Reverend and the Makers: “I wanna just be me for a minute”

Jon McClure on celebrity grudges, baby-making music, and getting back to what matters most on new LP Heatwave In The Cold North

Of all the swagger lifting the peak of noughties UK indie, no one carried it better, louder, or more publicly than Reverend and the Makers’ Jon McClure.

Never one to shy from the limelight, the Sheffield singer has seen various iterations over the last few decades, as he’s quick to point out over a call in the lead up to the release of eighth album Heatwave In The Cold North: “I was a mate of the Arctic Monkeys; then I was a One Hit Wonder; then I were ‘that gobsh*te off Twitter’; then I’m Jeremy Corbyn’s mate…”.

But 15 years on from the release of indie classic The State Of Things, the 41-one-year old seems to have mellowed, though luckily not losing his blunt humour as he looks back at this persona now with a grateful pinch of wisdom and calm. As he tells us in the lead up to a major new UK tour, he’s satisfied to let the music do the talking from now on.

You’ve made albums in the likes of Jamaica and Thailand before, but tell us about the scene and setting of Heatwave In The Cold North.

So during COVID obviously the live thing went away, and I needed to do something else for money. So I started writing songs for other people. I did a bunch of adverts and worked with other artists doing their stuff. In the process I met this guy, Danny La Frombe. Even though he’s from Wales and I’m from Sheffield we have similar backgrounds, both very working class. We hit it off straight away. He’s a Wednesday fan, bizarrely, so we had that in common too. In my back garden in Sheffield I’ve got this double-story shed – it’s got these rafters with a bed in it – so he just came and moved here essentially, living in my shed. 

So we ended up doing loads of tunes together. I always like to work with people; my first album’s just me and all my mates, right? I’ve always liked that vibe. I have written loads of songs on my own and I do continue to do that, but it’s a bit solitary. I like the vibe of being in a room with somebody and having a laugh. It was dead hot when we started writing, so that’s where ‘Heatwave In The Cold North’ came from. 

Heatwave In The Cold North

In terms of recording, we did it in a studio in Bath. And then we did some more in London with this guy Dimitri Tikovoï, who’s a French producer. Some of his musicians played on it too, like these twins from Paris called Val and Clem. Then there was my mate Tom Rowley, a long-term collaborator who was in Milburn originally but he plays with Arctic Monkeys now. Jamie Reynolds from The Klaxons, he did quite a bit of stuff. So we had a good cast of people, you know? 

Did you have a clear sense of what you wanted the record to sound like from the start?

A lot of ageing, northern male indie starts to do that same melody… Everyone, fellas from the north especially, they’ve all got their own melodic thing. When you’re getting older and you’ve been doing it a long time, you hear a new record and you think, “oh you do that on every song you ever do!” I wanted to break that. I dunno, what’s the point in making less good versions of stuff you’ve already done, you know?

Me and Dan got into this really good thing where we’d get some music going and then he’d do the melody and I, like a jigsaw puzzle, fit my words into his melody. Because he’s coming from such a different place to where I would come from, it becomes this third thing. So we thought, what would it sound like if Ian Brown sang Frank Ocean songs? That was the brief. It ended up not being like that – I think someone said “Barry White if he were from Sheffield…”. But it’s not that either. It becomes this third thing, because you’ve got retro sounding music, modern melodies and then really personal Yorkshire-accented lyrics. It becomes this other thing that doesn’t exist, really. 

Northern Soul has its own history in Sheffield and the surrounding areas, and ‘Heatwave’ is a window into that. That sound seems to have come back a bit in recent years, what is it do you think that resonates with people at the moment?

Yeah, I’ve just been listening to that Joesef album that’s just come out, that’s got a bit of soul to it. I loved that Silk Sonic record, I thought that was amazing. But I’m not sure, really. Certainly, for me, it’s the music I grew up on. It’s childhood music, my parents’ music. They loved stuff like Teddy Pendergrass, Barry White, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes. My dad, when he was really battered once – he were a bit stoned and reyt pissed – he was like, “You know you were conceived to Barry White?”. Why would you tell your child that?! He was like, “Yeah me and yer mam used to stick it on when we were having a kiss and a cuddle in end terrace in Walkley Street where you were made!”

