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Musical Mondaze

Jon Langford

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When terrible things happen in the world, particularly those that impact so many people, it’s difficult to proceed forward as if that something never happened. In the case of TrunkSpace, interviews can sometimes become conversations – discussions about the topics that, by chance and circumstance, have the power to connect absolute strangers and remind us that we’re all human.

A day after the tragic events in Las Vegas and the passing of musical icon Tom Petty, we were scheduled to sit down with Welsh-born musician Jon Langford, founding member of the Mekons and the Waco Brothers. Langford, who is currently in Los Angeles working on new material with the Mekons, recently released the solo album “Four Lost Souls,” but it was the souls lost and the ramifications of a particularly difficult news cycle that brought our discussion in an unintended direction.

TrunkSpace: We’re speaking a day after the passing of Tom Petty. Did he have any impact or influence on your career or music?
Langford: I loved Tom Petty. I thought he was fantastic. I just loved the economy of his music, how uniquely American it was. And I love the fact that, the only music my 15 year old and I kind of share, was Tom Petty. He loves Tom Petty as well, and that’s really strange because most of the stuff he listens to, I don’t know what it is. He was playing Tom Petty off his phone onto the aux in my car. I was going, “You like Tom Petty?” I was talking to him about Tom Petty, and his involvement with George Harrison and people like that. It just felt like he was someone everyone could kind of like, in a way. It was great pop-rock music, that was just done so right. He understood the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll so much.

TrunkSpace: And even those people who didn’t connect with his Heartbreakers work, they tend to reference his time in The Traveling Wilburys as a way his influence still touched them.
Langford: Yeah, I loved the Wilburys when they come out. I thought it was fantastic. I thought, what a great idea to have all those people in a band together. Who wouldn’t want to be in a band with Roy Orbison? Kind of amazing.

It’s very sad. Yesterday was just a terrible day. It was a day to stay off social networking, because it’s sort of idiocy that goes on with the social platforms. “Tom Petty’s dead. No he’s not dead. I’m gonna kill you because you said he’s dead.”

Then there’s ISIS, claiming responsibility for an old white guy going to Vegas with automatic weapons. Like ISIS is targeting old white guys who live on golf courses now, and radicalizing them? It’s just a fucking load of nonsense that people are using all these disasters to profit, and sow confusion, and promote really crazy political agendas.

TrunkSpace: It feels like we’re in a very divide-and-conquer time.
Langford: Everything. Everything that comes up. There’s guys like, “Oh no, he’s not ISIS, he’s a Bernie Sanders supporter, and he did it because he doesn’t like Trump.” Like Bernie Sanders supporters are all toting automatic weapons. It’s a fantasy world, and it’s the complete death of consensus. It was a day yesterday when people should have shut up and thought about what happened. It’s an opportunity. That’s the way after 9/11 was. That was a huge opportunity that people like Cheney and Rumsfeld saw landing in their lap – to change America into what they wanted it to be, and they ran with it straight away.

Something like this that happened yesterday, it kind of screams out to me. Maybe there’s too many guns around if the guy’s got a hotel room and a house totally packed with weapons that can cause so much mayhem.

TrunkSpace: You mentioned 9/11. After that day, there was a sort of unified response from the population. We all came together. Now a tragedy happens and we instantly take sides.
Langford: Absolutely. I think the isolation of social media, and the power it gives people to be keyboard warriors, has given people the right to say whatever shit they feel like. Racists and idiots who didn’t want to open their mouths because there was a stigma to being a racist before, are being completely liberated. It’s a disgusting situation, and it’s not gonna get any better.

TrunkSpace: Maybe that makes music more important than ever now? A group of people can get together at a Jon Langford show and find a unified focus. It can be the community that we seem to be losing within our own communities.
Langford: Well, I hope so. That’s the point for me, is to be part of a conversation. That’s what this album is about.

Langford and his band. Photo By: Nate Urbansky

TrunkSpace: Most people make the conscious effort to decide if and when they’re going to make an album, but for you, the universe sort of got the wheels in motion on “Four Lost Souls,” right?
Langford: Yeah, it was a suggestion by Norbert Putnam, of all people. We ended up playing some Johnny Cash songs at the opening of the exhibit of the Country Music Hall of Fame. People thought that would be a funny idea, to have an old Welsh punk rocker singing Johnny Cash songs with basically the entire cast and crew of the Nashville Cats from 1960s. (Laughter) It was great, lovely. I had Lloyd Green, Mac Gayden, Wayne Moss, David Briggs, Norbert Putnam, and Charlie McCoy as my backing band. We all had a great time. I always find music to be very inclusive like that. If you play music with people, a lot of things melt away.

I had a few glasses of wine with Norbert Putnam and he told me I sang like a pirate, and maybe I’d like to come to Muscle Shoals and record an album, because he’d moved back down there. It was a strange thing. I didn’t really take it very seriously at first. Then he asked me again, and he seemed to be really keen on the idea, and he told me how it would work and how we’d have David Hood playing the bass. And I got to go, I got to go and do this thing, but why would I go to Muscle Shoals and what would it be about? Then the songs just started popping out.

