Interview with "Revenge of the Mekons" Director Joe Angio: A Slow Burning Virus of Success
The Mekons, an intercontinental, socialist-minded collective of 8 musicians and many alumnae, have been manifesting themselves in recordings and incomparable live shows since 1977 when they emerged as punk- rocking art students from Leeds, UK responding to The Clash's clarion call for riot and revolution. Over the years since, they have championed Rock Against Racism and other noble causes, but defied any easy categorization as their music morphed through rock, traditional folk and deeply into a unique form of alt.country (whatever that is)--often during the same show! The Mekons fans, who include Greil Marcus and other luminaries, are devoted and, uh, fanatical, yet the band has never achieved superstar status on either side of the Atlantic. They are currently on a club tour of the USA. Meanwhile, with the US theater release this month of director Joe Angio's documentary about the band, "Revenge of the Mekons", they are poised to touch the ears and minds and hearts of Americans, especially those who may not yet have heard of them. The film will screen May 19, 20, 21 at The Guild Cinema, Albuquerque, NM.
I spoke with Joe Angio by phone on May 13, 2015.
Bill Nevins: The film premiered in a New York festival about a year ago and it's going out over the country now. Why did you make a film about The Mekons?
Joe Angio: Well, of course I'm a fan of the band for starters, and I have all their cds! But I didn't want to fall prey to that music documentary cliche, "this is the greatest band you've never heard of", even though I think the Mekons are criminally under recognized. But the thing that interested me most about their wide ranging story was the fact that they have stayed together all these years--38 years--but without having achieved any conventional success, other than a few very brief periods in the early 80s and late 90s when they were on Virgin and then A & M. They have never lived off income from the band, and they each have had to do other things to keep this thing going. The question that intrigued me was how do you keep going, especially given the obstacles they've had--being dropped by major labels, the fact that there's eight of them, that they live on three continents scattered across the globe. With challenges that would have done in not just most other bands, but any other band, the question is not just how do they keep going, but why do they bother? They haven't had any so-called success, so what is it that they're after that other bands don't seem to want or even recognize?
So it must be something else than the usual perks? Honestly, I don't know many other Mekons fans out here in New Mexico, though I am one! Their fan base is a strong cult, but they've never had a broad base of support.
Yes, I tell you, Bill, while I was shooting the film over three or four years, anyone I ever mentioned the band to, it was kind of that reaction--either a blank face or "oh my god, it's about time!". I don't know of another band that's been around this long that has enjoyed almost universal critical acclaim yet people just don't know about them. Even though every critic loves this band. It's very strange.
Well, everybody who listens to rock at all, I'm sure is familiar with The Clash, and here's a band that started about the same time as The Clash but is notable for one thing because, they're still here! Do you think their politics is a reason for them not being so well known?
Well, the Clash and the the Gang of Four wore their politics on their sleeves, maybe it's because the Mekons were a little trickier with it. Their songs inhabited characters as opposed to making proclamations. I think it's more that they've been so restless. I mean the Clash did a lot in terms of exploring genres, but not to the extent that the Mekons did. And also, to be quite honest, that first record, even though "Never Been In a Riot" is pretty catchy, is not very accessible, there's not a lot of radio friendly songs on there. And as you know, they didn't really catch on here in the US until Fear and Whiskey, and that was only available as an import for the longest time. They didn't catch on until they sort of mutated and started exploring their take on what country music was, even though it's nothing like country and western music--that's when they for the first time started finding any kind of following in this country. And by then they were
largely being ignored back home in the UK!
And they live on different continents.
Yeah, that happened in the late '80s, early '90s. Lou spends the majority of his time in Siberia,where his partner lives, and I just learned that now he lives in Dubai as well. It's a major accomplishment for all of them to get under the same roof, in the same country, to write and record--which they are going to be doing again next month.
Is the band happy with the movie?
Yeah, the five who have seen it, like it, but I'm pretty sure the three UK based Mekons haven't seen it yet. It's going to open in the UK this August. I think there was some apprehension at first, but they were totally on board during the actual filming, that was never an issue. But in the gap between when I finished shooting and was raising money to finish it, I think that's when some questions started coming up from them--like, what's going on? They hadn't seen anything but a very rough cut two years earlier, and I think at first there was the shock of seeing thirty years of your life distilled down to ninety minutes, but it was the most bizarre post-screening Q & A I've ever experienced! You can see it up on YouTube. But the very next night, Jon and Eric and Suzy accompanied me down to a Wilmington North Carolina screening and it was different than the big NY screening, with lots of young people. And they then started to like it, and Sally has
done a 180 on it, and now really likes it.
How did you get the Mekons to just accept you as part of their life while you were filming -- like the way Dylan accepted Pennebaker filming him in Don't Look Back?
I didn't know them, but I do have two really good friends who are also friends with Jon and Rico, and so when I first reached out by email they responded, and so they came in trusting me, and it was only about two months later, in February 2008, when I started filming them. We filmed while they were doing the recording sessions that became their album Ancient and Modern. I was able to go into the house and studio with them right from the beginning, and I shot without lights and was pretty unobtrusive--that coupled with the fact that there's eight of them, and maybe I just got lost in the shuffle!
They thought you were a Mekon?
Maybe. I was able to capture a lot of unguarded moments that they didn't mind.
What would be your hopes for the impact of the film?
Well, I have to say the results so far have been more than gratifying. One of the faults of music documentaries is that they preach to the choir, you know? I wanted this film to transcend that genre. The reaction we've been getting from a lot of people is how inspiring it is. Both the Mekons as individuals, but also as artists. They're defining success in a different way. What's been gratifying is that people who had never or hardly ever heard of the Mekons are coming away really jazzed by the film. Their fans are so devoted to the cause. We had thought that the major release of this film would be when the dvd comes out this July, and we would just have a few theatrical screenings, but now we are up to thirty screenings across the country and more keep being added. So the reaction by those who have seen it has been beyond my wildest imagination, and now the target is to attract people who are not yet fans to see it, and that's where good press and good reviews of the film are really helping. It's not wildfire, but sort of a slow burning virus.
We will see it next week at The Guild Cinema here, and let's hope for a sell out each night! You have made earlier films, including a great one about Melvin Van Peeples. Have you got any other films in the planning stage now.
I am kicking the tires on a few projects but this is keeping me busy so far. Like the Mekons, I always have to work to support my habit, you know, and I like to see one project through before I start the next one. This is going fine so far.