DATE September 20, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: John Lasseter discusses the film "Monsters, Inc.,"
computer animated films and the process of computer animation
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.
Our guest John Lasseter is the executive producer of the animated film
"Monsters, Inc.," which has just been released on video and DVD. Lasseter
also directed "Toy Story," "Toy Story 2" and "A Bug's Life." These are films
which not only made great strides in computer animation techniques, they were
very popular among children and adults. Lasseter received a special
achievement Oscar for "Toy Story." In 1988, his short film "Tin Toy" became
the first computer-animated film to win an Academy Award. A founding member
of the Pixar Animation Studio, Lasseter is now executive vice president.
Terry spoke to him earlier this year.
Let's start with a scene from "Monsters, Inc.," a comedy about monsters who
work at an electricity company where they manufacture power by scaring
children and making them scream. The two lead monsters are voiced by Billy
Crystal and John Goodman. In this scene, they sit down to watch a new
commercial that they're featured in.
(Soundbite of "Monsters, Inc.")
Unidentified Man #1: The future is bright at Monsters, Inc.
Mr. BILLY CRYSTAL: I'm in this one. I'm in this one.
Unidentified Man #1: We're part of your life. We power your car. We warm
your home. We light your city.
Unidentified Child: I'm Monsters, Inc.
Mr. JOHN GOODMAN: Hey, look! Betty.
Unidentified Man #1: Carefully matching every child to their ideal monster...
(Soundbite of bang and child screaming)
Unidentified Man #1: ...to produce superior screams, refined into clean,
dependable energy. Every time you turn something on, Monsters, Inc. is there.
Unidentified Man #2: I'm Monsters, Inc.
Unidentified Man #1: We know the challenge. The window of innocence is
(Soundbite of siren)
Unidentified Man #1: Human kids are harder to scare.
Unidentified Man #3: Of course, MI is prepared for the future, with the top
(Soundbite of child screaming)
Mr. CRYSTAL: Woo-hoo, ha, ha, ha!
Unidentified Man #3: ...the best refineries and research into new energy
(Soundbite of person screaming, child screaming)
Mr. CRYSTAL: OK, here I come.
Mr. GOODMAN: We're working for a better tomorrow today.
Group: (In unison) We're Monsters, Inc.
Unidentified Man #3: Where am I? Monsters, Inc. We scare because we care.
Mr. CRYSTAL: I can't believe it.
Mr. GOODMAN: Oh, Mike.
Mr. CRYSTAL: I was on TV! Ha! Did you see me? I'm a natural.
(Soundbite of phone ringing)
Mr. CRYSTAL: Hello? I know! Hey, wasn't I great? Did the whole family see
It's your mom.
What can I say? The camera loves me.
TERRY GROSS reporting:
John Lasseter, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Mr. JOHN LASSETER (Pixar): Oh, thank you very much. I'm glad to be here.
GROSS: Well, one of the things I like about your movies is that they have
social satire in them, and in this instance, in "Monsters, Inc.," there's this
big monster corporation that has, you know, its own branding and...
Mr. LASSETER: Right.
GROSS: ...TV commercials...
Mr. LASSETER: Right.
GROSS: ...and all the stuff that we expect from, you know, corporations, a
hierarchy. Do you like having the chance to get in social satire in a kids'
Mr. LASSETER: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. Because it's part of the thing that
adults get and actually are entertained by that are over the kids' heads. I
mean, the kids are just enjoying the characters and the adventure and the
slapstick and all that, where the adults are kind of getting, you know, sort
of these comparisons to our world. Like in "Toy Story," for instance, one of
the big things was to make the personalities of the toys be adult and not to
be, well, childlike personalities. And so when Andy left the room and the
toys came alive, that was like a workplace. Being a toy and being played with
was like their job, and so they had plastic corrosion awareness meetings.
They had staff meetings.
And in the same way with "Monsters, Inc.," we looked at this corporate world
and we studied, for instance, the graphic design that happens within big
corporations and how they have--you know, everything is done exactly--we
figured that with capturing scream from kids, that their boom time actually
was in the '50s, during the baby boom era. There were so many kids all over
the place that they just were making money hands over fist. And that's when
they expanded tremendously, and so when you look at the architecture in the
movie of "Monsters, Inc.," it has a very '60s look to it--late '50s, early
'60s. We studied the architecture of, like, Brasilia, you know, and all these
places where it's just this nutty architecture from the '60s that are really
cool, and so we modeled it after that, because thinking that's when they were
The graphic design had very much of a feeling of Paul Rand, you know, the
great graphic designer who designed a lot of elements, you know, in
corporations back then--the UPS logo, the CBS logo, on and on and on. And all
those things brought together, and so it made for a believable world. If
there was a world beyond a closet door full of monsters, yeah, that's what it
would be like.
GROSS: Let's talk about creating the monsters. I mean, you can't do research
exactly on what monsters look like, although we all know monsters. We all
Mr. LASSETER: Right.
