combination of love of folk, country and punk rock: Where does that germinate, where did that start for you?

Well, I think on one level Tom Jones was kind of like the most popular musician when I was growing up.

It's on my bucket list, I've never seen Tom Jones.

Oh you haven't?

Never!

Oh, well he's still good, he's still got it. He's funny because he's like an old Welsh bloke now, rather than a kind of a strange, orange, dyed-hair guy. Now he just looks like an old Welsh guy. I'm glad he he came out as a grey.

But "Green Green Grass of Home" is a straight Country and Western song. I love that song. I thought it was about Wales and I thought it was about the village my grandparents grew up in, but I didn't realize it was anything to do with America. Except the death penalty thing was a bit confusing.

Yeah, we'll there's that.

I just thought it was old! And then we had Tom Jones. And Johnny Cash was also huge in Britain, but I thought he was like Elvis, I didn't know he was Country and Western; I thought he was like an American Rock and Roll superstar. But, you know, the Granada TV actually filmed him in the San Quentin concert. So that came out on British TV and I remember seeing that when I was a kid. And he had hit records, "A Boy Named Sue", he was kind of funny, so I always loved him.

But it had to be pointed out to me in the 1980s, when the Mekons first came and toured in America — some guy, a DJ in Chicago called Terry Nelson, said, "You guys are like a country band."

And we're like, "What are you talking about?"

"No, you are like a country band because all your songs are like two chords, three chords, and they're all about drinking in bars and failed sexual relationships."

And I was like, "Oh, and that's country music."

Right now, I'm reading this fairly astonishing Hank [Williams] bio that I had never seen before, and just the fact that it's currently written, so there's just the notion of even the word "hillbilly," which got thrown out so much just to describe the entire genre of music and how it truly had an offensive flair to that. Yet I've always thought it does make sense that a lot of people that I know that are the hardest rockers and grew up on the Buzzcocks and the Clash and everything else still will say that Johnny Cash and even Dylan, who almost seems to transcend everything—

Well, I mean for us … we'd done the Mekons and it was kind of a Ground Zero band where we were trying to destroy everything and kind of be the band with the least musical talent of any punk-rock band.

How'd you do?

We achieved that quite easily because nobody could play at all, and it was pointed out.

But you know, you start doing things for a while and you get slightly better at them. But you know by the time we'd been on Virgin Records, we'd been fired, we'd been on some independent labels, we'd toured Europe for a bit and then we were just pariahs at home. People thought we were rubbish, and we didn't know what to do, but for some reason we were like a social group who hung together and ended up listening to things like Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams and kind of Cajun music, and we were listening to a lot of reggae and a lot of blues already, but you know we made a record in 1985 called Fear and Whiskey, and somebody said it was responsible for Americana or ultimately country and I was like, "Sorry for that. We didn't mean to do that at all."

But we were just literally absorbing this stuff. To us, it was very serious. There was a cow-punk movement in London, where bands wore dungarees and cowboy hats and went "yee-hah" and kind of blacked their teeth out and made fun of country music, like it was a silly redneck thing that was a joke. And then we were like on the other end of that, where we were talking Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers as deep philosophy, as almost Old Testament.

Well yes, and isn't there a tragic and romantic sense about almost each and every one of those individuals within their life, within their writing? Because of course, they were writing about their life, which wasn't always that pleasant.

Well there is that connection with punk rock as well, where I thought punk rock was interesting because it was writing about daily realities, and that was a point that I took from that guy saying, "You're writing about your lives," and the music I'd kind of grown up on in the '70s &mash; or tried to avoid — was progressive rock, where everyone's singing about elves and wizards and you know…

Except T-Rex and Slade and those glam bands.

No, I love T-Rex, but they were still singing about wizards.

I know, I know!

If T-Rex were singing about something I could understand, I'd probably love them even better. I still love them though.

I do, too! So I gotta ask, because my mind was blown when I watched the Lynyrd Skynyrd documentary on Showtime. Have you seen this?

Oh, no. I'm a bit behind on my Skynyrd at the moment. I'll try and catch up.

You know, I think we all thought we were, and it was one of the more eye-opening things I have ever seen, and I'm a bit of a dork consumer of all documentaries and all biographies. I don't even read fiction. But it's like the learning and, again just sort of Southern music, sort of the separation from country or rockabilly or Americana and then what they were doing. I just think you would dig this, and don't go into it with any kind of Skynrd projection.

I quite like Skynyrd.

You will love them even more after you see this.

