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Since co-founding the punk-rock group Mekons when he was an art student in Leeds, England, in 1977, Jon Langford has become one of the most prolific and ubiquitous artists in independent music, particularly in the ill-defined world where punk and country overlap. They completely overlapped on the Mekons' 1985 album Fear And Whiskey, arguably the first that featured the "alt-country" sound. Mekons went on to explore other styles as well, but Americana entranced Langford.
When he moved to Chicago in 1992, he found a perfect home in the city's musical underground. Away from his bandmates, he explored his own music and started painting for the first time in years. When he appeared on Bloodshot Records' first compilation in 1994, it was the beginning of a long partnership with the now-famous insurgent-country label, whose catalogue would be much smaller without Langford's solo work, or his records with Waco Brothers, The Pine Valley Cosmonauts, and numerous collaborators.
In 2002, The Pine Valley Cosmonauts released volume one of The Executioner's Last Songs, a collection of murder ballads that benefited the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project. The record became a sleeper hit and in 2003, it spawned a second and third volume, featuring Langford's own artwork. That year, he also played music for a touring version of the popular National Public Radio program This American Life.
Last year, Alverno College in Milwaukee and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis co-commissioned Langford to create a multimedia stage version of The Executioner's Last Songs. It debuts in Milwaukee this month, with performances in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Austin also planned. While preparing his show, Langford talked to The Onion A.V. Club about murder ballads, punk rock, and why songs can't change the world.
The Onion: It doesn't seem like it was too big of a leap for you to take The Executioner's Last Songs from record to stage.
Jon Langford: I had something already I was thinking of developing, and this was a really great opportunity to push it in that direction. I thought it was an interesting way of approaching the idea that social activism and an artist are together, which is kind of what I've been trying to do over the years. But I just needed to pin it all together and not explain all the reasons, but just describe certain key incidents that led me to be acting in that sort of way.
And it was weird, because then they said we get a grant for this. I don't know of any punk rockers who get grants. It's like every other form of culture; it seems to be, you sit around writing grants so you can get grants. But it's pretty dog-eat-dog in the indie-rock world. It's just like about the number of people that pay to come into a club. You get that money. The number of records you sell, you get a tiny sliver of that money after all the expenses, and everybody else has had their cut. So for me, it was kind of odd to receive a lump of money. You get this money, and then you do what you want with it, but you've got to do this performance in a year's time.
To me, it's totally new ground. I don't know how it works. One of the things that was interesting was seeing the people from This American Life doing it, actually going out and holding a crowd. Sarah Vowell, who I think's fantastic, just goes and stands and talks. It was pretty impressive to see her commanding a room.
O: Especially considering those shows took place in pretty big places.
JL: I thought Ira [Glass, host of This American Life] was really good as well... He's just sitting at a table with some little machines, reading quite quietly, and everyone was hushed and really listening. It was very funny as well. It wasn't boring. To me, 20 years ago, that would have seemed like the most boring thing in the world. But you know, basically all my principles have been kind of compromised. [Laughs.] Sometimes I actually appear in public with an acoustic guitar on my own! Which is sort of the practice I was trying to destroy 27 years ago. Now I've found that's actually kind of a viable thing to do. It does work for me.
It's about the words and ideas; why not sit and read? I've got my prop. I like to keep the electric guitar slung around my neck with the amplifier turned up to the point of feeding back, so if I take my hands off the strings, things start to squeal. And it keeps the audience in a sort of fearful state as well. They're going to pay attention. If they drop off, I can smash the guitar as hard as I can. I play along as I'm talking as well.
O: So you have readings, music, visuals, and it's all about the death penalty?
JL: I have to emphasize, it's about the death penalty, but it's not... I went and had a meeting with [Chicago's Museum Of Contemporary Art] about doing it there, and we started talking, and they said, "At what point in the performance will you talk about your reasons why you oppose the death penalty, or why you think the death penalty's a bad idea?" And I said, "At no point." [Laughs.] It's not really the purpose. It's not a straight, "I am against the death penalty because of this." It's much more all over the place than that.
O: Where do the readings come from?
JL: It's all been written especially for this.
O: Are you just playing songs from the CDs?
JL: No, mostly songs of mine. There are some. Actually, the subtext of it is, we made that album. I have very limited ambitions for pop and politics. I feel like you have to be realistic. I don't think a song changes the world; I think the world changes, and the song reflects it. I'm sorry for people that think the art is a hammer, not a mirror. In my experience, when there's movement in a certain direction, then you have an opportunity to make some good art. Good art isn't just a prescriptive thing: "We're going to make some good art about why the death penalty's bad, and why we should get rid of the death penalty." That's a tall order.