GROSS: You know, we all have a lot of monsters in common. So what's the
process like? I'm sure there were several animators and designers who were
working on the monsters. Maybe you could just let us in a little on the
Mr. LASSETER: What we did is in creating the world of "Monsters, Inc.," the
monsters in this world, we wanted to find kind of a, you might stay, a style
of monster that could be unique to "Monsters, Inc." So we did a lot of
research and looked at, you know, the history of monsters in cinema and TV and
so on, and even in children's books. And we saw that there was a certain
style that, say, the Muppets had, a certain style that Maurice Sendak has in
"Where the Wild Things Are."
GROSS: Yeah. I think the John Goodman monster is very "Where the Wild Things
Mr. LASSETER: And then, of course, there's the Ray Harryhausen creatures
that--and, in fact, Ray Harryhausen visited the studio and we talked quite a
bit about it, and he actually said one thing that really was...
GROSS: Let me just stop you and say that Ray Harryhausen is the king of
Mr. LASSETER: Yeah, stop-motion.
GROSS: Stop-motion, thank you.
Mr. LASSETER: Yeah. You know, with this tremendous, you know, influence that
he's had on creatures and monsters, he said one thing that was really
important to us, and that was that the monsters in his film are only monsters
when they're provoked. He said they're just regular creatures--in fact, he
doesn't even like to use the word `monsters.' He uses the word `creatures.'
And they're just living their regular life, and then it's always the outsider,
the human that comes in and sort of provokes them, and then they become
monstrous. And it was a very interesting insight.
And so what we did is we looked at all these existing sort of monster worlds
and monster designs that have been out there, and we tried to find something
that was unique. One of the things that we did is, knowing our medium of
computer animation and how it can produce things that almost look real, really
photorealistic, we started looking at the animal world and looking at textures
and elements. And we pulled from, like, Mike Wazowski, the lime-green
one-eyed guy that Billy Crystal does the great voice for, his skin is very
much like a Brazilian tree frog. It has this kind of reptilian skin. We
studied that. Sulley, you know, is completely covered with fur, and the fur
is inspired from yak fur. It has a certain kind of matting quality that it
has. And the horns are like a ram's horns, and we actually got these elements
in and really studied them and created textures that looked like this.
But we said, `You know, what we want to do is then we don't want to make it
look just like a real animal,' because we started actually coloring Sulley
more kind of an orange and a natural look to him. And they just looked like
animals. And so what we did is thought about, well, they come into kids'
rooms and scare kids, and kids sit there and draw these magnificent images of
what monsters look like. And so we said, `Well, why don't we have these
realistic textures, but then have them colored like what a kid's
imagination--what their monsters would look like?' And so that's when Sulley
became this turquoise blue with purple polka-dots and Mike became lime green.
And in all of the monsters that actually go in and scare the kids are these
incredible bright colors. You know, the monsters in "Monsters, Inc." that
just are the support monsters for the scarers, they're much kind of duller
colors. You know, it's really the bright-colored monsters that are the ones
that go in and scare the kids.
But it's this combination of kind of research and then thinking through, you
know, the world and the process of like, OK, these monsters come in and scare
kids, you know, and it's a kids' point of view, you know, is what they see
with the monsters. That's where this kind of unique world of our monsters
came into being.
GROSS: How do you match actors' voices to the monsters? I mean, like Billy
Crystal and John Goodman, these are famous names. You know what they sound
like. I don't know whether you feel the need to audition them first or not.
But can you talk a little bit about the process of matching up this imaginary
monster with a real actor's voice?
Mr. LASSETER: At Pixar, when we're developing the story and developing the
character, we are always thinking about a particular actor. Sometimes they're
actually older actors that have passed away, but it's the type of character
that we're looking for. Then when it comes down to the voice, casting the
voice, we'll make a list of actors we think that could fit that particular
type of character. And to try it out, we will find a performance in a movie
or a TV show that they've done, we'll take just the audio of this and put it
against drawings or images of the character, just still images, and it's
amazing how you could sit back and you can look at this, and some actors, you
know, they're brilliant actors, but you realize a lot of it has to do with the
way they look and their facial expressions and their movement and so on that
adds to their brilliance in acting. And when their voice is there just by
itself, it's kind of flat.
And we then take other actors and we'll put up there and they just jump off
the screen, and they're great. And we tend to go for an actor not by how big
of a star they are, but by how great of an actor they are, too. We never ask
an actor to put on a voice. We want them to be natural, because part of our
thing is we want the characters to be just completely natural and real, you
know, even though they're a toy, a bug or a monster, you know. And then what
we'll do is always look for people that have great ad-lib ability. Trying to
find spontaneity in this laborious process of making an animated film frame by
frame by frame is something that we always are striving for.
And part of that is in the recording of the actor. Of course, we have a
script. You know, they come in before the animation's done so they really
have nothing to look at. Generally, they're there by themselves in the studio
with a mike in front of them. And we're always trying to get them to make the
scene, make the dialogue their own, make it just sound absolutely as natural
as possible. And so when you get someone who's so brilliant, like Billy
Crystal, to come in, he just gives you--it's like he's got a staff of writers
in his head. He will give you a hundred variations of everything, and we
actually got him and John Goodman together, and they were amazing because the
two characters needed to be like friends since kindergarten. And so by
getting them in there, all of a sudden--they had never met each other before,
but they came in and it went up to another level. These guys knew each other
since kindergarten in the performances, and it was really incredible.
