ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, NOV. 12, 1998
By Steve Newton
During a recent interview with famed local rock producer Bruce Fairbairn, I asked him if he’d heard any current albums that had blown him away, production-wise. It only took him a couple of seconds to come up with Heated, the latest CD from Toronto blues-rockers Big Sugar. That disc was helmed by the band’s guitarist-vocalist, Gordie Johnson, and when he calls from a Saskatchewan tour stop, I relay Fairbairn’s opinion. Even though he’s a little burned-out after an early-morning flight from St. John’s, Newfoundland—where he indulged in “a few sips” the night before with the party-prone members of Great Big Sea—he brightens considerably at the news.
“Oh really?” he replies, “and he was referring to our new record? Wow! I’m flattered as hell. Oh my god!”
Judging by his reaction, Johnson takes his control-room duties seriously, and isn’t about to slough off a compliment from someone of Fairbairn’s stature. His appreciation of producers is also evident in the liner notes to Heated, which include a special thanks to famed producer Eddie Kramer (Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Kiss): “King Eddie, your sound and wisdom have and will provide inspiration always. Love G.”
“I loved his work for years,” reports Johnson, “and he was very kind to me. He had dinner with me once, and he flew into Toronto to hang out with us for a weekend, just to kind of look over our shoulders and say, ‘Lads, you’re doin’ a good job.’ Which, when you get a vote of confidence like that from someone like Eddie, well… I was pretty blown away with that.”
Judging by the top-level enthusiasm for Heated’s sonic qualities, Johnson has a promising future at the recording console. He actually caught the production bug a long time ago. “Even as a kid I used to listen to records and go, ‘Wow, how do they do that?’ Like, not how do they play it—I know how they play it—but how do they make it sound like that! I was always curious to know.”
Johnson, a Gemini, fairly revels in the split-personality lifestyle of rowdy rocker/meticulous producer. “I get to put on both hats,” he says. “I get to be a guitar player who sleeps all day, rocks all night, drives too fast, smokes big cigars, and drinks a lot of Guinness. When I am recording, I’m up at 7 o’clock, I do my exercises, eat my breakfast, and I go to the studio and we work for 15 hours uninterrupted. It’s pure science. How do you change the path of an electron so that it pushes a paper speaker just right? That’s science, and if you forget that, then you’re lost.”
Johnson has produced all of Big Sugar’s albums, with the exception of its self-titled 1992 debut, which was decidedly rooted in the worlds of blues and jazz. Following the release of Big Sugar, it wasn’t long before the transition to a heavier, rock-based sound began. “Probably about 15 minutes after that album came out,” says Johnson with a laugh. “The larger the places we played, the more amplification we brought, and the better crowd response we got. It’s just more fun to play loud and get more electrified.”
The voltage meter gets cranked up to fine effect on Heated, whether on the stylin’ first single, “The Scene”; the gritty “Round and Round (For CJ)”; or the soaring cover of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s 1973 Canuck-rock classic, “Let It Ride”. “That’s just a song I remember from when I was a little kid,” notes Johnson. “I think that was the first conscious notion that I had that that was an electric guitar. When I heard it I was like, ‘Wow, that’s an electric guitar, Mom, I want to get me one of them.’ ”
Johnson is joined on the feedback-laden “Let It Ride” by guest guitarist-vocalist Warren Haynes, formerly with the Allman Brothers, whose current band, Gov’t Mule, opens for Big Sugar at the Rage on Monday and Tuesday (November 16 and 17). Haynes—chosen best slide guitarist two years running by Guitar Player magazine—leads a southern-tinged power trio that kills in concert, but Johnson isn’t concerned about being upstaged by his formidable opening act.
“It’s not exactly the Olympics of guitar-playing,” he points out, “so I don’t worry about that. And I’ve never hired opening acts that were lesser bands than us, just to make ourselves look better. If that’s what you’ve gotta do to make yourself look good, then you’re basically shagged anyway. I think there’s room on the stage for enough good music as people can stand.”
Johnson wasn’t competing for a gold medal when he recorded Heated, either, but that didn’t stop him from going all out during the lead-guitar parts. According to Big Sugar’s bio, his solos on three tunes were done in a single take—even though he broke strings at the midway point in each solo. “It just seems like haphazard things like that happen in the studio,” says Johnson, “and sometimes they make for better music. Having the limitations of five strings can be inspiring sometimes.”