Born into a working-class family twenty five years ago, John McClure spent his early years living near by Sheffield's Kelvin Flats before going on to university only to drop out and become a poet. The past couple of years of have certainly proved eventful. The man they call the Reverend now has two Top 20 singles and a Top 10 album under his belt and he's best mates with Arctic Monkeys. We caught up with the tall, imposing front man on his tour bus outside of Sheffield Octagon, two or so hours before his sold out home town show. And he was in talkative form...
PB : It's been a good year so far hasn't it?
Reverend : It’s going alright you know. But I’m at a juncture now. I've written a second album and I’ve been outside every venue on this tour with my acoustic playing it and people have been singing along to songs they don’t even know.
PB : Is there a master plan?
Reverend : A bit. My plan was always to gain the attention of the masses and use it effectively. But I’ve got myself into this situation where I’ve said things on a political level. Second verse of the first tune on our first album I'm saying “They claim that the threat's high, oh do me a favour. Control you by fear, so you don't know your neighbour. Tube station at midnight, shoot them on sight. Hearts beating fast on the Jubilee line.” I’m saying our governments have ruled society through bogey men and fear. Hitler had the Jews; we had the Communists for a long time. The Romans had the Barbarians. Now The Islamic world’s less than happy with us and quite rightly so. Here’s my question. Can you name me one new artist in the last six years that’s tackled that subject?
PB : I can name you two old artists who’ve tackled these sorts of issues. Billy Bragg and Jello Biafra. I’m struggling to name a new artist.
Reverend : I’m the only one.
PB : There's certainly a real lack of inspirational anti-establishment figures in modern music, now that the Strummers and Marleys of the world have gone. Do you want to fill that gap?
Reverend : I want to. Whether I’ll be allowed to in the current situation is the issue. It’s show business, isn’t it. People don’t speak out. I’ve been advised to do the same. So what do I do?
PB : I think you should follow your heart and do what you feel you should do as an artist.
Reverend : The reason we’ve been able to survive the backlash that’s befallen every Sheffield band is because I think people realise that I genuine. That I’m not like a fucking bull-shitter and that I’m trying to do something. Luckily enough I’ve managed to get my songs on radio and therefore the masses are listening. For the first time in my life they’re listening to me.
PB : So what exactly is "The State of Things" right now? Do you think Great Britain is in terminal decline what with kids shooting each other on the streets, mindless reality TV shows and a general dumbing down in this celebrity driven culture ?
Reverend : We’re all hooked on the opium of 'Fame Academy', 'Big Brother' and celebrity culture like you say. That means the government are basically able to act completely unchecked really. Public opinion is the only thing that can really call these mother-fuckers to account. Unfortunately they’re winning the battle for public opinion. The only way to fight back is to harness it through popular culture.
Unfortunately there are a lot of cowardly musicians. The crying shame is that people will get themselves in a lather about their heroes of the past but don’t seem to want to embrace what’s happening now.
Our Vietnam’s occurring right now and that’s a massive thing for me and it’s the first thing that sets me apart. I think it’s passed a lot of people by in the music media and they've ignored those things. But I’m at a point now where I’m too strong that they can’t get me anymore. They’ve tried to criticise and slag me off but people love it and you can’t mess with what people feel in their heart. I don’t make music for critics. I make music for people. I think people have got it in their hearts and it’s ordinary people’s music. I'm not trying to be “cool”.
PB : What is cool?
Reverend : Cool implies uncool. Uncool implies inferior and inferior implies fascism. It’s a bit fascist in its notions. It’s a division of society, isn’t it? It’s a bit cliquey as a term and I’m not into it. We’re not a trendy band. I’ve deliberately sort to avoid trends. By the nature of the trend, if you’re attached to the trend when the trend goes you go with it.
PB : I suppose it’s just like fashion, isn’t it?
Reverend : Of course it is and in an increasingly fickle world I think it’s important to tie yourself to a certain mast that actually means something. I’m saying things that are universal truths and they are not things that are going to be changed by fashion or by trends.
PB : It’s like with some of the artists we’ve already mentioned like Strummer and Marley. OK, Marley was a reggae artist he tended to transcend musical boundaries. You don’t have to be into reggae to like to Marley.
Reverend : Marley has always got that thing that I’ve sought to do and I think I’m in a position to do. He writes hooks and choruses which is what I write – I write choruses really, things that people sing to. But like with “Could you be loved” in the verse he’s singing “don’t let them fool you” and he’s proper telling you about it. And that’s like music on two levels, although I’m not a snob where I’m hoping the people full understand the depth of what I’m saying in my lyrics and have to get it. It’s pop music.
