Interview with Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar

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Gordie Johnson is up to the challenge of cutting his own hair, and cooking turnups during this COVID-19 Pandemic.  One thing he will not do, is get bogged down in a spiral of negativity, both with the world situation, or with former bandmates. 

After a pre-COVID-19 self-quarantine with his wife, he completely rebooted his latest album Eternity Now with a clean slate.  The result is 70s infused good times to bring some light to our dark days.

You can order online at Music Vaultz.  Gordie will be live performing the album on YouTube Friday May 8th, 10 PM EDT.

Montreal Rocks spoke with Gordie about his dad seeing Rush without a ticket, the legacy of Gerry, the self-quarantine experience, and gun-toting Detroit kids in the 80s.


Full Interview with Gordie Johnson (Big Sugar)

Montreal Rocks:  When I was preparing for this, I listened to Digging a Hole to get back into the groove with that first classic.  Man…it still holds up the test of time.

Gordie:  It’s a really good recording.  It was innovative for the time and it still really holds up.

MR:  Do you think you’ve ever got out of the hole?

<<laughs>>

Gordie:  I’m still digging my way out it seems.

MR:  It’s been a long journey.  I wanted to go back in time, even before all that, when you were a kid.  You talked about how Rush was the first concert you’ve ever been to.  Your dad took you…a way cooler dad than I have.  When you were going through his record collection as a kid, was it Rush or some other band that awakened this love of music?

Gordie:  No.  My dad was Dean Martin, Neil Sedaka, Perry Como…that kind of stuff.  My parents had no idea what was happening with music, especially at that time.  My dad was a 1950s guy in the 1970s.  Me and all my friends had immigrant parents who didn’t speak English.  All of a sudden, all these kids want to go to a rock concert?  What is that, even?  Long hair and hippies….no no no!  All the parents shut that down.  

We were seventh graders and it was pretty traumatic for us.  I’d been begging to go to concerts for years.  I wanted to go see Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder, Led Zeppelin, Kiss and The Stones.  Finally, when Rush came, I put my foot down.  I’m going…I don’t care.  

We went across the river to Detroit, waited in line and got tickets.  The parents said: “No no…you are not going!”  

Finally, my dad was the peace negotiator with the other dads.  He said: “G*d Dammit…what if I take them?”  <<laughs>>

He didn’t even have a ticket!  It’s all these kids running in to see an arena rock show, and my dad looks like an Air Force guy, you know.  He walks up: “I’m just taking the boys.” 

And they just let him.  What?  <<laughs>>

MR:  That’s awesome.

Gordie:  It was a different time.  

MR:  As a supplemental question:  Do you actually own a Komodo?  <<laughs>>

Gordie:  I was actually thinking of doing a Rush tribute video.  I had to go through my wife’s closet looking for a Komodo.  <<laughs>> We will see if that comes to fruition.  

Eternity Now Album by Big Sugar

MR:  Back to the present, you have a new album:  Eternity Now.  Before we dig deeper into that, what to you is eternal? <<pause>> It’s a coffee question…

Gordie:  It is a coffee question!  Haven’t gotten to the bottom of that one yet…the coffee or the question.  The meaning behind the song is the ability and willingness to let go and walk away from something.  Leaving people and things behind to an eternal past and walk towards an eternal future and making your peace with that.  

MR:  That goes along with how you described the process of redoing this album.  You mentioned it was kind of cathartic.  

Gordie:  Pretty horrible couple of years between people bailing on us, people betraying us, people getting sick and dying, people getting sick and getting well.  Life took over the recording process and it puts things into perspective:  It’s just a rock-and-roll record.  We’ll be fine.  The record will eventually come out.  

For so many decades, everyone focused on the record, the tour, the show, the record, the tour, the show, the video, the promotion…go go go.  Everything else took a backseat to that. 

Then when someone in your family gets Cancer…

There are a number of things that went on in our lives that made us go:  Okay.  How important is that, really, compared to what’s happening now in this moment?  So, we assessed everything.

It’s an amazing mental freedom when you let a bunch of things go.  All of a sudden, the creative flow was a lot easier to get into.

The album kind of wrote itself, after that.  Oh…I suddenly have thoughts about a lot of things…

MR:  It’s a big lesson.  In business, there is something called sunken costs, where you have invested so much into a project, you don’t want to let it go because you say:  I spent so much time and money!  

But pressing Delete…that moment in your head when you pressed delete…what did it trigger?  What was the feeling when you said:  No…it’s done!

