Jon Langford probably gets tired of the term "renaissance man," but with four bands, art openings, books, charities, a radio show, an association with alt-country label Bloodshot Records — and two children — the 54-year-old Welsh transplant who resides in Chicago certainly qualifies.
A proto-punk who came out of the Leeds University art school that spawned first-wave bands like Gang of Four, Langford and his college friends formed the Mekons in 1977. Now acknowledged as one of the important early UK punk bands, their first song was "Never Been in a Riot," a send-up of the Clash's "White Riot."
Langford abandoned art for music before he took up painting again in the 1990s. Known for stark portraits of dead Americana music stars like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, he works closely with South Austin gallery Yard Dog. He comes to town Friday, after a long absence, as Jon Langford & the Far Forlorn with musical compadres Walter Salas-Humara of the Silos and Deano Waco of the Waco Brothers.
Chatter: Not getting bored seems to be a common thread in many of your interviews.
Jon Langford: I like to mix it up, keep it interesting. When we formed the Mekons, that was one of our primary thoughts, not to get bored with what we were doing, never let things get stale. Of course, that's one reason we've never done very well with the record labels.
C: Yeah, being a band that wants to change all the time yet that also hopes to be viable financially contains a built-in contradiction.
JL: [Laughs] That's the quandary, isn't it? The business aspect of making music is often just soul-destroying. The pencil-pushers will always manage to fuck up a good thing. We were with Virgin, then we had a deal with A&M for a while, and honestly, we tried hard to be good employees, but it just didn't work.
We sold about 30,000 records and we thought that was great, but they thought it was pathetic. Then our one big supporter at the label moved on, and they just outright told us we were pathetic, so we got out.
C: The Mekons came out of the Leeds University art-school class of '77 that also spawned bands like Gang of Four.
JL: We could barely play, but we had enthusiasm and energy and we made a noise. The art schools were a hotbed for punk in those first days, and there was lots of rhetoric and politics involved in creating music or art. And, of course, irony and sarcasm.
C: Why did you revisit Skull Orchard for your latest solo project?
JL: I'd worked a bit with Burlington Welsh Male Choir, and working with them made it possible to sort of reimagine those original songs and recordings. And I had gotten very interested in Welsh history and where I really come from.
C: You have a signing at Yard Dog Saturday. Why did you do Skull Orchard Revisited as a multimedia project rather than just a music album?
JL: Well, I like that it's something that doesn't just exist as a bunch of digital electronic pulses on a piece of plastic or in someone's iPod, it's something you can hold in your hand. I just like that.
C: You've had a long association with Yard Dog over the years.
JL: The connection with Austin through the gallery has been a very positive association for me. I've learned as I've gone through life that I do best dealing with people I trust, and that's certainly how it is with Yard Dog. The same with Bloodshot, who put out my various records.
C: Nick Tremulis, who has been on the Chicago music scene for decades, says his nickname for you is Yes, because you never say no to anything.
JL: Saying no has occasionally not been the best move. Not long back, I was asked to be part of an independent animated film called Mars by a guy in Austin and I turned it down. It turned out wonderfully, and once I saw it I wished I had done it. Kinky Friedman and Howe Gelb are in it.
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C: With so many musical projects, the radio show and civic commitments to balance, when do you find time for painting?
JL: I get up early and drop the kids at school, then I usually come home and paint. Most of the music stuff is night work, so I find myself burning the candle from both ends, but that actually seems to suit me.
C: What does the current road show entail?
JL: It's probably a little different show than most people expect. I'll do some stuff from Skull Orchard Revisited, we'll do some Waco Brothers tunes, some Mekons, a few from my earlier albums Old Devils and Gold Brick, and we're working in some special things utilizing Deano and Walter. So it should be pretty chaotic if it goes according to plan.