Black Star Riders' Damon Johnson
By Jay Oakley
Hey Damon, it's a pleasure to sit with you. When the interview was offered I was very excited. I love Thin Lizzy and I love what you're doing with Black Star Riders.
That means a lot. It really does.
I have to tell you a funny story. My new manager at my day job is from Ireland and he and I are often talking music and I asked him if he was a Thin Lizzy fan and he said that he was. We were talking about Lizzy and Black Star Riders and I was showing him a clip from a recent festival, he liked it and liked Ricky's (Warwick) voice. The next day is when I was offered the interview with you.
That's flattering, especially coming from someone from Ireland. I don't have to tell you, Thin Lizzy is held in such regard, really in countries around the world but without a doubt, in Ireland, where Phil (Lynott) was from, where the original band was from and, for us, we just feel like we owe a debt of gratitude to them now more then ever because we would have never gotten a chance to even attempt something like Black Star Riders had it not been for that legacy, those songs and most importantly those fans. When we decided to put out new music under a different name you could feel this collective sigh of relief from the fan base. They were like, "OK, we can get behind this. Had you done the sacrilegious thing and called it Thin Lizzy we would have had a real problem." [Laughs]
I had read something interesting once that you had said and I wanted to ask you to sort of confirm it. Is it true that when you were deciding on new names for Lizzy before going with Black Star Riders that Scott (Gorham) also wanted the name not to be a Thin Lizzy reference?
Yeah, he was pretty adamant about that and we instantly agreed and supported that. To me, it just makes a lot of sense. From a lot of angles, if you think about it, that would have been a cheap shot, that would have been an easy shot to take and in this 21st century world of tribute bands and cover bands, more power to all of them because this isn't a slam at them in any way because I made my living, in the beginning, playing covers so I certainly appreciate that but there was just plenty of that out there. With the name, we wanted to distance ourselves with the decision and the direction we were going to take musically. It's so funny because I think people sometimes think it's what we want to hear when we play. But, when we release a new album or a new song, I think there are people that go, "Oh wow! Yeah, I love the song this sounds just like "Dancing In The Moonlight" or this sounds just like "The Boys Are Back In Town!"" [Laughs] We don't ever attempt to either try and make it sound like Thin Lizzy or run away from any Lizzy-isms that might pop up, if it's the harmony guitar or if it's the phrasing in the vocals because we combine all of that influence very honestly and very legitimately AND we just happen to have a legend (Scott Gorham) as one of the guitar players in the band and happened to be in Thin Lizzy literally in their peak period, in their heyday. It's an amazing story, it really is. All the things that have happened to us in the past that we've taken and, to me, more then anything, the fun of what we've accomplished musically. It's a great, great story and we're very, very proud of it.
Absolutely. It's just like you were saying earlier with tributes because especially with long running bands where keeping original members and original lineups is just difficult. Priorities come up, there's family, there's this, heaven forbid there's deaths but, unfortunately, that happens at times so I definitely understand and can appreciate how there was, sort of, the "elephant in the room" when it came to recording what, at the time, would have been under Thin Lizzy. That being said, you all decided that it's just not right, that's not something we want to do but we want to record so what do we do about it?
That's a very astute observation you just made there. I don't think you can fully measure how correct you are with what you just said.
Oh, thank you.
Particularly about the challenges. We're not youngsters in our 20s that have no roots, that have nothing holding them down, they don't have any responsibilities beyond showing up on time for the gig, hopefully making great music and being respectful to your fans. Most of us, in our 20s, that all we had to worry about. You move the clock ahead a decade or two, wow, everyone's life is different so those decisions as you just said, they take on a much greater currency. Particularly, to step away from an established brand where you can book dates, you can get work no problem. It's easy to book Thin Lizzy. [Laughs] Not so easy to book Black Star Riders and, listen, we've done a lot, we've accomplished a great deal, we've absolutely accomplished more then I thought we would, honestly Jay, in total disclosure. It's still very hard, it's still very, very hard. The platforms to educate the listening public about a band like Black Star Riders are limited beyond description compared to what it was ten years ago, twenty years ago. Rock and roll and guitars and amps and riffs and anthems, they held a greater priority, I think, in the general public then what it does now. Even living in the States, Rock radio is all but, kind of, dried up but it doesn't take away the fact that we're committed to what we're doing, we're excited about it, we're proud of it and it speaks to our work ethic. There's a bunch of blue-collar guys in this band that aren't afraid to just roll up their sleeves, pick up a shovel and start digging, do the work and see what we can make happen.
