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Interview conducted August 5 2017
Interview published October 3 2017

A few hours before Black Star Riders' show at Sweden's Skogsröjet festival Metal Covenant met up with co-songwriter and one of the band's guitarists Damon Johnson.

Tobbe: Best device ever. [I simply use an iPhone to record this stuff.]

Damon: Yeah, it is, man. We've written 3 albums on the iPhone. Not kidding. [Laughs] I don't know what we would do. I guess we'd still be carrying around the little cassette tape recorders. You know, singing into that.

Tobbe: So, quite some time has been spent in Europe this summer and will it be kind of nice to go back home again to the States for some rest after all this touring?

Damon: Yeah. It's definitely been a very busy summer. Busier than I thought it was going to be; initially, you know. I remember the discussions back in early spring. We had thought maybe we would come and do 4 or 5 weeks, and it's been literally twice that much, you know. And we take that as a compliment. That's certainly a testament to the strength of the album [Heavy Fire. Out February 3rd 2017.] and the momentum that we've been looking for, after kind of building up the promoters, has been fantastic.

In a lot of cases they've reached out to us; they said "Hey! We want the band. We've heard the new album. We know you're out. We know you're busy.". You know, that's the kind of stuff that we've dreamed about when we started Black Star Riders back in early 2013. It's just crazy. It's just so wild that we've made 3 albums in 4 years. So yeah, this summer has been a real kind of reflection of that productivity. It's been amazing. No complaints. We definitely feel fortunate.

Tobbe: But still, some well needed rest.

Damon: Oh, man. Listen: I'm a junkie for my family. I'm a junkie for it. I cannot wait to go home. As a matter of fact my kids start their school this coming week, so I'm right back in making breakfast and preparing backpacks and lunches and driving them to the bus stop and all that. I love it, man.

Tobbe: But really, as a musician, do you ever stop your chores around music completely?

Damon: No, it never really shuts off. And I won't even look at it so much as a chore. I think, as I've gotten older I almost feel like it's kind of my duty; kind of my responsibility. Not in a literal sense to my family, but I just feel like: for me, to have been given this opportunity to be a professional musician for almost 3 decades, play with these great musicians, write all these songs and make all these albums…

I could have never envisioned when I was a kid that I would be this far into my career and, you know, that I would still be having this kind of inspiration and productivity. What a great group of people I have around me, and not just the band, but even our team, our management, the label, the fans. So I just feel like I gotta live up to my role in this whole thing, which is, you know, one of the principal songwriters and Ricky [Warwick, vocals and guitar] and I are already hard at it, man.

We've already got some new stuff flying around. It usually happens about this time of the year. He'd go "Hey, man! Check this out! What do you think?" and I go "I think that's great. What if you went to this chord?" and he goes "Yeah! I like that." …and we pull out the iPhone. [Laughs]

Tobbe: You seem to take it kind of lightly to work, like, most of the time, but musicians are starting to get burned out like regular people sometimes do and is that because it's like a 24/7 job to them or do they maybe feel the pressure all the time?

Damon: That's a good question, you know. I've observed that one thing about the new, or rather about the changes in the music business… You know as well as anyone that rock music really has to kind of fight for attention these days. More so than it used to be. So I've observed some of these bands, some of these musicians, and you can tell they're getting frustrated, and I would almost wanna sit down and ask them some questions, like "Hey! Why did you get into this in the first place? Did you do it because you thought it was gonna be easy and it was gonna be just all girls and booze and money? Or did you get into it because you love music and you want to express yourself and you wanna try to create something special?".

Tobbe: Yeah. That's really two completely different things. One is kind of hard work and one is just trying to get the good stuff out of it.

