Consummate showman BA Johnston (born Christian Johnston) has never shied away from his love for the past. On his 2010 release, Thank You For Being a Friend, Johnston posed on the cover with animated versions of John Candy, an evil gremlin from Gremlins and the Hamburglar (he even sang about Police Academy's Steve Guttenberg).
But with his new release Hi Dudes!, his first for Alberta-based Mammoth Cave Records, Johnston is getting more nostalgic than ever before.
"I went through a weird, non-ironic '80s revival," the vagabond songwriter says from a busted pay phone outside a club in Kingston, Ontario. "I think as you tend to age you glorify things from your past. Playing Street Fighter II in a 7-Eleven all of a sudden seems a bit more exciting than it actually was when you used to do it."
Inspired by watching too many episodes of Magnum PI and playing ColecoVision in his mom's basement, Hi Dudes! is a treasure trove of off-kilter songs about his favourite decade. "I remember growing up in the '80s and fat dudes with muscle shirts and mullets would beat you up for not liking Van Halen, so there are definitely parts of the decade that I'm not talking about," he laughs. "But I think the '80s have aged a lot better than people would have expected."
Recorded in the Toronto basement of producer Paul Linklater in a session that lasted less than an hour, Hi Dudes! is a ramshackle folk album that mixes Johnston's frantic acoustic guitar with cheesy Casio-synth ballads. The production sounds spontaneous and lo-fi like most of Johnston's releases, but his voice shines through, singing candidly about Chunk from The Goonies ("Truffle Shuffle"), douchebags who watch UFC battles ("Douchestorm") and the absence of arcades across the North American landscape ("Arcades").
"I think a lot of people from my age group took things for granted. Now people will be like, 'Hey, let's go to an arcade.' Well, they don't exist," says Johnston. He talks about the lack of video game venues with a touch of sadness and confusion, like a Toronto Maple Leafs fan unable to understand the team's inability to make it to the playoffs. He mentions that he's made three pilgrimages in the last year to arcade museum Funspot while crossing the US in the past year, citing the lack of arcades as pointing towards a lazy trend with today's youth. "I think kids just didn't go to them anymore because they don't want to leave their house, what with the internet and Netflix," he says. "It's even hard to get people to go to shows or bars, because people just don't really go out anymore."
But even if Johnston won't be selling out clubs in the near future, he says he will continue to tour across Canada and plans to release a new album about his travels in the vein of Stompin' Tom Connors, tentatively titled So Sick of Tim Hortons: Songs of the Canadian Landscape.
And although he's been garnering critical acclaim for Hi Dudes!---some of the highest in his 10-album career---he says he doesn't pay attention to what the critics are saying and will continue to record solely for his fans.
"In reality, my fans aren't the kind of people who read reviews. I don't want to use the term blue-collar, but I definitely have more of a dirtbag/blue-collar fan base," he says.
"I'm basically like indie-rock's Nickleback---I'm critically hated, but I can pack the bars with 15 to 25 people."
BA Johnston w/Shevil, Air/Fire, Virgil’s Girls, Flag on the Play, Thursday, April 12 at Gus’ Pub, 2605 Agricola Street, 10pm $7/$3 before 10pm
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