Weirdly, that kinda music was really popular in Sheffield in that era. They call it ‘bedroom soul’ don’t they, the Marvin Gaye era. For whatever reason that really connected and there used to be a nightclub called Top Rank where they used to play all that stuff. There’s a thing in Sheffield about getting real dressed up, historically, and I feel like that’s deeply encoded in my DNA. Obviously the melodies and lyrics have to come from somewhere else, otherwise it becomes pastiche. The melodies were a lot more informed by stuff like Frank Ocean, Future, The Weeknd and Charlie Puth. More modern pop music, I guess. If you just do old music and old melodies, you just end up sounding like a dickhead.

The singles so far are definitely smooth and sexy as you say, and I don’t think anyone expected a song such as ‘High’ from you. Were you worried about how that would go down?

No man, because I think our albums are all very different anyway. The first album was what it is, second album was what it is, very different, third one very different to that, fourth album was sh*t, so skip over that one. Fifth and sixth I guess you’re delving into 60s psychedelia. It’s always moved around, there’s a lot of dance music in there as well. I’ve always stylistically jumped around, and I guess long-term watchers of the band understand that. It’s weird, I did a podcast with James McMahon who used to work at NME the other day and he said: “I’m gonna tell you a story now Jon because I don’t wanna lie to you. I know a bunch of people who might not be the biggest Reverend and the Makers fans, very sniffy, serious music journalists, and he said they keep ringing me up saying ‘Have you heard the new Reverend and the Makers songs?!'”

For whatever reason there’s a bunch of new people that’ve come onboard with these two singles. Obviously that ‘Heatwave’ one were a big radio hit in the summer, Radio 2 Record of the Week and all that sh*t, so I think it’s pricked the ears of a few different people who wouldn’t normally engage with one of our records. I can’t wait for them to hear the album; to express yourself in long form, you get more of a picture, right?

I played two songs last summer at a couple of fezzies, ‘Heatwave’ and then the next single, ‘Problems’, that’s coming out at the end of this month. I’ve been doing this for twenty years now and I’ve never had that reaction – people singing it straight away and messaging me, “When’s that ‘Problems’ song coming out?” To get that reaction is such a buzz, it really is. 

I bet! As you say, you’ve got that Radio 2 attention but you’re also tuning into the sounds of younger pop, which is creating another great platform for you. Your albums have always seemed like a vessel for whatever’s keeping you up at night or fuelling your fire. What is that this time round?

I guess it’s a lot more personal and introspective these days. I’ve done a lot of politics, social realism, kitchen sink drama stuff, I’ve done the psychedelic hedonism thing. Though I did a bit of mental health on the first album, what I’ve never really done is introspective: looking at me and my relationships with people. Whether that’s my wife, my friends or people I’ve had disputes with and fallen out with, I guess there’s a lot of autobiographical stuff in there. You can’t start writing council estate kitchen sink stuff when you’re seven albums in. Although I’m not a millionaire I clearly have a decent standard of living, and get paid well for what I do, so I think it’d be really disingenuous to be writing what I wrote about on my first album, right?

Chuck D used to call it ‘Edgertainment’, this balance between having a message, having a social conscience and also just entertaining people. I’ve been through all these various guises and maybe I wanna just be me for a minute. To not be defined by any of those outside things for two seconds, and talk about myself. 

Even writing about dumb things, you know what I mean? Stuff that feels so obvious that I couldn’t write a song about that. So smoking weed and shagging are my favourite things to do. Do you know what I mean? I read an interview with Killer Mike from Run The Jewells and he was like, “if I’m honest with ya, I just really fancy my wife, I think she’s reyt fit and I love smoking weed and hanging out with my kids”. That’s really relatable, I feel like that too! I think when it comes from a really heartfelt place, that’s what I like doing, that’s my vibe. I can’t just say “Love you baby”, it’s gotta be specific in some way. I’ve often quite overlooked those basic things.

The other thing is, when you’ve talked about social issues and put yourself out there politically before, you’ve got a bit of cash in the bank, you’ve got a bit of skin in the game, where people forgive you talking about other things because they know you’re not some vacuous prick who writes songs about nothing. 

