A FAT WELSH BASTARD: Jon Langford
But he does his best, sir. A rebel and raconteur, this insatiable alt-country rocker feels compelled to mine his muse. (By Lee Zimmerman, Blurt Online)
If there were ever an unlikely character that was tagged as an Americana icon, it would have to be Jon Langford. A Welsh émigré with early insurgent leanings, he was initially attracted not to traditional country music, but rather to the rowdy, rebellious punk precepts that dominated the U.K. throughout the mid to late ‘70s. His first band, the Mekons, reflected the D.I.Y. mentality of the time, adopting the precept that attitude and platitudes were far more important that any actual ability. Despite its fluid line-up, the group evolved into an ongoing communal combo that recorded a series of cult classics and achieved a devoted following in the process.
Even so, Langford demonstrated the fact that he harbored broader ambitions. Concurrent with the Mekons he played in the Three Johns, a Leeds-based guitars-and-drum-machine outfit that gave vent to his burgeoning political posture. By the time he relocated to Chicago in the early ‘90s, he was already involved in a wealth of side projects, including the cow-punk combo the Waco Brothers and a similarly inclined off-shoot dubbed the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. And though his solo career had a belated start with the release of the first album under his own auspices, Skull Orchard in 1998 — and it would be another eight years until the release of his sophomore set, All the Fame of Lofty Deeds — Langford’s rarely been idle. A frequent contributor to the efforts of others, particularly those artists associated with Chicago-based Bloodshot Records, his longtime label, he’s also developed a successful career as a prolific painter. Visitors to Austin (and regular attendees to the annual SXSW festival as well) have no doubt come across his startling portraits of Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, Hank Williams and other music icons on frequent display at that city’s legendary Yard Dog Gallery.
Langford’s latest album for Bloodshot, Old Devils (billed as “John Langford & Skull Orchard”), sums up his creative prowess to full advantage, bursting with irresistible refrains, an irrepressible attitude, and the kind of compelling melodies that sink in immediately and simply don’t let go. “Getting Used to Getting Useless,” “Luxury,” “Pieces of the Past,” “Strange Ways to Win Wars,” “Death Valley Day” and “Pieces of the Past” offer a cinematic perspective of global locales – South Wales, the West Indies, the American West and the heart of the heartland – while allowing him to vent on the injustice and insanity so frequently incorporated into his worldview. Langford sat down to share his thoughts on his unlikely trajectory, his insights into the making of his wonderful new album and the importance of consistent insurgence.
BLURT: Let’s first start with a little history – what was the impetus for relocating to Chicago and what is it about the city that’s made you want to call it home?
JON LANGFORD: I was here so much in the mid to late ‘80s with The Mekons that Chicago already felt like home. The music scene was dominated by enthusiasts, not “bread heads,” and people gave me the space to do what I wanted to do.
You’ve been involved with so many bands and projects – not to mention the fact that you’re also an accomplished painter. The obvious question is – how do you balance all these activities simultaneously?
My theory is that the art and the music all come from the same place in my brain. This may or may not be true, but I have convinced myself. And it all flows back and forth quite nicely…. killer bees pollinating Venus fly-traps for ever and a day! Obviously, the Mekons and the Waco Brothers are really different projects, but they don’t take up all of my time. The songs on Old Devils just didn’t fit anywhere else.
Do you find it difficult to shift your stance from one project to another? Is it about getting into a different mindset?
It’s become second nature. When I’m off on wild rock ‘n’ roll tours, I sometimes crave the solitude of my painting studio, and vice versa.
What led to the formation of the Mekons?
In 1977 in Leeds, everybody had to be in a band. We formed a band where nobody could play and pursued punk ethics to the numb-teenth degree. We were only supposed to be The Gang Of Four’s support band, but we got a single out before them and that was it.
What’s the status of the Mekons these days? Is most of your attention diverted to the Waco Brothers, Pine Valley Cosmonauts and your solo efforts?
Mekons just did a leisurely tour of Europe and have a new album called Ancient & Modern in the can. We’ll be in the States in 2011.
How did you develop your affinity for American roots music?
