Jon McClure on upcoming Reverend and the Makers album: “There’s a new lane I’ve found, a new style that’s a bit of a vibe and I want to do more with it”

2022 was a busy one for Jon McClure. The larger-than-life Reverend and the Makers frontman visited 11 countries to explore the history of various musical cultures for a film documentary, a trip which took him from the Steel City to Zambia (including a brief visit to a police cell in Kitwe), before returning home to focus on promo for the band’s seventh studio album, Heatwave in the Cold North, which built up plenty of traction after its title track became one of the summer’s biggest earworms.

Ahead of a UK tour next month, which stops off for two nights at Sheffield’s O2 Academy, Exposed booked in a brew and catch-up with the big man to discuss changing perspectives, a smoother approach to making music and an eventful journey across the African continent.

Words: @JosephFood

So, Jon, the difficult seventh album is out next month. How are you feeling?
Good, happy. Your goals change. When I was first starting out it was like, “I wanna be on the cover of Sandman or Exposed.” Then it’s “I wanna be on Radio Sheffield.” And after that you look at selling out Leadmill’s little room, and it goes from there. Then when you get your first record deal it’s like you’ve won the FA Cup, you think you’re pretty much done then. So, to be seven albums in, it’s a bit like you’re making it up as you go along by now.

How would you define success today?
Being able to make a living from it. Simple as. There’s that saying up north, “It’s not like you’re going down the pit” – and that’s exactly how I feel. You do have to put yourself out there, of course, and there’ll always be the crippling self-doubt to deal with.

Yeah, of course! When people say nasty things about you and your work, it hurts. People are having themselves on if they say it doesn’t. My problem is I’m addicted to what I do for a living, so owt else – apart from my family, of course – it just disappoints me. I mean, what could be better than writing songs?

One of my questions was going to be about how your motivations change as an artist. You can tick off headlining festivals, Glastonbury, topping the charts, etc., so what’s left on the musical bucket list now?
I call it ‘the itch’. I still want to write the best song ever. You see, for a lot of the people of my generation, the itch – if they ever had it at all –  eventually goes away. But with me, it’s stronger than ever. I wake up obsessed about writing a new tune.

The positive reception for ‘Heatwave in the Cold North’, the first single from the album, must’ve lit that fire brighter than ever.
That were mad, yeah. You realise, when you’ve been doing it as long as I have, that you’re going to be in and out, that your popularity ebbs and flows, but you’ve just got to keep doing interesting things. That tune was picked up by radio, and Radio 2 in particular hammered it all summer, which is funny, because if you would’ve told me when I started that I’d be buzzed about Radio 2 playlisting us, I wouldn’t have had it. But I’m 41 now! And pretty much all the artists I like make better music as they get older.

‘High’ came out today, sticking with the soulful, sunkissed RnB sounds we heard in the first single. Are we going from bouncing with the Rev to kicking back with him now?
The thing is, making mad fast tunes as you’re getting older isn’t really a good idea. You’ve got to slow it down a bit. The bangers are bangers and will still be played live, of course, but there is an element of changing tempo…

Oh aye? Are the Hawley crooning boots coming on?
I wouldn’t go as croony as Hawley. I mean, he’s Croonmaster General. Nobody can outcroon him. But there’s a new lane that I’ve found, a new style on this album that’s a bit of a vibe and I want to do more with it. There’s a great tune on there called ‘Problems’ and it’s a bit of a melodic one. To be honest, it’s just been nice to write some pop music. You can disappear up your arse a bit when you’re in a band, focusing on like soundscapes and stuff, so it’s nice to write songs with proper choruses again.

Reverend and the Makers

“But there’s a new lane that I’ve found, a new style on this album that’s a bit of a vibe and I want to do more with it.”

