Interview: Jon Langford of the Waco Brothers
The Waco Brothers play the Highline Ballroom on Tuesday, June 3rd.
"[The Waco Brothers] had a number of different names. We started off, I think, as Jon Boy and Deano... Then it was Ranch Quake. . . Elephant Ears was one. We'd play and it'd be so awful, you know, that we'd change the name for the next gig in case anyone thought it was us again."
Jon Langford is likely best known as a founding member of the Mekons, the Leeds, England punk collective that just last year celebrated their 30th anniversary. But the Mekons are far from his only creative outlet--he's also a painter, alternative bon vivant, and involved in sundry other musical projects. Langford led the Three Johns into the early '90s and keeps current with the transformative Pine Valley Cosmonauts, as well as his own solo work, and the occasional guest appearance. But following a recent live release (Waco Express: Live & Kickin' at Schuba's Tavern), this week the effervescent Langford will lead his Waco Brothers into town, a rare roadtrip for the politically attuned Chicago alt-country band that once upon a time, formed for beer money.
Tell me something you've never done before in your life.
You know what? My son just yelled skydiving, so I'll say skydiving. That's probably something I never will do in my life either.
Yeah, me either. Tell me something that you've done once and one time only.
Thunder Mountain at Euro Disney, the only place in France you can go and not get a glass of wine. So I'm not doing that again either.
Tell me the name of a book you've read at least twice.
And a movie that you've seen at least three times.
You're very likely the most identifiable Chicago musician who speaks with a British accent. How did you end up there?
My wife returned here from France in 1991 to go to grad school in architecture. She wasn't my wife at the time, but I followed her. I was very comfortable in Chicago. The Mekons had been here a lot. I don't know. I've just always felt really comfortable here.
So it wasn't as much a culture shock as one might expect.
Nah, I mean it wasn't a big, dramatic 'I'm going to live in America now.' It's just one day I kind of woke up and it was like, 'Okay, so I live here now.'
You were still a member of the Mekons when the Waco Brothers started. What did you think you were doing?
Playing country covers in bars that didn't normally have bands playing in them for beer money. Basically. With Dean (Schlabowske). You know, the whole thing was that I'd produced a record for Dean and his band Wreck for Wax Trax Records. But we just discovered we both really liked George Jones and Merle Haggard. We were sitting in a bar one day in Wicker Park, which is now the Double Door, but it used to be called the Main Street Tavern. And they had a big wagon. The stage was a big wagon. It was an old kind of hillbilly, country and western bar. We just went in there for a drink because it was funny. They had giant pictures of John Wayne on the wall and all kinds of crazy stuff. And a country and western jukebox. And Dean had his guitar with him and the woman in the bar said, 'Are you musicians? You want a gig?' We're like, 'Oh, I don't think we can play here.' They offered us like a hundred and fifty bucks. So we went to another bar, the Rainbo, which is a kind of hipster bar, and the woman there said, 'I'll give you three hundred if you'll play here.' We didn't even have anything planned so we just got up and sang a little bit of these country songs.
And then Bloodshot approaches you to make a record.
Well, they were putting a record together. I think the Wacos had kind of started, but Dean had gone somewhere. Dean used to go and move places at the drop of a hat, like New York or San Francisco. And we always have a piece of elastic attached to the back of his underpants to get him to come flying back to Chicago. So at the time of Bloodshot he wasn't actually around, so they asked me to do a song. So I did a thing with Tony Maimone from Pere Ubu and Brian Doherty (the group was billed as Jon Langford's Hillbilly Love Child on Bloodshot's Insurgent Country compilation). They were in town with They Might Be Giants so I just got these two guys to play with me. And I wrote "Over the Cliff" kind of like the day before. I thought, 'You know, I'll try and write an alternative country thing here.' So then they wanted to do a Waco Brothers album and we didn't have any songs. We only did covers. And we didn't really want to make an album, so we made a single first which was a cover of a Jimmy Cliff song (laughs), which we thought would be funny in a country style. And then I wrote a song called "Bad Times Are Comin' Round Again." We put that on it. You know, it was strange. It was just a bunch of people who had been in other bands who weren't very interested in being in a band who were forced to be in a band again (laughs).
