Jon Curtis (The Cut Ups)

Jon Curtis might be one of the busiest people in UK punk, but he's also one of the nicest. His upbeat and engaging onstage banter has drawn many a drifting punter to his band, The Cut Ups.

When he's not playing guitar/singing for the Exeter punks, Jon is part of Exeter promoters Freakscene, runs Flying Saucer Tour Booking, works for (and is active within) the Methodist Church, and is a volunteer for Devon and Cornwall Food Association. He's also a husband and father. Despite these commitments, Jon found the time to chat with Punknews staffer Rich Cocksedge about punk rock, ethics, faith and football.

You’re a very busy man. How do you find the time to be involved in all these things? Jon: How indeed?! I guess I don’t get to do everything I want to; I don’t play football any more, don’t get to visit the cinema, or go to shows in other towns very often, but my wife Beth is very helpful, as are the rest of The Cut Ups. I’m getting towards the end of my PhD, which is about alcohol, teetotalism, and the Methodist Church.

That’s quite a topic for your PhD, how did that come about? Jon: Well, I don’t drink, I’m completely straight in that sense, but was interested in other groups that chose the same – so the Straight Edge movement fascinates me, as does the Methodist movement of total abstinence from alcohol. It doesn’t exist any more, so the thesis is about the rise and fall of that, and whether it might be useful to again reassure some people that it’s ok not to drink if you don’t want to. I manage to talk about Minor Threat in it, so that’s good!

We all have varying stories as to what drew us into the world of punk rock, but how did you find yourself getting caught up in it? Jon: Well, to keep it short enough… I saw Green Day on Top of the Pops playing 'Welcome to Paradise'. That was when my life started. It made me want to play the guitar and be in a band, so I made those things happen. I already listened to punk rock, thanks to things like MTV and Kerrang!, but when I was 16 I got to see Samiam; put on by The Cavern, although it was outdoors; and started to realise that there was this hidden parallel universe, just waiting to be explored. So I got hold of Maximum Rock N Roll, watched Instrument, and starting reading Fracture (now defunct UK zine), and it all exploded from there!

Was it an immediate love affair that was destined for eternity? Jon: Yeah, as soon as I started listening to those records, I was obsessed! Not just with punk rock, but with music in general! I still love music; live music, records, and the radio; but when it’s paired with the countercultural ideas of punk rock and hardcore, it blows my mind!

You’re obviously a man of principles, how did you get to be that way? Did punk rock play a big part in that, or was it your faith or, a combination of them both? Jon: I think I was always aware of how things should be, and I was always aware of my role in that. Just on a micro level, I mean. My parents are very specifically concerned with certain things – that people are treated properly, that no-one should look down on anyone else, that other people sometimes need help, and if we can help we should. But when I started to explore punk rock, and heard bands like Bad Religion, Minor Threat, and The Clash, I found those same ideas in those songs. So punk rock fitted in perfectly. I became a Christian after both of these two things had already influenced me, and the story of Jesus chimed again with what I already felt was the way that I wanted to exist. It’s not that I have a big list of principles, and I constantly check them against my behaviour, I just act so that hopefully, no one’s day is made worse because of me, and maybe someone’s is even improved.

Many people who consider themselves ‘punk’ in whatever way they see fit, have issues with, or refuse to acknowledge, religions. With your faith, which you don’t keep secret, do you find that you encounter those who find it difficult to understand how you can be both a punk and a Christian? Jon: Honestly, I’ve never had difficult encounters. People are always warm and accepting, whether they know what I believe or not. I would never keep it a secret, by the way! That’s a bit strange, I’d say… Anyway, punk rock has its fair share of atheists, agnostics, theists, and critics of all of those groups, but lots of people would think what I believe is ridiculous at best, or downright appalling at worst. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t treat me with love and respect, which I’m very grateful for.

I think the second question is different; if we break it down – how can I be a Christian? We all know that a lot of horrific things have been done in the name of Christianity, and still continue. If it’s of any interest to anyone, I’m a Christian who doesn’t recognise anything of what I believe in the actions of those who justify war, hatred, bigotry, sexism, or even being patronising in the name of God. That’s completely opposed to what I understand Christianity to be. I despair as much as anyone (perhaps more), but all I can do is act as I see fit in the light of experiences I’ve had, and the things I feel, well aware that psychologists and sociologists would have a field day!

