By Keith Sharp
It would be an understatement to say that the past five years have not been kind to Big Sugar’s Gord Johnson. In that period of time, Johnson lost his musical partner and muse, Garry Lowe to cancer, (July 7th, 2018) and saw the rest of Big Sugar virtually disband, terminating a project Johnson had been working on with Lowe prior to his death, leaving the Big Sugar guitarist despondent and depressed.
But buoyed by the emotional and musical support of his wife, Alex, Johnson has bounced back, and with a new album “Eternity Now” (Universal Music) and a new lineup, he is about to push ahead with a renewed attitude.
“I went through hell to make it but I came out the other side and that is good,” commented Johnson, in Toronto to promote the new release. “It was an enormous task to undertake but we built our own studio (The Sound Shack in Austin, Texas), wrote all our own tunes (bar one), I just stopped being apologetic about doing everything myself. I surrounded myself with really good people. I got rid of anyone who didn’t have a like minded opinion of what we were doing and why we were doing it.”
The result is nine songs including a cover of Gary Wright’s `Love Is Alive’ which lyrically are all thematic in depicting Johnson’s struggles over the past five years and the positivism he has been able to generate with song titles like the title track, “Anything Is Possible”, “The Better It Gets” and “New Event Horizon”.
“The songs were written like pages in a book,” Johnson explained. “The songs appear in a political order, there’s a story arc throughout. It’s like a screenplay, the way the stories play out, we approached the whole project like that. We could have added some soul songs or pursued some different themes but it wouldn’t have worked out. I can record those later.”
One exception is Big Sugar’s cover of Gary Wright’s “Love Is Alive”, Johnson acknowledging that the song’s lyric fit his project’s overall message. “I love digging through my vinyl collection to find potential covers (he had previous success with Stevie Winwood’s “Dear Mister Fantasy”). When I played that song for other musicians, they told me they wanted to do that one and my response was, then why didn’t you.”
Another thrill for Johnson was having Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson perform on his “Eternity Now” track. “Alex has been a great mentor to me for years and years,” Johnson acknowledged. “The first rock show my dad took me to see was Rush in Detroit in 1978 and now things have come full circle. To have your hero pat you on the back and say “I love what you are doing, let’s do some stuff” is a good day to be me.”
A prime cause of Johnson’s depression was the cancer diagnosis received by bassist Garry Lowe. It had been Lowe’s distinctive reggae bass style which had been the foundation of Big Sugar’s musical trademark. A sound which had propelled previous albums; the 1996 `Hemi- Vision’ and 1998 ‘Heated’ to platinum sales status, sparking hit singles tracks like “Diggin A Hole” and “Turn The Light On”
“I used to hang around The Bamboo Club (in Toronto) and watch artists like Leroy Sibbles, The Sattalites and the Hopping Penguins. At that time, reggae was more than just a musical style, it was a culture. I used to shop at a Jamaican food store, get my haircut by a Jamaican barber.”
Assisted by vocalist Molly Johnson who had utilized Johnson, bassist Terry Watkins and drummer Al Cross in her jazz support band (and who had all played together in The Bourbon Tabernacle Choir) she helped form Big Sugar in 1988 and helped to organize their debut recording for Hypnotic Records in 1991 before she departed to join The Infidels.
The inclusion of tenor saxophonist/harmonica player Kelly Hoppe introduced a more R&B edge but it wasn’t until Johnson discovered Lowe and convinced him to join Big Sugar that the band’s distinctive reggae/rock sound took shape. “His bass sound became how I envisioned Big Sugar’s bass sound, a blend of blues-rock anchored by his reggae groove,” said Johnson who had seen Lowe perform with many touring reggae artists as well as perform with his own group “Culture Shock”.
Lowe joined Big Sugar in 1994 and helped shape the band’s second album “Five Hundred Pounds” and their subsequent hit albums “Hemi-Vision” and “Heated”. Big Sugar’s live act, which occasionally incorporated a large number of performers, allowed the band to tour constantly through the 1990’s opening for The Rolling Stones at the Air Canada Centre in 1999 and even appearing at the 1999 Woodstock anniversary.
Never “the flavour of the month”, Big Sugar still created a loyal following into the new millennium but things started to go sour when Lowe received his tragic diagnosis. “We had a year and a half of knowing about Garry’s condition,” allowed Johnson. “So we really made every opportunity to bring him down to Texas, keep him warm and let him focus on creating music. We wrote a bunch of songs together, tried to make a record together but kinda got screwed over by some of the other band members but that did not bring him down.
We were so focused on creating music, enjoying life and remembering all the wonderful things we had done together, at the end, we didn’t want to let him go. It was like, things are going so good, please don’t go now.”
Johnson admits entering a state of depression following the loss of Lowe but as he puts it, “I just got out of bed and said to myself, today is the day, I take control of the situation.”
Supported by his wife Alex, now a member of the group, who sings back-up vocals and plays percussion, Johnson has also recruited congas player Rey Arteaga, drummer Richard Brown and bassist Ben Richardson and says the release of “Eternity Now” marks a new stage in the band’s evolution.
The loss of Lowe is noticeable by the lack of a strong reggae feel to the new album’s production but Johnson claims he recorded hundreds of hours of Lowe’s bass riffs and will be utilizing these recordings when he launches a new Big Sugar Reggae label later this year featuring some 30 odd new artists from all over the world.
Reflecting on Big Sugar’s legacy, Johnson concedes the band has maintained a consistent profile, they may have never been the big hype “but I would rather take less hype and have my career last longer.”
With a Canadian concert itinerary set to kick off this Spring, Johnson is itching to get back on the stage and perform Big Sugar’s new material and put his previous depression behind him. “A lot of people let me down, but I also let a lot of people down. But then there’s that moment of clarity and it all comes down to getting a leg up and feeling positive about yourself.”