Damon: Yeah! And listen, I've been as guilty of that as anybody, man. Trust me. My past… The battlefield is littered with casualties, you know. But I just feel like now, more than ever before, I'm as inspired as I could possibly be. I know Ricky feels the same way. We were just speaking about that, this past week. So yeah, I think now more than ever, musicians, I guess rock 'n' roll guys, have to ask themselves like "Am I in it to win it, or am I just doing it 'cause I think people owe me something?". Nobody owes you anything, but if you make good work and you go out there and dedicate yourself to the activity and hopefully treat fans with the respect they deserve… Hey man! Amazing things can happen …if you do that.

Tobbe: Isn't it astonishing that a band of your age is still on your way up? That must be, like, a strange feeling still, because that's a feeling 20 year olds or maybe 30 year olds should have, but here you are, like, in your 50's.

Damon: You know what? I have to say, another great question you've asked, and I have to say: probably a couple of years ago it did feel strange. Like whenever we considered that reality it felt strange. But I think now we've transitioned that feeling into more a purpose, like why we are building more fans; people are paying attention. We have this moment that is rare. It doesn't happen for any band. You know, at all, for any band, but especially for guys that are veterans and that have been doing this as long as we have. So that's certainly a big part and it kind of circles back around to what we were talking about earlier: We feel like this is our duty, like we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to these fans that have gotten onboard with us over the last 4 years.

Tobbe: About your choice of songs this summer. I've seen you twice this summer and I think you've played two [Thin] Lizzy songs on both occasions and is that a setlist we will see from Black Star Riders from now on or is it more a festival set?

Damon: I think our plan is to kind of let that dictate itself. You know, we absolutely listen to our fans and to our great fulfillment they've been very happy that we have really loaded the set with so much Black Star Riders. Certainly Ricky and I were, and still are, technically, you know, a part of Thin Lizzy, and they know, just like last year we did a few shows, that they can hear all those songs and they've already heard us play them in 2010, 2011, 2012. For the most part this year we've played The Boys Are Back In Town and Whiskey In The Jar. But who knows? We've already started thinking about next year and the shows we're gonna do and maybe we go deep into the Lizzy catalogue.

I'd love to play Emerald again, I would love to play Massacre, we can bring Cowboy Song back out, Jailbreak. Fuck, man. We haven't played Jailbreak in… Classic song. So, there's plenty to choose from and we'll always be aware and respectful and grateful for where we came from. But, you know, Scott Gorham [guitar] is on stage with us and he loves playing these Black Star Riders songs, so. He's an inspiration for all of us in that regard. It's exciting.

Tobbe: But there are no plans to go out as Thin Lizzy next summer or the summer after that?

Damon: Not right now. You know, that's not to say that the agent won't call us and say "Hey guys! They want you in Brazil for $700,000." and we'll go "What? I think we'll go play. That sounds like we should go do that.". [Laughs]

Tobbe: You can play a couple of hours for that money.

Damon: Yeah. I don't think that phone call's ever gonna come. But yeah, it gives me a minute to recognize just our team. You know, we have great management and we love our booking agent. Those guys have worked really hard for us. And it's not always easy. We've had some growing pains over the last 4 years; just like any band. But we feel like, as we're wrapping up this summer tour for '17, we've accomplished a lot of things that we wanted to and we feel like we've done it with good style and, you know, with good performances.

Tobbe: So, about the new songs. Actually, do you and Ricky have any old ideas stashed somewhere too or are you writing completely new stuff?

Damon: We're definitely writing completely new stuff. I will say that there were a few songs that we prepared for the Heavy Fire album that had like maybe a guitar riff that we love, that we wanna revisit and see if we can change what's around it, or there was a title in a story that we felt, like, was special, but we just didn't really deliver in the music department. I think we're gonna kind of pull those back out and look at them with, you know, a year and a half of perspective, like "All right. We've not listened to these for a while. Let's listen to them with fresh ears and see what we can come up with.". But we've already got 6 or 7 just brand new things and, you know, we wanna experiment with the tempos this time. We've got a lot of songs over the 3 albums that are really fast.

Tobbe: But they still got groove in them.

