» Damon Johnson - Black Star Riders
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Interview conducted December 03 2016
Interview published January 21 2017

"I can send it to his computer and I know that Scott 'Fucking' Gorham is gonna listen to some song I'm working on and tell me what he thinks. Who gets to do that?"

Guitar players Damon Johnson and Scott Gorham of American outfit Black Star Riders visited Stockholm, Sweden on December 2nd to promote the band's new record Heavy Fire [Out February 3rd] with interviews and a listening session for invited guests.

This specific day wasn't quite fitting Metal Covenant's schedule though, so some late changes had to be made and an appointment was locked in the following day instead. These guys live a long distance from each other within the US, meaning they were on separate flights home over the Atlantic Ocean and unfortunately Scott was already booked on an early morning flight and couldn't make it to the interview, but luckily Damon had no problem to make one last interview right before going back home again.

"We have not, in any way, tried to distance ourselves from Thin Lizzy."

Tobbe: You're going home right after we're finished here. So how's your trip to Europe been this time?

Damon: This has been such a fantastic week. Everyone has been… energized, you know. I hope we would never take for granted so much enthusiasm about a new album. I mean, I've talked about it several times this week that it's mind-blowing that here we are, 3 albums in 4 years. Who does that anymore? It doesn't make it special, but maybe it means that we're a glutton for punishment. Maybe we just get bored easily and we have to write more songs.

Tobbe: So you've got a new record coming out in February and out of the 3 BSR records now made I think that that's the one that is standing out the most music-wise from the other ones. So what's your opinion on what I just said about standing out the most?

Damon: You know, Tobbe. I really agree with you. You know, I've had a chance to even hear the album some this week. Sort of peripherally. Not necessarily under the headphones or in my car. It just sounds like a band in great form. A band that is as inspired or energized as they've ever been. I think the arrangements are a little shorter this time and there's no long Celtic thing this time. And that wasn't intentionally. It just worked out that way.

I mean, I specifically remember Ricky [Warwick, vocals] and I working on a couple of things that were very Irish flavored and, you know, that just didn't make it to the 10 that made the album. The best lyrics of Ricky's career so far. Several songs that came from real life experiences. Couple of songs certainly address some world issues right now. It's the kind of band I would hope to be in. A band that wouldn't just be old guys writing songs about girls and cars. You know, those days are kind of behind us. [Laughs]

Tobbe: So were there any specific things you were looking to come out with, besides what you just told me, when you were starting the songwriting process?

Damon: Really and truly the only thing that mattered the most to us was quality songs. We knew after making The Killer Instinct [2015], which I love, after that writing process, after that experience in the studio with Nick Raskulinecz [Producer]. This time I knew that without question the sonic element was gonna be completely taken care of.

So I wasn't thinking so much about guitar playing as much as just trying to contribute to some writing that would be memorable. That would make people walk away and either think about the story or tapping their foot to the tempo of the swing of the song. I believe we have the best rhythm session in rock, Jimmy DeGrasso [drums] and Robbie Crane [bass], and I think those guys really have taken their individual and collective thing as a rhythm section to a whole new plane.

I knew we were bringing in some good songs to them. I knew we were coming to them, saying "Hey! Here's some riffs." and a couple of singer/songwriter kind of things that we made more of a band thing. But we were concentrating on the songs more than anything. Nothing more than that. We weren't thinking really about the past. We weren't listening to the radio and "Oh! What's happening now. We need to try and keep up with Kanye.". You know, there was never that.

Tobbe: I talked to Robbie last year when you were here playing a gig and he said to me that he had a lot of freedom on The Killer Instinct and that you just didn't told him "Play this and this.", but more brought forth an idea to him.

Damon: Yeah. We've all been in different bands, obviously, through our career in different album experiences, and we've all had situations where we felt a little confined, or even a little anxious, like "Well, maybe I'd just…". You know, not sure of what to do. And I would hope that all the other guys feel, certainly like I feel, that there's complete freedom to express myself, songwriting-wise and playing-wise.

I know Robbie, specifically, has talked about that he had never really quite felt that way in the past. And we're talking about a guy with that much experience and such a badass player. Just good instincts as a bass player. It's been fulfilling for all of us.

Tobbe: Have you knowingly tried to catch just a little bit, like, kind of an older sound on this record than on the previous ones?

