Jon Langford and His ‘Bastion of Unpopular Music’
Jon Langford has had a prolific musical career, releasing many stellar albums solo and with the Mekons, the Three Johns, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Skull Orchard, and the Waco Brothers. His most recent album, Four Lost Souls, is so different from all the others.
“It doesn’t really sound like anything I did before, and I love that,” Langford tells me. “I decided not to play any guitar on it. I was like Frank Sinatra wandering in every day with some lyrics. It was a huge departure from the rest of my catalog. I’d never worked with session musicians in Muscle Shoals before.”
Four Lost Souls was recorded over four days at the NuttHouse in Sheffield, Alabama, with Norbert Putnam producing. Bassist Putnam was part of the original Muscle Shoals rhythm section before moving to Nashville and producing top-selling albums by Dan Fogelberg, Jimmy Buffett, Joan Baez, and others.
“It was the first time I’ve ever worked with a proper producer,” says Langford, who was born in Wales and is based in Chicago. “Norbert was very relaxed and funny but lunged in like a Jedi if things started going pear-shaped. He picked the band and translated my weird wishes to them.
“Norbert really concentrates on the vocal performance. That’s his thing: Get the emotion from the vocals, and everybody else does their job! I went into it knowing it was going to sound really different.”
How best to describe the style of music for anyone who hasn’t heard the album?
“Well, I wrote some old Welsh punk-rocker pirate songs and gave them to Bethany (Thomas), Tawny (Newsome), and John Szymanski to examine for any possible traces of soulfulness,” Langford says. “They took them away to their laboratory and squeezed some out, I think. I wanted them to have a bit of that Muscle Shoals groove. That was the whole point of going there — secular gospel, doo-wop.”
The vocals of Thomas and Newsome throughout the album, and guest singer Tomi Lunsford’s on “Snake Behind Glass,” are superb.
“I’d worked with Tawny Newsome on the last two Skull Orchard records (2010’s Old Devils and 2014’s Here Be Monsters, on which Langford’s band, Skull Orchard, was co-billed),” Langford says. “She’s a highly talented actor and comedian who moved to L.A. a while ago. We decided to do this project with her pal Bethany Thomas. They sang with the Waco Brothers a few times, and it was obvious that I should get them involved in the Muscle Shoals project when Norbert invited me down there.”
Langford regards the songs on Four Lost Souls the best ones he has written because, he says, he was trying really hard.
“A mate gave me a piano just before I embarked on trying to write these songs about my intense love of all the fabulous things the South has produced and its terrible historical legacy,” he says. “The writing of the songs precisely coincided with the Trump campaign taking off, and all the filthy zombie demons and blood-drenched ghosts that it has reanimated.”
With such an extensive catalog of songs written in the Mekons, the Waco Brothers, and his other bands, what is the legacy of Jon Langford?
“I see myself more as a bastion of unpopular music,” he says. “I wouldn’t know a hit single if it bit me in the arse. Norbert, however — he produced Jimmy Buffett!”
For the unfortunate who have never been exposed to the music of the Mekons and the Waco Brothers, I ask Langford to describe the difference of the two bands’ music.
“Wacos is a great Friday night hard-rocking band that you could take anywhere,” he replies. “Mekons is more complicated — possibly more of an idea or way of life than a fixed sound or musical formula.”
Langford says he had a lot of musical heroes while growing up and has some more today.
“Slade, T. Rex, Man, Hawkwind, Stackridge, Dr Feelgood, Pentangle, Chuck Berry, Dolly Parton, Planxty, Procol Harum, Jackie Wilson, Black Sabbath, Bob Dylan, the Band, Al Green, Roxy Music, David Bowie, the Ink Spots, Lee Perry, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey,” he says. “I still love them. Teenage boys growing up in the U.K. in the ’70s had a feast of things to listen to. Now I am a huge fan of the Sadies, Bonnie Prince Billy, Freakwater, Johnny Dowd, Abstract Man, Give Me Memphis, the Handsome Family, Thee Faction, Five Times Crazy, Moxie Tung, and many more.”
Langford says the best concert he ever attended was probably Gang of Four in the Tartan Bar in Leeds, England, in 1978. “I was swept away,” he recalls.
A Depeche Mode concert last year is another one he cites as great.
“Thirty-thousand people going bonkers in a big metal shed miles from anywhere,” Langford says. “I don’t normally like big shows like that, but something clicked in my brain, and I really got into it.”
It’s difficult, Langford says, to pinpoint a concert that most influenced his musicianship.
“That’s hard to say,” he says. “I used to go and see a lot of shows before I was any sort of a musician, so I suppose it must have been one of those. Probably some punk gig in 1977 when the anyone-can-do-it lightbulb went off!”