We’re thrilled to have Big Jeff Johns on board. Here he talks a little about his early experiences with music, finding ways of working with his autism, and how Bristol’s independent venues saved him.
Words by Sybill Bell
When Big Jeff walked through the doors of the 100 Club at our very first launch event back in November last year, his face lit up – then he saw me and said “Sybil, I’ve never been here before – it’s amazing”
So I said to him, “Jeff, how would you feel about saying a few words on stage – we’d really love it if you were part of the launch. I can ask Shaun to ask you a few questions. What do you think?”
BBC 6 Music’s Breakfast presenter, Shaun Keaveny, had kindly agreed to compere our launch at the iconic London venue and I knew he’d be happy for us to add Jeff to the line up of speakers. I also hoped Jeff would be happy to share a stage with Adrian Utley of Portishead and Nadine Shah – the first two ambassadors we were announcing that day as well as 100 Club owner Jeff Horton and Steve Lamacq.
I knew it was a big ask – Jeff is very open about his struggle with being in public spaces. He looked at me and then looked around and said; “Um, well err, ok maybe – um yes, yes I’ll do it”.
It’s a response that typifies why Big Jeff is the perfect choice for our 5th ambassador and our very first for a non-artist. Putting himself in positions that he isn’t always entirely comfortable with is what Big Jeff has been doing for years now to tackle his mild aspergers. And going to gigs is at the heart of that.
He grew up in the heart of the countryside in Gloucestershire. His first live music experience was at the GWR Festival in 1994 just outside Newport when he was just 11 years old. The first day of the three-day festival was an all-star pop line up with the likes of East 17, Michelle Gayle, Peter Andre (before anyone knew who he was) and The Backstreet Boys.
A year later, he went to Ashton Court Community Festival in Bristol –the biggest free festival in Europe. Skunk Anansie headlined and, in his own words, it was one of the key performances from the festival that changed things for Jeff.
Drawn in by the flourishing music scene in the City, Jeff moved to Bristol in 2002 and has been a well-recognised and well-loved figure on the live music scene since.
He’s renowned as a prolific gig-goer and is at shows pretty much every night of the week, three of four on some nights and has been doing this for over 10 years.
Sybil: Where did your passion for music start?
Big Jeff: “My earliest memory of music is going on car journeys and listening to my parent’s cassettes in the car – Annie Lennox, Eurythmics, ZZ Top, The Beatles, Old school 70’s Disco, a Hip Hop mixtape (the best man at their wedding was a hip-hop DJ). We grew up listening to Grace Jones – she’s amazing – Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five, African Bombarta, Curtis Blow”
That’s a really eclectic mix of music!
Yeah – they have a really eclectic taste. My parents tried to encourage me to be as eclectic as possible. One cassette they bought be was Boiling Point, a compilation of South African music – it was brilliant.”
So, it was the vibrant music scene in Bristol that lured you to the city?
Yeah – when I moved to Bristol, I went to Access to Music college – the second music college I ever went to.
Turns out, Jeff went to the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford where he learnt to play the drums. And he got himself a diploma to boot.
“That’s where I met Mark who manages Idles. We were both in the same class – if you ever want any embarrassing stories about me – ask him!!! I used to love doing the Performance Workshop. Every week we would have to learn a different song and then get up in different groups and perform in front of everyone,” says Jeff.
“And I went hell for leather –I remember doing a Rage Against the Machine song – doing vocals too. I was fully committed to my performances – you want Rage YOU’RE GOING TO GET RAGE. I was smashing the mic against my head – it was really full on.”
After Guildford, Jeff went back to live with his parents again. He found himself having that lost year so many young people have where you’re not sure what you’re really doing. He tried to drum with a couple of local kids but it didn’t really work. Life in the rural countryside means it’s hard to get around.
But Massive Attack and Roni Size were putting Bristol on the map and he made the move so he could immerse himself in the vibrant live music scene there.
“I’ve never found socialising particularly easy. Access to Music in Bristol was pretty sociable – there were lots of parties and I’d have to force myself to go our 3 nights a week to be around people. It was very gradual. I’d go to gigs or the cinema or theatre,” says Jeff.
“I just pushed myself. I found if I didn’t I would get really ratty or it really affected not just my confidence but my mental health.”
“I’d then fall into the habit of going to a gig – then going back to my place on my own when other people would carry on for drinks. It was only after a few years of people gradually breaking me down that I’ve gone from just going home to going to a bar afterwards.”
When you say people gradually broke you down, how did that work?”
“People would often say hello to me and I’d not react – I’d just stare at all the posters on the wall. One of the guys at the Louisiana, Jonny, recognised me as I turned up quite a lot. He was on the door taking ticket stubs. He was friendly but assertive and I’d end up talking to him after the gigs. You don’t always realise at the time because this was gradual but it certainly helped to grow my confidence.”
“The people at the Croft (now the Crofters Rights) also helped me out a lot. Stokes Croft is still a bit edgy but it used to be quite a dangerous area. I would see muggings in the street. But the Croft became an essential hub for people. They used to put a lot of punk shows on as well as the heavier end of psychedelia. It started to become a cultural hub not just a gig venue. It opened during the day and people would pop in for a drink.”
“Gradually the area changed due to the Croft which meant more people were coming through the area. Young kids needs somewhere to go and do things. It helps to open during the day – the amount of positive impact they have is much more important than unnecessary worries about noise.”
