Mekons Additional Coverage
A interview with Parrish Johnston, Managing Director Mineral Point Opera House about the Mekons playing his venue
By Joshua M. Miller
I talked with Mineral Point Opera House Managing Director Parrish Johnston to find out more about the venue and how they were able to book a full-band Mekons concert.
Can you talk a little bit about the Mineral Opera House and what the venue is doing?
I took over management of MPOH on July 1st of last year and have been trying to change the nature of our programming. I lived in Madison for a decade and really missed out on having great concerts available on a weekly basis. After being hired I thought we could really beef up our programming and attract people to come into town from the region as well as provide great entertainment for the locals.
We are trying to have a wide variety to offerings in our yearly program schedule. Our venue is owned by the City of Mineral Point, so we have many community events in addition to various regional and now national acts performing. We have a 380 seat venue with incredible acoustics that was fully restored in the last decade. Over the last year our programming has expanded from mostly local events (High School musical, local ballet troupe’s Nutcracker, piano recitals, birthday parties, weddings etc.) to include: the Drunken Catfish Ramblers(blues from New Orleans), Heywood Banks (comedian featured on the Bob & Tom Show), the Pines (alt rock from Minneapolis), a charity fashion show, Grand Marquis(Prohibition era jazz from Kansas City), Sweat Dreams and Honky Tonks (tribute to legends of country Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams) while still featuring local acts like the Mascot Theory and Point Five. We also periodically show films, with a monthly film society, Filmzmp, screening independent and foreign films. This is also our sixth year of being the primary location of the Driftless Film Festival, with happens from November 5-9 this year.
How did the venue get the Mekons and a full band one at that?
I have a friend, Jim Zanzi, who is an art professor in Chicago. Another professor he works with is a good friend of Sally Timms of the Mekons. I had heard that Sally and a few other members were interested in coming to Mineral Point to take in the incredible ambiance and history of our town. I was put in touch with Sally and we talked about having a few members of the Mekons come to Mineral Point to perform. She liked this idea and after talking it over with other band members they decided to try to get the whole band (8 members) together for a small summer tour. The band decided that a small tour would be a great decision and they started to book other shows, mostly in the Midwest.
We finished booking the performance and are one of the smaller spots on their tour. It’s incredible to see the locations of their tour including: Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York and Mineral Point, Wisconsin. There is a lot of excitement in town and the band has seemed very excited to have the opportunity to play at a wonderful, intimate venue in a historic town. I have the band staying at a couple of local bed and breakfast locations, one of which is a 150 year old miners cabin that two members will stay in. Last I had heard they were fighting about who was going to be able to stay in the cabin.
What do you think of the Mekons and their impact on music?
I think the Mekons are a fantastic band with an incredible history. They have such an interesting 40+ year history with a interwoven tapestry of members coming and going. Starting in the last 1970s with zero musical experience and having a lasting impact on world music is a stunning achievement. They seem to have a great connection to the art world and Mineral Point has a very large art community. We screened the documentary about the band, Revenge of the Mekons, here a few weeks ago to great acclaim. This seemed like a wonderful opportunity to screen a film about a band a few weeks before the band themselves perform. I’ve always been fascinated by the interplay of older music on bands and the Mekons are a great example of that. Starting with a first wave punk sound and becoming interested in the music of country legends like Hank Williams, has given them a truly unique sound. Having made the first alt-country album in the mid 1980s I think they have had a huge impact they had on bands that have followed down that path. I’ve really enjoyed trying to give locals an idea of what they are getting into with a punk band that is inspired by country and folk music.
Is this a sign of things to come for the venue with getting concerts like this?
