Talkin’ Gallows Humor: A Conversation with
The word “interview” is a loaded term, often erecting superficial and hierarchical barriers between interviewer and interviewee. I would like to think of the following as more of a conversation with Jon Langford, a founding member of the British post punk group The Mekons, who somehow ended up in the honky-tonks of America•s Midwest. While still playing an occasional show with The Mekons, Jon has a panoply of other projects, including the country-inflected Waco Brothers. They have just released New Deal (the band•s sixth album) on Bloodshot Records. It is one of most rockin’ country albums that I have heard in a long time, deftly juxtaposing sociopolitical seriousness with levity. As Jon puts it, The Waco Brothers• idiom is outright gallows humor. Confronting issues that Nashville renders invisible, Jon and his mates give voice to the concerns of the common man, avowing that country is not dead!!!
Let•s begin as prosaically as possible: How did The Waco Brothers come to be?
Man, The Waco Brothers were a bunch of guys who were all in other bands. Kinda punk bands mostly, I think with the exception of my experiences with The Mekons. Actually, everyone•s story is different. The band evolved with a guy named Dean Schlabowske, who played some country songs in the bars, absolutely for fun with no idea of getting a band together. We got a guy named Tracy Dear who is a friend of mine from watching the soccer in the pubs of Chicago. We gave him a mandolin, which he had no idea how to play. I said, “you should come play with us.” He was in a punk band called Wreck who had been on a lot of different labels, and he has kinda fed-up with it; it was falling apart at the time. We were all a bit disillusioned [by the politics of the industry]. It was actually nice to go out and play traditional, kind of like honky-tonk songs. We were surprised people liked them, we thought we were pretty terrible. I don•t know, there was something people really like because they kept coming to see us and all these little bar owners were always wanting us to play. Tracy knew all the places we could go and set and get like three hundred bucks. You know, that•s all we needed. Steve, whom I played with in The Mekons, heard about it. I said, “you should come along and play drums.” From there, it had this life of its own. We were never trying to actively promote it beyond anything more than like a Friday night in the bar.
How did you hook up with Bloodshot?
Finally, we got to the point where we had a band. Bloodshot was starting up at the time and they wanted us to make an album. We were like, “we can•t make an album of country covers.” They were like, “well, write some songs.” It was all very odd. I didn•t really want to be in another band, but it worked. Then it got to the point when people on the local scene, at the rock clubs, were like, “why won•t your band play at our club?” We then did SXSW and CMJ as part of Bloodshot packages. It•s definitely an accident, but it•s something that•s really good. I think of it as a really unpretentious, solid live band, you know.
Amen. We need more of that; there is way too much “art” rock out there. What y•all are doing is so refreshing. With several members of the band having roots in Britain, how did you end up in Chicago, of all places?
I don•t know what was up with Tracy. He was up in Canada and made his way down to Chicago because his brother was here. I had a girlfriend who was going to architecture school here, so I sort of followed her. Steve moved here in about •88. We were here a lot in the •80s with The Mekons, and he met someone and decided to stay. Alan, the current bassist, was with Jesus Jones and they were kind of breaking up. He was spending more time in Chicago and he married a girl in Chicago. It•s kinda like a weird trail.
Chicago seems to be the epicenter of so many young and talented country musicians, each with his/her own style: Neko Case, Kelly Hogan, Chris Mills, The Handsome Family and Anna Fermin, to name a few.
Yeah, there are a lot of people. The funny thing is that it is not that competitive.
It seems more like a communal ethos where everyone is lending his/her talent to each other•s releases, where everyone shows up for everyone else•s gig. How do the energies of such a scene influence your own creative process?
All those people have done stuff with me or The Pine Valley Cosmonauts, my other project. It•s very easy. There•s hardly any industry here, I mean the music business. Magazines don•t live here. People really aren•t competing for space. A lot of the agents and club owners are more like the peers of those people [the musicians] as well. They are all very sympathetic; they are more enthusiastic than they are business people. With The Waco Brothers, we have all these musicians to call on to guest on our albums.
What do you feel makes New Deal different from previous releases? How has the band evolved since Electric Waco Chair?
I think that it•s we•re not thinking about it as much. I•m involved in quite a lot of other stuff. Other band members are involved in quite a lot of other stuff. There has been quite a gap between those two albums, like two years. I don•t know. Sometimes it•s hard to do The Waco Brothers all the time. As with all my projects, when you do them too much, it gets a bit boring. Alan•s been off with Jesus Jones a lot. I was doing quite a bit with The Mekons, and some solo stuff. Steve moved to New York, which made things real hard. When we actually got together to make the album, it didn•t feel like there was anything particularly different about it. We all wanted to make something a lot closer to the Waco stuff, you know, live sound. There is something good about the energy of the band.
