BLACK STAR RIDERS ‘HEAVY FIRE’ INTERVIEW ONE – with DAMON JOHNSON
The Black Star Riders was born not exactly out of the ashes of Thin Lizzy but certainly out of that great band just a few short years ago. They have already released two albums of excellent Hard Rock that showcase both the diversity of Lizzy and the power and the subtlety they were able to employ. The third album ’Heavy Fire’ is out on Nuclear Blast on 3rd February 2017 and it is better than both of its most excellent predecessors. Black Star Riders is a band in the form of their lives and The Rockpit got to talk to both main song-writers – Damon Johnson and Ricky Warwick. Let’s hear from Damon first…
Mark: Hi Damon, thank you so much for talking to The Rockpit today, how are you?
Damon: Hi Mark how are you man, I’m doing great.
Mark: A busy day for you I guess, everyone must want to talk to you today!
Damon: Yeah man but it’s a good day, I’m grateful to have a great band and a great record and people like you who want to talk about it.
Mark: Your third album ‘Heavy Fire’ is out in just a few weeks and normally I’d be asking you if you were feeling nervous about the reception it was going to receive but I’d be kidding myself there – the albums just keep getting better and better. This new one is the best yet – you must feel pretty confident everyone is going to love it!
Damon: (laughs) well that means a lot brother thank you. We are all really proud and it’s definitely an exciting time as people are really finally getting a chance to hear it (Heavy Fire) in full. We’ve already released two singles on YouTube and we’re getting social media and the website fired up, and we don’t take any of that for granted man, we can’t all be Metallica or Guns N’ Roses! (laughs) some of us kind of have to occupy the middle ground! And were OK with that, we’re just really proud and so far the reaction had been tremendous.
Mark: The chemistry between you and Ricky as far as song writing goes is amazing – scarily good on ‘Heavy Fire’ as someone who has written a lot of songs what’s it like to collaborate – what strengths does Ricky bring to the partnership?
Damon: I don’t know what it’s like for Ricky but for me it’s truly the partnership that I have wanted my entire career. When I first started writing songs I was always the guitar player that sang rather than the singer that plays guitar and what my dream had always been was that I would find my Robert Plant, find my Joe Strummer, my Steven Tyler and it just didn’t work out for me like that in the beginning. That’s why I was the singer in Brother Cane – I just couldn’t find anyone else to do it so I used to co-write with the guys in the band or outside song-writers but I really wanted to be in Led Zeppelin or The Beatles, you know have this songwriter all right within the band, and that’s what this is man. I think the experience that Ricky and I have individually as singers and song-writers has been really fortuitous for Black Star Riders, and I know Scott has said that many times in interviews. He could never have expected to have two experienced song-writers wanting to be in his band at the same time, it’s really been special.
Mark: With the album as good as it is I’m having a hard time even picking favourites, it must have been hard even deciding what to release as singes?
Damon: Yeah, it was man, that was hard and it was hard for us even to pick the running order for the album – that was the most contested thing in the studio – you know there’s five guys in the band and a dozen different opinions. Literally everyone had a different running order but I’m happy to report with time and a little perspective everyone is really pleased with what we ended up with! Not only does the sequence of the album work great everyone was also happy with the songs we ended up picking as singles.
Mark: I’m assuming that Black Star Riders pretty much have the album ready to go when they hit the studio? Are there any songs you demoed or rejected at that late stage, and didn’t make the final cut?
Damon: The way it works with us is that we usually show up in the rehearsal room pre-production with 20 songs. We had more songs this time than ever before – I think 22 songs. That’s a lot of work Mark! I mean we were happy to do it but it does make the process in the beginning a bit tedious – what are the ten songs that we are going to record for the album, then we need a couple of bonus tracks, that kind of thing. So Ricky and I have always thought that if you write ten songs then there’s always the chance that one of two of them are gonna be really good, so if you write 20 then that number is going to increase! I think this time we just benefitted from that fact that we’ve all been doing this for so long, we’ve gotten a bit better at it, and we’re more confident and more comfortable! I mean this time man, there’s a ten song record and there’s half a dozen songs that could be the focus track, so we’re really happy.
Mark: I couldn’t agree more, as I said I still can’t pick that favourite and that’s my favourite kind of album. I’m looking at the press release and I see a band well and truly in its own right – I think Scott says it best that he, and I agree it must be different for him, feels that way too, that you’ve stepped out of the shadow of Thin Lizzy. How do you feel? Do you feel that other band will always be there in the shadows for some?
