Posted January, 2013
If you’ve been reading Boomerocity for very long at all, you already know that Damon Johnson is considered a friend of this website. I first interviewed the guitar slinger (here) when he had just released his acoustic solo project, Release, and was still playing guitar for Alice Cooper. By the end of the year, the word was out that Damon flew the Coop (so to speak) and joined up with the band of his youth, Thin Lizzy. Of course, Boomerocity talked to him about that move (here).
Naturally, with the news that Thin Lizzy was coming out with a new studio album but under a different band name – Black Star Riders – as well as Damon hitting the road for a series of acoustic shows in various states – I had to track the boy down and get the scoop.
He was kind enough to call me from his home in Alabama and chat for a bit. I started off by commenting that a lot has happened in the year since we last spoke and that Thin Lizzy has made some tactical career changes. I asked him to fill me in.
“I joined Thin Lizzy in October of 2011 and immediately all the discussions had turned to talking about making a new album. For any heritage rock act, it’s truly important to have new music out there. It gives you something to promote, something to talk about in the press related things, interviews, etcetera, etcetera. And the unique situation with Thin Lizzy is, obviously, they hadn’t made an album of original material since 1983 when Phil (Lynott) was still alive. The reasons for that are various. For the new Thin Lizzy – the 21st century version of Thin Lizzy – to continue this great momentum that the band has been able to achieve in the last two years, the logical next step was to put out some new music.
“So, we were all committed to that idea and went ahead and started writing early in 2012 and had even gone to the press and said as much – that that was our plan. As the songwriting continued and as we got closer to going into the studio in October to actually make the album, we started having some second thoughts. Obviously, there are a lot of lifelong fans that were a bit conflicted and understandably so. The straw, for us, that helped us make the decision that we did was when we spoke to Phil’s family – his widow and his daughters – because they’ve been incredibly supportive of this new revitalized Thin Lizzy that’s been out on the road touring. But the subject of new music under the name Thin Lizzy that would get released around the world with no Phil Lynott in it – it made them uncomfortable and it always made the fans uncomfortable and we were never a hundred percent sure ourselves.
“The good news is that we were totally energized and excited about this new music that was being written and none less so than Brian Downey and Scott Gorham. They were really fired up about the material. So it just made more sense – for all these reasons – to come up with a different name and put the music out under that different name and then let the world know, hey, this was going to be the new Thin Lizzy album and literally and simply out of respect to Phil – and out of respect to the amazing legacy that original band established and achieved – it makes more sense to put it out under a new name which, as you know, is Black Star Riders.”
Johnson’s comments begged the question: Is Thin Lizzy going away or is the band going to assume two identities?
“I think the way you just described it is a good way and that is the band is going to assume, essentially, two identities. But the performances as Thin Lizzy are going to be much, much less than what they have been over the last two years. That really has a lot to do with the fact that we love these new songs and we want to get out and build that name, Black Star Riders, and, obviously, we’re going to have to do a lot of touring to accomplish that and to promote the record.
“Secondly, my band mate and lifelong hero, Brian Downey, he’s at a point in his life that he doesn’t really want to do 120 shows a year. That’s a lot of work. That’s a lot of travel. That’s a lot of time away from your family. I think we would all agree that Brian has nothing to prove to anybody. The guy’s a legend. So, for him to decide thirty or forty shows a year makes much more sense to him, then that actually fits perfectly with rest of us and our desire to go out and promote the Black Star Riders album and to do dates as that. So, me and Ricky (Warwick), especially, it’s absolutely the best of both worlds. We get to write songs that are completely influenced by Phil Lynott – totally influenced by Phil Lynott – and then get to go out and play those songs live and, as Black Star Riders, we’d be crazy not to add some Thin Lizzy songs to the set.”
