This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on September 29, 2011. See Underground for longer transcript of my interview with Sally Timms.
Which rock band would open a concert with short slideshow lectures, talking about obscure topics like “various breeds of pigs, real and imagined”?
Which rock band begins the recording process by looking through a pile of history books?
Which group includes musicians spread out across two continents, including two in Chicago and others in England? Who’s been together 34 years, with 26 albums but not a single hit? Who is “better than the Beatles,” according to the late legendary rock critic Lester Bangs?
The answer to all these riddles is the Mekons, who started out as a punk band in Leeds, England, then evolved into a honest-to-goodness collective of musicians playing their own singular blend of country, folk, punk and rock.
The Mekons have just released their first album in four years, “Ancient and Modern: 1911-2011,” and they’re playing an acoustic concert Tuesday (Oct. 4) at Evanston S.P.A.C.E. — the show will indeed feature an opening set of slideshow talks by the various Mekons. The following night, the Mekons play an electric show at Lincoln Hall in Chicago.
In addition to a whole lot of wistful melodies that stick in your head, as well as a charging anthemic rocker, “Space in Your Face,” the new album is filled with fascinating lyrics that look back at what the world was like in the years just before World War I.
“The Edwardian period was considered very shallow,” says singer Sally Timms, a Mekon who lives in Chicago (and has a day job at an Evanston law firm). “It was an almost superficially comfortable lifestyle, but underneath it there were plenty of cracks and things were degenerating.”
Timms and other members of the Mekons — especially singers Jon Langford of Chicago and Tom Greenhalgh of Devon, England — see parallels in today’s world. Timms says it feels like we’re living in “the tail end of the modern world.”
“Space travel is finished,” she says. “Are we really dreaming those ideas any longer?”
Timms says Mekons songs emerge out of discussions on these sorts of topics.
“Jon will come in with books. Tom will come in with ideas,” Timms says. “We don’t really write songs separately. That doesn’t happen. No one comes in with a finished song. … With the Mekons, we always make the rule that we do the work when we’re together.”
For “Ancient and Modern,” the recording and writing began in a rented house near Greenhalgh’s home in the English countryside.
“It looked like something out of ‘Lord of the Rings,’” Timms says. “It’s a thatched cottage nestled against a giant cliff by a tiny river, just over a stone bridge … in the middle of nowhere.”
While Timms sings lead vocals of three of the new songs, she says listeners shouldn’t assume she had more of a hand in writing those tunes. Each song is a collaboration by the whole band, she says. Timms says she often plays the role of editing what the rest of the Mekons are coming up with.
“I’m good at looking at the overview and the shape of things,” she says, adding that she also handles the mundane logistical duties that no one else in the band wants to do, like booking airplane flights. “So I play a sort of servant role, with occasional intellectual pluses,” she says, laughing. “But then, I’m in a bad mood about this today.”
The Mekons trade humorous gibes at every concert. It’s clear that this is more than a rock band. Even if they live thousands of miles apart, they’re a tight-knit group of old friends. Maybe that’s the secret to their longevity.