It was like a great suggestion that an old Welsh punk rocker would address his relationship with a fairly alien part of the world, that affected his life so much. It’s a double-edged thing, this incredible blossoming of creativity in the 20th century, that gave the world so much. It’s what I think is great about the American way. I was attracted to America’s rock ‘n’ roll and through rock ‘n’ roll came jazz, blues, country, Cajun and all these other forms. Then this kind of terrible legacy of the Civil War, slavery, Jim Crow, the things that were done during the civil rights years – there’s that legacy, which I was writing those songs not thinking that was all about to burst out of the ground again, like it did when Trump got elected.

The songs were kind of concerned with that, but it’s kind of a bit alarming that I wrote a song, “In Oxford Mississippi,” about how the Civil War never really ended for some people and how the memorials, Daughters of the Confederacy, put these memorials up and they’re bigger than the memorials to great Americans who struggled during the Civil Rights Movement. To those people, the Civil War is more real and important, or the Old South is more real and important, than the advances this country has made. I thought that was kind of frightening and worth pointing out.

And then within a few months of writing that song, we’ve got this whole issue of Charlottesville, and the Confederate statues coming down, and a president who compares Robert E. Lee to George Washington. He thinks they’re like cool historical figures, beautiful guys. It’s a fucking mess you’ve found yourselves in, I’m afraid.

Mekons photo by: Derrick Santini

TrunkSpace: With all of the social and political divide going on, it does seem like songwriters are using their platform to say more. The things that they’re concerned with now, on a larger scale that impacts us all, they’re more willing to talk about that now and use their platform.
Langford: I suppose that’s a positive thing. When you’re in the middle of a culture war, it’s kind of inevitable, unless you’re a complete moron. I don’t think I’ve ever done an album that wasn’t somehow trying to deal with, explain, or be part of a conversation. Yeah, I mean if other people are doing that as well, we’re kind of burrowing on the fringes of it already. It’s not like the Mekons or the Wacos or myself are in any way popular culture. We’re kind of unpopular culture. But you do what you can do, and when I write songs, that’s the stuff that comes out.

TrunkSpace: Do you use your writing as a way to work through the stuff that you’re seeing and absorbing?
Langford: Yeah, I guess so. You try to find something that’s universal, something that someone else might pick up on. You try not to make them too obvious that they’re just banal. It’s a tricky thing. I think songs are fantastic. I’ve spent a lot of my time listening to, and being moved and inspired by other people’s songs. And sometimes I don’t know whether what I’m getting out of them is what they intended, but that’s part of the beauty of it.

TrunkSpace: Absolutely. And when multiple people are connecting to a song in a different way, there’s something special about that.
Langford: With this album I could write a paragraph about what each song’s about, and it would be kind of pointless because I feel like the songs, they would be failures as songs if people needed to be walked through them.

TrunkSpace: And we’ve all experienced that – finding something to connect with in a song and then hearing, possibly years later, the meaning of the song itself and thinking, “Wow, I was completely off base.”
Langford: Well, there’s a great story about Picasso when he was describing the symbolism of Guernica in the 1930s. He said, “This is this, and this is that, and the horse is something, then the bull is fascism.” And then in the 1970s he was talking about it and he went, “This is this, this is that, and the bull is Spain.” It’s an incredibly powerful picture. You look at it, it’s an absolutely very, very powerful, angry, amazing picture, which I get a lot out of, and even he couldn’t really know what he meant. He made it, but he can’t dictate what it means to the point where he contradicts himself.

“Four Lost Souls” is available now from Bloodshot Records.

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Musical Mondaze

The Yawpers

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Photo By: George Blosser

Critics and fans alike are in love with The Yawpers. Often described as having a sound that is exclusive to the band, the Denver-born trio has been taking an honest and forthright approach to their music since they came together in 2011. That honesty and forthrightness doesn’t just exist within their lyrics either. Frontman Nate Cook is frank when responding to questions, both professional and personal, and is not afraid to offer as much of himself as possible for his fans to soak up and absorb.

We recently sat down with Cook to discuss the band’s new album “Boy in a Well,” how he works through a bout of writer’s block, and how he manages the praise for The Yawpers.

TrunkSpace: The band has been together since 2011. So much can change in six years, and at the same time, so much can (and usually does) stay the same. How much have you changed personally in that time and how has that impacted your songwriting?
Cook: I guess a lot does change in six years for a person. I’ve been married and divorced, moved around a lot, that sort of stuff. I guess I’m just in my 30s now so… my mid-20s were a different time all together for me. In some ways I take my writing a lot more seriously than I used to, and it has taken a little bit more of a personal flair, because I’m not as flippant as I was in my 20s.

TrunkSpace: A person’s point of view tends to change between that period of 20s to 30s transition.
Cook: Yeah, I can see that. It’s odd how inevitable the change is. One day you just wake up and you’re a different person without ever actually having done anything to change yourself.