Damon: You know, if that exists… I mean, there was certainly no intent. I think that our band is always gonna have some air of familiarity. Speaking for myself, I am a shameless lover of classic rock music. If I wanna hear rock 'n' roll and get inspired to write or play something I'm gonna listen to some old records. I'm gonna put on Aerosmith - Rocks. I'm gonna put on Deep Purple - Machine Head. I'm gonna listen to Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde. You know, it's all right there.

You might be surprised that when I'm at home with my family… I have young kids and they are always playing the radio, so I actually get to hear a lot of American pop music. No guitars… [Laughs] There are no guitars in American pop, but what there are, are some great melodies, some interesting songs and, you know, I just think there's always stuff out there to kind of draw from. Because of where we've been as a band and as individuals there's always gonna be a certain fragrance that maybe reminiscing of something you've heard before. That's certainly not something we would wanna stop or work against. It kind of is what it is.

Tobbe: You have some female choirs on the album. How does that feature enhance the experience of a Black Star Riders record?

Damon: I think at the end of the day we really and truly make these records for ourselves. There's probably not an album I've listened to more in the last two years than The Killer Instinct by Black Star Riders. Like I enjoy listen to it, I feel that way now about Heavy Fire. And all of us are fans of great female singers and great female backing vocals. So many cool examples.

You know, Joe Cocker and the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, The Black Crowes, certainly Humble Pie, and a lot of times when Ricky and I are just hanging out, if we're going to the gym or if we're going for some dinner, we're pulling up songs like that. So we knew, going in "Wow! Wouldn't it be cool if we can come up with a couple of songs that we can get some female voices on?". So way back in January, when we had our first writing session, he and I, we kind of developed When The Night Comes In, Testify Or Say Goodbye and Ticket To Rise and I know Ricky had it in his head already, like "Man! Those might be good.".

We didn't really know until we got to Nashville, started recording, told our producer, Nick "Hey! What do you think?" and he goes "Well, if you want them, I know the girls. I know the ones to call.". They're friends of his. He's recorded them on Mini Project. Wendy, Andrea and Gail were their names. They sing together a lot, so they got the whole kind of tenor alto soprano thing. And they killed it! They just killed it, man! There was a lot of excitement in the studio when they were there.

Tobbe: I reckon that you think that this record is just as good as the two previous ones, but to become an even more successful band at this point is luck kind of the only thing that you need right now?

Damon: You know, that's a great question. I think that there are still things that you can, I don't wanna say control, but there are things that you can certainly influence, as far as the public, and that's still, simply, quality songs and quality performances and ultimately quality treatment of your fans. We committed from the beginning that we wanted to be a band that brings its fans in. Not inaccessible. We wanted to be approachable and active on social media and hanging out before the gig or after the gig.

Tobbe: And a session here yesterday.

Damon: Oh, what a great session yesterday, man. That felt almost magical. That was a great way to end this week. To play 6 songs off the album, for an "elite" group. I mean, we certainly see it. We see it in our album sales and we see it in our ticket sales. Even with Spotify streams and YouTube streams the numbers are growing. I see new names and new faces coming to the shows and coming on to the social media.

Maybe the days are over for, you know, stratospheric rocket rise, like the things we dreamed of as kids or that we saw some of our favorite bands achieve. There are challenges about the new business, for sure, but at the end of the day, if you can sing, if you can write, if you can perform, then you can work.

Tobbe: You're on Nuclear Blast, obviously, and that's mainly a record label for metal bands and you're more a classic hard rock band, so where does BSR fit in that department?

Damon: You know, I was speaking to some of the great people from Nuclear Blast this week and one of them made a great point that indeed the overall dynamic of their label leans far more to hard metal and aggressive metal, but it could be argued that many of those bands were certainly influenced by Scott Gorham's past and they've certainly got a record or two at home that has his name on it.

If you even look at Ricky Warwick's career, in Europe specifically, The Almighty cut a wide path as well. And Jimmy DeGrasso was in Megadeth, he was in Suicidal [Tendencies] and he was in Alice Cooper. There's a lot of common ground here. But I do think as we have gotten older, and continuing to experiment and try, and writing different things, we certainly committed to writing things that we enjoy and that we feel right now. I don't listen to as much metal as I did like 30 years ago, at all.

To tell you the truth, I don't even really listen to guitar players anymore. If I'm at home listening to music it's usually some singer/songwriter. You know, I'm listening for great songs. But man, we love Nuclear Blast and we love to know that our label mates are Crobot and Slayer and, you know, Meshuggah. I think that's incredible. And there's some fucking guitars on Nuclear Blast. You can bet on that!