A guy in The Guardian [Chris Salmon] said “John’s message is painfully simple. No more simple than a boy scout could work out” Now, cool, he might think in his Guardian left-wing liberal way, but should I stay in with the intelligencia and preach to the converted like a poet in some on-line bloggery and talk to the Guardian readers and socialist workers for the rest of my life ?
PB : And get accused of preaching to the choir?
Reverend : You get criticised from both sides. People say “why are you doing pop songs ?” and then you have people saying “you’re too political” and people don’t like it. And it’s like “make your mind up here, sort yourself out.”
PB : . Do you share Marley's belief that music can bring people together?
Reverend : We played in Belgium at the Pukkelpop Festival and they’re having some problems in the government with the Flemish half and the Walloonian half. I said to them in Flemish “Whose Flemish” so half put their hand up and I said “Whose Wallonian” and the rest put their hands up. And I said “Listen, you’ve all been dancing to our songs for the last four numbers. You haven’t been really giving a fuck whose Flemish or Walloonian”. And I said “Don’t let these bastards in suits divide you” and they all went barmy and they had it. And I think that’s a good thing and that music can bring people together.
PB : On 'The Machine' you say that “if you want you can get off the conveyer". Do you feel you're on the music industry conveyer now?
Reverend : I would be if I didn’t stand up and say “I don’t want to do that”. I don’t do things that I don’t want to do. I’ll go to the Congo with Albarn and Arcade Fire and do that thing. And then I’m going to record the second album as soon as possible.
PB : I suppose before the first album the songs have got a long gestation period. The all of a sudden you’ve done the first album and the pressures on to do a second album.
Reverend : But I always knew that and I’m compelled to write songs. I was writing songs before I did all this and I’ll be writing songs after. And I write a song every few days. I’ve got thirty or forty songs that’ll make a good second album.
PB : Coming back to your first LP, I feel it owes more to Manchester than Sheffield. Lyrically I’m thinking of John Cooper Clarke and as a front-man Ian Brown.
Reverend : I think the only Sheffield thing is the synthesisers. We’ve got Joey in the band who upholds the tradition of Artery and Cabaret Voltaire. And Alan Smyth who I did all the demos with is a synthesiser man and all that kind of stuff. The electronic elements have been inspired through that. But I’m more inspired by John Cooper Clarke than I am by the Human League.
PB : Are you still proud to come to Sheffield?
Reverend : I used to be very like “Sheffield’s the boundaries of my world”. As much as I’m proud of coming from Sheffield I don’t feel any affinity with any Sheffield scene. To lump people in as part of a scene based purely on geography I think islazy. I feel more of an affinity with Manu Chao’s, Ojos de Brujo’s, the 3-Ds, and the Ian Browns and Damon Albarns.
PB : While we're on the topic of broadening our horizons, have you been to the States yet?
Reverend : I was asked to go on a Dylan-esque “take your acoustic guitar round the Greenwich village coffee shop intelligencia” tour. Look the beast in the eye.
PB : When you do eventually go I think it’s going to be a bit of a culture shock for you.
Reverend : When I was in Europe people were saying to me “why do you keep saying it’s so nice to be in Europe, you live here” and I said “No I don’t, I live in this strange Treasure Island half way between America and Europe." I tend to feel more at home in Europe. People don’t seem to judge you so much and are willing to accept things. We seem to have a desire for instant gratification in the UK while in Europe they give time for things to develop.
PB : Do you get fed up with the Arctic Monkeys questions?
Reverend : I’m just like “whatever”. I’m not going to dodge the words “Arctic Monkeys”. I’ll answer your questions. We’re friends. I’m not going to pretend I’m not friends with them.
PB : You're two very different bands. And you are more political in your outlook are you not?
Reverend : I was a political activist. The first guitarist out of our old band [Judan Suki] went out to Palestine to try and stop the wall being built. He chained himself to the wall.
Also my girlfriend of five years was an Iraqi girl. Her uncle went missing, her family lived in Sadar City and it were getting bombed every night. The rest of her family live in Al Hillah which is 30 miles south of Baghdad where a cluster bomb exploded and killed a three year old kid. And I had to hold her in my arms as she cried herself to sleep because my country was bombing hers. And they want to say it’s bullshit and I don’t mean it. What’s happening in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq darkens my door and for people to say I don’t mean it saddens me greatly.
