Casio beats, Hamilton TV and Dead Pete? It must be B.A. Johnston

Music | Paul Dechene | June 9, 2022

B.A. Johnston is on tour again and he has a new album to go with it: Werewolves of London, Ontario. But does he still sound like a cross between the Dead Milkmen, Stompin’ Tom Connors, early Mountain Goats and an ’80s B-movie soundtrack? Yes. Johnston’s still singing about beer, wrestling, beat-up cars and bummed-out skids.

It’s classic B.A.

On “My Last Shift at Timmies,” he writes about a Tim Horton’s employee who finally loses his shit and leaps over the counter to speak truth to power: “The reason the donuts taste like this/ is we don’t make them here, they’re frozen and shipped … fuck this temple to mediocrity.”

It fits, then, that when we met up to talk about the new album and tour, it was at Country Corner Donut on Broad Street, where the donuts are made fresh, in-house every day. A bag of day-olds is $5.

Best donuts in the city.

We start by discussing Ham Jam, a six-episode series celebrating Johnston’s hometown, Hamilton, Ontario, that he created for community access-television, Fibe TV1 (also available on Youtube).

Ham Jam. How did that happen?

It was pretty easy. I guess the media companies need local content for streaming since I guess there’s no more local TV or whatever. So, they have to pay people to produce it and I think they were just desperate. Like, they just sent me an e-mail saying, “We like your videos.” It was a gimme, like everything in my career, it was handed to me on a silver platter.

Did you have an idea for a TV show simmering in your head?

No, I didn’t have any ideas. The idea the TV people had originally was it was a joke tourism show. Like where the city’s giving me money and then I’m trying to sell the city to other people. But it’s predictably not working. But I switched it to where it’s more just love letters to forgotten stuff that doesn’t exist.

Any chance you’ll do it again?

Yeah, we’re filming season two right now. We’ve done two blocks of “shoots”, I guess they’re called. It’s supposed to be coming out fall or Christmas.

Can you tell me what the first few episodes are about?

So, there’s a Food Network pitch show called “You Gotta Should Probably Eat Here in 24 Hours,” where I eat at all the iconic restaurants in a 24-hour period, trying to use my Bell5 money to get on Food Network.

We’re doing the Hamilton Ti-Cats, of course. Should’ve done that in season one.

We’re doing one about how Hamilton’s expensive, which seems to be a story that no one was telling two years ago but we’ve decided to do it and now everyone’s talking about it. It’s mostly about how the beauty of Hamilton was how cheap it was, and now it’s like the most expensive city in North America or something.

And then we’re doing one about how old people are still cool.

About the new record, you’ll probably get this question a hundred times but… was Werewolves of London, Ontario your quarantine album?

No, there’s another record. This was just kind of before COVID. I’d booked the recording sessions that prompted me to write stuff. It was supposed to be done in England. I had a British tour. So, I was gonna fly early, do the record and then do the tour. And then COVID cancelled that. Then we were gonna do it in the Maritimes and then the Maritimes hit the bubble, so it really took like three years to even do it. The record feels a little cursed.

Do you always work with this lo-fi aesthetic? With your vocals, I can almost hear the living room in the background.

It’s because we’re in a living room. I don’t know anything about engineering or producing, obviously, but I don’t feel like I need to pay a ton of money for a big studio. It seems a bit pointless.

What gear do you use? Like, where do the beats come from?

Oh, the beats are just, different people give me beats. I don’t even make ’em. For this record, a musical comedian from Toronto called Marty Topps, he gave me some of the beats.

I just assumed you were hitting “Go” on a Casio.

That’s how the beats evolved because originally it was me with the Casios hitting a button and then I didn’t want to carry any more Casios.

You mentioned that you had a UK tour? Your music is so specifically Canadian. Are you a curiosity overseas?

Oh hugely, yeah. I mean, I really lean into being Canadian. I play up Bob and Doug. I get really hoser-y.

Do they know Bob and Doug?

No, they’re very confused. You start talking about moose to people and they don’t know what you’re talking about. But they’re kind of interested. So, you sell it that way. If a song is too Canadian, you can’t really use it, which makes it kind of hard. I have to use my more universal material.

What would you consider universal?

I have no idea. “We’re All Going To Jail, Except Pete [He’s Gonna Die]”, maybe.

See, that’s almost like you told a story from when I was a teenager. Except for me it was Martin instead of Pete.

We’ve all got a Pete. Everyone.