Damon: You know Mark for me the connection to Thin Lizzy for me is always going to be something that I am very, very proud of and also very grateful for. If it had not been for Thin Lizzy I would never have met Scott, If not for Thin Lizzy I would have never been in a band with Ricky Warwick and we would certainly not have become the song-writing team that we are. I understand that the world is filled with Rock fans that are die-hard Thin Lizzy enthusiasts and I am one of them. That band meant so much to so many people, deeply, deeply passionate about all the components of the band: the albums, the tours, the songs, the lyrics, the guitar-work, all of that man. They were very, very special so I think it’s more important for Scott that he’s been finally able to say with confidence – “Hey I’m in a new band” and I’m not just totally shackled to my distant past, it was a long time ago he and Phil were paying music together you know. So that’s gotta be great for Scott and I think it’s gotta be great for Ricky too – you’re talking about a ‘proper’ song-writer in his own right and you know Ricky never even pretended to replace Phil, he just always looked at it like hey man I’m just standing beside the guy and trying to sing these songs and be respectful, bringing all the love and enthusiasm they deserve. So we came up with the name Black Star Riders and putting out new music and that was certainly the right thing to do spiritually. Now we’re three songs into it man and when we gout we’ve got the wind in our sails and it’s full steam ahead!
Mark: Aside from the great music, the image and the look of the band is pretty cool too, I know I bought a T-shirt! How much input do the band have into that aspect?
Damon: Thank you man, yeah you know we do talk about that stuff, we do want to have a strong image and look. You know you’re never going to make everyone happy, but we realise that really and truly the only calling card we have in the 21st Century is the album cover and the quality of the songs and that’s how people begin to forge their image of Black Star Riders because there is no MTV anymore, there is barely any Rock radio anymore so you now we just hope that we can make an impact. We have images on all our album covers that are certainly memorable, you might not love them, but it’s hard to forget them and when you see the hopefully you recognise them as Black Star Riders.
Mark: As a live band, and I’ve been lucky enough to see you three times now, once even at sea! But we’ve not seen you in Australia yet – what’s it gonna take to get you guys down here?
Damon: Well as far as the band is concerned ark it’s not going to take much, we’re ready, we would love to come back to Australia. It’s just a matter of getting the Team to work it out, we’ve got to get the agent on the phone with the promoters. You know we want to come no matter what, I mean if it’s us playing smaller rooms we’d love to do that, if we could be part of a package tour like when Lizzy came down with Kiss, we’d love to do that as well. I mean anything is possible, but just know with confidence that the band would love to come to Australia this year some time.
Mark: That would be really cool. The UK Tour sets off it March, lots of dates have been announced already and I know that there is talk of extending the tour after that. Let’s hope we get you down here! One thing I really wanted to ask you – you for me have been in the ’perfect storm’ of bands – I’m a big Alice Cooper fan, a massive Thin Lizzy fan, love the Black Star Riders and to top that you’re playing a show shortly in Fort Lauderdale as Thin Lizzy with Tom Hamilton on bass!
Damon: Yeah! Mind-blowing right!
Mark: I can just imagine being on stage – you look on side of you and its Scott Gorham and then turn the other side and it’s Tom! As a huge fan of both bands that must be amazing?
Damon: Yeah man! Well Mark you may be aware that we did five Festival dates this past Summer as Thin Lizzy with Tom on bass and Scott Travis on drums, it was just fucking brilliant man! You know if I had to name another band that informed my development in my youth almost on the level Thin Lizzy did, it would have to be Aerosmith. Certainly in my own band from the 90’s Brother Cain, Aerosmith cut a big path in our sound and our influence and you know the kinda vibe. And Tom Hamilton could not be a more kind or gracious human being, he’s just one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever met. And he just loves Thin Lizzy, it’s crazy Mark to think that all of us have been a part of so many projects, s many bands, so many albums, whatever, Tom came up to me one day and said to me “You know what Damon, I’ve been in two bands in my forty-plus years in the music business, one is Aerosmith and the other is Thin Lizzy”. (we both laugh) That’s mind-blowing when you try to wrap your head around it! That’s incredible.
Mark: My big two bands for sure. And now if that’s OK we’ll dip into The Rockpit social media, there’s a good few people there being very positive about your solo EP from last year ‘Echo’ and telling us all to check it out; so you’ve got some vocal fans of that Downunder!