They were one of those weird bands that popped up and somebody's older brother had an album by them in 1972 and we all went, "Ooh, look at that long hair. Where are they from?"

And they recorded at Muscle Shoals, and so did we just recently. So we played with some of the guys from Muscle Shoals. I think Randy "Old-Time-Rock-and-Roll" McCormick. I think I saw on his résumé, a day-by-day résumé: one day Dionne Warwick, the next day Lynyrd Skynyrd — just crazy, all-over-the-map things that were going on in that studio.

Skynyrd opened for the Who and also the Stones, and the best part was that Mick [Jagger] had [concert promoter] Bill Graham — and I'm sure all the Stones people — said, "You do not perform on the tongue." The proscenium part of the stage. "That is for the Stones, don't go near the tongue," and [Lynyrd Skynyrd] of course ripped "Free Bird" from the tongue and vanished.

I would feel the need to tread on the tongue as well. That's Biblical.

It kind of is. So Jon, you'd gone to art school and clearly, do you think visually? Have you always been that kid?

Art school was the only option for me. I drew all the time. I got told off in class for doodling and drawing. Basically, I was listening, but I could doodle, I was just … my hands had to be going all the time. Even when I went to art school, I got told off for drawing.

Really? You were doing too much?

In lectures they would be like, "Stop it! What are you doing?" And I was like, "Well, I doodle when I'm listening."

I draw all the time. My mother always thought I should become a lawyer or a doctor and I could have the drawing "to fall back on." Or that I could do the drawing and have a proper job to fall back on. But I decided to become a punk rocker, and in 1992 when I landed in Chicago, without a job or a band, I fell back on the drawing, and it worked quite nicely, actually.

Jon Langford poses with a guitar in front of some of his original visual art.
Jon Langford poses with a guitar in front of some of his original paintings. (Juan Perez-Fajardo)

That's quite a testament to a lot of things, both to your skill and also I think to what has piqued your interest. Certainly there's a lot more that you will do in your life, but for the niche right now of some of your work — which has just a stamp of a feeling, of a flavor, of a time in music — if you were to do a series of the most contemporary people you admire, whose portraits would you take a stab at?

Well, somebody just beat me to it, because someone just made a statue of Will Oldham as a Revolutionary warrior [in Oldham County, Kentucky; see story from public radio station WFPL]. In fact, [the Revolutionary War colonel] was a distant cousin of [Will Oldham, aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy], but Will's very paintable.

I have great appreciation for sculptures, but statues of people are nuts, especially if they're bronzed. Especially if they're bronzed, they always look scary. There's a Mary Tyler one in Minneapolis and the Johnny Ramone one in the Forever Hollywood Cemetery.

There's a Harry Caray one in Chicago that kind of freaks me out.

Absolutely frightening.

I'm glad somebody told me about the Will Oldham one. My wife said, "Have you seen this?" I'm glad I didn't just drive into a town and see a giant bronze statue of Will Oldham because then I would have just freaked out. That would have been too much.

But there's so many beautiful … I painted Neko Case, Kelly Hogan, and I did paint local friends. Sally Timms I've painted for an album cover. I'd probably like to do Johnny Dowd because he's so satanic.

Good faces … The Handsome Family, of course — "American Gothic." You don't even need to paint them; they just are who they are.

Who do you think you would have been more comfortable with, if you had to go on just a two-person camping trip? Here are your choices: Ronnie Van Zant or Lux Interior?

I think Lux Interior, actually.

Do you think he would be resourceful in the woods?

No; I'd look after him, though. I think he'd just run around in his gold underpants.

Yeah, I guess it would be fun, either one. I think Van Zant would probably have more know-how about how to start a fire, but Lux would be a good time.

Yeah, he would be a good time. Definitely Lux. It would be a nudist holiday.

So how did you actually meet Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore? Who facilitated that?

I just bumped into him at things over the years. Dave came and played, and I met him a few times at things, and then we just got talking, and I told him about the anti-death penalty thing, and that scared a lot of people for some reason in this country. The idea of doing a series of albums of death ballads to defeat the death penalty, he liked that idea, so he flew in, and I said, "I'll pick you up at the airport," and he said, "No man, I'm Californian; I'm going to rent a car."

So he turns up at the studio and plugged the amp in — it was my amp and the reverb was turned up totally full — so I said, "Hang on, I'll just go and suss it," and he was like, "Leave it; I'm Californian, I like reverb." So everything was like, "I'm from California."