I just want to get the album out there and get people hearing it. Normally if I’ve done an album… phew, gone. I was talking to Richard Hawley about this, you get this period of mourning when you’ve made an album. Normally for me, it’s like I’ve had a sh*t: it’s gone down the toilet, see ya later! I don’t sit around listening to Reverend and t’Makers, I’m not a wanker, do you know what I mean? But this one, this one I have been a bit of a wanker! In the house listening to it and buzzing on it a bit. 

You mentioned some of the clichés you’ve been associated with, and you have been known for speaking your mind over the years, particularly about some of your peers. The Johnny Borrell one in The Guardian comes to mind. Are you still as cutthroat and damning these days?

[Laughs] nowhere near! If I’m honest, I were a bit of a dick at times. That Johnny Borrell quote, I said something like “even though he’s an awful bastard, you’ve got to admire some things about him in the same way that Hitler built the autobahns…” And then there was a thing on Never Mind The Buzzcocks that I’d egged on some security guards to turn Calvin Harris upside down in a portaloo at a festival, which is not true by the way. They did it of their own volition and I just laughed. In hindsight I feel bad because he probably got covered in sh*t and it’s probably not very nice, that. 

But yeah I look back and I think, “yeah you shouldn’t have done that”. I used to battle a lot of people and if I’m really honest that comes from a place of bad mental health, a place of insecurity and unhappiness. Alex James once said to me, “I can’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn”, and I said, “Yeah that’s because you’re a big Tory f*cker who shags gigantic wheels of brie”. There was no need to say that to him was there? If he wants to like cheese and vote Tory he’s perfectly entitled to, isn’t he? I look back and think, oh you silly bastard. But it’s also about growing as a human innit? Why do I need to be rowing with Johnny Borrell or Alex James or Piers Morgan? Who cares? So I don’t go in so much these days because, quite frankly, it’s exhausting. And it’s also a distraction from the music. Sometimes, and I’m thinking about my fourth album here, it was a bit like, “let me disguise the fact that my album’s a bit sh*t by having a fight with Kirsty Allsop on Twitter”. It’s really reductive, there’s no need to do it, and I certainly don’t feel the need to do it on this album; I’m perfectly happy for the music to do the talking. 

It was almost a sign of the times though wasn’t it, all that late-noughties indie rivalry. These days it’s cooler to be kind.

Very much so mate. I mentioned James McMahon earlier and he was with NME during that time and they said some horrendous things about me and my friends. Obviously loads of nice stuff n’all too, but I think it was a lot more abrasive in the noughties. Even if you look back to the TV shows, it looks really bad. You wouldn’t say that now or behave like that; I mean look what happened to Caroline Flack, obviously. I’ve been on the receiving end of horrendous abuse, violent threats, all these things, and it’s not good man. It puts you in an awful place and it’s a total distraction from what you’re meant to be doing, which is playing gigs and entertaining people.

So I made a decision to stop talking about politics on stage, I just parked all those things. It’s there in the lyrics of the songs. Somebody pointed out once that if you’ve been working on the bins all week, when you go out on Friday you don’t particularly want to hear me talking about bla bla bla, you just want to get battered and dance and sing. I think it’s alright to give people that, you know what I mean? I go back to that Edgertainment thing. Not to disrespect him, but I don’t want to be Billy Bragg. Everything he does is political. I’ve neglected other sides to me, sometimes you just forget to be a human. I don’t know how they do it, politicians, just being constantly adversarial. 

You’ve done some self-exploration lately with your trip across Africa. What was the most rewarding part of that?

For me it was the new music I discovered. All of these electronic music genres that they have in East and Southern Africa; I think people in the west think African music is like Graceland but it’s not! Things like singeli, ggom music, taarab music in Zanzibar, a lot of it is nothing like the western canon. It’s just very exciting and I felt like a student, like I’ve gone there to learn. The western interaction with Africa is often the other way around and it’s got that neo-colonial bullsh*t attached to it, but I went there super humble. Like, let me find out what the f*ck you’re doing ‘cus this is dead cool. It was that, really. I’ve obviously been lucky enough to do Africa with Damon Albarn and his Africa Express, but I thought, I’m a big man now and it’s time I went and had my own little adventure. I loved it mate, and I’m very excited for people to see what I’ve been up to. 

Reverend and the Makers head on a UK tour from 2-18 February, including two hometown shows at O2 Academy Sheffield – find tickets here.