Interview: Joe Angio

This was not an April Fools’ joke. On April 1st, 2015, V89 hosted an interview with the film director Joe Angio, who recently released his documentary film on the cult-legendary alt-country/proto-punk band The Mekons, titled Revenge Of The Mekons. The film was screening in town at the Challenger Learning Center theater, and so to precede the screening, Angio was interviewed by our very own David Wolfson for our Album Side At 5 program. In addition to the interview audio, for this piece we also have a transcript, courtesy of Frances Sasport. To listen to the interview, click play on the widget above, and to read it, check out the transcript below. For more interviews, in-studios and other special items of interest, go to the Station Chatter section of our website.

V89 (David Wolfson: I wanted to ask how you got into the Mekons. Did you know them on a personal level before you started making this film?

Joe Angio: No, I didn’t at all. In fact, I’m a relative late-comer to the band, but for a band that’s now knocking on the door of 38 years old, that is a quite relative term. I was introduced to them by a colleague at work, around ’92 or ’93 . He made me a tape of Mekons Rock n Roll and Curse of the Mekons. I was aware of the Mekons, back when I was living in Chicago, and you know, record stores, I’d go through the bins and see dozens or so Mekons records that existed then. I had never heard them. And I just loved these two records, and I did what every music fan does when they discover someone new (new, in this case, being a band that was 15 years old already). I went back and tried to get everything I could by them. Which wasn’t all available, even in New York back then, a lot of the stuff just either had never been, issued in the states or was off print.

V89: Right.

Joe: And I remember seeing, from that initial reaction, how Curse and Rock N Roll were consecutive records, and how struck I was by how different they were from one another. But then, as I was going back, thinking, “Whoa, these records are nothing like the other ones,” and I liked them as much too. They all had their own particular charms. And then, I was sold, and then, within roughly a year later, I saw them live for the first time. I saw them twice within a short amount of time, and then that just sealed the deal for me. Because the live show is just so much fun, and it’s kind of this familial community/environment that happens. Both between the community, between the band members on stage, amongst themselves, but also of course with the audience. For anyone to been to a Mekon’s show, they know exactly what I’m speaking of, and if you haven’t, I hope the film in some way captures that spirit, and that community.

V89: I think it does a bit. I’ve never seen them before, but I definitely enjoyed watching all of the live footage you put together. So, how were they to film? Were the Mekons “about” having a film made about them by someone who was a stranger to them, or were they a bit hesitant?

Joe Angio: Well, that’s a good question, because it’s a stranger with a caveat. I didn’t know them personally, but I have two good friends up here in New York who are friends with John and Rico Bell, and sort of the band by extension through them. But it’s really they’re both friends, John and Rico, and it was through them that I got John’s e-mail. John Langford is who I’m talking about. It was his e-mail, in the first place where I sent my proposal, and I think that went a long way. I’m sure they vetted me.

And the fact that they vouched for me went a long way towards having some immediate trust in me and in the process. A couple of them, I mean, there’s eight, so it’s not “group think,” even though it has to be a unanimous decision on their part to agree to film. So a couple were a little more reticent than others, but in no way creating obstacles. They were just more guarded about their private lives. Like, Sally and Tom were completely available, made their time available for interviews. But they weren’t really comfortable with me shooting them in their private life. But, we get enough of them and their interaction and how they function and interact within the confines of the band. And there are enough other people so we can focus on as individual that at the end of the day, it didn’t feel like it was lacking because of that. I would have loved to have done some things with them outside of the confines of the band, but it’s already a 96-minute film that we struggled to bring down to that length. I can’t even imagine if it was 10 to 15 minutes longer, with all that extra footage.

V89: Totally. It definitely doesn’t feel like it’s lacking – there are a lot of personable moments. Relative to other documentary films you’ve done, did you have to do a lot shooting relative to the moments that you thought were film-worthy, or was it like they [The Mekons] were “on” all the time, being themselves?

