The Trans-Canada’s muttonchopped minstrel is packing Gremlins
Music | by Emmet Matheson
He’s Mojo Nixon on maple syrup. He’s Stuart McLean for Millennials. He’s the lovechild of Red Green and Chixdiggit. He’s B.A. Johnston, Hamilton’s hard luck troubadour for an era of lowered expectations. He’s just released a new album — his eighth since 2005’s My Heart is a Blinking Nintendo — and it’s full of lo-fi, minute-and-a-half odes to cheap beer, bad movies, and lousy jobs.
When his 2015 album Shit Sucks made the long list for Canada’s Polaris Prize, which celebrates artistic merit in Canadian music, it was one of the Canadian music scene’s most controversial moments since everyone thought Sloan was breaking up after Twice Removed. Some critics didn’t think an ostensible comedy album belonged among nominees for a prestigious award, and some thought that was a myopic, elitist thing to say.
Johnston didn’t make the Polaris shortlist in 2015, but the kerfuffle galvanized his fans and convinced a few people to pay a bit closer attention to the fast food laureate’s music. Does Gremlins III show artistic maturation and a new musical sophistication for the self-described “failed showman on the skids”? Probably not. I didn’t ask.
I caught up with B.A. Johnston somewhere out there in the great Canadian night, travelling down the Trans-Canada from one gig to another.
You’ve been compared lately to G.G. Allin by VICE and Stompin’ Tom by the Globe And Mail. It seems like these comparisons say as much about who’s making them as they say about you. Has there ever been a particular comparison you’ve been most fond of? What about one that repulsed or upset you?
I’m not really that into comparisons really. I’d rather Stompin’ Tom than GG but would probably rather just be like compared to Don Rickles or something. Once I was told I sounded like the Dave Matthews band mixed with ska. That was probably the worst.
I once interviewed the comedian Steven Wright and he told me that because his jokes are so short, usually one-liners, he needs a lot of them to fill an hour-long set, or whatever length. That’s part of why he developed that slow delivery, so that it gives him time to think of the next joke. Most of your songs are under the two-minute mark. You must burn through a lot of tunes in the course of a night. Do you have any special tricks or techniques for keeping track of them?
I just play the same set in the same order every night and try and change it up every four years or so. Really makes remembering everything a snap.
Tell me about the song “Saskatchewan”. It’s kind of a low-key fantasia about giving up life on the road and settling down in Regina where “the world is right.” It shows a deep knowledge of Regina pastimes. Wonderland! Have you been to the Queen City’s most beloved arcade?
Yeah man, I’ve been to Wonderland. I’ve eaten the hot dogs and I’ve gotten some good scores on the Robotron machine before they unwisely pulled it. It’s a gem and the people of Regina should treat it with the reverence it deserves.
Again on “Saskatchewan”, I don’t want to seem dismissive of the emotional range of comedy, but this song seems like it’s got an emotional centre that’s kind of stronger than any of your other songs. Am I just reading too much into a song about my homeland?
It’s just a song about how dope Saskatchewan is. It gets shit on a lot everywhere. So I’m just trying to set the record straight. If Canada even really wants to make fun of a place they can just make fun of Windsor from now on.
Your song “Saskatchewan” features Regina prominently. What’s your favourite city in Saskatchewan? Saskatoon or Regina? This article will appear in both cities, so pander carefully.
Well, Regina has Wonderland, the Iceberg Burger — well, that’s White City — the Pats and a surprising number of Cambodian restaurants. Saskatoon has Amigos, some great breakfast joints, and a good attitude. That being said, I’m picking Palmer, Sask.
Your new album is called Gremlins III. The first Gremlins is probably the second best Christmas movie after Die Hard. What holiday do you think Gremlins III should reflect the spirit of?
If they do a Gremlins III it should be about Boxing Day. ❧