Gordie Johnson is on the phone from Big Sugar HQ somewhere in Texas hill country. After planning to release Eternity Now back in March to coincide with a tour, he held things back a few months to see how the coronavirus situation panned out. With no real end in sight to the lockdown on tour, he’s decided to release Eternity Now anyway. “I supposed we could have waited until all this passes by, but why hold back from people any longer because everyone’s stuck at home. I want to put it out and entertain people. We can always pick things up on the road later,” he says.
Alan Cross: This is the first Big Sugar album in five years. Where you been?
Gordie Johnson: I’ve been making this record! It was done two years ago, but then we entered the intersection of tragedy and comedy. We were beset by so many horrible experiences that we actually scrapped the first version of the record, went at it again, and made another version. We lost my life-long friend and bass player, Gary Lowe [he died of cancer last July at age 64]. That was a really crushing blow. We had to take stock of everything and decide if we were even going to continue. When we decided to keep going, we made the record again. Then Universal came along and said they wanted to work with us, so that was worth delaying things. Things were timed just right for a global pandemic, which delayed it even further.
AC: A lot of people have postponed their albums and what that does is open the runway for anyone who is brave enough to release an album now.
GJ: So much of it is tied to touring and selling merchandise. And that’s just not possible right now. Look, we weathered horrible tragedies in our personal lives to just get here. But there are a lot worse things going on for some folks out there. We’ll be fine. I’m more concerned with the seniors in our lives and my neighbours and my friends and kids. I have a whole lot of other things to be stressed out. Putting out a record and touring for it seems like a really small concern when you put things in perspective. Instead, let’s join the online party.
AC: Can you imagine if this pandemic hit us in 2000 before the internet became our friend when it comes to music? We’ve got it easy compared to the way it could have been.
GJ: It could have been much worse. Count your blessings, too. In the last two months, I’ve seen technology leap forward. People want to connect. They want to get their entertainment. They want to get their message heard. And the ability to produce good-sounding audio and video from your home is amazing. With just my phone, which shoots Hollywood movie-quality HD video and can go out to the world–I mean, man, there’s been no greater time in technology.
We did all the videos for Eternity Now on my iPhone 11. We green-screened a bunch of things and just banked it all on a hard drive. I have enough footage that I can make videos for the rest of the year. The record label loves it. We used to pay tens of thousands of dollars to shoot a video. Now its dozens of dollars.
For the online album release performance, I took the master tapes and stripped out my guitar and my vocals and I’m basically going to do rock star karaoke. I’ll play and sing live with actual album audio. I haven’t heard anyone do that before. It could have been a man with a chihuahua and Capari and soda playing a vinyl record, but that wouldn’t have been very interesting.
AC: I put the record on the other day and I thought I made a mistake. It sounded like I’d grabbed a Rush record from 1988.
GJ: [Laughs] Make no mistake, my friend. That was not an accident! [Rush guitarist] Alex Lifeson is on the title track. He’s on the title track of my life and career trajectory. He was one of the first supporters of Big Sugar and one of the greatest mentors that I’ve had. And he’s such a down-to-earth chill guy. He saw us coming up, liked our music, and would do things like “Hey, man, here’s a double-neck guitar. Why don’t you take the Xanadu guitar and use it for a while?” Like, who does that?
So I texted him and I had to explain myself because it’s such a Rush knock-off. I got the Taurus Moog pedals in there and gave it the full Moving Pictures treatment. But he not only sent me a wicked guitar solo but a bunch of overdubs–acoustic guitars and banjos and all kinds of other production to put in the track. It got way Rushier. And I’m good with it.
AC: I hear he’s looking for a gig…
GJ: He still plays great. And when he sits down to play, only one sound comes out of that amp.
AC: I really like the working of Love is Alive, the 70s hit by Gary Wright. Considering the continuing ubiquity of that song on the radio, I’m surprised that more people haven’t covered it.
GJ: I seem to have a knack of finding songs to cover that your friends have also been thinking about doing but haven’t got around to it yet. Colin James called me up. The Black Crowes, same thing. “We were gonna do that!” But you didn’t.
AC: The first single, “The Better It Gets,” sounds like Texas.
GJ: There is a bunch of Texas in it. [ZZ Top guitarist] Billy Gibbons had a profound influence on me in terms of arranging, producing and creating tone.
AC: Anything else we should know about Eternity now?
GJ: The entire record stays on message. Most of it was written by my wife and myself. The lyrics kind of read as episodes in a person’s life from gloom-and-doom-what-do-we-do-now to finding ways to heal and get through these trials and tribulations. It was hard enough to live through it, but then when you write a record about it, it gets it off your chest. And anyone takes some solace or inspiration from it, then maybe it was kind of worth it.
Gordie Johnson and Big Sugar will hold an online album release party for Eternity Now tonight (May 8) at 10 pm EDT on their YouTube channel. If you miss it, the whole thing will be archived for on-demand viewing,