That’s so interesting because when we spoke to Jamie (Cullum another IVW ambassador this year) has said “what if someone decided to open ten independent venues in the most deprived parts of the UK. Brand new independent venues, with a recording studio, somewhere to rehearse, and then the performance space. I think that would also bring a sense of community to some of these towns where the only thing that seems to get built is a betting shop. A great independent venue draws culture and character and characters, and a bit of the right kind of danger. You two seem to have similar views on how we should tackle the issue.
“All the gentrification came about in Bristol because of the exciting music. It’s great to see the Agent of Change recently go through parliament. We need these spaces.”
For Jeff, though, the huge number of venues in the City was instrumental in helping to build his confidence. “As new venues started cropping up I would go to them all. I was going to shows in a different place which really helped me to explore the city more. I was getting out more because I wanted to see more places and bands.”
Well you’re so well known for being at a different gig in Bristol every night of the week. How often do you go to shows outside the city?
“Two or four times a year I’ll go outside Bristol. We get so spoilt here. I know there are so many things going on in London but what goes on there then comes to Bristol. We might miss out on Nick Cave but I would travel to see him and someone like Bjork. Most of the touring bands play a Bristol date and if they don’t then I’ll see them at festivals.”
“I might go to Liverpool, Cardiff or Bath. Sometimes I’ll go to London.”
How far ahead do you know which gigs you’ll go to?
“Quite often I’ll decide on the day. Even if it’s a sold-out show, I’ll try to get in by getting there really early and if I can’t get in, I’ll have a backup show.The thing about Bristol is that all the venues are so close together, it’s really easy to get around. I did about four different shows on Saturday night!”
That’s amazing – where did you go?
“Elder Island at Rough Trade then Starcrawler at The Thekla. That was fun because I ended up joining them on stage!Then I went to The Mothers Ruin to catch Memory of Elephants and ended the night at Motion for Space Dimension Controller and Roy Davis Jr.”
When you’re on your way to a gig, do you ever feel that you want to turn round and go home?!
“Yes but I persevere and keep going. Even in places where I can feel claustrophobic, I will most likely know someone in the audience that I can talk to and explain how I’m feeling. I was at one show recently and finding the room quite claustrophobic. When that happens, I need to go and find space in the corner to stand by myself. The corners give me space to breathe.”
“I have my regular spots in venues. If there are other people there, I’ won’t kick off and make a huge fuss about it. If they got there before me, I just accept it.”
Well, that’s a massive credit to you. You seem to get so much from going to all these shows.
“I love going to festivals too. I do everything on my own – I prefer it like that. I find it difficult doing things in groups. If I’m at a festival, I would go to everything on my own so then I wouldn’t have to stress worrying about other people. Even going to Primavera Sound, I go entirely on my own. I book everything myself and fly out to Barcelona on my own.”
That seems like quite a big deal for you. You constantly seem to push yourself to do more than you might feel comfortable with. But it seems to be working for you?
“I’m really lucky to have really supportive parents. They’ve always encouraged me. I usually see them every month or so – they’ll come to me or I go to them.”
Do they go to gigs with you when them come to Bristol?
“Ha – no – that’s family time.”
They must be very proud of you.
“The last couple of years have really helped hugely to build my confidence. I’m involved with various groups in Bristol. I’ve found that if you have a sense of structure, it’s amazing how much more confidence it can give you. It’s not just the routine but doing other things outside gig going. I love painting and drawing.”
“Sometimes my work has been exhibited. I went to the Edinburgh Film Festival last year. It was quite astonishing. It was the first film I’ve ever made and it was screened up there.”
That’s AMAZING Jeff – you must have been really proud and a bit nervous?
“It was amazing – and they screened it not in a tiny cinema but a huge multiplex!”
“I’m used to hanging around well-known musicians now but not A list actors. I felt very out of place. On Friday night, there was a special opening party and I went to go and see Scottish artists playing whilst they were screening Stop Making Sense. It was very surreal.”
What was your film that was being shown?
“It’s called Anything But Myself by Jeff Johns. It’s a stop motion animation featured me rapping freestyle and doing beat poetry. It represents internally the things that are going on inside myself. I got to work with my favourite Bristol artist Joff Winterhart. He’s aone-armedd drummer – he’s amazing. He really helped me feel at home in Bristol in the early 2000’s.”
“I’m really used to being around some characterswho are seen as outsiders so I didn’t feel too outcast. I’ve grown up around with people with autism and asperger’s so I see it as quite a normal thing.
Jeff, it’s been incredibly inspiring speaking to today. I’m so, so grateful that you said yes to being our 5th ambassador. You were so good when you did BBC 6 Music’s Round Table on Steve Lamacq’s show. You talked about how music has been such a positive influence in your life. I felt that if anyone was listening who faces the same challenges as you, you probably inspired them to get out to a gig that night.
If you could give one bit of advice to anyone facing the same challenges as you, what would it be?
“Find what you love and stick to it. It might take you to new places.”
I think we’re very lucky to have you as part of the Independent Venue Week family and I’m really chuffed you’re part of the adventure this year. This is definitely just the start of working together. Thanks so much Jeff.
Big Jeff is co-curating a show with fellow ambassador Adrian Utley from Portishead on Monday 29th Jan at the Crofters Rights with This Is The Kit (now sold out).
On Wednesday 31st, he is curating AND DJing a show with deaf and disability charity, Attitude is Everything at the Exchange with Jesuits, Iceman Furniss Quartet and Emily Isherwood.