2017, Features, Interviews — February 3, 2017 at 7:30 am

Damon Johnson of Black Star Riders


“We work very fast together, there’s no ego, there’s a lot of mutual respect, there’s a lot of knowledge and just a real passion for music, again, all genres of music and all the elements that we like, so we’re looking forward to a long relationship together…”

From release: There’s a beautiful purity to the finest rock ‘n’ roll, a thrilling simplicity in striking an over-amplified guitar chord, a transcendent joy in getting high on just volume, adrenaline and a backbeat. BLACK STAR RIDERS, lifers in an industry less secure than a secret in a soap opera, understand this, which is why Heavy Fire, the quintet’s third album for Nuclear Blast, sounds so fresh and exhilarating and alive.

At home in Nashville, we gave Damon a call to discuss the new Black Star Riders record, ‘Heavy Fire’, the evolution of the band, creating music, birthday presents, the third Damn Yankees album, and much more…

Firstly, congratulations on ‘Heavy Fire’ what a great record!
Thank you very much, thank you that really means a lot, we never take that kind of positive review for granted from anyone *laughs* so thank you.

With two albums under your belt, was it somewhat easier going in to make album number three?
Yeah I think it certainly was from the standpoint that we had no question about our chemistry as musicians, we didn’t have any question of chemistry of us as song writers, and of course it was our second album with Nick (Raskulinecz) so we had real trusting relationship there as well. I guess the thing you never really know for sure is do we have the songs, are these the best songs for us to put out? So Ricky and I went about the challenging task of really trying to write literally twenty two songs, we had so much material when we first met with the rest of the guys. So the concept was hey if we write twenty songs, if you write ten there’s bound to be one or two good ones, if you write twenty then that number increases you know what I mean? So there was a lot of work, and there was definitely some moments where you get a little almost punch drunk, you think, wait, is this a better song than that one? Should we leave this one off and record this one? *laughs* So that was really our biggest challenge, everything else we felt very, very confident about.

What for you do you feel as a band you were you able to do on this record that you may not have been able to on the previous two?
I feel that we were much more open to trying different tempos, different rhythmic feels, granted Black Star Riders is without a doubt a hard rock band at its core but as music fans we’re very diverse in the things that we listen to particularly older music, Motown and old R&B and Soul music and things like that, so there were some of those elements that crept in particularly with how Robbie and Jimmy played together as a rhythm section, that was a lot of fun, we had a lot of moments where we felt like hey man this is definitely a different vibe than we would’ve put on the first two albums and I look at an example would be ‘Dancing With The Wrong Girl’, maybe even ‘Testify Or Say Goodbye’ which is our new single in England right now and we’re getting a great reaction and to us it just feels like a really cool old Motown song ran through Marshall stacks *laughs* and that’s fun, that’s a lot of fun for us as music fans to engage in something like that.

I always like to pick one song from albums to ask about, and one that stood out for me on Heavy Fire was ‘Cold War Love’, is there a story about that song you can share with us?
Yeah, thank you, ‘Cold War Love’ was a really beautiful melody that Ricky had when we first got together a year ago in California where he lives and it was one of the first things he played for me and I felt right away it could be turned into something very special. When I think of ‘Cold War Love’ and particularly the musical components of it I even think of something stripped down and simple almost like ‘Every Breath You Take’ by The Police, I don’t want to pigeonhole the song by naming the wrong comparison *laughs* but you know what I’m saying… a song like ‘Every Breath You Take’ is so timeless and simple in its presentation and we knew that’s what we had with ‘Cold War Love’. Clearly the most different sounding song for us on the album, so that’s fantastic that you like that one because it’s very different for us, we’re proud of that one.

What about personally as a guitarist, working with Scott did you manage to just elbow him out every now and then and take the parts? *laughs* Kidding, how do you decide who gets to take the lead on specific tunes?
Sometimes, sometimes I just elbow him out of the way and just take it *laughs* you know I’m really happy to say that from the very first time he and I were in the studio together, Scott has been so generous, so gracious with me and furthermore he’s just been very trusting and I don’t take that for granted when Scott comes to me and goes “Hey, what do you think about this song? What do you think about this part?” I really want to make him feel good about it, I want to impress him, Scott’s made so many great albums in his career and Scott Gorham was a hero of mine growing up, I studied his records and recordings, so it’s incredibly exciting for me, and we just have a good kind of back and forth, even the guys in the band have talked about it and they’re always surprised how easily he and I fall into who is going to play which part. I think a lot of that just gets down to the respect that we have for each other and you know the amount of time that we put into it.

