Normally the person writing this article (me) loathes indulging in the overtly self-aware, editorialising style of music writing utilized by lots of folks in this business. No-one cares if I met someone in a fancy bar over Jack and Cokes, what I was wearing, how I was feeling that day or any other completely facile, self-absorbed details. The story’s about the artist, and I am the simple, humble scribe.
So I have to apologize for a tad of editorializing at the beginning of this piece. Gordie Johnson has been an interview subject of mine more than 20 times, probably closer to 25, since our first meeting in a crowded little ‘Yogi Bear’ camper trailer being used as a dressing room behind Joe’s Place Jazz and Blues Club in Port Colborne in early 1994. I would say over that time we’ve perhaps not become pals, but there is certainly a comfortable, open and friendly rapport.
Earlier this year, he posted what amounted to a soul-baring, heartfelt Facebook mea culpa talking about changes he needed to make in his life – essentially resetting his priorities to focus on health, family and Big Sugar. No need to get into the details, suffice it to say, the changes have continued since then, including what amounts to a significant re-tooling of the band, including a slick, streamlined look, very reminiscent of his early 1990s.
Johnson basically intimated – and confirmed in our interview a few days ago – that he was stretched too thin. And that’s because he was almost superhuman in the musical output he engaged in. For a while there he was simultaneously in Big Sugar, Wide Mouth Mason, had a rootsy side project called Sit Down, Servant! produced tons of work by other artists, collaborated with other songwriters, including notably with The Trews, and for a few years he also had his ‘cowboy metal’ band Grady.
So the opening couple of questions for our interview, including ‘so what’s been going on lately,’ generated more than a simple pat answer. Mere weeks ago, it was announced that long-time friend and bandmate for nearly a quarter of a century harmonica master Kelly ‘Mr. Chill’ Hoppe, had departed the band, as had DJ Friendlyness. A new addition to the band, percussionist/vocalist Rey Artega has added a distinctive Latin element into the music, while drummer Chris Gormley, who has been in the band for a couple of years, is collaborating more with Johnson on new songs. Also in the fold is Johnson’s wife, Alex, on vocals, while long-time bassist Garry Lowe, keeps the bottom end in fine form.
So a little warning for regular readers of my articles: the quotes are going to be longer, as will the article itself, but I hope it imparts so insight and the hopeful, excited vibe that Johnson gave off during our conversation.
“Life has certainly thrown a bunch of challenges at us over the year. And it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has followed the band that it shifts musically and morphs with every record and with every tour. It’s been an ever-evolving thing. Since we got back together [in 2010, after a seven year hiatus] we surged forward and expanded to a band of 12 people for some shows. It got kind of crazy there for a while. Aside from personal changes in my life, Mr. Chill announced his retirement this year, kind of without warning, not that he needs to give any warning. One day he woke up and decided he wanted to be retired and stay home with his wife. I said, ‘I love you man, you’ve been my best friend for years, I am good with it.’ Friendlyness has got a lot busier with his band, The Human Rights. I produced a record for them last year that they put out and they got more and more festival offers and he is getting busier with his thing, but I support that. Hey look, I set him up for that, so I can’t fault the guy for being interested in his own project,” said Johnson from his home near Austin, Texas, where he has lived for 15 years.
“So at the same time that Chill left and Friendly left, I had also gone through a pretty massive overhaul just in my personal life and started to feel healthy. I had been wracked with all kinds of health issues for years, but when you get healthy physically, you start thinking clearer, exercising and feeling stronger. My hands feel stronger, so my playing feels stronger and my singing feels stronger. I just looked at my surrounding environment and thought okay these [the departures of Chill and Friendly] could potentially be problems thrown at me here, especially the timing of it all. Or I could seize the opportunity to surge forward in a different direction.”
Johnson said he had already started to immerse himself more in the various Latin styles of music that were prevalent in his part of Texas, and had befriended Artega. Sit Down, Servant! had begun transitioning into something that featured Salsa, Latin jazz and cumbia, and Johnson was inspired like he hadn’t been for some time.
“I pulled Rey into Big Sugar, but not to replace Mr. Chill. I am not auditioning harmonica players. I don’t want to hear harmonica in Big Sugar anymore because I don’t love that instrument; I love the guy who played that instrument. It wouldn’t have mattered what instrument Mr. Chill played, I loved it because I loved the way he expressed himself with it,” he said.
“Rey brings a completely different thing because he’s become part of the rhythm section. He plays congas and he has a great, soaring voice. He sings in Spanish and he’s a great lead singer, so vocally we’ve suddenly become a lot stronger. And my wife and I have been really digging into Latin music here and she started touring with us last year to add another voice to the band, and we could be together and stay focused on Big Sugar. Before I had two keyboard players now there are no more keyboards in Big Sugar, there’s just a whole lot more rhythm, a lot more percussion and more singing.
“It just feels like the musical machine behind me is more supportive. It’s so rhythmic, there’s no other chordal instruments, there’s no other soloists and I feel up to the task where my thought process is clear, my hands are strong and I’ve got these really happy people on stage playing with me. With Chris, he is a great songwriter and singer and I produced a record for his band and it was such a positive experience that I asked him to join Big Sugar as the drummer. We sat down to write over the last few months and wrote pretty much an entire record. So all of a sudden, from having all this adversity thrown in front of us, we took and made it into something that I think is quite remarkable. It’s a new chapter for the band when I suppose I could have just filled the holes, and carried on as before.”
