From their humble beginnings in the early ’90s on Toronto’s famed Queen Street West strip, blues-reggae rockers Big Sugar have come full circle in many ways. Driven by a guitar-heavy sound courtesy of vocalist-guitarist Gordie Johnson, the group achieved multi-platinum success with hits including If I Had My Way, Diggin’ A Hole and Turn The Lights On prior to going their separate ways in 2003.
When Big Sugar reunited in 2010, a collective sigh of relief echoed right across Canada. Asked why the group chose to step out of the spotlight seven years earlier when they had so much momentum behind them, Johnson offers a number of logical reasons:
“We spent the better part of a decade building the Big Sugar name up to be a certain something for our fans and for us creatively,” Johnson says from somewhere along the Trans-Canada Highway in Saskatchewan. “At the time we chose to disband, the music industry was in shambles; you had people downloading music and Y2K and everybody, including concert promoters, were just freaking out.
“Yet here we were, playing dub rock n’ roll, selling out concerts and looking nothing like the current crop of hit makers at the time. We didn’t want to watch what we had built over the course of a decade dwindle down to nothing but at the same token we didn’t want to make a permanent decision based on fear or panic. It just seemed like a good time for the band to unplug; we were at the top of our game and wanted everyone to remember us for all the right reasons,” Johnson continues.
After having gone their separate ways, the members of Big Sugar moved onto other musical ventures. Johnson moved south to Texas, immersing himself in the music scene there and formed another blues-rock band, Grady. Johnson also got heavily into producing other bands including The Trews and Joel Plaskett.
It was during an appearance with The Trews onstage that Johnson began to fully appreciate exactly what Big Sugar had meant to so many people, even though the band had been out of the spotlight for a significant period of time.
“I had been sitting in with The Trews for some occasional live shows and we ended up playing some Big Sugar songs. That really gave me a taste for those songs again but it was the fan reaction to the songs that made me realize how much people adored the band,” Johnson says.
Following the runaway success of Big Sugar’s initial round of reunion shows in 2010, Johnson wasted no time in getting the band back into the studio. The results of that studio time manifested itself in the form of their first studio album in more than a decade, Revolution Per Minute. The album is in fact a rather seamless transition from their previous effort, 2001’s Brothers and Sisters Are You Ready, carrying on the group’s well established meld of rock and reggae.
Asked if it took the group awhile to work out the cobwebs before getting back into the studio, Johnson insists that things fell into place rather easily.
“It was immediately comfortable between us,” he affirms. “In fact, the flow of ideas is probably easier now than it had been in the past. I think we have a better sense of what we are … It took us stepping away from the band to make us realize how important it is to each of our lives.”
Given his commitment to so different many facets of the music business, one has to wonder just how often Johnson has the chance to simply kick back and enjoy the fruits of his labour.
“You know, we are only on this planet for a finite time and this is what I was given, to make music. And no matter how I make music, whether it is being on stage or sitting behind the mixing desk, it all amounts to helping entertain others. That’s a pretty nice thing to do, isn’t it?”
Article published in November 18, 2011 edition of the Times & Transcript