Fresh from releasing his eighth studio album A Spanner In The Works, self-proclaimed English drunk folk singer Jay ‘Beans On Toast’ McAllister sat down with Benj Cullen ahead of his show at Portsmouth’s Wedgewood Rooms – but not before cracking open the beers.
A question which I’m sure you’ve answered a thousand times before: how’s the tour going?
The tour is going very, very well. I love touring and this annual December album tour is the most Beans On Toast tour of the year – we get a long set and it’s always with different musicians. Yeah it’s been great, man. This is now the last five shows of this stint and I’m already sad. Well I guess it just keeps on going, but touring… there’s nothing really quite like it. It’s all encompassing and especially in that there’s new people that you meet for the tour and then there’s new people that you meet every day as well, so it can be like a moving bubble, which is quite comforting.
You’re promoting your new album A Spanner In The Works and it’s quite different to what people might expect from you. How has the reaction been so far?
Well live it’s just the same as always. The record was recorded on a laptop digitally but there was never any intention to try and recreate that live. All the songs were written on guitar. So live it’s me on guitar, Bobby on banjo, and then Matt, who played a lot of the keys a lot on the record and plays in Tensheds who are supporting, so there’s a lot of piano live, which is nice. But yeah all of the ‘blibs and blobs’ were just for the recording. This is the only one record that I’ve done like it and as much as I’m proud of it, I don’t think the next record will be done like it. Not knocking anybody who does do that but I can’t keep in time with anything let alone a fucking computer!
You’ve promised something a bit different at your Big London Party at OMEARA on Saturday…
Yeah that is different in the fact that there’s more guests. The core of it will always be me and Bob but on the record because there were no guitars we had someone do a bit of doo-wop, there’s an acapella number, there’s a bit of trumpet on there and stuff like that. All of them bits will be added to the show down at OMEARA. It’s a new venue. I went down when it was a building site to check it out. That’s Ben from Mumford & Sons. It’s his place and I know his band, I’ve seen his festivals that he runs – the guy doesn’t fuck around! So he gave me a little tour before it opened when we booked it in and I’m fully confident that it’s a top spot and it’s going to be a fun night.
The album cover is in your standard style with the Beans On Toast logo on a coloured background. Something perhaps trivial that I’ve always wondered: how do you decide on the colour?
It’s easier to pick a colour than it would be a cover. How do people pick the artwork for their records? If anything I’ve got it fucking easy, you just need a name and a new colour. I guess at some point colours are going to start running out and we’re gonna have to start merging into the plums and the turquoises of the world! It was never a plan. It started off and it was almost linked to the songs I guess, like on Fishing For A Thank You we have a song called ‘Orange’. So the first one was white, the second one just happened to be brown because I wrote it on the door of my house, third one was blue because there was a song called ‘Blowjob For The Blues’, then orange, and since then it’s just been whatever felt right. Sometimes it’s just like a favourite t-shirt or something – a nice colour of a t-shirt and I can just scan that in!
The Beans on Toast handwriting style has become a bit of a cult art brand hasn’t it?
Yeah, yeah! The handwriting has always been my artwork across the board and that started before I was putting out records. I was writing Beans On Toast on every fucking toilet wall or festival bin or whatever. Whenever I need to do something I’d rather write it. What I do is more about words than it is anything else. The handwritten canvases that we sell at the merch stand now are a real blessing at a time when people don’t want to buy CDs. Like when it started off and I was just handwriting loads of t-shirts and people were really digging them. I was on tour in the states supporting Frank Turner, so it was big shows, and you need to do a lot at the merch stand of an evening to be able to make it work. People were loving the t-shirts and I just saw all these cheap canvases whilst I was just killing time in an art shop and I just sort of picked them up and they flew out. And then I was like, “Can I bring it back to the UK?” It’s one thing when you’re supporting someone – you do that thing where you can be as ballsy or as cheeky as you want and you can try and sell things that are ultimately sort-of worthless. Then when it’s your own gig I was just a little unsure, but we did them and it was just like “bang!” [mimes ‘flying off the shelves’]. Especially when people want to come to a gig but they don’t want a CD because they’re just going to fucking listen to it on Spotify or whatever, but they’re happy to leave with something. So the canvases were unplanned but they really fucking help.
Your new song ‘The Drum Kit’ covers the closure of independent music venues. Can you tell me more about your view of the current climate for local venues?
I’ve had a slight change of heart if I’m honest so yes, venues are closing it’s really tragic, like The Buffalo Bar and The Silver Bullet in London, also the Kazimier in Liverpool. There’s a long list of successful, hard-working venues that get closed down because of a complaining neighbour or someone that buys it to turn it in to flats and it’s bullshit. But on the flipside there’s Independent Venue Week, Music Venue Trust, there’s a whole bunch of people that are bringing this conversation to the public and making sure that people know the cultural importance of these venues. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom. I had that song ‘The Drum Kit’ and I’m doing a tour in January as part of Independent Venue Week so what I was going to do on this current tour was to make a video about all the venues that are closing. A video for the song and a mini-documentary in the same thing. And I started interviewing people and it felt like the truth of the matter was, yes some are closing and that should be addressed, but as long as new ones are opening! I heard these tales about Night and Day in Manchester, about how some guy was complaining and the council were going to shut it down, and I interviewed the guy there and he was like, “Well somebody complained, we had a licencing review and the council were really safe and they saw the importance of it and we stayed open and we kept our licence!” It was like okay, that wasn’t the kind of “Arghhh, everything’s going wrong” story I’d expected. And then I spent that night in Manchester and I went to about three new, fucking amazing venues that were just doing a brilliant job and there was a real buzz. There were six or seven live shows in town that night and they were all sold out. It was like, “Hang on a minute!” I felt like I was concentrating on the bad shit rather than the good stuff. But also you don’t want one of those venues where it’s just like a list on the fucking wall of the bands that have played and young people are supposed to come in and bow down to some bullshit list. There should be new venues as there should be new sound coming through.
You cut your teeth in independent venues like Nambucca in London. Is it surreal to see the success that you and your mates like Frank Turner, Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling have had, thinking back to those small backrooms in those early days?
Well I think the bands you mention are the people that are still doing it. There were a million bands around at a similar time that you probably wouldn’t know and that probably aren’t still playing. With those great bands you mention, when you saw them you knew that there was something amazing there! But yeah every band’s got to start somewhere, every band’s got to play a little gig or do their first tour and cut their teeth of course. Otherwise you’ll just be listening to shit pop music the whole time and that’s why small venues are important. But I think that everyone knows that music isn’t fucking going anywhere is it. If anything, people will adapt and when times are tough for music, sometimes that’s when it shines the hardest.
The last time I saw you at Glastonbury you said you would never play your song ‘Can’t Get A Gig At Glastonbury’ ever again. Have you kept to it?
Of course, I will never play it again. Not even at Glastonbury. Not even ten, twenty years from now. I’m a man of my word. I’ll just fucking write another song. I meant it when I said it. I played a gig in Glastonbury town a couple of months ago and everybody there was screaming for it. I was like, “Do you really want me to play it?” and everyone was like, “Yeah!” and I was like, “Why?!” It seems weird. I’ve never been one for peer pressure and I’ve made the decision so I wasn’t gonna do it, but I was just surprised that everybody was egging me on to go back on my word. Nah! I won’t play that song any more. If you say you’re not gonna do something, you might as well not do it!