At the outset of the first lockdown, Big Jeff developed a new habit. He would time his daily outing to coincide with a livestream gig, and as he walked through the empty streets of Bristol, he would watch the birds “reacting” to the music playing through his phone. One evening it would be the soothing folk rock of This Is the Kit, the next, Moor Mother’s confrontational spoken-word poetry. The type of music didn’t matter, as long as it was live. “If you can’t be at the show, that’s the next best thing,” he says.
If you’ve been to a gig or music festival over the past three decades, you may have noticed Big Jeff. Pre-pandemic, he would often fit several shows into one night, making him better known locally than many of the acts he goes to see. At six foot four, with his distinctive head of blond curls, Jeffrey Johns has become a figurehead for the UK’s independent music scene. “A one-man mosh pit with matching amounts of enthusiasm and festival wristbands” is how the Charlatans’ Tim Burgess describes him, referring to the strips of multicoloured fabric layered up Johns’s wrists (and sometimes embroidered on his jacket), a testament to a prolific gig-going career.
His obsession inspired a creative outlet: bold and dynamic paintings that reflect his exuberant personality, mental health struggles and his love of music, depicting artists from Outkast to folk musician Gaelynn Lea. Johns would often head home from gigs to paint what he had just seen, working from sketches or blurry photographs taken on his tablet. Other pieces are more personal, such as his two self-portraits, Are You OK? and I, the King. He planned an exhibition for 2020; when it was postponed, he rebooted it as a virtual exhibition: Big Jeff Johns – Welcome to My World features work from the past five years, which he refers to as “a religiously prolific period”.
Staging the exhibition has been an uplifting experience. “When we did the filming I felt myself welling up with tears. Usually, I’m my biggest self-critic, but when you’re confronted with something in a different light, you can go ‘Actually, no, this is good.’”
Growing up in Horsley, Gloucestershire, in the 80s, Johns was surrounded by music. Car journeys were soundtracked by an eclectic mix of Grace Jones, the Beatles and ZZ Top, and his mother was a caller for the local ceilidh. It was here, and at school discos, that he realised that he loved dancing. “I did it more with enthusiasm than actual technical ability,” he says.
As a teen, an accidental encounter with Skunk Anansie at Bristol’s Ashton Court festival ignited his obsession with live music and changed his life. “For your second-ever gig, seeing a bald-headed, bisexual black woman fronting a rock band – there was that mixture of fear and a certain energy which means that my brain gets overly stimulated and I probably can’t calm down for hours.” Johns has Asperger syndrome, meaning sensory stimulation can be overwhelming, but in a live music setting he felt comfortable straight away. “It’s having something which is a central focus. I struggle a lot with party situations, whereas as soon as someone sets up a stage, I know exactly where I’m gonna plonk myself.”
Since then, music has been at the core of Johns’s life. He plays drums, raps and briefly ran a promotion company, but he is best known as a punter. Gigs became a source of community and routine, especially during a difficult period in his 20s – a botched appendicitis operation put him in a controlled coma for several days, and he experienced dyspraxia and depression. “Quite often, the only time that I left my flat was to go to shows,” he says. “I didn’t have the standard life, I didn’t have a standard job, but I’d think, ‘OK, I’ve got to leave at this time because this show is happening.’”
He became aware of his reputation when his name was mentioned in Bristol listings magazine Venue in the mid-00s. “It sounds obvious, but I think people noticed that I had a dedicated passion,” he says. Alastair Shuttleworth, frontman of post-punk band Lice, and editor of music zine The Bristol Germ, echoes this sentiment. “I think Big Jeff’s ‘cult figure’ status is down to the fact he has no agenda – he just loves music, and gives time to publicly praising the music he loves. I’ve always thought about Jeff’s early enthusiasm for us as being pivotal to everything we got to do afterwards.”
His standing in the Bristol scene has made him a local hero. His favourite venue, the Louisiana, has an entry stamp that reads “Big Jeff approved”. When Colston Hall pledged to change its name to expunge the tribute to a slave trader, there was a petition to rename the venue Big Jeff Hall. (Johns opposed the idea, telling NME: “There’s a lot of people who have fought harder to have their voices heard.”)
It has also created opportunities beyond the city, including a podcast series for Independent Venue Week, a documentary that was screened at the Edinburgh film festival and a speaking engagement at 2020’s SXSW, cancelled due to Covid-19. He has DJd at Green Man festival since 2017. “I knew our audience would embrace the idea, being fans of his, so it was just a matter of him being up for the challenge,” says Ben Coleman, the festival’s creative director. “He rose to it.”
“It was terrifying,” says Johns, “but then again, you won’t achieve anything unless you have a bit of fear. In the past five years I’ve gone from ‘Maybe I can do this’ to ‘Fuck it, what have I got to lose?’”
That is the spirit behind his new foray into art, which is tiding him over until gigs return. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the live music industry: local venues the Louisiana and the Exchange have joined forces to raise funds for their futures. “I just hope the venues survive,” Johns sighs. “These places are more than just rooms and a stage, they’re communities.”
The resilience of these communities has proved strong, whether in the comments section of a livestream, where Johns offers up “virtual hugs”, the #saveourvenues campaign, or one of the many socially distanced gigs which took place last summer. “It wasn’t the same,” he recalls of seeing local experimental artist theskyisthinaspaperhere in August, “ but I remember almost having tears because of feeling the sub-bass, the live feedback, the bass drums – going, ‘Wow, I took this for granted’.”