PB : And now rumours abound that the US want to do a similar job on Iran.
Reverend : It's a tinderbox, man. They took out Afghanistan, they took out Iraq and now they are bulwarked either side and Iran’s in the middle. I mean, they went into Iraq and got rid of Saddam, put the majority Shias in power and the thing that they don’t understand about Arabs and Muslims is that they feel more of an affinity based on ethnicity and on religious grounds. A Shia in Iraq feels more of an affinity with a Shia in Iran than a Sunni in Iraq. But they're so crude and devoid of any appreciation for anybody else’s society. And culturally arrogant in that they think their models of democracy are applicable the world over and they’re not. You can’t apply a foreign system on a culture that doesn’t want it.
PB : The American democratic system doesn’t really work in their own country, does it?
Reverend : I think Al Gore’s a clever guy. I think he’s planning his march. I think he’s going to run. And he’s going around it in a good way. It’s a PR exercise but with a moral. He’s won an Oscar and a Nobel Peace prize. I think the world could do with that guy. It’s an interesting time.
PB : What about pop stars that get involved with politics?
Reverend : I have a problem with people like Bono. He’s a self aggrandisement really, He won a Nobel award for his peace work and he’s sat next to George Bush Senior. Now that man’s been responsible, along with his with his son, for some of the most horrific atrocities the modern world has seen. He’s a fucking bad man, George Bush.
Now Bono’s argument is that he’s fighting the system from within. Now imagine you’re a Neo-Con with loads of shares in oil giants plundering Iraq for all it’s worth. Now do you think some little fucker from Dublin’s going to make any difference? He goes and shakes the Pope’s hand. A man who’s never had a shag in his life and who tells Africans about not using a condom whilst they’re dying in their fucking millions of Aids. It’s tantamount to murder in my opinion. I think that's abhorrent. If he spat on George Bush's hand or on the Pope’s hand do you think he’d make more headlines? Do you think he’d make more people aware of that case? Of course he would. But he still considers himself a punk.
PB : You got into some trouble with your opinions about certain other high profile pop stars, didn't you?
Reverend : I got in a lot of trouble for saying Johnny Borrell’s a bell-end, which was probably silly, but it’s a shame that you have to qualify yourself. If you were sat in the pub and you said “What do you think of Johnny Borrell” I’d go “Well, I think he’s a bell-end”. My problem with him was when he was saying things like “I want to be as big as U2 and crack America." He’s got that Bono/Brandon Flowers fame gene and he always seems slightly contrived and calculating to me.
It’s like when I used to go to watch bands in Sheffield and I’d go “How’s your band ? ” and they’d say “Oh, Parlophone are coming to watch us” and I’m saying “No, I didn’t ask you that. I said how’s your band?” What you want to hear is “Oh, we’ve been playing some gigs” or “we’ve written this boss new tune”. You don’t want to hear about what record label interest some band’s got. That’s your business affairs. I’m not bothered about that. I saw Brandon Flowers backstage at Reading in a purple coat and then I saw Razorlight and they walked towards me and they were all giving it the “you slagged us off, bastard” look.
PB : There's an element of 'Fame Academy' seeping into bands, isn’t there? People aren’t forming bands because they want to write songs and express a view; it’s all about the desire to be famous, isn't it?
Reverend : Well. all the bands that I’ve ever dissed are those types of bands who seem to have the fame gene. Whenever you ask them it’s always all about getting signed. All about cracking markets. It's a career path. If it was a career path towards a good end and it didn’t result in you being really famous or really rich I could understand it.
PB : I guess now you’re under the media spot light you're going to get journalists saying “What do you think of so and so” hoping you’re going to slag them off.
Reverend : I do, I do. I was with this journalist from 'Nuts' and he was like “So, who do you want to slag off then ?"
PB : But you probably don’t want to spend all your time slagging people off right?
Reverend : Well, my message is essentially a positive one - Peace and love - which got lost somehow after the Thatcherite and Neo-Cons Reagan thing happened. Peace and love got lost.
PB : It’s a shame really, isn’t it? There shouldn't be anything wrong with a message like “Peace and love”, should there?
Reverend : I wrote it on an autograph at Leeds Festival and I wrote every other autograph I’ve signed since “Peace and love”. And someone went “Why are you writing that” and I went “Well don’t you think we need a bit of that right now?”. And she went “Oh, we do, don’t we ?”.
PB : Thank you.