Damon Johnson - Black Star Riders - Uber Rock Interview Exclusive Print E-mail
Written by Eamon O'Neill   
Sunday, 22 February 2015 03:00

BSR Final

 

Guitarist Damon Johnson is in fine form. His band’s latest album ‘The Killer Instinct’ has just been released to across the board positive reviews, and they’re just about to hit the road on a co-headlining jaunt with management stablemates Europe to promote it. The Alabama native has come a long way since joining the reactivated Thin Lizzy in 2011. One of his favourite bands, he escaped Alice Cooper’s guillotine with the singer’s blessing to join the Ricky Warwick fronted six-piece featuring original members Scott Gorham and Brian Downey. With Downey reluctant to tour and outside pressures mounting, Thin Lizzy came to an end, but Black Star Riders were born and since releasing debut album ‘All Hell Breaks Loose’ in 2013, the band have never looked back. Here Damon chats about the new album, stepping into some heavy Lizzy shoes and about Ricky Warwick’s nasty habit of nicking Alice Cooper’s guitarists. Bound for glory; Eamon O’Neill.

 

Hi Damon, How are you today?

 

I’m doing very good, thank you. We’re in London today. We’ve been rehearsing out near Cambridge for the tour that’s coming up in March. It’s been pretty exciting the reaction that we’re getting to the new songs and the new album. It’s busy but its fantastic work, and we’re really pleased.

 

You’re in the thick of promoting the new Black Star Riders album ‘The Killer Instinct’. Are you excited to get it out?

 

We are indeed, and we’re really overwhelmed at the reaction that the title track has been getting at radio and on the internet. Even from some of our friends in our inner circle, they’re like “wow! You guys are really doing it”. We’ve always believed that we had a special band, and we certainly have a special story, but the reaction to the new album is much greater than we could have ever hoped for. So no question, it’s very exciting.

 

The album has been receiving some fantastic reviews.

 

There’s nothing more that I’m enjoying than speaking to people who have heard all ten tracks. It’s a pretty diverse collection of songs, even more so than the first album. I’m just really proud of the band and I’m really proud of [producer] Nick Raskulinecz. He did such a fantastic job helping us capture this new music in the studio. I think it’s a definite statement as to where this band’s head is at moving into the future, and I hope that the third album is as much as an evolution and even more diverse.

 

Would you credit the band’s evolution with Nick Raskulinecz and what he put in as a producer, or is it the band simply growing into itself?

 

That’s a great question. I truly think it’s a combination of both things, and some other things as well. It’s been so fantastic bringing Robbie Crane into the family on bass guitar. There’s some other kind of synergy going on with he and Jimmy DeGrasso [drums] as a rhythm section, and I just know everything sounded so great when we were recording. When we were tracking the guitars, Ricky would come out of the vocal booth and go, “man, I’ve never felt like I’ve sang better than I am right now”. So, when you add Nick and his contributions to that mix, everything is elevated. All of us have been part of recording sessions that can tend to be tedious and can turn into a chore, and it was never any of that; everybody was up early every day excited to go in. We just had a blast making it and I think that comes across.

 

The first Black Star Riders album was originally going to come out under the Thin Lizzy name. Without that weight of expectation the band seems much more comfortable in its own skin.

 

It is the greatest factor of why this record sounds like it does. We simply know who we are now - we weren’t sure on the first album. You have to remember that Jimmy DiGrasso, he met Ricky and Scott for the first time when we did a photo shoot together! (laughing) This was just a month before we went into the studio with [producer] Kevin Shirley to make the first album, so there was a lot of growing pains and a lot of having to be very flexible. And you know twelve days to make the record is not a lot of time. It was nice to have a little more time this time, but more specifically to be very confident in who we are as a band.

 

 

You don’t seem to have had much down time since Thin Lizzy got reactivated. Are you ever going to get some time off?

 

Oh yes, I’m looking forward to that! (laughs). We will, but you know what, we know without question that we have an incredible opportunity right now. The music press has been so great to us, and the Thin Lizzy fan base has been so incredible to us. We feel it at the shows, and we feel it when we speak to people when we’re on the road, and with our interaction on social media. We just feel that it’s a unique time, not only in our lives as a band, but in our lives individually. I could have never imagined that I could be a part of something this special after two decades in the business. We’re proud of that, and we want to protect that - we want to keep it going. So I think our big picture plan is to crank out three or four albums and have this significant body of work. We love to play live, and we’re a great live act that’s made for big stages, small stages, wherever; we just love playing.  

 

Going back to the new album and one of the tracks that immediately jumps out is ‘Charlie I Gotta Go’, which is a little more funky than some of the other material - was it an attempt to mix up the sound a little?