BOGAEV: John Lasseter speaking with Terry Gross. He's the executive producer
of the family film "Monsters, Inc.," which was just released on DVD. We'll
hear more of Terry's conversation with him after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, our guest is John Lasseter. He's the
executive producer of "Monsters, Inc." He directed "Toy Story," "Toy Story 2"
and "A Bug's Life." Terry spoke with Lasseter earlier this year.
GROSS: Let's talk about your first feature, "Toy Story." And in this film,
you imagine what life is like for the toys in a boy's bedroom when the boy
leaves the room. And you go through all the big fears that a toy might have:
being replaced, being sold at a yard sale.
Mr. LASSETER: Right.
GROSS: And most of these toys are old-fashioned toys, like a cowboy doll, a
dinosaur, toy soldiers, a Little Bo Peep doll. And let me play a scene from
very early in the movie where Woody, the cowboy doll, which is voiced by Tom
Hanks, is holding a meeting of the toys to prepare for the fact that Andy, the
boy who owns these toys, is going to be moving to a new house.
(Soundbite of "Toy Story")
(Soundbite of Woody blowing into a microphone)
Mr. TOM HANKS: (As Sheriff Woody) Hello. Check. Is that better? Great.
Can everybody hear me? Up on the shelf, can you hear me?
(Soundbite of squeaking)
Mr. HANKS: Great. OK. First item today--oh, yeah--has everyone picked a
(Soundbite of toys making noises)
Mr. JOHN RATZENBERGER: (As Hamm) Moving buddy? He can't be serious.
Mr. WALLACE SHAWN: (As Rex) Well, I didn't know we were supposed to have one
Mr. DON RICKLES: (As Mr. Potato Head) Do we have to hold hands?
(Soundbite of toys making noises)
Mr. HANKS: Oh, yeah, you guys think this is a big joke. We've only got one
week left before the move. I don't want any toys left behind. A moving
buddy--if you don't have one, get one.
All right, next--oh, yes--Tuesday night's plastic corrosion awareness meeting
was, I think, a big success, and we want to thank Mr. Spell for putting that
on for us.
(Soundbite of Speak & Spell)
Mr. HANKS: Thank you, Mr. Spell.
"SPEAK & SPELL": You're welcome.
Mr. HANKS: OK. Oh, yes, one minor note here. Andy's birthday party has been
moved to today. Uh, next we have...
(Soundbite of toys making noises)
Mr. RICKLES: Say that over again.
Mr. SHAWN: What? What do you mean the party's today? His birthday's not
till next week.
Mr. RATZENBERGER: What's going on down there? Is his mom losing her marbles?
Mr. HANKS: Well, obviously she wanted to have the party before the move. I'm
not worried. You shouldn't be worried.
Mr. RICKLES: Of course Woody ain't worried. He's been Andy's favorite since
Mr. JIM VARNEY: (As Slinky Dog) Hey, hey, come on, Potato Head, if Woody says
it's all right, then, well, darn it, it's good enough for me. Woody has never
steered us wrong before.
Mr. HANKS: Come on, guys. Every Christmas and birthday we go through this.
Mr. SHAWN: But what if Andy gets another dinosaur? A mean one? I just don't
think I can take that kind of rejection.
Mr. HANKS: Hey, listen, no one's getting replaced. This is Andy we're
talking about. It doesn't matter how much we're played with.
(Soundbite of toy making noises)
Mr. HANKS: What matters is that we're here for Andy when he needs us. That's
what we're made for, right?
GROSS: John Lasseter, did you come up with the premise for "Toy Story"?
Mr. LASSETER: Well, I came up with it along with my colleagues Andrew
Stanton, Pete Docter and Joe Ranft. And we work in collaboration at Pixar.
And we fell in love with this because--this idea of toys coming alive. I did
a short film called "Tin Toy" back in 1988 and it was about a little, small
tin toy that was alive and being chased by this little drooling baby. And
from the toy's point of view it was a horrible monster. And we always loved
the idea of toys being alive, and we thought there was a lot more you could do
One thing we didn't want to do with our first feature is just do kind of what
a lot of animated features were being--they were kind of like musicals with,
you know, a good guy, a bad guy, comic sidekicks, a love interest. And we
wanted something different, and we loved the buddy picture genre, you know,
films like "Midnight Run," "48 Hrs.," "The Defiant Ones," "The Odd Couple."
We just loved this. One of the reasons why we loved this so much was there's
tremendous character growth. And I think when you have a character that
really grows, there's a lot of emotion there. And that's the thing that we've
always strived for in our films. And...
GROSS: So the buddies in this are the cowboy doll and the newer, more modern,
Mr. LASSETER: Right.
GROSS: ...the battery-operated computer chip...
Mr. LASSETER: You're right.
GROSS: ...space doll.
Mr. LASSETER: And in the buddy picture genre, one of the goals is to begin
with the two characters being absolutely different. But on a deeper level,
they're very much the same. They're both classic American heroes.