What comes first: a Waco Brothers album or your first show out of town?
I'm sure we recorded the album first. I don't think we'd ever played out of town. We didn't play out of town until . . . The first time we played out of town was probably Texas, South by Southwest in like '96 or something.
You're the most visible Waco Brother. Tell me something about the other members of the band.
Well, Dean was in a series of bands, punk rock, kind of hardcore bands, with Wreck being the most notable. He's got a band called Dollar Store now that he does on the side and they record for Bloodshot. Alan (Doughty), the bass player, was in Jesus Jones. He didn't know anything about country and western music, which is why we got him to join the band. He had never listened to it so we thought that would be cool (laughs).
And Marc Durante used to follow us around. He's the steel guitar player and he used to turn up and his friends would come up and say, 'Can he play with you?' And we'd go, 'Oh, all right.' And he was kind of learning to play the steel guitar. He was a heavy metal guitarist. He played with KMFDM and Revolting Cocks and people like that, so when we met him we would say, 'All right, you can play with us but we're not going to pay you anything.' So we'd split the money up five ways and he wouldn't get paid. This went on for a while, and he was very persistent. We thought it would just make him go away, but then he made himself kind of essential to the band, you know. So one night we decided to give him some money and then there was no getting rid of him.
So he definitely served an internship.
Well, yeah, but he also, you know, he used us as kind of a guinea pig to learn to play steel guitar. And he used the audiences in Chicago as well. They had to go through that excruciating process. And he's quite good now but, you know, there were some nights when we'd beg him, 'Don't hit the pedals.'
And who else do we have?
Tracy Dear. That first gig we did at the Rainbo, he got up and did two songs because his girlfriend had bought him a mandolin for Christmas. And he'd never played the mandolin in his life but he worked out a couple of Hank Williams songs which had one chord in them, so he joined. And Steve Goulding was the original drummer. He lives in New York now. He plays with us occasionally. He played on the record, but, you know, for all intents and purposes he's pretty busy with other things so we have Joe Camarillo. He's a large Mexican man from just south of Chicago, and we like him very much.
Was Tracy a quicker learner on mandolin than Marc was on steel?
No, he still can't play the mandolin but he's very amusing to have around. You know, it's always been a bunch of people who kind of hung out together. It was never meant to be a band. We never made choices on who could play their instruments really well.
That good old DIY spirit.
How do you get the name Waco?
We had a number of different names. We started off, I think, as Jon Boy and Deano. Then it was Jon Boy and Deano's Church of Country and Western music. Then it was Ranch Quake. There were a number of other names. Elephant Ears was one. We'd play and it'd be so awful, you know, that we'd change the name for the next gig in case anyone thought it was us again. But Tom Ray, who was in the Bottle Rockets at the time, started playing bass with us because he was living in town and that's when we played a place called the Wrigleyville Tap. And it was the week after the Waco thing, so Tom made the poster and put Waco Brothers, which we thought was kind of a sick joke but I think it's kind of a good name actually. It has that kind of apocalyptic kind of feel to it.
So the band's getting started in '93 . . . .
I don't know if it really was '93. It might've been. I was thinking it was more like '94, '95 before we actually did anything.
Well, I was only going by the Waco incident. The raid was in April of '93.
Oh my God, then it must've been that long ago then (laughs).
Happy 15th anniversary.
That's wild. I never even thought of that. Good grief.
So 1993 is a big year for indie music in Chicago. The Waco Brothers get started, Urge Overkill is making noise, the Smashing Pumpkins break out nationally and Liz Phair releases Exile in Guyville. Did you cross paths with any of those kinds of groups or could it just as well been happening across the country?
Well, I mean the Rainbo Club, where we did our first gig, that was the kind of center of all that, you know. I think it was actually Nash Kato (of Urge Overkill) who lived across the street and I think they were all at our first gig at the Rainbo. I'm pretty sure they were all there. And Johnny Herndon from Tortoise was the barman. I mean, it definitely wasn't all up in a different universe. We knew all those people.
