It's hard to relive the thrill of witnessing the wild antics of born showman B.A. Johnston for the first time. He's like James Brown on a shoestring budget, where the shoestring is re-used every gig. There are costume changes, funky aromas, pools of sweat, playful confrontations with the audience and spastic verging-on-rhythmic dance moves. And don't forget those shots of boogers that Johnston forcefully produces from his nasal passage. Those are awe-inspiring (and sick).
Of course, it's musical performance, too. His songwriting wilfully tackles gross subject matter, either backed by rinky-dinky electronic music or Johnston's fastly strummed guitar. Songs alternately aim to amuse and insult (sometimes both), but occasionally they ring true. "Dirtmall"---from his new album, Stairway to Hamilton, on Halifax's Just Friends imprint---paints the picture of a rundown shopping mall identifiable to anyone who's lived in a city.
Johnston doesn't put much stock in music being the reason people continue to check out his live shows---he's been touring for almost nine years, sometimes trekking across the country twice a year. "The live shows developed in a way to trick people into paying attention. Being such a bad musician myself, I need to give people a reason to come back. So you really want to entertain people," he says.
From year to year he's had to adapt to a changing music scene across the country. Long-running venues Johnston has played are either closing, becoming spots for fine dining, or changing from live music venues to dance bars. Unfortunately, it's not always a case of the lousiest venues shutting down.
The liner notes to Stairway to Hamilton give props to music venues all over the country. There are also dedications to venues that have gone to "bar heaven," including Oshawa, Ontario's Velvet Elvis, which closed this spring.
"It's kind of sad because [Velvet Elvis] was a really fun place [to play]. The owner went above and beyond her duties. You'd have unlimited booze, she'd feed you and let you stay in the bar on these couches. And Oshawa's not the kind of place that can afford to lose these music venues." Thus, Johnston was forced to play one of Oshawa's less-desirable venues on this tour.
"All the places that aren't fun and stink still exist. It's not going to be as fun."
On average, he expects that at least one location he'll play on any given tour will be closed by the time he heads out on another. "It's the sad reality of music venues these days; the nicer they are to you, the more chance there is they'll be bankrupt soon."
Touring in support of a new album boosts Johnston's confidence for undertaking a 10-week cross-country trek. Aside from guaranteed stronger attendance for shows and the extra press from having an album to push, Johnston relishes the opportunity to change up his stage show. "Live shows can get stale when you keep playing the same songs. I find you can get really down from doing that because it's just the same old crappy dog and pony show. If you can update that with a new dog, then it feels better."
Stairway to Hamilton was recorded in Halifax---where he lived for a spell before returning to Hamilton two years ago---with Dave Ewenson at Echo Chamber. Noticeable on this album is the beefed-up sound on his party tracks, which benefit from the musical input of Windom Earle's Stephan MacLeod. It again tackles many subjects heard on past recordings: food, sweating, love gone wrong and outdated technology. The previously mentioned "Dirtmall" relies on the questionable metaphor of loving the dirtmall "like a retarded child," a line even his mom has given Johnston grief over.
"If you look at that mall [in Hamilton], it's intrinsically flawed. You don't want to say something's wrong with it, but there's something that keeps it different from the shiny nice mall. It still has that sense of innocence and hope. I guess I'm not saying it in any sort of way that'll make me sound like less of a dick for making fun of retarded children," he says with a laugh.
"But what can I tell ya? I think the metaphor suits it."