INTERVIEW: DAMON JOHNSON, BLACK STAR RIDERS – January 2017
By Shane Pinnegar
Damon Johnson may not be a household name, but he brings a richly varied career to his post as founding guitarist and co-songwriter of Black Star Riders, the band formed from the ashes of Thin Lizzy’s latter-day incarnation. With third album Heavy Fire out now, SHANE PINNEGAR called Johnson at home in Alabama and discovered a genuine, friendly, down to earth soul.
Johnson’s CV reads like a journeyman guitarist’s dream: releasing three albums with Brother Cane in the ‘90s, he went on to record with Sammy Hagar, Faith Hill, Damn Yankees and Queensryche; wrote songs for Santana and Stevie Nicks; and toured with John Waite. A couple of solo releases followed, which led to stints in country rock band Whiskey Falls and Alice Cooper’s band, before being headhunted for the reincarnated Thin Lizzy – which brings us pretty much up to date.
Johnson says the appeal was all about playing the late Phil Lynott’s amazing songs, but it’s as much playing alongside the legendary Scott Gorham that kept him with the band.
“Do I look sideways some nights and think, ‘damn, that’s Scott f-ing Gorham!’? Absolutely, no question about it!” he confesses. “I don’t know why. I would like to think it’s a combination of the fact that I still love that music so much, and the fact that Scott is still as inspiring to me now as he was when I was a young musician, learning to play and studying those songs. There’s something about Scott that is very timeless Shane – you know, he may be the elder statesman, certainly in our band, and even kind of in rock in general, but there’s something timeless [about him]. That guy’s got loads of swagger, he’s very enthusiastic, [he has] a lot of passion, a lot of excitement for music, for guitar, for great songs. That is inspiring, man – what greater role model could any of us ask for?
“You know, as we move into our middle age, or into the next chapter of our lives as musicians, he’s just a great partner to have in this thing. We did a handful of Thin Lizzy dates this year – four or five festival dates – and, man, it was so much fun. We had the best time, [it was] great to play all those songs again, great to see the audience reaction, and you know we all had a laugh, man. Onstage, offstage, it was a lot of fun. And Scott is… he’s the nucleus of all that. He brings it all together.”
Johnson’s career is so full of such diverse twists and turns and an ability, seemingly, to write and play in any style and mood he damn-well pleases, so it’s no surprise to hear he had a very eclectic musical upbringing.
“I really did. My parents listened to all kinds of music. I was exposed to every genre – rock, pop, country, jazz, classical, you know, big band, Broadway musicals, whatever man, I heard it all,” Johnson laughs. “As long as it was a lyric or a melody that caught my attention, I never really started defining music into genres until I became a teenager. You know, all my school friends started discovering rock and roll bands together, so I could have never predicted that that type of musical environment would be such a great tool for me later on.
“I mean, I never even thought that I could make a living playing music until I was in my late teens, early twenties. Once I started playing in bands, you had to cover a fairly wide array of different musical styles. So I was lucky, man, I was really lucky, and I played with some great musicians. I played with some older musicians that would turn me on to songs and bands and albums and artists that I certainly would not have found on my own. I’m really very grateful for that.”
As mentioned, Heavy Fire is Black Star Rider’s third record, and it sees the muscular outfit defining a unique identity out of the shadow of their former incarnation as Thin Lizzy.
The dynamics between Johnson and Gorham, and singer/guitarist Ricky Warwick gel so well they could have been playing together their whole lives. Off-stage the band – especially Johnson and Warwick – are close friends, and surely they couldn’t have created that musical soul otherwise?
“That’s a great question, and I don’t believe that we could,” says the guitarist. “I think that some of that bond, certainly a lot of that respect that we have, absolutely makes itself apparent in the songs, in the performance within the sound. You know Ricky and I both have so much respect for Scott, his entire legacy, and you know it was not lost on us the magnitude of the opportunity that he was giving us – 1) to join Thin Lizzy in the first place, and 2) to want to invest his time and efforts in, essentially, a brand new band. So, it really says a lot about Scott, that he would really be the catalyst to have this whole thing happen at all. So, we’re grateful to him and we definitely have a great relationship.”
