I’m not usually one for Wikipedia entries, but for my latest interviewee the entry starts ‘Beans On Toast is a British folk singer. He sings about sex, drugs and politics.’
Go to his Facebook and Twitter pages and you can enlarge on that with ‘Drunk folk singer’.
Yet this is no novelty act, as thousands of festival-goers will either know already or find out afresh this summer.
A busy itinerary includes dates at Glastonbury, Camp Bestival and Boomtown Fair, as well as other festivals in Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Somerset, Wiltshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Northamptonshire, Derbyshire, North and West Yorkshire.
And the man himself – his name’s Jay, so I’ll go with that rather than the working title – calls at Preston’s 53 Degrees on Friday, June 13, en route for Dumfries and Galloway’s Eden Festival that weekend.
It’s fair to say things are going well for this Essex-born, East London–based barefoot troubadour, and there’s his Next Album Tour this November and December too.
“Never before have I had to announce six months in advance, but it was a case of stepping up the game before the festivals kicked in.
“While it’s going to be the tour for the album, half of the album’s not been written yet. But I kept referring to it as the next album tour, so stuck with that.”
“I’ve been playing Glastonbury a few years, but was also going as a punter for years before that. I was 16 when I first went.
“It really was life-changing, a moment when I though this makes more sense to me than … erm, PC World.
“That was 1997, the bill including Radiohead and Beck. I’ve never missed one since, and these days I’m part of it, so for that reason Glastonbury is always going to be special.
“But it’s not a competition, in the same way you shouldn’t put bands up against each other. They’re all great in different ways.
“Boomtown Fair has really carved its own niche. I’ve been playing there for years. It’s generally ska and reggae, but I’ve always had a good show because I offer something a bit different, sticking out like a sore thumb … which is fun.
“I pretty much enjoy them all. If you go along and you’re not enjoying them, you’ve just got to re-think.”
“Yeah, my music belongs to the outdoor experience. But I’m doing tours now and people are coming after seeing me elsewhere.
“That comes from playing stages for years where I wasn’t even on a line-up, presuming no-one was there specifically for me. You need to entertain the crowd.”
The band name may help. Not as if I know what his surname is anyway.
“Well yeah. I just call myself Beans on Toast, innit! I suppose it helps that you stand out on a festival line-up.
“That said, I had a weird one last year when people started texting, and my Twitter went off, saying ‘Beans on Toast on Radio One … on the morning show!’
“Half of me was quite interested, thinking they’re going to start playing my shit on the radio. Turns out they were doing a competition, going through the Glastonbury line-up, picking out silly band names, deciding whether they were real or not.
“As it was, the DJ was saying I was definitely real, so that kind of rescued the situation.”
Are you getting around by camper van this summer?
“Actually, I passed my driving test recently, so after having been driven round for years I’ve now got a Ford Fiesta and a pop-up tent. So that’s how I’ll be travelling.”
Will you be one of those who at the end of the summer just leaves your tent up somewhere?
“Oh no! Bobby, who plays with me, works for a bell tent company, so I have a nice one.
“Last year I took on a whole new approach, through sheer laziness and the fact that I was doing so many festivals a week.
“I’d sleep in car parks in pop-up tents, rather than taking all my stuff inside, leaving it all in my car. But it didn’t really work out. Car parks aren’t quite as pretty.”
“Exactly. Preston’s en route for my next festival, so I’m doing a warm-up there first. It’s good to break the journey up, but also to hit the ground running.
“I played Eden two years ago, and it was hammering it down, but the Scottish mentality was such that no one even noticed!”
How’s work going on album No.6? Will you be looking to write on the road?
“It’s a constant thing, and the songs come as and when. I’ve a lot of songs about America because I did a tour there.
“Generally, my writing’s about what I’ve been doing the last 12 months. There are six or seven songs already there.
“But I tend not to think too much about it. I can’t think of anything worse than trying to write a song.”
“There is that, plus the fact that more or less all the songs sound pretty much the same! The words come pretty naturally, and it’s not like I’m trying to break boundaries.
“I’ve even played with full bands and recorded with different people. But at the end of the day it’s just a three-chord folk song.”
With that in mind, how is the ‘three-chord master plan’ you mention in Things coming on?
“Well, it’s ok. I’m talking to you, aren’t I? People must be slightly interested.”
Ever have problems remembering all the words to your songs?
“All the time, yes. But if I forget, I just play a different song or make up the words. Yet there’s quite a large chunk of my back catalogue I can’t play.
“If I had a gun held to my head to re-learn some songs, I probably could, but every now and again a particular random song is requested, and I won’t have any idea.”
At this point I share a story about how Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook forgot the words to Up the Junction in 1982, blanking midway through (funnily enough, because he was wondering if he’d turned the grill off after making cheese on toast before leaving. Does that count as a link?), consequently losing the confidence to perform. By Glenn’s own admission, it took a long time before he finally got back on the horse.
That brings me nicely onto his press release description as a ‘drunk folk singer, barefoot troubadour and cult legend’. Is that a fair description?
“Yeah, although I hope it wasn’t me who said ‘cult legend’. There are people around me who help with press releases, So I guess I must have okay’d it.”
Words like ‘unpredictable’ and ‘controversial’ are used about your songs and performances too. How about that?
“If anything, the unpredictability comes from the lack of a plan, and a mission statement of trying to have as much fun as possible – relaying over stuff like getting the songs right.
“As for controversial, I wouldn’t really say that, it’s just that I speak my mind.”
So what will we get from you this summer? Just you and a guitar? Or with a band?
