The first time I saw Beans on Toast play live, he was supporting Frank Turner at a big venue in London. I was full of cider, danced away to his set, and proceeded to download track after track of his music.
Much like Turner and artists like Dizraeli, BOT has that approachable, wise, truthful, storytelling thing that I love. If you close your eyes, you’re down the pub and listening to an acoustic set while Weird Dave tries to vie for your attention. Strangely, this is my favourite way to experience live music.
This September sees BOT playing a little closer to my home turf, featuring as one of the acts alongside frequent tour mates Skinny Lister and artists such as Maximo Park, Beth Orton and The Stranglers at the brilliant (and recent winners of Music Festival of the Year at The Northern Soul Awards 2017) Ramsbottom Festival, now renamed as Head for the Hills.
Ahead of the festival, BOT, aka Jay McAllister, tells me how he fell into music making after a performance at Glastonbury back in 2005.
“There was never really any more idea than just singing the songs on the spot and just sort of messing around,” he explains. “At Glasto, many, many, many moons ago, I had a bunch of songs that were kind of getting somewhere and I went on the open mic tent and played them there, and it went well. From that one gig, I got offered another one, and another, and then here I am, 12, 13 years later. Just following one gig to another.”
Since then, he’s recorded songs at impressive speed. He is eight, soon to be nine, albums in, and isn’t showing much sign of slowing. Traditionally, he releases an album every December.
“By Head for the Hills, I would’ve already recorded the new album. I am going to be recording at the end of August and the album will be out to coincide with the tour. Then it will just go on from there.”
“I like them all,” he says. “Obviously, Glastonbury is the Mecca of festivals, and I am sure the people that organise Ramsbottom will agree. But that said, I put the same amount of love into every show that I do. It’s not like, ‘oh, this is a special one and the other ones aren’t’, you know? And, I certainly do like going to new places and playing festivals. And this is my first year at Head for the Hills and I’ve never been to the wonderfully named Ramsbottom before. For that alone, I’m quite excited.”
“It’s worth it just for the name,” I joke.
“I am surprised it needs the double names,” replies BOT. “Ramsbottom would’ve sold it for me.”
So, what does he love about playing up North?
“I am tempted to rehash the clichés like ‘Northerners are a bit nicer’ but I don’t want to say I like one part of the country more than the other. But the North is always very welcoming and they’re just very nice, humble people.”
BOT has previously described his sound as finding ‘poetry in the simplest things.’ I wonder what this means to him.
“It’s just say-what-you-see song writing, if you know what I mean? With a Beans on Toast song, you know exactly what it’s about, because it explains its meaning in the first few words. With a lot of songs, it’s hard to work out what it’s about because it’s masked behind poetry. Sometimes that’s a wonderful thing, and sometimes that’s a terrible thing. But with my songwriting, I do a song about this one thing, and it’s just my opinion on it. To me, it’s the only way I know and it’s a very simple way of doing it.”
Does he think that folk music and the importance of storytelling has experienced a resurgence during recent years?
“Yeah, definitely. But it’s hard for me to pass judgement on it because it’s something that I’ve always done. Trends come and go, but I think that like with any decent music, it doesn’t really go anywhere itself. With all good art, people don’t do it because its trendy or fashionable. They do it because it’s in their heart and their head. But, obviously, that said, if people are getting more into it and going out to little shows and festivals, which are hugely popular at the moment than say the last ten years, considering how many there are and the culture around it and that really excites people, well, then that’s beautiful.”
BOT is an advocate for the small venue and festival, and he’s recently completed the brilliant Down The Pub Tour as well as being in support of the Save Our Pubs campaign. I tell him I’m from a small town that used to have a vibrant, community pub scene – but now these pubs are are beginning to close or turn into gastro places or cafes in a bid to stay afloat. Gone are the days of a packed room full of pint-swilling, jovial people on a Friday night. I’m intrigued to know if BOT is optimistic about the future of small venues and pubs or if he thinks that more needs to be done to keep them open.
“I am both, basically. I think that in the same way I’ve said folk music isn’t going anyway, venues and music will survive whatever happens with the world. People will always find places to dance and listen to music and congregate, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve got it easy now because of things like rising business rates and complaining neighbours.
