Interview with Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar

Big Sugar, photo by Michael Maxxis
November 18, 2012 – This week T-MAK World had the pleasure of talking to Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar (and Grady and Sit Down, Servant!! and Wide Mouth Mason).

GJ: Gordie Johnson
SM: Steve Mallinson

SM: You’re on a Canadian tour right now, how’s the tour going?

GJ: The tour’s doing phenomenal. We’ve been out promoting the new DVD, we had a new record out last year called Revolution Per Minute, we’ve had reggae legend Willie Williams out on tour with us, so there’s lot of new jams, lots of new music and new vigor for the old stuff at the same time.

SM: So, you’re going to be here with Kim Mitchell and April Wine for the 100th Grey Cup Festival at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in a couple weeks. That should be fun. But I didn’t see any other Toronto shows on the tour. Are you planning on coming back for any other or is that the one and only for Toronto?

GJ: That should be the only Toronto show on this run. I’m sure Big Sugar will come back and play another show in Toronto at some point, we don’t have any plans to go back on tour just yet, having just done one . We’ll have gone from Victoria to Halifax on this one. The Grey Cup’s a big event. We don’t want to over stay our welcome in Toronto. I’m not from here anymore, so it’s not like I can pick up and do a show every other month here.

SM: So you also just finished a tour with Wide Mouth Mason. I heard the show back at the Horseshoe was incredible.

GJ: Oh yeah, we had a great show, that was a great tour as well. I’ve done back to back tours this year. I did a Sit Down, Servant!! tour in the Spring, did a Wide Mouth Mason tour for a month, till October, then at the end of October we started the Big Sugar tour and it goes until the end of December.

SM: I was talking to Shaun Verreualt before the Horseshoe show and I was sort of surprised when I was looking up your history, how much it overlapped with Wide Mouth Mason seemed like you both had this gigantic success in the 90’s and early 2000’s then went away for a while then came back a couple years ago. Not really a question, more an interesting coincidence…

GJ: You know Wide Mouth, early on we mentored them when they were just starting out. We were already doing national tours and we took them on their first tour across Canada. And we still do that kind of thing. Like whenever we see a band that we’re keenly interested in and think deserves a shot. We never take bands out that that label wants or the agent wants. I mean I’m happy to play along with the program if they’re good and deserving, but if I don’t like them, if I don’t like their music, it’s not happening, it’s certainly not happening more than once. I mean I’ll give people a chance but… A band like the Balconies who’ve been out on tour with us, they did the whole Wide Mouth tour and they’re doing the whole Big Sugar tour as well. They’re not at the Grey Cup show but they’re doing all the other dates with us because they’re young and super hungry and really super good.

SM: Yeah, we saw them at North By Northeast.

GJ: Again, not only will they be out on tour with us, when you’re our opening act, you’re our band, so you share the dressing room with us and they get up on stage and play with us every night. Once they’ve been on tour with us for a month they know all the songs, so they’re welcome to get up and play along, that’s the kind of band Big Sugar is.

SM: Going back to the earlier days, I always sort of thought of Big Sugar as the kind of band that carried the flag for great riff based blues rock here in Canada but lately it’s sort of evolved from that. It’s much more reggae these days.

GJ: I think that anybody who thinks that hasn’t… I don’t mean to be insulting, but you need to do your research, because from 1994 on, Big Sugar is almost… it’s the majority of it, is reggae based. You go to Five Hundred Pounds take apart the bass lines on almost every song on Five Hundred Pounds comes from a reggae song. They are blues songs sung on top of some rock guitar and some blues harmonica on top of reggae rhythms. And Hemi-Vision is even more so and Heated is even more so, so it’s not like suddenly after twenty years (laughs)….

SM: No, I didn’t mean to imply that.

GJ: And I’m not busting your balls either Steve, I’m just saying, it’s…, I suppose it wasn’t as overt, you have to really know reggae music to have picked up on it before where as now we’ve got Willi Williams playing with us, so we’re playing Armagideon Time in the set, so it’s maybe not as… it wasn’t ever really hidden below the surface but you know when half the band is Jamaican it’s not really that big of a surprise I think… sorry (laughs).

Gordie Johnson, photo by Mike Olson

SM: How’s your hand? I heard you had some issues with your hand.

GJ: Yeah, over Christmas I didn’t really know if I was going to play anymore. I had carpal tunnel, repetitive stress aggravation, had circulatory issues and I couldn’t feel my left hand anymore. I couldn’t use it to write, I’m left handed. I couldn’t eat with it, I was dropping my drinks, it was really bad. I had surgery done on it in January and the doctors were pleased with what was going on and they were pleased with their work and so rather getting too stressed out about it you know I didn’t really know if it was going to come back, I had to start from scratch because I lost all the muscle memory in my hand. After the surgery, I knew what to play, but my hand didn’t know anymore. So I kinda had to re-teach myself how to play the guitar and the bass and all that stuff. Even the drums, I play the drums recreationally and that was out for a while, I couldn’t hold the drumstick. So playing the guitar was a bit of a stretch.

SM: I think I read somewhere that you were using more open tunings. Are you still doing that or have you moved back to standard tunings?

