‘I like a good no-fucking-around venue’: An Interview with Beans on Toast (09/12/2014)

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Following the release of his new album The Grand Scheme of Things, Jay McAllister, better known under pseudonym Beans on Toast, has toured the length of the UK, opening in Aberdeen and concluding at London’s Electric Ballroom. True to form, the album was released on 1st December which, this year, marked his 34th birthday. But this new age was not the only change the album seems to mark; where before his songs were a mixture of often explicit criticisms of society and a celebration of drug-taking, The Grand Scheme of Things sees this drunk folk singer appreciate the finer and somewhat more domestic things in life, such as new fiancé Lizzy’s cooking skills and the importance of a Whole Lot of Loving. I was lucky enough to catch up with him at Portsmouth’s Wedgewood Rooms to talk about the tour, his love of festivals and his plans for next year.

So how’s the tour been going so far?

Great! Starting in Aberdeen to today in Portsmouth, it feels like we’ve covered a lot of ground.

And you’re going heading back up to London’s Electric Ballroom next? Still got more to cover!

Yeah exactly, we’ve only got two more to go now though so we’re definitely at the back end of it. I almost get a little bit sad when tours come to an end, but in all honesty it’s been one of the best tours I’ve ever done.

Are there any particular shows or venues along the way that stand out in your memory?

Well it’s always easy to judge it on ticket sales – which really it shouldn’t be judged on but Nottingham and Bristol both sold out and they were some of the biggest venues we’ve had on the tour. Another thing I’ve noticed is that it’s all about the weekends.

I can imagine you get a much livelier crowd when they know that haven’t got work to go to in the morning!

Exactly! The times I really knew I’d done well were when we were playing the biggest shows, we performed on a Friday night in Nottingham and a Friday night in Bristol too which was definitely a factor. I mean, selling out 450 capacity venues feels insane. But it’s not just about the ticket sales. Every gigs been as good as the next, and that’s always the mind-set that I try to go with; there’s never an absolute feeling of ‘tonight’s the best one’. I try not to fall into the ‘you’ve done more tickets here than there’ kind of trap.

So any places that have been new to you?

Erm… I’ve done a lot of shows in Portsmouth but never at the Wedgewood Rooms before. I walked in here today and thought ‘this is perfect’. I like a good no-fucking-around venue: there’s the stage, there’s all the people and, most importantly, there’s the bar.

Is it nice to be back with crowds that know you a bit better, crowds that are really your own as opposed to festival crowds or when you’re supporting other acts?

Well, not really… I did some stuff in Europe and there I felt a bit lost because people don’t understand the words, which means the meaning of songs like mine are completely lost, the words are the key really. But I feel at ease pretty much anywhere, certainly at festivals because that’s where my music comes from really, that’s where it was born. So I don’t feel that I need to be playing to people that know my stuff. They don’t need to have come to see me in order for me (and hopefully them!) to have a good time.

You’ve commented before that you owe a lot of your success to Frank Turner. How did touring with him earlier this year compare to doing your own gigs?

Well touring with Frank has a different feel; it was all big arenas which is very different to performing my own gigs. But like I said, I don’t mind singing for different crowds. In some ways the opposite, I kind of enjoy the challenge of winning over a new crowd, although I suppose it’s easier to be a little self-indulgent at your own gigs… I mean, at some of the shows on this tour we’ve been playing for an hour and a half which is insane – something I definitely wouldn’t do for a roomful of strangers. But once everybody’s on side, you get to do a little more, open up a little more.

So you did a lot of festivals this summer… are you going to say there’s no favourite again if I ask?

(laughs) Well I can’t pick just one! Glastonbury, Boomtown, Secret Garden…

I was at Secret Garden!

Oh really? I’ve got a long running relationship with that festival. On its 3rd or 4th year I was out and about and met one of the guys that works there, he booked us and I’ve been paying the same stage at the same time every year for 7 or 8 years now. I feel kind of part of the furniture; I see people who go there every year and tell me I’m part of their weekend which is nice. Now we know we’re going to be there at 2 on Sunday which is quite an awkward slot and I think that’s why it works; it’s meant I’ve been able to stay part of the festival as its grown because no one else wants the 2 o’ clock Sunday slot!

So, next year, and festival plans yet? I’m guessing not Glastonbury! (In his 2013 album Giving Everything, Jay included a song called ‘Can’t Get a Gig at Glastonbury’ in which he criticised the festival’s commercialisation)

Oh no, definitely Glastonbury!

Really?

Well, they haven’t booked us yet…

 (laughs)

Even with the song I still played, since I started doing Beans on Toast I’ve played Glastonbury every year.

Well that was where it all started really wasn’t it?

Yeah, exactly. The song, well… it’s strange how differently people took it, but the song was written almost 2 years ago (so not Glastonbury this year but the Glastonbury before). I wrote it when I was trying to get a gig –

and couldn’t…

And couldn’t. So I wrote the song, and all the people I mentioned got in contact and were like ‘we’re really sorry it’s taken us so long, but of course you can play!’ and I was like… fuck. Now I’ve got this bloody awkward song.

So it actually had the opposite effect of what you expected, it didn’t stop you getting gigs at Glastonbury at all, it got you one!

I know! People starting apologising, it all happened in the course of a week. I played the song out and got an email from everyone I’d mentioned: oh yeah no worries, sorry we’ve been really busy but, you know, do you want to play this time? So I went to Glastonbury, and I played it. Billy Bragg (who was the one who got us the gig) does a thing called Billy’s Big Round-up with a whole bunch of songwriters. So I had this song about him not booking me at Glastonbury, and he’d booked me at Glastonbury…

He wasn’t too bitter about it then?

Not at all, so I played it. I was like: what can I do?

Bit ironic playing it when you’re at Glastonbury…

True. But he’s a good man, it was high 5s all round… (his voice tails off as we hear music coming from outside his dressing room)

I’m so sorry but I really don’t want to miss my mate Sam playing…

Although I had plenty more questions in mind, Jay’s eagerness not to miss his friend and supporting act Sam McCarthy epitomised the gig’s friendly and non-hierarchical atmosphere. He gave me a beer as an apology for cutting the interview slightly short, and proceeded to leave his dressing room and stand in a crowd of people who had come to see him play, seeming surprised when several audience members asked to take photos with him, one particularly keen fan requesting that he sign the cast on his broken leg. Just like his songs suggest, Beans on Toast is highly interesting and yet unconditionally laid back, both in his conversation and in his performance.

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