Jon Langford is a busy guy. These days he splits his time between his career as an artist, playing shows with his legendary punk band the Mekons, and various solo endeavors. But in Langford’s world there is always time for the Waco Brothers, the country-punk band he helped form over 20 years ago. Though Langford and his band mates have all grown up and maybe even settled down a bit over the years, when they hit the stage or the studio they can still tap into that unleashed intensity that has made the Waco Brothers a cult favorite and perhaps one of the greatest bar bands of all time. Anyone doubting this fact need look no further than their new album Going Down In History, which was just released on Bloodshot Records (REVIEW).
There’s been no shortage of output from the Wacos in recent years, with a 2008 live album, a collaboration with Paul Burch called Great Chicago Fire in 2012, and last year’s Cabaret Showtime, which featured a collection country covers. But Going Down In History stands apart from those releases because it’s the band’s first studio album of (mostly) original songs since 2005’s Freedom and Weep. The Wacos have always fallen below the radar of the mainstream press, but the new album even made Rolling Stone’s ’35 Most Anticipated Country Albums of 2016’ list. This is especially funny, because Going Down In History may be their least country album of all time. In fact, it’s safe to say it isn’t a country album at all. This time around the Wacos sought to capture the raw, charged, and always rowdy energy of their live performances. The result is what can only be described as a straight up rock and roll record, and a damn fine one at that. As is typical of a Waco Brothers album, Jon Langford split up the songwriting with co-frontman Deano Schlabowske and rounded out the ten songs with a cover of the Small Faces’ “All or Nothing”, a tribute to the late keyboardist Ian McLagan, and a Waco-fied rendition of Austin singer-songwriter Jon Dee Graham’s “Orphan Song”.
To celebrate the release of Going Down In History, the Waco Brothers will be barnstorming SXSW as they do every year and hitting the road for a brief tour in April. Recently, Jon Langford took some time away from his busy schedule to chat about the album, his friend Ian McLagan, painting on beer barrels, and more.
It’s been over 10 years since your last proper album. What brought you all back together for a studio album after all this time?
We were on a little bit of a cycle with the Wacos, I think, where we put out our first album in ’95 and we were pumping out one album every year and then touring off it. Each album we put out we thought was kind of better than the previous one and then it felt like [our last album] was not as [good] as the previous one [laughs]. Many people get bored when everything is the same, and that’s where we stopped for a bit.
Was there a phone call or something that set the wheels in motion for this, like how did you decide let’s do another album?
It was actually just a situation where we have a studio and an engineer that we really like working with and we just went for it. The idea was that the whole thing would be looser and less kind of like tight little songs aimed at trying to get on the radio. I think for the last album – Freedom And Weep – there were good songs on it and we actually spent a lot of time thinking about how they were produced, but it didn’t sound very much like the live band because it had acoustic guitars and keyboards and things like that. We were trying to make good songs, like a pop album. This one [is] just very much what the band sounds like. It came together very quickly, so I like that as well. We were talking [recently] and saying we could do a Waco Brothers album every couple of months [laughs] if there was the demand, but it probably wouldn’t be a very good idea.
How did the writing work for this album? Were these songs you and the band was kicking around for a while?
The only songs we were kicking around were the two covers we wanted to do. We decided we were going to do a Small Faces song (“All or Nothing”) because we were playing it in our live sets and we thought it belonged on the record. Then I was doing a little tour with Jon Dee Graham and I really liked the “Orphan Song” he does off his Garage Sale record. I thought that was a really great song and it sounded like the Waco Brothers. So we pinched that off of him. The rest came together in the studio. We had snippets of lyrics and then we started playing little basic chords and things, but it was more about the rhythm section and what they do. Alan [Doughty] and Joe [Camarillo] had a lot of input into the record. In the past we haven’t really let them, but when we do live gigs it’s quite explosive, so we wanted to capture a bit of that. There are four songs of mine, four songs of Dean’s, and three covers – that’s the record.
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After all of this time – I know you especially have so many different projects going on – is it easier to just go into the studio and get into a Waco Brothers mindset?
Yeah, I know what’s a Waco Brothers song and I write specifically [for that]. I’ve always had an idea in my head of what the Waco Brothers should be and could be. I’ve always wanted it to be a very unpretentious, Friday night rock band, but lyrically to be quite tough. I think this record deals with that quite nicely.
