Gettin’ weird with Gordie Johnson and Big Sugar
There was this one time I saw Gordie Johnson make his guitar say, “Fuck you, motherfucker,” to some blockhead in the front row at a festival in Saskatchewan. I can’t remember what the guy was doing or why he needed to be dispatched so efficiently by a double neck Gibson, but there you go—the message was crystal clear, and totally amazing.
Johnson states that he’s made his guitar “say a lot of unsayable things” over the years. “It’s not uncommon,” he says. “My guitar doesn’t have a filter on it. It can praise and it can cuss.”
In total, Gordie Johnson the guitar player is something of a freak of nature. He commands enough awe that Gibson produced the 'SGJ' signature model SG in his honour. He’s also just a freak. Full disclosure: Johnson produced a band I was in about a decade ago, so I know that he has to wear gloves in the studio because his weirdo electrical field shorts out all the gear otherwise. He’s not like the rest of us.
Anyway, speaking of production, he’ll shortly be wrapping up work on the newest Trews and Gov’t Mule albums. And as the frontman for Big Sugar, Johnson of course established a completely unique brand in Canuck music.
“We just kinda live in our own universe,” he says, of the recently reborn outfit he put on ice in 2003 with the greatest hits package, Hit and Run. A couple of years back, he rounded up longterm members Garry Lowe (bass) and Kelly “Mr. Chill" Hoppe (horns and whiskey), added DJ Friendlyness on keys and Stephane “Bodean” Beaudin on drums, and—boom! “We only play the shit that we think is cool,” Johnson says. “And I’m glad people like it. But, you know—we’re gonna do it anyway.”
Johnson is on the road with Wide Mouth Mason when the Straight reaches him in Nelson, BC—he took a permanent position with the band last year—but it’s Big Sugar that we’re talking about. On Friday and Saturday, he’s looking to repeat last year’s sold-out two night stand at the Commodore Ballroom. The forecast is pretty good. Big Sugar fans are insanely loyal, and 2011's out-of-nowhere comeback record, Revolution Per Minute, was easily the most organic sounding thing to carry the BS imprimatur for a long time.
“When you stop caring about a whole bunch of stuff that’s not worth caring about, it’s kind of amazing,” Johnson says, referring to the band’s last incarnation, when record company people were deciding things like “how long your hair should be” and “should you be wearing those pants?”
“The freedom that gives you,” he continues, “it makes for better records, and it makes for better concerts. ‘Come and see something you can only see here, you’ll never see this anywhere else—just at Big Sugar’.”
True ‘nuff. Big Sugar 2012 is an antic five-piece that wantonly (“… and with joy,” in his words) swings from its foundational reggae-blues-rock hybrid into the weirder corners of Johnson’s musical universe. Among the artists he brings up while we talk: Robert Fripp, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, and Roland Kirk. Then Waylon Jennings, High on Fire, and Behemoth. “The Sword is another favourite,” he laughs. “I would listen to Mingus and Killing Joke in the same afternoon, and then James Brown,” he says, casting back to his teenage years in Medicine Hat. “It’s all good to me.”
When the five-piece rolls into town this time for the start of its Western tour, it’ll have a bona fide reggae legend sitting up there on stage with it. Willi Williams authored and recorded the song “Armagideon Time”, which most people know thanks to the Clash. Now he’s playing nyabinghi drums for Big Sugar, and adding some vocals whenever the spirit takes him. “He stands up and sings and we vibe out. So the shows should be very… um… vibey,” Johnson chuckles.
“He’s a brethren,” he continues. “He lives close to Garry. Those two guys grew up together. He’s kinda been in our orbit for a long time.” When Johnson approached Williams’ management, they said, “Willi would really like to open for Big Sugar in the Fall,” and Johnson replied, “Bullshit! I’m not gonna have Willi Williams open for me. I don’t care if the fans know him or not. They’re gonna know him.”
Besides getting to know Mr. Williams, there are other reasons to catch the BS caravan this weekend. Principal among them is the fact that at one point earlier in the year, there very nearly wasn’t a Gordie Johnson anymore.
“I had surgery on my hand in January for carpal tunnel syndrome,” he reveals. “It rendered me unable to play at all. I spent last winter’s tour in fucking agony, and kinda thought it was my last go-round. But some really good doctors in Calgary took a look at me, and sliced it open, and sewed it up, and now it doesn’t go numb and feel like a dead hand anymore.”
Clearly, brothers and sisters, this is cause for celebration. Furthermore, Johnson is still capable of articulating dirty words with his magic electrical fingers, right? “Upon request or if it’s necessary—yes,” he says.
Big Sugar plays at the Commodore Ballroom on Friday and Saturday (October 19-20). Check out the new single “Eliminate Ya”, here.