By Scott Schinder
Welsh-born, Chicago-based renaissance man Jon Langford recently wrapped a typically action-packed SXSW, during which he performed multiple sets with four different bands — most prominently the Waco Brothers, the beloved country-punk juggernaut that he co-founded as a casual cover combo in 1994, and which quickly grew into a distinctive, original recording unit and a ferocious, thrilling and often hilarious live act. The band’s annual SXSW jaunt has become a tradition, and a perfect extension of Langford’s workaholic approach. Somewhere amidst the Wacos’ seven (or was it eight?) SXSW sets, Langford also found time to incur the wrath of an irate stage manager, who pulled the plug on a raucous late-night set by another Langford combo, the anarchic Bad Luck Jonathan.
Four decades after joining seminal Leeds art-punks the Mekons, Langford remains one of the hardest-working men in show business, continuing to record and perform in a variety of group and solo situations. Meanwhile, he continues to maintain a prolific output of paintings and other visual art, much of it reflecting the same political passion, pop-culture iconography and pointed humor that informs his music. Langford’s longstanding fascination with classic country music led to his artwork being prominently featured in the Country Music Hall of Fame’s acclaimed Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats exhibition.
The Waco Brothers’ new album Going Down In History — released, like all of the band’s work, on Chicago’s trailblazing alt-country label Bloodshot — is the band’s first collection of new material since 2005’s Freedom and Weep, and features some of the band’s most impressive work to date.
To what would you attribute all the media attention that Going Down in History’s been getting? Do you think that maybe people stopped taking the band for granted after it went over a decade without releasing a new album?
It may have something to do with that. Someone once said to me, “If you want to make money in this business, split up and reform.” But it definitely wasn’t a conscious decision to disappear for a bit. The time just went by. We did the live album (Waco Express, 2008), and a thing with Paul Burch (Great Chicago Fire, 2012), and we toured a little bit.
When the Waco Brothers began, we were always very available, especially in Chicago. We played every week, because we liked each other’s company. Since Dean (guitarist Dean Schlabowske) moved to Austin a few years ago, that made it more of a focused thing, so now we do it in little blocks. Making the album was very focused: we’ve got a spare day here, so rather than go to a bar, let’s go to a studio.
I think this one is kind of looser musically. The playing’s tight, but the actual form of the songs is not. It was done really quickly, and it was done without rehearsal. We brought the songs into the studio in the most basic form, just chords and lyrics, so all of the guitar lines and riffs just happened in the studio. It was an effort to liberate our beleagured rhythm section, because you can hear them straining on the leash on some of our other records. We didn’t have a vision of what it was gonna sound like. We’d just keep playing the song for an hour or so, and in the end we’d ask (engineer) Mike Hagler, “Did you get that?” It was all going on in the moment, and the mix was almost there before the song was. We just set up and he recorded it, like a field recording, so we could just play. And when we’d go upstairs to listen to what Mike had recorded, it sounded like a finished record.
With the Mekons, we do a lot of talking about stuff and arguing and trying to start from an intellectual standpoint perhaps. That’s the way the Mekons work; we talk about what we do, and we talk about the process. But there’s other ways of doing things, and with the Wacos, I love the idea of, “OK, let’s get in the studio and see what happens.” Dean didn’t come to me and say “Hey, I’ve got some good songs that we should record.” I just assumed he had some good songs. There’s a sort of telepathy going on, definitely. It’s almost like a big machine; you can put any song into it and it comes out sounding like the Waco Brothers. You never know what’s going to happen with the Wacos, but sometimes not having a plan is the best thing.
If there’s a consistent thread that runs through the Waco Brothers catalogue, and through much of your other work, it’s the use of humor and absurdity to make sense of the cruelty and injustice of the world. Which I would imagine could be alienating to some listeners.
I think it would be easier for some people if we were just a good bar band singing about normal bar-band topics, but we’re not really like that. We originally wanted to be a very unpretentious country cover band that you didn’t need footnotes to enjoy. But that changed when we started to write songs. The country covers that we were doing were all kind of weird: prison songs and killing songs and drinking songs. And now it’s very obvious to me when I’ve written a song for the Waco Brothers; the subject matter and the mood of it is totally different.
The two cover songs on Going Down In History, the Small Faces’ “All or Nothing” and Jon Dee Graham’s “Orphan Song,” both have Austin connections.
The only city the Waco Brothers spend a lot of time in, apart from Chicago, is Austin. If you counted up how many gigs we’ve ever done, we’ve probably done as many in Austin as we’ve done in Chicago. Dean’s been living down there, and I did a tour with Jon Dee Graham and Dave Alvin, which started in Austin. I started hanging out with Ian McLagan, who lived in Austin; he was a really fantastic chap, and it was a hard thing when he died.
