Freakwater and The Mekons Unite as Freakons for Rich Vein of Songwriting About Coal
Photo by Connie Ward
Freakons is a supergroup of sorts, a pairing of Jon Langford and Sally Timms from long-running UK punk rockers The Mekons and pioneering Kentucky-based alt-country outfit Freakwater’s Catherine Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean. After first connecting nearly a decade ago, Freakons is releasing its eponymous debut studio album this Friday on Fluff and Gravy Records.
It’s a long way from Leeds (where The Mekons formed) to Louisville (Freakwater’s base of operations), but there is a thread that connects the two locations and bands: coal country. The concept is explained surrealistically on “Dark Lords of the Mine,” the opening track on Freakons.
“There’s this crazy thing on YouTube of [legendary actor] Richard Burton on The Dick Cavett Show, this rambling, fantastical monologue on his family’s experiences mining in Wales and that there’s this thread of coal that runs from the Bay of Biscay, through Wales, and all the way to Appalachia,” Irwin says. “We were like, ‘Is this true? I don’t think it is.’ It’s so deranged. But Jon pulled ideas for the lyrics from the interview.”
“It’s a bit mad but it’s a fascinating theory,” adds Langford. “But a lot of the experiences in all of these places are the same: neglect, exploitation, lack of care.”
In using coal as a narrative thread, Freakons examines its history and its future. The group tells the stories of men and women who sacrificed their health and safety by working in the mines, but also looks ahead to what’s next for workers who are viewed as obsolete in the face of a rapidly evolving society.
“No one really knows what to do if mines become a generational thing of the past,” says Langford. “It’s an existential thing; a whole way of life is going to be changed. There’s a whole group of people who haven’t been taken care of. Trump whipped them up and said he’d bring back coal, but he didn’t. Governments haven’t shown a plan or worked on training or providing jobs in greener industries.”
“I’m excited to sing songs about miners and mining,” Irwin notes. “For the most part people think mining is over, but it’s not. As long as people think a wind turbine is uglier than a strip mine, it still exists.”
Coming Together for Coal
No one is quite sure when Freakons first started playing together. Bean, who moved from Louisville to Chicago, had been friends with fellow Windy City transplants Timms and Langford for several years before Irwin met them in the early 2000s.
Irwin estimates that it was “six years ago that we first had the idea to play shows,” while Langford recalls it being “eight years ago, but I haven’t the faintest idea why.”
“It’s a very strange, episodic thing, with huge chunks of activity, then there’s not anything,” he continues. “I think Sally or Janet suggested we call it ‘Freakons’ because it would be a really funny name. If we called it ‘Merkwater,’ it would have been really shit.”
When it came to performing together, the quartet found common ground on the subject of coal mining. Coal has been a key part of the economy of Freakwater’s homebase of Kentucky, and Langford was born and raised in South Wales, close to the site of the 1966 disaster in which a spoil tip (a pile of accumulated mining waste) collapsed above the Welsh village of Aberfan due to the neglect of its owners, killing over 100 children who were in school at the time. Langford was nine at the time of the tragedy and it left a lasting impact on him.
“[I] remember wondering, ‘Why? What does this mean?’” Langford says. “I can’t overstate how important it was to developing my views on the world. I was a school kid just a few miles away and saw 114 kids in school killed because of neglect and greed and a corporation saying, ‘Nah, fuck it.’ There was a whole generation of kids in South Wales that felt keenly where we fit in in the world of capitalism.”
“And of course, it was the miner’s strike in 1984 that got the Mekons back together,” he adds. “We were nursing our wounds after the initial punk movement died down and hadn’t been doing it, but then we saw these miners and pitched in to join the battle for about a year. I still have family that live in those areas.”
Decades later, when the quartet first started playing together as Freakons, they stuck mostly to covers rooted in both the lifestyle and labor movement surrounding coal, playing songs like “Dark as a Dungeon” and Hazel Dickens’ “Coal Miners’ Grave.” The proceeds from these shows went to Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, an organization dedicated to expanding voting rights, tax reform, and transitioning from old sources of energy like coal to clean, renewable forms to create jobs and protect the environment.
But while they enjoyed playing covers and doing work to support the nonprofit, the urge to record original material struck. Thus in 2019, the Freakons LP was conceived and recorded.
Writing for Freakons, thematically and for four vocal parts, was a different creative experience for all parties involved.
“It’s a pretty fucking weird band,” Irwin laughs. “It was fun for me to try to make songs that include so many people singing. Usually when I write I only hear what I think is Janet’s part, and that always turns out to be different. To have John and Sally sing too was exciting and really fun, they’re both so talented and their songs are so staggeringly good, too.
“To me, one of the things that was really cool with Freakons as opposed to writing for Freakwater is that in Freakwater, the songs are about me,” she adds. “Writing about coal mining was fun because it involved a lot of research, staring at my phone and scribbling notes.”
That research-based songwriting can be seen throughout Freakons. “Judy Belle Thomson” pays tribute to Judy Bonds, a fierce advocate in the effort to end mountaintop removal, while “Phoebe Snow” is based on the fictitious spokesmodel for the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad’s “clean coal” rail service.
“It’s so fascinating to me, the idea that there was such a thing as coal on a railway that’s so clean you could wear a white party dress and it would stay white,” Irwin says. “These are songs that are about something, there’s an educational element that makes it feel like you’re doing something, a good deed.”
“The chemistry of all the different people involved was freeing on one level,” Langford says. “We knew what we were supposed to be writing about; we looked at the canon of coal-mining songs and tried to figure out what’s missing in the contemporary scene.”
‘Kind of Completely Bonkers’
Freakons was completed in 2019 and then the pandemic put an album announcement on hold. Irwin notes that it was originally “supposed to be out last July,” but vinyl supply chain woes pushed its release back to March 25.
The group is excited to get the album out to the world finally, and while a tour hasn’t been planned, they hope to do some shows to promote the record. At the very least, it would give all four members the chance to hang out, which they enjoy just as much as songs about mining.
“I’d love to take Freakons to clubs in Wales, but we’ll see, but no one really knows what we’re supposed to do,” says Langford. “There’s always loads of plans and everyone has a really good sense of humor when we talk about it, but it’s all kind of completely bonkers.”
“We have respect for each other’s skills and way of doing things, but everyone is also very funny,” Irwin says, “One day (during recording), I made these papier-mâché animal heads and everyone frolicked on this beach in Northern Indiana with these heads and giant animal costumes. No one knew why we did it, it was just really fun. You always want to be with people who will wear giant heads and jump around.”