Where did the nudge to explore this style come from?
I started listening to new music, that’s part of it. I got out of my Sleaford Mods, angrier music stage and changed to a lot of music that my parents would’ve listened to: stuff like Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Barry White. But then I’d also listen to a lot of the Odd Future crew, so Earl Sweatshirt, Frank Ocean, Tyler, The Creator and all of them. They use certain chords that I really like. The first tune, ‘Heatwave in the Cold North’, was written last summer and it’s meant to have a bit of a smooth feel, a ‘cuddling inside when it’s cold’ track. I’ve never really written sexy songs. Especially in the early days, it was more about social realism. I think if I would’ve a written a song about shagging back then, people would’ve been like, “Who do you think you are? Justin Timberlake?”.

Or you a do a ‘Jarvis’ and combine the social realism and the shagging.
Yeah, he was great at that, Jarvis, and pretty funny with it, too. Apparently, it’s true, you know, that Sheffielders have more sex than other cities – it was in one of those weird surveys. So, you know that song ‘Sheffield: Sex City’? It’s actually a thing. So why can’t I have a go, eh?

The last time we caught up was in the summer of 2019, just a few months before the world was plunged into Covid chaos. How were the lockdowns for you from an artistic perspective?
To be honest, I did loads. Made my own album, wrote an album for another band, helped write music for a brilliant South African artist called Noah, producing and writing for people in Paris, Berlin and on a farm in Ireland where, believe it or not, Michael Jackson used to live. So, realistically, I had quite a prosperous lockdown, which I felt bad about because some people obviously had a shocking time. I sometimes feel I’m a bit like a cockroach: there could be a nuclear war and there’d still be Reverend and the Makers making tunes.

I’ve never really written sexy songs. Especially in the early days, it was more about social realism. I think if I would’ve a written a song about shagging back then, people would’ve been like, “Who do you think you are? Justin Timberlake?

Speaking of, seven albums and two decades in, what are the key lessons you’ve learned along the way?
So, for me, over those twenty years I’ve been known as the following: Alex [Turner]’s best mate, one-hit wonder, gobshsite off Twitter, Jeremy Corbyn’s mate… there’s always something. But it’s important to keep moving and have something going on. Basically, always have ‘a thing’ and make sure it’s important to you. Now I’ve got this music travel thing, where I’ve been journeying across countries and exploring the different cultures and heritage through music.

Tell us a bit more about that. You basically travelled from Sheffield to Zambia, meeting musicians in various countries along the way?
You know like you watch these cookery programmes, with Bourdain or one of those guys, where they basically teach you about a country through its food? Well, we’re wanting to do that – but with music. You can understand a lot of about a country’s history through the styles of music that have been passed down. It was some experience.

Reverend and the Makers

“I sometimes feel I’m a bit like a cockroach: there could be a nuclear war and there’d still be Reverend and the Makers making tunes.”

It looked like it. You were almost nicked in Zambia, weren’t you?
Yeah, in Kitwe. We were filming in front of a large slap heap called ‘Black Mountain’, which is being mined illegally by gangs for copper, often using children to do the work; and when they saw us filming in front of it, they assumed we were filming a human rights documentary or something. The gangs showed up asking what we were doing, and then the police came with guns and took us back to the police station, asking to see any footage we’d taken of the mountain. They were actually quite friendly in the end, so it all got sorted out.

How many countries did you visit overall?
Let me see… France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Morocco, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Zambia – an unbelievable trip.

Which place stuck with you the most?
Tanzania. It’s just an incredible place with this really vibrant culture. Because we were doing a documentary, we had the access to communities that we just wouldn’t have been able to get normally. We learned about Singeli music, this incredible high-tempo electronic music that’s popular, and it was just amazing to experience it. The plan is to do some collaborative music with some of the artists I’ve met during those travels.

Finally, with this being the first magazine of 2023, do you have a start of year message you could send to the Exposed readers?
Yeah, just dig in. It’s a tough time. We deserve better than we’re getting on a political level and, hopefully, better times are just around the corner. On a wider level, I do think that when things are tough, Sheffield’s at its most creative. Just look at the 80s and what came out of that era. It’s a city full of warm people, who are very good at uniting through hardship, and it won’t be long until we’re all having a party in the sun together.

‘High’, the latest single from Reverend and the Makers upcoming album Heatwave in the Cold North, is out now. The album is due in April and available to pre-order here.

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