IIt was the nail that started it all. “I wanted to pin a painting on it,” says John McClain, former keyboardist with Beta Band and award-winning filmmaker. He nodded towards a wall in his London studio where the only piece of metal still protruded. Maclean found it difficult to accomplish his task: at first, because he was not entirely happy with the paintings he was producing; Recently, because people keep buying them.
Becoming a professional artist at the age of 50 was not intended. Like many people, McClain found himself painting during the pandemic just for something. At the time, he was casting his second film — a follow-up to 2015’s Sundance Award-winning West Slow West — when it all came to a halt. He got some old postcards on eBay, zoomed in on the peripheral parts of the landscape that caught his eye (tree, waterfall) and tried to replicate them – paint thickly (you wouldn’t guess it was watercolor) on wood panels using a psychedelic palette reminiscent of Hockney’s springtime paintings on iPad. Today, McClain has arranged several objects on the floor in front of us, pushing them anxiously with his feet as we speak. “Oh, well,” he said, giving a shoe to one of them. “It’s made of wood.”
MacLean was no stranger to painting: he had studied at the Edinburgh College of Art and was studying at the Royal College of Art in London when he met the members of the band Beta in the mid-1990s. But he hasn’t picked up a paintbrush in more than two decades. However, when he finally felt brave enough to post his work on Instagram, it immediately caught the eye of artist and arranger Matthew Higgs, who lectured to Maclean at RCA and was a huge fan of the Beta Band. Higgs offered him a show at the White Columns Gallery in New York, where he works as a director.
“I don’t remember such an overwhelmingly global positive response to an artist’s work,” Higgs says from New York via Zoom. “There is something so generous about the way John looks, the way John thinks. It is completely disarming.”
MacLean wasn’t sure about exhibiting his work so soon, and the experience of doing so was surreal. “Cindy Sherman was there, and she says, ‘I love those,'” he says. “I was thinking, ‘This is crazy. ‘ And they sold out very quickly. It went from zero to zero.” Many Very fast.”
That seems to be how far McClain’s career has gone. He never saw himself as a “band-type guy” when he first met the other Beta members. This may have contributed to how the group – who mixed indie shuffle with folk, hip-hop and house – always seemed like outsiders among their peers at the end of Britpop. “We were opposed to all the vanity fantasies of cocaine,” he says.
Indeed, such was their anti-Popstar approach, and the band is often portrayed in the press as tough, morose, or wary of fame. “It was ironic,” McClain says, “because we weren’t depressed and we really wanted to be famous!” The band gained a cult following with the 1998 compilation The Three EPs, and their desire to cross-pollinate with other genres was ahead of its time.
Despite the band’s split in 2004, McClain has no regrets: “It wasn’t fun All the time. This has been documented by Steve [Mason, lead singer] I went through mental swings. But in general, we had to do whatever we wanted in an era when money wasn’t such a big deal. Even if we were playing a very small town in America, we would have a full stage show, projections, and movie screens. The record company paid for everything.” He pauses and laughs. “Of course, I think it will take us 10,000 years before we get anything from selling a record.”
Maclean was more than just a keyboard player for the band – he shot videos, created sleeve artwork, and put together a Flower Press fan. After the band’s demise, and while MacLean was trying to break into the film industry, it was this work that brought him to the attention of Michael Fassbender. Somewhat improbably, the actor agreed to shoot a short with Maclean during his day off from filming Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – despite the fact that Maclean hadn’t even worked with an actor before.
“I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll get his day off. He probably spends a lot of his time bored, waiting around. So I’ll hop on the back of his bike and we can shoot in different locations. ‘” People thought I was crazy. But Fassbender liked the guerrilla side of it.” . So much so that, following Man on a Motorcycle, the pair reunited for another short film, Pitch Black Heist, and then the full-length feature Slow West. “He was the first person who saw the music videos and didn’t just think they were ridiculous. I will be forever grateful for that.”
MacLean’s journey through music and film helped him decide what kind of painter he wanted to be. As a young art student, he felt pressure to be raw and sophisticated, to make art with a strong message. “It took me 25 years to realize that it’s best to forget about fashion and trends and just make something that looks nice on someone’s wall.”
His work is currently on display in London, but his priority is the film he was working on before the pandemic. He’s also writing a TV show for NBCUniversal, and the idea came to him during a five-hour trip to get a refrigerator from Hull (and no, I’ve never heard anyone say that before).
As for music, he’s still dabbling, and he’s eager for a PETA reunion. “It kind of keeps…not getting close, but definitely rearing its head. I’m up for it. But there’s always one member who’s either busy or having a hard time. It’s hard to get the four of us to agree that this is the right time.”
Who knows, if he finds any free time in between all of that, he might even spin something to hang on that nail.