Continuing in that line of thought, Damon added, “I just think that once we put some time into educating the public – and we’ve got a lot of great support from the press, particularly once we made the decision to not record as Thin Lizzy – there was a collective exhale on a lot of people’s part. It just reinforced that we had made the right decision. We’re excited. We’ll see how it all plays out once the record comes out. The plan is, hopefully, for it to come out the middle or end of May. We’ve got all the gears in the machine turning towards getting this record out in May and we’ve already got festival dates booked in June as Black Star Riders.”
To the question of what the reaction from Thin Lizzy fans has been so far, Johnson said, “Well, the fan reaction has been across-the-board positive simply for the fact that we made a decision. Absolutely positive. I think it was confusing to people in the beginning, which I understand that, as well. But now that it’s been a couple of months since we made the announcement, people are starting to go, ‘Yeah, now I get it! That totally makes sense!’”
It was at this point that I had to ask an obvious question: What’s behind the name, Black Star Riders?
“It’s a name Ricky came up with and we all really loved it. When we were trying to come up with a band name, I’d rather eat my own eyeball than to come up with a band name. It’s one of my least favorite things to do. Ricky called me and said, ‘Man, I’m working on some ideas. I’m going to send an e-mail out to everybody by the end of the week.’ I said, ‘Great!’
“So, he sent an e-mail that had five or six names that he had whittled down from, I’m sure, two or three dozen – knowing that guy. He’s so creative. But for me and Scott, Black Star Riders is a bit of a tip of the hat to our favorite movie, which is Tombstone. We love that movie, man – with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer and the whole story about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Little kids are into Disney and grown men are into Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday! Ha! Ha! So, Black Star Riders is sort of our version of Wyatt Earp and his immortals. We all feel really good about it and we felt like it fit the music, fits the vibe and it was something we could all get behind. Which is the main thing: As long as the five of us could feel good about it, then it’s really up to us to put out some good music and the music will define the name.”
About the new album, what can you tell us about it?
“I’m so fresh from coming out of the studio that I still have to talk about Kevin Shirley (producer of BSR’s album). I’ve been a fan of a lot of records Kevin has made throughout the last twenty years. He’s somebody on my bucket list that I’ve always said, ‘Wow, it would be great to make a record with that guy’ and I just never thought it would ever happen. So, when his name came up and he expressed such deep affection for Thin Lizzy and their influence – not only on the world but on him specifically. He was a big fan of Phil, Scott and the guys, like the rest of us.
“He treated this recording in the absolute perfect way and that was to get us all in a room together and have all the drums set up, all the gear set up. We’re all in a circle looking at each other as if we were in a rehearsal room or doing a show and we just tracked it live as a band. There was no, ‘Okay, let’s just get the drums and we’ll come in and do the bass and we’ll put the guitars on.’ I didn’t want to do that from the beginning so I was elated that that was how he wanted to approach it. To me, it’s what’s going to make the record sound more classic and a little more old school. We’re shamelessly old school. We prefer the classics of the seventies over most of the stuff being made today.
“So Kevin really did an amazing job and I can’t say enough about what a positive experience it was working with him. He brought all of that experience and instinct to the table. The other thing I think he was excited about is that we had done a mammoth amount of work before we had even got there. We made very elaborate demos on our own back in the early fall. So he knew going in that it was a project that we could come in and knock out pretty fast. We literally did twelve songs in twelve days and that was it! That aspect of the record was real important to me and a real pleasure to experience. Then, again, the songs – they sound like classic Thin Lizzy but up to date. Twenty first century Thin Lizzy. There’s no gray area that you go see live now – that is Thin Lizzy – and what the Black Star Riders record sounds like.
“The one differential being the drums. Jimmy DeGrasso, who I played with in the Alice Cooper band for three years – he’s always been one of my favorite drummers – that guy studied at the feet of Brian Downey and those records. Jimmy always insisted on how would Brian play it? What would Brian be thinking? That’s a lot easier said than done. I’ve played with a lot of drummers through the years and I’ve been covering The Boys Are Back In Town since I was seventeen or eighteen years old and I’ve got to tell you, man, there’s not a lot of guys who can swing that song. They can’t swing it and make it have the right feel and the way that Brian does. Jimmy is one of those rare drummers that can really do that. To me it’s even rarer to get that from a rock drummer. Most rock and roll drummers, they just want to beat the hell out of everything and play hard. That’s cool and all but that shuffle feel that Brian has, in my humble opinion, that’s where all the sex was in all the Thin Lizzy records. Anybody that’s passionate about that kind of stuff will absolutely agree with that.
