“Sorry, I think a bird just shat on me.”
Sally Timms wipes at her blouse, utterly nonplussed. Interrupting Jon Langford’s story about visiting a cemetery in North Wales, she is neither upset nor grossed out, but as calm and collected as when she ordered a pitcher of sangria for the table.
On a cool evening—the first Chicago has experienced in months—Sally and Jon have met me at Moody’s Pub to talk about Ancient & Modern, the Mekons’ 26th album and arguably their best in a decade. The restaurant has renowned burgers, decent sangria, and an outdoor seating area that makes such scatological accidents a distinct possibility.
Jon chimes in. “Once a seagull shat on Sally on the Hamburg docks.”
“While I was in the van! I couldn’t see it, but everyone was yelling and there was this terrific smell.”
“Raw herring,” Jon says.
“It’s supposed to be good luck, but I reckon that’s bullshit. Or birdshit perhaps.”
It may not be everyone’s idea of luck. To many, the Mekons might appear to have a shit career, but they are eternal underdogs, lifers who’ve persevered for so long that they’ve rewritten the rules. Founded in Leeds in the mid 1970s, the band became a foundational punk act, hailed by critics but largely unknown in the mainstream. They have a huge catalog with many great albums, including 1989’s Rock ’n’ Roll and 2002’s OOOH! (Out of Our Heads!), but nothing canonical like Nevermind the Bollocks or Marquee Moon. During the course of our conversation, both Sally and Jon admit to playing shows to half-empty venues and doing tours with numerous canceled dates, but neither seems overly concerned about it.
“We’re good with adversity,” says Sally. “Actually, we’re better with adversity.”
Jon agrees. “We incorporate it. The best records we’ve made are when we’re not aware of any outside interest whatsoever.”
Despite being geographically dispersed across two continents, the Mekons remain undauntedly prolific, constantly building on an already enormous catalog. As Ancient & Modern attests, they have lost neither their ear for a good song nor their willingness to mess with their own sound. Sally chalks it up to a devil-may-care attitude: “I don’t really care whether no one comes, but if I don’t enjoy it, what’s the point? That’s all you can do. You hope that if you can enjoy it, then maybe a few other people will.”
That philosophy extends into every aspect of the Mekons, from writing and recording to touring and simply hanging out. Ancient & Modern was recorded under typically odd circumstances. Founding member Tom Greenhalgh “lives in this remote part of England in this thatched cottage,” says Jon, explaining that Tom couldn’t travel to a proper studio. “Sally went online and found a house we could rent that would be in walking distance. All the Mekons brought loads of food and alcohol and we all stayed in this place together.”
What they didn’t bring to that small house were songs. “People have ideas,” says Sally, taking a sip of sangria, “but there is no real song that is ever in existence before we all get together.” The Mekons prefer to bounce ideas off each other, writing lyrics on the fly. “There are a lot of songs where the first time I’ve sung them is the version that goes on the album.”
“And usually someone is handing you lyrics while you’re singing,” Jon adds.
The process, they admit, is anything but professional, but the Mekons want to be anything but professional. “It’s exciting when there are no rules,” Jon says. “We’re not afraid to go into the studio with no material.”
“We’re not afraid to emerge from the studio with no material either,” says Sally.
That anything-goes creative process keeps the band members on their toes, and remarkably it keeps the music sharp and immediate and focused. Rather than a slapdash affair, Ancient & Modern is a dark, immersive, and cohesive album about the Edwardian Age—the first decades of the 20th century, roughly bound by King Edward taking the throne in 1894 and England entering World War I in 1914.
It proves to be a particularly fertile period for an album, even one by such an undisciplined band as the Mekons. “It’s about what the world was like a hundred years ago and how it was strangely similar to the world today,” Jon explains. “The Edwardian era was this calm before the storm, when no one knew what they were lurching into. A lot of themes came up when we started thinking about that, a lot of ideas you could hang a song on.”
But songs like Tom’s minor-key opener “Warm Summer Sun” and Sally’s eerie rag “Geeshi” are grounded in specific characters and predicaments, which prevents them from becoming schoolhouse history lessons. That idea of a historical setting allowed the Mekons to indulge their own whims and obsessions—in short, to entertain themselves. Jon wrote the sing-along closer “Arthur’s Angel,” for instance, because he was fascinated by the obscure writer Arthur Machen, who was born in the same small village as Jon.
Between bites of a fish sandwich, he explains the song’s historical origins: “Arthur Machen made up a story about British troops being pinned down in the trenches by advancing Germans, and a fog came down and they saw an angel appear in it. It was a patriotic potboiler, and he sold it to one of those weekly journals. It was a total fiction, but it turned out that when soldiers came home from the front, the story became so famous that they claimed to have been there. These things became fact to people.”
Inspiration came from unlikely places. Later sessions in a town in North Wales produced “Ugly Bethesda,” a creeping vine of a song that showcases Sally’s steely vocals. “There was a whole backstory about this town,” Jon explains, “about a big coalminers strike in 1900. In the local graveyard, you can still see these black tar circles on the graves, because they had branded the strikebreakers even after their deaths.” The Mekons wrote the song and recorded it on the spot, savoring the immediacy of the moment. “It’s funny, being in a position where you can write it and give it to someone and they can tell if it’s crap or not. Sally’s a good editor. We have lots of ridiculous ideas and she tells us it’s crap and we start again.”
That sense of creative urgency and freedom extends to their live tours, which are necessarily spotty (scheduling free time for eight people can be tricky) and usually unrehearsed. “There is no budget for months in a rehearsal room to iron out the creases,” Jon admits.
“We do get by on charm a lot,” Sally counters. “We’re very charming.”
“Sally says we’re charming, I roll my eyes.”
“It wouldn’t matter if I lay on the stage in the corner for the whole show,” says Sally. “There have been shows when people have done nearly that. We’ve spent all this time learning how to behave on stage and how to entertain ourselves and the audiences.”
“We’ve done some horrible shows,” Jon begins.
“Shit shows,” Sally interrupts. “And we’ve done the best shows I’ve ever been involved in. So it’s a great live band, but—”
“You never know what’s going to happen.”
With nearly four decades behind them, the Mekons are not getting any younger, nor are they even considering slowing down. “I don’t like the idea that you have to pack it in, like rock ’n’ roll music is somehow inappropriate for older people,” says Jon, motioning for the check and draining the last his drink. “I like the fact that we can get together and make music, even if it becomes a glorified fishing trip. Theoretically, there are 20 years left on the Mekons.”
“But only theoretically. You’re being an optimist there. It could be lurking up right behind you.”