Gordie:  It was real creative freedom.  There have been some calamitous events throughout our whole career.  I’ve always fallen back on the notion that:  Let’s say there is a publishing or royalties dispute, something that ties up a song and you can’t use it anymore.  I’m quite content with the knowledge that:  I can do this, they can’t.  I can just make another song!  

Working in the studio for as long as I have, it helps to get comfortable with the idea that sometimes, you lose the best take.  Your best take is not the band’s best take.  

Sometimes, there is an issue with the data, the tape or the machines.  Something happens and a performance is lost.  Some never get over that.  “That was the take…that was the best one…the take that was going to make history!”

If you are any good…anytime you plug your guitar in, should be history, right?

If you let that flow happen and don’t get so hung up on what you just did…just let it go.  Something else great will channel through you, if you are relaxed and open to it.

MR:  I definitely believe in that.  There are lots of deeper lessons there, that we can go for hours talking about how that relates to life.  

You are the first person I’m interviewing after the COVID-19 Pandemic.  Your album has a lot in common with COVID-19.  The initial making of it was a crisis with tragic loss of life and negative influences.  You self-quarantined yourself with your wife.  You refocused and rebuilt it.  How different is the DNA of the new album from what you left behind?

Gordie:  It’s not like I’ll never say never, and those songs can never come out.  Maybe someday, they will be relevant. It just seemed there was an entire record about a certain thing, that involved a certain group of people, with a common cause.  When that was no longer valid, I couldn’t conscionably stand in front of a microphone and sing the songs.  I wasn’t feeling it, you know?  

I didn’t feel like putting any more effort into something that was going to benefit people who bailed.  

Now…hold on a second…after all that, you are going to up and leave and I will continue to do the work.  You will collect half the money for no longer doing anything?  That was not the point of starting on that endeavor. 

We have always been creatively very generous with people in the band.  It has never been a democracy.  We are not a bunch of dudes who grew up listening to rock-n-roll, playing rock-n-roll in dad’s garage, then finally making it.  

It’s not a democracy where everyone has an equal say.  I’ve always paid everybody and taken care of everybody. In doing so, I’ve always provided people with a forum for their creativity.  I want people’s contribution.  It makes a richer experience for everyone, as opposed to just do what I tell you…here are the parts…learn them.  

Instead, how do you filter it through what you do?  I’ve been the benevolent dictator in that way, I suppose. 

MR:   The CEO.  Chief Experience Officer.

Gordie:  Kind of, yeah.  Staying open, involving people and making sure everyone is rewarded fairly for their contribution, unfortunately, every once in a while, comes back to bite you.  It can be a nasty business.  People hold on to control, and feel entitled to things, without the knowledge of how much money gets sunk into something.  I don’t want to go too far down that path…

The previous record became more about things like that.  It was supposed to be the rebirth, a new positive attitude and about moving forward.  Then, it just became this horrible negotiation…lawyers…stuff like that.  Nah!  

Know what I can do?  I can make another record!  You can go pay your lawyer and go fight about it all day.  I’m not.  I’m done.  You go ahead and do what you do…I can just write more songs.  

MR:  This represents the Abundance Mindset, that there are tons of creative ideas.  You are better off to keep creating than holding on to them, as if you are all greedy about these old ideas.  

Gordie:  Yeah.  There is no love loss for old ideas, even since making Eternity Now, when Garry passed away.  I was left with a heavy heart, but also with this great legacy of unreleased recorded music.  Great bass playing and rhythm tracks, songs that never became songs.  

I took it upon myself to start resurrecting some of these things, incorporating them into my creative world to keep Garry’s Music alive.  I keep Garry with me every day in the studio.  I’ve got his basses and body of recorded work here.  I feel he can still speak to me.

MR:  Garry is Eternal.

Gordie:  He was a hard dude to lose.  That’s led to an immense creative output. Dozens of dozens of songs.  I reached out to our friends in the Reggae genre and asked people to write songs on these rhythms, send me vocals and mix it.  I have this entire catalogue of Reggae records we are going to put out at some point. 

Yeah, man.  When you are open to it, even in the wake of tragedy, if you remain open, a lot of things can show up.

MR:  The first single is The Better It Gets.  It has this really great 70s vibe to it.  

Gordie:  Can’t help that.

MR:  It wasn’t what I expected, on first listen.  I have to admit, it wasn’t love at first listen.  That’s a good thing for me.  When I like something too quickly, I tend to leave it too quickly.  If something grows on me, it stays for a long time.  I listened to it again this morning and man…this is really growing on me.

