BA Johnston: Hobo 4 Life

With a new album, Gremlins 3, and his umpteenth cross-Canada tour, BA Johnston brings his bar room performance art back to the city where it all began.

BA Johnston (photo by Karol Orzechowski)
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Sparklers fizz in the dark, and friendly murmurs turn to whoops and cheers as the dramatic opening chords of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” blare on the house speakers. BA Johnston, a short and thick 40-ish man with elaborate facial hair wearing a ship captain’s hat and a polyester sweater, strides through the crowd to the stage in mock triumph.

He’s taking the long way, snaking erratically through the beer-dimmed audience, bumping up against shy people who came for the opening act and don’t want to be part of whatever clearly interactive activity the headliner has in store. A large, drunk male fan engages his messiah in banter, but BA pushes past him. He’s nowhere near a microphone, but the room is already under his unique hoser spell.

BA Johnston (photo by Karol Orzechowski)Clambering onto the stage with surprising athleticism, he lobs a swift bon mot that skewers both himself for working up this ridiculous schtick and his audience for buying it. “How we doing for time?” he asks breathlessly, seconds into his act, before he has sung a note. “I like to start my set from a deep, deep, cavernous hole,” he tells the crowd, “and then try to crawl my way out with my”—air quotes held aloft—“‘songwriting abilities.’”

He feigns forgetfulness about where he is tonight, glancing theatrically at the palm of his hand, where he pretends to read “Peterborough,” then launches into a series of by-the-numbers Lindsay, Ontario put-downs, then a song about McDonald’s coupon day, “a big day in the Johnston household,” then a song about having a deep fryer installed in his mother’s basement, where he ostensibly lives, overeducated and unemployed.

More songs and jokes follow, each as self-deprecating and silly as the last. In the course of his set, BA will become overheated and remove his sweater to reveal a nearly identical sweater underneath. He will paint a painfully embarrassing self-portrait of a self-loathing man of extraordinary wit who is unable to find work or love and unable to resist junk food or forget 80s-era celebrities, a portrait so lovingly detailed and—in key places—so utterly relatable that even the shy people find themselves laughing and singing along with the stocky poet laureate of post-industrial working-class Ontario.

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BA isn’t from Peterborough, but he might as well be. He grew up in Hamilton, where his mother is a homemaker and his father sells springs for use in cars, he believes. (“I can’t really explain it, but he complains about springs not getting there, and these complaints are car-based.”) His mother, who appears frequently as a character in his songs, was a major presence growing up. “I come from a long line of female overlords,” he jokes.

BA Johnston (photo by Karol Orzechowski)A major industrial city with a strong working-class culture that’s since dimmed, Hamilton was an important indie-rock scene when he was a teenager. Sonic Unyon Records was huge, and all-ages shows were common. “That was the normal thing to do,” he says. “Other cities not so much.” Some of his friends played music—“they were the anti-Sonic Unyon: into Pavement, Sebadoh, that kind of thing”—but he didn’t until he left for university.

But Hamilton was “a tough city,” still dominated by a culture of everyday violence. “If you went downtown, you could get beaten up,” BA remembers. “You could get beat up at the mall.” That griminess impressed itself on his aesthetic early on. For him it’s all about “finding beauty in the dustbin of your shitty town. I loved how trashy and dirty it is.”

After finishing high school, he departed for Nippissing, in North Bay. (“They were the only school that mailed my acceptance to the correct address,” he explains.) But North Bay was even worse than Hamilton, “the kind of place where you got beat up for having long hair.” Visiting friends who were at Trent, he went to the Red Dog and it “seemed like a fun place to be.” So he transferred.

Trent was much more his style. Never a really dedicated student (“I should not have gone to university at all,” he laughs), he quickly found out what bars had cheap drink nights and when they were, and he would “just follow it around.” He studied philosophy, and he did ok. “You could just argue something and you’d get a B.” Although he has vivid memories of “being in classes and not understanding,” he did all his schoolwork adequately and got a degree. Then, like a lot of Trent people, he stuck around.

He stuck around in large part because he was working at the Trasheteria at that point, booking shows in the Blue Room upstairs. This was in the late 90s when Hot Piss was the big band, and extended into the early 2000s. But local bands weren’t BA’s focus.

“Peterborough is very cyclical,” he notes. “There’s always been bands. But the scene then was more insular. Bands didn’t necessarily want to go somewhere else.” It was hard to find local openers for the touring shows he was putting on. They either didn’t understand, or didn’t care, that you open for a band when they’re in town, and then they open for you when you go on tour. That’s how touring works.

Out of this experience came the current BA experience. Before he started booking, he played once or twice a year. He had to open so many of the shows he booked at the Trash that that became his career. “That’s how I started touring,” he says. “I’d book them and then I’d play with them away.”

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For most of BA Johnston’s peers on the indie touring circuit, a show is a concert, a presentation of musical compositions, usually played much like the album, introduced with some awkwardly earnest banter. BA’s show is much more like performance art, a tightly scripted accretion of brilliantly off-the-wall jokes, gestures, and observations; the songs are part of the show, they aren’t the whole show.

BA Johnston (photo by Karol Orzechowski)It wasn’t always this way. His songs were always funny in an it’s-got-to-be-hilarious-or-it’s-super-sad kind of way, but his shows at the start were basically just him singing his songs, slicing away on an acoustic guitar. He would talk in between, make jokes about his poor guitar skills, then play the next song.

