Five Questions With… Big Sugar’s Gordie Johnson
The leader of the veteran Canadian blues-rock band is celebrating the 25th anniversary reissue of Hemi-Vision, the band’s first platinum album. Here he reflects upon the making of the record, his work activity during the lockdown, the response to the death of his comrade Garry Lowe, and the need to live in the here and now.
By Jason Schneider
In 1995, Big Sugar was poised to make a big move. The band’s 1993 album Five Hundred Pounds already showed the Toronto outfit progressing from a traditional blues and jazz sound towards the kind of raw, high-powered rock The White Stripes and The Black Keys would popularize a decade later. The next natural step was to harness that energy for radio.
The result was Hemi-Vision, containing the hits Diggin’ A Hole and If I Had My Way, along with 10 more tracks that solidified the unique rock-reggae fusion that would become Big Sugar’s trademark that came about largely through the presence of new bassist Garry Lowe, a longtime Toronto reggae scene veteran, best known for his work with Leroy Sibbles.
Hemi-Vision would go on to earn Big Sugar its first certified platinum record in Canada and make it one of the country’s most popular concert draws. The band, in cooperation with Universal Music, is now celebrating the 25th anniversary of Hemi-Vision by releasing a deluxe double CD and LP edition, including six previously unreleased tracks and liner notes by Rush’s Alex Lifeson and Big Sugar’s driving force, singer/guitarist Gordie Johnson.
We caught up with Johnson to get some more insights on this milestone, and you can watch the star-studded Hemi-Vision anniversary livestream concert (from Sept. 25) now on Big Sugar’s official YouTube page.
What do you recall most about making Hemi-Vision, and that time in your life?
I recall just how much strife and turmoil there was in our lives at the time. Our drummer Crash Morgan had just died on tour—on stage in the middle of a show, to be specific. As terrible as that was, it made us stop and reassess our creative priorities. I think it made us impervious to criticism or outside influence. We were going to do what we were going to do. Also, a chance encounter with Alex Lifeson turned into a flashpoint of inspiration when he gifted me with his famous white double-neck guitar. I've never looked back.
You also released the new Big Sugar album Eternity Now earlier this year, unfortunately at the start of the pandemic. How have you been adapting since then?
It has motivated me to spend more time in our studio writing and creating. I've even become a badass video editor. Our house has become a content creation factory day and night.
There have been many changes within the band since Hemi-Vision. How would you describe what Big Sugar represents for you at this moment?
Big Sugar is what it has always been: An unrestricted avenue for my musical vision. Although I have other creative endeavours and other bands—and even other musical personalities—Big Sugar is still my central identity.
It was amazing to see the outpouring of love for Garry Lowe after his passing in 2018. Were you surprised at all by the range of artists from across the musical spectrum who came out for the tribute show?
No. Our music has defied categorization for so many decades; it's not surprising to see our musical peers from every facet of the industry come and show their appreciation. And Garry was a highly influential guy!
What's your mindset looking ahead to next year and the prospect of hopefully playing live?
I'm living in the here and now. It's a mindset I highly recommend. I feel like looking at an unknown date in the future when everything "might" get back to normal is just a recipe for anxiety.