The Mekons: Live (at the Middle East/38 Artspace) and On Film at the Brattle Theatre: A Talk with Director Joe Angio

The documentary about the punk/alt-country faves the Mekons, “Revenge of the Mekons,” makes its area debut Friday July 17 and Saturday July 18 at the Brattle Theatre, each night at 9:30. I interviewed director Joe Angio, former editor of Time Out New York, and a bit of that interview is in the Mekons gig-and-movie preview linked here for WBUR’s ARTery http://artery.wbur.org/2015/07/14/mekons. But we talked loads more about the band and the film that there wasn’t room for in that piece – being it was Sally Timms and Jon Langford, from the band and concerned their July 25 gig at the Middle East Upstairs (soldout) and one in Portsmouth, NH at 38 Artspace on July 24.

Whether you can make a Mekons gig or not, you shouldn’t have trouble getting into the film. Here’s how Angio went about the process:

JSInk: Can I ask you about your film/media background, or, what led up to the making of “Revenge of the Mekons”?

I’m basically a self-taught filmmaker, though I studied broadcast communications in college and spent ten years in various TV production jobs, primarily as an associate producer for live telecasts of Chicago Bulls, White Sox and Blackhawks games. So making films wasn’t completely out of left field. Then, after I moved to NYC, I fell into magazine publishing, eventually leading to Time Out New York, which I was the executive editor/editor-in-chief of for close to eight years.

But my filmmaking bridges the TV and magazine work. This is my fourth film—all documentaries—and my second feature-length film. The previous one, “How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It),” is a film on Melvin Van Peebles—which, incidentally, is being re-released by Music Box Films, the distributor of “Revenge of the Mekons.”

Why “Revenge of the Mekons”? What was your attitude going in? And going out? What did you learn about them that you didn’t know?

Well, I’m a fan of the band, for starters. But I also knew they had a story, one that hasn’t been told in any other music/art documentaries. And, for me, that story was not necessarily one of perseverance—many bands have persevered for as long and longer as they have—but, really, why they’ve BOTHERED to keep going! When you consider all the factors—eight members scattered across three continents (and 3,000 miles in the U.S. alone), and having never achieved success (as defined by any conventional understanding of “success”)—what is it that keeps this band going? Why do they continue to do it?

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Hk_c6e7gv0

So that was the primary question driving the film, but back to their story, it’s one that’s doesn’t lend itself to a succinct, linear telling: the loose shifting lineup of the early “collective,” the  constant and ongoing evolution of the band’s sound, the forays into the far reaches of the art world—individually, collectively, and collaboratively with others—fascinated me. And so while I knew it wouldn’t be a standard “behind the music” style music doc—which, I should mention, wouldn’t interest me in the least—I knew there was a rich story lurking in there. It was just a matter of teasing it out and telling it coherently.

I don’t know that I had any particular attitude going in that’s different than any other film I made. I like to use the shooting process as my research. Obviously, I knew a lot of things about the band going in, but I feel like if I’m learning something as I go along that will help the audience learn as well. I’d say the biggest revelation to me was the early Leeds years. I come on board as a fan relatively late—a friend introduced me to them in the early ’90s—so by then they were already around for 15 years. But those early albums were unavailable—or, at least, very difficult to find—in the U.S. So I was really interested to learn the stories surrounding their formation and the socio-political current they were swimming in, particularly in Leeds and the north of England. We had an early cut of the film where we were 75 minutes in and still hadn’t left Leeds! So, obviously, we had to cut a lot of that out. But that was the biggest revelation to me.

How long did the movie take to make? How did you acquire the archival footage? Was that a difficult process?

I started shooting in February 2008—only a few months after approaching the band with the idea—and the world premiere was at the DOC NYC festival in November 2013. But there was some downtime in there when I was trying to raise more money to continue and, then, to finish. The bulk of the shooting was from 2008–2010. We edited most of 2010. And 2011 was spent fine-tuning and finding the money to finish it.

The archival footage comes from various sources—some came from band members (Jon and Sally had really good material), others from friends of the band that they introduced me to. The contextual, socio-political shots come from archival agencies. All in all, it wasn’t difficult acquiring the footage, just time-consuming.

The irony is noted throughout: That this has a band that has stayed together, shifting shape, shifting sound – its players spread out all over the world – that is still intact, still playing. What do you think accounts for the success – not in commercial terms of course – and their perseverance?