Tobbe: You're working with Nick again, like you just told me, and you and Ricky praised him highly when you were here two years ago, so what was it like to work with him for a second time on a BSR record?

Damon: You know, there were definitely some differences. Let me start by saying "We love that guy.". I would make every record, band or solo record, for the rest of my life, with Nick and be elated. But I think because we had the Killer Instinct experience together now there's a lot more comfortable air about it, which can be challenging. It's almost like if you're in a relationship with your life partner.

You don't hesitate maybe as much to go "Hey! I don't like that. I don't like what you just said. I don't like how that made me feel.". So there was some of that this time. Not just from Nick, but from us towards Nick. It's diligent work making a record, particularly when you've got really passionate people in every chair. Everybody cares, man. Everybody cares a lot and you're not always gonna agree on a sound and you're not always gonna agree on a song.

Nick has so many experiences on his resume of dealing with established artists. You know, legacy acts. I think it's a different level of people skills and Nick has that, man. He's great.

Tobbe: You and Ricky are still the main songwriters in the band and Scott is adding stuff here and there. So how did that work this time? Like if you have your song and Scott is coming to the song and is adding some more stuff, how does that work for you?

Damon: It totally works. I think it's gonna work for the life of this band. And it's really a simple numbers equation. Ricky and I just write more. We write a lot more. We write more than anyone I've ever been in a band with. It's almost like a daily thing. We don't even look at it as work; it's just what we do. So, Scott, Jimmy and Robbie… It means a lot to Ricky and me that we have so much of their support, but at the same time they also know that if they have a riff or if they write some title or story it's absolutely gonna get completely included, like "Let's try that! Let's see what happens!".

Case in point, Robbie Crane, the intro to Dancing With The Wrong Girl, he wrote that. The intro to Cold War Love, Robbie wrote that. There were great little pieces of music that Robbie had sent me just on his phone, so "Here's a couple of things. If it sparks something, let me know." and immediately when I heard it I was like "Oh! That's great. We can write a song around that." and Ricky goes "Let's try that as the intro to this…". It's always a puzzle. Scott obviously has a tremendous legacy as a songwriter on some, not just successful records, but some highly influential records.

So, it's hard for me to fully describe the respect and kind of protection Ricky and I both feel about him giving us that support. Really in a way giving us this opportunity. We wouldn't be here if it weren't for Scott. We would never have gotten Black Star Riders off the ground if it weren't for Scott Gorham. He could have started Black Star Riders with someone else. I could not have started Black Star Riders with someone else. [Laughs] And I got no problem with that, man. There's no confusion about that. That's just the truth that we're always very aware of it and very grateful for it.

Tobbe: You told me that you and Ricky write songs all the time. So I guess you're not that kind of guy who sits down in a specific period and write songs at home for a month.

Damon: Brother, I've never written so many songs in a period of one year in my life and I'll probably write more in 2017. If someone handed me a guitar… I mean, there's a piano over there. Right there! I could go over there, right now, and write a song. We can just make it up; pull it out of thin air. Man, I didn't have that confidence 10 years ago, 20 years ago. Not at all. That confidence has come from this, now, 4 year experience that we've had as a band.

It's exciting to know that if I write a riff and put it on my phone I can send it to Ricky Warwick and he's gonna hear it. Like he will listen to it; like right now. [Laughs] Same with Scott Gorham. I can send it to his computer and I know that Scott "Fucking" Gorham is gonna listen to some song I'm working on and tell me what he thinks. Who gets to do that? [Laughs] That's amazing.

Tobbe: So when you get an idea for a song, do you try to instantly put it down on tape or anything, or on your phone obviously, or do you kind of have a place in your brain where you can store stuff?

Damon: I definitely have to commit to recording it, simply because I'm like a crazy person when it comes to music and I hear voices in my head constantly. You know, there's important differences if I play a riff and then I play it again 30 seconds later. Something's probably gonna be different. There's all kinds of little nuances like that, that I get excited about, that I wanna make sure I preserve. So yeah, the iPhone is maybe the most important musical instrument in the entire band. [Laughs] I've also been disciplined enough to… like when I go home tonight, that thing goes right on the computer and I backup everything.