If you don't mind because it's the most recent Black Star Rider news and for anyone who isn't super aware of it but you drummer Jimmy's (DeGrasso) time has passed on the band and he's decided to move on. It seemed very mutual and safe but has that affected any shows or did it happen at a time that worked for the band?
No, no problem. We love Jimmy, the timing of this has been just right for an event like that. We're not happy that he's gone because we love Jimmy. Jimmy's a world-class musician and one of my great friends, we've been mates for a long, long time. But, when we were talking about it and having conference calls and group discussions and looking at the calendar, without a doubt, this was a reasonable time to do it because it's given us an opportunity to not have to just panic and go out and try to get a replacement. We're taking our time and we wish him the best. I just spoke to Jimmy last weekend and we're going to be friends forever and, kind of, like the statement said, "We wish him the best and we want great things for him." Jay, it ties into what you and I were discussing previously, these are big decisions, to be in a travelling rock and roll band, when you've got wives and kids and families and obligations and there are other things in all of our lives besides just music. We didn't take any of that lightly when he first came to us and said, "Hey man, I've been thinking..." So, we try to always handle those with as much care as possible. It's not always easy and this certainly isn't because, again, Jimmy is a monster talent, a monumental talent. So, gonna miss playing with him for sure.
Without you having to disclose anything that you either can't or don't want to, do you have any promising candidates, so far, for the new drumming position?
We've got some, we definitely do. We're going to be getting together with several people over the course of the next couple of weeks. Again, the timing of this is OK so, we have a little bit of the luxury of some time. It's not the simplest of tasks because Robbie (Crane) and Ricky live on the West Coast, I'm here in Nashville and Scott's all the way across the pond in London so, you can bet there's going to be some FaceTime video and all kinds of inclusion of modern technology to help us pull this off. [Laughs] But, so far so good and I think we're going to be alright.
Now, the most recent piece of musical news is Heavy Fire, the new record is out. It's been out for a little while now so how has it been? How has the reception been and what are you getting back from the fans?
The reception has been, kind of, mind-blowing. Jay, without a doubt, in Europe, in our stronghold, we knew we had a solid fan base, we knew people were paying attention and we knew that we were on the radar of the rock community, in general, in Europe. But, they absolutely have genuinely flattered us with the reaction to Heavy Fire and it makes you think. It's already got us thinking like, "Wow! We've really made it hard for ourselves for the fourth album." [Laughs] and you couldn't ask for better reviews. We just did four weeks in the UK and playing bigger venues, proper venues and almost every show was with a full house and it's just, kind of, stunning. It's absolutely exciting, it's the kind of stuff you love to call home and tell all your friends about. Like, "Man, we just sold 2000 tickets in London!" That's a big deal for a band like ours so, without a doubt, it's been really special. I'm, maybe more then any other album I've had a part in contributing to writing and playing, I'm still very inspired by this record. I still listen to it in my car, I'll listen to it when I'm traveling and I think we crossed a lot of musical interests on this record. We covered a lot of dynamics, a lot of different tempos, Ricky knocked it out of the park, yet again, with some great lyrics and great stories. It's definitely quality work that we have delivered with Heavy Fire.
From my understanding the dominant songwriting in a partnership with you and Ricky so, over the course of three albums and as well as the time you've known him from when the band was still Thin Lizzy, how has it been getting to know and work with him?
It's been one of the great fulfillments of this whole experience for me. I was not familiar with Ricky Warwick at all until I walked into that first rehearsal that we had in San Antonio before our tour and the first run of dates we did, ironically, was in the United States which, unfortunately, has been the place we've played the least. [Laughs] It's funny when you put it back together but, of course, that was Thin Lizzy and we were doing a run of dates with Judas Priest. Yeah, straightaway with Ricky we connected with just our love of music, our respect for Thin Lizzy and, definitely, some excitement about this opportunity. We were both a little giddy, kind of, like, "Wow! We're in Thin Lizzy! Who the fuck gets to do this? This is amazing!" [Laughs] We bonded over that, for sure and it really wasn't until about six or eight months before the subject truly of maybe writing some new music came up and once it did, he and I didn't hesitate to get busy and get in a room together, see what we had, see if there was even any chemistry there much less if there was any quality song ideas and we were really pleased to figure out quickly that we had some good stuff to work with and as you said, it's really been the foundation of everything that we've done musically with Black Star Riders.
When it comes to the current record, I know this is really hard to ask this to a songwriter because songs, to a certain degree, can have that new child feeling but are there any tracks on Heavy Fire that you're really, really stoked about?
