Big Sugar plays a tiny venue in Ottawa: An interview with Gordie Johnson
[Words, photo, and interview by Karen Coughtrey.]
The Neat coffee shop in Burnstown, Ontario (just west of Ottawa) played host to one of Canada’s most beloved bands two nights this week. Before the June 8th show, A Journal of Musical Things had the opportunity to sit down with Gordie Johnson to ask about Big Sugar’s past, present, and future.
AJOMT: You are kicking off your first Big Sugar tour post-pandemic, why kick off the tour here in Burnstown?
Gordie: We picked this place because I played here in December, I did a solo show, and I didn’t want to leave. We had a beautiful two nights here and the food and coffee were amazing and I was lying in the guest house dreaming about putting Big Sugar back together. So when we needed a place to do our first show back, we asked our agent to call here because we could be in a large, sweaty, loud, rehearsal hall in Toronto, getting billed for every 15 minutes or we could spend 4 days here. This is super fun for us, we set up all the equipment yesterday inside in the intimate acoustic room and played up until midnight, just playing through songs and getting to know each other.
AJOMT: Are you showcasing some new material on this tour?
Gordie: Every night is a little different too, we play old stuff, old hits, old songs that weren’t hit. We’ve always done that, though, we’ve always had a pretty open-minded crowd. We don’t mind being a bit challenging for them so we’ll play some songs from an album that came out over the pandemic, which wasn’t ideal, but we’re proud of the record so we’ll play some of those songs.
AJOMT: During the height of the pandemic you produced a Youtube series GJ in the SoundShack, how did that idea come to be?
Gordie: That was in the worst part of the lockdown. I have my own studio. I was able to work on records still for people because people kept recording things and they would send me their audio and I could continue to work that way. But it was nice to be able to reach out to our fans and have some connection. Instead of just answering questions on social media, I [thought] I’ll compile a batch of questions and then demonstrate how to play this song. What guitar did you play it on? I can show you because it’s YouTube.
AJOMT: Are there any plans for more sessions?
Gordie: Maybe, it took up all my time for a while. I had two, I had a blues series that was once a week as well. I got Joe Satriani, Rich Robinson, Warren Haynes, I got a bunch of different people to do episodes with me, just remote and send me phone video and I’d mix the audio. That took up all my time, I’d rather have all my time spent being on tour with Big Sugar and then make a cooking show or something.
AJOMT: Garry Lowe was your bassist for a very long time, we’re very sorry for your loss, but how does it feel with his son now playing with you? Does it feel like things have come full circle? Do you catch yourself looking over at Ben and doing a double-take?
Gordie: It’s very satisfying, in a way, as an uncle, just to keep an eye on Garry’s kid; I promised I would watch out for his boys especially. Garry had a lot of kids but I know his girls are all good. I have kept in contact with both Hodari and Benny, just steering them towards music. Hodari is a hip hop producer, just trying to keep those guys encouraged and focused and inspired. So when Ben, who’s the baby, just came right out and asked if he could have his dad’s gig, I said, ya you have to earn it, it’s big shoes to fill. So he came to audition but he wasn’t up to it, so I sent him home and said here’s a wake up call. You don’t just get it by blood, you have to make that guy proud; you can’t just show up. He went home for six months and really worked on it and now he comes to the stage with a historical knowledge of the music that no one else is going to have. He knows it because it’s his dad.
AJOMT: Did Ben grow up going to rehearsals and shows with you and Garry?
Gordie: Yes, he grew up going, and he’s also had an active interest in looking at videos from YouTube or listening to old bootleg recordings, rehearsal recordings, so he remembers stuff that we used to do in songs as if he was there in the ’90s but he wasn’t, he wasn’t even born yet. So for him to come to rehearsal and say oh remember in ‘If I Had My Way’ didn’t you guys used to do this, and he’ll play it for me and it’s like a ghost just walked through the room. It’s like “Oh dear, How do you know that? I didn’t even remember that.” It’s really great to have him be a part of this.
AJOMT: Your website says you spent the last four years reimagining Big Sugar. What makes this version of Big Sugar different?
Gordie: There’s been a different version of Big Sugar, every year, every album, every tour, things evolved. We were a three-piece band. We were a jazz band. We only backed up other singers. We played rockabilly every night for a while. We’ve been a different thing, it’s evolved and evolved and evolved. When you stick around long enough people start to get in their mind, “This isn’t my Big Sugar, my Big Sugar is THIS”. Ok, Well good luck to you because that only existed for one nine-month period of time, and then it changed again. To me, it’s always been an open book, like a blank page to imagine it how I wanted.