So it couldn't have been easier, and he played all the tracks I wanted him to play on in about 10 minutes. And we had a whole day, so then he went through all the other albums I had sitting, waiting, so there was a Kevin Coyne record that I was working on, so he played some guitar on that, and Dean [Schlabowske] from the Waco Brothers' solo album was sitting on the shelf; he's a big Dave Alvin fan, so I said, "You better get over here, Dave Alvin wants to play on your record." So it was great. He said, "I'm here to play." And then he wanted to go to a Polish restaurant, so we went up to the Red Apple on Milwaukee Avenue [in Chicago], and he bought me two pans of Polish sausage, which he slipped under the table to me in a brown wrapper.

Where do you store that when you're not going directly home?

Well, that's it! I was worried, and my wife said, "Are we going to eat these, or are we just going to keep them because Dave Alvin gave it them to us?"

Well, keep them, naturally! Keep them, yes.

We should keep them in the, you know … No, we ate them! And they were good.

Did you guys have any slightly ghost feeling when you were in Muscle Shoals?

We went to Fame [Studios] and we didn't record at Fame because Norbert Putnam and David Hood, who played on the record, were both in favor of a new place called the NuttHouse, which combines all the old technology with the best of the more digital stuff. So Norbert said, "We could go to Fame … but it smells bad."

I'm sure.

But we went over there, and we looked and yeah, it's the same carpets and the same everything. And Bethany [Thomas, from Four Lost Souls] sat at the piano that Aretha Franklin played; I took a photograph and it's just her sitting and playing that piano, which was quite nice. We put that on the album cover.

Jon Langford with his band, Four Lost Souls.
Jon Langford (lef) with his Four Lost Souls bandmates (left to right) John Szymanski, Bethany Thomas and Tawny Newsome. (Mike Kosinski)

But there were some funny stories. What's [late Fame Studios owner] Rick [Hall]'s son called? Roland! Roland was there, and he showed us around. He showed a picture to us, with Tom Jones when he was a kid, and then Tom Jones, there's all these kids standing around like with Tom Jones with his arms around them, yet wearing the tightest pants you've ever seen with something frightening inside them, and it's just, that is a really disturbing image. And he's going, "I've thought about that a lot." But the people there were great. The weird thing was that they all were unanimous about the [2013 documentary] Muscle Shoals, that they really didn't understand who the Irish bloke [i.e. Bono from U2] was, talking all the way through it and what he had to do with it.

Oh man.

Which kind of put me off that movie.

Yeah.

Then you've got the Joe Strummer movie, and suddenly the Irish guy [Bono] turns up in that as well, and he's telling you about Joe. You know, I don't need you to tell me about all these things, Bongo.

I just got the opportunity about a month ago to see Jerry Lee Lewis. He did like a free show at a casino, and I kind of had that feeling like, "I'm going to have to drive to a casino to see Jerry Lee," but the fact is that it was him. And it was a little odd, but his opener was almost like an impersonator of him. The young him. Which I found touching and a little sad, and it was a little—

How long did he play?

He played for just under a half hour.

But he did play. How old is he? Eighty-five?

You know what I figured out, though? He's only like three years older than Ringo Starr.

Is that right?

Yes, yes! It's amazing—

Ringo did something right!

Apparently.

Well, that was the funny thing, going to Muscle Shoals and meeting all these people. You know that history is not just alive, it's still going. David Hood's there. He plays on that first Aretha song, and then I'm like, "Oh you're right."

[David Hood said,] "It's my first session back; I fell over in a shower in Sweden. I was touring with the Waterboys and I broke my wrist. So this is only my second session back on." It's like "Hang on, you're this legend from the past and you've been out touring."

And Norbert said the same thing: "Yeah, I retired, but I was just sitting at home. You sit in your Lazy Boy, you start to get fat. It's much better going off and touring around. You go to hotels, you get to drink nice wine and healthier food, and your blood moves," and I was like, "Oh damn, there's no retirement for musicians is there? It's just going to keep going."

But all those guys down there were fantastic so it was an amazing experience working with them. They just knew what to do for our record.

That's amazing. I have a final question for you that you have to answer spontaneously and honestly: If you could choose any song played every time you enter a room…

"C'mon" by Man.

Pretty special, and always a pleasure to talk to you, Jon. Any time you ever want to come here.

I appreciate that, and it was lovely to see you last night. I gotta say that Dave Alvin Jimmie Dale Gilmore show is spectacular. It's everything I could have hoped, and it rocks!

Amazing.

Transcript by Simone Cazares and Luke Taylor

External Links

Jon Langford - official site

Jon Langford - Bloodshot Records

Jon Langford - original paintings


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