I think this is a sign of things to come for our programming. We have a unique experience to give concert goers in this small, historic town with a stunningly restored venue. The hope is that over the next few years we will be expanding our programming greatly and will try to bring our audience in from both Dubuque and the Madison area. We are only a 45 minute drive from the west side of Madison. For decades the MPOH was mostly used as a movie theater and only in the last few years have we been getting back to our roots as a music and performing venue. In the first decades of the 20th century MPOH, we hosted a wide variety of touring acts including: Bing Crosby, Burns and Allen, Gene Autry, Minnie Pearl and many other notable performers of the time. Our goal is to get back to being a spot not to miss for touring acts looking to play in an intimate venue.
A interview with Mekons members Rico Bell and Sally Timms
By Joshua M. Miller
I talked to Mekons members Rico Bell and Sally Timms to find out more about what it’s like to play in The Mekons.
Around the time you joined the band it really started incorporating more and more styles like folk and country. Can you talk about what it was like joining such an eclectic band?
RB: I joined the band in 1985. I had just moved to Leeds where the band is based at the time. I had been aware of the Mekons for some time and I had contact with one of the members, Kevin, who doesn’t play live with us anymore. It was a friendship thing. I wasn’t intending to do more in the music business much more because I’ve had some bad experiences with the commercial and non-commercial aspects of major labels. They had a great attitude and it just became a good thing. A breath of fresh air. Their attitudes convinced me to start playing again. Eventually I started playing regularly. They’re some of my best friends.
It felt very right for me, every one in the band had a great attitude and commitment to the music they wanted to create. The musical influences were already very familiar to me too. In fact I first started performing in front of an audience in venues around the Liverpool area called ‘Contemporary folk clubs’. That was in the early seventies.
ST: I would say the band was already in transition before I joined. They had put out the English Dancing Master EP and had recorded Fear and Whisky, so my addition fit well with that change. I knew everyone already and had sung occasionally on recordings so there was no real adjustment, everyone was doing oddball things back then, experimentation was the norm really
The band began at a time when punk rock was starting and was kind of a counterpoint to it in a way. What do you remember about the band before you joined – learning as they played – and how do you think the that and culture changed by the time you joined?
RB: My first real knowledge of the band occurred during the time they were recording the’ Mekons Story’. I met and spent some time with Kevin Lycett on a visit to Leeds. I was recording music in Bristol at the time and we listened to some tapes of each others stuff and swapped ideas. At the time from what I heard I could see they were pushing boundaries incorporating ‘dub’ techniques etc. and experimenting with synthesizers and drum machines whilst still maintaining the ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude of punk. By the time I joined and ‘Fear and Whisky’ was recorded, Susie Honeyman, (violin) Steve Goulding (drums) and Lu Edmonds, (playing bass at the time) who were already accomplished musicians, had become part of the band. Jon, Tom and Kevin, the remaining original members, had also improved their playing and singing considerably. Sally Timms, of course, has an amazing voice and her vocal contributions were also reshaping the overall sound of the band. Having said all of that I reiterate that the bands ‘punk ethos’ had not changed though perhaps it had become more sophisticated.
ST: I wasn’t in the band from the get-go, by the time I joined Susie, Lu and Steve were already part of the band and are pretty accomplished musicians by anyone’s standards so the band has always been an interesting mix of primitive and refined if you like. The band was, I would say in the early days, one which really took the ethos of punk rock to heart, meaning that there was almost zero reliance on musical ability so ideas were the most important thing…anyone could start a band, anyone could make a record…
From the documentary, it sounds like the band mainly writes when it gets together. How do you think the band’s kept it’s focus with multiple songwriters?
RB: Behind the creation of each album, CD, or whatever, there is always a theme which is discussed ahead of time, so we’re all on the same page during the writing process which is only completed when we’re all together in studio/recording mode.
ST: There really aren’t multiple songwriters, people come in with ideas, bare bones of songs sometimes or sometimes there’s nothing at all and the song is developed while we are all together and then carries on developing the more it is played. We usually start with a concept for a record and the recording session is when we write the songs immediately prior to, or during, the studio recording.
The band’s been making music however it pleases without worrying too much about critical response. Why do you think that’s important?
