Gordie Johnson hasn't lived in Canada for nearly a decade, but his impact on the music scene here is more apparent than ever.
As the lead singer for Big Sugar, a reggae-tinged blues-rock group that made its name in the early '90s, garnering fans until disbanding in 2003, Johnson would often pluck unknown acts toiling away in obscurity and offer them a profile boost by bringing them along on tour. "My agent (would come) to me and said, 'I have a band, they really need a break. Can we get them on some Big Sugar shows?' If they were any good at all and they were good guys and I could tell they really wanted to do it, I would say, 'They can't have a show, they can have a tour,'" Johnson recalls.
Alumni of his unofficial training program run the gamut from Wide Mouth Mason to Bedouin Soundclash and The Trews, to name just a few.
Johnson has also become a sought-after producer, audio mixer and songwriter, often inviting bands out to his Texas home to work on material. "My manager showed me my songwriting catalog recently and it's like 11,000 songs," he adds.
With Big Sugar reunited and poised to tour the country in support of their new live DVD and CD, Eliminate Ya!, including a stop in Whistler at Buffalo Bills on Sunday, the Pique caught up with Johnson by phone to talk about some of his musical connections.
Sure, they might be one of the biggest (and most polarizing) rock acts around now, but there was a time Nickelback was just another band looking for a break. "I saw those guys, no hotel, driving around in a van with a trailer, not getting anything from the promoter, including money," Johnson says. "I recall a vivid memory going to the bar and saying, 'Give me a case of Corona. Just give it to me.' I walked it out the back door and put it in their van. 'Boys, you at least deserve a case of beer.' Now that sounds funny: Nickelback deserves a case of beer, at the very least, for their efforts."
When singer-songwriter Joel Plaskett (for whom Johnson has produced and mixed records) showed him Haligonian folky Al Tuck's strange, but compelling track "Eliminate Ya!" he was instantly hooked. "One listen and I just fell in love with it," Johnson says. "One day I went, 'You know what? We're done the (recording) session early today, let's just do this song.' After we heard it I thought, 'Oh God. This is so good.'" The cut became the title track of their new live disc.
When he's not busy turning his fellow musicians on to new music, Plaskett is winning them over with his own quirky indie rock. "I've always been a huge Joel fan and supporter of his endeavours, so when he wanted to produce records himself, I didn't feel let down at all. I was pleased," Johnson says. "When he's on a project producing or something he'll often call me and say, 'Oh man, what do you do in a situation like this?'" We share information like that. We worked together on Sarah Slean's last record. (Land & Sea.) He produced and I mixed some of it."
Wide Mouth Mason
The blues-rock band was one of the first that Big Sugar chose as their opening act back in the '90s. While Johnson was producing the band's recent comeback record, No Bad Days, he found himself volunteering to pull double duty as bass player. "Partway through pre-production the bass player quit, which really took the wind out of everyone's sails. I was like, 'Well, let's not let that get us down. Until you get a guy, I'll fill in,'" he says. "After one or two gigs it was like, 'No, I'm not leaving. This is too much fun.'" Immediately after wrapping up the WMM tour, he'll turn around and head across the country again with Big Sugar.
After years of working together, Johnson and the Toronto rockers have developed a system for swapping songs. "There's just a free flow of ideas," he explains. "We know each other so well that we're not afraid to say bad ideas to each other. We can sit together and I can go, 'That's terrible. Don't ever show that to anybody ever again.' Same thing with me: I can come up with a line and they'll go, 'That's horrible. I'm not going to sing that. No one should ever sing that.' We have the ability to be that honest with each other."