US release: 22 October 2002
In some ways, it’s a lousy time to be a politically astute left-wing rock ‘n’ roller. Even in the wake of the biggest corporate meltdowns in history, the money men are still driving everything from fuel efficiency standards to foreign policy to the Top 40. The only honest liberal left in the United States Senate just died in a plane crash. John Ashcroft is reading your e-mail. Yup, things are grim.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad time to be Jon Langford. At once the most committed and least didactic of agit-rockers, the burly Welshman has responded to the gloom of 2002 with customary brio. He doesn’t mind cursing the darkness, but he’s also lit enough candles for a midnight Mass. He followed this summer’s release of the anti-death-penalty compilation Executioner Songs, which he produced, with OOOH!, the latest release from his longtime outfit the Mekons. And on the heels of a celebrated 25th anniversary Mekons tour (culminating in a three-night stand in New York City, with every night dedicated to a different phase of the band’s meandering career), he’s back with his other band, the Waco Brothers. Their sixth album, New Deal Blues, landed in late October to some of the best reviews of the Wacos’ career. So how does he do it all?
Speaking by phone from the Chicago studio where he paints (he paints too, did I mention that?), Langford gives the verbal equivalent of a shrug. “It’s what I do, for one thing,” he says. “And we didn’t have an album out for about 18 months. We didn’t have anything out from September 2000 on.” He’s also quick to point out that, despite the tendency to see him as first among equals, all of his projects are full collaborations. There are three other singer-writers in the Mekons (Tom Greenhalgh, Rico Bell and the magnificent Sally Timms), and two in the Waco Brothers (Deano Schlabowske and Tracey Dear). And given the cult status of both, Langford’s hardly worried about flooding the market. “I don’t really think about that,” he says—albums are done when they’re done.
The Waco Brothers have often been seen as a hobby band, but it’s a view Langford resists—not least because he actually spends more time with the Wacos than the Mekons. “It’s my Chicago band, you know,” he says, referring to his adopted hometown. “It’s the main thing we do in town. The Mekons don’t get together more than once a year.”
Since their 1995 debut, the Waco Brothers have become a Windy City mainstay—they were one of the charter bands on the alt.country indie label Bloodshot (one of the most important stables for that ill-defined genre), and Langford has served as an affable mentor to a number of regional acts. On a recent episode of public radio’s This American Life (also based in Chicago) Langford used the “musicians wanted” classified ads in a local paper to put together an impromptu band (including a theremin player) and recorded a cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”
His congenital prankishness notwithstanding, Langford takes his music seriously—including the music of the Waco Brothers, who have been around long enough now to shake off any notions of honkytonk novelty. Langford sounds pleased to note that prominent critics like Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus (both longtime Mekons fans) have praised the Wacos. “Over the last few albums, I think people have taken us more seriously as a band, and not just a side project with me and a couple of my stooges in Chicago,” he says.
He’s especially glad for attention paid to Schlabowske, whose Stonesy swagger provides some of the high points on New Deal. “I find his songs endless fascinating,” Langford says. “He comes up with stuff I don’t expect.”
The album is a ragged, rollicking slab of gristle and sawdust, with—as the title indicates—a keen sense of its time and place. The de facto title track, “New Deal Blues,” surveys the current economic landscape with a withering eye. The song starts out with the lines, “Going out of business / Everything must go”, and it only gets more dire from there. “We’ve got another New Deal now,” Langford says, “but it’s not like the old New Deal.” This time around, the cards aren’t evenly distributed. “America, I don’t know,” he continues, “for reasons I don’t understand it seems to be surging back to the right. How Bush can be so popular at a time when his cronies have been bleeding the fucking country dry . . . “
Not all the tracks on New Deal are so pointed; there are lost loves and new moons and towns with no heart. But there is an overall sense of defiance. If the clampdown is coming, the Wacos aren’t going quietly. “Time to break wind where your shrinking violets grow,” Langford sneers on the conservative-baiting “Poison”. Elsewhere, the Wacos promise to “pump some new blood through the veins / Of cowboy hats and leather boys”. That effort is helped considerably by freewheeling performances and production that gets close to sounding like a juke-joint P.A. system. Langford says most of the songs were done in one or two takes. “There’s a lot about the band as a live band that I think is one of our strengths,” he says. “I think people have sometimes been a little disappointed with our records, because they haven’t felt that excitement that comes through in the live show. It’s a difficult thing to capture.”
This time out, the band also sidestepped as much as possible any genre limitations. Although there’s plenty of honky-tonkin’, and one track yearns for “alcohol, freedom and a country song”, the Waco Brothers are really a flat-out rock ‘n’ roll band. “We got a bit bored with the alternative-country thing,” Langford says. “The whole ‘Waco Brothers booze-tinged blah blah blah.’” At the end of the day, Langford seems less interested in what people call the band, or what they hear in the lyrics, than how much fun the whole thing is. “I don’t see the band as really a big message band,” he says. “I think it’s a very entertaining band, and if people want more, there’s more there.” Even if we’re all going to hell in a sports utility vehicle, Langford maintains a rugged pragmatism about how much you can expect from rock ‘n’ roll. “You have to be realistic about what a pop group can achieve,” he says. “How much good did Live Aid really do in the end? You know, except to rekindle a lot of people’s fucking careers . . . “