“But again, there’s things like The Music Venues Trust and Independent Venue Week – at least people have now acknowledged that it’s a problem, rather than them just dropping by the wayside and people just being like, ‘Hey! Ho!’ Even people in government and the mainstream media are paying attention to it now.”
BOT cites Fabric as an example, a nightclub in Farringdon, London which was closed by authorities in 2016. Fabric began a campaign to save the club and the UK’s dance music culture in September 2016 and was later allowed to reopen under strict laws. “It’s a good instance of where people said, ‘we’re not having it’ and ‘this is important’, that it’s not just hedonism. This is culture at large and you can’t stop it because people don’t just want to sit around and watch TV and shop at the weekend.”
There’s a co-operative pub at the bottom of my road. It’s a bit weird and to a passer-by it might look like a crumbling old building. But the residents clubbed together and bought it to stop the structure being torn down. The landlord is a right character. An ex-copper, he’s anti-swearing, which doesn’t bode well when Housemate and I play sweary Cards Against Humanity over a few ciders. He brings around a placard urging us to curb the profanities, or we’ll be chucked out. I never know how serious he is, as his face is deadpan, but I don’t want to push it.
“Times will change but I am optimistic,” enthuses BOT. “Stuff like that is amazing. When times are tough, that’s when people just get their shit together and say ‘well, if you’re not going to do it, then we’ll do it’. I mean, the idea of having co-operative pubs/arts centres/small music venues around the country is a wonderful one.”
BOT has been vocal about his political stance and position on the current government (you only have to listen to songs like For the Sake of the Children which actively opposes Theresa May and the Conservative Party) and the appointment of Trump across the pond. Do political goings-on impact his music? And does he think it’s imperative that musicians, writers, artists and creatives use their voice to comment and engage politically?
“Only if they want to,” he says. “I think you’re completely within your rights to sing a song and not ask people what they want in a government, or what football team they are. But if you want to then, yeah, say it. And I think it’s an interesting time that we’re living in, and from a songwriter’s perspective it’s kind of crazy that someone can write songs and not comment on the people that are in charge, or the people that you want in charge, or the way that the world or the towns you live in are being run. It’s just right in your face, isn’t it?” Back in the 90s, when I was growing up, it was quite hunky-dory, it was quite ‘All right!’ and good times. As a teenager, I wasn’t driving around listening to political music. Far from it.”
Me neither. Rather embarrassingly, I was listening to Radio 5 live and trying to get my hair to look like Britney’s.
He continues: “But I think a lot has changed. And I also feel like we’re on the cusp of change which is when art across the board comes into its own and gives that final push.”
BOT is set to embark on the aptly named Double Trouble tour with Skinny Lister towards the end of the year.
“I’ve done a lot with Skinny over the years. We’re on the same label, we’re on the same booking agent, we did an extensive tour around the whole of the States, the two of us opening for Frank Turner where we wrote and released a Christmas song (This Christmas). I’d go as far to say that, if I was going to be in any band, then bloody Skinny Lister, I’d just slot in quite nicely. Because it’s just me, I can sneak in the band with them. They are more of a family band than most being as there’s a husband and wife and a brother and sister duo within the band, and I just love them. I love their music and I love them as people. We love touring with each other so it just feels natural I couldn’t guess what to expect as we haven’t sat down and thought about it yet, but it will be more than your average gig.”
BOT doesn’t come across as just another musician – he’s a music fan and you can genuinely feel his passion for the job. I ask if he ever takes any time off and he laughs. “People always say, ‘you must be worn out’ but I find [touring] quite relaxing. It’s like a holiday. I think I have it quite easy because it’s such a simple set-up. I don’t have the carrying of the equipment or the sound checks or anything like that, so I genuinely can spend a day having a look around the town or going to the local National Trust walk or something like that, and then doing a gig in the evening. This is by far the best job I have ever had. I don’t need the time off.”
So, what’s the worst job he’s ever had?
“Oh, I’ve done everything. I’ve been a lifeguard, to unloading lorries, to pulling pints and back again.”
For more information or to book tickets for the Double Trouble tour, click here.
Tickets for Head for the Hills festival (formerly known as the Ramsbottom Festival) are now on sale. For more information, visit the website.