GJ: Well when I moved to Texas ten years ago, I pretty much only played in open tuning by that point in my career, even in Big Sugar I was really playing everything in open tuning. When I was in Texas with Grady, playing in open tuning, I didn’t notice that I had any hand problems. When I came back to Big Sugar just in the last couple years I was playing in standard tuning. It required a different discipline to play those songs and that’s when I started to really have trouble. And I was playing bass a lot more I was a bass player for years but then I didn’t really play that often. I’d play on sessions and what have you, but when I joined Wide Mouth Mason, I just took it for granted I picked up the bass and go “yeah I’ve played this” and had a great time playing. But I think it was the added stress of being a bass player and a guitar player and Big Sugar and Grady and Wide Mouth and doing all this stuff. My hand, the carpal tunnel, I had early warnings of it over ten years ago but it didn’t really present it itself until last year.

SM: It must have been really frightening at first at least as a musician but I guess you do a lot of work as a producer. You don’t necessarily need your hand for that.

GJ: I actually do. Yeah, like when I’m sitting at a mixing desk, because I engineer too. Being able to turn dials requires… I was quite shocked to find, ohh man! I can’t even push faders accurately! I mean like, “what?? come on!!” I couldn’t really, couldn’t cope but I had the surgery done and it’s all coming back really nicely.

SM: There’s a new generation these days who weren’t raised on Big Sugar like the older guys like myself who were huge fans back in the day. Younger people were probably back in primary school when The Scene and Diggin’ A Hole came out. How do they respond?

GJ: I’m seeing a lot of them at the shows though man! I can’t count how many people have come to the shows that said “Ohh I remember I saw you on TV when I was 5 or 6”. Like what?? 5 or 6 years old and you saw a Big Sugar video and now you’re at the gig, drinking legally, that’s pretty crazy..

SM: Let me ask you about the business side of the music business. As a veteran of the music scene, locally, nationally and internationally, both as a musician and a producer, how have you seen the business change over the years?

GJ: You know about ten years ago I stopped caring (laughs). That’s how it changed for me. I just looked at it and went you know, the studio I work out of is where Willie Nelson lives, I see that guy on the golf course every other day or whatever and you know, my heroes are, I get to walk amongst my heroes, Billy Gibbons, you know people like that, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Vaughan. And those guys, they just steer their own course, they make the music they want to make, the industry be damned. And you have success and then you have not as much success, then you have way more success and you know I guess at some point just figured look, if you just make stuff that’s good, the money will find you and it’s such a fickle industry anyway that even when you’re doing your best work it depends if you’re in sync with what else is going on and you can’t always predict that, so why stay up all night beating yourself up over it and you start making artistic decisions that are not in the service of your art or creativity that people do to make insincere stuff. I can hear through that and I think the audience can hear it too. Even it’s the most popular thing going for a minute, check it ten years later, will people still care? People still care about my music 15 years later. That’s my success, I don’t care about how many records I’ve sold, I’m not counting. When someone who is 17 years old wants to hear Ride Like Hell, that’s my success right there.

SM: Last question, bringing back Big Sugar out of retirement, what was the thought behind that? I mean as a fan, why did you ever go away? What made you decide to bring it back and why?

GJ: You know when we went away there was so many external pressures it just wasn’t being about the music anymore. It was almost like the entire industry and everybody professionally was just on edge for their job. And the internet… and downloading… and Nickelback is the biggest thing in the world and there’s suddenly all this pressure to toe this line and I was just like “We’re not doing that, we’re making lots of money for all you people, I’m not gonna.. Don’t pretend like you have a say in this…” You know what I mean? I’m happy for everyone to draw a paycheque but you know, this is my part of it. I make the music and I decide what we’re doing and if there’s too much reggae in it for you then, I guess, fuck off and stay fucked off (laughs), cuz like I don’t want to do it that bad. You know what I mean? I’m not willing… I don’t want to be famous so bad that I would just tear down everything I’ve worked for to keep it. Like hell no!! So watch me, I’ll leave and I’ll come back when I’m good and ready. So I did. I really didn’t give it another thought. It was a decision made briefly over a dinner table and you know what? It’s time to go because it’s becoming less fun than it’s ever been and we still all love each other and we love the music and the fans still loved it. Let’s go away while it’s all still good. I don’t want it to just dwindle down till we resent having to do it. And we didn’t come back to it until… just because we felt like it. We got offered a lots of money over eight years to put Big Sugar back together, like “We’ll pay you whatever you want..” I was like “No, you can’t tempt me because that’s not why I’m doing it”. So we only got back together cuz I called everyone up going like, “Hey man, you ever think of playing those songs cuz you like doing it?” and everyone was immediately into putting these songs together, making a new record, going on tour and actually being a band. If everyone just wanted to go out and play the songs that we already know, without rehearsal, just go do a reunion tour and make some money, we never would have done it. But that didn’t even cross anybody’s mind, everybody on stage with me were just eager to make something new and do something and being a living breathing entity again.

I went back and listened to Five Hundred Pounds again after doing this interview with Gordie and I have to say I think Gordie may have revisionist history blinders on, as I would still say that it’s definitely a blues based album. Sure, their cover of Al Green’s soul/funk song I’m a Ram was reggae-ified, but almost everything else is pretty much straight up blues. Other songs in their early catalog, obviously especially Turn the Lights On, were clearly reggae, that was no secret, but I have always thought of their style as Rock>Blues>Reggae. Of course later stuff is Reggae>Rock or even just Reggae and really no blues whatsoever and that evolution was what I was trying to suggest.
Thanks very very much to Gordie Johnson. He’s one of Canada’s premier rock musicians, even if he’s no longer living in Canada, and Big Sugar has always been one of Canada’s most entertaining bands.
Interview by Steve Mallinson
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