Tobbe: When being the main songwriter, is there a lot of pressure you personally put on yourself, because you always want to improve with every album? And being the main songwriter, you're like the core of the band trying to provide to the other guys.

Damon: Well, I don't wanna minimize it by saying that there's no pressure. There's a little of that. I just like to think of it more in terms of just being proud. We're very proud of what we've achieved and we're grateful to have another opportunity to prove ourselves once again. The difference now is that I never really have any doubts that we can come up with something great.

I think the questioning is simply in kind of like "Is this really a great song? It feels good. I love that lyric.". You know, we're playing some cool stuff that I would enjoy performing on stage. Maybe that's measurement enough. I do think we're getting better and I do think we have better instincts about that.

But that said, we wrote 20 songs, brought them into the studio, and Nick threw out 11 of them, which means we only had 9 and Ricky wrote one more kind of out of frustration, 'cause Nick was pushing him, you know. It's a process, man, that we enjoy. We love making records. I certainly love writing and recording as much as I do performing.

Tobbe: You know, people don't really read the liner notes the way they used to do and I think that quite a lot of people would be kind of surprised if they read the liner notes and see that you and Ricky have for the most part written the songs.

Damon: Well, I know that a lot of the Thin Lizzy fanbase that supported us on our first album [All Hell Breaks Loose, 2013] certainly were interested in that kind of stuff and I know that by the time we got around to doing our interviews for The Killer Instinct there was a sense of realization on many journalist's part already, like "Okay. Well, Ricky and Damon are writing most of the stuff.". This time, they know going in, but I've been asked a few times "So did you and Ricky write most of the stuff again?". - "Yes, we did." [Laughs] It's just kind of how it's working.

You know, Ricky and I feel, like, kind of like a really good sports team. We do. We feel like a great football team. We got strength in every position. We got a great game plan. We're disciplined about our training. We're disciplined about our diet, I mean, like a sports team thing. So if you do these kind of fundamental things on a regular basis you're just increasing your chances of winning the match, winning the game, and I feel like we're winning, my friend. [Laughs]

Tobbe: So when it comes down to the arrangements of the songs, which one of you has, like, the final word? Don't tell me that you're such a cohesive unit now so you all can contribute equally.

Damon: Of course not. No, there are absolutely things that we disagree about. I mean, listen, right now I can think of several moments on the new album. There was a drum fill that I preferred to the one that made the record. There was a vocal melody that I preferred. You know, there was another one that I wish we had used.

You know, little things like that. But I don't know if it really is any more complicated than just trusting your teammates. Trusting the guys you got around you. If Scott and Ricky are nodding their head, going "Yeah. I really dig that.", it's really increasing the chances that I'm not gonna overthink it anymore. But they'll listen to me.

There was definitely things where I stood up [Gets out of his chair.] and said "Guys! Guys! Guys! No! No! Wait! Wait! Wait!". Maybe it just depends on how you debate. You know, how loud the volume of your voice gets. You know, you get a little more attention, I don't know. But we love the process and we just respect each other so much and we all know that it's gonna work out in the end.

Tobbe: Have you been trying to distance yourselves just a little bit from Thin Lizzy on this record? It still has the Lizzy vibe of course, but maybe not as much as the two previous records had, I think.

Damon: Well, the short answer is no. We have not, in any way, tried to distance ourselves from Thin Lizzy. I think really and truly it comes back to simply the 10 songs that were selected to be on this album. The other 10, some great stuff in there. There are moments within those 10 songs that certainly may have felt like something familiar off of Nightlife [1974] or off of Bad Reputation [1977] or off of Chinatown [1980], but we are committed to not just completely plagiarizing something and we would never do that and we certainly wouldn't do that to the Thin Lizzy catalogue.

The goal is to find our own voice and have our thing to stand for and something to say. We're always gonna be proud of where we came from. It's always gonna be in there. I hear Scott Gorham on that solo on Testify Or Say Goodbye and the spirit of Phil Lynott is sprinkled all over this record. Ricky Warwick spent way too many nights writing down Phil Lynott lyrics as a kid and singing those songs with his acoustic guitar and that being ingrained in it and that's always coming from a place of respect.

Tobbe: With the name Black Star Riders you have been going forward for the last 4 years since the name change and I was kind of caught by surprise when you announced a small Thin Lizzy tour this past summer. Rather not a tour, but just a few gigs. So what exactly was the reason to play as Thin Lizzy again?