You know, it was quite a kind of small scene in Chicago. All those people used to hang out at the Lounge Ax. And I knew Liz Phair because she was roommates with a guy that put out Sally's record (Sally Timms of the Mekons), a guy called John Henderson. So yeah, everyone knew everybody else, but I just felt like I was at the end of all that. We were just bored with all that and we were trying to do something else (laughs). I guess those guys were like, you know, on a roll. I mean, I think what was kind of going on in Chicago at that time was a lot of different stuff. I mean, the Handsome Family were there at that time. They were starting out, you know. There was a lot of stuff going on then. I think the Waco Brothers were just one piece of that really.
You said that the Chicago music scene was small back then. Does it still seem small today?
That's a good question. Chicago's a really big city. Like I met Sam Prekop a little while ago, and he's an artist and a musician and I had never met him. I'd been here 15 years, and with work so common that's really strange we would never have met.
But I don't know. It's kind of supportive. It focuses around certain clubs and certain places, you know, certain labels. Everyone kind of knows each other. I wouldn't say it's incestuous like, say, the Leeds thing in 1978, when everybody was like in bed with each other. This is slightly different.
People have referred to you as a kind of musical father figure for at least a decade now. Are you the guy musicians come to when they need wise and experienced counsel?
I don't think it's ever really worked like that (laughs). I work with a lot of people and collaborate with a lot of people and, you know, I've done a lot of activism stuff. We've done the Pine Valley Cosmonauts where I've got people involved with other people, I guess. It's more like, you know, musicians are really up for doing interesting things and collaborating. It's just the nature of the game, you know, but it often needs someone to sort of be the kind of person who instigates stuff, so I guess I instigate stuff a little bit.
So you're more of a matchmaker than father figure?
Yeah, I don't know about the father figure thing. I've got kids of my own, so I'm too busy doing that most of the time to be mollycoddling musicians.
Especially if you can't claim the tax deduction.
Both the Mekons and the Waco Brothers share songwriting credits. So how do songs get into the Waco Brothers nowadays? What's the process?
With the Waco Brothers I'd have to say it's pretty clear who writes the songs, you know. Usually if somebody sings the song they've written it.
That's how the lead vocals are decided? By who brought the song in?
Yeah, basically. There's exceptions to that rule. There's a few songs I've written that Tracy sings, but generally people turn up with something and . . . But what we do is we share the publishing because we figure that, you know, the song wouldn't be worth that much just on its own. It's actually the process of being kind of Waco-ized that makes it interesting. People make suggestions, but usually it's fairly autonomous. But the Mekons is a totally different kettle of fish. Songs really don't get written until we're all together.
Which is kind of hard to do being spread out all over the world.
Yeah, it can be quite difficult. We've tried like various processes of writing songs with the Mekons that just don't work. With the Waco Brothers, you know, there's very little ego involved. People just show up and say, 'I've got this one,' and 'I've got this one.' And, you know, it's very rare that someone will say, 'I don't think this will work,' or 'This one's not right,' but Dean said that to me about a couple of songs of mine. You know, 'I don't know whether this is really a Waco Brothers song or not.' That's fine. I'll just use it for something else.
So what does happen to the songs that don't fit? Do they end up on a solo record?
There's one called "Sputnik 57," and that ended up . . . I think he thought it was like too much of a Waco Brothers song. It was almost like a pastiche of a Waco Brothers song or something. So that ended up on the Lofty Deeds solo record which was, you know, all the songs on there were kind of about what I thought about Nashville basically.
So "Sputnik 57" was maybe a little too on the nose for the Waco Brothers?
Yeah, it was a bit like maybe we'd covered that ground, but it fit perfectly on that Lofty Deeds record, you know, so that was great.
I know that the Mekons' songwriting process has evolved over the years, but when you finish writing a song do you immediately know whether it should be for the Wacos or Pine Valley or a solo record?
