Big Sugar unplugs for reggae-influenced album

Big Sugar frontman Gordie Johnson has had a life-long love affair with the vinyl record.

“I still listen to vinyl almost every day,” says Johnson in an email interview. “I have an enormous library of records, strictly because I have been buying them since I was a kid.”

It should come as no surprise then that his band’s latest release – Yard Style: The Acoustical Sounds of Big Sugar (eOne Music) – got the vinyl treatment. The album, released in April, is available as a single LP, in addition to CD and digital download. The CD is fashioned to look like vinyl – black, with “grooves” on its face.

“I even DJ on occasion when I’m home in Texas,” continues the guitarist/singer. “I do an all dub night and a soul/blues/jazz night.”

Johnson, who rose to fame with his brand of blues rock, has never shied away from exploring varied musical influences and interests. Yard Style’s 13 tracks have a heavy acoustic-reggae vibe. This includes new cuts like Police Bway the Vampire and the insanely catchy Calling all the Youth, and re-worked versions of Big Sugar classics like Turn the Lights On.

“We were sitting in a room and someone hit record,” says Johnson. “They managed to catch us in our natural environment. When we play for ourselves it sounds just like this: old songs, new ones, other people’s songs. We didn’t set out to make it a reggae record; it just came out that way.”

*photo credits: Big Sugar / eOne Music Canada

*photo credits: Big Sugar / eOne Music Canada

Yard Style includes contributions from Jamaican-born musician and producer Willi Williams. Williams is perhaps best known for his 1970s hit, Armagideon Time. On Yard Style, he joins Johnson, bassist Garry Lowe, drummer Stephane “Bodean” Beaudin, one-man horn section Kelly “Mr. Chill” Hoppe and keyboardist DJ Friendlyness.

The sound of the ocean and tree frogs whistling away in the distance is woven throughout the album, adding to the laid-back ambiance.

Though he now lives in Texas, Johnson hasn’t lost touch with his Canadian roots. Born in Winnipeg and raised in southern Alberta, he’s also lived in Swift Current, Sask., Windsor, Ont. and Toronto. “Texas is home now but each of these places has been a part of the story that I tell through music,” says Johnson (who, by the way, confesses to making a wicked Texas chili).

Songs like 2001’s All Hell for a Basement reference Alberta’s natural gas fields (poet/writer Rudyard Kipling once commented that Medicine Hat has “all hell for a basement”). The album art for Big Sugar’s 2003 ‘best of’ compilation, Hit and Run, features a photo of Johnson’s 1970 Dodge Charger – complete with an Alberta license plate front and centre.

“It has Texas plates now,” says Johnson of the Charger. “Alberta and Texas both represent the kind of open road that one only finds in the west.”

Big Sugar has wrapped up a series of Canadian summer dates, and will be making its third trip to Europe this fall before hitting the road in Canada again in January, promoting Yard Style.

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