TrunkSpace: Which must be difficult in a band setting because, so often, fans want their favorite artists to stay the same.
Cook: Yeah, I agree. I think that what people really expect, and we’ve been lucky is that our fans mostly just expect us to be authentic, and I think that that can read regardless of how stylistically we change.

TrunkSpace: Life is filled with so many ups and downs. You mentioned going through a divorce and moving around a lot. Are those ups and downs magnified when your career is all about being in front of people, either emotionally in your songwriting, or even physically when you are in front of people in a live setting?
Cook: Well, I think there’s a kind of a loneliness to this lifestyle. Just a lot of moving around and you’ve got the type of life that, by virtue, is kind of nomadic. So, I guess in some ways that becomes my personal life, it’s what I share with people on stage or through my music. My personal life just really doesn’t exist, because I’m not around to have it. And in that way I suppose it is kind of an emotional release, or at least an extension of my personal life.

TrunkSpace: Does it feel like as an artist… as somebody who creates… does it feel like fans want to see that personal side of you more given the social media age? Do they want more of you than just the music?
Cook: Oh yeah. For years people have always wanted that, but now the availability of it is… people expect it, I guess. That’s kind of a hard question to answer, though, because I feel like since the dawn of artists people have wanted to know about the people that make it. It’s just now that it’s easy to find out. Your life is a lot more on display than it used to be, even if the desire hasn’t actually necessarily increased.

TrunkSpace: “Boy in a Well” has a story theme that runs throughout it. When you focus on a story concept does that put limitations on you from a songwriting perspective?
Cook: Yeah, I don’t want to sound too up my own ass on this one, but I think a lot of times… limiting yourself allows you to maintain focus on what you’re really trying to say. So in some ways it does both simultaneously. Obviously, staying focused on the subject limits what you can talk about, but it allows you to talk about what you’re writing about more fluently.

TrunkSpace: If you’re writing tunes for that concept and you hit a block, do you start writing in an unrelated way for just yourself to put some distance between you and the focus of the block?
Cook: No, usually what I’ll do is I’ll write a lot of garbage until something works. But I usually try to stay within the confines of the concept otherwise I would lose it. I wrote probably 35 songs for the record and it has only 12 on it. A lot of times just writing garbage helps the good stuff come out.

Photo By: Demi Demitro

TrunkSpace: Of those 35 songs that didn’t make the record, does that mean you’ll never want to revisit them or the same theme again?
Cook: Yeah, that’s correct. Once something’s kind of done, and you’ve kind of passed judgment on it, it feels kind of dirty to go back and do it again. I don’t even like playing songs from old records live anymore. You just kind of move on.

TrunkSpace: You guys got a lot of praise over the years, both critical and from the casual listener. Does that put pressure on you as a songwriter and as a band to deliver each time out?
Cook: Yeah, I would say so. I think that any artist who tells you that they don’t crave validation is a fucking liar. I mean, it matters. You can’t think about it too much during the process, but one always hopes that people will accept it with an open mind and enjoy it. I wouldn’t say it’s so much a part of the writing process, but definitely it’s part of sweating through your mattress at night while you’re waiting for it to come out.

TrunkSpace: You have done a slew of interviews since The Yawpers came together. What’s something you wish you were asked over that time, or an area of yourself or the band that you’d like to share that people don’t normally ask?
Cook: Honestly, I don’t know how to answer that question. We’ve been asked pretty much every question that there is under the sun, and I always do my best to answer them honestly. I feel like whatever people want to know they can know, but I don’t have anything specifically that I’ve been itching to share.

TrunkSpace: Do you wish people would focus on a particular area of the band more?
Cook: I think people have focused a lot on my writing, which is what I’m most proud of. I feel like that’s already kind of happened for us, so I’m pretty happy with where and how the attention’s been spent on us.

TrunkSpace: Tommy Stinson of The Replacements contributed to “Boy in a Well” on the production side of things. What was that experience like?
Cook: Tommy’s a cool guy. We actually got to go on tour with him after the album as well. He’s a great dude. Obviously I’ve been a Replacements fan since I could listen to music. Working with someone like that, just the league and… he was fucking awesome and really into the project. Yeah, I couldn’t have been happier with it, to be honest.

TrunkSpace: Did he offer any advice or did you absorb anything via osmosis in terms of career longevity?
Cook: I wish I could say we had the prescience to ask any of those questions, but we didn’t. I would say that just, osmosis is probably a good word for it, there’s kind of a collected-ness to an artist that’s been doing it that long that rubs off. I hope that we’ve somehow managed to glean some of that knowledge.

TrunkSpace: Everybody has bad days. As much as you love music, writing and recording is still work. When you’re having those bad days, is it easier to get over it when you’re like, “Tommy Stinson’s in the room!”?
Cook: Yeah. If Tommy Stinson and a bottle of whiskey are in the room, it’s usually gonna be okay.

TrunkSpace: Do you see yourself on a similar path as Tommy in terms of having a career as long and as fruitful he has had?
Cook: I would like to think so, as long as I don’t drink myself to death.

“Boy in a Well” is available August 18 on Bloodshot Records.

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