My life would be much more straightforward if I didn’t believe these things, but I have an inner conviction that isn’t easily shaken, by me or anyone else. Just for the record, in terms of punk rock and Christianity, I see Jesus as a first century radical who challenged all hatred, taught non-violence in all human interaction, and thought that love was much more important than rules, which, when I heard it, was how I already felt thanks to the punk rock community. To me, they’re not opposed, but if that fella from that band For Today is what you think of when Christianity is mentioned, I can see why you might feel differently!

Following on from what you say about not recognising your beliefs in those who justify war, etc.; it’s clear from some of your lyrics that you’re a pacifist, most notably in 'The Pacifist’s Hymn', as well as a recent post on your Tumblr page. Do you believe that it is possible to sort out the many problems that are prevalent across the globe with such a stance? I’m not saying it’s the wrong idea, as it would be wonderful to see, but some of the issues seem so ingrained that it seems that any form of communication that doesn’t feature some show of strength is not going to work. Jon: I honestly don’t know if pacifism would solve everything, but I do know that we’ve had thousands of years of war, and it’s solved nothing. And if I experiment in pacifism, the possible failings aren’t half as serious as if Obama, Cameron, or Hollande get their attempts at war wrong. And, just to say, isn’t it weird that we teach our children to never solve their problems with violence, but then that’s the first thing we do as a nation? A real show of strength might be to NOT raise an army and go to war. But maybe I’m just crazy…

In relation to you being part of the Methodist Church, in looking at the three basic precepts of John Wesley, whose teachings were in part responsible for the formation of the Methodist Church in England, I certainly try to live my life by adhering to two of them without considering myself to be taking on specifically Christian values:

1 - Shun evil and avoid partaking in wicked deeds at all costs, and
2 - Perform kind acts as much as possible;

However, as an atheist, I find the third ('abide by the edicts of God the Almighty Father') somewhat beyond my own beliefs. Do you find yourself picking and choosing what you believe in, and/or follow, to suit what helps you be the person you are, or do you follow? I guess I’m trying to get a feel for whether you’re an all or nothing kind of guy in that respect? I’m not aiming to judge in any way, but I’ve always been confused by the degrees of faith that some people have. Jon: My religious beliefs are quite different to John Wesley’s, as well as lots of other people who a) believe The Bible is God’s word, written down directly (think The Qu'ran), b) think that anyone who "picks and chooses" what The Bible says is only doing it for selfish or "worldly reasons".

Now, I find The Bible interesting; it gives good and useful theological insight, but it is a human document. So, it fails, exaggerates, and is boring sometimes, like any book. Lots of Christians would agree with me, although lots wouldn’t too! This might make it sound like I do pick and choose, and maybe I do, but I believe I’m doing that choosing through what I have come to try and understand about my place in this world, and how I have come to exist.

I believe that if God exists, and he was involved in my creation somehow, why would I have a brain if I wasn’t supposed to use it?! So, I’m a Christian who thinks anyone can love whoever they want, that vegetarianism is the natural progression of all forward thinkers, that violence is always wrong, that no-one should be locked away for using drugs, and so on. That stuff is just as important to me as some Biblical values, so it’s not so much a case of picking and choosing, as enhancing what we can try and be like! I don’t think what I am doing is any more important that what you are doing, but we’ve just come to those conclusions in different ways. Oh, and I wouldn’t ever say something was right because "God said so"; that’s not my justification. Things are just right for being right.

The Cut Ups' most recent release, the album Breaking Bridges. Starting Here. has received a lot of positive responses, both from the press and fans. Do you ever get nervous ahead of an album release as to how it will be received? Jon: Yeah, definitely. It’s a long time since the last LP, and a lot of work and money goes into making a new record, so I was apprehensive, but thankfully people seem to like it! Hopefully some more people will get to hear this one than the two that came before as well. That’s always a big hope!

The album features contributions from the mutli-talented Franz Nicolay: how did that collaboration come about? Jon: Yeah, Franz is the best! As you’ve mentioned, I book tours for some bands, and Franz is one of those acts. He was here for about a month last year with Chris T-T, but Chris’ Dad turned 70 during the tour, so Chris went home to make his Dad a cake, or something like that, and Franz came to stay with me, Beth, and Freddie for a couple of days. It rained a lot, we saw Billy Bragg play at the Occupy Exeter camp (him and Franz had met before), and then Franz came and played some piano, organ, and synth on some of the songs. The studio we recorded at, run by Peter Miles is about twenty miles out of Exeter, so we were able to go and fix it up while he was here. It cost me one curry for Franz, which I think I still owe him!