We want our bands to be a gang, to be a team, but so often you read about some bands – without naming names – who hate each other’s guts, and travel in different buses and avoid each other at all costs apart from stage time. It’s great to see a band that do truly get along.
“Well thank you, we’re proud of that,” Johnson says warmly. “I want to say that our experience collectively, from being a part of so many different bands and so many different records, it really pays off in that regard. I think, speak[ing] for myself, if it was going to be a labour and it was going to be a lot of ego problems and attitude problems, it’s like, what’s the point, why even do it? It just makes it so hard. There’s so many challenges that you have to deal with anyway that have nothing to do with the personalities or the music, so you know if those components get difficult as well, wow… it’s like, ‘come on, man.’ I would just sooner do something else. I would just go play gigs on my acoustic guitar, you know, I’ll find something else to do. It’s a real gift that we get along so great – you know, we enjoy each other’s company, we go to dinners together, we sit up on the bus and have a laugh, so it’s great man. We’re very fortunate.”
Heavy Fire – like its predecessor The Killer Instinct, and Johnson’s solo EP of last year, Echo – was produced by Nick Raskulinecz, a veteran of albums by bands as eclectic as Foo Fighters, Korn, Evanescence, Alice In Chains, Rush, Ghost, Danko Jones, Velvet Revolver, Apocalyptica, and many more. Johnson puts Raskulinecz’s importance down to something more ethereal than technical.
“Nick Raskulinecz brings such giant amounts of enthusiasm and passion, he loves rock music – [he] loves hard rock music!” he enthuses. “It was kind of simple with Black Star Riders, the first time he knew what kind of band we were and the songs that he had. When he helped me on my solo EP, I’ve been a part of so many different styles of music and different types of bands, that I just came in with the naked arrangements of the songs, and his whole thing to me was like ‘hey Damon, we’re gonna have a blast and we’re gonna make a great recording for you. My one rule, it has to rock – I don’t care if it’s slow, I don’t care if it’s old, new, modern, retro, whatever… it [just] has to rock.’ And that’s what’s gonna be on that guy’s tombstone when he passes away! Nick Raskulinecz is absolutely the king of rock, so we love him man, he’s the sixth member of the band and a great friend, and a definitely important component of the sound of Black Star Riders for sure.”
The Black Star Riders crew assembled in Nashville, Tennessee to record Heavy Fire. Being close to home, that must have made it easier on Johnson’s family life.
“Yeah, [the constant travelling] is really the toughest part of the whole experience,” Johnson explains, “and all of us are very fortunate that we’ve been with our partners and wives and significant others for quite some time, and our kids have all been raised in music and around music, and they really don’t know any other way. So it’s [of] extra benefit for us as songwriters and artists that we have such great support at home.
“Again, it would tough if you went on the road, and then you would constantly be having to be on the phone with problems at home. ‘Cos I’ve seen that, you know, I’ve been in situations with other musicians, and it makes it really hard. So it was nice to make the album in Nashville, not very far from where I live – I’m grateful to all the guys in the band that they were open to that idea. I think they enjoyed it, they know that we have a great team here in Nashville with Nick as producer.”
Conversation turns to the album title ‘Heavy Fire’, and Johnson tackles the challenge of explaining the meaning behind it.
“’Heavy Fire’, at first glance, I’m sure anybody could think of heavy music, heavy guitars, heavy lyrics, but the more we got into it and the more Ricky and I talked about it, you know, ‘Heavy Fire’ is also synonymous with the times that we live in right now. There’s a lot of uncertainty, there’s definitely a lot of uncertainty in America right now, and even though Ricky is from Belfast, Northern Ireland, he has lived here in America for well over 10 years. I know there’s a lot in the lyrics that are reflections of the times, and some of the things that are going on around us, I just felt like it was a brilliant title.
