Jon Langford is a treasure. A Welshman who makes his home in Chicago, Jon is a member of the seminal British punk rock band The Mekons, Chicago favorites the Waco Brothers, KatJon Band, The Sexy, and has probably added a few more names to the list since last week. Jon is also a renowned painter, creating haunting portraits of musical icons and cultural touchstones. He has also written a book, had a play produced based on his music and lyrics, contributed to NPR’s “American Life” and is a host of “The Eclectic Company” on Chicago radio station WXRT. He’s also one of the nicest folks on the local music scene.
Jon and I sat down in 2009 to discuss art, health, Karl Marx, and the importance of doing what you love.
When I’m on tour or when I’m really wrapped up in some kind of creative activity I find I don’t really need that much sleep. It’s very difficult to get to sleep if you played late at night, and it’s difficult for me to sleep through the day because I have kids at home and I’m used to getting up very early.
When I’m away on tour, or when I’m in the middle of a big art project, I don’t really want to be sleeping, because my brain’s going too much to do that. So whenever I come back from a tour, whenever I’ve finished a big art project, I usually get sick in some way, like a cold or some kind of collapse. As soon as I stop doing stuff, so I don’t know whether that means that doing stuff is good for you or not (laughs). It’s a big balancing act, but there has to be some downtime.
Some days it’s really good, even if you don’t sleep, just to lie down. A lot of times I’ll just lie there and that still feels good.
The problem with the band now is that we’ve got a lot of foodies in the band, so we like to go to really good restaurants—with the Waco Brothers particularly—when we go to a different town, we have to try out a good restaurant. It’s not the crap food, it’s spending all your money on the really good meals because you’re in this town and you should try it. It’s probably much richer food than we’re used to.
The best food before you play is sushi. Everybody in the band, even the vegetarians, are keen on that. It makes you feel full and empowered or something like that. Oysters are good as well—oysters and tequila (laughs). But then you don’t get to sleep.
But seriously, if you eat heavy food before you play, that’s really bad. And never go for a Mexican meal or a curry after the show. It’s 4 in the morning, you’re eating tacos. That’s not good. Try and avoid that.
At home, we eat pretty healthy. There’s nothing very fixed about it, but we make the effort. I went to the doctor a few years ago, had some bloodwork done. My bad cholesterol was at the right level, but my good cholesterol was low. So they suggested I eat salmon, avocadoes, and peanut butter. I thought, “I like all those things.” So it was not really a problem. I think, “I’ll be healthy and have a big lump of salmon tonight.”
I drink; I drink alcohol. I’ve probably cut down from my heyday. I’ve known a lot of friends, people I’ve played with, who’ve had very serious problems with alcohol. Not so much with drugs; most of my friends were drug users. I was never very interested in drugs, to be honest; cocaine, marijuana, it wasn’t my thing. But I have some friends, people I played with, cocaine was like the currency in the 1980’s, it was pretty hard to avoid and escape from it. A lot of people got pretty seriously fucked up on it. Most of them realized for themselves. I didn’t have a lot of friends who were heroin addicts.
But alcohol has been the worst for killing people I’ve known. I hear rock n’roll stories, even in this town, of people who’ve died because of heroin, but I would say alcohol would be the worst. And I’m a drinker; but I’ve been lucky because I don’t have that. I don’t know why, I don’t really understand alcoholism; I believe it’s a disease. But I’ve never felt like I was out of control with it. I’ve probably drunk too much, but I’ve never felt like it was a problem, I could always take it or leave it if I wanted to.
My mother’s 83, and she’s fine and fit, and she likes a gin and tonic, she likes a glass of cider, but never too much. I think a little bit of everything’s all right.
My mother’s brilliant. She was a dancer, she taught at a dance school. She’s got a weird energy, she’s up for anything.
It’s a good workout, a Waco Brothers show. We don’t stretch out before. It’s just as the mood takes us. Though yoga with the band would be fun. We do have certain rituals; it’s usually about being in a certain place. We’ve got these suits now—they’re pretty cool. That’s fun. It’s great to have that moment before you go onstage, when you all have to put your suits on. Laughing at each other backstage, pulling your pants up. It’s like being a team. I like that.
I’m a member of a health club, and I don’t attend it. Alan [Doughty, bass player for the Wacos] and I both bought NordicTracks. I call it the coat rack, we just throw our coats over it. Alan said, “No, it’s the Ignored-it-Track” (laughs). I think it’s difficult to do stuff like that. I like going swimming with the kids, and cycling.
Our youngest kid just learned to ride his bike without the training wheels, and he said, “Daddy, I feel like I’m free!” So we go out, every night if it’s nice. We live in a neighborhood that’s pretty easy for cycling, it has bike trails and stuff, and we just go, and it’s fun. We go fast sometimes, and we go pathetically slow sometimes…
I feel like the music is a lively thing for me. I like doing it. I always end up in a total sweat; that’s pretty cool. I wish I did more.