I can even picture Bruce Dickenson (SNL skit with Christopher Walken) saying:  More cowbell!

It’s like going back in time, but making it so much more relevant now, bringing back simpler times.

What this Pandemic is doing is making us simplify our lives and seeing what is more important.  

Gordie:  You made an interesting observation earlier.  For us in this little compound, it really feels like the second time we are going through that self-quarantining and letting the rest of the world do what it’s doing.  We have no idea what is happening beyond our gate.  We’ve been through this already, so this suits us quite well.  I’m well equipped to survive the Pandemic.  

It’s a mental burden knowing there are people out there who are suffering.  That is a massive difference.  

Our previous quarantining was like:  I don’t care what’s happening in the rest of world.  It’s only what’s happening within our gates that matter.

We are fine here, but a person has to have that empathy and sympathy and be mindful of what people are going through, especially the health care workers.  

It is getting said over and over again:  Hey, let’s cheer on our front-line health care workers.  

Man…we have no idea.  That’s like the army, man.  They are getting shot at.  We don’t run those risks, the way they do.  

The people who do get sick and are suffering…I can’t take the position of people who are holding up signs in protest saying: “I need a haircut!”  

Are you kidding me?

Do you know who needs a haircut? <<Gordie runs his hand through his Mohawk.>> I cut my own hair.  <<laughs>>

I will go with this (pointing to his hair) to say:  I can take care of my own hair, thanks! 

None of that is worth it.  I will deal with shortages at the grocery store.  I will learn to cook turnups.  Whatever!

These are really small problems compared to what could be happening out there.  

People saying:  This is not as bad as this disease or that disease.  You don’t want to see what that’s like.  Come on man!

MR:  Not a gamble worth taking.

Gordie:  It weighs heavily on me, that the big difference. We are fine here.  I have my studio up and running.  I can create all day.  I do all the cooking.  I’m happy to have my family around me, all the time.  

It’s the mental weight of knowing that we are not alone on this planet.  There are good people out there that are getting hit.  

MR:  So, you have this new album.  Normally, you would be touring.  I know you are a chef.  It’s like you prepared this delicious meal, and then your guests can’t make it.  How do you feel about not being able to tour right now?

Gordie:  How should one feel?  There is nothing I can do about it.  You have to let it go.  I remember when…it’s only been a couple of weeks now, but it seems like eternity…the shelter in place order first came down.  I started getting panicked emails from everybody in my band and crew saying:  Hey…I know about everything that is going down, but I REALLY need to know about those May dates.  

You need to know?  Wow.  You do?  Just you?  Okay.

I just said to everybody:  Take any work you can get.  I’m not going to hold you to it, because I’m not leaving the yard.  We probably won’t play the rest of this year.  Get used to that idea.  Why fight it?  It’s not what any of us would prefer, but we are not in charge of this, man.  Gotta let it go!

I hope all my guys are OK and that people have some savings…that they budgeted well and are tucked in and able to weather the storm. 

It seems like Rock Star problems to me.  So, our shows are cancelled…yeah…that’s our income for the whole year.  But why mourn for concert season?  It will come back.  Just give it time.  It will be just as much fun, when we do it.  

MR:  I think having this pause might make it even more special. We will be in the moment more.  Maybe people won’t be behind their phones as much…actually living the moment because with streaming concerts now, you can be behind a phone and watch a concert.  It’s not the same as being there live.  

I know that creativity is not something you can contain.  You are very similar to a friend of mine, whom you actually met once.  He’s a great guitarist and he’s got perfect pitch…he can pick up any instrument and just start playing.  He also became a chef, and cooks.  You cannot keep creativity in. If it’s not music, it’s something else.  What is your specialty when you are creating a culinary masterpiece?

Gordie:  At first, my family was all…OMG…what about going to this restaurant?  You take for granted how much you travel, my wife and I especially.  In every city, we have these great culinary experiences.  We find the best coffee…on and on and on.  When that is out of the equation…you realize.  Man…we were quite used to that.  

OK…we aren’t going to get good Thai food here, so I’ll experiment with that.  I got really good at it.  Chinese. Ok…some different regional Chinese.  Italian has always been a specialty.  Even there, I’ve had to delve into my recipe cachet a little deeper, because when it’s seven nights a week, you have to come up with some moves, you know?

Red sauce and noodles is just not going to cut it. 

