Jay McAlister, the drunken folk singer behind Beans on Toast, is wearing oversized camo pants, a vintage ‘90s t-shirt, and a blue Adidas track jacket. He looks unassuming. Nothing he's wearing is being done ironically. I introduce myself and Jay gives me a bear hug before launching into a road story that has the room in stitches. It's the type of thing I would have loved to get on tape, but as I would discover later that evening during Beans On Toast's intimate performance at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern, Jay is full of these anecdotes. Banter and storytelling are as much a part of his set as playing songs, and throughout the dreary Sunday night gig Jay uses his charm and humour to win over even the most cynical of audience members.
The concert is a refreshing change of pace in a music scene overrun with cool guy posturing and dime a dozen pop acts. More than anything Jay seems as though he's enjoying himself on stage, and he's dead set on everyone else enjoying themselves, too.
Scene Point Blank caught up with Beans on Toast during his March tour of North America.
Scene Point Blank: This is your second time touring North America, the first time being support for Frank Turner. How have things been going so far?
Beans on Toast: It's been going great. The idea is to play the same cities that I had previously played with Frank in hopes that if a couple thousand people saw us play with him, maybe a hundred or so will come out to see me headline.
Scene Point Blank: A handful of dates have also been opening for Flogging Molly as well.
Beans on Toast: Yeah. We met them when they were touring in the UK, and they were talking about how cool it would be to take us around. And when I told them we'd be there in March we laid the gigs beside each other. The only way we could get some support spots is if we drove from New York to Detroit then back to New York again. They thought that no one would want to do that but we were like: we will definitely do that. We finished the gig in New York and made the nine and a half hour drive.
Detroit. It's been a dream of mine to go there. I think it's a really interesting place right now, with how it's all going.
Scene Point Blank: It's been interesting to see how they've tried to revitalize the arts community there in the face of --
Beans on Toast: Disaster!
Scene Point Blank: Disaster is a word for it.
Beans on Toast: I've based a lot of my knowledge of Detroit on a couple of YouTube docs, but it's totally reasonable to see how the collapses of that city could happen. There are secrets there about what America will turn into if things aren't good in the middle -- it's like the eye of the hurricane almost. It's a little bit Mad Max, but the people! We're going back tomorrow. We did the Flogging Molly show and announced to the sold out show at the Filmore that we wanted another gig. We will play any gig. Eventually one of the stage crew -- we're playing at his Aunt's bar. It's in a suburb of the city that's proper dodgy. But the D! That's what we've started calling it, the D, is amazing.
Scene Point Blank: And Canada has been treating you well?
Beans on Toast: Yeah! We got here yesterday and it's been -- I want to put this the right way.
When I was planning the tour, I didn't even really think about Canada aside from figuring out visas…but we had been driving in the States and, as soon as you cross the border, you can feel it. It was a classic moment. The sky was really blue and the weather got better. We were crossing that beautiful bridge in the Thousand Islands and it was like, WOW!, everything was crisper and cleaner. My guess is that it might be because Canadians spend less money trying to dictate foreign policy across the world and more money on their roads.
Scene Point Blank: I overheard earlier that the gig in Montreal got particularly crazy.
Beans on Toast: It's always great when you're traveling around, you just try and take everything in, but last night the opportunities -- there was one guy who was going to see a surf rock band play at Grumpy's down the road, the promoter was about to DJ a techno at some underground warehouse party, and then there were these other people who said we could all climb a mountain and go skating on top of it, which we did in the end. And everyone also wanted us to have a poutine. I was just like CAN WE DO ALL OF THESE THINGS!
Scene Point Blank: The skating on Mount Royal is incredible.
Beans on Toast: And there's no fences! It was great but once I heard a crack I decided it was time to get off the ice.
Scene Point Blank: You've done these dates with Flogging Molly and you've done many other shows with Frank Turner. Is there a difference between playing those larger gigs and playing the intimate shows like tonight?
Beans on Toast: Not a lot. The big gigs -- well, in England, I'm still playing shows like this all the time. The arena shows, I'm almost jumping on someone else's crowd almost. When Frank asked us to do Wembley, and it was the Wembley show where he asked us to come back and do the rest of the arena tour…The thing is if I treat it any differently than I treat any other gig—I play gigs all the time at all sorts of weird places—and if I did anything different to try and make it special I feel like I might lose what was good about it at all. So I didn't think about it. I didn't write a set list because I never write a set list. I just got really pissed and walked on stage. It just went down a treat. From that Frank told me I was arena-ready and said when he's doing big shows I can open.
