Reverend and the Makers’ frontman Jon McClure was enjoying a little home time in South Yorkshire ahead of his band’s latest UK jaunt when I called. And Sheffield is clearly still at the epicentre of his universe, a dozen years after breakthrough indie No.1 single, ‘Heavyweight Champion of the World’, and subsequent top-five debut LP, The State of Things.
“I’m just having a bit of dad and lad time with my youngest son. His Mum’s gone to the shops. It’s Batman and Superman vs the Giant Squid, having a play with his figures. He’s loving it.”
I suspect Jon – joined in the band by wife Laura, Ed Cosens, Joe Carnall, and Ryan Jenkinson – is loving it too, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that in-house battle ends up as a Reverend and the Makers album title one day.
Jon and Laura’s youngest, Reggie, is two, ‘‘loving life, angling all his figures up’, his four-year-old brother having just started school, but their folks will be off again soon, with nine UK headline dates just three weeks away when we spoke.
“I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be good. Tickets are selling really well, with a few places already sold out. Everyone’s buzzing.”
There’s clearly still plenty of love out there for Reverend and the Makers.
“It’s weird really. We had a real lull during the middle period of the band, when nobody seemed to care anymore. But the last few years have been better than ever in lots of ways.”
They cross the Roses’ border to play Manchester Academy on Saturday, October 19th, and prior to that come even closer to my patch, visiting Action Records, Preston, on Wednesday, September 25th for a 6.30pm in-store acoustic set publicising their Best of Reverend and the Makers album.
With six top-20 albums and five top-five indie chart singles ‘under us belts’, sharing bills with the likes of fellow Sheffield success story Arctic Monkeys, Oasis, The Courteeners and The Libertines along the way, the latest platter is out via Cooking Vinyl on Friday, September 20th, a double-vinyl, double-CD and digital download release spanning the band’s career and including singles and fans’ favourites alike, 27 songs over two discs split into ‘Uppers’ and ‘Downers’ and including new songs ‘Elastic Fantastic’, featuring Rich Westley from The Moonlandingz and described by Jon as ‘a fantasy about killing Donald Trump with a bow & arrow’, and ‘Te Quiero Pero’.
But it’s not like they’re dependent on past success, 2017’s Death Of A King, their sixth studio album, having charted higher than the previous four, debuting in the UK album chart at No.11.
“Yeah, I think that’s testament to how good we’ve been live. We never used to be. We were rubbish.”
You really think so?
“I think so, yeah. The last two years we’ve got dead good live, that combined with making interesting records it’s gone from strength to strength. I feel very blessed, and we had a great festival season. The entire festival turned out to see us at Tramlines, and Kendal, and Y Not. We had some of the best crowds of the weekend. That was really kind of flattering, y’know.”
My sources tell me Cotton Clouds was buzzing for you too.
“That was wonderful. We had a great time, and they tweeted that was the best set they had. So what else can you do? The usual frustrations remain about the industry at large, but we just do us own thing. It’s wonderful, it’s a party when you come and see us.”
No doubt those festival sets are largely ‘best of’s, which tees you up nicely for this tour and the new release. But why now?
“Just because we’ve had six albums out, and I think a lot of people might have been early fans who missed the later stuff, or later fans who missed the early stuff. This is just our way of connecting the dots, really, with a CD of bangers and a CD of ballads. What we’re moving on to next is a bit mad, so I kind of wanted to draw a line under this period.”
Last time we spoke was in 2014 for the Thirty Two album, signifying your age at the time (and one of his Dad’s lucky Lottery numbers apparently), so maybe this one should be Thirty Eight, and by virtue of mathematics alone twice as strong as Adele’s 2008 debut.
“Ha ha! Do you know what though, the only album I made that I really don’t like is Thirty Two. It was the last of me being kind of young, getting a bit older, trying to figure out how I fitted into what’s trendy on the radio. I’m almost second-guessing myself on that album. Ever since I’ve been doing what I want, and the next album involves artificial intelligence, partnering up with the University of Sheffield to do some crazy machine neural network stuff.
“Lots of people write less good versions of their first album forever, or until they stop doing it, but I feel more powerful than ever in lots of ways, with a better angle on who I am as an artist. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend quite a lot of time with Damon Albarn. I look at him and a few other people, and think you can get better as you get older if you don’t try to be 21, accepting where you are and what lane you’re in, pushing at the boundaries.
“I feel really positive and in lots of ways I’m completely divorced from the rest of the music industry. And I’m alright with that. I live in Sheffield, my fans are there, and I’m a bit old school, me, starting to put artistry before everything else, and it’s gone dead well. When I tried to fit into the music game, it went really badly. If I’ve got any advice to young ‘uns it’s just to do what you want, do what you think is good.”
