An Interview with Sally Timms

The Mekons have a strong new album, Ancient and Modern, and the band plays Tuesday (Oct. 4) at Evanston SPACE and Wednesday (Oct. 5) at Lincoln Hall. I interviewed Sally Timms of the Mekons a couple of weeks ago for an article in Pioneer Press. Here’s a longer transcript of my conversation with Timms.

Q: Let’s talk about the new album.

A: OK. I wish you were getting one of the more intellectual members, but I’ll try my best.

Q: Why don’t you just tell me how this particular record came together, what the process was like?

A: As far as the original concept — generally, that’s how it starts, with all the records. The concept begins. And that begins in different ways. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m behind the different ideas for that. But they kind of come out of the ether. We end up talking about similar things. And I think this is really Jon and Tom talking about … there was the idea that the generation that served in the First World War were dying off, the last British serviceman died last year, I think, who served in the First World War, Harry Patch. And so I think these conversations had been happening because there was a lot of run-up to this 100-year period. And then looking at the similarities of what was happening then and what is happening now. … The Edwardian period was considered very shallow. In a lot of ways, it was frivolous and consumerist. Then there were these changing ideas that were fomenting underneath it. And you can definitely see similarities with things that are happening now. It was a kind of almost superficially comfortable lifestyle, but underneath it there are plenty of cracks and things were degenerating. It came out of those ideas — that the modern world was beginning and now we’re sitting, almost looking at, weirdly enough, the tail end of the modern world. Space travel is finished.

Q: We’re having trouble sending someone up to the space station.

A: Right. Are we really dreaming those ideas any longer? There was, through that whole post-Second World War period, a kind of optimism that I would say is, definitely in the West, disintegrated. And being led to wars that are basically wars about money and not about morals. And just the world disparities. Who’s controlling what. And yet, we kind of think it’s OK, until it suddenly hits us, and then it’s not. So I think those ideas were coming a lot to the surface with them.

Q: So are the Mekons just sitting around one night and this is the topic of conversation and you say, “Let’s do an album about this?”

A: (Laughs.) No. It doesn’t really, to be honest with you. I’d say it almost a little backwards. There are people who deal with ideas, and there are people who deal with playing, and a mishmash in between. So, I’d say what we do is we decide to make a record and we book time to do it in different places. And then people will come with these — Jon will come in with books. Tom will come in with ideas. Lu will come in with some stuff. And people will bring in a variety of different snippets of ideas. And what happens over the course of recording and writing is those ideas would coalesce. I’d say maybe someone had a title to begin with. I doubt it. I doubt if anyone really thinks that what it’s going to be. I mean, you know how it works. There’s little things knocking around, people are kind of formulating, and as everything develops, you kind of go: ‘Oh, this is it. This is what it means.’ But at the time, I don’t know if it was as coherent as that. So what happens is people get together with books and ideas. We all get together in one place. We don’t really write songs separately. That doesn’t happen. No one comes in with a finished song. No one really walking in with finished lyrics. It’s very unusual. I can’t even think of an instance in which that happened. So, basically, with the Mekons, we always make the rule, somewhat a little unspoken, that we do the work when we’re together. And that is block books. And obviously, we live on different continents. Half the band are in the U.K. and half are in the U.S. So what we have to do is make time. And we booked a house about half a mile from Tom’s place in Devon, which is extremely rural anyway, in the middle of nowhere. We found this large rental house and we all moved in there with recording equipment. And then he would come at night after work, because he has a day job and four kids. We would get together and we started formulating the songs at that point. Some of them, actually, in the space of three or four days, final vocals were done on them. Others were completely torn up and rewritten. And then we booked another chunk of time in a Welsh residential studio. And we did the majority of the rest of it there. And then Lu took it away and did tons and tons of stuff on ProTools. He added a lot of elements to it like the fall-apart bit in the middle of “I Fall Asleep.” He did all that himself. So, it came together in different stages.

Q: In one of the interviews I read that Jon gave, I think he said the house near Tom’s place had pictures of nude ladies on the wall?

A: It looks like something out of Lord of the Rings. It’s a thatched cottage nestled against a giant cliff by a tiny river, just over a stone bridge. It’s a very odd little home. It’s beautiful, but it’s completely — well, there are a couple of neighbors, but it’s sort of in the middle of nowhere.

Q: So is there any truth to the story that you came downstairs awakened by Tom doing some recording in the middle of the night?

A: Yeah, there was a tendency to run late. But it might have been slightly exaggerated, because I go to bed at 9 o’clock, so it might have just been 11:30. (Laughs.) That’s the middle of the night for me.

Q: I believe you told me once that you see your part in this process as an editor of sorts?

A: Yeah, I’m a good editor. I wouldn’t say I’m a good starter. I don’t find it easy to write songs myself. But what I think I’m good at is looking at the overview and the shape of things. I’m good at sequencing. So I think what I’m good at is when something is done, I can very much help it be finished. I think I’ve probably got a good critical eye. So that is a role I have. I also have the role of doing all the shit jobs that no one else wants to do, like … booking bands and making sure that they all get on the flight. So I play a sort of servant role, with occasional intellectual pluses. But then, I’m in a bad mood about this today.

Q: You sing lead vocals on three songs on the album. Should someone listening to the album think those are the songs you had more of a role in writing?

A: No, it doesn’t work that way. I mean, literally, we all — I wouldn’t say I do much lyric writing. Very occasionally. Melodies and maybe some ideas for arrangements. I don’t even read into the different songs being different band members’ personalities or commentaries.

Q: How would you describe the sound of this record and where it fits in with other Mekons records?

