It’s Easter and B.A. Johnston is alone in a hotel room in Swift Current, Sask. with 15 bucks worth of a Pizza Hut combo meal. While layabouts, and also Jesus, have been resting all weekend, Johnston’s been rolling down the highway in his 2006 Dodge Caravan. After a sold-out show in Winnipeg, he made his way to Regina, picking up some Cadbury Cream Eggs and some leftover ham to keep the trip festive before settling in for the night.
The indie punk/folk comic does a lot to earn his bed and pizza. As audiences can attest, few performers are as exhilarating or as intoxicating as the gruff-voiced, mutton-chopped, sea captain hat-wearing, beer-bellied Johnston. He’s held encores standing on the toilets of crowded bar bathrooms and led bizarre renditions of The Littlest Hobo’s theme song to drunkenly howling fans.
“You have to watch it to see it,” Johnston says. “The records are a bit different than the live show. The live show is a bit odd I suppose. I guess it would be like if Van Halen was an old man, and there was no band, so you had David Lee Roth but less sexist and still jumping around. But the music isn’t as good.”
Quality notwithstanding, Johnston’s just released his 12th studio album entitled The Skid is Hot Tonight. Featuring instant sing-along classics like “This Hangover Has Legs,” “I Miss ’90s Hash,” and “We’re All Going to Jail (Except Pete, He’s Gonna Die),” alongside acoustic ballads about Canadian liquor and how your girlfriend hates Rush.
It’s primo Canadian content like this that got Johnston his own T.V. show on BellFibe —B.A. Johnston’s Ham Jam. Created with collaborative partners Douglas Nayler Jr. and Chelsea McMullan, the six-episode series sees Johnston exploring the odd and out of the way places in his native Hamilton, Ont..
“I told them no one would ever give us any money because no one ever wants to give me money,” Johnston says. “They said I was wrong. We did the trailer and we were turned down by everybody. Then two years after that, Bell emailed me and said ‘We like your videos.’ Then they gave me a bunch of money.”
While Johnston is comfortable playing the funny-man, his music and lyrics occasionally touch on softer and more sentimental subject matter. There’s often a sincerity that gets lost in the discussion somewhere between the songs praising donair sauce and the ballads about drinking in a canoe.
Though in many ways—Johnston’s music and persona defy comparison—there is one that seems to follow him around in the press. His honesty about smaller, oft-neglected bits of Canadiana has led some to see him as a kind of Stompin’ Tom Connors for the generation that grew up with Super Nintendo and cheap drive-thru toys.
“I think the comparison angers a lot of people because my show is annoying,” Johnston says. ”My music doesn’t sound like Stompin’ Tom, but I think I also write songs about small details of Canadian life that probably no one else writes songs about … Stompin’ Tom was kind of an outsider. I think he was rejected by a lot of kind of mainstream stuff. He kind of existed outside of that since that’s not really what they want to sell. No one ever tries to sell anything I’m doing either.”
With the Dodge Caravan cooling off out front and a beer belly full of stuffed crust, B.A. Johnston is audibly tired. He’s fortysomething, no longer thirtysomething, and the road food and tour routine has got to wear on a man. But you wouldn’t know it if you only ever saw him throw on his captain’s hat and belt out a tune about how No Frills sucks while perched on the back of a wobbly toilet tank like some deranged pigeon.
In spite of how little the pay, how long the road, or how stuffed the crust, B.A. Johnston still seems to have some sense of meaning and purpose behind tuning his guitar, plugging in his Casio keyboard, and shaving down his mutton chops.
“It’s a lot of work for someone in my physical condition,” Johnston says. “Sheer will. You just have to force yourself to do it.”
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