“The thing I’ll tell you, too, is that we made this record for ourselves. We absolutely had the fans in mind and we know, from a business standpoint, that if it doesn’t sound like Thin Lizzy then it alienates this pretty significant fan base that we’ve been working really hard the last two years to nurture and to bond with. But I think the unique thing for Scott and Brian, with all due respect, there’s a part of them that didn’t really want to try to sound like Thin Lizzy since Phil passed away. You know what I mean? It’s not like they were going, ‘Well, I want to make a record that sounds like Lizzy with some other people.’ I think that happened by accident. I think the key ingredient was getting two guys in Ricky and me into the band who are career songwriters as well as performers who just happen to have a deep, abiding love for Thin Lizzy. To have Scott there by my side and for me to play a riff that completely was influenced by Johnny the Fox and Bad Reputation and have him say, ‘Hey, man, this is really cool!’ He doesn’t even connect the dots. He doesn’t even know that I’m totally lifting something from Soldier of Fortune. I’m like, ‘If Scott doesn’t catch it, nobody else is gonna catch it!’ I guess you can call that a fun game of cat and mouse.
“There were definite moments during the recording that I would just have goose bumps and think, ‘Wow! I could’ve never foreseen this day ever in my life!’ This is, essentially, my Thin Lizzy tribute record and I had always wanted to do that anyway. I’ve had a list of songs for over ten years – Thin Lizzy songs - which I always wanted to record, do a tribute record, and do my version of them. This is that times two and Scott Gorham’s my guitar player! It doesn’t get any better than that, brother! Absolutely!”
Our time was running out but I had to ask Damon about a handful of acoustic sets that he was about to do in Texas and Oklahoma. I wanted to find out what fans could expect from those shows.
“The acoustic dates that I’ve done throughout my career have always been incredibly fulfilling and it’s an amazing opportunity to play new songs and pull some old songs out of my catalog that I haven’t played in a long time or never played in an acoustic setting. I’ll maybe pull a couple of covers that I love out of the bag. It never fails when there’s been a passage of a year or two between my visits to a certain city, the set list is generally forty or fifty percent different than it was the time before. This will be no exception. I’m excited to play some new songs that I’ve written and just revisit my catalog. I really get a kick out of that and am grateful that I’ve got some fans out there that are interested in coming and hearing that with an acoustic setting.”
I still love Release and, as I’ve written before, Pontiac is still my favorite song. Because of my genuine love of that album, I asked Damon if there are any plans for a follow up to it.
“Yeah, absolutely, and thank you for saying that, by the way. Pontiac is easily one of my two or three favorite songs from the whole album. I’ve been grateful for the response – particularly about that song. I would love to do acoustic records from this day forward. The plan in the back of my head right now is to make my first proper ‘electric’ solo record and I’m sure that there’ll be something acoustic oriented that will pop up on that, as well. Release was a pivotal record for me because it gave me a lot of confidence as a writer and as an arranger. Again, the response to it has been really positive and I’ve been pleased with that. It gives you that motivation to roll up your sleeves and do it again. Plus the fact that I love the acoustic performances so much. It sure makes sense to have another acoustic based record out there that I can get out there and tour behind.”
And speaking of that tour, you can catch Damon at the following dates and venues:
02/07/13 – Ft. Worth, TX – Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge
02/08/13 – Ardmore, OK – Two Frogs Grill
02/09/13 – Dallas, TX - Poor David’s Pub (Will I see you there?)
02/10/13 – Denison, TX – Loose Wheels
Order your tickets now because they’re going out in a blaze of glory!
Click here to keep up with the latest on Thin Lizzy and Black Star Riders.