The album is called Going Down In History, and the idea of history, looking back, and change seems to a be a big focus of the songs. In your opinion is there one theme that sort of runs through the whole album?
I think Dean’s songs might be more personal, that’s always been the case, and maybe mine are more political. Yeah, I think it’s describing a kind of malaise, and they’re particularly about America. Going down in history, I think it could mean two things: the idea of going down in history means that you make your mark or it could mean that you disappear under the weight of history. I don’t want to explain the lyrics too much, but it seems like there’s a feeling in the land that maybe our institutions are kind of stretched to a breaking point and something’s gonna happen but we don’t quite know what it is. It’s odd. I was reading an article where somebody was describing how our situation now is similar to 1848, and I got quite interested in that idea, that it’s not necessarily about people fighting to change things, but things just structurally – you may not get exactly what you want. You know, you’ve got this Donald Trump phenomenon, people looking for something different, and unless you’re very careful, it might not be what you want. That’s kind of the theme certainly to my songs on the record, like sleepwalking into the abyss…with a good beat and noisy guitars [laughs].
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You have a Small Faces song on the album (“All or Nothing”) that’s dedicated to the late Ian McLagan and its placement is right in the middle of the album. Can you talk about what your relationship with Ian was like and what he meant to you as a musician?
I first met Ian through Billy Bragg and the Blokes because Lou from the Mekons was playing with the Blokes. So when they used to come to town we’d go out to dinner. Ian McLagan was just one of my absolute idols so it was just kind of amazing to me. We were listening to the radio in the car the other day and [the Faces’] “Stay With Me” came on and that’s one of the first records I ever bought, I guess it was 1972 or something like that. It’s still one of most amazing records, it’s nice to think about the first thing that ever got you excited about music. Ian’s keyboard part on that track is just phenomenal, it drives the whole thing along. I just always really loved the Faces and I didn’t know the Small Faces really until much later. But I knew Ian and I knew he’d moved to Austin. He was just someone I called every time I went down to Austin and we would hang out and do a lot of shows together with the Bump Band, the Wacos, and various events in Austin. It was just very sad when he died suddenly. We were already dedicating a song to him before he died. When the Small Faces went into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame we used that song to kind of talk about Ian. He was a very interesting character, like he was a big rock star but he had no filters whatsoever. What you saw was what you got with Ian.
It almost seems like a more fitting tribute now in the wake of so many rock stars passing away recently.
Yeah, I think the song is really tough as well. Dean sings it with some conviction.
It seems like this album is favoring a more straight up rock and roll sound over the country rock vibe that you guys are known for. Was that intentional?
No, I just think ever since the Waco World album basically it’s been far less country rock than people say it is. [The new album] was in the Rolling Stone 35 most anticipated country albums of 2016, and that was very nice and flattering, but I really doubt if any Travis Tritt fans will go and buy it and be very happy.
Your label, Bloodshot, recently had a beer released and you designed the cask art. How did that come about?
It came out of the whiskey thing. Lagunitas actually sponsored the Mekons’ Scottish tour we did in 2014, so we have various things where we’ve worked together. They do the Hideout party and they always do the Yard Dog SXSW party. I guess when the beer is good, the best way of advertising it is to sort of give it away. They’re very generous with the beer. They’re a presence in Chicago now and it seemed like a good idea when Bloodshot mentioned it. It wasn’t a problem for me to paint on the front of a barrel, it seemed like it would be fun.
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Not many artists get the chance to paint on the side of a beer barrel.
I did it at the brewery. They said they could deliver the barrel to my painting studio but it seemed like a bit of a cop-out. They wanted some guys to film me painting it as well, so they did a little time lapse, most of which is boring because I paint in little spurts so I have to wait for things to dry. I was down at the brewery for three days, and it was quite nice. There was plenty to do when I wasn’t painting [laughs].
Hopefully they kept you nicely imbibed.
Yeah, very generous. I painted it in the taproom so all of the tours were coming by, so people would ask questions. It was fun to paint it in the brewery.
What do you have going on with your artwork these days, is there anything big coming up?
Actually, the artwork’s been taking up most of the time. I was an artist in residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame in September 2015 and I made a bunch of art with Hatch Show Prints. I contributed to their exhibition about Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, which was nice. Basically it’s like the paintings are sort of the day job, but the music has been great as well.
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Cover photo: Paul Beaty