In some parallel universe, Mekons are huge rock stars. They’re worshiped for their legacy as first-wave Brit punks and adored for spending four decades evolving into something else entirely. Their hodgepodge of influences, from the Sex Pistols and Balfa Brothers to George Jones and King Tubby, only add to their popularity, and the one-time Leeds-based socialist collective are both recognized and respected as transformative pioneers.
It’s a nice thought. One that the band’s shamefully small legion of fans and advocates know is far more deserved than their status as perpetual underdogs.
Widespread adulation, however, as well as its accompanying trappings, allows many artists to become complacent. And that is the one thing Mekons will never be.
In an age where most bands spend more time on their social media presence and identity branding than staying rigidly true to their core ideals, Mekons just keep thinking up quixotic ideas and acting on them.
So it makes perfect sense that the group’s latest release, Existentialism (out now on Bloodshot Records), is yet another exercise in pushing limits.
Recorded at a Brooklyn theater in real time last summer, an audience of 75 “mekoristers” got lyric sheets, directions from an actual conductor and were politely required to break through the fourth wall.
With the band not much more versed than the audience in the recently composed material, the initial goal was to see “just how spontaneous and immediate the thing could be,” says Mekons cofounder Jon Langford, in a phone interview with CityBeat from his home in Chicago.
“We never really thought of it as a live record,” he adds. “It was a recording session where the audience was forced to be part of the band. That was the initial premise. We wanted to make a record that completely discarded any need for modern production values. We just thought we’d try and make something that sounded quite barbaric.”
If held to today’s standards, the objective was definitely met. But for anyone even remotely familiar with Mekons’ music, it’s just another charming and successful endeavor from a band that never seems to worry about much more than making sure to see things through.
“Does the world need another overly produced, heavily compressed Mekons studio album?” asks Langford. “I don’t think so. If you have a formula for how you approach each record, I think it makes it kind of lazy. And I really like the way this one sounds.”
Existentialism also comes with a 96-page book of art and writing responding to each of the album’s 12 songs, along with a download of Mekonception, Barry Mill’s 30-minute surreal take on the politically infused recording session.
It also comes on the heels of Joe Angio’s 2014 documentary on the band, Revenge of the Mekons.
Angio tells the band’s story through both past and present members, as well as a wide-range of fans, from National Book Award-winning author Jonathan Franzen to filmmaker Mary Harron.
While Mekons knew the film was unlikely to be a merited watershed moment, Langford admits it has been a boon to the band.
“It’s been a very useful thing for us,” he says. “It’s something that both pleased and satisfied people who were interested in the band and provided an introduction for those who didn’t know anything about us. Joe did an incredible job because he actually finished it. He didn’t just run away screaming after dealing with us for that length of time.”
The film also seems to have prompted the group to recalibrate their desire to join forces creatively. Despite band members being spread across the globe and not a cent coming from any kind of corporate backing, the Mekons have three—three!—tentative albums in the works for next year.
“If we had the air miles,” says Langford, “we could probably do a couple of them every year. But then it would become a formula and become crap. So we have to change it up. But at the moment there are three achievable, but slightly scary, projects on the horizon.”
One of them will celebrate the collective’s impending 40th anniversary, one will find them returning to a proper studio in Joshua Tree (“We have mechanisms in place to booby trap that process”), and one is still in the early planning stages.
But regardless of what ends up materializing, the indomitable ensemble is undeniably re-inspired. And for both old fans and new, that’s good news.
“There’s something in the water at the moment,” Langford says. “You just reach a point in your life where life takes you over. You’re too busy with the things of having kids and earning money. It makes something like the Mekons a desirable thing to do, but just too hard to get to.
“And now, we’re suddenly entering this age where weíre like, ‘Fucking hell. If we don’t do it now, we’re never going to do it.’ There’s a lot of stuff on the agenda. And there’s a greater sense of urgency than we’ve ever had.”
Originally published in San Diego CityBeat