How to explain the Mekons to someone who doesn’t know the Mekons? I offer this vaguely Zen story: When an editor wanted a list of the best anti-Reagan songs, I proposed “Only Darkness Has The Power,” having never heard “Only Darkness Has The Power” before. And while “Only Darkness Has The Power” never mentions Reagan, it turned out to be for everything Reagan was against, not to mention vice-versa. That’s what’s nice about the Mekons—you can have faith. You can fly blind.
The Curse of The Mekons covers the band from its early days at the University of Leeds to its most curious, hilarious, and inspiring life spread across America and elsewhere. It plays March 15th at the Grand Illusion. Director Joe Angio took some questions over email.
Seattle Star: How did you first hear the Mekons? Which records, and which songs, got to you the most, and why?
Angio: I’d heard of the Mekons for years—I’d see all their records in Wax Trax in Chicago, where I’m from, originally—but I’d never actually listened to them until around 1993 or so, when a colleague at work made a tape for me of Mekons Rock’n’Roll and The Curse of the Mekons. I immediately took to them. Each record had a catchy single to scratch that immediate itch (“Memphis, Egypt” on Rock’n’Roll; “The Curse” on Curse), along with more layered songs that rewarded you over repeated listens. I recall the variety of their songs making a big impact—not only from one album to the next but also within each album. The lead singers’ voices were so different from one another and gave the albums so much texture. You have Jon Langford’s boozy bellow, Tom Greenhalgh’s wobbly, soulful croon, and, of course, Sally Timms has one of the best set of pipes on the planet. (I think Eric [Bellis; aka Rico Bell] also sings on one of those records.)
And then I did what any music-lover does who has just “discovered” a new band (in my case, 17 years late!): I went back and purchased the catalog—or whatever was available in record stores at the time. And that’s when I realized those two records were nothing like the others that had preceded it and I became even more intrigued.
Seattle Star: Where and when did you first see the Mekons live? How did this compare to the records?
Angio: I really liked the records, but seeing them live sealed the deal. It wasn’t long after my introduction to their music—maybe a year later—though I can’t recall whether my first show was at Mercury Lounge in NYC or at SXSW in Austin. Both were fantastic. As anyone who has seen them live knows, there’s nothing quite like a Mekons show. The onstage banter—both amongst themselves and with the audience—is akin to inspired improv comedy. I really think some fans attend just to hear the jokes. And their communal spirit permeates the room. Jonathan Franzen addresses that early in the film when he describes a Mekons show as “a gathering of friends.” Those are actually the major themes of the film: the community between the band and its audience, the communal nature of the band and how it operates as a true collective.
The fact that there are so many singers—now, even Lu Edmonds sings lead on a couple songs, so there can be up to five lead singers—is what makes the Mekons so rewarding to hear live. Again, it’s the variety. No two songs sound alike and, consequently, the shows never get boring. Let’s face it, we’ve all been to concerts that have dull spots—most of them, actually. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that at a Mekons gig. God knows, if it ever got boring someone on stage would point it out, and a 15-minute argument would ensue!
Seattle Star: How do you think the Mekons have grown and changed over the years?
Angio: That’s a tough question to answer succinctly—the film itself barely covers it in 96 minutes. I guess it’s hard to describe how the band has changed because change is the band’s raison d’être. They’re constantly evolving, and have done so pretty much since Day One. They recognized early on that punk was a straightjacket and took a dramatic turn (though not consciously) into something resembling English folk music, which led to their fascination in the mid-’80s with classic American country. Though, of course, it was nothing like classic American country; it was the Mekons’ take on it. And so on and so on. They’ve never stood still and have strived not to repeat themselves, even when record companies pushed them to do so or the band knew they could cash in by making “Memphis, Egypt, Part 2.”
Of course, when the Mekons started out in that whole post-Pistols ’77 punk DIY spirit, they were notorious for being the band that could least play their instruments. That has changed—they can play now, some of them quite well! On the whole, though, there are just too many ways to enumerate. I’m not dodging your question but I think the best way for readers to find out the answer is to see the film!
Seattle Star: It’s my feeling, generally speaking, that the Gang of Four diagnose the ills of modern society, whereas the Mekons practice remedies–finding strength in friendship, community, group activities, group resistance to societal evils, and making the most of what you have in front of you even if that doesn’t look like much. Your thoughts on this?
Angio: That’s an interesting point. There was an early cut of the film where we explored the relationship and differences between the two bands in greater depth. (For readers who may not know, the members of the two bands were all friends who were in the art department at Leeds University in the 1970s.) I agree with your assertion that Gang of Four diagnosed the ills of society, though I don’t know that I’d say the Mekons practiced remedies, as such. (Though I concur with everything you say about them finding strength in friendship, community, etc.) I’d say the difference is that while Go4 critiqued society from outside the songs, the Mekons inhabited their songs through tales of regular folks trying to cope in such a society. To your point, they practiced rather than preached and put their money (or lack thereof) where their mouths are. The bands were two sides of the same coin. Though vastly different musically.
Seattle Star: What lead you to decide to film the Mekons?