What is the sociopolitical fodder of New Deal? Is there a specific agenda?
Definitely a lot of the songs are about economics, the economy [said with a snide laugh]. I think that was true on Wacoworld as well.
It•s about the human condition. About giving voice to the common man, right?
Yeah. I feel like there is an idea of what America is that you get from the media. You know, you watch television and you see what America is meant to be and then there is the reality of what is going on all around. It•s very different. It•s like there•s a fantasy America that everyone watches and feels good about and then there is the reality of America…which has its own richness. Where I live in Chicago, I don•t see the part of America shown on television all that much. Maybe that•s the Waco•s job: to represent the common person. There•s a long tradition of that. It•s not very romantic or exciting to the billionaire owners of record companies and labels. That•s what Dean•s songs are all about. They are always very gritty, always very interesting.
How is your collaboration with The Waco Brothers different from the solo stuff you did on Skull Orchard?
It•s the chemistry of those people. Kinda keeping one eye on the country roots things, and not necessarily going the whole way. We never tried to imitate, at least I don•t in my song writing. But, there is definitely that old feel to it.
How do the blues figure into your music? “New Moon” and “New Deal Blues” are fine blues songs (with the later using a more traditional country idiom). How do you respond to, or avoid, the cultural tensions precipitated by a white boy singing the blues?
Ummm. The same way Hank Williams did [laughs]. Try not to do anything too embarrassing. You make it your own. It think it is really embarrassing when Sting sings in a Jamaican patois, but I don•t think it is embarrassing when Dean Schlabowske sings classical blues. There•s been so many white people wrapped-up in the blues for so long. It•s basically an African American music form. But so is just about everything else.
There is also the element of proximity, spatial and class-based, that allows for a more convincing appropriation of cross-cultural selves.
Race seems to be a very powerful barrier. Music is good in the sense that it forces people to break them down.
While being serious, The Waco Brothers don•t mind having a good time whether it be a riotous live performance, the presence of the whimsical “Johnson to Jones” on your new record or lending your talent to the Bloodshot compilation, The Bottle Let Me Down. Is it necessary to have a balance between being pensive and being jovial?
I think that our live shows have got to be fun. If people take anything away from the lyrics of a live show, then that•s great. With The Waco Brothers, it•s all kinda like gallows humor. On one level it is protest music or rebel music, but at times there is a lot of joviality. Gallows humor…
What do you feel separates The Waco Brothers from other bands placed under the rubric “alt.country?”
We•re better [chuckles].
Ah. There is still candor among rock musicians.
It depends who you•re talking about. I think that [alt.country] is a very broad term, and there•s lots of really great bands and lots of really horrible bands.
No doubt. “alt.country” has become a convoluted and hackneyed term.
Yeah. A lot of people try to drag it along in different directions. There has always been a hard edge to the soft center of Nashville. At times people have done great things right at the core. Hank Williams and Johnny Cash had big hits, they were big stars. They did tough things and wouldn•t survive in Nashville now.
But then there is a band like BR-549 who is able to survive in Nashville without playing by the rules.
They are very much a musicians’ band. They got the shtick, they got the outfits. They have very much gone for a classic country sort of thing. They have pinpointed where they fit: what part of the country, where in the history. They recreate a lot of those sounds in a fairly authentic way. That•s not the way for The Waco Brothers. We have never really been interested in trying to recreate the forms of traditional country.
Are you comfortable with the relative success you have had? Is this where you had hoped to be when you first set out?
This is way beyond where we hoped to be when we first started The Waco Brothers. It was never meant to be a band. People criticize us because we don•t put an album out, or we don•t talk that much. Or, maybe we do but we are kinda sporadic about it. It•s not anyone•s first, or full-time, thing. That•s what makes the band good: we•re not living off if. When we make decisions about what we are going to put on the album, or what we•re gonna do, or where we•re going play, they are not big career decisions. Hopefully we•re happy and everybody can be happy.
Is there something bigger out there that you covet?
You have dreams that you put out a record and it will go to number one on the country chart. The whole country music industry will come tumbling down and realize how wrong they have been for the past fifteen years putting out all that white suburban crap pop music. But, that•s not gonna happen. If we can undermine the schmaltzy elements in the alternative country circuit, that would be good. There•s some pretty dire stuff out there that•s masquerading as alt.country.