From my perspective, the album is easily the best work from the band but how do you and the rest of the band feel about it? Jon: Ah, thanks! I’m glad you think that! Our history is quite a tumultuous one, so before we even started recording, we already knew that things were more stable than they’d ever been! We toured Europe with Crazy Arm, and they were in the middle of finishing their 2nd LP, with Pete Miles. They were full of how easy he was to work with, which definitely helped to sway us! So, we knew the production was gonna be great before we even started, and then having Dan and Pippa on the recordings for the first time, as well as Franz, and our friends Paul and Felicity playing some strings, meant that everything shaped up perfectly! Plus, the songs were two years in the making. So, anyway, yeah I agree!! Haha!

Who has the biggest involvement in the song writing process? Given that one of the songs ('Another Bad Mood') on the album is sung by Pippa Wragg Smith (your co-conspirator with Freakscene), was that her baby from the outset? Jon: I write most songs. 'Another Bad Mood' was entirely Pippa’s; we just turned it into a band song. Dan wrote 'Teenage Danclub' and 'Building Bridges'; I just wrote the words for that one. Jack wrote a song on the last LP.

You must cross paths with an inordinate amount of different people during the course of your day to day life – are you encouraged that the future can/will be better for the world we live in? Given that you a father now, do you worry about the sort of world your son will grow up in, beyond the obvious influences you can offer him? Jon: Hmm, most of what I can do for Freddie is to help him be a strong, loved, and caring person. In terms of the world, there’s a lot that needs to change isn’t there? But in terms of people, I truly believe that we can make a difference, and that there are so many great people around, that things will always be hopeful. There’s so much work to do though! When I listen to Strike Anywhere, I feel sure that everything will get better.

I certainly agree with that positivity that emanates from Strike Anywhere, and having been fortunate enough to have seen them a few times, the one performance that still resonates more than any other is when I saw them at The Cavern. I had a brief chat with Thomas Barnett (Strike Anywhere vocalist) beforehand and the guy just seemed really appreciative a few of us had travelled from Newport, having seen them in Oxford a few days prior to that show as well. Are there any other bands/artists that manage to give you a sense that all is not lost? Jon: Thomas is the best guy. Matt Smith from Strike Anywhere too. Billy Bragg is always empowering to see, so are Le Tigre. And I’m very fond of seeing anything Walter Schreiffels does; that guy has a real passion for existing!

You played a pivotal role in the formation of the DCFA Exeter, helping to take food that was destined for landfill sites, and distributing it to those in need. How did that start, and is it something that you hope will have longevity as a project? Jon: Yeah, just to fill in the details, I helped to start a version of the Devon and Cornwall Food Association in Exeter (it already exists in a different kind of way in Plymouth, which is an hour down the road), which takes bulk food from warehouses, manufacturers, wholesalers, and farmers which would be heading for the landfill because the use by date is too short, they have too much, or the labels are old. Because we can take the bulk, we break it down, and deliver to charities around the city that feed people. Thus, stopping the landfills from being filled, feeding hungry people, and saving those charities money. We’ve been running properly since May 2012 out of a city centre shop (we pay no rent, but have 24 hours notice to quit always hanging over us), and the sky’s the limit in terms of what we can do. Everyone is a volunteer, but we’re looking at ways of making it sustainable in the long term.

Do you get any sense from the charities that you work with as to how effective this scheme has been? Jon: The real sense is in the amount of food that passes through. Thousands of pounds worth of completely edible grub! I love driving round to some of the soup kitchens, and hearing the cheer when the boxes of pasties, or loaves of bread come in. I’ve been delivering fish cakes a lot this week! Boxes and boxes! I know a lot of charities have saved a lot of money, and fed more people.