Angio: It’s kind of a long story, one I’ll try to keep short: It came out of a year-long period in which it looked like I might actually have two different film projects going into production. But, coincidentally, they both fell apart within days of one another. Suddenly, I went from having two projects in the works to none. One of the others was a music doc, and I really wanted to do a music-related film. That’s when I literally turned to my long wall of shelves containing my CDs and albums—alphabetically ordered—and started scanning, beginning at A. When I got to the Ms, I eventually reached my vast collection of Mekons records and I didn’t even bother continuing. And, having a good idea of the band’s story already, I immediately pictured the film in my mind and knew that it would be my next project!
Seattle Star: How did you approach the band for filming, and how did the band react?
Angio: It was pretty instantaneous following the “Eureka” moment I just described. I have two friends who are friends with Jon and Eric and other members of the band. One of them gave me Jon’s contact info and I sent him an email, introducing myself and telling him my idea. We agreed to meet a few weeks later when I was in Chicago for Thanksgiving. In the meantime, I think he vetted me with our common friends, who vouched for me, and also watched my previous film, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) [on the revolutionary black filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles], and appreciated its humorous tone. We talked about the film and he told me to put it all down in an email, which he would send to the rest of the band. It had to be a unanimous decision by all eight members. Well, a week later, he wrote me back and said, “Okay, we’ll do your film.”
A few weeks later, I was back in Chicago for Christmas, and I met with Jon again, this time with Sally Timms (who also lives there). That’s when they told me they would be going to the U.K. in February to tour and write and record a new album. Six weeks later I started filming! It all came together quite quickly; I think I was shooting three months after my first email.
The band was quite welcoming, at least outwardly so. (I later learned there was some trepidation in certain quarters.) What helped, I think, was that I kept a pretty low profile and could blend in with the crowd. (It also helps that there are eight Mekons, which makes it harder to stick out.) On that first UK trip, it was just myself with a pretty small camera, and I used available light, so I wasn’t schlepping around tons of gear and getting in their way. Initially, I was planning to use that first UK shoot to get to know them and make them comfortable around me. Turns out I hit the ground running and that footage became the narrative spine of the film.
Seattle Star: What were the most difficult aspects of filming, and how did you surmount the challenges?
Angio: Some of it was pure logistics: there are eight members scattered across three continents (Lu Edmonds splits his time between London and Siberia), and the U.S.-based Mekons live in New York, Chicago and L.A. So there was a lot of travel and schedule wrangling, to shoot the segments with the individual band members. But the shoot was pretty smooth, on the whole. The most difficult aspects were really just the garden-variety problems all indie filmmakers face, primarily fundraising. I finished shooting in 2010 (with some pickups in 2011), but it took a few more years to find the money to finish the film, mostly to license rights for archival footage, photos, music—mundane but critical details like that.
Seattle Star: Greil Marcus is one of the Mekons’ most ardent supporters. How was he to work with? How did he compare and contrast with other Mekons devotees?
Angio: Well, as the film shows, the Mekons have some heady and intellectual supporters—people like Jonathan Franzen, Luc Sante, Mary Harron, Vito Acconci. But Greil might be the most erudite of the lot. He’s so smart. I think on one 60-minute tape I asked only three questions—Greil’s answers were all 20 minutes long! It was fascinating to witness.
You could almost hear him thinking aloud as he collects his thoughts and formulates his answer. He said so many interesting things but, unfortunately, he doesn’t speak in camera-friendly sound bites. He’s obviously in the final cut, but it was tough to lose some of his other clips—it was hard to cut around his answers and make a shorter sound bite, while retaining the full measure of what he was saying. He’s been a huge supporter of the film—and he would have said so if he didn’t think it was up to snuff.
Jon Franzen might’ve been my favorite interview. He can be pithy, but he tends to speak in complex, perfectly formed sentences with digressions and asides that he never fails to bring back around to the point. It made me think of that grade-school exercise when we’d have to diagram sentences. I wanted to diagram his sentences! It was amazing, like listening to him write.
Seattle Star: What are your favorite Mekons recordings, and why?
Angio: Oh, wow, that’s a tough one. There are so many. Number one has been and remains “Orpheus.” I use it for the final credits. To me, that song encapsulates what the Mekons are all about: Four singers (Rico, Jon, Sally and Tom) trade verses—it may be the only song on which they do that—so you get the full vocal range of the band. Then there’s that rousing verse where the whole band joins in on the line “Loose the Mekons, came the cheer.” I still get chills when I hear that. And, finally, Tom sings the verse that I think amounts to the Mekons’ mission statement: “Where I land will be the fortress/Of this fight against the tide /Tide of rotten patriarchy /Tide of tricks and greed and lies.” It’s fantastic.
From there it quickly devolves into a list of favorites: I’ve got to include a Sally ballad, probably “Waltz.” Or “My Song of Night.” Forget it — it’s impossible!
Seattle Star: What’s in the future for you and the film? Can we look forward to a DVD release?
Angio: Music Box Films—which released Ida, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film—is rolling out the film over the next couple months. I think it’s been booked in 15 cities or something, with more coming on board every week. They’ll release the DVD (as well as VOD and other streaming/digital formats) later this summer, hopefully in conjunction with a Mekons tour, though that’s just scuttlebutt at this point. I’m crossing my fingers!