Johnson said the music coming forth from the new, revitalized Big Sugar is very positive and upbeat, reflecting his own re-energizing process, which has entailed some serious soul searching and a, dare we say it, maturing and relaxing of his approach to his career.
“Everything we’re working on now has a very centred energy and a positive message, like somebody threw open the curtains and let the sun shine in. Interestingly, aside for kind of growing up in some ways, it was also about allowing some childlike innocence back in too; letting go of some control when you can’t possibly control everything. I think, for years, I was trying to compartmentalize and wrestle every situation into submission and there’s a lot of stuff you can’t control – there’s a lot of stuff about the past you can’t fix and just have to let it go,” he said.
“I was just building up a wall of habits and distractions and trying to find justification for all kinds of stuff. Man, it just got overwhelming, where it was all-consuming and I had no mental energy left for anything positive. I was an artist the promoters must have hated to deal with. They loved the fact they had a sold-out show, but I can’t remember there being a gig where I was happy with everything. I could always find something to ruin the day and sometimes I would even make something up to be mad about.
“Now, we’re just so focused on this group of people making music. It’s such a rare opportunity; not that we’re completely starting over, but to get that energy that we had like when we first started, and to get back that sense of wonderment and just be really into making music, has been so refreshing.”
Johnson said while all the newness is invigorating, it’s been great to still have the calm solidity of Garry Lowe beside him as Big Sugar moves down some interesting and inspirational new musical pathways.
“Garry, I think, has had a lot of hard moments in his life and I think he has reached an age where he is more clear thinking than he’s ever been, and he’s also very focused on his health. So we’re in the same headspace. Garry and I have been making music together for decades and for us to just have this unspoken, knowing, calm connectedness is great. I don’t think it’s ever been stronger. It’s always been there, but it feels stronger because it’s more exposed because there’s only two sets of strings up there now.”
And Johnson was quick to correct the observation that the infusion of Latin music into Big Sugar was a change. He firmly asserts that it’s in fact an addition to an already potent musical recipe.
“We didn’t get rid of any flavours, we added flavours. And they’re not new flavours because this is stuff that I have been digging for a long time. Any time I have made a record or presented the audience with stuff it’s really like coming to my house and listening to my record collection. It’s like one day I got into Dub, so check out this record, and I would play a bunch of Dub or DJ stuff, and put some of that into my music. Mr. Chill hipped me onto a new soul record, so let’s put some of that in there. Now Rey has brought us into a lot of these Latin rhythms and they work perfectly in our context,” he explained.
“It’s been interesting to take the old stuff and new stuff, and make it fit together. It’s really not that big of a stretch and it’s reinvigorated a lot of the older material. And because we have a huge catalogue of stuff to pick from, this has also given us a chance to play older material – some of it never got played. It worked in the studio but then you took it out live and some songs just didn’t translate as well, or they did way back when but they hadn’t for the last 10 years or so. It’s an interesting time to put some songs back into the set, some we haven’t done since the early 1990s. But the whole thing, the old and the new, is really tight and really vital. It’s exciting, man.”
The new material will be road tested as Big Sugar returns to the Great White North this summer for some dates. The new line-up has only played a couple of times back in Canada, so Johnson is excited to lay the new sounds and songs on fans from coast to coast during Canada’s sesquicentennial year.
“Our plan, which is also a lot more like the old days, is to go out and play all the new songs this summer all across Canada and then by the fall those will be ready to record. When I think back to Big Sugar albums like Hemi-Vision  and Five Hundred Pounds , those songs got played in front of people a lot, in some cases for multiple years before they were recorded. I just want to take the songs out and have a chance to really road test them and breathe life into them before we go into the studio,” he said, adding that like many veteran bands, there won’t be any weeks or months-long tours in the offing for Big Sugar.
“I don’t know if it makes sense any more to get into a tour bus and leave home for two months. We’re kind of at a point with music where if we spread it out over a whole year and play shows that are worth flying to and do two, three or four at a time, we’re never burned out and the shows are really fun and worthwhile for everybody. We’re not playing in a small town pub on a Tuesday night simply because we’re out on tour in a tour bus and need to cram in dates.
“I would rather come and play that small town and give them a Saturday night show in a big venue or a festival show where it’s exciting for everybody. It works better for the band; it works better for the promoter and for that town and especially for the audience. I am not as hell bent to do that anymore. I don’t need to be in a tour bus and burning the candle at both ends because you can flame out pretty quickly. And I did that for a long, long time because I spent more time on the road than at home. And it’s like, if I am not at home recharging my battery I am not grounded and settled. So what am I bringing to the show if I am stretched out and wild? Now every time I show up I am well rested and playing my best and bringing people something vital and new.”
The band is booked to play the Wild Mountain Music Festival (Hinton, AB) on July 15, Canal Days in Port Colborne, ON on Aug. 5 and a few other festival dates in western Canada.
And before you go thinking that Johnson is set to become a man of leisure, he is in the process of building a new home studio where he will work on selected outside projects but also his own music, including some Big Sugar reggae remix stuff that he’s been tackling here and there over the years.
It’s fitting that, to end the interview, when asked to sum up how he is doing now, Johnson, in his laconic and increasingly drawling voice said simply, “I’ve never been better.”
Good news for Johnson, his wife, family, bandmates and fans.
For information on Big Sugar’s summer touring schedule, and to get updates on new music, visit www.bigsugar.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.