Garry wasn’t the original Bass player of Big Sugar but once he came to Big Sugar, that was the skeletal structure of the band that everything else was built on. Garry passed away, other guys retired, and other guys who were in the band went on to have their own bands and that’s fine because I’m Big Sugar. I can keep on doing this, I can do it by myself If I want to. When Benny said he wanted to do it, I thought great, that’s my connection to the past but it’s new. He’s 22, he has a new enthusiasm for this stuff. Then we just surrounded ourselves with people whose music we love. Joe Magistro and Kat Ottosen, they’re a married couple.
I played with Joe with Rich Robinson and The Black Crowes and The Magpie Salute and that group of people. I knew all those musicians for decades, we’re friends, and Joe was always a part of those things so Joe and I had this connection for decades. When there was no Big Sugar, I was playing with Joe. So when we started thinking of Big Sugar again my clever wife suggested I call [Joe] because we played great together. He agreed and he came down once or twice and I suggested he have his wife learn some songs and bring her down to Texas with him because she also has a very interesting approach to music and a depth of knowledge of music and she’s a producer and she’s a big pop star in Scandinavia, who also doesn’t need to go out and play but she wanted to do something interesting with friends. So now I have this band of people, who just want to do it because it’s cool and interesting and we’re friends. No one asked about the money, which is really refreshing for me. We take care of everybody but that’s not why they’re here. We got a new stage backdrop and we built it together last night. The whole band and crew, everyone is holding poles and making sure it’s straight a team building exercise. I didn’t have that with the other versions of Big Sugar.
AJOMT: You’ve done a lot of producing for various other bands, how did that start? Do you take inspiration from the things you produce with them?
Gordie: It’s like I get to be in their band for that one moment in time. Whether it’s a solo artist or a band I treat their record like it’s my own. I’m not letting it out the door unless it has everything I would put into my own project. Not to make it sound like Big Sugar but to make it sound like the best version of whoever the artist is. The record I would want to buy from that artist. That’s the approach I take.
I was a studio musician long before Big Sugar. I slept on a couch in a studio for about a year and a half, I had no place to live so I’m pretty comfortable in a studio. So when it came time to make Big Sugar records I got a taste for it pretty quickly. By our second record even our record label said I think you know what you’re doing here, why don’t you go ahead and do this. It has just been me ever since. So then I just branched off into producing other artists and I’ve got to work with The Black Crowes and Gov’t Mule and Taj Mahal and Willie Nelson and I get to work with some of my heroes.
AJOMT: You have done many collaborations over the years, notably co-writing some outstanding songs for the Trews (including ‘Highway of Heroes’). How do those relationships come to be? How are the dynamics?
Gordie: The Trews came to me as a baby band. They were just teenage dudes wanting to live a rock and roll dream. [They asked me to help them produce a record.] They had good songs, they weren’t great songs but they had great DNA, great ideas, the things they were singing about were really worthy. They just didn’t have the experience to be able to be self-critical so my contribution early on was to say, I think you know a better way to say that, let’s try that again. Which eventually turned into us sitting in a room and writing stuff from scratch. Now John-Angus MacDonald is a producer, he doesn’t need my help. To me, that’s a beautiful thing because this is oral tradition, spoken word culture kind of a thing. If you’re not passing it on, why are you doing this? You’re not leaving any legacy if you’re hoarding it all to yourself.
AJOMT: Your music has always melded multiple musical styles, how do you pull those influences and different musical genres together to make such good music?
Gordie: It is just like showing my friends my record collection, we sure don’t try very hard. We’re not [saying] you know what would be cool here would be to put some reggae, we’ve never had that conversation. It just comes out. For example these four people, everyone has a very different record collection but there are crossroads. There are places where they meet up, so those are the things that show up in the music. Even if it’s a song I played with the older band, where maybe there was more blues influence or dancehall reggae or calypso, there were other things happening, now I’m the guy who brings those forward even though those people are gone. I carry that culture into this but the other three bring their spoken word culture into it, I allow that too. Stuff that Kat Ottosen plays, it sounds like this epic prog-rock thing that’s happening on her side of the stage. I never know what sounds are going to come out from her keyboard rig. I don’t want to tell her what to play because I think she’s just going to play something really cool I wouldn’t think of. That’s the beauty of it.
AJOMT: What is it like to have such a dedicated fan base and to have a strong connection with your audience? How do you maintain that?
Gordie: It puts pressure on me a little bit, I don’t want to just call it in. You never want to just play the same songs people heard. Everyone has their favourite so you wanna play someone’s favourite song or your big hits but you want to give them some surprises along the way too and draw them into some other things and make it worth seeing 25 times. We’re not really a jam band but we’re not that far from it. A song will get played with a different inflection and go to some other zone every time we play it.
AJOMT: Are you still trying to be the loudest band in the world?