He’s always had a frantic, almost industrial strum, somewhat arrhythmic and a little tuneless, and he often seems bored or tired when he gets near the end of the song. This style is equal parts outsider aesthetic and dumb bad luck, he says. “I was really into Daniel Johnston and Cub—people who couldn’t play their instruments,” but also, whereas his roommates would pick up the guitar occasionally and their technique would improve, his didn’t. “I stunk so that’s the box I made for myself.”

When BA first toured across Canada in 2003, it was in this early guise, the smart-sad-funny guy with the sloppy-speedy strum. Like a lot of smart guys with acoustic guitars playing in bars, though, he struggled to keep people listening. He experimented with various ways of focusing attention on himself, trying things out, keeping the things that worked.

To break up the set a bit, he started using a cheap keyboard to accompany himself on some songs. Then, he started using a Sony Discman to play backing tracks for him to sing over. The process was cumbersome, because it involved making custom CDs to play, but with its cheap, video-game sound palette, it succeeded in shifting the sonic landscape of his shows dramatically. This was the era of live multi-tracking, when acts like Final Fantasy and Danny Michel performed multiple parts by creating loops of themselves playing, approximating a full band. BA’s system was a less impressive and therefore funnier version of this, using a technology that was current if not cutting edge at the time.

Over time, the Discman in particular has become absorbed in BA’s overall self-deprecating weariness with his own show, and an expression of his fondness for 80s and 90s junk culture. He jokes about it actually being an iPhone 6, especially when it malfunctions during the performance, which it often does. (Now, he claims, “people think it’s not real, they assume it actually is an iphone.”)

Other aspects of the show, like the sparklers, the wrestling-style entrance, the captain’s hat, and a big sign that says “BA,” all developed over time through trial and error. He visits Dollarama, sees something that lights a fuse, and thinks, “What would happen if I came out to a theme song?” If it works he keeps it, and if it doesn’t he drops it. More than a decade later, the show is a brilliant, tightly-packed series of bits.

“The CDs,” he notes again, shaking his head, “were always such a dumb idea.”

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BA Johnston’s songcraft is unique in Canadian music. (It’s also so specifically Canadian that it must by definition be unique in the world, but that’s a different discussion.) He writes intelligent and witty songs, packed with obscure, note-perfect culture references, about his desires and disappointments. But BA’s desires and disappointments are more workaday than those of his peers, and his references cheaper.

BA Johnston (photo by Karol Orzechowski)BA is truly and honestly a fan of pop culture from the 80s and 90s: TV shows, games, celebrities, products, and commercials for products. He collects VHS tapes, and he still plays vintage arcade games. (“I just recently I memorized the three Pacman patterns,” he states proudly.) Growing up in the era, he hated a lot of it. “I started liking stuff ironically, but then I actually started liking it.”

Increasingly, his fan base is unmoved or simply perplexed by the 80s arcana (“22-year-olds don’t know who Magnum PI is”), but he’s committed to that part of his performance. And it comes from real admiration, he says: “If I was just throwing out reference that I didn’t believe in it would ruin the show.” It’s all about connection, that moment of recognition, even if it’s tiny and fleeting. “You want the reference so specific that only two people will get it, but they’ll get their minds blown.”

Pop culture references aren’t the only thing creating a shocking sense of recognition in BA’s audiences. He also writes more bluntly and consistently about class than any of his peers. His songs fixate on the indignities of paid work, the joy of GST cheques (which, it should be noted, most people don’t get), the frustration of finding his education useless in the job market, and other minor personal catastrophes that are widely shared.

Often his very real social commentary is wrapped in irony. On a song titled “Hobo 4 Life,” he sings, “Trent University should have a money back guarantee—oh these walls keep closing in.” On another song, cast as a grocery store employee denied a miniscule raise even though he’s training more junior employees, BA wonders aloud how much he can steal from work. The crowd of respectable university types goes wild at that one.

“Gonna End Up Working in Fort McMurray” is pretty self-explanatory: a man with no job and no skills anticipates ending up working the only place in the whole stupid country that’s hiring—the tar sands in northern Alberta—developing a cocaine addiction and buying an unnecessarily large pickup truck. It’s funny, but it’s also really really not funny.

BA isn’t exactly uncomfortable in the blue-collar comedian role (he notes proudly that he’s played benefits for the Steelworkers’ Union), but he downplays its importance. People get excited for his show and its litany job jokes, he claims, simply because it’s different: even if he’s on a five-band bill, even if he plays a festival, he’s usually the only funny act, and the only one that sings about tax rebates. It’s a change and, even if they love indie rock or whatever the other bands are all playing, they were unconsciously a bit bored.

Having seen his show a few times in Peterborough, though, I am convinced that a huge part of BA’s appeal to his most dedicated fans, and to the casual fans who are sucked into his orbit despite themselves, is that he articulates the shame and frustration that is specific to a particular class experience of our time.

His audience, like the BA in his songs, got ok grades in something unmarketable, and find themselves underemployed, drowning in debt and disappointment, devoting their considerable intellects to pop culture and self-mockery, not necessarily politicized around inequality but definitely deeply alienated from capitalism’s promises. BA is almost alone in speaking to that constituency in a language that they recognize, and it excites them.

 

 

Photos by Karol Orzechowski.

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David Tough

David Tough

david.tough

David Tough is a musician, scholar, and journalist from Peterborough, Ontario. He is Contributing Editor and co-Publisher of Electric City Magazine.