Country-punk godfather Jon Langford has been working at the intersection of music and visual art for decades, but his latest work brings them together more directly than ever before.
“Here Be Monsters” (In De Goot Records), his new album as Jon Langford and Skull Orchard, is a multimedia work with paintings representing all 10 songs. The paintings will be on display Friday night at Raleigh’s Contemporary Arts Museum, where Langford will perform.
“It’s all from the same part of me brain, unfortunately,” Langford quipped in his Welsh drawl. “I was working on an album at the same time I was working on a box of prints with a theme of alternative star maps – putting strange things in place of the traditional astrological signs – and songs and images started to merge. It became apparent that some of these songs were quite visual, so I decided to do a painting for each one.”
Langford was an artist before he became one of the overlords of old-school British punk with the Mekons. He was a first-year art student at the University of Leeds in 1976 when the Sex Pistols and The Clash emerged. Like many young people of his time and place, Langford had to join in.
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“The punk explosion was pretty seismic in the U.K.,” he said. “It’s a quite-small country with only a few papers and TV channels, and everybody was aware of punk and what it meant – although it meant very different things to us, a bunch of 19-year-old art students, then it did to our parents. It was a complete affront to them, the ultimate generational schism. So I rejected what I’d been doing in college to play music instead.”
In Langford’s own estimation, the Mekons’ original incarnation was “horrible because we didn’t know what we were doing.” The band fell apart after a few records, and a chastened Langford returned to school. But a funny thing had happened during Langford’s absence, in that his teachers had figured out that the punk movement had great cultural significance.
“They realized we weren’t just lazy bastards driving around playing loud music,” he said. “We’d done something cool. So my teachers were terribly impressed that I’d been out in the real world doing something. I came back the conquering hero, got my degree, then got into another band, dove headlong into that and stopped painting for about 15 years.”
‘Making art all day’
The 1980s version of the Mekons was considerably more accomplished and made a masterpiece album with 1985’s “Fear and Whiskey,” a landmark in the fusion of British punk with American roots and country music. Langford has continued in a rootsy vein in the years since, doing everything from backing up Aboriginal Australian country singers to recording tribute albums to Johnny Cash and Bob Wills.
After relocating from England to Chicago in the early 1990s, Langford also resumed painting. His best-known works are weathered-looking portraits of venerated musical figures like Wills, Cash and Hank Williams, in a cartoonish style that looks like an outsider-art take on Mexican folk art.
Early on, one of Langford’s buyers was Jefferson Holt, former manager of the wildly successful Georgia band R.E.M. Holt is also an art collector, and he likens Langford’s paintings to the work of Nick Tosches, an author renowned for his biographies of thorny characters like Jerry Lee Lewis, boxer Sonny Liston and organized-crime figurehead Arnold Rothstein.
“What I like about Tosches’ writing is that it just cuts through the surface to get to the sticky, gooey, maybe-not-so-pleasant side of things,” Holt said. “I love the same thing in Jon’s paintings of our musical touchstones. They’re so iconic, but they give that feeling of seeing through the surface to the darkness underneath.”
Langford takes a very workmanlike approach to his art. When he’s not on the road, every morning begins with a cup of coffee and a trip to his studio.
“Making art all day is one of my favorite things,” Langford said. “People ask about inspiration, but that’s not my problem. I’m always trying to catch up, find the time. I’m always working, I don’t sit around looking out the window and waiting on ideas. There’s a lot to get done and I’m a working man, y’know? Time passes fast when I’m working. I get lost in it.”
For “Here Be Monsters” – named in honor of the off-the-edges expanses of medieval maps, where fell creatures were said to lurk – some of the associations between each song and its visualization are obvious. In particular, “Drone Operator” shows the silhouette of a shadowy figure seated at a computer, dealing death from a distance.
But most of the album’s song visualizations are more subtle, with political implications less directly stated. Randy Franklin, who has been showing and selling Langford’s work since the mid-1990s in his Yard Dog art gallery in Austin, Texas, cites that as one of his favorite aspects of Langford’s art.
“It’s very political, but he doesn’t hit you over the head with it,” Franklin said. “With both his music and his art, you usually have to read between the lines. He did a series of CDs for the anti-death-penalty movement a few years ago, and instead of songs being opposed to the death penalty, it was almost all hillbilly murder ballads about the kind of people who end up on death row.”
That said, Langford is quite upfront about his agenda on “Here Be Monsters.” In particular, the gospel-styled war-profiteering critique “What Did You Do in the War” asks, “Did you make more money than ever before?” As a European citizen who has lived in America for more than two decades, Langford figures he’s got just enough distance to have some perspective on American politics.
“I’m still an E.U. citizen with a resident-alien card, which I suppose gives me the right to abduct and probe whenever I like,” he said. “I do feel like an alien most days, but there’s no other place I want to go. I love Chicago and so much of America is fantastic, so many amazing great things have happened here. But like everywhere, it’s a battle between extremes now. So the political stuff always seems to creep in.”