Polaris snubs! Grant glitches! Meet Can-Con’s kryptonite man
MUSIC by Hank Videoclip
with Blonde Goth and Delta Throats
Hello, Prairie Dog readers! You obviously all followed the dramas surrounding this year’s Polaris Prize, like all good Canadians did, yes? Buffy Sainte-Marie’s win dominated headlines, as well it should. Before that, there were a couple of solid controversies. One Polaris juror posted private jury comments to make the case that the awards are snooty. Polaris nominee Viet Cong of Calgary got a lot of negative attention for its controversial band name, then announced on Sept. 19 that they’d drop it.
But one story you may have missed was the snubbing of Hamilton singer-songwriter B.A. Johnston, who was left off the Polaris shortlist. Johnston, an under-the-radar Canadian folk and punk hero, doesn’t sing the kind of tunes likely to land him awards. No, Johnston sings bawdy songs about having a deep fryer in his bedroom and the resurgence of skinny jeans. His latest LP Shit Sucks includes hits like “Pizza Party for One” and “IKEA Hotdog,” which confront important pizza and hot dog-related issues.
Johnston’s fans reacted to the snub with a hashtag — #ShortlistBA — that attempted to shame elitist factions among the Polaris jury. Didn’t work. Ah well. No one’s going to complain about Buffy’s well-deserved win.
On Saturday Oct. 10, Johnston will play the Regina German Club with Winnipeg’s Blonde Goth and locals Delta Throats. I caught up with Johnston on a phone interview and heard his views on the Polaris Prize, the death of comedy in contemporary punk music and Canada’s flawed arts granting system. Here’s a condensed version of our conversation.
What’s your opinion of the Polaris Prize?
My mom thought I would get snubbed. She was mad. There was no way I was going to make the shortlist. That was delusional. I’ve always existed outside of that side of the music industry. A lot of people hate me. Whatever people who liked me who were doing [the #ShortlistBA] thing, there were a larger number of people who disliked me.
Why do you think people hate you?
For the Polaris people, I assume they just hate my live show. Nobody hates an album that much. If you don’t like it, you just don’t listen to it. My live show can be pretty annoying, I guess.
Like when you take entire audiences into the bathroom?
[Laughs] Well, that part is annoying. But if I stop doing that, people get mad. There’s always someone who’s like, “Why didn’t we go in the bathroom?” Some people don’t like spectacles.
There are other beloved bands that have spectacles. Like Gwar.
Yeah! But Gwar probably isn’t making any shortlists either. I guess it’s the same way that some people hate Kiss. I’m not a horrible dick like Gene Simmons.
Do you think of yourself as a kind of comedian?
I think I’m comedic. When I first started playing shows, it was just me with a guitar. The only way I could get people to pay attention to me was to trick them. I started writing songs that were humourous. I was trying to be funny — trying is the key word — just to get people to listen to my songs.
Is it fair to say your comedy comes out of the sillier roots of punk rock?
Yeah, funnier punk bands used to be a thing. I don’t know if funny is a thing anymore. I don’t know if you’re allowed to be funny. I don’t know if my shows would survive solely based on how funny I am, because I don’t think I’m that funny.
You poke fun at the seriousness of pop culture in “I Remember Skinny Jeans the Last Time Around” off the Shit Sucks album.
For me, I’m poking fun at young people. I’m old now, and still hang out at bars with children. I stay at people’s houses and they talk about bands I’ve never heard of. I have no idea what they’re talking about now.
How old are you?
I’m not telling you. If I tell you, and people find out, they won’t see me anymore. It’s ageism. I’m too old.
Is there anything in particular you hate from young person culture?
Phones. I hate their dumb phones. I need them sometimes. When I’m looking for the nearest pizza place and someone takes out their magical phone and finds it, that’s cool. But there’s nothing weirder for me than, say, touring across the country and you’re in the mountains with someone who has never been there, and they’re on their phone. I don’t even know what they’re doing.
Is there anything from young person culture you admire?
They are passionate about stuff. I used to be into music and politics. Eventually, life wears you down to a nub.
What were you passionate about before?
I actually started my shows out of jealousy and spite. All my friends were in bands. They got free beer and money. I wanted money and beer. Going to shows was a bigger deal when I was young. That’s all we had. All-ages [shows] don’t exist as much.
Talk about the difficulties you have with Canada’s music granting system.
I want more money. I want their money and they won’t give it to me.
Some people feel it’s because you’re so different and don’t fit into the boxes granting agencies like Factor set up. Is that fair?
Factor is weird. I didn’t understand how it all worked. A friend told me to apply, and I did. They gave me the same level as Metric. I didn’t know what that meant, and I didn’t reapply. Then Factor bumped me to the lower level, and that’s when I realized if I had applied again for Shit Sucks, they would have given me $100,000. That’s kind of bananas. When I was [bumped down a level] to number two, I came home after being on tour out west and they gave me like $7,000. To me it just seemed like a scam. My furnace broke so I used a cheque to buy a furnace. They gave me a tour grant and I was home for two months. Then they bumped me to the lowest level, and I couldn’t get money for anything except showcase grants for like $500. My only beef is, why would they give me $100,000 a year ago, and then $7,000 to go out west, and then almost nothing? It seems like there could be a better way to rank things.