Just being exposed to Cajun and classic Honky-Tonk stuff in the mid-eighties was amazing. We thought we were inventing the wheel with punk rock and then found ourselves part of this endless tradition of functional, political dance music….
As a Brit, did you initially find that people were skeptical towards your country leanings?
The odd death threat just made me stronger! Some of my favorite Country & Western music is made by aboriginal Australians, so I don’t think it’s a problem…
Given your early punk inclinations, do people find you a bit intimidating? Do you still consider yourself an insurgent?
It’s strange, but I seem to be able to float in and out of wildly different scenes doing exactly what I want to do with nobody getting that upset. We just played a world music festival in a medieval castle in Portugal and went straight to a Krautrock avant-garde festival in Germany, and everybody had a good time. I played the Ryman in Nashville a couple of years ago and that seemed to go quite well!
I insurge twice a day after meals.
As a painter, has your technique been influenced by your work as a musician? Is there any correlation between the two disciplines?
The act of making a piece of art like a song or a painting seems connected to me. I always have words in my paintings, and while they are generally figurative, what interests me most about them is the layering and abstraction. Music is a very collaborative medium and I’ve tried to apply that spirit to painting, but I always end up scratching away on my own.
Any chance you might reactivate the Three Johns? Today’s political climate would certainly lend itself to those themes, no?
We tried that a few years ago in the UK and it was very hard to replicate the intensity and energy of the original band… All things must pass.
Given your outspoken ideals, do you endorse politicians or play benefits on behalf of any specific causes? What is the extent of your political involvement?
I’ve been very involved in the campaign to abolish the death penalty over the last ten years. The Pine Valley Cosmonauts made three benefit CDs of murder ballads. The Mekons did a lot of Right To Work, Anti-Racism things years ago and those issues are still horribly apparent. We made an album of Johnny Cash covers to benefit AIDS charities in the UK in the ‘80s. But that was fun – Johnny Cash got right behind it!
Please give us an idea of your earliest influences.
Tom Jones, Slade, T.Rex, The Kinks, Johnny Cash, Man, Black Sabbath…
How do you approach the planning of a new album? Is there any attempt to conceptualize, or any thought given to expanding your parameters in perhaps a different direction?
I usually find there’s a bunch of songs sitting round that have no home and often there’s a theme that holds them together, which can then be expanded upon as more songs pop out of the ether.
Tell us a bit about the new album and how it came about. There seem to be some songs that could be interpreted as biographical, such as “Getting Used to the Luxury,” Self Portrait,” and “Getting Used to Uselessness” in particular.
I would shy away from suggesting any of them are actually about me in particular. There’s this idea that I mean me in a song that doesn’t exist in a novel or a movie. “Luxury” was a song about growing up in the ‘70s in South Wales and was probably about other peoples’ parents more than anything else. The ‘60s was a time of great promise and affluence and then they shut the steelworks and the garbage men went on strike. “Self Portrait” is a bit of an Andy Warhol/Dorian Gray thing… the artist as celebrity whore, tourist, imperialist, hollow man. “Getting Used To Uselessness” was for Dick Cheney
“Flag of Tragedy,” “Death Valley Day,” and “Book of Your Life” make some powerful statements too.
“Flag Of Triumph” was written in a theme park in Illinois where I observed a bunch of people having an even worse time than me. “Death Valley Day” is about living in a house with your wife and kids on the edge of a cliff in a desert. “Book Of Life” is about all those bastards who write highly selective self-serving memoirs and their relationship with the people they edited out.
Are you planning any projects with Sally Timms?
Always planning, never doing anything. Maybe some pints of Vino Verde this weekend. Mekons stuff, of course.
You and Graham Parker share a lot in common – the same restless attitude, the same record label, even some of the same musicians. Have you ever discussed a collaboration?
Graham sang a Wacos song called “See Willy Fly By” with us a few years ago. I love that man. He was what we listened too back in 1977 – certainly not Slaughter & The Dogs or Eater!
What have you never been asked in an interview?
“Why are you such a fat Welsh bastard?”
Anything you’d like to add?
I am a fat Welsh bastard, but I do my best sir…
Jon Langford’s Old Devils tour commences this week, Sept. 18, in Chicago, and runs through Oct. 16. View the tour dates here.