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.
Youâre a very busy man. How do you find the time to be involved in all these things? Jon: How indeed?! I guess I donât get to do everything I want to; I donât play football any more, donât 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. Iâm getting towards the end of my PhD, which is about alcohol, teetotalism, and the Methodist Church.
Thatâs quite a topic for your PhD, how did that come about? Jon: Well, I donât drink, Iâm 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 doesnât 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 itâs ok not to drink if you donât want to. I manage to talk about Minor Threat in it, so thatâs 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 enoughâ¦ 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 itâs paired with the countercultural ideas of punk rock and hardcore, it blows my mind!
Youâre 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. Itâs not that I have a big list of principles, and I constantly check them against my behaviour, I just act so that hopefully, no oneâs day is made worse because of me, and maybe someoneâs is even improved.
Many people who consider themselves âpunkâ in whatever way they see fit, have issues with, or refuse to acknowledge, religions. With your faith, which you donât 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, Iâve 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! Thatâs a bit strange, Iâd sayâ¦ 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 doesnât mean that they donât treat me with love and respect, which Iâm 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 itâs of any interest to anyone, Iâm a Christian who doesnât 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. Thatâs 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 Iâve 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 didnât believe these things, but I have an inner conviction that isnât 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, theyâre 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.; itâs clear from some of your lyrics that youâre a pacifist, most notably in 'The Pacifistâs 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? Iâm not saying itâs 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 doesnât feature some show of strength is not going to work. Jon: I honestly donât know if pacifism would solve everything, but I do know that weâve had thousands of years of war, and itâs solved nothing. And if I experiment in pacifism, the possible failings arenât half as serious as if Obama, Cameron, or Hollande get their attempts at war wrong. And, just to say, isnât it weird that we teach our children to never solve their problems with violence, but then thatâs 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 Iâm 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 Iâm trying to get a feel for whether youâre an all or nothing kind of guy in that respect? Iâm not aiming to judge in any way, but Iâve always been confused by the degrees of faith that some people have. Jon: My religious beliefs are quite different to John Wesleyâs, as well as lots of other people who a) believe The Bible is Godâs 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 wouldnât too! This might make it sound like I do pick and choose, and maybe I do, but I believe Iâm 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 wasnât supposed to use it?! So, Iâm 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 itâs not so much a case of picking and choosing, as enhancing what we can try and be like! I donât think what I am doing is any more important that what you are doing, but weâve just come to those conclusions in different ways. Oh, and I wouldnât ever say something was right because "God said so"; thatâs 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. Itâs 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. Thatâs 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 youâve 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 Chrisâ 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! Iâm 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 theyâd 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 Pippaâs; 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, thereâs a lot that needs to change isnât 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. Thereâs 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 Iâm 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. Weâve 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 skyâs the limit in terms of what we can do. Everyone is a volunteer, but weâre 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. Iâve 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, itâs crazy. Weâve created an incredibly wasteful society; I think itâs 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 societyâs unwillingness (or supposed unwillingness) to buy fruit and veg that doesnât 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 thatâs a different conversation! Thereâs a bigger organisation called Fair Share that operates nationally, doing similar work. Theyâre much bigger than us, but we were drawn into the Plymouth model, so thatâs how we work at the moment! If anyoneâs interested, they can look this stuff up online – weâre 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 doesnât 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 donât need. Lent is the festival in the churchâs 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 didnât really need. It was an interesting experiment, and I guess itâs always useful to remind ourselves whatâs necessary and what is pushed on us by society or whoever. I love that Broadways songâ¦ "My friend gave everything he owned awayâ¦" I canât remember what itâs called (Ed: "25 Degrees North"), but itâs an idea thatâs always fascinated me. I loved it when Mike Hale just took to the road and didnât come back. Our friend Sat Nav Sam did something similar – a tour that never ends! I think heâs in Australia now, about 4 years after he left! What did I learn? That you can live without money, that Iâm too tied to my iPhone, that walking is still honestâ¦
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 werenât in touch with what the scene was up to. Theyâd price it really high, and no DIY promoters would be able to touch it, but then the agents would say "oh thereâs 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 donât take responsibility for their shows, donât promote them, cancel them at the very last minute, or think itâs ok to just stop replying to things, and expect you to get the (no) message.
It sounds like something my Mum would say, but theyâve 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 donât 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 thatâs ever happened to the world (probably) was when Ian, Joe, and Brendan thought "hey why donât we get that bloke Guy to do some weird dancing while we play?" Iâve managed to see them twice, and everything about them is mind-blowing. Obviously their attitude, but also theyâre just SO good! For me, theyâre the complete pinnacle of what our counterculture can achieve, as a band.
You seem to be a happy man. Is it a faÃ§ade or are you really that way? Jon: Well, I think so, but youâd 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 sheâs 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 youâre 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 didnât 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 wasnât even a choice. How can a football club be yours if you have to drive 4 hours to watch them, and they donât notice if youâre there or not? I can watch City (probably) demolish someone, and then walk home in time to see the goals on the news. Footballâs obviously gone mental, but it canât last. Soon enough itâll crash.
What has been the best moment in all the years that youâve followed Exeter City? Jon: We were doomed to relegation after our first year in League One (I donât 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 (Glennâs brother) trip over in front of the Big Bank. All gold!
Youâre 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 arenât many venues that are run by people who are committed to DIY punk rock, and the counterculture; weâve 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. Iâve seen SO many bands here, you wouldnât believe it! And nothing else comes to Exeter. Nothing! if it wasnât for the Cavern, I canât imagine what Iâd 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) TJâs 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, weâd have absolutely no excuses! Things are better here than theyâve ever been!
Having looked at your blog, can you say if you are still on the quest for a new alternative, or "alternative alternative"?! (Wasnât that from an Exploited song?!) Jon: yeah, I am. Politics here has got so central. Perhaps politics everywhere. No-one that Iâm aware of is saying anything radical, or rather anything radical that isnât racist. The three main parties are only interested in getting elected, and so wonât say anything that will endanger that possibility. Iâm interested in finding solutions to world hunger, the removal of borders, and the end to all wars. No-oneâs 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 doesnât cause you to feel as if youâve compromised your beliefs? Or do you abstain? Jon: I wouldnât say marginalised, Iâd say cheated! We all must feel pretty cheated, if weâre honest! I vote cos I wouldnât want to be the one voter who stopped something good from happening, but at the moment itâs 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: Itâs weak! But then, new bands have had very few people to learn from. Itâs great that music is fun, but thereâs so much more we could be doing with it. Comedy lasts a minute, but inspiration could last a lifetime, and change lives! Saying that, Iâm well aware that stuff that makes you laugh can also have a huge effect! Itâd be nice to see more people speaking out though! Thatâs what Iâm trying to say!
Finally, whatâs big in the Exeter music scene at the moment, apart from The Cut Ups obviously? Jon: The Computers new record will blow minds! I canât wait for everyone to hear it! Muncie Girls are doing good stuff, plus Landeâs (Ed: Lande Hekt – Muncie Girls vocalist and bassist) other band, The Heavy Hearted, are great. My friend Rory calls himself Some Sort of Threat; heâs doing a Ghost Mice, Mountain Goats sort of thing. And then thereâs this great hardcore band called Fall Children; they sound like Nerve Agents!
Thanks for your time, Jon, and isnât it about time you brought The Cut Ups down the A38 to Plymouth? Jon: Yeah, definitely. Weâll work something out! Sorry to everyone who we donât come and see often enough! Thanks for writing!
Photo by Jonathan Minto