WORDS

Who The Hell Is Big John?

Since its release exactly one year ago, Big John’s Castle has been lying dormant in a quiet corner of Bandcamp. Soulful hip-hop, gritty dubstep, Bristol-tinged drum & bass, pub sing-along anthems – it’s an intriguing musical recipe that grabs you from the start and doesn’t let up until Big John says so.

On paper, this LP has the potential to push its leading man to many ears. Or it could do, if it wasn’t for the fact that nobody actually knows much about who Big John really is! This is what we know so far…

His Mancunian drawl – charred by decades of fag smoking and tinnie drinking – offers a certain scruffy wisdom through his lyrics, irreverent and funny but also deeply moving at times. This is an album of stories from a man with many more to tell, but as Big John’s Castle draws to a close we meet a dead end.

Despite a handful of other Bandcamp uploads, nothing of Big John exists outside those few Internet pages. No social media links, no email address, no contact details whatsoever. So who the hell is he?

The quest for information began on Big John’s Bandcamp page. With no contact details to work with, communication through the website’s direct message form seemed to be the only way in. Nothing. Reaching out to people in the music scenes of the North bore no fruit either. Plenty said they knew a ‘Big John’ who drinks, smokes and swears, but they all turned out to be pub regulars with no artistic claim.

With nowhere else to turn, the list of collaborating artists brought a sliver of hope. Surely the names that feature on the album know how to get in touch with Big John? At a glance, they provided a clue. Symmetry‘s Kyo (Symmetry), Intrigue-signed producer Lurch, Binbag Wisdom‘s Rysha Flint, Trafic MC, Twitchee, Bluejay, Medic…all rooted in Bristol, and mostly connected to drum & bass music in some way. Surprising, given Big John’s apparently Northern heritage and expansive musical palette.

A closer look at these artists reveals that they’re all vocal features except for one, Lurch, suggesting a production credit. As the most likely candidate to have had a personal encounter with Big John, he was contacted for comment.

“Well, I’ve only met him in person once,” begins Lurch. “My friend Chris and I ran into him at a phone box on Gloucester Road in Bristol. He stopped us and started telling these amazing stories of where he’d been, what he’d been up to. He made a ridiculously massive impression when I met him.”

He explains that John had an ambition to make music but was scuppered by his lack of technical knowledge, leading to their uniquely old school collaborative relationship. “He took my address and proceeded to send me box after box of minidiscs with his vocal takes on, and we took it from there really.”

From those first vocal takes came Big John’s first LP, John Intended, confirming that Lurch is John’s primary producer. This also explains his access to Bristol’s D&B stalwarts. “It was like talking to some sort of shaman,” says Lurch, his admiration for this rough-and-ready recluse shining as brightly as his bewilderment. “His knowledge of music was so kaleidoscopic and varied, when it came to production there was no limits on style.”

This is seen clearly in the various musical flavours of his work, but it’s not just Big John’s kaleidoscope at play. Lurch was also able to express himself in the creative process and was able to give the album a poignant and emotional finale.

“My good friend and fellow musician Craig Russell sadly passed away while swimming in India a few years ago,” Lurch explains. “I wanted to write some music about him but nothing was coming together. In the end I wrote a poem but couldn’t put it to anything. I sent it to John to read in his inimitable style. Without even a ‘yes’ he gracefully sent one more recording, which was so perfect for the album’s emotional ending. Rysha plays such a beautiful part in it too. It’s the definition of a successful collab.”

Unfortunately, Lurch could offer no advice on how to reach the man himself, but a recent track drop and whispers of a third album imply that history may repeat itself soon.

“The guy is an enigma to me,” Lurch tells us. “It’s hard enough to get a phone call out of him let alone anything else, but I can reveal that a third box of minidiscs has arrived, which is where Coping (Mechanism) came from. Usually there’s a phone call but this one just turned up. It’s way more tattered than the first two and pretty frantically wrapped…lockdown seems to have hit him just like everyone else. I’ll be trying to make sense of it soon.”

We may be no closer to understanding this reclusive raconteur, but we can look forward to hearing more of his strange stories soon. Until then, Big John’s back catalogue is available to buy on Bandcamp.