In following up their platinum smash, Lemon Parade, Tonic‘s Emerson Hart, Jeff Russo, and Dan Lavery wanted more than anything to keep their new material simple. “We tried really hard not to overreach on the new stuff,” says Hart. “We realised that we’re a guitar band, plain and simple. That’s how we started and we wanted to stay true to that.”
Sugar, the LA-based trio’s second studio album in three years, isn’t so much simple as simply stunning. The record fins the band exploring a spectrum of colourful guitar-rock, ultimately staying faithful to the band’s electrifying melodies and classic roots. Mixed by Andy Wallace and produced by Tonic themselves, Sugar presents the same Tonic sound that impressed audiences and record buyers everywhere in 1997 on Lemon Parade. Two tracks from that album went to #1 on the rock charts, “If you Could Only See” and “Open Up Your Eyes,” while “Casual Affair” was a top 10 rock track. According to Billboard, “If You Could Only See” was also the most played rock song in all of 1997. Today, their new rock anthem “You Wanted More” (Off the “American Pie” soundtrack), is firmly in entrenched in the Top 10.
While the sound is still all Tonic, Sugar is more varied, musically. “This record is definitely more eclectic than our last record,” says Hart. “It has a certain openness the last record never had.” Tonic‘s focus on energetic, honest-to-goodness songwriting is old-school enduring. “We made sure that every song on this new record is real,” Hart continues. “That’s why I think people respond to our music. It touches an honest chord.”
Hart and Russo formed Tonic in 1994 in Los Angeles, but it wasn’t until bassist Lavery joined the band’s tour in 1996 that the true creative vision of Tonic took shape. In the studio together during the making of Sugar, Hart, Russo, and Lavery pushed themselves to the brink of their abilities, testing themselves and their potential and polishing their rough ideas into gems of sparkling pop beauty.
Tonic also experimented with responsibilities, assuming the producer role for the first time. It was a task that challenged them beyond their expectations, yet one that they wanted in order to have full command of their musical fate. Sugar was truly a team effort for the three musicians. In fact, the title track was the first song the band worked on together. Russo and Lavery brought in some of the music and handed it over to Hartm who added his own part and lyrics. The result is a rich, meaningful rock song that serves as the album’s creative focal point. “That sound was the true start of our collaborations for this album, and that’s why we named the record Sugar,” says Hart. “It’s also a tip of the hat to the South, because they were so supportive, so it had a nice double meaning for us.”
From there, Hart and Lavery collaborated on the British sounding “Sunflower” and the Skynard-esque romp “Jump Jimmy.” “Because we all added different flavours,: says Russo, who put his writing stamp on other songs on the album (including “Knock Down Walls” and “Love A Diamond”), “it turned us into a more multi-dimensional band. It was a new beginning for us.”
In the same way crunching rockers like “You Wanted More” had caught the ears of guitar-rock fans, so do other tracks stand out – from the slightly distorted modern muscle of opener “Future Says Run” to the dark rumble of “Knock Down Walls: and the heavy grit of “Top Falls Down.” But then again, Sugar isn’t just about its omnipresent Gibson guitar noise. The trio teamed up to create great melodies on the acoustic side as well, including the poignant “Waiting for the Light,” the breezy strum of “Waltz With Me,” and the warm, heartland chime of the title track.
“We really wanted to experiment on this record with all kinds of arrangements and tones,” Russo explains. “Every time we recorded something, we’d look at it and try to see what it would sound like if we did the opposite. It was a process that we had to go through to make sure our instincts about the material were correct.”
Lavery says making their own music on their own terms was the only choice. “We put it together, we wrote and produced it,” he says. “We made sure we liked it. If everybody else loves it, great. If not, at least we do. And we can live with that.”
After The Release?
Following the release of Lemon Parade, Tonic toured for two and a half years straight, boosting album sales and earning the band thousands of fans. In 1998, they gave those fans a chance to take the live experience home with them by releasing Live And Enhanced, an EP which is available for purchase only over the internet. There’s no doubt that Sugar will receive the same road warrior treatment and the band is anxious to try out their new material. But beyond that what does the future hold for Tonic? Hart isn’t saying exactly. “I try not to look any further than I can see,” he says. “I just want to keep writing, and keep making records.”
What We Thought
Sugar was the album at the middle point of Tonic’s career. It shows with them at their most creative and polished. This is a record that combines radio friendly singles with the more straight-forward rock tracks in a wonderfully packaged record. This album is a demonstration of a band happy with where they are at, there is a confident swagger running through the songs here. This is a great doorway into Tonic’s particular brand of rock.
For fans of: Daughtry, Feeder, OneRepublic