By Thomas S. Orwat Jr.
Damon Johnson is living his rock n’ roll dream. The 51 year old musician from Monroeville, Alabama has just released an impressive 5 song EP entitled, ‘ECHO.’ This release proves that Johnson is a unique, truly well rounded musican, singer and songwriter. In addition, Johnson will be touring Europe, starting on June 17th with the classic rock band Thin Lizzy, which he joined in 2011 as a co-lead guitarist.
Johnson, first received international acclaim with his band, Brother Cane, which he fronted from 1990-1998. The debut album from Brother Cane sold over 250k units. Soon after, Damon began writing with some of music’s biggest stars, such as Stevie Nicks, Faith Hill and Sammy Hagar. This eventually lead to Johnson landing a gig in 2004, as a co-lead guitarist with one of his music idols, Alice Cooper. While with “the Coop” (how Johnson refers to Alice Cooper), he co- wrote the 2005 album,’Dirty Diamonds.’ Johnson rocked and shocked the music world from 2004-2011 performing with the Alice Cooper band.
Then in 2011, he received a call from Thin Lizzy guitarist Scott Gorham asking if he would be interested in joining Thin Lizzy. It was a difficult decision for Johnson, but with the blessings of Alice Cooper, Johnson decided to leave the Alice Cooper band and take on an even bigger role as an integral part of Thin Lizzy. At first, Thin Lizzy was to only perform classic Thin Lizzy songs, but as time went on, Johnson, Gorham and vocalist Ricky Warwick decided that they wanted to write new music.
In 2012, the decision was made to let the Thin Lizzy legacy rest, and record new material under a diiferent band name. They decided on “Black Star Riders” as the new band name. Since then, the Black Star Riders have released two critically acclaimed records that play tribute to the vintage Thin Lizzy style duo guitar attack, but with a bit more of a modern edge. This is a band which will be a dominant force in rock music for many years to come.
What follows is an exclusive interview with Damon Johnson. In this interview, we discuss his new EP, ‘ECHO’ and much more.
Rock Music Star: Damon, I want to discuss your epic 5 song solo EP, ‘ECHO.’ I have to admit, those five songs are just incredible.
Damon Johnson: Thank you, Thomas. Thank you, man, that means a lot. Thank you very much.
RMS: The first track is, “Dead.” Is there any chance that that was once meant for Alice Cooper? It just has that Alice Cooper vibe to it.
DJ: (Laughs) I do think, the fact that I was in Alice Cooper, kind of gave me a greater affection for, “Dead.” There’s two songs on the EP – “Dead,” and “The Waiting Kills Me,” that I co-wrote with my old friend, Kelly Gray. Kelly and I had a really cool band for a little while called, “Slave to the System.” These were two songs that we had written, that we had hoped would maybe see the light of day on the sophomore release, but schedules and life insanity made it hard for us all to get in the same room together again. But, I knew these were both great songs – “Dead,” especially. The whole drop-D tuning, the groove is sleazy. The lyrics – they almost make me laugh, man. I love the energy in it. To work with Nick in the studio – he brought a lot to the table for, “Dead,” in the guitar department. He was pulling out all his amps, and plugging my rig into different things. I really thought it was the perfect song to lead off the EP with.
RMS: Absolutely. And then, “Nobody’s Usin’.”
DJ: “Nobody’s Usin’,” has been around for a little while. I wrote that with my great friend, Jim. Lyrically, I feel like that song kind of speaks to a guy like myself – that never necessarily struggled with substance abuse – but I sure have been around it. “Nobody Usin’,” is kind of an aggressive take on that. I need to stay healthy for myself, for my friends and family, and I can still be in the business and be around this energy. I don’t know, man, it’s almost like, kind of a shield, in a way. The fact that the tempo of that song is very kind of tip of the hat – because it’s “Got no Shame,” in a way. That was the first song that I ever hit the public consciousness with, in Brother Cane. A lot of my fans have commented in how they are kind of in the same gene pool. I dig that.
RMS: The song, “Scars.”
