Big Sugar goes acoustic - Scene Magazine
Article by John Sharpe
Canadian-born vocalist/guitarist Gordie Johnson is a very busy, versatile musician. Not only is he the founding member of rock/reggae icons Big Sugar, but he also leads ‘cowboy metal’ band Grady, comprises one-half of the blues duo Sit Down, Servant and plays bass for Wide Mouth Mason. Fiercely independent, Johnson plays for the love of making music and is not overly concerned whether the group’s he’s with enjoy widespread, mainstream success.
“I’m very happy with commercial success, but I’m not willing to do anything to get it. People tell me ‘you need to sound more like this because that’s what gets played on the radio now’ or ‘you need to cut your hair more like this.’ I didn’t start for those reasons and I’m not going to start now. I mean, how much money do you need? I play the music I want and it makes people happy. If they want to give me a pot full of money that’s cool but if not, I’d be doing it anyway,” said Johnson, during a phone interview from his home near Austin, Texas.
Having recently wrapped up a European tour with Big Sugar, Johnson decided to forego eclectic instruments and perform many of the group’s songs acoustically. The result of that project can be heard on Yardstyle: The Acoustical Sounds of Big Sugar. While some might think of this album as ‘Big Sugar Unplugged,’
Johnson is quick to dismiss that tag.
“To me, the standard Unplugged thing is so boring and so overdone and that’s not really what we did. You know, when you see some of these bands do an acoustic set they’ve got most of the same instruments. Everyone has monitors and the guitar player has all his effects pedals. They’re basically playing exactly the same way only with what looks like acoustic guitars.
"They’re all plugged in; they all have wires stickin’ out of them.” Johnson’s approach to recording Yardstyle was simplicity itself. Gather together a group of like-minded musicians, roll the tape and capture the magic in the music. In addition to Johnson and his Big Sugar mates, Safwan Javed from Wide Mouth Mason, reggae legend Willi Williams, and John-Angus and Colin MacDonald of The Trews all sat in on the casual, impromptu sessions.
“We actually set up in a studio, in a circle, where we could all hear and see each other. We had no monitors, headphones or anything electric at all. And that’s how our live presentation is, too. This is what we do when we’re sitting in the dressing room, on a tour bus or at a rehearsal. We rarely plug in our electric guitars at a rehearsal because it doesn’t make much sense. We don’t need to practice rockin’; we know how to do that. It’s more about singing together and feeling the music. We’ve gone from being the loudest band in North America to the quietest band in North America.”
The fi rst thing one notices while listening to Yardstyle is the heavy emphasis Johnson places on the many drums and percussion instruments his sidemen employed.
“Big Sugar’s always been a very rhythmic band and it’s not just about bashing away as hard as you can. We were never a punk rock band or an indie band, that’s not our thing. We never jammed in the garage, it’s always been about rhythm and groovin’. It’s very organic and that’s what our shows are about as well.”
Obviously, Yardstyle is available on CD and in keeping with its recent resurgence, it can also be found on vinyl, a format Johnson is very keen on. In fact, Big Sugar’s website includes a number of links to various record stores in Canadian cities that carry vinyl records.
“I think vinyl outsold CDs this Christmas season. Personally, I never stopped listening to vinyl. I’ve got a huge record collection and we still go to all our favourite record stores when we’re on tour. I like having that big piece of cover art to hold and look at. Unfortunately, there are a number of Big Sugar records that didn’t come out on vinyl because the record companies didn’t believe in it.”
As the interview with Johnson comes to an end, it’s noted that the weather in London, Ontario has taken a turn for the worse and it’s rather cold in the Forest City. Johnson, who’s revelling in the Texas heat, can’t resist. “I won’t rub it in that I’ve been out sweeping my patio and it’s not snow I’m sweeping. But I won’t be crowing so loud when I’m in a tour bus going across Canada all of January, February and March. It’s always fun to do summer festivals, but Canadians want entertainment all year. Doing it in the dead of winter feels noble somehow.”