Damon: Yeah, that's the important element, man, and I think we've always been able to achieve that, particularly in the studio. We keep that groove thing. You know, I've been listening to kind of some classic '70s metal, some more [Black] Sabbath, Judas Priest and Rainbow and there's some great songs in there, man, and I don't visit those songs and come away, like, trying to steal a guitar part; I listen more to the energy of it. A lot of times I'll just go "Oh, let's write a song in that tempo.".

So, like, if I just get a drum groove going on my laptop and it's the same tempo as Long Live Rock 'N' Roll, then, you know, what would I play if I had Cozy Powell playing drums like that? You know, what riff would I play over that? And it's always fun. It's always a blast to do that kind of thing, 'cause I never seize to surprise myself just with what falls out of the sky. "Oh, I would have never thought of that, had I not listened to Tommy Aldridge playing drums with Pat Travers." You know, on that album they did in '78 [Heat In The Street]. I love that shit, man.

Tobbe: When I listen to Heavy Fire and compare it to your two previous efforts, the first two efforts were more similar to each other [All Hell Breaks Loose, 2013 and The Killer Instinct, 2015], but with Heavy Fire you went a little step sideways, so in what direction will you take that step sideways further?

Damon: You might find this interesting that we never make those decisions in advance. It really, truly always gets down to the strength of the song. For instance, on The Killer Instinct the songs that sounded the strongest were the ones that did sound somewhat familiar to our past, like where we had come from. But when we were in rehearsals for the Heavy Fire recordings, a lot of the songs that everyone was getting excited about were definitely different.

They had a different energy, they had a different influence and Ricky was really immersed in a lot of old northern soul album and we were talking about Motown and those great rhythm sections on those records. And our fans have come to understand that that doesn't mean we're gonna put out a Motown record. It just means that we get inspired by those great lyrics, those great songs, those great performances, you know. Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, you know. Ricky and I feel like you can put on any of those songs and we can pick up our guitar and come up with something that was inspired by that sound, but then it still sounds like Black Star Riders, you know. And I feel like that's what we did on Heavy Fire.

There's no question that the support we've gotten from our friends at radio, particularly in the United Kingdom… You know, for a fucking rock 'n' roll band like Black Star Riders to get played on BBC Radio 2, that's crazy; that's almost unheard of. So it's always nice when you deliver the record and the label plays it for BBC and they go "Wow! We hear, like, 3 songs that we love." and we're like… "Awesome!". [Laughs]

Tobbe: You've got a new drummer [Chad Szeliga] and what's different in drumming style between him and your former drummer Jimmy DeGrasso?

Damon: Well, you know, the first thing that comes to my mind is just how respectful Chad has been of Jimmy. He recognizes Jimmy's resume and his talent. You know, when Chad and I first talked on the phone, he had really been listening to all of our studio albums and he was like "Wow, man. I knew Jimmy was great… This is as good as stuff as he's ever played in his whole career." and I agree with that. So, it just says a lot about Chad as a person and a player, that he's got such positive attitude. I think if you spoke to Robbie [Crane, bass] or Scott or Ricky, they would all say the same thing. It's really his attitude, his energy, his personality that we love. The fact that he's a world class drummer…

He's been making records for a long time as well, you know, so he brings all that wealth of experience. So it will be different to go in the studio with Chad on the drums, but he's getting accustomed to, or he's learning himself kind of how the whole creative thing works in our band. We're explaining to him that everyone comes up with ideas. We want everybody bringing stuff in. But as Robbie likes to say; he goes "Man, I'm lucky I wound up in a band with two guys that write 10 times as many songs as any band I've ever been in in my life.".

Tobbe: Yeah. Just pick one here and pick one there and you have an album.

Damon: Well, I just remember one of the early conversations Ricky and I had about songwriting. We agreed in a lot of ways it's a numbers game. If you write 10 songs there's a really good chance that one of them is gonna be special. So if you write 20 you're gonna have 2. And then if you write 30 you might get 4, because you're getting better at it. So we need to write 90 songs for the next record and it'll be pretty good… [Laughs]

Tobbe: All you guys have played in kind of big bands before, so was it important to bring in a well-known drummer, who knows this lifestyle?

