When Big Sugar’s original bass player Garry Lowe died of cancer last summer, it threw the future of the band in doubt.
The rock group, founded by singer and guitarist Gordie Johnson in Toronto in the late ‘80s, had been working on their newest album for two years and were nearly done when Lowe died, causing in Johnson’s words “quite a shakeup in our universe.”
Johnson said he was moved to re-evaluate his priorities, and even asked himself “Why even have Big Sugar?”
“You go, ‘OK. Rock ‘n’ roll. Which category does that go in? Food, shelter, water or snack food and TV shows? Which box should we put it in?” Johnson said. “And it took a while and a lot of self-reflection and then we went, ‘You know what? No. This really is important. And if it is that important, let’s use it to express what’s going on. We can either keep all this stuff to ourselves and pretend it never happened, or we can share it with everybody and turn it into something positive.”
Johnson then put together an entirely new lineup of musicians from scratch, bringing together some of his closest musical collaborators: His wife, co-writer and percussionist Alex Johnson, bassist Ben Richardson, drummer and multi-instrumentalist Chris Colepaugh and Afro Cuban percussionist Rey Arteaga. Johnson said it saved the band.
“We all pulled together and started over with a new record, with a new group. So it’s a very singular focus to the sound,” he said. “I think it’s made us more of a rock ‘n’ roll band again, which is also just part of our evolution. Not that we still don’t love to play reggae and stuff, we do, but the new music is a little more rock ‘n’ roll-centred.”
Although he and his wife have worked on Big Sugar for decades, Johnson said the new album Eternity Now, named after a perfume with an oxymoronic name Johnson finds amusing, is the first time they sat down creatively to work and write.
“She’s someone I’ve always bounced ideas off of and music is the family business, but this was more like we just don’t want to be apart anymore,” he said. “I’m done with just getting to the airport and flying away for a month, not seeing my kids, not seeing my wife and having just a completely separate life.”
On July 19 the new incarnation of Big Sugar performs at the Nanaimo Marine Festival’s bathtub weekend launch party at Maffeo Sutton Park. Johnson said he is impressed by the concept of converting bathtubs to water crafts and he can’t wait to see them in action.
“That is a genius move. I don’t know who thought of it, but that sounds really great,” he said, adding that he doesn’t normally perform at such novel events.
“Usually it’s just a rock ‘n’ roll show outside and that’s pretty much what our summer is – just outdoor music festivals,” he said. “So having it connected to human beings at their finest with technology, I’m really very interested to see it.”
Johnson said while the band has been performing songs from Eternity Now, he’s hoping for a September release date. And although Lowe does not appear on the album, Johnson has hours of his recordings that he’s planning to turn into a tribute for his old friend.
“I have been working meticulously to put it together into reggae songs and I’ve spent several months getting different guest vocalists to perform on these recordings…” Johnson said. “There are like 20, 25 different songs with different vocalists that we’ll start to release that most of them have Garry playing bass so I do plan to keep his legacy alive.”