It felt like that tour was re-writing the rulebook of arena shows. The first night in Cardiff an old friend told me that no one shows up for the first band, and I if you put a thousand people in an arena it looks like you're playing to nobody. But I thought, “Not at Frank Turner gigs, no way.” And I was playing to two-thirds of the audience. But I still have to treat it exactly the same, no matter how many people. The gig tonight is as exciting, if not more, because I'm on the other side of the world. A gig is a gig. I always enjoy them. Whether I'm on the other side of the world or in Swindon playing to three people.
Scene Point Blank: One of the reasons I enjoy your music is the narratives within the songs. Is that a hindrance when you're playing to people who might not know who you are?
Beans on Toast: Oh, no. Not at all. I'm pretty road worn to playing to people who've never heard of me. The stage show is -- well the narrative of the songs get thrown out the window a bit. I like to think the reason I'm here is because I can win a crowd over, and then the show has a narrative of its own.
I didn't think about it. I didn't write a set list because I never write a set list. I just got really pissed and walked on stage.
Scene Point Blank: Do you have particular tactics you use to win over new crowds?
Beans on Toast: Oh, I've got a doctorate in crowd control. I've got a gift for it.
Scene Point Blank: You're very forthright with a lot of your lyrical content. I think that allows a lot of people to develop a perception about who you are. Has that ever come back to bite you?
Beans on Toast: Not really. I stand by everything I say and my songs are generally about me. The perception thing happens at a different level though. Most people that like my music, that talk to me, I get along really, really, well with. I guess there has got to be a flip side to that. I can picture like a racist person being a fan of mine and that might cause problems…maybe?
“No, never!” Is the short answer, I guess.
Scene Point Blank: If I'm being more specific: what I wanted to know is if how openly you talk about drugs has ever come back to bite you.
Beans on Toast: Oh! People come up and give me drugs all the time. Especially at festivals. They'll come up and tell me that they'd really like to smoke a split with me and shit like that. So I guess they do have some perceptions of me. [Laughs.]
Scene Point Blank: I had read in a previous interview that you lived in and booked for a music venue. Was that Nambucca? I know how important that venue was to the London folk scene.
Beans on Toast: Yeah. Nambucca is gone now. It burned down ten years ago and the guy who burned it down, he did that to get rid of all us lot who had been there for however long. That was game over for that place, but I still work in the bar and pub industry, booking bands and putting on shows. At the moment I'm at a venue called the Monarch in Camden. Since Nambucca I've been at three or four different places, normally living in the venue and running through it like that.
Scene Point Blank: A lot of us who work in the arts have to keep day jobs. Do you ever feel resentful about having to keep a day job?
Beans on Toast: Not at all! I really love the bar stuff. I don't really consider it a job. I'm really lucky because I've got a job where I've never had to say no to a tour because of work. I can come and go. And even so, when I'm away touring I meet musicians and my job at the bar is to fucking book bands. So it's good for me to go to festivals every weekend, and it's good for me to tour and meet new bands because I can bring them all back and put them on at the pub. I don't consider what I do a day job.
Scene Point Blank: Is it true that you're a big Jimmy Buffett fan?
Beans on Toast: [Laughs.] Amazing! I would have to consider myself a Parrot Head. In England no one knows who Jimmy Buffett is, which is insane considering how big he is here. But literally no one knows who he is aside from my dad, who has four Jimmy Buffett tattoos. He is so into Jimmy Buffett that years ago on Christmas, when I was like twenty years old, the whole family went on a pilgrimage to Key West, the whole family, to eat a cheeseburger in Margaritaville, his restaurant. On Christmas Day, because that's Jimmy Buffett's birthday.
Scene Point Blank: A cheeseburger in paradise, eh?
Beans on Toast: As a kid, throughout my teens, I just hated Jimmy Buffett. It was like a running joke. Now about fifty percent of the time I wear a Jimmy Buffett shirt. I love it. I steal my Dad's Jimmy Buffett t-shirts. I really like the shape, size, and vibe of them all. His songs actually are about drinking and loose women and good times. That's not that different from mine--when you think about it's kind of punk rock.
Scene Point Blank: Thanks so much, I think that's a good spot to end.