GROSS: Let me ask you about "A Bug's Life." This is a kind of epic about
worker ants that are basically enslaved to the larger, more powerful
grasshoppers, who demand a hefty percentage of all the food that the worker
ants carry away. Let me play a scene from this. The head grasshopper, the
real heavy in the movie, is played by Kevin Spacey. And here he is early in
the film issuing his demands and warnings to the ants. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is
the princess ant. Phyllis Diller is the queen ant.
(Soundbite from "A Bug's Life")
Mr. KEVIN SPACEY: (As Hopper) So where is it? Where's my food?
Ms. JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Princess Atta) Isn't it up there?
Mr. SPACEY: What?
Ms. LOUIS-DREYFUS: The food was in a leaf sitting on top of...
Mr. SPACEY: Excuse me?
Ms. LOUIS-DREYFUS: Are you sure it's not up there?
Mr. SPACEY: Are you saying I'm stupid?
Ms. LOUIS-DREYFUS: No.
Mr. SPACEY: Do I look stupid to you? Let's just think about the logic, shall
we? Let's just think about it for a second. If it was up there, would I be
coming down here to your level looking for it? Why am I even talking to you?
You're not the queen. You don't smell like the queen.
Ms. PHYLLIS DILLER: (As Queen) She's learning to take over for me, Hopper.
Mr. SPACEY: Oh, I see. Under new management. So it's your fault.
Ms. LOUIS-DREYFUS: No, it wasn't me. It was--I...
Mr. SPACEY: Oh, uh-uh-uh. First rule of leadership, everything is your
Ms. LOUIS-DREYFUS: But I...
Mr. SPACEY: It's a bug-eat-bug world out there, Princess. One of those
circle-of-life kind of things.
GROSS: A scene from "A Bug's Life." And my guest John Lasseter directed the
film. "A Bug's Life" was kind of, in some ways, like a slave epic, you know?
Mr. LASSETER: A slave--a slave epic. Well, we call it an epic of miniature
proportions because we got very inspired, actually, looking at the world from
an ant's point of view. We got down, and the research we did, instead of
going off to exotic locales, like a lot of people get to do, we just went out
to the planters in the garden in front of Pixar and stuck our heads under all
the plants and looked around. And the world was amazing when you get down to
I love working at Pixar because we have the most wonderful geeks, and they saw
us with our heads under the plants and they said, `You know, we can help you.'
And they went off and they created this tiny, little video camera. We call it
the bug cam. And it was put on the end of a dowel with little wheels, and we
could roll it around from, you know, like, an inch above the ground and look
at the world. And one of the things we found at this level was that
everything is translucent. A blade of grass, a fallen leaf, a petal of a
flower, when the sunlight's shining through it, it's like a stained glass
window, and it was spectacularly beautiful.
And there was this big fallen leaf--I'll never forget--and we put the little
bug cam under it, and it was like all of a sudden you were in this
magnificent, huge building with this beautiful, like, orange and yellow
stained glass window above you, and that became one of the biggest
inspirations for this. And so most of the movie kind of takes place out of
the tunnels above the ground, and so we had to create actually new lighting
tools to get this beautiful translucency in there.
And the story is really fun because it's much more of an epic story than "Toy
Story" was, and we had these great bad guys. And we did a lot of studying of
grasshoppers and how they--you know, grasshoppers are--you know, when they get
together and start, like, massing, they become locusts and it becomes these
hordes and so on. And we just loved that idea. And when we started looking
at the way they were designed, it almost looked like the back of biker
jackets--Hell's Angels jackets. And so we had the idea that they're like this
Hell's Angels, you know, group that comes in and terrorizes a small Midwestern
town and demands, you know, an annual payment. And so that's where kind of
the idea came from. And that's where Kevin Spacey says--you know, leaves, he
always says, `Let's ride,' and they start up their wings kind of like Harleys
starting. In fact, in the soundtrack there actually is, you know, the sound
of Harleys, you know, mixed in with kind of insect buzzing noises when they
GROSS: Well, John Lasseter, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. LASSETER: Oh, this has been great, Terry.
BOGAEV: John Lasseter is the executive producer of "Monsters, Inc." Terry
spoke with him earlier this year. "Monsters, Inc." has just been released on
I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.
BOGAEV: Coming up, vintage punk rock. We meet John Langford of the Mekons.
They're still putting out albums after 25 years. And a sadomasochistic
relationship caught on film. Movie critic David Edelstein reviews
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Jon Langford discusses his music and the British
punk group The Mekons that he co-founded
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.
Singer and guitarist Jon Langford is a founding member of the British punk
band the Mekons, one of the few bands from the punk era that has stayed
together. They're in the midst of a 25th-anniversary tour in the United
States, and they have a new album, "Out of Our Heads," and a new book of
lyrics, art and photographs called "Hello Cruel World." Let's listen to a
tune from the new CD.
(Soundbite of "Winter")
THE MEKONS: (Singing) Ahh, discontent, ooh, these lonely cries. Seasons
change, seasons change, why do you never ask `Why?' Ahh, dissent, throw
another log on the fire. My dissent cuts the pale watery sky. I spent the
evening in a long white gown. I have the ...(unintelligible) shining in my
hand. Winter, winter, I'll put the wheels back on, I'll put the wheels back
on, I'll put the wheels back on, I'll put the wheels back on in the winter...
