"Getting everyone in the band in the same place to rehearse is an achievement in itself. When we're together, because of the constraints of geography, we have to get recording done pretty quick," admits co-founder Tom Greenhalgh from his home in Leeds, England. The guitarist/keyboard player is the band's only original member besides Jon Langford. But the new Mekons disc, Journey to the End of the Night, doesn't feel hurried. In fact, the copious musings printed in the sleeve suggest that the project is the result of some deep thinking.
"The text stuff (in the sleeve) was lying around, just kind of there. Perhaps it was going to be part of more projects we might be doing," Greenhalgh says. The band participated in an art exhibit last year, and Langford published a book of comics illustrating scenes in rock history. The Mekons, capable of vividly earthy songwriting, are also ambitiously literate and prolific, like a weightier Pogues crossed with David Byrne. Greenhalgh says a new art show is in the works, for which the group, abetted by friends, is writing more prose. He demurs at the charge that the Mekons have made a concept album, though. "It's not Tommy or anything. But we did have some loose guidelines."
The guidelines didn't necessarily include being in the same place for very long. About half the current lineup lives in England, where the group first emerged in 1977; others live in the States. "We meet for relatively short conversations. And there are faxes and e-mail and phone calls," Greenhalgh says. "We decide before we get together what the songs are going to sound like. For Me (their previous album), we decided we wanted a very hard sound and impersonal lyrics. The new one, we chatted about everybody's ideas and gradually got a consensus that we wanted a bleaker, late-night kind of record. So as it came together, if a track was getting too lively or jaunty, we deliberately went, 'Hold on a minute, this is out of the area.'"
Journey to the End of the Night turned out to be an articulate summary of what goes on in one's mind after midnight. It's not always a quiet disc, but it resists sunlight better than a pair of Ray-Bans and is about as cool. "I do feel we achieved our aim on this record," Greenhalgh says. "Obviously, you have to say your new album is good. It's the one that most holds your interest if you're involved with it at that moment. But with every album, it's always a question of how well you achieve your aim. You don't want to hear back a record like this and say, 'Oh shit, we were trying to make a comedy album.'"
In the group's long and varied career, the Mekons have released almost everything but comedy. They've dished out corrosive punk, saddled up for convincing cow-punk, and delivered stately, melodic material as is found on Journey. But in more than 20 years, band members have rarely escaped club shows, in part because they tour infrequently and surprise even longtime fans with sudden bursts of recordings.
"We're in the middle of a blitz right now," he says. Two collections of rare and unreleased songs hit the shelf last year, following a new album from 1998. Fellow Mekon Sally Timms put out a much-lauded country disc, and Langford's side project, the Waco Brothers, toured behind its second hot album, For Hen's Teeth (I Have Been to Heaven and Back, Volume 1).
"The process was to make some stuff available that was pretty obscure," Greenhalgh says of one of the band's obscurities collections, which earned bright reviews. "We wanted to release stuff that might have only been out on single. But we found too much that was interesting for one album." So presto, sequel, I Have Been to Heaven and Back, Volume 2. "We tend to make stuff available if it's there and ready."
Maybe not a dream for the band's U.S. label, Quarterstick/Touch and Go, the Mekons' relentlessness may soon repay the label's patience by working in reverse. "We're currently trying to address our back catalog," Greenhalgh says. Although much of the lengthy, fragmented list of singles, EPs, and albums is in print, the collection has never been under one roof. "Curse of the Mekons was turned down by A&M and was never properly released in the States," Greenhalgh says, naming one project that motivates the band to consolidate past efforts for their fans. "We've always avoided outside management, but we're not great at business. We tend to do things as musicians. We haven't got the resources to get into heavy-duty legal action, which is probably what's required to get this done," he says. "But I'm talking to people about it. It won't happen overnight or soon, but it's something we definitely want to do." Asked to pick a suitable jumping-on point for the Mekons-uninitiated, Greenhalgh pauses. "To me, it's a long story. We've taken so many paths; it's difficult to pick something. But the midpoint of a certain type of our sound was the Rock and Roll album, though I don't know if it's still available."
For this short tour, the band will play "only about five" of the new album's songs, then dig into "a wide range" of older material. It's a fairly rare thing, seeing the group fully assembled, even if its members have been on the road a lot the last 18 months. Timms and Langford, with and without various cohorts, have all but repainted haunts in Chicago and beyond with their extra-Mekons projects.
"The Mekons have never been exclusive," Greenhalgh allows. "We've always done other projects, other bands. It's just that right now Sally and Jon's stuff gets a lot of attention. To us, it's not that different."
Langford lives in Chicago, a home base that allows him to mingle with that city's many insurgent country acts and turn up on albums more often than ABC airs Regis. But if Langford is the most visible Mekon, Greenhalgh is no less busy. "I've been working with Robert Worby on an electro-acoustic project. They're not songs, really. It's experimental. It's a thing called Plate. We've been working on it for four years. He's just moved, and he's the one with the studio setup, so we're just purely seeing what happens. It's good for me to work on stuff that's not song-based," Greenhalgh says. "And I'm getting nudges from people right, left, and center at doing solo stuff myself."
For now, Greenhalgh says he looks forward to getting his nudges from bandmates standing close on a series of cramped stages. When you've got an album in the bins called Pussy, Queen of the Pirates, stadium tours aren't in your future. But if you're the Mekons, the past is as noble as a pirate's code and as full of treasure.
The MekonsMonday, March 20at Grand Emporium