Big Jeff from Totterdown is the superfan who's more famous than some acts
Published on: 23 Feb 2018
Sometimes the fan is better known than the act. Beccy Golding meets Bristol’s most famous gig-goer
Tall, wild-haired and most often seen right at the front at music events, Big Jeff is a bit of a Bristol legend, well known by gig-goers and performers alike.
For many years he went to seven gigs a week. He’s had a song written about him (by a performer called Beans on Toast); Este from Haim is alleged to have tried to propose to him; and his knowledge of the Bristol music scene is so vast that he’s asked to front his own events, such as last August’s day-long music takeover of the Arnolfini.
There’s even a Big Jeff Appreciation Society on Facebook with nearly 2,000 members.
Jeffrey John’s first visit to Bristol was to Ashton Court Festival in 1995, when he was 12. On the main stage were Skunk Anansie – “a black female-fronted hard rock band, with a huge voice and stage presence – they changed my perception of what is possible in music. It was like a big switch in my head.”
Growing up, music was all around him. On car journeys there was “a random assortment – Annie Lennox, The Beatles, ZZ Top, Grace Jones – I was exposed to a really wide range.”
He grew up in Horsley, Gloucestershire, in the heart of the Cotswolds. In the early 2000s Jeff spent a year in Guildford, Surrey studying drums at a music school where celebrity tutors included Kirsty MacColl and Hugh Cornwell.
In 2002 Jeff moved to South Bristol, first living in Southville for three years, and then in Totterdown. “I feel pretty settled,” he says.
Jeff did a three-year course in popular music at Access to Music, whose studio was used in the 1990s by iconic Bristol acts such as Portishead and Roni Size. The studios, now on a trading estate in Hengrove, have been converted into a training facility. It was a hands-on course – he formed a band, The Recluses. “I put on a few shows – the most memorable was the college end- of-year gig at the Thekla – an A&R guy from Sony was invited. I had black and white facepaint, doused in tomato ketchup, doing ‘drone rap’. They lasted 10 seconds before walking out!”
But the few years before he started the course had not been so great. “When I turned 20 it was possibly the hardest year I’ve ever lived. I had appendicitis. I was in intensive care – in a coma for three days.” Then, only a few months later, a close family friend died of an aneurism. His death “cast a huge black cloud.”
Jeff’s course at ATM was a way to escape. “I developed a rap split-personality – Manic F! I free-styled all the lyrics – I couldn’t remember what I wrote.” He used the rapping as a way of telling his story.
“When I moved to Totterdown I was wasting my life, staying up late and going out too much. My parents said ‘Right, you’re going to do something useful’.” Jeff worked for Art + Power – an arts disability group (which sadly closed last year). He volunteered at Windmill Hill City Farm for a couple of years too. “I really like it there – if I feel I need to escape my flat and haven’t had breakfast yet, it’s the perfect place. And it reminds me of where I grew up. It has an amazing calming effect.”
Jeff is now involved with Art in Motion, led by artist Colin Higginson, at Spike Island. “Through that we’ve gone on many different adventures,” which include an exhibition in Cork visited by 100,000 people, and working with Biggerhouse Film on their project for ‘neurodiverse’ filmmakers. An exhibition at Spike Island in March will look at “things in our own flats which make us who we are.” He’s also working with Bristol museum on an exhibition in the summer, on Bristol music.
Jeff has made a couple of short films with Joff Winterhart, author and drummer with Bucky. “My strangest adventure last year was when [one of these films] was screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival. I’m used to hanging around with musicians, but A list actors is something else – I was starstruck! Toby Jones, Richard E Grant, Kevin Bacon… it was awkward with a capital A!
“This last year, in terms of achievement… tick, tick, tick… and still adding! I never thought I’d do filmmaking, I was an ambassador for Independent Venue Week, and I curated a show and DJ-ed at The Exchange in Old Market.” Jeff has also DJ-ed at Big Jeff’s Mosh Pit at the Thunderbolt, at Green Man Festival and is a regular on Harriet Robinson’s Bristol Music Show for BCFM.
The Louisiana at Wapping Road is an important venue to Jeff. “They’ve helped me a lot with my mental health (though they might not know it).”
When he first came to Bristol he would “turn up at the Louis, stare at the posters. Johnny the doorman would say hello, and I wouldn’t know how to react, but gradually he broke me down. I ended up hanging around, gradually making friends.” Jeff tells me the Louis has a new stamp (for when people pay). “It says ‘Big Jeff Approved’!
I asked Jeff more about what makes him tick. “Mental health has always affected me. My parents had me statemented for school but not officially diagnosed – they feared the negative impact, but we knew I was on the autistic spectrum. A couple of years ago, in my early 30s, I got an official diagnosis.They said I had borderline autistm/Asperger’s. I felt a little bit of relief. I’ve had a lot of support for talking about it.”
The name Big Jeff is one he coined himself. He’s become something of a phenomenon – he’s been in films, on posters, and has been interviewed many times. I ask him how he feels about this.
Jeff shrugs. “It is what it is. It’s slightly exploited sometimes, slightly uncomfortable, but it is overwhelmingly positive. And I use social media to my advantage.
“What I have learned from my parents is to keep my feet on the ground, to ‘stick a pin in your over-inflated self!’ I know how lucky I’ve been to be brought up in a family that’s really supportive and want to see me happy – not everyone does.”
What does music mean to you? “It means everything really. It sums up so many emotions. A world without sound would be so boring, wouldn’t it?”
• Facebook: Jeffrey Johns