BOGAEV: That's "Winter" from the new Mekons album "Out of Our Heads."
Our guest, Jon Langford, is Welsh, but now lives in Chicago. Much of his
music and art now takes aim at the commercialization of country music in the
United States. He plays in the country-tinged rock band the Waco Brothers,
and he organized a tribute to the father of western swing on the CD "The Pine
Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills." He's also a visual
artist, and his paintings of the icons of country music, such as Hank
Williams, George Jones and Loretta Lynn, have been shown in museums and
galleries around the world. Terry spoke with Jon Langford in 1998. They
started with a track from his Bob Wills tribute record. Here's Langford
singing "Sweet Kind of Love."
(Soundbite of "Sweet Kind of Love")
Mr. JON LANGFORD: (Singing) You do something to me, I can't understand.
You've got a sweet kind of love. And I feel bright and blooming when you hold
my hand. You got a sweet kind of love. Smile and show your dimples and wink
your little eye. I'm full of goose pimples and you're my sweetie-pie.
TERRY GROSS: How did you first come across Bob Wills and how did he strike
you the first time you heard his music?
Mr. LANGFORD: It was not like the country music I'd heard in England growing
up. We didn't think much of country music, really. We were punk rockers, and
we thought punk rock was really exciting, and everything else that went before
it was pretty boring. And Bob Wills was just this music that kind of leapt--I
have a thing that struck me most about it is how timeless it was. It didn't
sound old to me. It sounded like very much alive, and I kind of imagined
falsely that possibly that was what was still going on somewhere in Texas.
GROSS: Now when you were living in England and still playing kind of punk
rock and listening to Bob Wills, did you ever imagine yourself playing that
kind of country or country swing, you know, western swing music yourself?
Mr. LANGFORD: No, absolutely not. There was--I started listening to people
like Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams around that time, and people have
pointed out parallels between what we did and those people. And I felt that
there were parallels between punk rock and country music because of the focus
of the lyrics. I was very--I felt that people like Merle Haggard or Hank
Williams were writing for their peers and what was actually being talked about
was very realistic, it wasn't kind of escapist stuff like the lyrics of most
rock music. And the structures were very simple.
GROSS: Let me put in a couple of the differences between western swing and
punk music. I mean, punk music has this really hard, driving beat, whereas
western swing has this more of a kind of like lilting swing to it, more...
Mr. LANGFORD: Yeah. Bob had a good beat, though, because I think he was the
first guy to use drums on the Grand Ole Opry.
GROSS: OK. And another thing; you know, a lot of punk songs were almost kind
of shouting songs, not about songcraft as we think of it, whereas, you know,
country music--all of country music is so dependent on songcraft and
professional songwriters and all that.
Mr. LANGFORD: Yeah, but there's still--you know, the people I liked, there's
still a simplicity to their songs and a simplicity of the sentiments that
they're expressing, which I felt, you know, related to what we were trying to
do with punk music. I mean, punk music is a strange genre because I think a
lot of people think of, you know, the Mohicans and the leather jackets of the
early '80s punks rather than the what I thought was very broad and open-minded
stuff that was going on in the late '70s in England, where kind of anything
GROSS: Well, you have many different incarnations now. You know, there's the
Mekons, there's the Bob Wills tribute record you put together. You have a
band called the Waco Brothers. I want to play something from your Waco
Brothers album. Who--where do the Waco Brothers come in?
Mr. LANGFORD: Well, I moved to Chicago about '92, and I had absolutely
nothing to do there whatsoever. And so I always wanted to be in a band. The
Mekons were always so stretched geographically. Even when we were all living
in England, people lived in London, people lived in Leeds, people lived
elsewhere. Steve, the drummer, had already moved to Chicago. And I felt like
it would be nice to be in a band where everyone lived in the same neighborhood
so we could get together and, you know, actually play in your hometown, become
a band. Chicago's big enough where you can become a band of some note just by
playing around Chicago; and that was the intention of the Waco Brothers, and I
wanted to play the songs of people like George Jones, Hank Williams, Merle
Haggard, simple, straight, you know, pumped-up country, honky-tonk country
music. It was something I tried to do in Leeds, and no one would take me
GROSS: Why'd you name it the Waco Brothers?
Mr. LANGFORD: I didn't, actually. It had many names. We used to change the
name every week in case people recognized us and wouldn't come again because
we were so awful when we started. But, I don't know, I think it was that
weekend with the Waco thing, and I went away and somebody had to do a poster
and I think that was the first time we played a gig that was actually any
good. And then the Waco Brothers was kind of a sick name at the time, but I
think the meaning has dissolved a little bit now, so...
GROSS: Well, I thought we could play "Arizona Rose" from this, and this is a
song that you wrote and sing lead on. Tell us about the song, what inspired
Mr. LANGFORD: A friend of mine from Leeds moved to New York and got married
and had a kid, and he named it Arizona Rose. And I said, `That sounds like
the title of a song,' and we just started doing the Waco Brothers thing, and I
wrote this song with a guy called Tom Ray, who was a bass player in the band
at the time, and he actually said, `That sounds like a song,' because I said
to my friend on the phone, I said, `Oh, give my love to Arizona.' So there
you have it.