That sounds like an amazing amount of food, especially in one small area of the UK. It makes you wonder about the overall waste of food that could otherwise be used to help those in need. Also, it raises the question of whether it's over-production, over-pricing, or another factor that causes such a situation. Do you have any idea if the DCFA format is being replicated elsewhere, other than Plymouth? Jon: Yeah, it’s crazy. We’ve created an incredibly wasteful society; I think it’s over production (and the pressure felt by small businesses to be ready for demands of large corporations) that leads to a lot of waste, as well society’s unwillingness (or supposed unwillingness) to buy fruit and veg that doesn’t look quite right. Also, on a more domestic level, stuff like 'buy one, get one free', means that we throw a lot away at home, but that’s a different conversation! There’s a bigger organisation called Fair Share that operates nationally, doing similar work. They’re much bigger than us, but we were drawn into the Plymouth model, so that’s how we work at the moment! If anyone’s interested, they can look this stuff up online – we’re on Facebook as DCFA Exeter, and Fair Share has a website that explains a lot of what they do.

Back in 2011, I remember reading about your approach to Lent, and the changes that you made to your life over that period. What changes did you make and what did you learn from your experiences? Jon: I split Lent up into seven 'weeks' (it doesn’t quite work mathematically), and gave up money for a week, technology, powered transport, stuff like that. Just to look at what we need, and what we maybe don’t need. Lent is the festival in the church’s calendar which recalls that Jesus fasted for 40 days, in preparation for the next phase of his life, and one of the suggestions is that this is because he shifted from a fairly normal life at home to an itinerant life of a preacher, so the 40 days were a transition period to let go of what he didn’t really need. It was an interesting experiment, and I guess it’s always useful to remind ourselves what’s necessary and what is pushed on us by society or whoever. I love that Broadways song… "My friend gave everything he owned away…" I can’t remember what it’s called (Ed: "25 Degrees North"), but it’s an idea that’s always fascinated me. I loved it when Mike Hale just took to the road and didn’t come back. Our friend Sat Nav Sam did something similar – a tour that never ends! I think he’s in Australia now, about 4 years after he left! What did I learn? That you can live without money, that I’m too tied to my iPhone, that walking is still honest…

You operate as Flying Saucer Tour Booking; what made you start that and what have been the highs (and lows) of dealing with touring bands and promoters? Jon: It started because there were bands coming to the UK who we knew, but whose booking agents weren’t in touch with what the scene was up to. They’d price it really high, and no DIY promoters would be able to touch it, but then the agents would say "oh there’s no interest in the UK". So, I got in touch with a few bands and European agents direct, and since then I book a lot of (excuse the term) 'Org' and 'Fest' type bands. I lose money on every tour, but at least we get to see some of these bands here, and we share the loss, rather than agents and/or bands getting paid well, but promoters losing bucket loads of cash.

I promote shows too, as well as being in a band, so I see both sides of the coin. Highs of this stuff are all the brilliant, faithful promoters who just do it for the love of independent and underground music, and getting to deal with them, as well as all the brilliant bands I get to see (The Bomb, Cobra Skulls, Red City Radio, Franz, Leatherface etc.). The lows are people who just don’t take responsibility for their shows, don’t promote them, cancel them at the very last minute, or think it’s ok to just stop replying to things, and expect you to get the (no) message.

It sounds like something my Mum would say, but they’ve spoilt it for everyone. I now feel I have to use contracts for some tours, and with new promoters, because the sight of one means I know much sooner who is going to flake out! I don’t think they think about how much money a band has saved up to come over, or how much these things cost, whereas a good promoter is constantly worrying about doing a good job!

Which one band has had the biggest influence on your life and why? Jon: Fugazi without a doubt. Best thing that’s ever happened to the world (probably) was when Ian, Joe, and Brendan thought "hey why don’t we get that bloke Guy to do some weird dancing while we play?" I’ve managed to see them twice, and everything about them is mind-blowing. Obviously their attitude, but also they’re just SO good! For me, they’re the complete pinnacle of what our counterculture can achieve, as a band.

You seem to be a happy man. Is it a façade or are you really that way? Jon: Well, I think so, but you’d probably need to ask my friends! I feel like I have a good time most of the time, but I also know I can get pretty cross.

You support your local football team, Exeter City FC. What made you choose them, rather than a club that is more popular/fashionable? What are your views on football in general these days? Jon: My Mum was a PE teacher, and she’s obsessed with all sports. She passed that on to me, and as a family we went to watch all sorts of different sports, and teams. When you’re a kid, things are different, but when I realised that I could either have this distant relationship with this beast that would take all of my money, and give nothing in return, that didn’t even need me, or I could support a club that only existed cos a few thousand of us turned out to watch them, where we (now) all own a stake, where I could be close enough to hear and see everything, then it wasn’t even a choice. How can a football club be yours if you have to drive 4 hours to watch them, and they don’t notice if you’re there or not? I can watch City (probably) demolish someone, and then walk home in time to see the goals on the news. Football’s obviously gone mental, but it can’t last. Soon enough it’ll crash.