When I heard Jon Dee Graham’s album, I immediately thought, “The Waco Brothers could just kill this song.” Structurally, it sounds like an early Waco Brothers song, and it’s been resonating with me because I’m an orphan. We all become orphans in the end. I just think Jon Dee Graham’s a really profound, simple songwriter. His songs are like haikus. My songs can be needlessly complicated, and they’ve got so many words in them that they can be a pain in the ass to play live — they have a lot of backing vocals that can go wrong. “Orphan Song”’s got three lines that repeat through the whole thing, and the chorus is the same every time.
Speaking of Austin, the Waco Brothers have maintained a major presence at SXSW now for the better part of the last two decades.
We’re almost a bit of an antidote, because it’s obvious that we’re not there for the same reasons as a lot of other bands. It’s a service for us, because we see a lot of people and a lot of people get to see us who can’t see us in their hometowns. We don’t have to go, and certain band members have complained in the past that we don’t get paid. But it’s karmic, and a number of opportunities have come our way because of SXSW, so it’s been really good for us. It’s because of SXSW that we ended up on a beach in Australia the week after 9/11. I remember sitting there going “How the fuck did this happen?” We were just supposed to play on Wednesday nights in little bars, but here we are, sitting on a beach in Australia while the world’s turning to shit.
In addition to playing several Waco Brothers gigs at SXSW this year, you played several sets with your new project Bad Luck Jonathan. What can you tell us about that band?
We made an album that’s coming out on Blue Arrow Records in Cleveland; their only other artist is Jonathan Richman, so they only work with artists with Jonathan in their name. It’s with Sally Timms’ boyfriend Martin Billheimer, and Phil Wandscher, who used to be in Whiskeytown. Phil and I have been mates for years and years, and I took Martin to the West Coast with me when I didn’t have a band. I did a Pacific Northwest tour that was just me and Martin, and then Phil joined us, and it was absolutely brilliant and I had the best time. At the end of each gig, we’d end up with the rhythm section up onstage playing crazy, howling Black Sabbath experimental guitar, and me and Martin just dancing in the audience. It was great, and I thought “Why don’t we have a band like this?”
Bad Luck Jonathan is very loud and unashamedly 1971. Martin’s doing a lot of the singing; I don’t like being in a band where I have to sing every song. I like having other people singing, so I can sit back and have a little wail on the guitar. Although I do have another solo record planned.
Your visual art is currently prominently featured in the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats exhibit, where the lyrics of your Waco Brothers song “The Death of Country Music” are prominently displayed.
It won an award, mate! If I hadn’t been playing with the Waco Brothers in Milwaukee that night, I would have been at an awards ceremony in Nashville for design. I’ve never really won an award before. It was really gratifying.
In the exhibit, there’s a wall about me. Which was a bit of a surprise, because I wasn’t actually in Nashville in the ’60s, or even aware of where Nashville was. They wanted to use my imagery as part of the exhibit, and they were thinking the same sort of things I’ve been moaning on and on about for years and years. I said to my wife, “They’ve got ‘The Death of Country Music’ on the wall at the Country Music Hall of Fame,” and she just went, “Well, I guess you won, then.”
I think that the Country Music Hall of Fame thing was a morale booster for people who are still concerned about that kind of thing. I really had no idea what was going on there; I just thought they were putting Garth Brooks’ trousers in a glass case. But they’re deeply passionate and scholarly, and really trying to honor this amazing music. I played at the Hall of Fame, and my band was Norbert Putnam on bass, David Briggs on piano, Charlie McCoy on harmonica, Lloyd Green on steel and Mac Gayden on guitar. They were my band and they all seemed quite happy.
When I started painting, I didn’t know what I was going to paint. What was on my mind when I moved to America was this vast cultural demolition that had occurred, where the things that I was interested in about America had disappeared. So I started painting icons like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, who at time were in the Gulag. No one was talking about them. That was mirrored in what was going on at Bloodshot Records, and in meeting all these people like Freakwater and Kelly Hogan and Neko Case and the Sadies, who were on the same wavelength. It blew my mind; there was this whole culture I know nothing about. Suddenly I realized that this thing that I thought was a joke was actually profound and deep.
To be honest, it’s just nice to feel slightly noticed. I’m not a stupid man; I’ve spent a lot of time and work on these things, and I don’t really accept the notion that the Mekons and the Waco Brothers aren’t rich and famous because we’re crap at what we do. I tend to think we’re really good at what we do; it’s just not for everyone.
For the next Mekons album, we talked a lot about using the internet to find a new way to distribute our music, and the best we could come up with was putting a fucking flash drive in a golden egg and only making seven golden eggs and selling them for 20 grand each. That’s the best that this group of fairly intelligent people could come up with. So we’re releasing it on CD.