We chose to do the death songs about the death penalty, and I just wanted to do the album, get some money into the campaign. It seemed like things were moving a little bit, and I wanted to get involved. I thought, "Maybe if I did a benefit album, maybe it's at least gonna get them money for photocopying and making posters." It was very low-level. It wasn't, "This album is going to get rid of the death penalty!" I've had experience with a lot of people who think the power of music can actually do things like that, but this was just about raising money. Then in the process of deciding on some sort of theme to run through the album, I decided maybe to do the death songs. It was just a gig in the first place. Then Bloodshot asked me to do an album. So let's just do murder ballads. It'd be a quite interesting paradox, even though we're doing that against the death penalty... It's a very subjective piece, and I'm not trying to be like a politician. Some of the arguments, I'm not even backing them up. It's just what I think. [Laughs.]
So I sat down, and I found myself apologizing occasionally for things I was saying, and I thought, "Well, that's a fucking waste of time. Why should I do that?" So I just say what I think. The fact that I'm against the death penalty is a given, and the fact that the death penalty is a bad thing is a given for me, because it is. I can explain that, but it would be pretty boring.
O: The record seems like it became way bigger than its original intention.
JL: Yeah, but my main intention was that it was a good album. That's why I used one band. Because I think benefit/tribute albums are really terrible, usually. I've done quite a few, which is odd.
O: How do you balance your artistic life, like music vs. painting vs. other projects?
JL: When I'm not doing music, I'm usually painting. And then when I've been doing this thing, I've been up all night writing, sitting on the computer writing stuff. Just letting it take me where I felt like. I say in the introduction that it is a tangential thing, and it is. Basically a piece is like a reflection of how people spend their time. Get up in the morning, go to my studio, do a bit of painting. Maybe I've got a gig that night. Maybe I've got to come home and work on the computer all night.
That's one of the other things in the piece. The point I'm trying to make is, what's the difference between all these activities? Again, we try to categorize things and put things in different boxes. I was a victim of that, because I was not successful exactly as a songwriter. When we were signed to a major label in the late '80s, we were touring and writing songs, and it was a great, really great time. I thought the time we were on A&M, even though it was a horrible experience, we made two of the best albums we ever made. I really felt like, as a songwriter, I had accomplished something at that point, got somewhere. But at the same time, I wasn't doing any visual art at all, because I was kind of crippled from my background.
O: You studied painting in college, but you drifted away from it. Why do you think you came back?
JL: I actually ended up in Chicago on my own, separated from the rest of the band in '92 and '93, and that's when I started... I don't know what I thought I was going to do. Looking back at it now, I started painting, pulling together a lot of ideas I had about how maybe painting wasn't that different from songwriting. Why was it so hard to paint, but so easy to make a song? So basically, the paintings came out of that idea. Maybe they could just be like songs.
That's where I got intoI wanted to do figurative painting, not abstract painting. Because I figured maybe if I was some classical guitar player, maybe it'd be nice to do abstract, but the fact of the matter was, we were dealing with words and music and stuff, and that didn't sit with me. And abstract art was so loaded anyway. To be honest, I started looking at a lot of medieval paintings and old Dutch paintings, and kind of thought, "This is my way in." I studied in college the whole history of 20th-century art, and I spent fucking years thinking about [Marcel] Duchamp"What is art, anyway? Anything can be art." Then it just seemed like nobody's painting little pictures at the moment. [Laughs.] "What if I paint little pictures with recognizable objects in them? What if I did that? Would it be a crap idea, or would it be a good idea?" To me, it really worked out, so that's what I did.
O: And you eventually drifted to the portraits of country-and-western icons based on their publicity photos, which eventually grew to your skulls-and-blindfolds idea?
JL: That was where I started off initially, with the promo shot and doing paintings of promo shots and photographs that were used to advertise or sell a person or a product. It seemed poignant to me once they were old and torn up and forgotten, because they're meant to be bright and shiny and optimistic. When they're covered in nicotine and ripped up, it's a different effect. And I was interested in that idea of nostalgia as well. I felt nostalgic for these things on one level, and I felt they were made in the spirit of great optimism. Optimism and nostalgia: Optimism's going one way and nostalgia's going the other, but they're kind of like the same thing.
I did that for a while, then we made the gravestones for country music when it got more overtly caught up with what was going on in Nashville, and the whole thing kind of expanded into paintings of the blindfolded cowboys and skull-headed cowboys. It just became more about the state of the nation, you know, and about the death penalty and the shortsighted culture that doesn't have any history and doesn't really care about the future.
So I started thinking about that, but that's the way the work's gotten now. All the stuff's pretty autobiographical as well. The piece is pretty autobiographical. The painting of Hank Williams signing his contractit's Hank Williams, but the reason I'm interested in that is because I've done that, you know? I know that feeling, and what you lose, and what you give up at that moment.
O: It seems like you took a bit of crap for those portraits and the gravestone project.