What has been the best moment in all the years that you’ve followed Exeter City? Jon: We were doomed to relegation after our first year in League One (I don’t really remember our first spell in the old Division 3), but we had to win to stay up. We were 1-0 down with ten minutes left, but we equalised, and then Ryan Harley got the winner 3 minutes into injury time. That was immense! Plus two trips to Wembley (Ed: Wembley Stadium, the spiritual home of English football) for the playoffs, drawing with Manchester United. Seeing Karl Hoddle (Glenn’s brother) trip over in front of the Big Bank. All gold!

You’re involved in putting on gigs at The Cavern in Exeter, a club that I have visited on many occasions, more so since I moved to Plymouth from Newport. To me it has a special feel about it and I always look forward to attending gigs there. What does the venue mean to you? Jon: Everything! There aren’t many venues that are run by people who are committed to DIY punk rock, and the counterculture; we’ve got one in our tiny city. And those two people are the best people ever. All those things that made this life happen for me were available because of The Cavern. I’ve seen SO many bands here, you wouldn’t believe it! And nothing else comes to Exeter. Nothing! if it wasn’t for the Cavern, I can’t imagine what I’d be doing!

I had the same in my hometown of Newport, as there were clued in people who managed to bring the likes of Husker Du, Butthole Surfers, and Toxic Reasons to play in tiny clubs, before (The Legendary) TJ’s began to be the venue of choice, and the likes of Green Day, Rancid, and Fugazi (all on their first UK tours), plus many more, took to the stage. Having those people around certainly helped me on the path I find myself on, without any doubt. Therefore, do you feel any sense of responsibility in ensuring that the youth of today also have that option in Exeter, to give them what you were fortunate to have? Jon: Yeah, definitely! We do our best to keep putting on shows, writing zines, helping others go on tour, directing them into the right places! If the scene stopped on our watch, we’d have absolutely no excuses! Things are better here than they’ve ever been!

Having looked at your blog, can you say if you are still on the quest for a new alternative, or "alternative alternative"?! (Wasn’t that from an Exploited song?!) Jon: yeah, I am. Politics here has got so central. Perhaps politics everywhere. No-one that I’m aware of is saying anything radical, or rather anything radical that isn’t racist. The three main parties are only interested in getting elected, and so won’t say anything that will endanger that possibility. I’m interested in finding solutions to world hunger, the removal of borders, and the end to all wars. No-one’s saying that.

Does that make you feel marginalised when it comes to voting, or are you able to find a box in which to place your mark, that doesn’t cause you to feel as if you’ve compromised your beliefs? Or do you abstain? Jon: I wouldn’t say marginalised, I’d say cheated! We all must feel pretty cheated, if we’re honest! I vote cos I wouldn’t want to be the one voter who stopped something good from happening, but at the moment it’s Green Party or nothing!

How do you feel about the current state of punk rock as an outlet for protest? Would you go along with the opinion that despite having more than enough to rail against, the number of bands doing so is relatively small? Jon: It’s weak! But then, new bands have had very few people to learn from. It’s great that music is fun, but there’s so much more we could be doing with it. Comedy lasts a minute, but inspiration could last a lifetime, and change lives! Saying that, I’m well aware that stuff that makes you laugh can also have a huge effect! It’d be nice to see more people speaking out though! That’s what I’m trying to say!

Finally, what’s big in the Exeter music scene at the moment, apart from The Cut Ups obviously? Jon: The Computers new record will blow minds! I can’t wait for everyone to hear it! Muncie Girls are doing good stuff, plus Lande’s (Ed: Lande Hekt – Muncie Girls vocalist and bassist) other band, The Heavy Hearted, are great. My friend Rory calls himself Some Sort of Threat; he’s doing a Ghost Mice, Mountain Goats sort of thing. And then there’s this great hardcore band called Fall Children; they sound like Nerve Agents!

Thanks for your time, Jon, and isn’t it about time you brought The Cut Ups down the A38 to Plymouth? Jon: Yeah, definitely. We’ll work something out! Sorry to everyone who we don’t come and see often enough! Thanks for writing!

Photo by Jonathan Minto