The over-the-top Hamilton rocker talks "shitty shows," wanting to burn Toronto to the ground, and why Tim Hortons is a temple to mediocrity.
Minus the rape, heroin, and knee-jerk proclivity for threatening people with murder, B.A. Johnston is Canada’s answer to G.G. Allin. His voice is uncannily similar to G.G.’s acoustic stuff. Except for necrophilia and prison though, B.A. sings about having a deep fryer in his bedroom and stealing T-bone steaks in the waistband of his track pants from the grocery store where he once worked. There’s also the nudity and rolling around on the floor. He doesn’t usually go Full Monty like G.G. But if he did, I’d bet he’d reveal a bigger package—wouldn’t be tough to beat, mind you.
From Hamilton and damn proud of it, B.A. Johnston treats Canada’s east and west coasts like a giant game of Pong, bouncing back and forth to play roughly a million shows a year. He’s a semi-homeless breath of fresh Ontario air from the litany of mopey musicians with mopey mops of hair covering their mopey faces as they sullenly sway back and forth to an audience of mopey fucks. A true troubadour. A long-sideburned, van-dwelling showman who compels you to embrace your inner hoser and fuggin’ giv’er.
He often works the crowd by running around the room, riffing on people’s haircuts and glasses at point-blank range, grabbing half-full drinks right in front of their owners, sliding headfirst across the bar, and diving selflessly into mud ‘n’ beer puddles on the disgusting floor. He basically does everything the black-out drunk version of me tries to do, except instead of burning bridges, he ignites laughter and builds a fanbase.
We caught up with B.A. after he got into Sackville, New Brunswick. He risked his van going off the highway into a ditch while driving through an old-fashioned maritime fuckstorm, all just to play a tiny show in a tiny bar in a tiny town.
Noisey: How was that fuckstorm on the way to Sackville?
B.A. Johnston: Ya know, I get really paranoid because I almost crashed my van last winter. I did a spin on the Trans-Canada and I cried. So now I’m obsessed with the Weather Channel. But it was only half-shitty today.
Where do you get the stamina to tour so much?
I have a lot of caffeine. I eat a lot of soup. I’m getting old so yeah, basically tea and soup. And I need money for stuff. I’m kind of broke all the time.
You only make about hundred dollars a show so you have to play a lot of them. It’s a matter of economics.
And with Quebec politics right now, if they end up separating, do you think that would affect your touring from coast to coast all the time?
I guess I’d just have to bring my passport. Or, I guess I could drive through the States. That would actually probably be better because I wouldn’t have to drive through Quebec. Driving through Quebec sucks. Not really that fun.
Is that because the roads are terrible?
Yeah. And the speed limit’s kind of low and there’s nowhere to stop. And it’s really long. There are a lot of negatives. But there are a lot of negatives about driving everywhere really. There isn’t any drive anymore where I’m super excited about it.
Rural Quebec radio can be especially brutal.
Oh yeah. I’m a big fan of classic rock radio. So ya gotta lose that for the first few hours anyway. Maybe popping down through the States would be a good call.
Do you ever tour the States?
I only ever played one show in the U.S. and it was in Iowa City and that’s it.
How come you don’t go down there more often?
I don’t know. I’m starting think that my show is too Canadian to leave. With a lot of the references in songs, I don’t know if people would know what I’m talking about. And then I just get worried because I’m so old. I don’t want to play shitty house punk shows. I don’t want to play, like, Squalor House in Columbus, Ohio. It’s depressing to me at this point. I don’t want to bomb in front of 18-year-olds drinking Old Milwaukee somewhere for 20 bucks.
The album cover for Mission Accomplished is probably one of the best I’ve ever seen.
That was drawn by Paul Hammond. He’s in a band called Cold Warps. The idea comes from the fact that every time I’m in Toronto, I get so angry I always want to burn it to the ground. Usually because I get parking tickets. I find I kind of hate Toronto. So then I just thought it would be funny if I actually had a picture of me burning it to the ground. And then a tiger just because I figure I’d be riding my tiger back to Hamilton.
How many years have you been touring?
I guess I’ve been touring pretty steadily since about 2003. Eleven years or something like that.
I heard that the grant people at Factor Canada consider you a “beginning musician.”
Well, I just got really mad. They dropped my grant. There are basically three levels, and they dropped me to the beginner level. So I can only apply for beginner shit like recording demos and stuff. I’m just kinda pissed off. But I mean, ah, whatever. Like, I want their money, but I kind of find the whole system gross. But I love free money so I’m torn. I just figure if they don’t give it to me they’ll give to the Stars or some band like that.
Like they really need the money.
I need the money. I got bills to pay.
I once had a boss who said he wanted you to get you to play his friend’s wedding but I never found out if that actually panned out.
I’ve been offered before but I’ve turned them down. I just think it would be shitty. I’ve played stag and doe’s though. I got cut off at one stag and doe. Some parents came and pulled the plug on me.
Oh really? How come?
I think they just hated me. They hated my shitty show. I mean, there were people there that liked it but it was really strange. It was one of those shows that you pull off and you go, “Why did I agree to do this?” And that also happens to me, like, all the time.