GROSS: OK, and here it is, Jon Langford with the Waco Brothers.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. LANGFORD: (Singing) Oh, give my love to Arizona, to Arizona Rose. She
set me up, and I can't phone her. She left no number, she just had to go.
Now all of the starlight and all of the memories, they're still out there, out
there on the plain. But all my heart is such a dry place, ashes of love where
once there were flames. They're calling out...
GROSS: That's "Arizona Rose" from the Waco Brothers album. My guest is Jon
Langford, who sang lead and co-wrote the song.
In what year was the Mekons formed, your band?
Mr. LANGFORD: We formed in 1977, pretty much after the Sex Pistols came on
their--I forget what the name of the tour was, like the White Riot Tour or
something like that, or the Amiki Tour(ph), and they came with the Clash and
the Damned and Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers, and they played at Leeds
Polytechnic. And it was just--anyone can be in a band. You don't have to be
able to play instruments to be in a band.
GROSS: Did you feel that was the only way you could be in a band--that the
only way you could be in a band was if anybody could be in a band?
Mr. LANGFORD: Yeah. That's what really galvanized people. You didn't have
to make music like music that was made before. You didn't have to be like The
Who. You didn't have to write rock operas and have orchestras playing with
you and have huge banks of keyboards. You could just pick up a guitar and
play one chord and you could be in a band and you could have something that
you could say.
GROSS: Now Let me read something that the rock critic Greil Marcus said about
you in his book "Lipstick Traces." He said, `The Mekons were best known as
the band that took punk ideology most seriously. Those who couldn't play
tried to learn, and those who could tried to forget.' Did you fit into either
of those two categories?
Mr. LANGFORD: I had a drum kit; I was very interested in being in a band for
quite a long time and never kind of really got it together. So I actually had
a drum kit that I borrowed off of someone, and I took it up to Leeds when I
went up there to go to art college, so I was in demand because I had a--I
couldn't actually play very well, but I was definitely in demand because you
have to have a drum kit. So I was--me and Tom were in the same studio in art
school. And he just said one day, `We're going to form a band.' And I was
like, `Oh, really?' `Yeah,' he says. `It's going to be good because no one's
going to be able to play.' I said, `Oh, can I be in it then?' And he said,
like, `Yeah, you'll be good. You've got a drum kit. You know, we were gonna
ask you to be in it.'
BOGAEV: Jon Langford of the Mekons from a 1998 interview. The Mekons have a
new album, "Out of This World," and are now touring the US. We'll hear more
of Terry's conversation with Jon Langford after the break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: Back now to our interview with singer and guitarist Jon Langford of
GROSS: I want to play one of the early Mekons recordings to get a sense of
what the band was like early in its career. Why don't you choose one of the
early records and introduce it for us?
Mr. LANGFORD: Well, this is off the album we did for Virgin Records called
"The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen." And the song is called "What Are We
Going To Do Tonight."
(Soundbite of "What Are We Going To Do Tonight?"
THE MEKONS: (Singing) What are we going to do tonight? What are we going to
do tonight? ...(Unintelligible). I'll make you mad. Turn on the telly.
(Unintelligible). Not on Sundays. Pop star. ...(Unintelligible) record.
What are we going to do tonight? What are we going to do tonight?
(Unintelligible). I'll make you mad. Turn on the telly. (Unintelligible).
Not on Sunday. Pop star. ...(Unintelligible) record. What are we going to
do tonight? What are we going to do tonight? What are we going to do
tonight? What are we going to do tonight? What are we going to do tonight?
What are we going to do tonight? ...(Unintelligible). What are we going to
GROSS: There's some actually really good discordant playing in that, too. I
Mr. LANGFORD: Oh, yeah. We were very--we perfected that very early on.
GROSS: Now you said that the first slogan of the Mekons was `no personalities
emerge.' Why did you want to not make it the kind of band that had a star
Mr. LANGFORD: We had a huge manifesto.
GROSS: Oh. What else was in it?
Mr. LANGFORD: Oh, there was loads of things, like `We will never make a
record, we will never have our photograph taken, we will only be the support
band, we'll be the punk band that plays slow songs and not fast songs.' Mostly
all those things crumbled before the first gig because the guy refused to book
us. We said, `We're like a punk band, but we're going to play slow songs.' He
said, `Well, you can't play then because you've got to play fast.' We were
like, `No.' So then we had to go back and write some more songs because we
didn't have enough. If we played them fast, they weren't long enough. So we
only had about 15 minutes of music for the first gig.