You worked with Nick Raskulinecz again as producer, what does he bring to the band that works?
Well clearly Nick is such an almost legend, man, he’s made so many records, records we’re all fans of, records that we had in our collections before we even met him. So I think if you were to call up some of the other bands that Nick has worked with, all of us would say the same thing about Nick, it’s his enthusiasm, he loves our songs as much as we do and he’s as passionate about our goals as we are, and he doesn’t hesitate to say “hey guys I think we need another song, you’re one song short” that actually happened this time. Going back to what I mentioned to you earlier about Ricky and I bringing in so much material , I know Ricky in particular he was kinda taken aback by that, he was like “What do you mean? We brought you twenty songs, you telling us we need to write another one?” *laughs* so it really takes someone that you love and respect to be able to be that honest with each other, and honestly we always pay attention to any ideas that Nick has on any level, so as far as we’re concerned we’d love to make ten more records with Nick, we love him and he’s such an important part of our sound and who we are.

Now, I’ve met Ricky and I wouldn’t be shaping up to him to tell him to being another song, I’m scared of that guy *laughs*
*laughs a lot* Well I won’t kid you, mate, that was not as easy conversation, I will not kid you. I remember Nick kind of looked over at me like ‘uh oh, is this bad for me?’ *laughs* you know, listen man, no one loved Nick more than Ricky and because of what you just said, Ricky can be an imposing figure because Ricky Warwick does not suffer fools and he does not like to waste time, but no one loves Nick Raskulinecz more than Ricky. Ironically I just spoke to Ricky about an hour ago and he had been to the gym and he was saying how excited he was to listen to our album yet again, today, how good it feels to be proud of it and how it feels to have a good finished product, so yeah man, Nick is special, very, very special.

That leads me into my next question, you’re releasing the album on my birthday, so thanks for the cool present…
Happy Birthday, Troy, we knew you would like that gift, we thought it would be a good gift for you!

*laughs* Thanks, but what are your feelings like leading up to album release time?
You know it’s just very busy, I get very busy just speaking to my wife earlier, the album is out soon, we’re getting ready to start rehearsals for our tour and there’s just so much happening right now sometimes you feel like it’s a bit too much. Again I think because we’re so excited about new music that I almost use the album as almost another kind of energy generator like I have to run some errands or pick up the kids from school I’ll put the album back on and just crank it up man and go ‘Wow!’ we’ve done this great creative work to now keep us very busy for the next twelve to eighteen months. There’s a lot of work coming in, there’s a lot of tour conversations happening and none of that would be going down if not for making a quality record like this. So it’s a busy time but a very exciting time this close to album release.

Now, when I first interviewed Scott and Ricky it was when you were here playing one of the final Thin Lizzy shows in early 2013 and Black Star Riders had just been announced so there was a real excitement from you all about the band and what you were going to do, now after a few years as a band would you say that you’ve now truly found your footing, sound and come into your own?
I think we definitely found our place. I want to believe that our sound is always going to shift and change, I mean there’s no question that the legacy of all of our pasts and in particular Scott’s past is always going to be a component of who Black Star Riders is at the core, it doesn’t mean that we every have to try and sound like someone else or something else but I do strongly, passionately know that three albums in to it we just feel like there’s nothing that we can’t do. If we decided that we wanted to do a concept record next time, as long as the songs were great then we’d go make a concept record and not overthink it. we’re really grateful for all the fans from every band we’ve ever been a part of, Troy, each of us individually I mean what a resume between the five of us and for all of those different pockets of fans to come out and support Black Star Riders, come to the shows, buy the music, download the music, it’s incredibly gratifying you know we’re not getting any younger my friend, so we don’t take for granted all the entertainment options that people have these days, more than ever they’ve got so many distractions and other things that they focus on, so we feel like we’ve all got this second lease on our musical life to have this type of opportunity, so we feel really confident as a band, very confident to go in any direction musically that we want to go.

Well one of our photographers was over in The UK to catch you with Europe, and he brought me back a Black Star Riders shirt so I rep that in Sydney for you down here, mate.
*laughs* Fantastic, mate, well thank you for representing, my friend, that’s awesome. You know I was emailing with our old friend John down there in Australia and man, it’s a massive goal for us to bring BSR to Australia you know Scott, Ricky and I haven’t been back down there since that run of Thin Lizzy dates, so fingers crossed maybe this will be the year, we would love that.