Sometimes you say you live with your mom there but I can’t tell if you’re joking.
It’s a joke with some truth to it. I’m barely there ‘cos I’m on the road so much.
You have a song about hating Tim Hortons. Is that because you’re on the road so much?
Tim Hortons is really weird because it’s this weird temple to mediocrity. I never go to a Tim Hortons and expect anything better than a C-minus. But I also go to Tim Hortons constantly. Plus it’s always packed. So I’ve accepted the fact it’s not very good, yet I will go there pretty much every day when I’m on tour. You can always get tea and soup and coffee. It’s just really convenient. But it’s just so terrible. I always find it weird when people are excited to go to a Tim Hortons. Like a family eating sandwiches? I’ve always found that so strange. Like, couldn’t you do slightly better than this? If you look at the advertising campaigns, they make it seem like all Canadians are really excited about Tim Hortons. But I think if they showed the reality of how depressed everyone is, like, there’s no one that’s that happy about it. You’re just there because you have no other choice.
Your voice reminds me of G.G. Allin’s acoustic records.
I have been compared to him before, I think just ‘cos we’re both ugly and we roll around with no shirt on. But I don’t know his music that well. I heard someone say his early stuff was poppier or something like that?
With the Jabbers for sure.
Yeah I don’t know. I’ve never listened to him. I just assume I get those comparisons because of our nakedness and dirtiness.
At a lot of the shows of yours that I’ve seen, it has been pretty messy with things like beer flying everywhere and this and that. It must be difficult to maintain that level of chaos show every show, day after day.
It can be tough because some shows are at a very normal or clean kind of bar. You feel kind of shitty playing your shitty show. But I always try to do my show the same way no matter where I am, so I have no real contingency plan for playing places that are not always conducive to what I’m doing.
Do you sleep in the van while on tour?
It actually has a bed in it. I mean, sometimes people will be all, “Come, stay at my house. I’m having a party and I got like eight cats” and I’m like, “Ugh! That sounds terrible.” And then the van becomes awesome because you don’t have to stay there.
What exactly is your set-up in the van?
Well, I’ve got all my crap, but I just push it against the wall. And I have a foamy and a yoga mat. My mother bought me some kind of inflatable mat. It’s really not that great. It’s better than staying at a punk house but it’s not amazing or anything. The windows are tinted so no one can see me in there, which is kinda good. But there have been nights where you get really wasted and then you wake up in the middle of the night and you’re dry-heaving outside your van in a residential neighbourhood. It can be kind depressing.
What’s your road diet usually like?
It really depends. If I’m in a city, I’ll eat good. Like in Montreal, I’ll eat Schwartz’s and bagels and cream cheese. But everywhere else, it’s usually McDonalds until I’m sick of it. Then Wendy’s until I’m sick of it. And by the end of the tour I’m eating Arby’s and Taco Bell. Arby’s is gross.
What’s the B.A. Johnston drinking game?
This guy created it for a show I played and people were into it for a while but everyone would get so drunk I’m kinda glad people don’t do the drinking game as much anymore. My fans are usually so drunk anyway they don’t really need any help. So things that I do every show are on this list and people drink when they happen.
Like what exactly?
If I make a mistake, they have to drink. Or if my CD player beeps, everybody drinks. Even if I talk about my mother, they have to drink. Stuff like that.
And where does the pride for Hamilton come from? Just because it’s home?
There’s something about it. I find the older I get the more I like it. It’s just a great city. It’s still kind of stabby and shitty. But I kind of like that. It breeds a certain kind of person. Not stabby like Winnipeg though. Even people from Toronto are moving there because houses cost about 10 bucks. Everyone from Toronto moving to Hamilton is trying to turn it into a mini-Toronto basically. But I think Hamilton’s too shitty for that. They can’t change the whole town.
You can’t polish a turd, as they say.
And you’re not a huge fan of Windsor?
Windsor kind of hates me. I don’t think I’m allowed to play there anymore.
I think I farmer-blew on stage.
Yeah. I mean, they didn’t serve food there or anything. It was just a normal bar so I didn’t feel too bad. But they were very offended. They said I could go back but that I wasn’t allowed to farmer blow and that I had to have Kleenex. I tried to play there again but they did not return my emails. Something about Windsor just rubbed me the wrong way. When you play a show in Windsor, you’re just like, “Ugh! What am I doing?” It’s like driving all the way to end of the world just to play a terrible show.
See B.A. Johnston snot-rocket and make fun of your hair at these dates:
04/02 Moncton, NB - Le Caveau
04/03 Halifax, NS – Gus’ Pub
04/04 Saint John, NB - Peppers
04/05 Fredericton, NB - Capital
04/12 Oshawa, ON - The Mustache Club
04/18 Brantford, ON - Brantford Arts Block
04/25 Kingston, ON - Mansion
04/26 Peterborough, ON - Red Dog Tavern
05/03 Waterloo, ON - Jane Bond
@GGRPike's preferred mode of transportation is a snot rocket.