RB: I think it’s important to all of us to maintain our group integrity in everything we do and as long as we feel that hasn’t been compromised we’re happy. We would of course be even happier if everyone liked what we do. Having said that, if there were to be a negative criticism from someone who normally champions our ’cause’ I guess it would concern us.
ST: I think we make music that we feel is important to us, I wouldn’t say we are immune to the critical response, which is usually favorable, we just don’t really care if we sell loads of records…if no-one liked what we did, it might make it harder to do, but I doubt we would fully stop doing it…maybe we’d be doing something right!
How has the digital age affected the band and how people find out about the band?
RB: Well, we have a face book page, a website and the current film ‘Revenge of the Mekons’ is going round so a few more people become aware of our existence daily. The digital age has certainly affected how we have been recording too but we’re about to rail against that with our next recording which will be done in real time with just one microphone.
ST: The digital age has affected everyone that makes music and seriously affected people who made a living from it (which isn’t us). There are positives and negatives but it’s undeniable that the whole music industry was turned upside down within a few years. We use Facebook a lot as we are old and I don’t really understand twitter instagram etc, we don’t go much social media, it’s too time consuming but it works if you have the energy…we prefer to remain a semi-mysterious presence on the web.
Why do you think the band has lasted so long despite the band living in different cities and having their own interests?
RB: We’re all good friends and we really do enjoy being with each other as a group so part of our longevity is due to our determination to continue to get together despite the difficulties. We also believe that what we do as a band is a worthwhile contribution to the music/art scene.
ST: Because we set constraints on what we do that don’t exhaust us too much, we don’t go on tour every year or more, we don’t care if we don’t sell lots of records, we live outside of those demands. Life would be a lot easier for the band if we all live in London or somewhere but we are resourceful and make it work without it breaking the bank. But most importantly for the most part we really enjoy doing this, if you enjoy something you tend to keep doing it.
Outside the band, Rico and some of the others are really into art. Rico, can you talk about how that started for you and how it’s influenced how you look at this band? What was it like to do the collaborative painting?
RB: I studied art at college as did Tom and Jon so I think there’s always been a natural affinity there. The first collaborative painting project was ‘Mekons United’ which was first shown at the Polk museum of art in Tampa, Florida. I think we were still searching for a way of approaching collaborative visual art then and how best to utilize our individual skills. What we learnt from that went into the next ‘art’ project which was Oooh (Out Of Our Heads) which I think was much more successful. Sadly after, I think, only two shows some vandals broke into the facility where everything was stored and destroyed most of it.
ST: I don’t do any of that stuff, I just do the boring logistics and shout at everyone to get on with it! We are all interested in culture and art and many of the band were art students and now fine artists, art students are always trouble-causers!
With the Revenge of Mekons film what were the biggest surprises or revelations? What was it like seeing it? Did it give you perspective on your own time?
RB: I think it’s difficult to judge something objectively when you are so closely involved so there were no surprises or revelations for me in the film itself. However, the positive audience reaction which has been one of real interest and enjoyment has been a very pleasant surprise.
ST: It was quite hard for me to watch initially for several reasons, some purely to do with vanity, others were more to do with the fact that the way someone else sees us isn’t the way we see ourselves but over time I’ve become more peaceful about it…it does set a timeline for our “achievements” that I don’t usually think about which makes me somewhat proud in my private moments
Any future plans or things you’d like to do musically with this band? Any plans for a new album?
RB: As I already mentioned we plan to record a live album of new material which will take place in Brooklyn near the end of this upcoming tour.
ST: We are recording a new album in real time with the assistance of 75 audience members in NYC on this tour…as Jon said “why should a record take longer to record than to listen to”, so all the songs will be recorded around a single microphone with the audience serving as a “feral choir”. The recording is not a “show” or a “live album”, we called the night Mekonception but the album will have a different title…all the attendees will be named as participants on the album art. We should just release it digitally that night but we are not that tech savvy so it will probably come out in the 22nd Century.