Published Nov 22, 2009For someone who once wore nothing but Hugo Boss suits and derided bands who took to the stage in denim and flannel, it's still surprising to see Gordie Johnson sporting a cowboy hat and leather vest as part of his everyday attire. Yet, since he put the lid on Big Sugar for good over five years ago and relocated to Texas with former Phantoms bassist Big Ben Richardson to form power trio Grady, Johnson has taken to the Lone Star State like a horse to water. The band's brand new third album, Good As Dead, confirms Johnson's commitment to the brain-melting blooze that now in hindsight Big Sugar only hinted at. And while at one time his former band could be seen virtually any night of the week somewhere in Canada, Johnson's return visits with Grady are rarer occurrences. It was therefore a treat for Exclaim! to meet Johnson in one of his old haunts in Toronto's Little Italy, and catch up on many of the changes his life has undergone since he's left.
First off, it's probably safe to say that you've put Big Sugar firmly behind you with this third Grady record. Before we talk about that, I have to admit I'm still a little confused why the first one (Y.U. So Shady?) was mostly new versions of Big Sugar songs.
We did that almost as soon as we got to Austin. We needed to make a demo and those were all the songs we knew. It was done live in the studio in pretty much a day. A radio station down there started playing tracks from it and the next thing we knew it was being released all over the world. We never really intended it to come out in Canada, but now that we've done three records, I think that yeah, people don't really expect to hear the old stuff. We still get the odd request, which we're happy to do if we can, but it doesn't happen that much anymore.
Good As Dead is being released in Canada on C12 Records, which is known for its metal roster. I know that you wanted to gear Grady's sound toward metal fans, but when did you make that decision exactly?
That stuff has always been the foundation of everything I've done. I wanted to play a double-neck Gibson because of Alex Lifeson, not Jimmy Page. But it was around the time when we were making the last Big Sugar record (2001's Brothers And Sisters, Are You Ready?) that I went through a pretty serious Black Sabbath phase. We'd listen to nothing but reggae on the road, which I'll always love too, but by then it was really time to put that aside and take things in a new direction. What people who don't really know the scene in Texas don't realize is that hard music is basically the norm when it comes to rock down there. There are bands doing that kind of stuff that have huge followings that often don't even play outside the state. Sometimes I think we're not heavy enough to play some places like San Antonio.
What I found interesting about Grady when I first heard it though, is that this still seemed like a blues band playing metal, just like Big Sugar was a blues band playing reggae.
Listen, I've always wanted to get myself as far away from the blues scene as I possibly can. No offence to guys like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Joe Bonamassa, but that's not what I've ever aspired to be. And I'll argue with anyone who thinks that the blues came from Africa. The ancestry of the blues dates back to the folk music of the British Isles, and was adapted by musicians in America. Reggae's origins are the blues too, so to be labeled a "blues" musician has never made any sense to me. As far as I'm concerned, the blues died when the last of the old artists that Fat Possum [Records] was working with passed on.
I have always felt that a lot of what you were doing with Big Sugar, especially early on, predated what bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys eventually did.
I liked that stuff a lot when I first heard it. You could tell right away that those guys were informed by a lot of different kinds of music going back to Charlie Patton and Son House, which is all that I've ever tried to get across to people too.
So, to keep getting Canadians accustomed to the new Grady approach, you've chosen a couple of interesting covers for the new album. "Whiskey River" is pretty much the national anthem of Texas, and to do a stoner rock version takes a lot of guts. Has Willie Nelson heard it?
I don't know, but if he didn't approve, I'm sure we would have heard by now. I feel very fortunate for the contact I've had with him. We got him on our last album [2007's A Cup Of Cold Poison] telling a joke, and getting to do so much work at his studio in Pedernales has been such a trip for me. But the decision of whether or not to do "Whiskey River" made me think of my dad who told me that if you're going to get into a bar fight, always go after the biggest, baddest guy first. If you can knock him out, then nobody else will mess with you. I see "Whiskey River" as the biggest song we could have gone after, so if we've knocked it out, then I think we're pretty much able to do whatever we want.
There's also your version of The Tragically Hip's "Boots Or Hearts," which is near and dear to a lot of Canadians.
That was actually [bassist] Ben [Richardson]'s idea. Honestly, I didn't know anything about the Tragically Hip's music before Ben suggested we try that song. Obviously, I knew of them and that they were an important band, but while they were making their records, we were making Big Sugar records and listening to reggae. None of what was popular at that time ever registered with me. Then Ben played me "Boots Or Hearts" and I was like, a-ha, I see what all the fuss is about now. Gord Downie's a great lyricist.
Big Sugar had almost as devoted a following as the Hip during its heyday, which I imagine still has those fans wondering why you relocated to Texas.
Well, it was really something I'd been mulling over for a long time, even back to the very start of Big Sugar. We did a gig opening for the Arc Angels [featuring the late Stevie Ray Vaughan's rhythm section], and those guys loved us. Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton told me that night that I should move down to Austin and we could get something started. But I'd just signed a record deal and got a booking agent in Canada, so that was pretty much out of the question. When I finally got the opportunity to move there, it almost felt long overdue because of that. Everyone there accepted us right away; we had a gig literally as soon as we got off the plane. I'd grown up in Windsor so adjusting to an American way of life wasn't really an issue. I'd lived for a long time in Alberta too, which is very similar to Texas in a lot of ways. The only big difference is learning Spanish. My kids speak it now without an English accent, which is a beautiful thing to me.
You've still maintained a strong presence within Canada, through producing artists like Joel Plaskett and the Trews. Do you try to bring some of that Texas attitude to their music?
No, not intentionally. I've done some work with them in Pedernales, just because there's a great atmosphere there. But I see my role as a producer, especially with someone like Joel who I think is a visionary, as being the person with the capability to turn their ideas into reality. I'm also a songwriter first and foremost too, so I try to bring that point of view to every project I work on. Sometimes I don't have to though; I did the latest Nashville Pussy album, and we'd recorded twelve tracks before I realized that Blaine [Cartwright] hadn't written any lyrics. When I told him I was ready to do vocals, he just went into another room with a big joint and came back a couple of hours later with some of the best, cleverest stuff I'd ever heard. Almost the same thing happened with Warren Haynes on the new Gov't Mule album. When you're working with guys like that who are so good and have doing it for so long, you sometimes just have to stay out of the way.
You did earn a reputation for having strong opinions about the Canadian music scene. Has that changed at all since you've left?
I've actually been really excited about a lot of the music that's been made in Canada over the past five years. All of these bands with fifteen members playing every instrument you can think of ― that to me is what music is all about, people just doing what feels right and not worrying about what's considered cool. I mean, Big Sugar started out playing jazz, which was, and still is, about the least commercial path you can take. But that's what I was into at the time, and the band naturally evolved from there based on what I felt like doing. Whether people consider Grady cool or not doesn't concern me at all. This is what I want to do, and I'm having a good time doing it.
So now that the scenario has flipped where you're playing more in the States than in Canada, does coming back here take on more of a special significance?
Yeah, it does. Big Sugar got to a point where we were doing 300 dates a year, so there's always going to be that legacy there. But I never had any expectations for Grady to just automatically pick up where that left off, nor did I want that to happen. I wanted this band to establish itself entirely independent of everything I'd done in the past, and I can honestly say that I don't have any regrets.