Interview: Jon McClure of Reverend and the Makers

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Jon McClure, lead singer of Sheffield band, Reverend and The Makers, hosted the recent 4,500-strong Love Music Hate Racism Rotherham Carnival. He speaks to Lee Billingham about his music and politics

How did you get into music?

I got into music by being a kind of poet and writer. I put on parties and performed poetry. I also wrote stuff for the Arctic Monkeys' website. I used to write it under various pseudonyms, which kind of increased their mythology. It was more politically inclined than their music would be.

It was around the time of the Iraq war, during which time I had an Iraqi girlfriend for six years. She was from a Shia family, so we were increasingly politicised. That led me into being in a band called 1984 for a number of years, which were really political. I always had the nickname "The Reverend", not for any religious reason but because people were always saying, "Oh, he's like a preacher man." After a while I started putting the prose and poetry into a more musical form, which has led me to be where I am now.

How do you feel about the music industry and the extent to which you can express yourself, particularly regarding political ideas and lyrics?

It's difficult because here there's no one doing it. There are people like Damon Albarn, Ian Brown and 3D from Massive Attack and people like that, but among new artists there's only me and MIA who seriously and permanently question British government foreign policy.

That is really dark compared to the counter-culture in the 1960s and the punk movement in the 1970s and Red Wedge in the 1980s. They were a kind of social voice but now there's none. This is at a time with the current economic situation, being at war in two countries, with the possibility of a war in a third country - or fourth if you include Pakistan - there's the situation with climate change and there's the rise of the BNP.

I would argue we need a politicised voice more than ever, but within mainstream music there's no one, and you have to ask yourself why. I think one of the reasons is that it has been recently a bit of a commercial suicide to entertain politics in your music.

But my heroes were political - Bob Marley, John Lennon, Joe Strummer. It's become un-cool to care about the world you live in. It's become cool to take crack. I don't think that's a rebellious act. I think it's far more rebellious to question the country we live in and the government. I never fell out of love with the idea of it being cool to care about the world you live in.

Do you think it's something that's actively discouraged in the music industry? Did you, personally have to be more subtle or have you always been overt with your messages?

I'd sooner be more overt, and increasingly the messages are becoming more overt. When I first came out two years ago the climate wasn't there for me to be saying these things but now people are saying, "Maybe you're right actually."

I think there is conservatism in the music industry because of vested interests. But then there are really good people in the music industry too. There are some good journalists at the NME and there are some good people who work in the industry who want change. People are thinking, "We're bored of guitar bands doing the same old shit," and looking for something of a little more substance.

Until recently I was very pessimistic. But my optimism's returning and I think it's because people don't want to listen until it affects them and suddenly all these things are starting to affect them. People are starting to think, "Petrol prices are going up. I wonder if that's got something to do with Iraq." Damn right it's got something to do with Iraq! I think people are starting to put two and two together.

If people don't give a shit about the world, that's when the BNP comes to power. Suddenly they've got all these seats and people are thinking, "How did that happen?" I'm an eternal optimist. I think that's one of the main differences that separates left from right: the left have an undying optimism in humankind and the human spirit.

What is your Instigate Debate project?

It's a website I set up to talk about meaningful subjects to people in the public eye. We're encouraging people to go up to celebrities, and rather than asking for a photograph or an autograph to ask them a question that means something.

We had a bit of a debate with a lad who works for the NME - while he liked the idea he didn't think we were maximising it. But rather than us just being a closed shop or getting into a slanging match we said to him, "Why don't you come and help us?" This thing has to be formed. In the same way that punk was unpopular at first, people have to help shape it and mould it, and he's very kindly agreed to help us with it. What we're doing is building a bit of a coalition of musicians, and the music press is going to get behind it. In that regard it becomes a real movement. It's tangible, because there are kids out there who are ready to go and do this. As a way of encouraging people we'll go and play at their house. It could be the start of something quite big. I'm excited.

The idea was to hold to account some of the journalists from papers like the Sun, and in particular the Daily Mail and people in the right wing press who really hold more power than the people in Westminster. They're unelected "people-shapers". If the government had any morality they'd pass some kind of monopolies bill for press freedom, because Rupert Murdoch and the people who own the Daily Mail have a monopoly on people's minds.

I've got a song on my new album called "Hard Times for Dreamers", and it really is. Unless we fight back and make people aware, and we make these people look like the bigots they actually are, we aren't going to get anywhere. For example the "Fagin's Heirs" headlines about the Romanian pickpockets that were supposedly running rampant in London: no one was ever charged but there was no retraction, maybe a one-line thing. The truth becomes completely distorted, which gives rise to the BNP.

What do you think about the rise of the BNP and using the culture of music as a weapon against them?

The rise of the BNP has been fuelled by the right wing media who are putting the blame on immigrants. The blame within society should be over the mismanagement of the economy and foreign policies by successive Tory and Labour governments.