DJ: “Scars,” is a song that was written by a great friend of mine. He played it for me, at his house one night, Thomas, and it just leveled me. The lyrics really, really spoke to me. I had worked it up on my acoustic guitar, determining what songs we wanted to record for the EP, I played it for him, and he made the most bizarre statement. He goes, “I love that song. I almost hear that as a Pixies song.” Through all of my classic rock influences, it always seems to surprise people that I was such a fan of the Pixies, as well. So, when he said that, it just tripled my enthusiasm for the song, and I feel like, together, we really knocked it out of the park with that track.
RMS: Yeah. “Just Move On.”
DJ: Yeah, man. To me, “Just Move On,” is just straight up classic rock. I was such a fan, my whole life- to this day – a fan of bands like Humble Pie, the Black Crowes, the Small Faces, certainly the Stones. There’s some of that inside that song. I love playing that with my band. Whenever we play that song, we really stretch the arrangement. We just play, man; just jam a little. We try to do some improvisation in there. As a musician, I really dig playing that song.
RMS: Now, you have these five amazing songs. Was there ever a thought of writing another five more, and putting out a full record?
DJ: Well, ironically, Thomas, that is the plan. I had limited time; I had a limited budget when I started this thing. What I have discovered, just kind of working with my team of people, is that everybody agreed that it was important to get it out. Cross the finish line, and let people know that Damon Johnson is alive and well – as a singer – as well as a member of Black Star Riders and Thin Lizzy. What we want to do is record another five or six songs and do what you just said – combine them to make one full-length release. I’m grateful, to have a couple of good, independent labels that are interested in putting that out, and giving it some proper promotion. Listen, I don’t see any reason that you wouldn’t be able to hear three songs on active rock radio right now. So, I think we can take a shot at trying to accomplish something like that.
RMS: Like I said, all five songs are just amazing. I don’t even know how you would go about picking a single, because they’re all really solid songs.
DJ: (Laughs) Well, I promise you, man, when we get ready to pick one, I’m going to reach out to you. I want your feedback on what you think would be a good single, because, trust me, I have no idea. I’m really bad at making those kinds of decisions.
RMS: I don’t think, with those five, you can make a bad decision. I think, whatever you pick is going to do very well for you. But, I heard the EP, and I was just like, “Fuck! This is amazing shit. This is really, really good.”
DJ: (Laughs) You’re making my day, man. Thank you for that, Thomas. I agree, man. It’s quality stuff. I got so many great musicians around me on this thing, and I feel more confident as a writer, and as a singer and a player, than I ever have in my life. I’m really proud of ‘ECHO.’ I think it shows where I’m at, in my life, musically, right now, and where I’m headed in the future.
RMS: When you write a song, how do you decide what you’re going to do with it? For instance, how do you decide if it’s going to be a Black Star Riders song, or it’s going to be a solo song? How do you know?
DJ: That’s a good question. You know, most of the Black Star Rider stuff, Ricky and I write together. I’ll just come in with a riff. I’m not real precious anymore about, “Oh, I’m gonna hold on to this. This needs to go here or there.” There’s so many musical things happening right now, it just feels good knowing that, any quality idea is gonna find a home. So, as Black Star Riders is my number one focus right now, I tend to play Ricky everything, if you know what I mean. Then, I kind of see what he reacts to, and what connects with him. Now, we’re three albums in. We’re getting ready to go into the studio to make a third album in August. So, we’ve gotta good working relationship. I kind of know, going in, like, “Ok, here’s five or six things I know he’s gonna dig.” He’s always just ready with lots of lyrics. The guy is writing constantly, and gathering ideas, stories, and poetry. It’s kind of a blowtorch, Thomas, when he and I get in a room together with guitars. We’re just kind of like, “Alright, what do you got?” We can crank out three or four songs a day like it’s nothing. I’ve never been a part of anything like that. It’s just a testament to our experience, to the chemistry that we have, and to our work ethic, as well. We don’t mess around. We love to work; we feel like we have such an amazing opportunity with Black Star Riders, and we want to take full advantage of that. We’ve got great musicians around us. We’ve got a great team with our label and management. They’ve all been very encouraging, with the solo stuff that we’re doing, as well. This is kind of what I always wanted, for my life, especially at this phase in my life. Just, to focus on my family, and focus on my music. There’s nothing more that I could possibly want.
RMS: You have two new members of Thin Lizzy – Tom Hamilton from Aerosmith, and Scott Travis from Judas Priest. How did you get those guys involved in the band?
