Revenge of the Mekons
An interview with Joe Angio, Marquette grad and director of a new film about the British cult band The Mekons.
Leeds University in the mid ‘70s had the highest student population in England and was a hotbed of leftist thought. In the Art Department of this radical northern school a band of misfits, most of whom could hardly play an instrument, formed a punk band called The Mekons. Almost four decades later their longevity and critical acclaim is a testament to the power of putting ideals above individuals, taking risks and eschewing the pursuit of fame and fortune.
Director Joe Angio spent three years (or so) with the modern incarnation of the cult folk rock band, whose members reside on various continents. The genealogy of the group is told through a wide range of archival footage, photographs and interviews with current and former members of The Mekons. Renowned writers, critics and radio hosts praise the work ethic and fortitude of a band who survived two major label collapses. My favorite quote in the film is delivered by best-selling novelist Jonathan Franzen:
“If you feel like the inheritor of a very embattled critical stance, while the rest of the world is going over to the dark side, this band is for you. And I say that not because they give you hope of ever winning the battle, but they teach you how to be gracious and amusing losers.”
To learn more about the making of Revenge of the Mekons, I sat down with director Joe Angio, who will be presenting the film on Tuesday at 4:30p.m. at the Times Cinema. Angio, who majored in Broadcast Communications at Marquette University, began his career in live sports television in Chicago before moving to New York City and working in the magazine industry. While in Chicago Angio had access to production equipment and made a couple films with friends, but his career as a documentarian took off with a 2005 film about Melvin Van Peebles.
After two potential projects fell through (one about the band Yo La Tengo, another about a Swiss policeman who became a prominent photographer), Angio pored over his wall of alphabetized music. When he came across The Mekons, he instantly knew their story would be worth telling on the big screen.
How did you discover the band?
After I moved to New York I had a colleague who turned me on to The Mekons in ‘92-’93. At that point, they’re already 14 years old, but like any music fan, I went backward. So I knew the story from when they came to America in the mid ‘80s, but that early stuff in Leeds was new to me; I learned all of that in the process of making this film.
I should mention that I don’t do a lot of front end research. My technique is to use the filming as research. That way you can get a fresher, more spontaneous reaction. It’s also interesting to note this film was made during a time when the Internet became more sophisticated, making it easier to find more and more information on somewhat obscure subjects. So I didn’t feel the need to cram so much information into the film, leaving a sense of discovery for viewers who become interested in the band.
How much time did you spend with The Mekons?
It started in 2008 and I went on a tour and sat in on two recording sessions, and also split off and got footage of them as individuals. The first group shoot was the writing session at the house. They had such sophisticated recording equipment there that once they were in the recording studio in Wales a year later, they really only refined the songs. A lot of the original tracks from the year before stayed intact.
When they’re together as a band it’s a very concentrated time; they’re very focused on what they’re doing. Many of them have small kids now and they are busy, but they’ve been good at structuring the kind of work they do around keeping The Mekons together. In very rare instances have they been able to live off the band, yet they’ve stayed together. Bad luck has befell them a number of times, to the point where most bands would have packed it up. So I wanted to know why they bother continuing.
What was your crew like?
You’re looking at it. Just me.
I remember a few instances during the recording session in the house when there were a couple different angles of the same shot.
I want to call my editor [Jane Rizzo] right now and tell her what a great job she did. Granted, some of the live shows did have two cameras. But all that stuff in the house was just me. And I’ll be honest, I thought that session was going to be a fact finding mission for me, but it ended up being the backbone of the film. It’s my favorite part.
How does the band feel about the final cut?
The world premiere was at the DOC NYC Festival last November and five of the members were there. They were in the first row and had been out drinking all day. There was a Q&A afterward and I think they were still processing the film. Imagine 37 years of your life, for some of them only 30, but still, to have that compressed into a 95 minute film, and then to have to go up 5 minutes later and talk about it?
Here in Milwaukee on Saturday night Sally Timms came up to me afterward and said that she really liked the film, and I’ve never heard her say that. Jon Langford’s wife pulled me aside on Sunday morning and told me, “Everytime he sees it, he sees different choices you made and why you made them, and he thinks it’s a really good film.” I didn’t make the film for the band, but obviously you want them to support it. So it’s really gratifying to hear that.
Revenge of the Mekons screens today at the Times Cinema at 4:30p.m. with director Joe Angio in attendance.