So on that, what for you has been the most noticeable thing in how Black Star Riders has evolved into the band you are today?
I think for me the most notable evolution would probably have to be in the song writing, you know, you look back to 2011 when Scott basically brought Ricky in to be the singer for Thin Lizzy and then six months later I came in on guitar to Thin Lizzy, there’s no way that any of us ever could have envisioned or predicted that this is where we would be six years later, that we would have started a new band under a new name and we would be three albums in to it and be getting so much positive reaction from the rock music world at large. So, I just think that real credit goes to the song writing team that Ricky and I have become, Troy, he’s been a writer for a long time, I’ve been a song writer for a long time and we joined Thin Lizzy because we love Thin Lizzy and we were happy to go out and play those songs and celebrate that legacy, but no way could we have known that we would be asked to write new music, or that he and I would have such a good chemistry together. We work very fast together, there’s no ego, there’s a lot of mutual respect, there’s a lot of knowledge and just a real passion for music, again, all genres of music and all the elements that we like, so we’re looking forward to a long relationship together and I think another thing that has really cemented our friendship and our bond is you may not know this but Ricky and I sometimes go out as just Warwick Johnson and we do acoustic dates, just Ricky and I on acoustic guitars, Troy, and we play almost two and a half sometimes three hours nonstop and we play everything from our careers, man. Lots of Black Star Riders, Thin Lizzy, The Almighty, Brother Cane, Alice Cooper, the list goes on and on, and we have a great laugh with that and the fans love it and we love it, so we’ve just become great friends man and again nothing I could’ve ever predicted and I think it’s really a testament to our evolution as writers that we’ve been able to bring this thing as far as we have.

I know this may sound stupid as I have to ask you if it doesn’t happen… but are you finding as Black Star Riders continues that there is less and less referral back to Thin Lizzy allowing BSR to be its own band?
Yeah I think there’s less referral to it on all levels, Troy, you know what I mean? The fans ask about it less, the press ask about it less, we discuss it less and there’s gonna be fewer Thin Lizzy songs in the set this year for sure, not because of any other reason than we’re just progressing and evolving and growing and moving ahead. We love playing those Thin Lizzy songs, I’ve loved them my whole life, Scott might have a different answer to that I think he might be getting tired of playing them *laughs* he’s played them for so long. I said this on the last album and I still feel this way, we’re gonna leave a lot of that up to the fans, if the fans go ‘hey man we love the new record but you only played one Thin Lizzy song in a ninety minute set, can you play three?’ we go alright we do whatever they want, but our diehard fan base they’re excited about the new material as are we, so we’ll see man. I know that the plan for The UK tour in March is to have you know, five or six Thin Lizzy songs ready to go at any minute, and then we might change the set-up from night to night, I’ve always been a fan of bands that do that, bands like Pearl Jam, The Black Crowes they used to always change their set list up all the time, so I think we may look to get into a little bit of that with the catalogue of music we have amongst us, we can certainly do that now.

On a personal note, you’re already getting me one present for my birthday but I don’t suppose you’ve got a copy of the Damn Yankees album you were on that I could hear do you? *laughs*
Wow! Look at you, brother! You know what I actually do not, Troy. Recently a friend of mine that was an engineer on the project he sent me a text message that had a piece of audio in it and it was one of the songs that we did and I really need to reach back out to him and say hey man, can you send me all that old stuff. There’s a couple of really good songs in there man, I won’t kid you and whenever I look back on that experience it’s all positive, I was the junior member in that situation but a fan of all of those guys, especially as writers, Jack, Tommy, Ted, good song writers, Ted is a monster influence as a guitar player for me as well, so it’s a shame that things never got off the ground. It was a great experience; I’d love for it to get released one day I think it would be interesting for people to hear.

Lastly, let’s look ahead to the future, finish this sentence for me; by the end of 2017 Black Star Riders want to…
Have played about a hundred and twenty shows in four different continents…  How about that?

Australia being one of those continents?
I promise you man, we’re very excited, energized and the times we’ve been to Australia we love it so much So many passionate people, music fans and a beautiful country and maybe this is the time, man, I hope so. I’m gonna be hitting up John for ways to get us down there for sure, man.


Essential Information

From: USA

Band members: Ricky Warwick – Voclas, Scott Gorham – Guitars, Damon Johnson – Guitars, Robbie Crane – Bass, Jimmy DeGrasso – Drums

Website:  http://www.blackstarriders.com

Latest release: Heavy Fire – (Out Now – Nuclear Blast Records)


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