A: People say this to me a lot: ‘All the records sound different.’ But to me, they sound the same, because it’s the same instrumentation going on. Some are quieter, some are louder. I suppose a record like Me doesn’t sound like other things we’ve done, but even that, I would say, does. … The closest record, I would say it sounds like, which is one of my favorite Mekons records, is Curse of the Mekons. And I think there’s a lot of elements in that, there’s a lot of spaciousness and then there’s these odd little rock tunes occasionally. So it’s got those elements in it. But there are definitely parts of it that sound like Natural. To me, I don’t see them sounding that different. But I suppose, thematically, I can see why people would think that. Because they are called certain things and the sound is a certain sound. But I think we were moving away from recording another — we were almost starting to do another Natural because we were recording once again in a rural environment without a full studio setup, so the inclination was to make it a little more acoustic. And suddenly, we were like, ‘No, we can’t make another record like that. Let’s make it more rocking, man.’ So there’s a bit of both there. But I would say it’s got an airy spaciousness to some of it. ‘Warm Summer Sun’ definitely reminds me of something that might have been on Curse, or even earlier Mekons records. I think that almost sounds like an odd, spacey experimental kind of punk song, from that period. That’s kind of what it reminds me of. Or even going back earlier.

Q: Ian Caple worked on the record, and he’s been on previous records?

A: He worked on Natural as well. He’s a very easy person to work with. He seems to understand the Mekons’ sound, and he’s also very good at dealing with the fact that we’re bringing in stuff that’s been recorded in a lot of different places. So it needs to be someone who’s a pretty good technician who can knock that into some kind of cohesiveness, because it can tend to sound different if it’s done in different rooms. So he’s very, very good at that. And he likes us and doesn’t charge us a load of money, so good for him all around.

Q: So you’ve got the tour coming up, including the show in Evanston—

A: Yeah, that’s a weird one. We’re doing a slide show.

Q: Describe what that’s going to be all about.

A: Peter suggested it, he does Pecha Kucha — I can never say it right — night at Martyrs’, and he said, ‘The band should just do their own Pecha Kucha.’ And so we decided to call it Meka Kecha. And I didn’t really know if everyone would get their slides together, but it looks like they’ve all been very active. Eric is going to talk about various breeds of pigs, real and imagined. I don’t know if you know this, but he used to do all of these odd paintings, based on 16th century paintings of pigs and barnyard animals and sell those for quite a lot of money. So he’s going to show slides of those and his own imagined breeds of pigs and then real pigs. He’s not going to bring any real pigs. And then Lu’s idea, I can’t even remember it, because it was so odd. But I’m sure his will be fantastic. So I’m curious to see what people come up with.

Q: What’s your slide show going to be about?

A: The problem is, I actually haven’t prepared mine yet, because I thought, ‘Oh, everybody’s going to do one,’ and so we were worried about time limitations, and so I thought, ‘I won’t bother.’ But now I realize I have to, so I don’t know. Last time I did it, I did it about Yorkshire — a pretend walk around a part of Yorkshire that I came from. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll keep it in that theme. I haven’t quite worked it out. But I don’t think people will talk about the band. I think it’ll be interesting because nobody’s interested in just talking about music, and they all have very different interests. So I’m curious. And then Joe Angio, who’s making the Revenge of the Mekons documentary, is going to come in, too, and do a slideshow himself, which is fun. And we’re going to combine that with an acoustic show. We might split it up into slides, music and then interval, slides music. And then we’re going to do the loud representation of the album at the Lincoln Hall show. So it’s too different nights because, you know, a lot of the same people come and they need some encouragement. Variety. Not just for us, but for them.

Q: And is Tom able to make this tour?

A: He is making this tour. Shock. Horror. He hasn’t got on the plane yet, but I bought the tickets and his immigration is approved. We believe it is the return. Although I won’t believe it until he’s got on that plane and got off it. A full complement — and Suzie. It’s the full band. Because Suzie sometimes doesn’t come, but she’s coming, too. So everyone.

Q: Are you working on a new record of your own?

A: (Sigh.) No. (Laughs.) Not really.

Q: Why the big sigh?

A: Well, because I should be. And then to be honest, Robert, I can’t be asked. I worked really hard at the last one and no one really bought it. And I just feel like, ‘Myahhh.’ I know I should try, but it’s hard. It’s hard to do all that work and then, you know — not that I expect anything special to happen, but I like my pottery life now, I do my puppets with Kathleen Judge. We do shadow puppet shows, occasionally. We have this project, we’ve been doing shadow puppetry with her, four or five people, Jason Krebs. And we have a little art collective, so we come in and we do that. And I really enjoy that. I mean, I like making music, but I feel like, you know, I’m getting — I’m an old lady.

Q: I wouldn’t say that.

A: It’s not dignified. (Laughs.) No, I don’t know, I’m just being stupid. But I don’t know. I’m sure I will manage to make something, but what’s the hurry? It’s like, if I’m not feeling that, why force it? There’s enough friggin’ music out there. Do I have to get my little offering out and force it down people’s throats? I don’t know. Maybe I’m — my boyfriend said, ‘This is the late stage period for you, Sally,’ and actually it could be very interesting. People very often come into their own in their late stage. But obviously, I’m not quite old enough for my late stage yet.

Q: You still have your day job at, what is it, a law firm in Evanston?

A: I’m getting outside it right now, yeah. I am here. Yep.

Q: What exactly do you do there?

A: Property tax appeals. The most boring job known to man, in the most insane environment known to man. So it’s a combination of very dull and very, very bizarre. (Laughs.) That’s the most I’m going to say about it. And very, very understanding of needing to take time off, which is a major factor. And it’s a job. You know, it’s hard to find work. People are struggling. More jobs for the people, man.

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