Usually it's like, if I'm sitting alone in my basement writing a song, or just writing a song, it's usually for me. And then if the Wacos have booked some studio time (laughs), then I'll know I'm just going to sit down and write some songs for the Waco Brothers, you know. I mean, the Wacos have a very kind of fixed sort of area of my brain. I know what I want the Wacos to be like and what I think they sound like, and I think Dean has that as well. What we're writing isn't even particularly similar - his songs are very descriptive and my songs are kind of more apocalyptic - but I think they kind of fit together really well. So yeah I usually know when I'm going to write a Waco Brothers song.
There's a thing Nick Lowe said about songwriting. It's like turning on a tap. Sometimes it's just like they just flow out and you don't know where they came from, and there's days where you sit down to write the song and (laughs) the good ones it's like somebody else wrote them. You can't even remember how you wrote the good ones and then you can sit for days and days writing these horrible, contrived, stupid things that, you know, you just throw away. That's me writing a song (laughs). Whoever writes the ones that are actually any good, he doesn't come around very often.
But you hope you're home when he does.
Yeah. It's weird. Some songs just come out like complete and I go, 'Wow, that's really good. Where did that come from?' I have no idea, you know. But it's like a muscle. You exercise a bit. You have to do a lot of hard work and, you know, aerobics and exercise to get anything to actually happen.
Do the songs that come more quickly feel more special to you? Like gifts maybe?
Yeah, I mean I could name a bunch of songs that are like that. Yeah, the ones where you have to work too hard, some of them I think you kind of kill. You know, 'This isn't quite right. I could make it better.' Usually the song's not that good in the first place and you're not making it better. I don't know. It's a really strange process. A lot of times I have no idea what goes on with it. I don't believe in the muse or anything, but sometimes you're just in this, you know . . . I've gone months without writing anything whatsoever, and then something lights up in the middle of the night, something that energizes that part of the brain and, you know, you're writing the stuff down. Usually it's just one good idea and then it turns the whole thing on.
If you have a songwriting idea a couple of hours after you've gone to bed, are you pretty good about getting up and writing it down so it'll be there in the morning? Or do you just roll over and hope you remember it?
No, I've got a notebook by my bed. I'm always scribbling. There's scraps of paper everywhere, you know. My car's full of stuff. My painting studio is full of stuff. And it's kind of nice to go back. You forget all about what it was and then you suddenly see this piece of paper. I found one yesterday.
You know, a lot of times when you're writing words you're singing a tune, you know, which in the great folk tradition probably might not even be a tune you necessarily wrote yourself. But you've written some words to follow that tune, and by the time I've tried to work what that tune is out on the guitar, you know, I've changed the lyrics to it (laughs). It usually becomes something else anyway.
You mentioned your basement. Do you do most of your songwriting there?
Well no, it varies. That's where they get completed, you know. But I have little devices, you know. If you're not inspired there's ways of generating stuff. Just go in on the computer or nicking things from books, going through old notebooks. There's definitely ways to get things going.
Is there a particular time of day when you're most likely to be writing?
It could be almost any time. And sometimes, it's like, if there's a deadline, you know, or if there's just an opportunity. Actually it's kind of like if you go into the studio and you've got a bunch of songs finished that you think you want to record, like half an hour before you leave another two suddenly arrive from nowhere. And it's like just to fuck up your schedule (laughs). And they might be better, you know, than the ones you . . .
If they weren't better, they wouldn't be a problem. You'd just walk away.
Yeah, exactly. I don't know. It's a really odd thing. It's hard. I can't be very Marxist about it, I'm sorry. I can't be like (in a Russian accent), 'I sit down. I work. I write my songs from 9 to 3.' I don't do that.
Big question, and one you've probably answered before. What's the intersection between punk and country?
Well, for me, as a punk rocker, I had no interest in country one minute and then suddenly something clicked in me brain and I started seeing all these parallels. You know, the Mekons' second single, the one that did really well, was called "Where Were You?" It's just a three-chord song about drinking in a bar and an unsatisfactory relationship, and that's what most country songs are about. And when I started listening to country music I found I could pick up a guitar and play along. I liked the simplicity of form and I really liked the way they dealt and described everyday life. That was something we were trying to strive towards with the Mekons, you know. We were trying to write songs that dealt with the real world and how people live.