I always felt you were old beyond your years in the influences you cite, many of which are artists I admire, from Bob Marley to The Clash, Madness, The Specials …
“I’ve been very lucky. Mick Jones asked me to come and sing, and I’m just trying to learn from my heroes, and when I think about what my heroes would be doing now, they’d be doing stuff like the AI thing and they’d definitely be having a say about politics.
“Imagine in a few years, people will be saying, ‘You were living through one of the most tumultuous periods of British politics’. I’m not going to name names, but there will be so many whose music said nothing about it. Almost as if you lived in some strange vacuum. A lot of these artists are cowards. They‘re careerists. And anybody who’s silent in this day and age needs to ask themselves why. If you don’t know anything about it and don’t have an opinion, that’s fine. But if you’re silent because you fear what impact you’re going to have on your career, you’re just a coward in my mind … and you would be in the mind of Joe Strummer, I’m certain of it.
“I think people are scared to push the ball forward, whether that’s in a political way or in an art-experimental way. And let’s be honest, the music industry is a strange place.”
Bearing that in mind, the locations you’ve chosen for LP launch dates (in-store record store shows at Sheffield Bear Tree on Friday, September 20th, Huddersfield Vinyl Tap on Saturday, September 22nd, and Chesterfield Tallbird Records on Monday, September 23rd, before heading over to Lancashire) are in the sort of towns and cities Boris Johnson is visiting right now in his ill-advised bid to gain hearts and minds and push on with his masterplan, telling us austerity’s on its way out, he’s spending gazillions of money on us, and it’s all going rather swimmingly, old chap.
“He’s actually near Sheffield as we speak, in a satellite town, Stocksbridge, more or less founded on the steel industry, where the best thing to happen to it in my lifetime was this shopping centre, which was funded by £40m of EU money. So what are you going to do? Remain silent and become some massive rock star, or stick your next on the line, stand for something and be a midtable rock star? Give me midtable, any day!”
Conversation followed about my daughter studying at the University of Sheffield, the history department where Jon studied for his degree. I also reminded him that last time around he told me he was a third of the way through writing a historical fiction novel.
“I’ve been trying to do that for some time. Sometimes it can take me as long as it takes to play a song as write one, in my back garden maybe, and it’ll come out like ‘bang’. But I look at other disciplines and at authors sometimes and see an absolute genius – the amount of investment of brain power, time and energy is incomparable to music. What we do is instantaneous. I’m still trying to get there with my novel.”
Is it odd that you chose Sheffield for your degree. Did you already have it in mind that you’d be travelling the UK and the wider world through music instead?
“In some ways I wonder if I should have had that other city experience. I lived in Leeds for a bit. I did wonder if I’d denied myself something, but then I think, ‘Y’know what – not really’. I’m glad I stayed in Sheffield. It’s a fine uni and it allowed me to keep part of that Sheffield scene that developed. If I had moved away I’d have never been that guy. It happened during that last year at uni really.
“For everything there’s a reason, and I think it were good that I stayed here. We’re the home of British electronica, we’ve had some amazing music over the years, and continue to. I don’t think we really get the credit we deserve, in the way Manchester and Liverpool have.”
That music’s part of the city landscape for me, not least The Human League, Heaven 17 and ABC, then Pulp, right through to Richard Hawley, whose LPs have been a constant in my car these past few years.
“Richard’s amazing, and like a big brother to me. When he’s on the radio he always says lovely things about me, and when he comes around our house he imparts his wisdom and that. Sheffield’s full of them people. Richard Kirk’s up the road, who started Cabaret Voltaire, Phil Oakey lives up the road from me, Nick Banks from Pulp lives up the top of the road. We’re just immersed in this wonderful music scene. It’s not one of those where everyone goes and lives in London. With the exception of the Arctic Monkeys and Joe Cocker, everyone who’s really done it still lives here. (Fellow ex-WriteWyattUK interviewee) Martyn Ware lived in London for a while, but is now back here.”
Paul Carrack’s not far away either, is he.
“No, and I think Jarvis (Cocker) lives nearby again now. And even on a local level there’s lots of exciting things happening. There’s a band called Sophie and the Giants who have just signed a big record deal and are doing very well.
“I’ll give you another example regarding the diversity of Sheffield’s music scene. There’s this metal band, Bring Me the Horizon, who I’d never even heard of until they were playing Wembley Arena. This is a band from Sheffield, and this lad’s got a clothing firm from which he makes millions more than he does from his band. They’ve got a bar and a studio and all this stuff. And that’s just the indie heavy metal scene in Sheffield. It’s wonderful. It’s not like we’re trading on past glories. And because it’s not fancy and it’s not trendy, it allows us to operate slightly out of the spotlight.”
That came over in a BBC documentary and my 2014 interview with Paul Carrack. The fact that if he were to step out of line he felt he’d be gently reminded of his South Yorkshire roots – that element of not getting above your station.