The problem isn't immigrants. Unfortunately the fuel being thrown onto the fire by the right wing press is making white working class people, who are looking for someone to blame for the things they see to be wrong with society, put their faith in the BNP. But what these people think they are doing is safeguarding Britain. What they're actually doing is giving power to Nazis, people we fought a war against. I remember talking to an ex-RAF fellah. He said he didn't understand it: "I fought for six years against them Nazis only for them to get elected where I live." I thought that pretty much summed it up.

Other musicians taking a stand against them is good, because young people listen to music and also there's a much funkier and cooler message in it than marching up and down a street with Dr Martens boots on.

It's sad to say, but looking at the music world people seem to be more into making money than they are into making any sort of statement. I think it'll be a bit like the speculators in the stock exchange - they'll be caught out for that. They'll be caught out for chasing dollars. They've got no substance. I'll laugh at them when that comes. They won't have any career left. Their own greed will be their downfall.

What did you think about the LMHR event in Rotherham last month and the effect it had on South Yorkshire?

The event was brilliant. I think the effect on South Yorkshire has been massive because everybody knew about it. I'm in favour of grandiose political gestures: you need a gig with thousands. Even people who were just there for the bands got the message loud and clear. I think the BNP will have an increasingly difficult time in Rotherham after that and it gives us the chance to make networks to go back to next election and say, "Remember that gig we did? Well, this is why we did it. In these elections we don't want you voting for the BNP."

You and your family have been getting some grief for your work with LMHR.

There's some far right websites where I've been threatened and someone would phone up my parents to say I'm a psychopath. My parents have had to go ex-directory. It's upsetting because my parents aren't me. If you've got an issue take it to me. It's just cowardly.

It also underlines the tactics of fear that the far right and the BNP use. I would never threaten them physically. I'm completely opposed to everything that they stand for politically, but I would never threaten them or any member of their family. It's disgusting that they stoop that low, but I won't be deterred.

One of the first things that brought you into politics was the illegal invasion of Iraq. What do you think about the situation in the Middle East now?

I think the occupation of Iraq should end, primarily because the Iraqi people don't want the US or British troops there. Everything else is an irrelevance. The other problem is people don't talk about Israel. People are scared to talk about it because of accusations of anti-Semitism. The state of Israel, however, is holding the democratically elected government of the Palestinian people to ransom, and Gaza has become a big concentration camp. Hamas, whether people like it or not, were the democratic choice. If we go around the world espousing the merits of freedom and democracy we have to respect other people's choices. We can't have democracy but only when it's the people we want to get in. You can't espouse freedom and democracy while we're allying with Azerbaijan or Saudi Arabia, two of the world's most brutal dictatorships.

The Israeli government should accept the fact that they have to come to a permanent accommodation with the Palestinian people the same way that the white South Africans and white Rhodesians did, because the three of them were all in alliance in terms of counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism manoeuvres. In actual fact there's not a lot of difference really. For Barack Obama and US presidents to just blindly profess their support for Israel, no matter what it does, is very dangerous. And we have no cause to be in Iran at all. The US aren't going to be able to win in a military fashion. It's just not going to be possible.

As well as the politics of your music you give expression of an experience, particularly a working class experience, and perhaps an experience of the north of England.

There's a slight bit of humour in it, I think. You hear it in a lot of Sheffield music - a bit of cynicism. We've been fucked over for so many years I think people resort to humour. Hearing Jarvis Cocker's lyrics and Richard Hawley's and my own, it's that slightly tongue in cheek, "It's shit up here, innit? But let's have a laugh." My first record was quite regionally specific. It's located in the working class because that's where I come from. I could never make that record twice because that's not where I am anymore, but it's certainly rooted in that. I don't want to be a rock star who talks about leaving Sheffield. There's only me and Richard Hawley who still live in Sheffield of the Sheffield musicians, and I think that keeps you grounded.

The 1980s Sheffield scene seems to run through your music. What's your attitude to making music?

I'm very open-minded and I owe a lot of debt to Cabaret Voltaire, Human League and Pulp. I think the thing is that in the 1980s everyone was so skint that they couldn't afford new gear. Everyone ended up with analogue synthesisers and stuff.

Sheffield has always had an artistic community and because all the steel factories shut down the students and the artists could move into them and use them. That's why electronica took off because people were saying, "We've got a synth and an empty room. Shall we do something with that?" That's literally how it began, and in that regard it's a really organic thing. I think people assume Sheffield music began and ended four years ago with the Arctic Monkeys, but there's a lot of things happening - Warp Records and Squarepusher, and everything from Cabaret Voltaire and Human League era. It's a very vibrant city, I think our music is a fusion of all of the stuff put together.

What plans are there for the Northern Carnival 2009?

The same way the Rotherham gig sent a message across South Yorkshire, I think the Northern Carnival will send a message across the whole of the north of England, saying, "What are you doing? Stop this. We don't want the BNP round here." Hopefully people will sit up, take notice and actually listen to what we're saying.

The message will be a very loud and powerful one, and that's needed. We had the one in London last year, but a lot of the problems are in the north, a lot of the deprivation, a lot of the racial tension. I think we'll smack it next year and it should be beautiful, and I think the BNP will be put out of existence.


Reverend and the Makers

Jon McClure's politically charged side project