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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
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Road Warrior

Craig Silliphant
Published Thursday April 16, 03:46 pm
B.A. Johnston’s stomach doesn’t like constant touring

 

 B.A. JOHNSTON

Saturday 25

Amigos

The cover of B.A. Johnston’s new album, Shit Sucks, is pretty awesome. It’s a drawing of Jabba the Hutt, but instead of slave Leia chained to the interstellar gangster, it’s Johnston himself, shirtless and rotund with mutton chops and a sailor hat. It’s the stuff of hilarious nightmares.

It would be easy to write Johnston off as a sort of punk/folk joker, with song titles like “BK Has a New King”, “I Remember Skinny Jeans the Last Time Around” and “Ikea Hotdog”. But while absurdity and humour course through his songs, they’re sometimes also imbued with a certain melancholy. One of the best illustrations of this is the song “Ballad of Wheels”, a reference to the heartbreaking life and death of Neil Hope, who played Derek “Wheels” Wheeler on the seminal Canadian TV show Degrassi High.

With that song I was really hoping people didn’t think I was trying to make light of something tragic,” says Johnston. “In some ways it seems as though his life was absurd and tragic. I guess everyone’s is if you think about it.”

In the Degrassi finale, Wheels kills a family while driving drunk on an errand for his friend Lucy. He goes to prison, muttering the words, “It wasn’t my fault that Lucy wanted chips.” The line, which shows up in the song, gave longtime viewers the dual feeling of comedy because of the homespun writing and delivery, but also the sensation of a dramatic rug being pulled out from under you. After all, if you were of a certain age, this is a character that you grew up with, as if he were another kid from your neighbourhood. In a weird way, Johnston’s song captures this irony perfectly.

Johnston is from Hamilton, so it’s local lore that in real life Neil Hope’s tragedy was no better than what his character suffered. He died an alcoholic, alone in a Hamilton rooming house in 2007. To add insult to injury, it took until 2012 for anyone — including his family — to realize that he was gone.

Wheels used to work at a Moneymart in Hamilton, and people used to go in and make fun of him,” says Johnston. “I thought it was pretty depressing, to have this legacy that you probably never got much money for and yet you would probably get stopped walking down the street every five minutes for. Neil Hope the actor and Wheels the character also seemed kind of similar, like if Wheels had grown up he would have just ended up probably the same as the actor that portrayed him. It’s all pretty sad.”

When I catch up with Johnston, he’s in the Cambie in Nanaimo, listening to the jukebox cranked to 11, Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” coming up from the floorboards. Because he’s the only driver on the tour, he’s been behind the wheel for about 700 kilometres a day, before playing a show each night. He was starting to shut down by the time he got to Calgary on the first leg of the tour, so he spent a day off reading Fletch novels and eating English muffins, one of the better road foods he has to endure.

Road food is mostly terrible,” Johnston says. “The only things that are good are the breakfast items, and I have a real struggle getting up in time to feast on them. Lately, I’ve been eating a sad amount of sour cream glazed Tim Hortons donuts. Tim Hortons: that reliable temple to mediocrity.”

 

LAILA BIALI AND THE RADIANCE PROJECT

Thursday 23

Village Guitar

When I get Laila Biali on the phone, we immediately have a laugh over the fact that she’s “secretly living in Brooklyn” — which means she’s dividing her time between Toronto and Brooklyn, but still hasn’t gotten used to being identified with the hipster contingent in the latter. Her new album House of Many Rooms is also kind of a new place, as she moves from being known primarily as a jazz artist to becoming a more mainstream adult pop artist.

[Shifting genre styles] was pretty organic, [although] I tried to resist it for a number of years,” says Biali. “I was touring with Paula Cole, then Suzanne Vega, and finally Sting. All these artists, especially Paula and Sting, have a great love of and respect for jazz. But while I was touring with them and watching them connect with their audiences, I was really compelled by how deeply their original songs were reaching people.”

On the new album Biali also takes her first foray into directing a large group of musicians: a 15-piece string orchestra, a gospel choir and a six-piece horn section. The result is a lovely soundscape of heartfelt songs and lush production. But in hitting the road, she’ll have to figure out how to translate the recordings to her live show.

It’s been my goal to capture the grandeur of the record in a smaller ensemble that’s more manageable for touring,” Biali says. “I’m really lucky with the band that I’ve managed to get for this tour — they’re some of the most impressive multi-tasking musicians on the planet. It does sound different, but, if I could say this, [different] in a way that sounds charming.”

 

MASKED INTRUDER

Saturday 19

Louis’

Wearing ski masks of blue, yellow, green and red, Masked Intruder is a pop-punk band that hides their identities in order to keep the 5-0 off their tails. While the mystery has become a bit looser in recent years (their press kit even mentions ties to Calgary’s Chixdiggit), there are still people trying to figure out who they are. In fact, there are whole websites dedicated to combing through clues and comparing clothing and tattoos in band photos.

If somebody’s trying to figure out who we are, that’s okay, as long as it’s not a cop,” says Intruder Blue. (Yes, I actually had to ask for Intruder Blue when I called him.) “That’s the thing I would worry most about — is if the police were trying to figure out who we are and try to like, apprehend us or whatever to put us in a prison situation. We would not want that, you know?”

Masked Intruder is touring with a new album, M.I., that’s chock-full of bouncy, sugary pop-punk tracks about break-ins, stalking and crime sprees. They manage to ride a fine line between gimmickry and blasting fun songs that are great live, though some people have accused them of mocking the genre that spawned acts like Green Day and Blink-182.

It’s possible to make something that’s an example of something, and a love letter to something, but also sort of sends it up too,” Intruder Blue says. “I don’t know about mockery; mockery doesn’t sound like it respects the form. But we do have fun with it.” 

  

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