JL: Not as much as I'd like. One of the bits in the piecewe talk about the gravestone exhibition in a gallery in Nashville. We sent it all to the record labels, and I wanted them to come down. I wanted them to picket the place, because I thought it was pretty insulting: Country music was actually dead, and they were probably responsible for killing it. Mostly, all the Music Row people came down and drank the wine and looked around and picked up a couple of etchings. Mercury phoned me the next Monday and asked me to do a cover for a Hank Williams album.
O: And did you think, "Wait, don't you understand what I was saying?"
JL: Herbert Marcuse said, whatever you throw at capitalism, it'll just sell it back to you. I found that so many times. "Oh, what are you doing? Oh wow, okay. You hate country music. You think we've murdered it. How can we buy you?" They don't want to destroy me; they just want to buy me. They were nice people, you know, the people at Mercury who wanted to do that. I was very honored"Hey, I'm doing a Hank Williams album cover! Fantastic!"but the process was still the same, whether they were nice people or not. Without any argument, I stepped back into the beast's mouth.
O: So do you get less flak now for being a native European playing Americana music?
JL: I don't know if I do. There was a classic letter to No Depression which I couldn't find, that I wanted to read as part of the show. Basically, it said that I dominated country music in Chicago, and I was this talentless fucking fraud, and I wasn't even from America, and there couldn't be a Bloodshot record without me on it.
At the [Experience Music Project conference] up in Seattle, one of the guys from No Depression brought it down and said, "Would you mind if we published this?" And I was like, "Yeah, please do!" Because it was just such vitriol and such hatred because I wasn't from America. Well, no one's really from America. Even the Native Americans walked here from Alaska or something.
I had a lot of bile fromafter the first gig for the Executioners thing, we got a lot of it from the left at that point, because of all the women getting killed. Most of the songs are about killing women. I tried to keep a little balance; there's other songs. A lot of times, the guy will shoot the boyfriend. But you know, it's the idea that you shouldn't have the word "bitch" in a song, and that's one of the other things I talk about in the piece... They make a point, but I'm not prepared to censor hundreds of years of music.
O: When Mekons began, you didn't intend to censor musical history, you wanted to destroy it altogether. You guys didn't want to be part of any tradition.
JL: We came around pretty quick to the idea that there was a tradition you were part of. You can't really escape the past. The past is actually pretty interesting.
O: But one of the reasons Mekons have lasted so long is that you've changed so much and embraced different traditions.
JL: We didn't follow the career model of what a band should do. You listen to the songs; there are some good songs and some good albums, but maybe what's more valuable is like the business model of the way it works.
O: Like how you've lasted is more valuable than what you've produced?
JL: That's part of it. It's equal. The choices we madethere's a lot of bloody-mindedness and shooting ourselves in the foot, but I think just the fact that we'll keep going, we'll see how far this can go, and not try and be like a proper band would be. Trying to be more collective, trying to be more democratic sometimes, sometimes not. It's almost like a piece of performance art, the whole 30 years of the Mekons.
O: The Mekons have consistently released records, but the sound has never really been consistent. People both criticize and celebrate someone like David Bowie for changing with the times, so how do you do it without being cheesy?
JL: Because we never do anything that's particularly trendy. [Laughs.] This whole cycle, we're all equally ahead of the game and behind the game as it's happening. I don't know; we never had a hit record. That gives you a lot of freedom to do what you want to do, and we found a way to be able to do what we want to do without having to rely on the industry for support. The only times when we have relied on the industry for support have been the really difficult times, when the band nearly disintegrated. As long as it's on pace, which at the moment is no pace whatsoever, then we're all right.
O: It's something you do sporadically.
JL: That's the nature of families and whatnot. It's more like, "How would it work if we do this?" Who's to say you can't have a punk-rock band when you're married, in your 40s, and you live in a different country than the other guys in the band? Most band people would take that as a lot of big negatives. For us, that was a positive of finding another way of working.
O: Even after all the work you've done on all these different things, you still seem to a punk rocker at heart. Is that accurate?
JL: It's kind of a joke on one level, but no, a lot of my ideas on how things should be and could be have been very influenced by that point in 1977. It just seemed like a time when you could make up your own rules for everything. When my kids get to that point, I hope I'll be fully supportive of them. [Laughs.]
It was an interesting point. Things have gone so far in this society; now it seems peculiar for people to do anything other than for money. And we never did it for money, and that wasn't something you really had to explain back then, but now it's completely weird.
It's kind of like how you'd explain hip-hop. I don't really know what's happened to hip-hop, whether it's viable or interesting, just because I haven't had that experience. But I know it's perceived as sort of a lifestyle. It's not just about the music; it's about a whole lot of other things. And that's what punk was about, and that's what being a hippie was all about. Maybe it's all the same thing, where there are moments going back through history. Punk rock was a little boiling pot, and I think it still resonates now.