Fan favourites of the blues-rock sub-genre, Canada’s own Big Sugar returns to the island in the wake of their most transformative period in decades.
Blues rockers Big Sugar are a staple of any honest playlist that screams Canadiana, a tried, true and tested favourite of our true north strong and free, and a timeless collection of rockers that blend and defy conventions of genre.
Yet, with the band returning to St. John’s for the first time in several years this September, the makeup of Big Sugar has never looked, or felt, more different.
Life, Love, Family & Music
“It’s been the biggest change for us in quite a long time,” shared longtime frontman Gordie Johnson. “Although there have been members sort of coming in and out over the past few decades, it was on a pretty steady trajectory – we changed one member at a time. Over the past two years three guys have left and three have come in. It’s a pretty big change. It’s a more rhythmic Big Sugar but at the same time I get to play a lot more guitar, simply because there’s more space.
“At times Big Sugar bloomed into like 12 people. You had horns and backup singers and percussionists and the whole thing. This Big Sugar is really lean, in more ways than one. Last year I lost 50 pounds. It’s lean in a lot of ways. It’s the biggest change in Big Sugar in a long time, not just the personnel in the band but the whole philosophy of life, focusing on life, love, family and music. It’s way healthier then it has ever been and it really reflects in the music, especially the new music.”
As mentioned, the lineup has undergone some changes in recent years, most notably with the exits of longtime members Kelly Hoppe and DJ Friendliness, making way for the entrance of the dynamic Rey Arteaga and Alex Johnson (who just so happens to be the writing partner and wife of Gordie Johnson). The additions to the Big Sugar machine have resulted in some of the most productive creative periods in the history of the band, with a new record seemingly ready to drop at any time as a result.
“We’ve been writing furiously for the past six months and I’ve never written so much new music in such a short space of time,” Johnson says. “We’re playing half a dozen new songs every night in the show, rotating them in and out. Loving playing some older material that we never played, the Big Sugar from two years ago just didn’t play certain songs as easily. This band gravitates towards a different list of songs from our back catalogue, as well as the way we play the new stuff. It’s really invigorating for me.
‘A Worthwhile Destination’
“We wrote most of an album in a weekend. It’s just a backlog of inspiration that was waiting for the right context to be recorded,” he adds. “(Alex) brought a lot of forward motion to the band. Before it would take us two or three years to make a record. Writing was slow and there were a lot of collaborates and co-writers, where as this record has been really been the core band sitting there, writing, composing, rehearsing, playing. We got a cat named Rey Arteaga and he’s an amazing Latin percussionist. I had been playing with him for the past few years and when positions opened up in Big Sugar I thought man, that would be a gas. Let’s get a cat like that in here and see what happens, and it really goes together well.”
Of course rock fans across the island are no stranger to Big Sugar. The mainstays of 90s rock charts and festivals have appeared numerous times on the island since their inception, and it’s a place high on the priority list when it comes to plotting potential tours, says Johnson.
“We’ve always had amazing shows, not just from Big Sugar but from Grady (Johnson’s side-project) in Newfoundland over the years. The hospitality of the people. I’m really excited to show the new guys Newfoundland, because they’ve never been and they’re about to find out how important music is as a part of the culture. That’s something if you live there you take for granted. It’s kind of like Texas (where Johnson lives presently). Music is such an important part of every day living here that when other people come here they say wow it’s amazing you guys get that kind of music every day. Newfoundland is like that for me. I come here and I’m thinking can just everybody play an instrument and sing and dance? Everybody can it seems like. Old music, new music. You people just love the music and it’s a worthwhile destination for us.”
Some Hidden Gems
As for what fans can expect from the revamped Big Sugar when they return to the rock this September, Johnson teases a hybrid of new tunes, old favourites and some hidden gems.
“There’s some exciting new stuff. There’s at least a half dozen new songs coming out each night and lots of old favourites obviously and some rarities. We’ve been digging through the back catalogue and finding stuff that never got played on tour in some cases. We’re making use of all that material.”
Big Sugar perform at the Iceberg Alley Performance Tent on September 23rd as part of the Wreckhouse International Jazz and Blues Festival. Visit bigsugar.com for more information.