By Kent Davies
Canada’s most underrated overweight entertainer, B.A. Johnston, performs songs about B-movies, pirates and Nintendo on a rickety old guitar and Casio keyboard. Although the live-antics legend has released multiple albums, shared the stage with many top performers including the Rheostatics, the Constantines, Cuff the Duke and the Silver Hearts, Hamilton’s favorite son has yet to reach his ultimate goal of moving out of his mother’s basement. Following a hilarious recent set in Winnipeg, Johnston shot the snot with Stylus.
Stylus: To start off, let’s just get an update of where you’re at. Are you still living with your mom?
B.A. Johnston: Yeah. It’s like living at the world’s worst all-inclusive resort. When mother wants me to shovel the walk, I feel like spreading my wings. I kind of moved into the basement. It’s got its own separate entrance.
Stylus: It’s kind of a duplex now.
BAJ: Yeah, you can say that, except your neighbour’s your mom and you have to do whatever your neighbour says. It’s actually not that great.
Stylus: Your show is sort of a legend everywhere. For people who haven’t had the pleasure of witnessing your show, can you attempt to describe it?
BAJ: It’s kind of like a really low-rent Vegas floor show with confetti, loafers and witty songs about Atari and the CFL.
Stylus: Do you get in trouble with venues for your roaming stage antics?
BAJ: For the most part most places are fine. I think I’m banned from two venues in Canada, but they were being dicks, so who cares?
Stylus: How do people react? Do some get really turned off by it?
BAJ: Oh, yeah. I do a show that people can really hate. Like literally hate it. A lot. HATE. HATE IT.
Stylus: There are a few snooty types, I guess. I don’t know if it would be a good date show.
BAJ: There are couples who show up where one [person] is really into it and the other person isn’t but they’ll be in the front row. So it will be one super happy person and one super miserable person. I’m pretty divisive like that, I guess.
Stylus: But you give’r. At every show it looks like you let up just before you’re going to have a heart attack. Do you get tired of the 110% thing when you’re touring?
BAJ: It can get tiresome. I’m not in the best physical condition. I try to ride my dad’s old exercise bike ten minutes every day before tour, but I don’t know how much that really helps. I’ll be tired some nights but people are paying to get in and they’re going to expect something.
Stylus: What inspired you to go all out nightly?
BAJ: Nothing, really. The show has been slowly evolving for years and becoming a little bit more crazier and crazier over time. Just a sad attempt to get some attention really and my inability to write new material.
Stylus: Wait a minute, don’t you have like four or five albums out?
BAJ: It’s actually six full-lengths and one EP since 2000.
Stylus: Inability to write new material, my ass.
BAJ: Well, new material that’s good, maybe.
Stylus: Do you have a preference for some things that you do live? Do you like playing the Casio or the guitar or doing the MC thing?
BAJ: It really depends on the crowd. If it’s a party crowd then they’re gonna like the pre-programmed stuff more. If I play a festival then I play more guitar.
Stylus: Do you consider yourself a folk musician?
BAJ: No. [Laughs.] I guess when I first started. Now I don’t even say musician anymore.
Stylus: Do you consider yourself an entertainer then?
BAJ: I think entertainer is good. Nice blanket term.
Stylus: Even though you don’t consider yourself a folk musician, your songs seem to relate a lot more with audiences than those of your average forced-metaphor singer-songwriter type.
BAJ: Well, I write about some pretty common themes that people can relate to. Who hasn’t stolen from their shitty job when they were a kid? Or who hasn’t been screwed over by a girlfriend’s roommate? I guess the funniest songs have a kernel of truth to them.
Stylus: You have a lot of songs about movies in the ‘80s.
BAJ: Yeah, I wrote one of my albums while watching old VHS tapes. It’s easy to write songs with a movie, especially if it’s a terrible movie like Hell House or C.H.U.D.
Stylus: But you had some keen observations. Ghostbusters II and Critters II are better than Crocodile Dundee.
BAJ: Yeah, those are pretty solid. Except for the part where the Statue of Liberty walks. That’s a little much. Kinda loses some direction there but…
[Pause for long debate over Ghosbusters-related issues.]
Stylus: You’ve toured and opened for some pretty big acts. What has been their take on what you do?
BAJ: The Rheostatics really liked my show, which I was kind of surprised about. I work in a bar and they don’t have too many openers around so sometimes I have to open for touring bands, which is great for some of the bands that I know. Like the Constantines, [who] like the show. I think Joel Plaskett is the one [who] hated me the most. His exact quote was, “B.A. Johnston? I fucking hate that guy.” Maybe he was having a bad night. I mean, I opened for NoMeansNo and I was really bad. Like extra bad, and they were tired, so it didn’t turn out very well. [They and] the audience weren’t really in the right mood.
Stylus: I don’t know if Nomeansno is the best fit for you.
BAJ: Well, I got to see the show for free and I like them a lot, so I was just happy to be there.
Stylus: What’s tour like for you?
BAJ: The usual. Not sleeping, drinking too much, sleeping in your car. I used to go on tours on the Greyhound, so it gets really surreal by the end. Lack of sleep combined with paranoia, insane junkies and the homeless people.
Stylus: I thought you were from Hamilton?
[Pause for long debate over Hamilton-related issues.]
Stylus: Do you have any new material coming out soon?
BAJ: I think what I’m going to do is put out a couple 7” singles in the fall and do a compilation of all of my albums. Get rid of all the crappy songs and focus on the better ones from the first three records. I’m going to call it I Was a Young Man Once: B.A. Johnston, the Early Recordings.
Stylus: A nice retrospective. Are you going to be back in Winnipeg any time soon?
BAJ: In the past I’ve had a history of semi-depressing Winnipeg shows so this time around it was great seeing a lot of people come out. I’m sure I’ll rear my ugly head in Winnipeg again. I’ll definitely be back. You’re off the list. Nanaimo and St. Catharines are still on it but maybe that will change.