That is a tough question and I admit that my answer to that has evolved over the course of twelve, fifteen weeks because we did a lot of press even in advance of the album getting released. Right now I'm really high on "Dancing With The Wrong Girl."
Oh, that's my favorite song on the record.
Awe, thanks, man! Thank you very much, Jay. We just released a video for that track. Literally, Nuclear Blast dropped it this morning. We worked with a great, young director in London right before we came home from the London dates we did last month. The just, kind of, has everything. It's got typical great Ricky Warwick lyrics, great melody, great arrangement, there's some solid musicianship and also bitter sweet because it's, maybe, Jimmy DeGrasso's greatest studio drum performance, maybe, of his career. The drums on that are so great. Scott and I got to play some really, I feel, special guitar stuff. A lot of cool cord progressions in the verse and bridge section and, maybe, it's my favorite guitar solo of any of the Black Star Rider albums. It's just very memorable. It's the harmony guitar thing that I feel like, you can sing that melody like you could a vocal part and, to me, that was the kind of stuff that always got me excited when I was younger, certainly listening to Lizzy but even listening to bands like The Cars, that guitar player, Elliot Easton is such a kick ass guitar player and every solo he would play, you could sing it like a melody with lyrics. I'm definitely, kind of, reminded of that type of guitar expression on that song. I'm really glad you dig that one. Without a doubt, that's the one I'm high on right now.
I can definitely see why you would like that one, especially with Jimmy's playing but what I also really liked about that track is I also felt that Robbie's bass came through really strong on it too.
Yeah, Robbie delivered yet again, really stepped it up. I think that was another thing strong about the album, the five of us had been together for quite some time and we'd only been through the recording experience once before so I think that we were just really looking forward to getting back into the studio together. There wasn't as much uncertainty as there was on the previous album (The Killer Instinct) because that was our first with Robbie on the bass and he crushed it on that song, for sure.
One other song I'd love to ask you about is "Who Rides The Tiger." I love it because it's got this dirty, gritty, grimy feel to it so what can you say about that one?
Well, I can tell you that "Who Rides The Tiger" was my answer to "What's your favorite song?" for the first two months of interviews. [Laughs]
So, your batting average is pretty impressive. Yeah, "Who Rides The Tiger" in the one riff on the album that I actually sat down and, kind of, made a really minimal drum groove on this little drum machine I have on my computer because I wanted Ricky to get the idea as I was hearing it in my head. So, I sent him this little iPhone thing with a drum groove and my guitar part and I was really excited when he hit me right back and said, "Awe, dude. I love it. I think I've already got a good idea for some lyrics for this." He sent over the first draft that he had written for "Who Rides The Tiger" and I was blown away, just blown away. The song really is the perfect union of some intensity musically with some aggressive lyrics and I can see where people go, "Hey, "Who Rides The Tiger" reminds me of Ricky's old band, The Almighty." because it's definitely got that kind of spit and venom in it and, again, it's just great to have this record with all these different dynamics and almost different styles. There are bands that sound like "Who Rides The Tiger." They put out a record with ten of those and then there are bands that sound like "Dancing With The Wrong Girl" and their record has ten of those. I love that we, kind of, covered all. So many of the bands that I admired and studied back in the day, that's what they were all about. Certainly, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, they covered a lot of different dynamics so just those two songs there that we talked about are a real representative of that for us as a band. So, again Jay, I'm really glad you dig those songs. I'm really proud of both of those.
Awesome, Damon. No, thank you. One more thing about the album and maybe I'm thinking a little bit to far into this but I started forming this question while we were talking and I heard you say some other things. When it came to you guys choosing the title for the record, did Heavy Fire have anything to do with you feeling any pressure or being shot at to deliver, not only with the history of the band but maybe even the struggles with trying to get to places to play, like the States?
Actually, Heavy Fire was a title that Ricky came in with very, very early in the process and the way he explained it to me was, he just feels that we as a society in all countries around the world, we're all under heavy fire. So many things are happening with the environment, with individual governments, with just the state of the world. Everything from terrorism to economics to global warming. It's an incredible time to live on this planet and there's a lot of uncertainty. So, when he spun it like that to me I was like, "Oh, bro. That's a great concept to build the album on."