You’ve had a seven-piece band before now – The Beans Experience, involving a band called Handshake.
“That was for the second album. I’ve put a few small crews together.
“It’s quite easy to get a band together in the summer when it’s a case of free tickets for festivals, then we tend to go on and record an album, then disband, them going back to doing whatever it was they were doing.
“Last year, I did it completely solo, just me and my girlfriend driving around, but this time it’ll be two of us.
“If you expect to do the same festivals every year, you’ve got to bring something different – in my case a bunch of new songs and a different stage set-up.”
Jay’s profile was raised by touring with rising star Frank Turner too. Is he a good bloke to be around?
“Fantastic. What he’s done to help me out is second to none. You hear a lot of stories about people who start doing well and act like dickheads, but I’ve never witnessed that.
“Frank’s the complete opposite of that. He extends hands and favours everywhere.”
He certainly comes over as a nice guy, so it’s good to hear that.
“This is it. It’s about perception and how people want to be reflected. Sometimes you hear that’s not always true.”
Indeed. Sometimes it takes a BBC4 documentary 10 years later to find out the truth.
You’ve also had the link with Mumford & Sons, another band who have crossed the line and become big news. Do you keep in touch? It’s been another big year for them.
“Not as much, when someone’s schedule becomes that busy. But I was the compere for their Gentlemen of the Road show down in Lewes last year.
“I did a couple of songs and spent the day introducing bands like Vampire Weekend, The Vaccines, It was a beautiful thing to be part of.
“Actually, I was in Lewes for a show last weekend, looking through a newspaper, and there was a piece saying that raised over £2m for local businesses and the economy.
“They made a big thing of using town produce and so on. People can complain about festivals, moan about the noise and rubbish generated, but on the flipside – £2m raised!
“There are so many reasons to party, but not always the obvious ones.”
Anyone with a guitar and a bit of attitude and political message is deemed something of a Billy Bragg figure. Is that someone you look up to?
“Big time, from when I first went to Glastonbury. Since then I’ve worked with him, on projects like Jail Guitar Doors, getting guitars into prison, and played with him at Glastonbury’s Left Field on numerous occasions.
“Again, he’s gone from being a huge inspiration to someone you meet and can talk to. He’s a good guy and lives up to it.”
So how did you end up making that step up from festival regular to performer?
“I guess it came about through being in a band, my first one. We were big Placebo fans, singing in a high-pitched American accent!
“When that came to an end I kept on writing. I wasn’t listening to a lot of singer-songwriters at the time, and my intention was to start another band.
“It wasn’t until I played a few of those songs at an open mic. slot at Glastonbury.
“It was preaching to the converted really, doing a bunch of songs about being wasted at a festival, but it was there that it became clear that I didn’t have to start another band.”
You’ve visited the North-West a fair bit in recent years. Has that involved past Preston visits?
“Yes, I played at an event for a Strummerville charity about two and a half years ago, in a weird cider brand-sponsored tour, upstairs in a screen pub next to a roundabout.”
That sounds a bit like the Adelphi to me.
“That’s it! The tour was a bit hit or miss, but that was a really good show. Fond memories.
Fracking is a big issue up here in Lancashire at present, and something you covered in the wondrous Things.
“Yes. I can’t claim to know a hell of a lot about it, but certainly don’t feel safe about it. It’s just part of the whole bullshit problem that we’re being spoon-fed.
“Stopping fracking would be amazing, but it’s just a smaller part of a giant problem. The only way in which the cookie will crumble is when one thing breaks.
“Maybe it is a case of all concentrating on fracking and getting that message across.
“The only people that seem to be positive about the prospect are those who will earn money from it. No one else is up for it at all. The same old problem.”
As well as the political, there are the simple but effective love songs too, not least Keep You, its video the latest to feature Jay’s partner Lizzie Bee. Will she be joining you for the festival season?
“Ah yes, the wonderful Lizzie Bee! Every now and again she’s out and about and people will say ‘it’s Lizzie Bee!’ I’m not sure if she loves that or hates it.”
So what do you make of that attention? Ever wonder if you should have just kept her under wraps and not shared her with your public?
(laughs) “I dunno. We’ve always done the videos together, and people have picked up on that, but so what? The songs are about her, after all.
“She has to work though. Sometimes it’s a case of whether she can get back if we have a long weekend somewhere.
“But she is coming to Glastonbury. It’s her birthday just before, so it’s almost like the party’s just for her.”
Where is home when you finally get there?
“I’m in East London at the moment, and with Lizzie being from Kent we’re halfway between there and Essex really.
“London’s been my home since I was 19. Much as I love Essex, and the fact that it’s the centre of my universe, I still moved away as quick as I could!”
There are a lot of ‘First World concerns’ discussed in your songs – like problems with flashy phones or social media – a conscious effort to hook the younger generation?
“I certainly don’t do that purposely! The songs were probably more about myself that anyone else.
“Actually, a company called Go Wild – looking to convince kids to get back out and back to nature – asked if I could write a song that incorporated that idea.
“I said yes, but myself and Lizzie decided we’d have to get together and connect with nature before we could write such a song.
“We had a wonderful day at a local nature reserve then wrote the tune.
“But I’m not like some kind of Mr All High and Mighty who doesn’t check his Twitter feed every two minutes!”
For a link to Keep You, try this link.
To buy tickets for Beans on Toast at 53 Degrees, head here.
Find out just which festivals Jay’s at this summer, and details of his November/December tour, at his website.
As for that Glenn Tilbrook feature, head back here.
This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post from June 5, 2014. For the original, try here.