What Bristol Means to Me: Live music legend and artist ‘Big Jeff’

Prolific gig-goer and painter Jeff Johns aka Big Jeff chats to BristolWorld about debuting his artwork in a new exhibition and the most dangerous gig he’s ever been to in Bristol (’it was pure carnage’).

I’m was born in Milton Keynes, grew up in a small village in Gloucestershire, think Royston Vasey in the League of Gentlemen, but ended coming to Bristol for the music. I don’t plan on leaving any time soon as there are incredible bands and acts appearing all the time, especially after lockdown - plus I love the sense of community here. We’re so lucky to have multiple venues within a few minutes’ walk of each other. My favourite venue for in Bristol would have to be The Louisiana, it’s such a cool and intimate space and the sound is excellent. The White Stripes actually played their first ever UK gig there in 2001.

Jeff Johns with... Jeff Johns!

How many gigs have I been to? Oh god, thousands. It’s difficult to work out - maybe 4,000? At one point I was doing 300 shows a year. My hearing is definitely a lot better than it should be. But gigs have helped with my anxiety, for sure. I used to be terrible at approaching people and saying hello. I had to wait for people to come and talk to me. But it got to a point where I went to so many of them I’d recognise people, ask them what they thought of the show and eventually we’d become friends. Gigs also gave me a sense of routine.

I did bask in the weird fame I got as a result of going to the gigs - I mean, who wouldn’t? It was mostly positive attention but if there was ever a moment I wasn’t feeling great, I would have to take myself out of it a little. It seemed to go crazy after I appeared in VICE. After that article came out I looked at Facebook and I had something like 5,000 notifications. People would stop me in the street and at first it was very overwhelming but then I got used to it. Do I feel like a celeb? I certainly don’t have the finances of a celeb.

The best but weirdest gig I ever went to in Bristol happened in the University SU in 2005. It was an eccentric post-punk band called Les Savy Fav and it was brilliant but just pure carnage. It was dangerous! The leader singer is this big, imposing, playful guy who kept flicking plaster from the very low ceiling at the audience. He also kept unscrewing lightbulbs then screwing them back in while he sang and they shoved part of the stage into the middle of the audience. I’ll never forget it.

Big Jeff has become a legend on the live music scene in Bristol after attending thousands of shows.

My first festival was Ashton Court Festival, also known as the Bristol Community Festival, in 1998. Sadly, it folded around 2007. They had some huge headliners there - I remember watching Portishead in the grounds surrounded by about 200,000 people. That was back when festivals were a bit of a rare treat. These days you have one happening every other weekend, so while I would love the event to come back, I’m not sure it would be as successful as it used to be.

I struggled a bit during lockdown but in a way it was a good thing as it motivated me to work on my art. We already had plans to exhibit my work in 2020 but coronavirus came along and threw a spanner in the works. We all had our ups and down during the lockdown and one way I used to cope with the difficult bits was watching live streams of artists creating their work. Not only was it inspiring, it was calming to see what people were up to in other parts of the world. I’m also an ambassador for Independent Venue Week, so kept busy with that.

Just one of over 30 paintings that will be on display at Jeff’s debut exhibition.

My art is influenced in part by gigs but also my struggle around not feeling like I completely fit in in this world. I used to take a lot of blurry pictures while I was at gigs and sometimes I’ll paint faces in the pictures as central figures but change the background around them. I really enjoy painting portraits, mostly of abstract faces. But a lot of the time the art comes from where I am emotionally and what I’m feeling at that time.

My debut art exhibition is coming up in November and I’m excited but nervous. The art is personal to me because it’s become my way of communicating things that I struggle to communicate in every day life. I really hope it opens discussions around mental health. Self-expression means a lot to me.

Jeff’s debut art exhibition will run at The Island from November 16 - 21. Visit bigjeffjohnsart.com for more details.