Preaching to the converted – Jon McClure

With 300,000 album sales under his belt, 15 European tours and a circle of rock royalty friends including Noel Gallagher, Damon Albarn and Arctic Monkeys, it would be easy for Reverend and the Makers singer Jon McClure to sit back and enjoy the trappings of fame and wealth.  And with lyrics like “I don’t wanna die in the same hole I was born,” a line from the band’s last single No Soap in a Dirty War, it’d be easy to jump to the conclusion that McClure is eschewing his native Sheffield and fleeing for the bright lights of London or New York and a life of celebrity.

Not so.  A life of celebrity maybe, but not in the Z-List, falling out of clubs sense.  In an age when bands and artists spout carefully managed PR speak rather than real opinions for fear of alienating fans (and their wallets), Jon’s outbursts on everything from politics to the press are a welcome relief.  But what makes Jon truly different to the identikit rent-a-mob band members who court publicity through controversy is the fact that the Reverend practices what he preaches.

Last year, Jon was the driving force behind Love Music Hate Racism’s hugely successful 4500 capacity gig at Magna in Rotherham, where Kaiser Chiefs and Courteeners joined Reverend and the Makers and South Yorkshire bands such as Alvarez Kings and The Big Bang to show a combined opposition to racism in all its forms.

And in the summer of 2009, Jon curated the Sheffield Tramlines festival with ex Libertine Carl Barat, where he used his appearance to urge warring football fans to keep their rivalry on the pitch, telling them, “I don’t care if you’re a Blade or an Owl, it’s all Sheffield”.  Jon plans to build on the success of Tramlines in 2010, with ambitious plans to bring the world’s biggest artists to South Yorkshire.

“I’ve got a lot of love for Sheff,” he says fondly.  “And credit where credit’s due, Paul Scriven (Liberal Democrat Councillor and parliamentary spokesman for Sheffield Central) is a breath of fresh air.  The council have come onboard with Tramlines and there’s more of a culture now where the council want to help.  We want to get world class acts to Sheffield, just everyone all together and put us on the world stage.  It’s a time for Sheffield to show a united front and a united face and celebrate, because we’ve got something that could be very special.”

With a reputation in the national media for being opinionated (The Sun referred to him as ‘gobby’), Jon has never been one to shy away from controversy.  His opinions on everything from celebrity (criticising the amount of coverage given to reality TV stars during times of global conflict), the British music press (“all-white, middle-class bullies”) and British politics (his outbursts have resulted in threats against him and his family) have gained negative tabloid headlines, but Jon refuses to conform to the carefully managed stable of celebrity which he blames for a lack of cultural revolution over the last decade.

“The lyric from No Soap in a Dirty War isn’t a geographical reference,” explains the 6’4”, 28 year old front man fans know as the Reverend.  “It’s more like a mental thing, a situation.  You see people you went to school with and they’re in the same place, doing the same thing, with their life all mapped out for them.”

And Jon believes that this complacency spills over from the over-managed, ultra-groomed culture of celebrity which kills creativity, and is so determined not to be a part of it, he’s recently sacked his PR agency.

“The music industry’s just full of people who are constrained, which is why it’s been so boring for the last ten years,” he says.  “My PR wouldn’t let me say anything.  He tried to tell me what to say – don’t tell me what to say.  I just tell the truth and call it how it is.  They [other celebrities] just say what they are told to say and it’s all part of the big machine, it’s hideous, completely hideous.  That’s why there’s been nothing culturally that’s been that significant in Britain over the last few years.  The internet’s the only thing and that’s a bit of technology, there’s nothing that’s come from the street because everything is too managed. “

Jon isn’t naive enough to think that if he makes a stand, that culture will disappear overnight.  But he does firmly believe that music has a massive role to play in the political arena.

“Music’s an art form, and art should reflect life and a massive part of life is politics,” he declares.  “Throughout the ages from painters to writers and whatever, politics has always featured in art.  But there aren’t many people who are willing to make records with political comment in them anymore.

“It’s commonly agreed that the best artists of the past are political: Lennon, Marley, Strummer, Chuck D, Bob Dylan.  How much more political do you want to get?  And everyone goes, ‘oh weren’t they brilliant them?  Oh I love Bob Marley’.  But what about now, what’s going on now? Back in the 60’s when it’s safer, people are saying, ‘Oh you were dead right standing up against all that apartheid Nelson Mandela, wicked that’.  Well at the time would you have chained yourself to a gate for him? No.  See what I mean?  That’s the difference.”