“The title track itself just worked out to be the perfect start, it really set the tone. It definitely has this kind of – to me, anyway – it feels almost like a helicopter battalion in WWII setting out on their mission. You know – the whole air raid siren that happens in the middle of the song, it’s just all brilliant, man, [and] very reflective of the uncertainty that’s happening right now. [I’m] really happy with that title, man – you know, it’s certainly a phrase that we’re proud to name the tour, name the album, [and] use that as kind of the footprint for what we’re going to do this year.”
If we’re going to talk about writers of ‘heavy lyrics’ then born storyteller Ricky Warwick is a fine man to start with. From his time fronting biker metal cult legends The Almighty, through several solo albums and on to Black Star Riders, his lyrics never fail to be intelligent, insightful, and often on-point with serious social, economic and political issues. Heavy Fire includes a song addressing the gun crisis in America, and another inspired by a conversation with a Vietnam Vet. Johnson is non-committal about whether having songs with political subjects makes Black Star Riders a political band.
“You know, I don’t think we really think about that too much, I just know that if you look back to Phil Lynott, if you look back to the other artists that we’re very influenced by – be it Dylan, be it Joe Strummer, be it Johnny Cash, Van Morrison – you know all those guys, man, all they did was write their truth. I don’t know that we necessarily are asking to be seen as a political band, but we certainly want to be seen as a band that talks about life, and talks about truth, and what’s really going on.
“There’s a lot of debate here in America related to politics, and the line is very deeply drawn, and people are on opposite sides of so many issues, but we can all agree about a lot of things, and that’s what I fear is getting lost in all of this fighting and rhetoric and unrest. At the end of the day, we all want to feel secure, we all want to take care of our families, we all want to make a living, and it’s nice to think it would be easy enough to respect each other, and be open to another person’s opinion. Unfortunately, that is not the case, so, we’ll see, man. It’s gonna an incredible next several years, it’s going to be very interesting to see how things transpire…”
Heavy Fire is, without doubt, an early pitch for one of the albums of the year – a sentiment echoed by many. Johnson is humbled by all the attention.
“We are definitely not taking this reaction for granted,” he insists. “The feedback has been super positive, and we’re very proud of it, man. We worked very hard, we had a great time, and you know, we’re just excited – we feel like it’s a really great next chapter of Black Star Riders.”
A chapter, in fact, that should put the final nail in the coffin of the notion that Black Star Riders are a band in the shadow of Thin Lizzy. There are some people, though, will probably never get over the bands origin story.
“I’m sure that there are, and that’s ok, you know,” Johnson says graciously. “We’re fine with that, that’s okay. You know the great thing about Black Star Riders is that it’s new, it’s different, it’s new music. We never said that we wanted to beat Thin Lizzy – we are definitely fine with celebrating that legacy, ‘cos why shouldn’t we? It is such a great legacy. Scott was Phil Lynott’s best friend [and] right hand man for 10 of the 13 studio albums they made.
“So, I understand, Thin Lizzy is so important to so many people, and they love that band so much that I think sometimes they’re very quick to get overly defensive, or overly critical. And again, that’s ok, we don’t get upset with that, we don’t get offended by that. We simply look at it like, ‘hey, this is what we’re doing. As we move forward, this is what we’re committed to doing. If you want to come and be a part of it, come on, we’d love to have you. We’re having a great time, we’re making some great music. If you want to just hang onto the past and hang on to those old records, that’s great too, ‘cos we celebrate that as well.’ So you know, we feel like there’s something there for everybody, and the people that want to just sit behind their computer keyboard and take shots and be negative… who cares man? None of that stuff fazes us at all.”
Last but not least – it’s been four long years since the band were in Australia supporting KISS and Motley Crue – and that was as Thin Lizzy. When will we see Black Star Riders do a proper tour of the country under their own steam?
“It’s time, my friend. The time has absolutely come, and we so deeply want to bring the band down there,” he insists. “Honestly, it doesn’t matter to us if it’s headlining small rooms. If we could come down on another package like we did in 2013, that would be great as well. I just believe that Heavy Fire is absolutely the album that could be the real catalyst to make these things happen.
“You know, we’re ready, man, there’s so many great music fans in Australia. Anytime any of us have been down there it’s always been a positive experience, and memorable. I hope this is the year, man, I hope it happens.”
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