I was already pretty deeply into it, but this has just given me a whole new inspiration.     

I have a couple of pals, the guys in Wide Mouth Mason.  We toured together for years.  It’s almost on a daily basis, with that little trio of dudes, I share these really sexy dinner photos.  iPhone 11, soft focus, beautifully staged table at my house.  Everybody is like…<<Gordie crosses his arms>>…”Can we eat yet, or is the photoshoot done?”  

<<My wife saw Alex in an interview and commented on her perfect skin, so I shared her comments.>>

MR:  I’ve interviewed some couples that have collaborated together:  The Royal FoundryRaine Maida and Chantal  Kreviazuk.  There is a different dynamic when you are working with someone so close.  Do you feel that you are able to compartmentalize the relationship where this is the music and if you do something I’m not liking, I’m going to tell you…where it won’t affect the personal life?

Gordie:  That’s a myth.  <<laughs>> There is no way to separate Church and State.  She’s honest enough with me that she will just have out with it and say: “Ah…no.  Maybe you should do something different.”  

I’m like: “What?  How dare you?  What are you saying?”

It’s your wife…you know.  You’ve got to take it at face value.

There’s definitely been more good than bad on that end.  If I can write something that makes her stop in her tracks and go: “Wow!”  It’s got to be really good, because she’s been around since almost the beginning. She’s heard everything throughout the creative process.  She’s heard the beginnings of great things and the stuff that have stood the test of time.  Songs that are still relevant, 20 or 30 years later, she remembers what that creative process was like.  She can spot a winner.  

MR:  She’s seen you at your best, she’s seen you at your worst.  

Gordie:  She’s seen a lot of both.  

MR:  Love is Alive was the second single off the album.  Is that related to anything personal?

Gordie:  Every song on there, even if they are cover songs.  We only play cover songs that bear some connection to our experience.  That comes from my love of blues and folk music.  You can only really sell the stuff that you have a real connection to lyrically.

That’s a song that I remember from being a kid.  I loved that song when it came out on AM radio.  We used to hear that every day.  It was just one of those tunes that I’d had in the back of my mind for the longest time thinking:  Man…Big Sugar would crush this!  

Kind of like Let It Ride and Dear Mr. Fantasy.  Nobody covers or digs these ones up.  

I happened to be in Red Deer Alberta in a secondhand store, looking at hats and scarves…used clothing that someone had fancied up.  This woman had a cassette player Boom Box. She was playing Gary Wright.  

I thought: “Man…that sounds good.  I know this record…what are you listening to?”

It was Dream Weaver, Gary Wright.  She played the whole record when I was in the store.  I thought:  That’s is it, man.  That’s a sign.  We gotta cut that one.

We went to the studio and cut that pretty soon after.  Of course, after we recorded it, I had friends from Colin James to Chris Robinson call me up and say: “Ah, man…we were going to cover that!”  

I was like: “Were you?  WERE YOU?  Well…you didn’t do it.”

MR:  That’s awesome.  The album is done now.  I definitely want to get it on vinyl.  

Gordie:  The vinyl is hot.  It’s florescent blue.  Beautiful.  They matched the vinyl to the artwork.  

MR:  I saw it on Instagram, you and your wife taking it out for the first time.  The album can be purchased online from Music Vaultz.

Gordie:  Our pre-sales are really good.  That’s one good thing.  If you were already used to shopping online…if you want band merch, you have to buy it online.  

<<We then spoke about going across the bridge from Windsor to Detroit for shows in some dangerous 8 Mile type places.>>

Gordie:  I watched that, and it gave me chills.  They really nailed the feel of inner-city Detroit at night, man.  All through my teenage years and in my twenties, that was just our playground.  Across the river…that’s where we went to play and hang out, even if we were playing in Windsor, which you could a lot in that time.  70s and 80s, Windsor had an amazing scene, even when Detroit’s was dying.  When the gig was over…cross the river.  

MR:  Yeah…get outta there.  It looked pretty dangerous.  My friend told me it was pretty hairy a lot of the time.  As a young kid…you take chances and you survive.

Gordie:  We took chances, we survived.  I’ve had guns pulled on me…all kinds of hijinks over there, but it didn’t stop me from going.  I still have a soft spot for Detroit.  

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Interview: Randal Wark is a Professional Speaker and MasterMind Facilitator with a passion for live music.  You can follow him on InstagramTwitter and YouTube. His Podcast RockStar Today helps musicians quit their days jobs.

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