 

There wasn’t so much a specific attempt. Ricky played me a chord progression the guitar and he was inspired by a Nile Rogers guitar lick that was on the radio repeatedly at that time, so it definitely started at a much different place than some of the other songs. When we started putting the arrangement together Ricky started developing the lyrical idea he had. When you put a story about Charles Manson to this funky guitar lick, it builds a song that there is no comparison to. It sounds like nothing else that I’ve ever heard anywhere, and I love that you’ve picked up on kind of the jazzy funk thing. There’s definitely some of that spread out through the Thin Lizzy catalogue, typically in more of the deep cuts, the album tracks that may not have been as well known to the general public. But certainly Ricky and myself are fans of all those albums. But right from the beginning we felt like it was a good fit for Black Star Riders. I’m really proud of the job Ricky did on all the songs, but on the lyrics to ‘Charlie I Gotta Go’ in particular. It’s just fantastic.

 

You’re hitting the road with Europe and the tour starts on March 2nd. Are you looking forward to heading out on those dates?

 

No question about it man. Those guys are sweethearts, all of them. We’ve had multiple occasions where we’ve shared festival stages with them. I have been really impressed with Europe’s own evolution as a band and the last several albums that they’ve made have been fantastic. For the fans, it’s a pretty special combination of bands and you can count on it just being a great night of music. The tickets are going fast and furious and I think that that’s the purest sign right there that people can identify that it’s a great double bill. We’re certainly looking forward to it.

 

The tour begins in Dublin which is of course Phil Lynott’s hometown. Does this put any added pressure on the band?

 

I think that I would be foolish to even attempt to deny that that isn’t in our heads a little bit. There’s probably no other city on the planet that we want to present ourselves in as best as we possibly can. It’s like Ricky says [ironically] “Hey, no pressure, right?!” But you know, the rock ‘n’ roll fans in Dublin, as I mentioned earlier, have been so fantastic to us, and there’s just this real genuine buzz out there about the new album. We felt like the first album was a success in every way, particularly as the band performed live, so I think it’s going to be a pretty big, almost explosive thing, for us to roll into Dublin, Ireland and launch this tour right there.

 

Tour Poster

 

The band are no strangers to playing in Dublin. Have you had the chance to visit Phil Lynott’s grave or see the statue when you’ve visited?

 

I have indeed brother, and it was an incredible experience for me. That opportunity actually dates way back to 2006. I had met Scott Gorham for the first time the previous week. I was on the road with Alice Cooper at that time and Scott and I had met not ironically on the golf course. He and Alice and I had played a round of golf, and the very next week we went to Dublin to play a concert there. So in the afternoon I went with my friends from the band straight to Phil’s graveside and then we came down to see the statue. A pretty incredible thing happened when we were at the bar [Bruxelles, just off Grafton Street]. We went in to have a pint and raise a toast to the man, and the bar tender comes over and goes, “obviously you guys aren’t from here.” We told him who we were, that we were with Alice Cooper and that we were huge Thin Lizzy fans, and this guy picks up his cell phone and calls Philomena Lynott [Phil Lynott’s mother] and hands me the telephone! She was a complete angel. She could not have been sweeter or nicer, and she came down to the concert that night and we had a chance to meet with her and take some pictures. For me, at that point as just a huge fan, it was an amazing experience to have all of that rolled into one day. Of course there was no way that I could have predicted what was coming down the road in the next four or five years, so it’s still extraordinary. How does it happen, to love a band as a fan, and ultimately become a part of it?

 

As a fan of Thin Lizzy, what was it like to get asked to play with Scott Gorham and to join that band?

 

Well, there was no question that I was flattered and excited from the first conversation I had with Scott’s manager. But the thing that was tough for me was that I realised that to take that opportunity I was going to have to leave Alice Cooper who I had been working with for six of the last eight years. And Alice is family to me. He’s totally my big brother. My family and his have become very, very close over the years, so I wrestled with feeling like I was going to put them in a bind, to leave in the middle of the tour to go and join Lizzy. So I debated it a little bit within my own mind. But it was my wife that set me straight very quickly. She said “Damon, if you don’t take this opportunity, you’re going to regret this for the rest of your life!” (laughs) And she was right, and by the way, I had no greater supporter in joining Thin Lizzy than from Alice Cooper. He knew that they were such a tremendous influence on me and he was very excited to see me get that opportunity.

 

Alice Cooper strikes me as a real gentleman.

 

He’s just one of us brother. He’s just like you and me. He loves rock ‘n’ roll, he loves his family, he loves performing live, and he’d be the first guy to tell you he has had an extraordinary life. It’s been a real highlight of my career to spend the time with him that I have. I’ve learned so much from him and he’s definitely a valued friend to this day.

