The Mekons are not like any other band. Almost an art collective as much as a regular rock band, the British outfit was born out of the same late-'70s Leeds punk rock scene that birthed such legends as the Gang of Four. But where Gang of Four favored spare, scathing post-punk, the Mekons went off in what was then an unusual direction: American roots music. Credited by many as having invented alt-country in the mid-'80s, the Mekons applied their punk-rock ethos -- leftist critiques of capitalism and DIY spirit among them -- to sounds inspired by Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. The results were stunning early albums such as Fear and Whiskey and The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll, both of which brim with a surly vitality and creative energy that advanced the stale formulas of so-called punk rock while retaining the worldview that made it important.
But unlike most other bands, the Mekons never came and went -- they came and stayed. Having never worried about making a living from their music, most of the band's original members are still in the group, and still touring and recording, despite the fact that they all live on three different continents. They're still making interesting music, too. Ahead of the band's special performances today -- first, at 2:10 p.m. at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, and later tonight at the Swedish American Music Hall -- we had a brief conversation with member Sally Timms about what keeps this stalwart band going.
So you're at work in a law office right now? You have a dayjob?
I've always had real jobs. I've worked the whole time. For one thing, we've never made enough money to live on, but I've liked having something to do in my time.
I work in law office, but I don't usually discuss it with anyone becuase it's boring.
The Mekons now live all over the world, yet you recently came together to write and record a new album, Ancient and Modern. How did you manage to get everyone together?
We used to in the past just go into a studio for 10 days and then record and then it's done. This one became even more frankenstein-ish because Tom [Greenhalgh] has four kids, and his ability to get anywhere is quite limited because they're quite young. And he has this job, and so he moved to Devon, which is quite a way outside of London. So we rented a house and moved in there.
You all write and record together, right?
The actual major work of writing and recording, at least for the base tracks and vocals, is done together. So it's very rare -- really, we never come into a room to make a record and anyone's coming in with written songs. It doesn't work that way. It only works when we're in the right place. We all somewhat have different roles in the band. I don't necessarily write anything, but I edit a lot, and I sing. We all kind of do different things. It's like a little team, but we don't really do anthing unless we're together.
Is that part of why the Mekons have lasted so long?
You couldn't really be in a real functioning band without making any money and being able to kind of support it. And so what we do is we've found ways around that. We don't make money from the Mekons, really. We make some, and we make enough to make it fund itself, but we only work when we know we can make it happen. So if someone's -- if we can't play for two years, then we don't play for two years. And that has happened in the past. We've been fortunate enough where we've had enough interest to maintain what we do. But if there were no interest, I do believe we would carry on doing something.
There's kind of a belligerence to the way we do things -- we're not going to stop. I believe in it. I don't necessarily believe we make fantastic records all the time, I don't think we're necessarily the best band in the world. I think we're a fantastic live band. I think sometimes we have moments of brilliance and sometimes it's quite mundane. But I do think that we believe in the idea of it. Which is, it's an interesting group and it's an interesting thing to do, and it's very important to our lives to continue doing it.
Is there a mission statement to the Mekons?
I thnk it just comes from punk rock. I really do. The core ... we're all very affected by the idea that you make music. You don't need to make money from making music. You do it because you believe it's important to do and to make music for other people to enjoy. That it's not about you as a person and your ego, it's about just being able to do something that makes a comment about what you think to other people and they can comment back. We've found a way of saying the things we like to say in a relatively interesting way, and as long as that's still how we feel about it we're going to carry on. It just comes from that punk rock aesthetic: you can do your own things, you can make your own things. You don't need someone else to control it.