The thing that you'll find very interesting is that there was a different song that was called "Heavy Fire" and that "Heavy Fire" was much more mid-tempo and I don't want to say melancholy but it was just no where near the title track and the song that you now know as "Heavy Fire." Ironically, that original song did not make the final cut of ten that we were going to go into the studio and record. So, we made this decision of calling the album Heavy Fire but we just won't have a title track this time. That's happened plenty of times throughout rock history so we carried on with our business and I swear to God it was the eleventh hour, the final week of vocal overdubs and I'll never forget walking into the control room and our big board that we had on the wall with all the songs titles, it was like a chart so you can check off what was complete, the drums, the guitar overdubs and the title of this song that was originally called "The Salvation" had been changed "Heavy Fire." I was like, "Hey, what the fuck! What's happening? What's going on?" [Laughs] Ricky jumped out of his chair and goes, "Bro, this is going to blow your mind. Check this out. Look what I did." He sang the lyrics to me for how he had kind of borrowed from the old song and transitioned some of those lyrics into "The Salvation" which was now called "Heavy Fire." So, he gets ALL the credit for that. What an amazing delivery because I'd say the title track is easily in everybody's top three. If I went back to England right now and asked a hundred of our fans, "What are your top three songs?" They're all going to have "Heavy Fire" in there somewhere. They really love that song. So, it's cool, that's a cool story.
Out of curiosity, I know that there are copies of the record with a bonus eleventh track called "Fade." That song isn't the former "Heavy Fire" is it?
No, no, it is not. "Fade" is it's own song. Really a cool song and again, almost right to the end, "Fade" was in the ten that was going to be the standard version and last minute, very last minute we decided to flip it so that's when we put track ten which is "Letting Go Of Me" on instead and we made "Fade" the bonus track. That's one thing we, kind of, love about the state of the business now is the fans get very excited about bonus material, extra material and I can promise you one thing, if we're going to make giant strides on going forward is to have more of that. We want to try and carve out more time next album to maybe record some actual B-sides. Like, three or four songs that aren't for the standard version but songs that no ones ever heard before. We have that stuff. We had them on this record, we just didn't have enough time to go in and record it between our schedule and the producers schedule. We just ran out of time so hopefully we can do that one the fourth album because I know as a fan myself that I always love to hear that kind of stuff.
Being a few albums in now, have you guys put any thought into whether or not you'd like to put out any type of a live release? Not just a live record but also maybe a live show?
I would love to. I would love to and I know pretty much everyone in the band wants to as well. To me, from all my favorite bands, they all have at least one great live album as part of their history, part of their discography and, arguably, my favorite Thin Lizzy album is Live And Dangerous. My favorite Queen album is Live Killers, my favorite Kiss record is Alive! 1 and we can go on and on because there's so many. UFO, Frampton, Humble Pie, just timeless live records, the Allman Brothers and I still listen to that music today and quite frankly prefer those arrangements and tempos to the studio versions. I know it's that way with Live And Dangerous, for me. So, I think we're definitely primed. I think we could definitely do it. We certainly have enough material where we could add a couple tracks, maybe some brand new songs that we play live. I would love to do that, Jay, I really would. I hope that could happen much sooner rather then later.
Unfortunately, I haven't been able to see you live yet because you don't get to play the States that much like we've covered. Even with all of your own material now, being three records in, do you still dive into playing some of the Thin Lizzy songs live?
Well, I'll tell you what happened on this tour, we played one. We played one in the show, we played "The Boys Are Back In Town," we gave it a lot of thought, we even spoke to several of our fans about it and it's really that fan base that gave us the confidence to at least try going out and making the set 95% Black Star Riders and that's what we did. It was fantastic! It was fantastic, Jay. The reviews were five star across the board. The feedback was positive and I think it's really done more then anything to bolster our profile and really our image in the minds of the listeners that Black Star Riders truly is its own entity now. It's from going out and not playing any more then one Thin Lizzy song. We love that music, man. We're always gonna love it and we're always gonna play it and I said this way back on the first album, we really are going to leave it up to the fans and if they come in bulk and say, "Hey, can you give us a few more Lizzy tracks?" We have no problem with that because again, we are indebted to that legacy, those songs are incredible, we love them and you'll never have to twist our arm to get us to play that stuff, we really love it. So far, 2017 has been pretty much all Black Star Riders so we'll see how that evolves over the summer.
That's awesome, man. Taking a little break from Black Star Riders because I really wanted to talk to you about something for yourself, last year you put out Echo, your most recent solo album so I'd love for you to talk a little bit about that.