 

Ricky Warwick has formerly played with another former Alice Cooper guitarist in The Almighty, Mr. Pete Friesen.

 

We’ve had a good laugh about that. Ricky has the distinction of being the only person in history to have stolen two guitar players from Alice Cooper. But you know, and I’m sure that Pete would say the same thing, it was such an honour to be a part of Alice’s band. He has just as incredible a history of quality guitar players as other classic rock bands. I would never have been ready for Thin Lizzy had it not been for my time with Alice and the things that I learned from him and from that experience.

 

BSR 3

 

As a guitarist coming into Thin Lizzy, what were the most challenging songs to play?

 

I’d probably have to go to ‘Black Rose’. We have yet to play ‘Black Rose’ in Black Star Riders. Maybe one day we will, but that was one of the songs that I had to learn for the very first tour that I did with Thin Lizzy. Even a peripheral fan knows that that song was essentially Gary Moore’s overture. It was his landmark moment, certainly within his time in Thin Lizzy. There’s so much unique Celtic influence and folk music, it’s a whole different way of playing a melody on the guitar. It’s just a challenge because essentially you have to get your hands to work in a way that they’re just not accustomed to, so that song definitely takes some practice. I still play it as often as I can just to stay brushed up on it.

 

How did you go about learning those classic songs?

 

Those songs are just so ingrained into my DNA. They’ve been such a part of my life ever since I was fifteen years old. As I developed as a player I was self-taught and I basically learned everything by ear. So when the opportunity came to join Thin Lizzy, I was so familiar with the songs and the parts and the arrangements that it was more down to just really listening closely to the parts that I was supposed to play, and trying to have it match Scott’s vibrato and his phrasing. That stuff was important to me, so when I joined the band it was incredibly gratifying for not only Scott Gorham but for Brian Downey as well. They quickly identified that I was over prepared and just completely ready to be a part of that story. It was important to me to try to make the transition as seamless as possible. The guys had already gone through Richard Fortus and Vivian Campbell at that point in time and I’m sure that it was a drag for them to have to get another guitar player. So I felt like I made the transition as easy for them as they could have ever hoped. They can’t get rid of me now. I’m here for good!

 

Whenever it was announced that Black Star Riders had formed, it was said that Thin Lizzy would tour again at some point. Are there any plans for Thin Lizzy shows in the future or is that something that is on the back burner now?

 

I think that’s a good way to frame it. It’s a little more on the back burner now than I think it was two and a half years ago when this whole thing kicked off. It’s still something that is talked about a lot. Certainly with our management and our booking agent it comes up from time to time. But as you can tell from all the momentum that we’ve got right now with the new album, there’s certainly no plans on our part as a band to pull away from Black Star Riders and start booking Thin Lizzy dates right now. The way the year is shaping up, it’s just going to be incredibly busy year for BSR. But we always leave the door open to discussing that and I would love to do some Thin Lizzy dates at some point down the road. It’s a lot of fun for me to play those songs and be a part of that.

 

It’s recently been announced that Black Star Riders will be appearing at this year’s Download festival. What can people expect from the band at that show?

 

We’re very excited to be a part of Download and what you can expect is a band showing up ready to impress the Download crowd with every ounce of energy we have. Our first performance at Download in 2013 was literally like the third show of the band’s existence as a live entity, and it all came together rather quickly and last minute so it’s not like we had much of a chance to prepare for it because everyone was back at home at that time. So when Black Star Riders hit the stage at Download this year we’re going to be a well-oiled machine and it’s going to be a very, very special show.

 

BSR cover

 

Are you planning to play any other European festivals this year?

 

There’s definitely stuff on the books that’s coming in right now, and I can pretty much speak for all five of us; we have our heads all focused on getting the new set list put together and we just know that our business partners are hard at work on organising all that stuff. I don’t have any names of specific festivals yet, but you can bet that we’re going to be out there hard and heavy this summer.  

 

Finally, going back to Black Star Riders, and does Damon Johnson have The Killer Instinct?

 

Damon Johnson was born with the killer instinct my friend! Never doubt it. (laughs) To me that term has two big meanings. The obvious one is of somebody’s focus on doing a heavy deed. Whether it be positive or negative, you have to be decisive and go in and make it happen. But there’s also a real inspiring side to that whole concept of the killer instinct and that was where Ricky’s lyric came from. It’s based on the story of Mohammad Ali and him knowing at an early age as a kid growing up in poverty that he wanted to get beyond that. He wanted to live beyond that and whatever he did when he grew up. He was going to have the killer instinct and be the best that he could possibly be.

 

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