We spoke with Jon Langford about being disillusioned by punk, the hopefulness of science fiction, the duality of light and darkness in America, why rabid capitalism will consume us all and how he got to design the artwork for the world’s strongest beer.
The technological revolution that we’re undergoing is purely driven by a need for people to suck as much power and money up as possible and consolidate it.
As I grow older as a music listener, it seems more and more meaningless to put divisions in rock & roll. The Mekons’ Fear and Whiskey (1985) is super-brilliant to me because it splits the difference between country music and punk rock without necessarily trying to fuse the two genres. Do you think musical styles, forms, fads, etc. are there to try on briefly, like a T-shirt, or that they’re these big important ideas to be very committed to?
I think that after punk kind of fizzled out and went into a boring fashion, the Mekons were looking around for other things to do. Maybe not other things to do, but things to be inspired by. We were disillusioned by the promise of punk and how it turned into a tight little cul-de-sac of what you were supposed to do. We were never interested in the category of what you’re supposed to wear and what you’re supposed to sound like. So for Fear and Whiskey, we just started to listen to stuff that made sense to us. I don’t think we were trying to imitate country music, but we were definitely traveling and learning from it. We just felt like we were making a Mekons album, not like we were inventing a new genre.
Well, the computer’s too big in 2001: A Space Odyssey. My brother took me to see that when I was about eight or nine and it kind of blew my mind. I grew up in a room full of books – they weren’t my books, they were his books – and now he lives in a giant house full of books just outside London. The science fiction thing just came from growing up in England at the time. People were fascinated by the Space Race. The first TV show I remember watching was Doctor Who. It was all very optimistic and hopeful.
Around the time that punk started happening, I was an 18-year-old or whatever and suddenly realized that history wasn’t this constant progress. There are giant hiccups in it. Science fiction was very hopeful, like we would all be living in space stations on the moon. Some of the best stuff is more like morality tales, like what could go wrong. You see teenagers wandering around buried in their cellphones, and no one’s done much research into whether this is a good or bad thing. I’m prepared to accept that this is reality now, but all I see is rabid capitalism. The technological revolution that we’re undergoing that our kids know nothing else is purely driven by a need for people to suck as much power and money up as possible and consolidate it.
I have no faith in the allegedly liberal agenda of people in Silicon Valley, the new-tech people. They come out of something creative and manage to turn it into information superhighways and toll roads. There needs to be some corrective action, but it will not come from within that industry. I wonder if it will come from those teenagers I told you about, but they just don’t care. They accept it as reality. I think you’ll find a lot of that in the writing of Phillip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov. There’s hopefulness, but dire warnings as well.
Please describe your overall viewpoint on humanity, society and the Earth. Where are we headed? How did we screw life on such a beautiful planet up so badly?
That’s a big one. I thought we were going to talk about my new album! Well, it’s all in there. We’re kind of cursed to repeat ourselves as a species, human beings. The major problem the planet has now – I sound like the fucking Unabomber – is some bridled technological advance linked with capitalism rather than linked with visionary, spiritual or socialistic programs. People are questioning and pushing boundaries in the advance of personal gain. There are obvious examples of people bravely trying to turn back the tide of chaos like Doctors Without Borders, but the chaos is caused by rabid capitalists, and we have the most rabid capitalist as President of the most powerful country in the world.
So, my worldview is pretty bleak at the moment. I’ve got kids and it’s very sad. I can’t explain to them how it’s gotten so fucked up. But even in the ‘60s, which was very optimistic, you had the Vietnam War going on at the same time.
Can you tell me about yourself as a child in Newport, Wales? What was your personality and demeanor like, and what was the landscape of that town like at that time?
It’s a seaport town, so it was a place that was cloudy, cold and raining a lot but some days you could go to the beach if you drove a little while. There were hills and mountains and coal mining valleys north of us. My family were kind of a mixture. My mom was very working-class from the Northern valleys and my dad was from the town. He was very invested in the town of Newport. He was kind of strangely cosmopolitan. There was a big influx of people into the town from the docks, and a lot of those people were sailors from different parts of the world.
I was very fascinated with America. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. I have a nostalgia for that kind of dream of the future. The Jetsons and everything being chrome and you know, everything’s cool. Maybe it’s a little robotic, but people are happy and we reached this perfect utopia. That’s nothing I see approaching.
I have a real love affair with 20th century America. If you condensed it into a little short story, it would be unbelievable.
I understand your newest record Four Lost Souls deals with your interpretation of the American South. Can you explain that to me?
For me, what’s interesting about the United States is that it has its roots in the South in terms of culture and the music I enjoy so much. When I was 11 I would have said putting a man on the moon was a great achievement, but looking back on it now, I’d say jazz music is. That couldn’t have happened anywhere else but the South. It’s a direct result of the terrible things that happened at the very birth of this nation, slavery and the transportation of people who had to find their own language, place and way of being in a place they weren’t welcome.
I have a real love affair with 20th century America. I think it’s an incredible place where terrible, dark things were done. I mean, the government did dark things, but the people produced amazing things. If you condensed it into a little short story, it would be unbelievable.
And you listen to the incredible sophistication of jazz music and how it’s progressed over the last century. New Orleans is the root of that, because it’s one of the few places they actually let the slaves congregate. It’s not like an American city, more like a Caribbean city. Musicians could be slaves and buy their freedom. All the stuff that came out of Mississippi and Chicago, too, and Appalachian people came up here as well. They were dirt-poor and ground-bound and had to find a new language in this new land as well. Those old songs from Europe came across the world and changed to fit the harsh realities of this new world, then traditional jazz and blues and country were smashed together into these amazing new forms of expression.
