Interview: Lu Edmonds of The Mekons

The post-punk band's multi-instrumentalist looks ahead to their November 9 Prague show

Born in Leeds in the late '70s, The Mekons are one of the few bands to emerge from the UK punk explosion to have kept at it more or less continuously ever since, and they're almost certainly the most eclectic. Over some two dozen records they've ranged across angular art-punk, honky tonk country, raggedy folk, conceptual dance-pop, and blistering guitar bash, singing outcast songs shot through with allusive heartache, barbed idealism, and mordant humor, qualities that also permeate their jaunty, frequently inebriated live shows.

With personnel now spread among London, southwest England, Chicago, and New York, the band records and tours sparingly, and Wednesday's Jazztime gig in support of new album Ancient & Modern will be their first in Prague since the early 1990s. But longtime member Lu Edmonds has been no stranger to these parts of late, playing Akropolis in November 2010 with sonic globe-trotters Les Triaboliques and last summer's Colours of Ostrava festival as guitarist with the reincarnated Public Image Ltd. (Like all Mekons, he always has several musical projects on the go.)

A master of many axes who's also worked with the Damned, Billy Bragg, Buena Vista Social Club, Tuvan rockers Yat-Kha, and numerous other punk, folk, and world music artists, Edmonds chatted with Prague TV from London between legs of the Mekons' current tour about the new record and the how the band keeps it going across decades and continents.

I've read that you play something like 40 instruments.

I don't know, I can't count them. They keep multiplying. As I always say, they follow me home. I go traveling, and they look at me with their big eyes, and they end up in my suitcase.

What's the latest one?

The latest amazing one was a Chinese instrument from Quangdong called, I think, a ching. It's very little, the size of a tenor ukelele, and it's the shape of a ukelele, and it's got a skin on it, sort of a banjo skin. And it has a funny way of being fretted. For musicians out there, it's a heptatonic whole tone scale. And it's completely mad. I like it. I've got it on the new PiL record, but I think it was too weird even for them.

Is it something we're going to see you whip out on this tour?

No, not that one. I'm bringing my saz and I'm bringing my cumbus [stringed instruments of Turkish/Middle Eastern origin].

Earlier in the year in an interview with the Los Angeles Times your bandmate John Lydon from PiL said he couldn't quite work out what the Mekons is. Can you?

No, not really [laughs]. I've got no idea. Actually I thought it was quite a sweet thing he said. He said, "As long as it keeps Lu happy." I don't think it's worth thinking about, what is the Mekons. It's the sum of its parts, I suppose.

The full title of the new album is Ancient & Modern 1911-2011. Can you explain the dates?

Some years ago when we started thinking about a new record, the idea emerged about, what was it like 100 years ago? In a way that became, not so much the theme of the record, but kind of like a little lighthouse.

There are some songs on the record that seem to be written from a pre-World War I perspective.

That's how it all came out lyrically and, I suppose, in a sense, musically. There's even some bits on the record that remind me of snatches of [Edwardian-era English composer] Elgar.

There was a strain of English folk pastoralism that was very strong on Natural, the previous record, and is still part of this one -- in those songs that seem to derive from a viewpoint of pre-war innocence, if you will.

"Innocence" is good, yes. Decay and innocence together. People going, what's going on here? This can't go on forever, can it? There were in fact various financial crises going on before the war, lots of things happening. There was instability.

There's also a few of the most flat-out rocking songs you've had on an album in a long time, like Space in Your Face and Honey Bear.

That's true. It was all recorded in two days in a little bed and breakfast in Devon. I think those are the ones that were done at 2 o'clock in the morning after people had a lot to eat and drink.

How does the collective function creatively, being so far flung?

We were touring, and then we'd take two days off and we'd lay some more stuff down. We always combine them.

Is it a matter of, when you're all together that's when you start intellectually thinking through what the record's about?

There's nothing intellectual. And we don't discuss anything. We don't have any time. We have such limited opportunity that we just set up and start playing.

Well, everybody in the Mekons has, like, half a dozen other bands.

Yeah, exactly. So when we're together we just spend it playing, mainly. Very little time do we sit around discussing it. No one sits around going, I've got this fantastic idea. People just sit together and start playing, and songs emerge out of that improvisation.

Does the fact that you've been this unit for so long and you know each other so well as musicians make it more possible to record these albums in a short time, on those occasions when you're all together?

Um ... yes. [Laughs]

Long question that leads inevitably to a short answer, yeah.

But I would also say that generally, making records should not involve too much planning. If I think about it, the worst records I've ever made have been the records where they were over-composed. Everyone knew what they were doing, they went into the studio, and they recorded. I think it's very good to go into the studio and create things which are very imperfect and human and have an atmosphere. That's far more important than getting it right or trying to play something correctly, or within a genre. That's my own little tiny theory.

I like the way the Mekons made the last two records, which was very slapdash – very quick, very fast, just throw it down, very impressionistic, and then you spend a lot of time editing different bits together that then you can lay vocals or drums or something else on top of. Everything fits in the end. Nothing's perfect, everything's imperfect, everything fits.

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