Thank you, thank you very much. I am super proud of that and I have to say, that little five song EP has accomplished even beyond my greatest expectations. It was important to me to put out some electric music as a solo artist and as a singer. I've been in a couple of side projects post-Brother Cane which was my band back in the 90s but the side projects never got much exposure. So, I, kind of, had it in the back of my head for quite some time, the schedule worked out, I had time to get it done and a lot of credit to my producer Nick Raskulinecz. We've just become great friends and he really encouraged me to go in and knock this stuff out. He did a fucking stellar job with the whole thing, he produced it, he mixed it and he's very special. Ironically, I just released my own video, new video for the EP. The opening track is called "Dead" and just last week I made it public but the people that are signed up for my newsletter had had it for a couple of weeks.
Another thing I have to ask you because he is who he is, Alice Cooper. How was it being a part of that show because Lizzy and BSR is that straight up, in-your-face rock show, where Alice is that too but there's that theatrical side.
It's like I ran off and joined the circus. It was magical and it's some of the greatest times of my life, some of my favorite memories of being in this business and I love Alice Cooper, his family, all of his band guys and I'm still really tight with all of them and my two youngest kids they grew up with Alice Cooper, he's Uncle Alice to them and he will be for the rest of their lives. What a Cadillac he's got, we can talk about Lizzy and his discography is even bigger then that. For me, as a musician, as a guitar player, I just could never have dreamed of these opportunities coming my way particularly for a guy that grew up in a really rural area in Alabama. I'm like a farm kid, I grew up out in the middle of bum-fuck Egypt, dude. Nowhere, nothing to do so, for me to grow and get a phone call to audition for Alice Cooper and that led to Thin Lizzy, granted some of the stuff I'd done prior to that prepared me for that and I was certainly a professional already when those opportunities came but I'm just really proud and grateful. So much great music in the time I spent with Alice and there was no one more supportive of me when I joined Thin Lizzy then Coop. He knew what a big fan I was and I think he knew I was starting to get that creative itch again, maybe wanting to write some of my own music, I couldn't have seen Black Star Riders coming but it came and here we are, three records in. So, it was a great experience.
Where you still playing with Alice when he got inducted into the Hall Of Fame?
I was, I was. That was right at the time of the transition, I believe.
I believe that was 2011.
Yeah, it was 2011. I remember that we all really wanted to attend but those tickets are very expensive, like crazy expensive. What I think was beautiful was they inducted the original band and they should have inducted the original band. Dennis (Dunaway) and Neal (Smith) and Michael (Bruce) so that night was about them and we couldn't have been happier for Alice. Jesus, man, talk about somebody who was way overdue and he should have been in there in year one. The influence that that guy's had and the impact he's had and he's still out there doing ninety-hundred dates a year like he's twenty-seven. The guy's the Energizer Bunny, it's insane, it's insane.
Absolutely, but when they induct Thin Lizzy, Damon, I expect you to be there.
[Laughs] I'll tell you this, man, if they put in Thin Lizzy I'll have to spring for that ten grand for tickets. I'll have to go, bro. If they won't give me tickets I'll have to go, I wouldn't want to miss that for anything. [Laughs]
That goes for Ricky too, by the way.
Oh yeah, Ricky will be there, in his tuxedo, I promise you.
Pulling it back to Black Star Riders, is there anything that you can announce or do you have any upcoming shows? What do you have going on for the rest of 2017?
Well, our summer is about to be slamming. Most of it, I think, pretty much all of it in Europe. The fruits of our labor, the time that we have spent of there is really starting to show off now and we're grateful for that, we've put in the time. We're going to be doing a lot of work in Germany, Scandinavia, last week we got confirmed for festivals in Spain, in Estonia, there's a big festival in France that we're doing and in between during the weeks leading up to the weekends we're going to be booking some of our own dates. I definitely know by the end of May, June and July we're going to be really busy over there. I still have my fingers crossed, Jay, for the United States. It would mean so much to me to bring this band, that I'm so proud of and have worked so hard in, to the States. I'll play anywhere, we'll play anywhere, it doesn't have to be a sold out arena, it doesn't have to be a sold out theater for that matter. Lets get out and get in a bus and hit the road, lets go play. So, we'll see, I certainly hope we can get some US dates soon, very soon.
Damon, thank you so much for taking the time, this was super fun. But, what matters to me and what's most important is how you felt about this and how you feel about the questions you were asked and the respect that you were given and I hope that you had a good time.
Jay, it was spectacular! I thoroughly enjoyed this, thank you for your time and talking with me but more then anything thanks for digging the music, thanks for checking it out, I'm glad it's connecting with you and if it's not for folks like you spreading the word it would make it even more of an uphill climb so thank you, sir, very much. I appreciate it.