Interview: Damon Johnson of Black Star Riders

Shortly before Gun took to the stage for their second night in front of their home crowd, Damon Johnson ambles into the O2 ABC’s production office. The affable American is incredibly enthusiastic about two nights in Glasgow and immediately I’m given the impression that at the heart of a musician is another music fan. We sit down to talk about Black Star Riders’ new album and subsequent UK tour, his long-standing history with Ricky Warwick and his own solo material, amongst other things…

Firstly, welcome back to Glasgow! How’s the tour going so far?

It’s going fantastic! We felt like there was some new momentum for us when we put the new album out [Heavy Fire] and the crowds and the vibe around the whole tour is reinforcing that. It’s such an honour to have Gun with us, Backyard Babies joined last night; we’ve been friends with them for a long time. We feel like it’s a special night out we’re offering to our fans. It’s pretty mind-blowing; they seem to know all the words to the new songs already! That’s always a great indicator of how well the new songs are going over.

What prompted the band to release the new album via PledgeMusic?

It’s a great concept. There are different ways you can use it and we loved some of the ideas that they had when we started discussions with them. We feel like we’re still fans ourselves…it was easy to put ourselves in that position of “What if we could support our favourite band?” And “What if I could go online and pay to play a song with that band at soundcheck?” That’s crazy! I would have done that in a heartbeat. Getting things signed and the thing I know that’s most common is seeing the behind the scenes content. We were very active in the studio with a lot of photography, some film, a lot of interviews – including the fans in the process. Again, when we discussed that ourselves, and put ourselves in that position being fans; if I could have done that with Van Halen or whoever, it would have been mind-blowing. It went well and I don’t know if we’ll do it again in the future but the feedback from our fans has been really great.

Did the band approach the recording of the album any differently this time around?

For the most part, everything was pretty similar to The Killer Instinct. We worked with Nick [Raskulinecz, producer] again who we love. I hope we work with Nick for another fifty years. We love that guy. He pushes us; he knows our strengths and weaknesses. He’s very musical. Maybe one of the differences was we simply went to Nashville with more songs this time. Ricky [Warwick] and I got together way back in January of last year and we had a really productive first week together. That first batch that we worked on already had “Dancing With the Wrong Girl”, “Testify or Say Goodbye”, “When the Night Comes In”, “Cold War Love”; all in that first week.

It was a good week but we continued writing, we wrote some more with Scott [Gorham] at his house in London during the Summer. Robbie [Crane] came in with a couple of great musical ideas which we incorporated. We knew looking at the calendar we’d have some time, we didn’t want to wait so it certainly paid off. I think if you can show up with twenty or twenty-five songs, it increases your chances of having ten really good songs. That math worked itself out, we feel.

You and Ricky [Warwick] have toured together as an acoustic act in the past. How did that come about?

It happened by accident, I guess. The first thing that was fortuitous is that he and I have done lots of solo acoustic stuff individually. So we’re very confident in that setting. He had a gig one time, outside of Belfast, this was about three years ago. We had the night off with Black Star Riders and he asked if I wanted to come along and sit in on a couple of songs. I wound up sitting in on like a dozen songs! He felt it, I felt it, the people in the audience felt it. I’ll never forget his cousin, Fiona, who we love, said: “Guys, you have to do that again. I don’t know why or how it works but you have something different.” And she was right! We wound up booking a little run in the UK shortly after that; five or six shows, no big deal. And it slowly built up. I think for our fans, they loved that they could get close and intimate. It just happened organically, we love it and it’s so fun. It’s so simple.

Is it something the pair of you would revisit?

Our manager says it’s a great night out. We can do it in small places, charge a low ticket; it’s no stress on anybody. We love to play and sing together, it gives us more time to listen to music and come up with ideas for new songs. I really feel confident it’s something we’ll do more of in the future.

You’ve also had some solo releases in the past; just last year with the Echo EP. How does writing and recording a solo effort compare with Black Star Riders?

In Black Star Riders, Ricky and I formed a really special bond in the beginning because of where we come from musically and certainly what the band’s vibe is all about. I support Ricky writing the lyrics himself, he’s an amazing songwriter; a great storyteller. I hope that’s how it continues going forward. I’m grateful he comes to me, asking my opinion – I respect and appreciate that but he’s really been a teacher for me in that aspect. The big difference is, in my solo stuff, I’m much more involved in writing most or all of the lyrics. My songs tend to be a little more personal, I just feel like the songs that resonate with me the most for my own stuff or even my old band, Brother Cane, the songs I enjoyed singing most are the ones I felt like I had something to say about a real life situation whether about me or a friend.

Ricky does the same thing but he can spin it in a story, a little more cinematic. Mine is more relationship-based for the most part. I think with Echo I’ve tried to incorporate more electric guitar, focus on that. Thin Lizzy and Black Star Riders has raised my profile in a way that I could never have anticipated, I’m grateful for that. I want to give people not only my songwriting chops and my singing but I definitely keep some guitar in there. It’s funny to shift the focus and say I’ll be the centre of attention for a little while.

Black Star Riders started this tour with a warm-up show in Wolverhampton. What did you think of the support act, Stone Broken?

I thought they were great! I loved that there was some good chatter about them before we got there. They’re well on their way, I think they have a lot to say, they have a lot to offer. It was a pleasant surprise having them on the bill and be a part of it.

Thin Lizzy went back out on the road to mark the anniversary of a couple of events last year. If there are any more Thin Lizzy shows, will it be a case of one-offs and anniversaries?

Yeah, I think Thin Lizzy shows will be at a minimum for no other reason than Black Star Riders has grown into its own thing. We definitely established that with the third album. I know that Scott really enjoyed doing those dates last year; he had a great time, we had a great time and it was just the right amount. And if you think about the fact we hadn’t played as Thin Lizzy since 2012, it was a nice break for the fans. Now that Black Star Riders has three albums… I think it’ll make the Thin Lizzy fans even more appreciative of our decision not to put out new material as Thin Lizzy.

We’re always going to play one or two Thin Lizzy songs because our fans like that and we like that – it’s where we’re from. Maybe next year there’ll be a show or two where we’ll pop up. I think it’s cool to do it when it’s in a festival setting – big crowd and other big bands. I can pretty much guarantee there won’t be any Thin Lizzy touring where we book a run of dates. Scott…I don’t think he wants to do that anymore, he’s having a great time playing this stuff. For Scott Gorham to have an album debut at number six in the charts in the UK, that’s insane! We defer to him on that but 2017 is definitely the year of Black Star Riders.

All photos by Gavin Lowrey

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