When I met Norbert Putnam in Nashville a couple of years ago, the first thing he said to me was that he was one of the original bass players in the Muscle Shoals studio. He said “When I was in Muscle Shoals, they said I played black music. When I moved up to Nashville, they told me I was playing white music. But really, I was just playing the same thing.” When he was a kid he’d listened to Elvis, James Brown and Ray Charles and ended up a conduit of this amazing tradition. It was wonderful to work with him once we started talking about his history and what was going on in Muscle Shoals.
The fact that he invited me to go down and make something there meant I had to make it about my concerns and interests with the United States. To me, it’s a duality between the brilliant creative explosions that happened here, which I love, and the terrible dark shadows of this country’s history and the way it affects us today.
The South, particularly. These Confederate statues coming down that have been on the front pages. You know, this album was written probably a year ago and I wasn’t predicting that, but it literally talks about the daughters of the Confederacy and how black civil rights heroes’ statues are much smaller than those of Confederate generals. Who, to be frank, fucking lost that war. So why are there any statues of them at all? I don’t understand. I think you should take all those statues out and throw them in the bin, but people like Donald Trump are like “It’s the beautiful history of our country!” and compare Confederate racist slave-owners to heroes of the Union.
But some of them were slave-owners and I’ve got a problem with that too. I don’t know. Kick over all the statues if you want.
When you observe the lives and careers of rock & roll’s best and brightest, what patterns do you notice? What brilliant decisions or horrible mistakes have your favorite musicians gone through? What lessons do you take from their lives?
I think it was wrong to think that music had to be for teenagers. When I was thirty, I felt old and thought maybe I should stop playing music anymore because punk and rock & roll in general was made this teenage thing. Then I looked at other forms of music, where people were making their best work out of experience later in life. So I certainly feel that in the case of myself, the best stuff I’m writing now is more interesting with experience. Francisco Goya didn’t do his Black Paintings until he was in his seventies, so that’s my great hope.
I don’t buy into the “Burn out and leave a beautiful corpse” thing. I just don’t. I think that’s really destructive. Hank Williams, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died so young. Buddy Bolden, one of the first great exponents of jazz, burned for a while and then ended up in a mental institution and was clearly forgotten. Hank Williams, who came from a folk tradition, ended up destroyed by the capitalist machinery of the music business in Nashville and the pressures that were put on him.
You shouldn’t try to please anyone but yourself. If the pressure’s too great, you might start to mess with drugs and alcohol to get you through. I don’t feel much pressure on me, but that’s because the Mekons and other projects I’ve been involved with haven’t been massively commercially successful. We just keep burrowing away on the fringes.
I have no complaints about dabbling with that side of the commercial capitalist world, because breweries make something we need. You can’t download a beer.
A friend of mine’s got a bar in Chicago called Delilah’s where he sometimes puts my artwork on the wall. It’s a pretty heavyweight whiskey and beer bar. Some of the guys from Dogfish Head were drinking in there one night. The lighting isn’t very good and people tend to be really drunk, so I started to sell a lot of artwork at that bar. Too many drinks make the credit card fly around. But Sam Calagione from Dogfish saw the work, got in touch with me and said it’d be perfect for a couple of beers he had in mind. They had one called Old School, which was going to be the strongest beer ever made and he wanted an old cowboy sitting on a barrel. So I said “Fine, I’ll do it, just give me some bottles.”
I do enjoy their beers, and we’ve played at their restaurant and bar in Rehoboth Beach a number of times, which is wonderful. They treat us very nicely and I have no complaints about dabbling with that side of the commercial capitalist world, because they make something we need. You can’t download a beer. That’s what I always say.
Taken in totality, do you think beer is mostly a celebratory, relaxing or destructive agent of humanity?
That’s tough. We have this choice, don’t we? Personally, I have no problem with alcohol. My mom used to say “Everything in moderation!” and I’d say “That’s why you only take cocaine on Thursdays,” then she’d hit me.
I think beer and alcohol are a really huge part of human tradition. I think maybe, again, we have the evils of capitalism for what’s going on in the moment. People get under so much pressure they drink themselves stupid, or this sort of cultural binge-drinking. Drinking to get completely smashed is promoted by the beer companies. I always liked really weak beer. In Wales, the beer is really weak so you can have a few beers and then go operate heavy machinery while pregnant.
Finally, what would you like your obituary or epitaph to read? What would you like people in future generations to know who you were as a person, regardless of music?
I’d like for it to say I was the last person to die before they invented the cure for death in pill form. I was the last one to go because I refused to take the pills.
I don’t know. I’ve never given much thought to how I’d want to be remembered, because quite a lot goes while trying to get through every day. Preserving a space in which I can operate and remain interested in what I do, rather than ground down by natural pressures or worries.
So I don’t really care. I like the thing in Spinal Tap: “Here lies David St. Hubbins… and why not?” That could be on my gravestone.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Phone
Published: October 17, 2017
Total questions: 9
Word count: 2399
Reading time: Nine minutes
Immortality pills: Flushed
Human tradition: Beer
Outlook for planet: Bleak
1960s, 2001: A Space Odyssey, bar, beach, beer, Black Paintings, Buddy Bolden, capitalism, chaos, Chicago, coal, cocaine, country, David Langford, Delilah’s, Doctors Without Borders, Dogfish Head, Elvis Presley, Francisco Goya, Hank Williams, heavy, heavyweight, hills, Illinois, immortality, James Brown, Janis Joplin, jazz, Jimi Hendrix, Jon Langford, machinery, mining, mountains, Muscle Shoals, personal, Phillip K. Dick, pregnant, punk rock, Ray Charles, revolution, robotic, seventies, South, Stanley Kubrick, statues, studio, technology, The Jetsons, The Mekons, Union, Vietnam
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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