Gordie: Well we weren’t trying, it just sort of came out that way. Not so much, because at the time we were really loud we were playing in arenas or large halls and if we’re playing in that context even now we play pretty loud but there’s no advantage to melting people’s faces, sending them to the parking lot with bleeding ears, I’m trying to draw people into the thing.
I think Big Sugar now, there’s a different level of musical maturity whereas, I think adrenaline and sweat and hormones had a lot to do with the sound of the band. I’m a 58-year-old guy, I have a different way of telling a story. Do I play it differently than I played when I was 28? Of course I do! Shouldn’t I? People in rock and roll expect you to be locked in amber. To always be the ‘Digging A Hole’ guys and ya I’ll still play ‘Digging A Hole’ but even to the point of I don’t wear my guitars the same way. I have tweaked and fiddled with my sound so I can express myself how I’m feeling now. It keeps changing, I think the band is more dynamic and there are more ingredients to it. There is more complexity to the flavour.
AJOMT: What started you playing O’Canada to close your shows?
Gordie: I can’t remember the first time I played it. It was probably at a hockey game or some event. I was asked to sing it and thought I don’t want to do that. So I sort of envisioned an arrangement that I remember from being a kid when TV used to go off the air at midnight. If you stayed up late you heard this marching band kind of marchy official-sounding “O Canada.” I thought it would be cool to hearken back to that but on a big electric guitar.
The first inclination for any guitar player is to say “Hendricks at Woodstock” but the thing is we don’t have bombs bursting in air. It’s true patriot love, it’s a different song so you can’t have the sounds of warplanes. Hendricks did that as a statement against Vietnam, we’re not making that statement with O’Canada. We’re making our own patriotic statement with it, I wasn’t thinking about Jimmy Hendricks, I was thinking about, true north strong, and free. Those words evoke a feeling, I was just trying to translate that to the guitar.
AJOMT: Inquiring minds want to know, do you still have the old Dodge Charger?
Gordie: No, I had a couple of them and I sold them to a really good friend of mine who I felt was a better custodian of those vehicles. They were getting really weathered and worn out and needed a huge influx of cash to revive them and I just felt this guy will do all of that and he will cherish them. When he was a teenager he had a poster of my car in his bedroom. Me, it was just the car I drove, I loved that car but this is the guy who is going to take better care of them. I know where they are and I know they are in tip-top shape.
AJOMT: What’s next for Big Sugar?
Gordie: With this new group of people I’ve given us the summer to work out where everyone’s personality intersects and make some good music and get back to playing live and then I have a whole new record ready to record. A whole batch of songs that haven’t had a reason to do them until now and now I do so I sure will do. Hopefully, we’ll be recording by the end of the summer and put out a new record. As well, our classic record from 1998, Heated, is coming out on vinyl this fall from Universal Music Canada and Jack White’s Third Man Records is going to put out a reissue of Five Hundred Pounds for the rest of the world.
Big Sugar has a very dedicated fan base with many fans boasting of seeing them multiple times but this is a new iteration of the band since many of the audience have last seen them and the audience Wednesday night was the first in Canada to see this version of the band. After the tragic loss of former bassist Garry Lowe, his son Ben Lowe has stepped into his shoes and Joe Magistro (lately from the Black Crowes and the B-52’s) and Danish keyboardist Kat Ottosen have also joined the band. The band may be different but the sound, although maybe not as loud, was similar, with their reggae, blues/jazz, rock sound present throughout the night.
They opened the night to a warm reception of some of their newest tracks off their spring 2020 album, ‘Love is Alive’ (a Gary Wright cover) and ‘Eternity Now’ but then really got the crowd going with their huge 90’s hit ‘Digging a Hole’ as well as hit ‘If I Had My Way’ with Kat doing an amazing job playing the harmonica parts.
Big Sugar played two sets, the first of which included several new songs including ‘Wonder Woman’, ‘‘The Better it Gets (The Easier It Gets to Get Better)’ and ‘Ultra Violet’. The crowd appeared to love the new material, giving the band enthusiastic applause and cheers. The first set also included a Led Zepplin cover medley in the middle of their usual Natty Dread Rock/Trench Town mash-up with Ben Lowe doing his father proud playing the bassline.
The band opened the second set with their cover of the Rolling Stone’s ‘Too Rude’ and the crowd was much more animated now, coming up front to dance to ‘Red Rover’ and ‘Better Get Used to it’. They would end the night with ‘Ride Like Hell’ , ‘All Hell For a Basement’, and ‘The Scene’ and of course closed out the night to the delight of all the long-time fans, with ‘O’Canada’.
Gordie Johnson – lead vocals, guitar
Ben Lowe – bass
Joe Magistro – drums
Kat Ottosen – keyboards, harmonica