Well, Sally makes the crack early in the film, when a radio interviewer asks the same question, that their lack of success has kept them together. And while she’s being mildly facetious, there is probably some truth to that. But I also think two other factors contribute to it: One is that they truly are committed to the ideals and values they believed in when they started the band in 1977—which is especially notable when you consider that 5 of the current members of the band joined around 1985 also share those values. I think they made peace with the fact long ago that they would never make a living from the band and would have to find other means to support themselves, but that the benefits they receive from the band transcend financial rewards. And that’s much more than just “art for art’s sake” when you consider this is affecting eight lives—not just a solitary artist. The second factor—and it probably can’t be overstated—is that they all truly like each other and enjoy one another’s company. So when they do get together—certainly less frequently now that many of them are raising families and have full-time jobs to contend with—they do so eagerly and with great joy.

And I suppose there’s irony in your making the film, too. Mekons have a small, dedicated audience (with lots of critics like me in it) but not a wide audience, so by definition your film is sort of narrow-focused that way? You obviously considered that before embarking on the journey. Thoughts?

I have to admit that I gave this little thought when I started the project. I never set out to make a film for the die-hard cult of Mekons fans. They know the story. I really believed that if I could make a film that emphasized the journey and the process and the commitment to their ideals it would transcend the typical music documentary—many of which, I feel, do preach only to the choir.

However, that said, I did wrestle with including the clip in which Ed Roche, from Touch and Go Records, admits that a “good selling Mekons record sells only 8,000 copies.” That the number was so low surprised me, and the producer in me wondered if I was shooting myself in the foot by revealing that—any distributor watching would immediately say, “Interesting story. We’ll pass, thank you”! But ultimately, I thought it was too telling of a statement—and speaks volumes about the band and their commitment—to leave out. Luckily, it didn’t deter Music Box Films from releasing the film!

There’s a great balance in the film, from the early we-don’t-know-what-we’re-doing-days to that pivotal “Fear and Whiskey” album – they’ve practically invented a genre, drawing upon old classic American country! What is it you dig about that sound?

Well, I come in around 1992. A friend made me a tape of “Mekons Rock’n’Roll” and “The Curse of the Mekons.” So then I did what any music fan does when he or she hears something “new” that they like: you start exploring. And what struck me initially was not only how different “Rock’n’Roll” was from “The Curse,” but also how different those records were from the ones that preceded it! So “Fear and Whiskey” wasn’t the linchpin for me; I came to appreciate it later. This is heresy to many Mekons fans but  I prefer other records to that. But don’t ask me to start ordering and explaining because it’s constantly shifting—just like the band itself!

I wrote this once: “The Mekons are a boys-and-girls/brothers-and-sisters rock ‘n’ roll gang — maybe they’re the romantic “last gang in town” the Clash once trumpeted in song. … Maybe, after all is said and done, what Mekons do best is come the closest to achieving rock ‘n’ roll’s grandest illusion: That band and crowd are one, united in anger and joy, sweat and tears, sincerity and goofiness.” Tom told me this in 1994:”It’s a deliberate thing from the early days, the old punk rock days, that there should be as little division as possible between audience and band. That happens less and less these days; {rock has} become more of a passing, spectator thing.”

 You explore this very much in the film: Your take on their spontaneous magic on stage?

Well, it’s hard for me to better exactly what you wrote! I will say that seeing them live — probably within a year of being introduced to their music — sealed the deal for me. There’s really nothing  like the dynamic of a live Mekons show—both on stage among the members of the band and, as you say, between them and the audience. It becomes a feedback loop and the energy is infectious.

One of the biggest revelations I had while shooting the film — and I have to say, the happiest — was witnessing the on-stage banter night after night. It truly is spontaneous. As anyone who has seen the band live knows, a Mekons gig is akin to inspired improv comedy. Yet even I was surprised to learn the degree to which this was true, which I could only appreciate by seeing them on tour, night after night. They don’t repeat jokes or have any “go to” canned laugh lines. It was really amazing. And eye-opening.

Anything you’d like to add about the doc or the Mekons 2015?

Not really. The fact that it has enjoyed this steady, months-long theatrical rollout has been beyond my wildest imagination. Music Box Films always felt this film was about the DVD/VOD release (July 28), and I would’ve been thrilled if the film opened theatrically in a half-dozen Mekons-friendly cities. But I think we’re up to 35 now! And, as you know, the band is doing something quite interesting for their next album, which they’re recording live in Brooklyn in July, right before the Boston show, which shows that they’re still moving forward (in this case, by going backward with the old-time recording method), still evolving. Which, of course, doesn’t surprise anyone who follows them.

Film: 40 Brattle St., Cambridge, 617-876-6837 www.brattlefilm.org 

Mekons sold out in Cambridge, July 25 at the Middle Up. ln NH at 38 Artspace July 24mekons http://www.3sarts.org/performances/performance/The-Mekons-w–Johnny-Dowd?performanceid=1015

 

 

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