Damon: There were simply several promoters that had reached out. We knew we had made a plan to take a year off from Black Star Riders touring. We had toured aggressively and we really toured a lot in Europe. We wanted to kind of give that territory a break. So it was the right time, if Scott was really interesting in maybe doing some Thin Lizzy dates. It was also a kind of monumental tribute. You know, 40 years since the Jailbreak album came out and it has been 30 years since Phil Lynott passed away.

I mean, we celebrate Phil every day. We wouldn't be here if it weren't for that man and his songwriting and his vision for what that man became and we have no doubts about that, we have no regrets about that and we have no hesitation about that. So to play those half a dozen Thin Lizzy shows was fantastic. We had so much fun. The audiences were great. You could see the looks on their faces. They really enjoy hearing those classic songs again.

Tobbe: Robbie chose to not take part of that tour and you brought in Tom Hamilton [Aerosmith] instead and it was a huge surprise when you announced him.

Damon: Well, let me say this. This is important that people understand. Jimmy and Robbie have never been a member of Thin Lizzy, ever, and it was important to the band, Black Star Riders, our management, kind of our company, and we wanted to have separation there. Because there is a very substantial difference.

You know, if the guys were asked, there's a real good chance they would have said on their own "You know what? That's not a good idea. It needs to be two separate things.". So now, all of a sudden, 2016, there's two bands. There's Thin Lizzy and there's Black Star Riders. They're two different things and we can make as many Black Star Riders records as we want for the rest of our life and make new music and have a great time.

Tobbe: Weren't you guys ever afraid of bringing in a name like Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, considering it's one of the biggest rock bands out there?

Damon: No, there was never anything but excitement. Phil's memory and the Thin Lizzy legacy deserve a heavyweight legend like Tom Hamilton to be playing the bass on some Thin Lizzy songs. Did it surprise me that Tom Hamilton said yes? Of course it surprised me. I wouldn't have thought he would wanna do something like that.

But he could not have been more gracious. He could not have been more enthusiastic. He could not have worked harder. That guy put in lots of time. And the thing you gotta remember, brother: that guy has been in one band his entire career. No side projects and no late night session on somebody else's record. He's played in one band, and now he's been in two.

Tobbe: Were you at some point looking at the stuff that he has done in the past, like in the studio, together with him?

Damon: Brother, listen, if I haven't said it enough, I love saying it repeatedly. If Lizzy was my number 1 influence, it was a tie for number 2 and Aerosmith was one of those 2 bands, you know what I mean? Rocks [1976] and Toys In The Attic [1975] are legendary rock records that should inform any band that's trying to write songs and any guitar player that is trying to learn how to play.

We had a good jam with Tom at our final rehearsal in London, right before the first gig. Scott Travis [drums, Judas Priest] and I and Tom were the only ones on our instruments and Scott Travis went into the drum lick intro of Walk This Way and I have only played Walk This Way 7000 times in the clubs, you know, as a younger musician.

We played Walk This Way, Same Old Song And Dance, Lick And A Promise and we played Sweet Emotion, which is obviously right up there with The Boys Are Back In Town. It's one of the greatest classic rock songs of all time [Damon can't hide his excitement] and Tom wrote that riff, you know. So it was just incredible, man. I feel so fortunate to have these experiences like that.

Tobbe: Lizzy has a keyboard player, and I talked to Darren Wharton actually this summer when you were here, and did you ever consider bringing in or hiring a keyboard player for BSR in the beginning?

Damon: No, we did not. We just felt that the sound that we wanted to move ahead with was heavier, was more riff driven, definitely guitar driven. Certainly we have nothing but love and admiration and respect for Darren. That guy is a world class musician, and singer, and songwriter.

But I know that between Scott and Ricky and myself, we were really clear in our envisioning where we wanted to go. We wanted it to be heavier. Not that you can't be heavy with keyboards. But, I don't know, maybe we also knew we were gonna be touring a lot in a van and it wouldn't be much room. You know, it's less people staying at the Premier Inn.

Tobbe: I guess we're done. Thank you very much. It's always a pleasure to interview you guys in BSR.

Damon: We're pretty good. We've done it a time or two. I love that it comes across to the journalist how proud we are of the record. You know, man, I'm grateful to get to talk about it. I remember a time, not that long ago, that nobody was calling me to ask me about my new record. [Laughs] I know what that feels like.

See also: review of the album Heavy Fire

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