But somebody came along at the first--there was a band called the Rezillos
from Edinburgh and their a manager was a guy called Bob Blast, and he was
setting up a little record label, and he just said, `Do you want to make a
record?' And we're, like, `No, we're not going to make a record.' `Oh. It
would be quite good to make a record, wouldn't it?' `Yes, we'd like to make a
record.' And then the NME wouldn't publish a feature of us unless we had a
photograph of the band. So we stood in some trees miles away, and some guy
took some photographs of us standing in these trees so you couldn't see who
anyone was, and then they rejected that. So they said, `We won't write about
you unless you have a photograph.' So we built some dummies out of coat
hangars and paint tins and sent them that, and they wouldn't have that. So in
the end, they sent some photographer up from London, and we all stood
dutifully by and had our photographs taken.
So there were many, many things--we always knew with the Mekons what we didn't
want to be. It was kind of what we were was what was left. So...
GROSS: Well, let me get back to the manifesto. Were you one of the writers
of the manifesto? Did you want a manifesto?
Mr. LANGFORD: Yeah, I think we thought it was really--you know, it was year
zero and, you know, this is it, you know, and we were cutting out the
punk--the decadence of rock 'n' roll music. We were punk rockers, and that
was it. It was very important to us to do. You know, everything was
GROSS: Did you feel like a sellout when you violated all the principles of
the manifesto right away?
Mr. LANGFORD: No, not really, because half of it was just the love of
wanting to do it.
Mr. LANGFORD: It was quite exciting.
GROSS: So what did you hate in pop music at the time?
Mr. LANGFORD: All that progressive rock stuff, you know, and I just couldn't
stand that. Most of my friends really liked The Who, and if The Who did a
kind of four-album rock opera, everyone would run out and buy it, and I just
thought that was the most depressing thing imaginable, so I really didn't
like--I thought mostly they were very pompous and I thought most pop stars
were hilarious. I mean, like "Dark Side of the Moon" by Pink Floyd, I mean,
still cracks me up now if I hear that. I just think it's, like, ludicrous.
Mr. LANGFORD: Megalomania.
Mr. LANGFORD: I don't know. Just somebody think that their opinions are
that important--it's strange.
GROSS: So the band was, in a way, about not following all the big commercial
principles of rock 'n' roll.
Mr. LANGFORD: Yeah. Totally.
GROSS: And you succeeded in not becoming a big commercially successful band.
Mr. LANGFORD: We succeeded, Terry. We did succeed. That's right. Thank
you for saying that. The secret of our success is our lack of success.
GROSS: I think you had something like 11 different record companies?
Mr. LANGFORD: Yeah. Yeah, we've always had kind of fairly--some of those
record companies are actually ourselves, so...
GROSS: Uh-oh. Even you couldn't take it.
Mr. LANGFORD: No, we used to--we would fire ourselves quite regularly.
GROSS: Who would jump out first with most of your record--did they want out,
or did you want out?
Mr. LANGFORD: Usually we wanted out. Usually it was just like situations
that weren't going anywhere. I mean with major labels. We were fired by
Virgin, which was kind of predictable. I don't know why they even signed us
in the first place. It was just that kind of madness, the sort of feeding
frenzy that goes on when something new comes out, all these A&R men who think
they know the secret of everything that's commercial, running around with
their checkbooks wide open, trying to sign everything so that--and they signed
the Mekons, and it was like obviously not a commercial band in any way.
More so when we signed to A&M in 1989; we signed kind of more with our eyes
open and we signed because we thought there was some theory by which a band
like ourselves could exist on a major label and could make records quite
cheaply and sell a modest amount of records but still make the record company
money. But after the guy who'd set up that deal left, a lot of accountants
come along, and then they, you know--`What are these people doing on the
label?' Yeah, it's a very good question. You know, we don't belong on a
major label. It's never been a very happy experience. I always felt like the
employee when I've been on a major label. But then again, some independent
labels have been excruciatingly bad to us as well, so...
GROSS: During the punk days, I think a fair number of people would show up at
concerts in some venues and think that it was really cool to throw things at
the band or to, you know, act very aggressively.
Mr. LANGFORD: Had to spit at the band? Yeah.
GROSS: So what were some of the things that happened at some of your concerts
that you didn't appreciate?
Mr. LANGFORD: Oh, people getting stabbed, and members of the band being
beaten senseless, and...
GROSS: When did that happen?
Mr. LANGFORD: At a Rock Against Racism gig in Newcastle...
GROSS: Oh, perfect.
Mr. LANGFORD: ...in the dressing room. Some--there was a band called the
Angelic Upstarts were meant to be playing, and apparently they didn't turn up,
so their fans decided to beat the living crap out of the rest of us, so it was
kind of a scary time. That's why the Mekons made a conscious decision not to
play live after about 1980. We just didn't want to play. We didn't play till
maybe '83, something like that.
GROSS: Were you almost afraid of your own fans?
Mr. LANGFORD: I just thought it turned into a very hideous, violent scene.
Punk was meant to be this wide-open thing where everything was acceptable, and
it became--like if you didn't have the leather jacket, the Mohican, you didn't
play fast and pretend to be really stupid, which is what most punk bands
seemed to want to do, and--or be really right wing, because there was a lot of
really right-wing punk bands at that time, and I mean, we played to crowds
with people `Sieg Heiling,' you know, who would then be--you know, we would
shoot our mouths off at them, and then they'd be waiting for us outside after
the gig. You know, that happened a couple of times. Pretty scary.
