Sweet Sugar for Weary Souls - Vue Weekly
Article by Stephan Boissonneault
Gordie Johnson and other members of Big Sugar built a studio from scratch for the upcoming album
The name Big Sugar resides in a unique place for most Canadians. It reminds us of long road trips across the country, ‘90s house parties, or campfires underneath the stars. Either way, the reggae-infused blues-rock group has made its mark in Canada and specifically, Alberta.
“We’ve had so much family history in Alberta,” guitarist and bandleader, Gordie Johnson says from his front porch in Austin, Texas. “It’s always been a family stronghold for Big Sugar. That’s why we mention it in some of the songs. It’s a special place for us to always come back to.”
Johnson is overlooking his newly-built home studio, “The Sound Shack,” which was created to record Big Sugar’s upcoming album Planets …For the Weary Traveler due sometime in 2018. The studio build was a group effort that every member of Big Sugar was a part of.
“Some very critical equipment and pieces were two weeks late and we couldn’t record so we all picked up the paint brushes,” Johnson laughs. “I was like, ‘Someone grab a saw and a screwdriver. We’re laying this thing out ourselves.’ Everyone had a hand in it. So, we didn’t just make a record, but we made a studio to make the record.”
Johnson promises a more rhythmic Big Sugar mixed with some newer sounds on the upcoming album.
“It’s like afro-Cuban meets reggae space-rock,” he says.
Earlier this year, Big Sugar went through some major lineup changes with blues-harmonica player Kelly Hoppe “Mr. Chill,” retiring and Rasta hypeman “DJ Friendlyness” starting his own band, The Human Rights.
Johnson had no aspirations to replace the two members. Instead, he saw an opportunity to shift the band’s sound by adding both conga player, Rey Arteaga and Johnson’s wife, Alex to percussion.
“There’s a lot more riding on the guitar,” Johnson says. “In some ways, it harkens back to the “Ride Like Hell” Big Sugar era.”
Johnson has also been listening to a wide array of music, which always trickles into his songwriting.
“I’ve got a teenage son and he’s been tripping out listening to Grateful Dead stuff and I always ask him what he’s listening to,” Johnson says. “The other day, I ask him and he tells me there’s this band called ‘Hawkwind’ and he starts telling me about who they are. I’m like ‘Man, I know who Hawkwind is.’ So I’m on my way to play bass in a Cuban dance band, but I’m listening to Hawkwind on the way there. So all that stuff seeps into the new album.”
Johnson actually sat down with members of the band to write the album. This was a very new process for Big Sugar.
“We’ve never really sat down and been like ‘Okay, let’s write a new Big Sugar record.’ It’s always been an assorted collection of co-writes or old songs,” Johnson says.
His wife was the instigator of the new songwriting progress.
“One night she flies down our drummer Chris and she’s like ‘Okay, we’re going to write some songs,’” he says. “This was at like one o’clock in the morning, but we wrote like two to three songs that night. She kept on kicking it along. When we were done she would be like ‘Nope I want two more songs.’”
The eventual result was 10 new songs, each with its own unique flavour. Much like every Big Sugar album, it is an amalgamation of what the members are listening to at the time.
“It’s always been like that,” Johnson says. “You can tell when we got into dub-reggae cause there are space echoes everywhere. Or in the early ‘90s, there was a lot of hip-hop influence. We were no longer a blues jam band anymore and we’re really bottom heavy with the rhythm section. Everything left its mark.”
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