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Alt-country's unlikely heroes the Waco Brothers play the Warhol

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It wasn't sufficient for U.K.-born Jon Langford to start two legendary rock bands in his industrial hometown of Leeds: '77 punkers The Mekons and '80s dark dance-rockers The Three Johns. When Langford moved to Chicago, in the early '90s, he unintentionally created yet another music legend -- the Waco Brothers, widely acknowledged as the influential, righteously soused bad boys of the "insurgent country" movement.

But when the Wacos formed, in 1995, it was just a lark -- a handful of Chicago scenesters who were in industrial techno-rock bands such as Revolting Cocks and Jesus Jones, and who knew little to nothing about country music. Guitarist Deano Schlabowkse was in Wax Trax outfit Wreck, and Mark Durante (of KMFDM) had already taken the first step toward Waco membership, playing punk rock with a country twang in a group called Iggy Yoakam and the World Famous Pogo Ponies. "A lot of the guys had been in other bands and were pretty pissed off with the music business," says Langford. "It was meant to be a local band -- but the next thing you know, we're touring Australia."

Although the Mekons had delved into the country vein as early as 1985, with the seminal release Fear and Whiskey (which some credit with helping to kick off the alt-country movement), the Waco Brothers started more casually, as a cover band. "We were a bunch of punk rockers who didn't know how to play country, so we approximated things. We were misreading Merle Haggard, George Jones and Johnny Cash songs, playing them too fast and too loud." Their interpretations weren't limited to country songs, either -- they even did The Who's "Baba O'Riley." "The lyrics start with 'Out here in the fields.' We took a few liberties, and there was a level of humor in it."

More than a decade later, the Waco Brothers have transformed from a good Friday-night laugh to full-fledged alt-country icons with a vast, original songbook. One publication that always stood behind them was the genre's own bible, No Depression. "Singer-songwriter whining was the kind of thing that [The Mekons] were trying to destroy in '77," says Langford, "so it was weird that the mag that would write about us was promoting anything with nice hair and an acoustic guitar, and then we were somehow lumped in along with that. The writers liked us, but the readership probably despised us."

Bloodshot Records -- alt-country champions with a roster including the likes of Alejandro Escovedo and Neko Case -- also firmly backed the Wacos. "They bullied us into making an album in the first place, when we didn't have the desire to," jokes Langford. "But [Bloodshot] became a great platform for us. I don't think anyone else would put up with our lack of willingness to go out and slog around. A lot of their bands go out on the road, but we tend to do what fits us."

The Wacos took the time to finally capture their rare, crazy live shows on the latest release, Waco Express: Live and Kickin' at Schuba's Tavern, which came out in March. "We just wanted to be a live band, so to make a live album -- which can be considered our 'best of' -- is coming full circle. Everyone tells us our albums are alright, but not as good as we play live. For us, it's hard to tell because we're consumed in the moment ... in a big rush of noise and beer."

The Wacos will play The Andy Warhol Museum on Fri., June 6. But can such a band be fully enjoyed in the rarified atmosphere of the museum's seated theater, which doesn't exactly promote heavy drinking? Langford has a solution for that. "I would invest in a Waco Brothers flask, which we'll be selling before the show. We also have some shot glasses we're bringing, too."

The Warhol might even want to consider Langford for an eventual high-profile art exhibit, following up on a shindig that local band The Johnsons arranged for him many years ago in Pittsburgh. As a painter (he's done portraits of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, and designed labels for the Dogfish Head microbrew), writer and frequent contributor to public radio's This American Life, heck, Langford deserves it. "I've got some [shows] coming up this summer in Florida and Norway," he says. "Andy Warhol is as huge an influence on me as Hank Williams."

And Langford, a life-long left-wing socialist, sees no contradiction in appearing at an artistic bastion of the "liberal elite" while playing a musical style normally associated with the right wing of American politics. In fact, he could probably give a lecture on the very subject. "There's always been the theme of the rebel in country music," he says. "The underlying trend is that it's music that tries to deal with the real world. It comes out of stuff that's pretty uncompromising."

 

Waco Brothers with The Working Poor. 8 p.m. Fri., June 6. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side. $12. 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org

Mule kickers: Waco Brothers
  • Mule kickers: Waco Brothers

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