They've done all this without anyone noticing, except for a handful of diehards who gush-gush-gush at their output -- an album every couple of years these days, totaling somewhere around 20 -- and greet the news of each impending tour with an enthusiasm usually associated with the Dead. As with every fanbase convinced that the object of its affection is the perfect object, it's hard to fathom exactly how the object known as the Mekons has eluded the affection of a deserved share of country, polka, dub, rock & roll and jungle fans. But they have eluded this affection for a long, long time now. Stubbornly, they've remained a band since 1977.
But, really, that's not hard to do. All you have to do is make records, then tour behind them. Once fame and fortune -- which, in the case of the Mekons, were never there in the first place -- are removed from the equation, the rest is gravy: Just gather now and then and toss off a masterpiece.
The Mekons 2000 consist of Tom Greenhalgh, Jon Langford (these two formed the band; the latter is also in the glorious Waco Brothers), Sally Timms (she of the angelic warble), Sarah Corina, Rico Bell, Susie Honeyman, Lu Edmonds and Steve Goulding. This lineup has remained consistent through the '90s. When they play this week at Blueberry Hill, they'll be performing in St. Louis for only the second time, in support of their gorgeous, somber new record, Journey to the End of the Night (Quarterstick), one of the best records they've ever made.
The Mekons formed in the wake of the British punk explosion of 1977 but failed to make much of an impact. They signed to the same label as the Sex Pistols -- Virgin Records, who were then lapping up anything with spiked hair and a sneer -- released a couple of gloriously defiant singles, including the sardonic loser anthem "Never Been in a Riot," and promptly got dropped after their first album. Not that many people noticed, because not that many cared. After that, the band discovered synthesizers, violins, Dada and horns -- simultaneously -- and melded them in a fashion that probably weeded out most of their early fans -- and failed to make an impact with anyone remotely interested in violins, horns or synthesizers.
Their totally weird second album, one that's seldom mentioned because it's a bloody mess, simply titled The Mekons, is an exercise in chaotic experimentation, but deep underneath, a flat, screeching violin attempts to weave in some sort of half-assed melody.
The screeching violin was proof that the Mekons were discovering American country music. It's a scary thought, mixing violins and punk rock -- is there any sound more frightening than unpracticed Dada violin? But it signaled something important: More than any other band that sprouted in the "anything goes" atmosphere of punk, the Mekons were one of the few to actually follow through on the promise. They were building something, gathering the sticks that they would use to build the fire that was their great arrival -- seven years after they formed -- 1985's Fear and Whiskey.
It was a record that justified the experimentation. A strange dissonance is buried within, and the members of the band had learned how to play their instruments so that there was intent where once there was ineptitude. There was melody, a studied rhythm and punk-rock, dub and country music, and, rather than sounding like a mishmash of influences, it all made perfect sense.
This sense of wide-eyed adventure permeates the band's output and is the main reason the Mekons have remained vital and, more important, perpetually interesting. With every record, they stretch: from their brilliant ode to and indictment of rock & roll, 1989's Rock 'n' Roll ("Throw a rock & roll song on the fire!" they sing), to their collaboration with the late novelist Kathy Acker, Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996), a new Mekons record is a stab in the dark. You buy it, but you don't know what you're going to get. You may get a cold, hard electronic-rock album -- 1998's Me -- or you may get pure, subtle beauty, like the brand-new Journey to the End of the Night.
Maybe one of the reasons singer/guitarist Tom Greenhalgh seems totally unexcited about doing another interview to promote the upcoming show is the simple fact that he doesn't have to. He and his compatriots have basically given up trying to make the Mekons a full-time enterprise, so what's the point? At one point, he says, the band was a semi-full-time affair, but no more. "It's been on-and-off, actually, at various points," he says. "Of late, it's obviously not been a full-time thing, and I think in a way that's also helped us to carry on doing it, because we're not really under any pressure to do this. Yeah, it would be nice to make a living, sure, to be doing something that you love doing. But that's certainly not the case currently."
These days, the band is split between England and America: Greenhalgh, Corina, Honeyman and Edmonds live over there; Langford, Timms, Bell and Goulding live over here -- in Chicago. It's been this way for the past decade or so, and you can hear it on the Mekons' records. Whether or not the effect is intentional, the records have been fragmented; they seem to be works of individuals contributing to a greater good, not the work of a unit. An ocean separates the songwriters, and it has showed. Retreat from Memphis, I (Heart) Mekons, Pussy and Me are wonderful records but not nearly as seamless as earlier efforts.
For Journey, though, the Mekons seem to have perfected the long-distance relationship. "It's a snatched bit of conversation whenever," says Greenhalgh of the current process. "It's not like some sort of managed, democratic organization where things seem to be done aboveboard and so forth. It's a bit more ad hoc. Basically before we'll approach an album we'll have a rough idea of what kind of theme it will have, what kind of song we're going to try and write, just purely out of practicality, really, because everyone's so spread out and we have limited resources. So when we get together, we have to work really quickly. So it just helps to have some kind of focus, some kind of sounding board to say, "Well, this idea might be fine, but it doesn't work with what we're doing right now.'"
Though Greenhalgh says that it wasn't intentional, Journey recalls the Mekons' '80s work. Gone is the fast-and-loud tone that peppered many of their '90s records; in its place is a gentle resignation. Honeyman's violin is more prominent, Corina's bass dives deep into dub and the singers -- four of them rotate, though Timms inevitably (and deservedly) gets most of the attention -- whisper and moan more than they scream and cry. Again they recall country music, but Journey is not a country record. They recall rock, but it's not rock. And they wade into electronics; a hum permeates many of Journey's songs.
"It's clearly a complete about-face from Me," says Greenhalgh, "in the sense that we were trying to write much harder, impersonal kind of lyrics with Me, and this is a deliberate attempt to write something more somber, more subdued and so forth -- and also just to keep the instrumentation as plain as possible and avoid the harder, cleaner sound. We decided we wanted to make a quiet record that would be a real middle-of-the-night record, make it quite subdued, quite pessimistic, in some ways."
It'll be interesting to see how they pull it off live; violinist Honeyman won't be making the journey over because she's got two young children, and because the record relies on her instrument, she will be missed. But the Mekons always manage somehow -- it's what has kept them together for the past 20 years -- and, even more impressive, they never just manage. They thrive -- in their own quiet way, while no one's paying much attention.
The Mekons perform at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room on Tuesday, March 21. Johnny Dowd opens.