Damon: That makes me very, very happy Mark, thank you.
Mark: Another asks, and I’m not sure if you get sick of this question or not? Do you think the Damn Yankees album ‘Bravo’ will ever get a release?
Damon: (laughs) I never get sick of that question! I would love for that album to get released! Do I think that it will? I don’t know. I just now that The Damn Yankees is really Ted, and Jack, and Tommy’s band and all of those guys are so busy.
Mark: I actually asked Jack on the Cruise one night what he thought.
Damon: Oh really what did he say?
Mark: He said he’d like to see it out but at the end of the day it wasn’t just his decision.
Damon: Yeah, well that’s the tough think about a genuine ‘Supergroup’ like that – you have multiple managers, you have multiple lawyers, you’ve even got multiple record labels involved. It’s complicated, but for me it was a great experience, I’m certainly proud of my contribution to it and it was certainly a lot of fun to you know sit down and work a vocal part out with Jack Blades and Tommy Shaw and then have Ted Nugent come blowing in with a killer guitar solo! (laughing) that was like all my childhood dreams come true!
Mark: It would be so cool to hear it one day, especially now that music is so much easier to get out there! Another reader asks if you can confirm that Alice Cooper led you astray and you are indeed a ‘Golf addict’?
Damon: Yeah, you know what was interesting I was already playing. My best friend had got me into golf back in the 90’s to give me a diversion on the road. Just to get off the tour bus and out of the hotel rooms and breathe some fresh air so I played but I wasn’t very good. And Alice was incredibly excited when I joined the band and asked about golf! He just laughed and said “you don’t know it but you just on the lottery! You won the golf lottery! I play every day and you’re welcome to come along any day you want.” I think over the course of the six years of touring I did with Alice, Mark, I may have skipped out on three rounds, maybe four at the most. We played hundreds! Hundreds of rounds of golf! It was glorious! Glorious!
Mark: He’s got a good swing that guy, I’ve seen him out on the local course here, he does well! There are a few questions we traditionally close with that we ask everyone and I’ve been waiting to ask you this one: ‘When did you know that music was going to be your life? Was there a defining moment or a gradual realisation?
Damon: I knew that I loved music even as a young kid, but it never occurred to me that it could be a career, I just thought that was impossible. I grew up in a really, really small farm town in rural Alabama in the South and you know I just looked at music as something I could do for fun no matter what job I had or where I went to school, I could always play music, on weekends, maybe play the clubs. I never thought it could be a career until 1987 when I got a call to join band based out of Birmingham Alabama the biggest City in the State. They had songs that were big regionally, they played all the time and I really looked up to these guys. They had seen me play in a club one night and they asked me to join the band, and then and only then did I think that “Hey this is what I want to do forever”. At that point I had seen bands live, I’d seen Van Halen, seen Thin Lizzy even, and loved it, and been blown away by it, but still man it just seemed impossible that you could play music and you know, raise a family, make a living, make a house payment. That just seemed unreal.
Mark: If you could have been a ‘fly on the wall’ for the creation of any great album just to see how the magic happened in the studio, what’s the album for you and why?
Damon: Great question, wow… There’s a lot, um, when you talk about it like that, actually seeing the creation of the album you know the answer to that might surprise you, it might be ’Bringing it all Back Home’ by Bob Dylan. Maybe ‘Abbey Road’ by The Beatles, and that’s a sad album as we all know the band was starting to disintegrate, so working on that album probably wasn’t a lot of fun? Maybe Led Zeppelin IV, ‘cos that’s kinda their watershed record – there’s a lot of diversity man – eight songs and each of them very, very different from the other. That would have been pretty special.
Mark: And finally to close the really easy one: “What is the meaning of life?”
Damon: (laughs) The meaning of life. Two words: ‘Music’ and ‘Family’ that is the meaning of life. Both of those words man there’s so many components that go into them and for me every good thing that has happened in my life is because of music or because of family so that’s it.
Mark: That’s a wonderful answer and I think it is that simple. It’s been an absolute pleasure to speak to you today Damon, thank you so much for your time.
Damon: Mark you’re a legend man, and thank you brother.
Mark: And thank you for what is going to certainly be one of my albums of the year ‘Heavy Fire’ I really can’t recommend it enough.
Damon: Hope to see you this year, bye man, talk soon.
Damon Johnson talked to Mark Rockpit January 2017
Check back for our Ricky Warwick interview coming this week!