I mean, the music I grew up with in the '70s, when I was like 13 and 14 and all, peoples' older brothers were playing Genesis and Yes albums. It's like elves and wizards, you know. I didn't understand (laughs). I was listening to Led Zeppelin the other day. I can't believe he's singing about Mordor and Lord of the Rings. God almighty. It was a strange time and punk was a really great antidote to that. And I still feel really connected to that kind of revulsion that went on in 1977 and people were going, 'You know, let's take this music back.' At the time we thought we were reinventing the wheel, but when you look back at it's all extension of folk music, you know, like blues, country and reggae. It's all kind of like an attempt to communicate, and punk was definitely part of that. And I never felt weird about picking up the guitar and singing a Johnny Cash song, you know. It just sort of made sense.
Do the Waco Brothers have to be experienced live in order to be fully appreciated?
Yeah, I think so. A lot of people have been saying that to us for a long time. Somebody talked about doing a Best Of, you know, because we've been going quite a long time and have a few albums. But I thought if we do a Best Of, it should just be a live record. It was actually our mate Bob DePugh in Chicago, and he just said, 'You should do a live album. That would be great.' We've done a few things in the past with (field recorder) Tim Powell. He actually recorded the Three Johns live album in 1985, which we recorded the first day I ever set foot in Chicago. And he seemed like an obvious choice. He'd done all these (radio station) XRT live broadcasts and they all sounded really good, and I just thought, 'Well, this is a great opportunity.'
We do two nights at Schuba's nearly every Christmas for the last four or five years, just because we're sick of New Year's Eve. We like to play, but to my mind New Year's Eve's a big rip off, you know. Everyone's expectations are really high and when you can do a gig between Christmas and the New Year people are actually pretty laid-back. It was great, so we just thought we could record that. Whatever night it was. I think it was a Friday night and a Saturday night. We recorded the Friday night, went in all day Saturday and played all the songs so we'd have kind of versions of them if everything screwed up, then went and did the gig on the Saturday night. And the Saturday night gig took off like a rocket. I think we used maybe one song from the first night and all the rest from the Saturday night and nothing from the stuff we did in the afternoon. It just sounded kind of tame, and you know there's a different mindset going on when the room's full of people. What we were looking for was just like the sounds we make when we're completely oblivious (laughs), and I think that definitely comes over on the record.
I don't like live albums particularly, but I thought that the Waco Brothers certainly needed one.
The last studio album for the Wacos was 2005. Are you planning on visiting the recording studio anytime soon?
Yeah, you know, Dean's just released another Dollar Store album and he's got a sort of solo record coming out that he's done with some guys in Austin, just because we haven't been putting stuff out.
We've actually been working on an album with Paul Burch in Nashville, so there's a bunch of new songs on that. That was quite nice because Paul's a very crafty songwriter. You know, he has that kind of Nashville kind of . . . He likes bridges and stuff. He's like, 'This should have a bridge' and I'm like, 'Okay. How would that go, Paul?' And then he puts a bridge in a song.
You talked about not being a big fan of live albums, and yet the Wacos have just released a live album. Can you think of a live album that's so great you're glad they recorded in front of an audience and not in the studio?
I like Slade Alive! That's a very early, very early memory from when I first got into rock. I like Alive & Dangerous by Thin Lizzy but I think the only thing they kept from the live show was the bass drum, so . . .
So it's not exactly all that live.
Yeah, but it's still a great record.
So it can be done.
Oh yeah. I mean, I don't see why not. The reason you make the album is the important thing and for us it was actually a very positive thing. We weren't trying to get out of contract with Bloodshot by fobbing them off with a live album (laughs).
It was kind of like, 'This is what we've done,' and 'This is what's good about us.'
The Waco Brothers play the Highline Ballroom on Tuesday, June 3rd.
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