DJ: Well, we had done some dates with Judas Priest; we did a run as Thin Lizzy back in 2011, and we have been friends with that camp for a long time. The timing of it worked out great. We recently had Mikkey Dee from Motörhead; he was going to play drums with us. Mikkey got the great opportunity to work with the Scorpions. We’re very happy for him. So, when we started considering some other names, we realized that Priest was off the road this summer. I’m great friends with Richie Faulkner; he and I had been texting and emailing. I knew they weren’t working. I said, “Hey man, do you think Scott would be into jamming with us?” And he was like, “Are you kidding me? He would love it.” So, we kind of connected the dots. Similar thing with Tom – I have several friends in and around the Aerosmith camp, and it was my manager who had mentioned Tom’s name one day, and I just went, “Wow! You know what, it’s not out of the question.” Stephen’s got a solo record out; Joe is doing the Hollywood Vampires. Sure enough, man, Tom responded immediately. I was very excited to hear him say it. He’s a huge fan of Thin Lizzy. He’s just really excited, man, to be a part of things. We’re going to all finally get in a room together a week from this Saturday. We’ll be in London, and we’ll have four or five days of rehearsals. I’m really honored; just honored to be a part of it.
RMS: I would hope that you guys would bring Thin Lizzy to the States, also, with the new, incredible lineup, as well.
DJ: Well, you never know what’s going to happen, man. There’s so much happening. There’s so much great music. It’s a good time to be alive. It’s a good time, to be a part of all of these things. I feel like Charlie in the chocolate factory, in that Willy Wonka movie (laughs). I feel like I won the golden ticket, to be a part of all of this great stuff. I just could never have seen it coming. That’s why I feel so inspired and driven to keep working hard, keep writing, and building this legacy with these great musicians around me. I’m very lucky.
RMS: Was it a difficult decision when you decided to leave Alice Cooper for Thin Lizzy?
DJ: It was definitely difficult, I guess you could say, on an emotional level. You know, that guy’s like my big brother. He’s one of my best friends. With all the guys in the band – there were special, special relationships there. But, Alice didn’t hesitate to give me his full enforcement. He knew what a big fan of Thin Lizzy I was. He knew that, as a guitar player, that I would get a greater exposure, or platform as an individual musician, to be a part of Thin Lizzy. He knew that, it was kind of a heralded position. I wouldn’t have been ready for an opportunity like Thin Lizzy if it hadn’t been for Alice Cooper. We stay in touch with all of those guys. We see them often. They were just in Nashville recently, and my wife and kids went down. I was out of town, unfortunately, but they all went to the show. Alice and his wife, Cheryl, are certainly a part of our family.
RMS: My last question – Was it difficult when you decided to stop Thin Lizzy (as a continuing creative musical entity) and go on as Black Star Riders, and to get everybody on board? To have your fans continue to follow you with a different name, even though it was the same band? Not too many bands have tried to pull off something like that.
DJ: You know, in looking back to the end of 2012, when we made that decision, we didn’t know what to expect about anything, to tell you the truth. But, we did know that it was the right thing to do – to put this music out under a different name, besides Thin Lizzy. We felt confident that the fan base would appreciate that; that they would agree with that. It turned out to be exactly the case. Speaking with people, face to face over the last three years – they’ve all echoed their appreciation and respect that we did that. We can celebrate that great sound. We can always tip our hats to that legacy, but now we can do it under our own name, and kind of establish our own thing. It was definitely better for Ricky and myself, as outside people, who were not members of the original Thin Lizzy; it was definitely better for us, to be a different name, and for it to be Black Star Riders. So, it just seems that time is moving so fast, Thomas. Here we are; three years has just flown by. We’re about to make the third record. The band has really connected across the ocean, in Europe; particularly in Great Britain and Germany and Scandinavia. So, they’re waiting, man. They’re ready for the third album to come out. We feel like it’s going to be the right time to really focus on the United States, and to start to build a fan base for Black Star Riders over here, as well.
For more on Damon Johnson, visit www.damonjohnson.com
For more on Black Star Riders go to www.blackstarriders.com
Special thanks to Chip Ruggieri and Dana Kaiser.