Damon: It was definitely important that we brought in someone with some experience. There's a lot of talent out there. There's a lot of talent in young guys and there's a lot of talented guys, closer to our age, that haven't been a part of making records and being on the road. So, as you've heard many times from interviewing musicians through the years, you know that 75-90 minutes on stage is just such a small slice of the day. We spend 4 or 5 times that much time in a bus, on an airplane, in a dressing room. You know, that's an important element to it as well.

So we had some history with Chad. We met Chad in 2011 when Thin Lizzy was a part of a tour with Judas Priest in America. He was playing with Black Label Society. I wasn't familiar with Chad until we did that tour and I remember our manager, Adam Parsons, and I watching Chad and just going "Man. That fucking kid…". We call him kid…'cause he's so damn skinny. He almost could be Scott's son, you know. [Laughs] But, man, he's just such a wealth of playing, knowledge, and again man, his positive attitude. And the fans love him. There's been such a tremendous feedback on our social media and after the shows and I can see people connecting with him. And that's a great feeling, man, 'cause you just never know. There are no guarantees.

Tobbe: When he joined the band and you rehearsed the songs in the spring or earlier this summer, did you have to direct him into a certain way or did it come natural when he was listening to what you had done?

Damon: Well, he brought his professionalism to it. Before we even got in the same room together he called and had a lot of questions. Because there are different versions of the songs. There's different arrangements. For example, take a song like Bound For Glory; we've played that song differently every tour, so, you know, understandable, he's like "How do you want me to play it?". So just the fact that he would ask, the fact that he would go to YouTube or the social media and start looking it up…

So by the time we got in the same room together with the actual drums and amps, he had a real good sense of where he wanted to go, so then it's just been a matter of getting the repetition of playing it. So you're gonna see a really great band tonight and we're firing on all cylinders and he's a huge part of that.

Tobbe: So when you finally get into the studio and record your fourth album, will you have to, like, show him details then or is he fully learned at that point, you think?

Damon: I think he's gonna probably be a lot like Jimmy in that respect. We're just gonna get in the room together and start bashing out the songs, making some notes, experimenting with some different tempos, some different arrangements and just kind of see what it morphs into. I think that, you know, the fact that he has done a fair amount of recording on his own already gives us a lot of peace of mind.

Because the studio is, in its way, kind of a hot seat, you know. There's no time for fucking about and, like, you gotta kind of have your act together, and certainly now, this will be our third with Robbie and the fourth that Scott and Ricky and I've done together, there's no more surprises as far as, like, the work ethic and the method. But yeah, it's gonna be great, man. I think Chad's gonna do an amazing job. I know Nick [Raskulinecz], our producer, is ready to kind of get Chad in the room and push him around a little bit.

Tobbe: And Nick's there again.

Damon: Yeah. We love Nick. He's definitely a sixth member of the band. He knows our strengths and weaknesses and knows when to push and when to pull. I know Chad is really excited about that. He's certainly familiar with Nick's resume.

Tobbe: So how different would BSR sound if Nick wasn't there?

Damon: You know, I think there would be less experimentation with the arrangements. That's one of Nick's real gifts. 'Cause he gets so excited about being in the rehearsal room with the band, he goes "Okay guys. Stop! You hear that thing you played right there, going into the chorus? I want you to repeat that and I wanna put it at the front of the song and this thing that you thought was gonna start the chorus I want that to start the whole song.".

I know the way I feel about Nick. It'd be almost like getting a new guitar player. It's like "No, we got a great guitar player. Let's stick with him.". I can't wait, man. You know, back in March when we toured the U.K. or in the beginning of this tour in May, I wasn't quite in the headspace to start even thinking about the next Black Star Riders album, but I am now; I'm ready for it.

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