“Yeah, absolutely, and I think there’s a musical freedom in Sheffield. My music’s nothing like Richard (Hawley)’s, his music’s nothing like The Human League, they’re nothing like the Arctic Monkeys, whose music is nothing like Bring Me the Horizon. But for some reason we all co-exist and do these interesting, cult things, and I think that’s wonderful. I feel very lucky to live here.
“There is that ‘when are you moving to London’ thing, but I’d sooner move to Rio. I can travel the world and come back to Sheffield, especially in the digital age, man. It’s not like London’s paved with gold. If anything, it’s a cultural vacuum. It sucks people’s creativity out of them. The grime scene is wonderful, and what they do is cool, but I can’t think of a great band to come from London in a long, long time. And there’s more than five million people there. There’s half a million in Sheffield.”
First time I stayed over in Sheffield, I made a pilgrimage to the (rather underwhelming) site of the Black Swan, scene of The Clash’s first gig on July 4th, 1976, supporting the Sex Pistols. I guess you were there regularly in its later incarnation as The Boardwalk.
“I worked on the bar, and got a job there for Alex (Turner, Arctic Monkeys), Ed (Cozens, his bandmate) and all these Sheffield bands. And we were very fortunate in that time to see Arthur Lee play with Love, John Cooper Clarke, The Fall … There’s obviously also that legacy with the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and all that. Sheffield’s just that place, man. In lots of ways we lag behind, but in other ways we’re very kind of futuristic. It’s a musical city. You turn on a tap and a song comes out. There are certain places like that. Jamaica’s like that. In the great scheme of things the population’s tiny, same as Cuba, but everybody’s got a song to sing and a story to tell. And Sheffield’s like that. I’ll go and see my auntie and she’ll give me a subject of a song. She’s 80, she’ll be nattering on and say something, and I’ll say, ‘That’s a tune!’ It’s in the water.”
When I saw you at Preston’s 53 Degrees you finished your set then memorably popped outside to do two more songs, the latter a cover of Dandy Livingstone’s rocksteady classic ‘A Message to You, Rudy.”
I guess that was just another night for you though.
“Yeah, but the selection of ‘Rudy’ was deliberate, having famously been covered by The Specials. I always try and place myself in a musical lineage that means something. I’ve come to know Horace (Panter) and we collaborated on a lyric book I did.”
At that point, parental duties are required with Reggie, with Jon losing track of where we were up to, coming back a little distracted at first.
“The obvious thing now is just balancing being a musician with being a Dad. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy. It’s hard, but you get another set of perspectives, and an honest lyric writer will try and reflect where you are at that time in life. And I think your fans grow with you.
“The weird thing with the last few years is that loads of young ‘uns have got into it, like at those festivals. We’re becoming that band anyone can like. It’s like Madness a few years ago – they’ve never been trendy, but they’ve got loads of great songs, and anyone can get into them. I’m not comparing myself to them – they’ve had loads of No.1s – but when you stick around a while it’s like anyone’s allowed to like it now. We’re not trendy, and haven’t been since when we first came out. But you see people watching, having a proper rave-up, and that’s wonderful. And long may it continue, mate.”
Finally, I see you’re playing just up the road from me at Action Records, Preston (having previously appeared there for most recent studio album, 2017’s Death Of A King, in another in-store acoustic show …
“Ooh, I love it there!”
What’s the set-up this time – is it just you and Ed on acoustic guitars again?
“Most probably. I really do like that record shop. It’s a wonderful place. I follow them on Twitter and see all the cool things they do. And that vinyl revival thing is wonderful for places like that. We’re looking forward to being back in Preston. I always think towns like Preston are the lifeblood of this country, proper places where people appreciate the music in the way equivalent towns in maybe the South of England don’t perhaps.
“I might turn up a bit early so I can get dusty fingers for half an hour, have a root through old records there. We turned up late last time. There were loads of people already there.”
Reverend and the Makers dates: Thursday, October 3rd – Nottingham Rock City; Friday, October 4th – Portsmouth The Wedgewood Rooms; Wednesday, October 9th – London Electric Ballroom; Friday October 11th – Birmingham O2 Institute 2; Saturday October 12th – Norwich Epic Studios; Thursday October 17th – Glasgow St Luke’s; Friday October 18th – Newcastle-upon-Tyne University Students Union, Saturday October 19th – Manchester Academy; Friday October 25th – Sheffield O2 Academy; Saturday December 7th – Leeds First Direct Arena (supporting Shed Seven). For more details, visit www.reverendmakers.com. You can also buy the album via this link.
Entry to Action Records’ in-store acoustic show is via wristband in exchange for pre-orders of The Best of Reverend and The Makers, from the Church Street store or through this link.