Joe Angio: [laughs] Well, this was the first solely music-oriented film I’ve done. I never saw concerts before. So there was a wealth of material there. And going back to what we were talking about earlier, just getting that dynamic they have on stage. I think some fans go to the concerts as much for the banter as for the music, because they’re really funny. It’s kind of like inspired stand-up comedy. None of it is canned lines – that’s something I learned shooting. You know, being with them on tour, every night is completely spontaneous; responding to what’s happening in the crowd and the audience. So, that was certainly something different. I don’t think I had to shoot particularly more than usual to get what I needed. I mean, logistically, there were many people. Both from the eight in the band and five or six former members that I shot. I was surprised this film came together quite suddenly from my initial proposal to, two months later, I was meeting them in England, where they were going on a tour of the U.K and taking five days off in the middle of the tour to write and record the new record, which ended up being the Ancient and Modern record, which came out 2011.

I sort of expected that tour to—I just brought a camera, traveling by myself. I had no crew, shooting really down and dirty with a lightweight camera. No lights. And that was going to be sort of a research, fact-checking, fact-finding mission for me. Just to, get them comfortable with me. But it just kind of clicked right off the bat. And that footage that I took, primarily the making of that record, and that interaction of recording in that house, ended up being the narrative spine of the film. Then they came to the States a couple of months later, and did a tour of Midwestern college town, and that’s where we shot the radio interview with the current FM NPR station in St. Paul. Which kind of acts like the Greek chorus of the film. Because their interviewer there is sort of functioning as my job as the interviewer. So it’s actually catching a real moment without being in the guise of a talking head interview. That was really helpful.

V89: Was it difficult getting them all on camera, given the range of places in which they live?

Joe Angio: Well, initially, the first couple of times I shot got them all together, was that UK tour then subsequent US tour. And then about a year later, they went back to England to record that record in Wales. And so that point’s when I stayed in England for about six weeks and just went off and did individual shoots, with UK-based Mekons. Later that summer, I spent a few weeks in Chicago, doing all of the Chicago-based ones. And then after that it was just sort of, picking things up, what I still needed, and doing it in the time when it was mutually agreeable to do. But the biggest one of course was actually Lou Edmond, who splits his time between half a year between London and Kyzyl, Siberia, where—his wife is from there. So she has a hard time getting Visa-ed into London, so he spends a lot of time there with their two kids. But Lou does all this work, and has for years, in Central Asia, in Tajikistan, Kirgizstan—

V89: That footage was real entertaining.

Joe Angio: I know, it’s unbelievable right? And some of it had been musical archives stuff, but this one he was there to actually help these musicians, who are part of this really tiny, ancient string instrument museum in Dushanbe that he was going to provide his studio know-how and technical expertise to help them build. I told him from the beginning, when I learned that he did this this, I said “I want to go with you,” and I’m sure he thought I was just kidding. So I was persistent, and finally he was like, “Okay, I’ve got this trip coming if you want to do it,” and I don’t think he believed it until I stepped foot off the airplane and he met me there. At this point I had been following him around for probably two or three years and he was like, “I can’t believe you’re in Tajikistan now.” I know the band was thrilled that I went to Tajikistan with Lou, because none of them had any idea what he was up to there. I think they thought he was a spy. Some of them were pressing me afterwards, like “What did he do there? What happened? We can’t wait to—show us the raw footage.”

V89: That’s amazing. I wanted to ask, on a bit of a different note, what your goals for this documentary are, because it talks a lot about how The Mekons are this band that basically invented a sub-genre of music – alt-country – and [were a] very influential early punk band that never got very big. Clearly, it’s presumed that his band should be more popular than they are, so was it your goal to introduce them to a lot of new fans, or do you think it’s more to provide something for the older fans to enjoy and to just document them?

Joe Angio: No, definitely 100% the former: to introduce them to new fans. I’m a fan of music documentary, and I think a problem that a lot of them fall into, or a problem a lot of them share is that they’re preaching to the choir; they’re pitched only to the fan. Now I realize that with a band with such a small but devoted cult of fans, that it’s going to be hard to break through that. So that’s the challenge. But that was really, really what I hoped to do with this film. And certainly the feedback I have received from when we were doing the festival circuit last year, and we’ve been so fortunate that it’s been getting really good reviews. Both the reviews and the feedback have been like, “You don’t have to be a Mekons fan.” I never knew anything about this band but at the same time there’s enough in there for a Mekons fans [to be able to say] “Oh, I didn’t know this,” or to get a more behind-the-scenes look at how they operate, which is kind of unique for bands.

V89: Yeah, they’re all in different places.

