If you’re familiar with Big Sugar, you already know that they can rock. The band shows another side of their sound with their new CD, Yardstyle. In reviewing this album, I also got the chance to speak with Big Sugar’s Gordie Johnson about how it all came together.
Yardstyle is a collection of songs old and new, all done in rhythmic, acoustic, reggae. Along with the band’s usual lineup there are a number of guests on the album, including reggae legend Willi Williams. It’s a natural fit for Big Sugar who have always relied on a reggae sound, but the style is completely different from what fans are used to. As Gordie Johnson says, “This is what we sound like when people aren’t watching. We never rehearse our songs the way they’ll sound at a show. Instead we’ll grab a banjo, a guitar, and just play. This is how we get our groove on.”
True Acoustic Sound
The album is full of great tracks, from familiar songs like Turn the Lights On, 100 Cigarettes, and Little Bit A All Right, to new songs such as Calling All Youth and Police Bway a Vampire. What ties it all together is the percussion-heavy rhythm and the background sounds of ocean waves and tree frogs. It ends up sounding like a group of friends getting together and jamming outside under the open skies.
“That’s exactly how we wanted it to sound,” says Johnson. “To me, acoustic instruments are acoustic. If your guitar plugs in, or there’s a cord coming from your drum kit, that’s not an acoustic instrument. Our sound comes from the heartbeat rhythm of a hand drum, we have a natural tendency to take a great deal of culture coming from sacred Rastafarianism. So this is ten guys, everyone’s got their dreadlocks out, and we’ve got a spiritual vibe.”
Impressive Selection of Tracks
What I really enjoyed about the album is the variety of songs covered. The new tracks, which lead off the album, are excellent. The new treatment of familiar songs is both intriguing and strangely obvious, as if this is the way they should have been done all along. One of the best tracks on Yardstyle is a cover of a track by one of Johnson’s other bands, Grady, called West Coast Hobo Boxcar Blues.
When I mentioned how much I enjoyed the Grady track, Johnson laughed. “Who knew?” he asked. “It just worked. There were so many beautiful voices. Mr. Chill was playing guitar, Friendlyness was on the snare drum – everyone just sort of fell into it. This was recorded near the end of the session and my voice was trashed. I was suffering in voice and you can hear it on the record.” To me, his trashed voice makes the song more genuine, and gives it a haunting quality.
According to Johnson, the band recorded twice as many songs as appear on the CD and then selected the best ones. This prompted me to ask if that meant a second album in this style would be forthcoming. “I can see us doing this again,” he said. “It’s not particularly labor intensive, and I think it’s far more intriguing to the listener than something overdubbed and polished. There’s no overdubbing whatsoever on this record.”
Gordie Johnson’s Other Projects
In speaking with Gordie Johnson, I couldn’t help but ask about his other projects in addition to Big Sugar. He’s an exceptionally talented musician with one of the most prolific portfolios you’ll ever see. With Big Sugar there’s a decidedly reggae groove even in their electric rock offerings. There’s also Grady, which combines country sounds with heavy, blazing guitar riffs and an almost metal sound. Johnson plays bass for the Canadian indie band Wide Mouth Mason, and his newest project, Sit Down, Servant!! offers a blues/gospel/dub sound that is truly unique. Johnson also produces for a host of great bands, and is constantly writing songs with and for his own groups as well as others.
Big Sugar is doing several live shows in support of Yardstyle (along with a bunch of electric performances – Johnson says that the acoustic shows will be specifically and clearly advertised as such so that audiences know what to expect). Sit Down, Servant!! is embarking on a European tour in support of Joe Satriani and has recorded a second album. Wide Mouth Mason is also touring. And there are rumors of a new Grady album soon.
I asked Johnson if it was ever difficult for him to switch gears between so many projects, styles, and sounds. “Not really,” he said. “Working on just one thing, it would be like if you wore the same shirt every day. I’d rather have a wardrobe.” He adds, “If I had to learn a bunch of different parts and wear different costumes, I might feel differently. But with these bands we’re all members of the same family. Everybody’s family right down to our crews, and we’re just out there doing what comes naturally.”
Win a Copy of Yardstyle by Big Sugar!
If you’re looking for the perfect CD for summer listening, Yardstyle is it. Put this record on and you’re instantly transported to warm breezes, campfires, and a laid back atmosphere. You can win a copy of this fantastic CD by entering below!
- Contest runs from April 21st through April 30th at 11:59pm EDT.
- Open to residents of the U.S. and Canada
- You must be 18 years of age or older to enter
- Entries are limited to 4 per household, one entry per item on the form.
- Winner’s names will be posted here, and winners will be contacted by email or via Facebook message. Winners will have 48 hours to respond and send their mailing address via email to the address provided. Failure to respond within this time period indicates forfeiture, and another name will be drawn.
- Prize includes one CD copy of Big Sugar’s album Yardstyle. No substitutions will be made.
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