The Mekons take a desert trip
The Mekons are no strangers to Situationist record making. On 2007’s Natural, the band unplugged to evoke an English countryside vibe. For their 2016 album Existential, they recorded their new material live onstage into a single microphone. Now Deserted finds the band experimenting with psychogeography, letting an unusual setting influence not only the songs but the very act of recording.
The Mekons trucked into the high desert of Joshua Tree with no completed material and the avowed intention of making a new album in three days. Aside from a few finishing touches added later, the mission was accomplished. Deserted is an album full of wide-open spaces where all manner of mavericks run free, from gunrunning poet Arthur Rimbaud (“Harar 1883”) to the seemingly delusional “Lawrence of California.”
Steve Goulding has spent the last three-and-a-half decades hitting things with wooden sticks for The Mekons. But even for him, this desert trip felt like a tumble into some uncharted territory.
What made the band decide to go into the desert with no finished songs to make an album?
We usually go into any given recording situation with only a skeletal idea of what the songs will be. We have a kind of basic concept for what we would like to happen. This time I think it was just because there was the opportunity, because Dave [Trumfio, Mekons bassist] had this part ownership in Gatos Trail recording studio with Daniel Joeright. And we had a gap of a couple of days between gigs, and so we kind of went for it. It’s like a marriage of convenience and necessity and cheapness.
When did the sessions take place?
It was two years ago. We were recording in the day and then we’d watch the debates with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and sit yelling at the TV drunkenly. And then last year we did some more recording in Chicago and L.A.
How did you piece together the songs?
I think because we were already on tour we were already in that sort of playing mode, so that was quite good. And I think Jon and Tom had ideas for some of the songs already but then you’d sit around and, “What’s another word for German?” “I don’t know, Weimar.” “An old vending machine, what would you call that?” “Weimar vending machine.” [One of the album’s song titles] So it’s that kind of thing, everybody that’s got an idea can chip in.
Did some of the tunes come out of jamming?
We don’t really jam that much. We kind of plug away at something until it sounds good. With something like “In the Desert,” originally that was a lot faster, we eventually slowed it down, that wasn’t finished until last year. There wasn’t really a proper vocal line to it, and we started playing around and doing a minor-key vocal, like Skip James meets Robert Wyatt meets Tiny Tim. “Mirage” was more like a jam, I started playing some ridiculous snare drum roll instead of keeping a beat, and it just kind of worked out. Either it works or it doesn’t. With “Harar 1883,” we just kind of sat down and jammed that. That was not completely written at all. I think Tom had the idea for the vocal line, because that was what I was playing to on the drums.
Did you have any particular rhythmic approach in mind?
A lot of what I had in mind was a Can kind of feel. Much more like a linear kind of thing, more repetitive, like a weird, muted sort of clockwork feel. Some of them sound like that.
What do you feel you gained by recording out there?
If we had recorded it in Chicago I don’t think we would have made the same album at all. Because lyrically it’s much more affected by the desert and that very barren kind of landscape. It’s weird when you’re in the desert because you’re very constricted. You get up in the morning because it’s cool, and then when it’s like one or two in the afternoon it gets really fucking hot and nobody feels like doing anything, so everybody kind of drifts off. Then in the evening it gets a bit cooler and you start up again. Every day has its rhythm and you can’t really help but respond to that.
And of course there’s desert imagery in a bunch of the lyrics too.
We were in the desert and people are very easily suggestible. “I’ve written this song all about the desert, I don’t know why.” Because you’re in the fucking desert, you moron! [Laughs]
Who is Lawrence of California?
Some guy driving around in a crappy old van. Some completely delusional person. You can imagine somebody being like that. There’s probably quite a few people like that. [Sarcastically] We are all Lawrence of California! [Laughs] We wanted it to sound kind of Jean Genie-ish, like T. Rex doing R&B kind of thing.
There’s a very Gang of Four-like feel to “Mirage,” was that intentional?
It’s basically like a little sort of dig. “Okay, play guitar like [Go4 guitarist] Andy Gill!” [Imitates harsh clanking noise] It’s the sort of thing that would probably really irritate him. I think that’s probably why we did it [laughs].
What other memories do you have from your time in the desert?
It was very uncomfortable sleeping in that caravan [trailer] that’s on the front cover! I think I slept in it for one night, and there were coyotes howling through the window, and I was like, “Fuck this!” And I went and slept in the studio instead.