Born and raised in Upperthorp, Jon cites his Sheffield upbringing as keeping him firmly grounded.  “My music career could be over in a year, it could be over in ten or it could be over in 20,” he shrugs.  “But eventually I’m gonna have to walk down the street and walk past that guy that I could have been a right creep to.”

He admits to being a trouble causer at school, but credits his history teacher at Notre Dame with turning his life around.

“I was a trouble maker until I was sixteen,” he admits.  “I never concentrated – all I was bothered about was how to get out of a fight and into girls.  But then I had a teacher called Sean O’Connor, head of history at Notre Dame, and he’s one of the best human beings I’ve ever met.  He was amazing, and he just sat me down and said you can either be like me or you can be on the dole.  I wanted to become a teacher just to try to be like him. There’s nothing better than a good teacher, you know.  Teachers put you on that path.”

Straight A grades at A Level led to offers from Oxford and Cambridge, which were turned down in favour of reading history at Sheffield Hallam University – “it had the best history department. And I had a job in a pub, you need to pay your way”, where he received a First.  And although he loved to write poetry, his ambition was to become a teacher.

“They sent me to Bradford to this school, and they were wild these kids,” he says.  “I knew then that I had to find another way of getting stuff across to people because you’re just too limited as a teacher.  I admire teachers so much, and if you get a good teacher they can change your life.  But it wasn’t for me.”

Although a career in the formal environs of a classroom wasn’t to be, Jon found a much more appropriate channel of communication in music and the social media revolution.

Our interview is conducted at Manchester Academy, where he plays to a sold-out crowd of 5000 screaming fans.  Another 3500 are signed up to his Twitter feed.  And through his gigs and his Twitter, fans see the real Jon McClure, unedited by PR agencies, and are witness to some very public spats.

“Twitter’s great for me, man; nearly 4000 people reading it and I can just say what I want without hiding behind anyone or anything.  Bang, I’ve said it, there you go.”

And although the instant nature of the medium could give cause for regret, it’s not an area that gives Jon concern.

“As soon as you think, ‘maybe I shouldn’t have said that,’ you start to think like a politician and you’re editing it,” he says.  “I’ll be quite frank with you, nobody tells the truth anymore. People will say, ‘Oh, I’ve always been really into [the bands] Gang of Four and ESG.’  No you weren’t, we were listening to Shed 7 last week.  Be honest and stop lying.  The music industry is just full of lying fakes.”

Jon reserves particular derision for weekly music magazine NME, with which he had a very public spat on Twitter and that has resulted in him launching his own on-line publication, Ark.

“The thing with NME is they’re all white Caucasian men who work for some media corporation,” he says.  “I honestly don’t find their work valuable – they’re not talking to me.  They’re all upper middle class and therefore the music they are into is not what we listen to, it’s not what we’re about. It’s got nowt to do with us, they don’t understand any of the cultural references or anything.”

Jon is particularly dismissive about the magazine’s scorn for his ‘peace and love’ persona.  “Call me what you want, but don’t say peace and love’s cringeworthy, man” he declares angrily.  “There are two wars going on right now that we’re directly involved in, and that’s just two out of loads more around the world.  Don’t say peace and love are cringeworthy man, you know what I mean?“

And, typically, rather than berate the state of the music press and then walk away, Jon has turned the sector on its head by launching Ark, a web-based magazine that will allow readers to upload their own content, “Just bigging up good stuff by people who actually have experience of the subject matter rather than the failed musician bitterness found in the music press at present.”

Author Howard Marks, comedian Jason Manford, Arctic Monkeys bassist Andy Nicholson and Sheffield DJ Toddla T have been signed up to write regular columns, and Ark will also feature politics, comedy and film as well as music.  “Write about what you and your friends are into, political things that you feel passionate about,” urges Jon.  “Generally just do everything that the NME should be doing but isn’t as it attempts to make money by putting Kings of Leon on the cover every second week.”

Jon says his determination to challenge the cultural and political giants comes from his multi-cultural upbringing in Upperthorp, which also shaped his passionate activism against racism in all its forms.  His prolific work with Love Music Hate Racism and Unite Against Fascism has led to Jon and his family enduring a worrying backlash.