GROSS: Did you ask yourself how did this happen? How did it happen that the
music hardened into this caricature, and that the fans somehow interpreted the
music as being so compatible with fascism?
Mr. LANGFORD: And I think the industry got the lid on it, you know. It
became a commercial prospect for the music industry when it was interesting,
and it was because no one knew where it was going and what was happening, and
it turned into a very unpleasant cul-de-sac quite quickly, and we decided we
didn't want anything to do with it, so we didn't play live till about '83, and
we put out records, but very bedroom-orientated records. We would stay at
home and sing into tape recorders.
BOGAEV: Jon Langford of the Mekons. He spoke with Terry in 1998. The Mekons
have a new album, "Out of Our Heads," and are on their 25th-anniversary tour
in the US. Also Langford's band the Waco Brothers has a new CD, "New Deal,"
due out next month.
Coming up, a review of the new film "Secretary." This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New film "Secretary"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
"Secretary" is a new romantic comedy whose subject is sadomasochism. The film
won a special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for originality. It
stars James Spader and the up-and-coming young actress Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
The most powerful film I've seen this year is Frederick Wiseman's three-hour
documentary "Domestic Violence," which takes place mostly in a shelter for
battered spouses and their children. Wiseman shows us countless women who
became dependent on their abusers to fill some inner vacuum, and who only
broke free when their lives or the lives of their children became endangered.
I mention Wiseman's film because I know it's going to look very weird at the
end of the year when two of my favorite movies are "Domestic Violence" and
"Secretary," which is a lovely and desperately sweet romantic comedy about a
woman who gets liberated by being spanked and shackled by her employer, sort
of an S&M "Pretty Woman."
I don't see loving "Secretary" as being a contradiction, exactly. In part
that's because the S&M is bloodless, but it's also because I think a healthy
popular culture ought to be able to accommodate different points of view, with
one work saying one thing strongly, and another saying `Yes, but.' The `Yes,
but' of "Secretary" is that two monumentally damaged people might actually be
freed from their psychological shackles by acting out a master-slave
The movie is based on a story by Mary Gaitskill in her collection, "Bad
Behavior," which is one of the best titles a short-story collection ever had,
because you end up saying, `That's not so bad,' instead of `Yuck.' The humor
of Gaitskill is hard and dry, and on paper, "Secretary" ends with the narrator
feeling estranged from her own body, and saying she doesn't much mind it.
Director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson have sweetened
up this premise, but I don't mean that to sound too patronizing. Sweet in
this explosive context is rather bracing.
They get away with it, at least in my mind, because the woman and the man are
both such lovable basket cases. Lee, who's played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, has
an overbearing mom and an absent alcoholic dad, and when she loses control of
events, she takes one of many sundry sharp implements to her arms and legs.
She cuts and burns herself, and once cuts too deeply and nearly bleeds to
death. Out of the hospital, Lee answers an ad for a secretary to the attorney
E. Edward Grey, played by James Spader, whose office is like a Victorian
aesthete's pleasure palace. Grey is a tortured soul himself, having been left
by his domineering wife.
When he notices the bandaged cuts on Lee's legs, he becomes interested. On
some unconscious level he senses that their needs might be complementary. He
humiliates her subtly, then not so subtly. He berates her for typographical
errors, but he also issues more positive commands. He tells her not to cut
herself, and she doesn't. Then he asks her into his office to review a letter
she has mistyped.
(Soundbite from "Secretary")
Mr. JAMES SPADER: (As E. Edward Grey) Now I want you to bend over the desk,
so you're looking directly at it. Get your face very close to the letter, and
read the letter aloud.
Ms. MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: (As Lee) I don't understand.
Mr. SPADER: There's nothing to understand. Put your elbows on the desk,
bend over, get your face close to the letter and read it aloud.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Dear Mr. Garvey, I'm grateful to you for referring...
(Soundbite of bang)
Mr. SPADER: Continue.
EDELSTEIN: It almost sounds like a soft-core porn movie, doesn't it, with
Spader's clenched little drone and Gyllenhaal's twitters, and that great
Angelo Badalamenti music which transports you to a fantasy harem, and parodies
that fantasy, too. But the soundtrack doesn't do justice to the scene you
just heard, or to Gyllenhaal, who'll be a star after this movie. The drama is
in her tremulousness and the way she moves from dazed and skittery into
something like elation, into rhapsody at being freed from her anger toward
herself, serving now as the vessel for this even more helpless sap's anger.
Most love stories are bland and generalized. This one takes you deep inside
Now I don't have a lot of first-hand experience at this S&M arena. I mean,
even if I did, I'd say I didn't. But I do know that movies and TV, in the US
at least, don't want to touch this stuff. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" played a
little with S&M last season, but in between Buffy's gory stakings of male
vampires, it was coy, and guilty about her sexual masochism. It didn't show
you the whole dynamic, the way "Secretary" does. I know that some people will
find this an uncomfortable fantasy, patriarchal and demeaning to women. But
isn't it important to dramatize the ways in which sexual role-playing can be
liberating, too, and an antidote to shame? Must all love stories be told from
the missionary position?
BOGAEV: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.