Photo by Sofi Nowell
All this week on Noisey, we’ll be falling arse-backwards into the state of UK music in a special series of articles about scenes outside the capital: from club closures to brain drains to free parties to local legends. Follow all the content on our Fuck London hub here.
Anyone who’s ever been to a gig in Bristol can tell you who Big Jeff is. Este from Haim was once so enamoured with him, she tried to propose at one of their Bristol dates. Singer-songwriter Beans On Toast wrote an exceedingly soppy song about the guy. And Flying Lotus once presciently declared, “we need to make a documentary about this cat,” an imperative which actually became a reality a couple of years later. Jeff has been hailed a legend by everyone from Tim Burgess to Foals and Bloc Party. So... who's Jeff then?
Known by some as the “Bristol yeti”, Big Jeff (real name Jeffrey Johns) is usually found slinging himself around in front of a stage, anywhere, on any given night; eyes shut, clapping his hands and lurching violently in time to the music. Set atop a six foot four frame, his fuzzy yellow hair - one part surfer dude, two parts Sideshow Bob - has steadily become a leitmotif of the Bristol gigging circuit, bobbing from side to side at every show you’ll ever go to. Whether you’re throwing shapes at the Thekla, ogling at some traditional folk musicians in a dive-bar, or twiddling your thumbs during a classical concerto at the Colston Hall, that hair is always there, like an eternal IRL meme. A chunk of it has probably gone in your mouth at some point, and you should be grateful.
He goes to at least five gigs a week, sometimes seven, and he’s been following this routine for nearly thirteen years. Over time, his celebrity status has transcended Bristol, and now he's recognised all over the West Country, and even on the UK festival circuit. Local bands are honoured to see him at their gigs; touring bands, alien to this level of crazed sincerity, think he’s being patronising; others are simply flattered by his hypnotic, kinetic body pumping. Who wouldn't be?
Photo by Charlie Pitt
In recognition of his ‘local legend’ status, there’s now a Big Jeff appreciation society on Facebook with nearly 2,000 members, and you’ll also find stencils of his face sprayed on walls around the city and wearable as printed tee-shirts. Some young punters have even started mimicking his singular style of dancing in the pit - "doing a Jeff", so to speak - tireless, but elated and respectful. Until now though, everyone knew the myth of Big Jeff, but nobody had ever explored the joyful bloke that stands behind it all, being Jeff, 24 hours a day. What does he do? Where did he learn to dance? What he’s actually like? I decided to phone him up and find out.
Arab Strap’s Malcolm Middleton once referred to Jeff as a ‘human metronome’, so I started by asking him what goes on in his mind when he headbangs for three or four hours straight every night. He’s effusive. “The rhythm is the one thing that always drives me, partly because I studied drums for a few years." Explaining why you’ll almost always find him at the front, attempting to connect with the performers like some sort of animate incarnation of a motorik beat, he says, “the rhythm is something that always strikes up energy and excitement, and so sometimes I find myself actually accidentally either conducting bands or kind of doing air-drums. Quite often, I’ll find myself just mimicking the drummer. It’s through the rhythm that the energy comes from.”
Jeff says that he’s always been fascinated by the visual side to music that “taps both into the imagination and the communication of something”, meaning he’s always been into live music more than anything else. He’s lived in Bristol since 2002; before that, he lived in a village with his parents so he couldn’t see much live music. His first gig, as it happens, was a boy-band all-dayer with East 17, Backstreet Boys and “the guy who played Henry in Neighbours."
Following a move to Bristol, he became seriously ill with appendicitis and a botched hospital operation left him in a controlled coma for three days. A close friend of his also died soon after. But the operation energised Jeff, his defeated illness offered him a “sense of victory”, and all of these experiences in fact led him to recalibrate his general outlook on life. “It opened me out and meant I could actually have conversations with people,” he tells me.
Suffering from Asperger’s, dyspraxia and sporadic bouts of depression, he explains that watching bands has become a way of "being comfortable somewhere where I can actually connect with people." Going to gigs effectively became a release valve, as well as a way of making friends and talking to strangers about a shared passion. “It took me absolutely ages to actually talk, because I’d be so nervous about approaching people,” he explains. “Quite often I actually have to wait for people to approach me. Now it’s become a really addictive need, really. And that’s basically how I’ve started to make friends. I’d talk to people and especially the musicians – I’d tell them what I liked and what I felt could be improved.”
In this way, he’s become an ambassador for local bands, as well as friend and vital source of feedback for Bristol's Howling Owl Records acts such as Spectres, Oliver Wilde and the Naturals, and Zun Zun Egui, who he claims are “definitely the most mind-blowing psychedelic band out there at the moment." This supportive role chimes in with Jeff’s day-job working for Art & Power, a disability arts organisation that aims to empower outsiders and encourage them to hone skills, develop projects and, more ambitiously, realise their dreams.
Photo by Adam Braunton
Time and time again, I hear how people have never met anyone as "into music" as Jeff is "into music". Chris Sharp, owner of the Fleece venue, where Jeff’s name has been painted on one of its 200-year-old flagstones, met him within a couple of weeks of taking the place on. “I think he would literally go to every gig that’s happening if he could,” Chris says. “If he’s not at your gig, it’s because there’s something else on that he wants to see more.” Programming music in Bristol has almost become a game of "who lured Jeff?"
But how do the other punters react to Jeff’s incessant rocking back and forth? “I think Bristol has genuinely got a soft spot for him,” Chris continues. “And he’s such an affable bloke. Even if people might find what he does irritating at first, once they start to speak to him, that impression kind of melts away pretty quickly”.
Laura Williams is Jeff’s former editor at Bristol 24/7, where he used to write a column about his ‘month in gigs’, and she says that there’s a real split in how Bristolians view him, with Jeff's detractors usually just complaining about him blocking their line of sight. She’s keen to tell me that the most amazing thing about Jeff, though, is his uncanny durability. “One thing which never ceases to amaze me about Jeff is his energy levels,” she says. “He doesn’t drink alcohol, yet he’s always the last man standing at festivals. When everyone else has called it a night at 4 or 5am, I can always rely on Jeff to be hanging around by the fire at Green Man or End of the Road, or be chilling outside Start the Bus at 3am after Dot to Dot or Simple Things.”
One of Jeff’s pet hates is garblingly drunk 14-year-olds accosting him, yanking on his shoulder and mindlessly hollering, "Hey look, it’s Big Jeff!" But does he think anything like that will ever put him off going to gigs? “No, I can’t see it at the moment,” he confirms. “But you never know what the future holds. I can’t really say that I’ll keep on going till I’m dead, but I wouldn’t be that surprised if I did actually end up dying at a gig, to be honest… I reckon that would probably be the best way to go”.
Photo by Marc Sethi via Ninja Tune
You can find Huw on Twitter.