“It’s scary,” he admits.  “There was a girl ringing my mum and dad’s house all the time, threatening them, and I’ve had people with knuckle dusters turn up to a gig saying, ‘We’re gonna kill your lead singer’.   But I know the majority of my fans are working class people, and they’re the ones, if you can get to them and just turn them a little bit, suddenly they think about things differently.  If I’m given a platform and the opportunity to influence people, then don’t  be influenced by my hair or my clothes, be influenced by my attitude.

“I’m into Bob Marley and I’m into John Lennon and I like their  music but I like what they were about and  the stance that they had on things, so I’m just representing them things.  And there’s much more a need for them now than there was then – the world’s more messed up than it was then and people are just chatting about it.  People can say I’m controversial, or I’m gobby, but all I’m doing is pointing out the obvious. I say stuff because I’m not afraid to say it.  But it gets you in so much trouble, you’re not allowed to say stuff in this day and age.  In 1969, no bother.  It’s 2009 and I’m out of time.”

In order to encourage more people to speak up, Jon has launched Instigate Debate with ex-Libertine Carl Barat, musician Keiran Leanord and political writer Mark Donne.  The web-based project  encourages members of the public to ask serious questions (there are suggestions on the site, of public figures and film the responses on their mobile phones, then post them on youtube.   There are more than 100 debates on youtube, featuring celebrities from Alexa Chung to George Galloway and Jon is currently in talks to transfer the concept to TV.

“ It’s coming on, people think it’s a good concept and hopefully we can get it on TV,” says Jon.  “I’ve got Carl and the other guys helping me, and it’s going well.  But I’m just one man, you know?” he says, in a rare moment of weariness.

That weariness became all-consuming last year when the strain of being a one-man crusade against the system became too much, and Jon announced his retirement from music.  “I just went home and stopped for a while,” he shrugs.  “I got down and deep on myself but I sorted myself out.  Everyone has down days and it can be like if you’re a plasterer and one day you wake up and be like, ‘I don’t wanna be a plasterer anymore. I wanna do summat else.’ But because you’re a musician there’s a lot more focus on you and people say you’re only saying it to make a headline, and it’s like no I just don’t feel the same doing this job.

“But you know what, I could just sit in all the time with a book, but you have to go and let it move you.”

Following his brief hiatus from the public eye, Jon McClure has come back bigger and louder than ever, and this time he’s not going away.  Not content with touring to promote the Makers’ second album, the critically acclaimed ‘A French Kiss in the Chaos’, Jon is taking on the British political system.

“There’s an issue with the white working class that’s not being addressed by the main political parties,” he says.  “Someone has got to talk to the working class and get on their page, and I think there’s an opportunity for a new political party, a new bunch of people.  Did you see how much publicity Joanna Lumley got for that Gurka thing she did?  That was a tiny issue compared to everything else that’s going on, but it was front pages cos she’s Joanna  Lumley.   If you had a bunch of people all like that, and I’m not saying celebrities,  but if you had the right balance of clever thinkers and people who can articulate, then I do believe they could do something.”

So, does Jon see himself making it official and going down the politics road?

“Could you see me wearing a suit, shouting it out in Parliament?” he asks.  But although he may feel he doesn’t fit in the formal environs of British politics, Jon is more than happy to back his words with actions.

“I’d help facilitate a new party, definitely,” he says.  “I’d love to get on Look North and have a live debate with politicians and show the rest of the world what people from Sheffield are really like.”

Politics and top 10 albums aside, Jon has managed to find time to fit in a wedding to fellow band member Laura Manuel in Italy, who he lives with in their Sheffield home.  “The wedding was lovely, she’s an amazing woman,” he smiles.  “She’s smart man, she’s really good for me.”

Somehow, he’s also managing to find time to make eight short films with Sheffield producer Sean Brack, tour India, and busk from Shanghai to Sheffield making music with the people he meets along the way. “The record company isn’t too chuffed about that – they think I should be out promoting the album,” he shrugs.

With so much in the pipeline, Jon must be looking forward to kicking back and taking it easy on his return.  So, what’s in store for next year?

“To cause a revolution,” he smiles.  “And I’m gonna start it right here in Sheffield.”