I can recognize it coming. I go and have a laugh with my friends; I have good company, and that takes the edge off. I’m very good about just forgetting about what stresses me out. I don’t carry things around. I get stressed in the moment; there’s always things I’ve got to do, but I can change the scene and it’s all gone. I’m lucky because I do different things. And ultimately I’m lucky because everything I do, at the end of the day, I’m not alienated from anything. I’m rewarded by doing what I do. So the money, to get paid as well, that’s kind of a bonus. I think that’s a really privileged position to be in.
People have an image of the tortured artist; that’s one side. And there’s a bit of that. Sometimes the creative process is kind of painful, or you get stuck in the things that will deprive you of your sleep. But on the upside—Karl Marx said people are alienated, that’s the worst thing, isn’t it? I think that’s the killer. So try and do something you like.
When you go out on a limb sometimes, what’s the worst thing that could happen? People are very scared of that. I’ve always been really lucky; things have always turned up. If you do stuff for long enough, or with enough intensity or integrity, things will. I don’t believe everyone gets rewarded justly, I know that isn’t true—but for me, I’ve been really lucky. I’m not a wealthy man, but it’s been good, it’s sustained itself.
That’s a lot of what artists have to do, just fight for that space to exist in. That’s what a lot of your energy is taken up with, rather than the creation of stuff. What you have to put your mind to is clearing a bit of space.
The systems that are in place in this world don’t really encourage artists in any way. You have to duck and dive and burrow and find a little niche. I’ve been doing it a long time, and it kind of reinforces that; some people vaguely know who I am, so it’s kind of good. I’m at the bottom rung of the ladder (laughs).
Content vs. Style
I think it’s about the motivation. There’s stuff that happens because it’s got to happen, not because somebody thinks they’re going to make some money out of it. That’s my problem; Style over Content all the time, that’s what this society has done and I see it in every aspect of society. It just seems to me there are so many great artists doing so many great things and then you’ve got this system that throws money at something in the vague hope that it’s going to be popular with everybody.
Musicians have always been important in society, and now people don’t want to address the concerns of their society as musicians have always done. It’s been turned into this sort of vacuous thing, and that’s a problem for me.
There seem to be little backlashes against it, pockets of resistance that I find. I’ll meet a bunch of kids, probably in their 20s, down at the Art Institute or Columbia College, who are dead into punk rock and they think punk rock is really, really interesting, and it’s 30 years down the road, and I’m a living fossil they can prod and ask questions of. I’m quite willing; it’s nice that people think that was an interesting time.
Punk rock was a cultural revolution that took place. And a lot of people who were 18 or 19 at that time have a very different attitude to the world than kids who are that age now. I still link myself to that thread, and I think a lot of the interesting things that have happened since have come from that, from ideas I thought about at that time: about making your own entertainment, about being self-reliant, about questioning, being critical, and about not playing by the rules of the capitalist society.
There’s an almost religious idea about the internet, about digital technology being this great freeing thing. I can see quite the opposite taking place a lot of the time. You’ve got the information “tollroad”. You’ve got all these robber barons asking the same question, “How do we get money? How do we get money for this?”
It always comes down to Style over Content. I like Style, I’ve got some nice suits; but you like to think there’s something inside that’s interesting as well.
I’m not a puritan, or a Luddite, I like the idea of music being entertainment. That’s the way it’s been for centuries. Musicians had a role in society that was very important, to impart information. On a Friday or Saturday night, to go and make a lot of noise so that people could go crazy; but also the words of the song—and I think the Waco Brothers are a good example of that, because the shows can be pretty wild, but the lyrics of the songs are…I’m really proud of that body of work that we’ve laid down. A healthy body of work! (laughs)
I totally believe in the mind and body thing. The modern world separates those things, I think. That’s why Karl Marx makes a lot of sense to me, his concern about alienation. I’m a big old Communist when it comes to health issues!
The music business is like a particularly vicious microcosm of the way this society works—it’s a triangular shape, with U2 at the top, and all these other people holding it up. People aren’t treated humanely.
This city [Chicago] is constantly messing with club owners, not providing for them, not listening to them and seeing what they need and what they want; and that’s what makes this city great. I hope Obama does a good job. I think his head’s on the right way. But the city of Chicago doesn’t know what it’s got.
Austin, Texas—an oasis in the barbaric, philistine hell-world of Texas—they provide health insurance to musicians; the city pays for it. They recognize musicians don’t always make a lot of money, but they’re the core of why people go there—it’s because it’s a music city.
Australia, too; they like plumbers and musicians. If you’re of cultural importance, they’ll take you, because they desperately want artists. That might be my get-out clause, the end of all this—off to Bondi Beach for the rest of my life.
Many thanks to Jon Langford for sharing his time and his thoughts with me. If you get a chance to catch The Waco Brothers, the Mekons, or any of Jon’s bands in concert, don’t pass it up! They know how to put on a show. Jon’s artwork is represented by Austin gallery Yard Dog. You can order albums by Jon and the Waco Brothers from Chicago’s own Bloodshot Records.
If you have questions or comments about this interview, please contact me.