Joe Angio: Logistically, getting them all under one roof is a major feat; much less to record or tour. So it was definitely a conscious attempt to try to expose this band to a wider audience, while at the same time, I find – and I don’t know if I set out purposely to do this, but I guess I felt it in my bones going in – but another one of the reactions I’ve been quite pleased with is that a lot of people come away feeling very inspired by that. And of course this is a music documentary, but I think it almost transcends that narrow genre to become more of a film about artistic process, just like why we make art. Because their art [is primarily] music, but there’s the visual art, the theatre stuff they’ve done. They’ve branched off into this very strange, unsuspecting direction, and—

V89: Right. When they started, none of them played instruments either.

Joe Angio: Right, it sort of started as an art project. You know, in the first blast of punk rock, let’s form a band where no one can play. And they were in the original class of ’77 UK punk scene, when it was that you didn’t have to know how you play your instruments, they were notorious for being the band that could least play their instruments. They’ve gotten better, but they there’s this constant inability to stand still. They just refuse to stand still. That’s why it’s so hard to pigeon-hole them or put them in a box – you mentioned the “alt-country” thing; that’s kind of the label that has stuck, but even that is limiting. They’re still a punk band, but the music couldn’t be any further removed from punk rock right now. But yet they still stand for that – for the values that were indicative of U.K. punk, which was different than the U.S. punk scene. There were definitely much more socio-political underpinnings to the music in the U.K. And while their music is a 180 [degree turn away] from that now, all the values have stayed in place, and that is something I found really fascinating about them, and that I want to try to get at with the film. Which speaks to more than the documentation of the band’s unpredictable 37 year career.

V89: Something I liked about the film – I don’t want to provide spoilers for it or anything, but when you had interviews with the individual members of the Mekons, you know [how] normally when you watch a music documentary, and it’s an interview, it’ll say “Keith Richards: Guitar, Rolling Stones” or whatever; but this would just say “Joe: Mekon [this year] to [this year].” It didn’t say the instrument or anything.

Joe Angio: Well, that was as much of a way to deal with the fact that there were so many of them and so many former ones. And we felt like we were throwing so much information at you, to keep people straight, we used lower-third ID’s a lot. But we also had to use those to perform double-duty, because sometimes, especially with the current members, we give the years they’ve been in the band, but then also where they live, because that’s a way to kill two birds with one stone. Then you realize, something starts growing on you, like “This guy’s in Chicago”, “He’s in L.A”. “He’s in London, but he’s in Siberia?” It’s just like, how did these guys do this?

V89: Did you find yourself learning a lot of new things about the band that you wouldn’t have expected just from being around them and filming them?

Joe Angio: Yeah, for sure. I mean, one thing I alluded to earlier was having just seen them prior to filming, just at concerts I’d been to in New York, I’ve seen them at SXSW a few times, I think once or twice in Chicago. But to be with them every night, was that part about how the banter and the comedy was just so completely spontaneous and fresh every night. I would have assumed that there were some go-to laugh lines, like any performer or entertainer has. So that was a pleasant revelation. The other big one for me, just because it was a personal black hole for me, was that first era in leads from ’77 to about ’79-80. And when they stopped playing live, and just recording in the studio, and during that time people often misreported that they had broken up. It wasn’t that they ever broke up; it was just they quit playing live. They were always doing stuff together. I found that era really fascinating. Because those records weren’t available, and I had never heard them really, until around this time. And we had a cut of the film – you know you start out big and you start whittling down and whittling down, but at one point we had a cut where it was knocking on the door of 75 minutes and we hadn’t left Leeds yet. We were like, “Okay we need to get the action out now. Start trimming this down.”

V89: That all sounds great. It sounds like a film that was a lot of fun to shoot. as well as to watch.

Joe Angio: It was, yeah. It really was. They were a lot of fun to be around; they didn’t provide any resistance. I think a lot of them, going back to the first shoot I did with them, that it was just me and my small camera, I was able to work my way into the shadows, and they forgot I was there, I think, a lot. Plus, there’s so many of them, it’s kind of easy to become a face in the crowd. So I wasn’t getting in their way with lights and schlepping around all this gear and crew and stuff. So, I think that did provide a very, kind of candid open portrait of them, that they were all very open about sharing.