On The Line with Damon Johnson of Black Star Riders

Damon Johnson has a rich history in music. From co-founding Brother Cane in 1990 to joining Alice Cooper’s band as lead guitarist to playing guitar in Black Star Riders (described on the band’s site as “a rejuvenated lineup of Thin Lizzy” that plays original songs), he’s done a lot and made the most of it. And that’s just a few of the many achievements on his eclectic list of projects. I had the opportunity to speak with Damon recently about his upcoming acoustic gigs with Ricky Warwick, playing golf with Alice Cooper, being guest guitarist on That Metal Show, his favorite concerts and more.

Alex Obert: So I understand you’re in the studio today, what’s going on here?

Damon Johnson: I am elated and so excited to tell you that I’m recording first proper electric solo album. I’m working with Nick Raskulinecz, who produced The Killer Instinct. It’s a bonus for me, man, because he and I both live right here in the Nashville area. I was really lucky he had some space in his calendar. I’m just doing five songs, I’m a fan of the new model of putting recordings out there to the world. There’s such a limited number of people that care anymore about buying a twelve song CD. I don’t wanna wait around. I wanna get this stuff out here quick and add it to the resume of music that I’m currently involved with right now.

Alex Obert: How are you purchasing music that you want to listen to these days?

Damon Johnson: You know what man, I subscribe to Spotify. I stream. There’s pretty much anything I wanna hear right there. I can create my own playlist. I can go on and pull up an album and listen to that in its entirety, just like I did as a kid. There’s a lot of things about technology that are fantastic and there’s no question that the technology train is not gonna slow down. And it’s certainly not gonna turn around and go back to where it was twenty years ago, ever.

Alex Obert: What are some of the new bands that you have discovered through Spotify?

Damon Johnson: Well I’ve been so busy that when I get to go on Spotify, I’m going for a specific reason. I know that when we go back on the road at the end of this month, I’m looking forward to spending some time searching around. I’m a fan of a lot of singer/songwriters. Ryan Adams has a great new album that he put out earlier this year. Jason Isbell is a great songwriter from Alabama, he used to be in the Drive-By Truckers. I’m a huge fan of his. I find myself often times listening to songwriters on Spotify. I’m sure there’s some great rock n’ roll in there as well, I need to do a little homework in that department.

Alex Obert: You mentioned that you’re going out at the end of the month and it happens to be a collection of acoustic shows with Ricky Warwick in the U.K. Can you fill readers in on that?

Damon Johnson: I’m really, really excited about that. Those dates have come together so quickly. The fact that we’ve been able to sweep together a handful of quality venues like these is really exciting. Ricky is, without a doubt, my musical brother. And we have such an amazing chemistry together as songwriters. We’ve done three acoustic dates together before and each of those was really special because he’s got such a vast catalog of material from his career and I do as well. It’s fun for us to not only play the Black Star Riders songs and some Thin Lizzy, but also do some of his solo songs and some Brother Cane, we accompany each other. We just have a blast, man. The audience loves it as well, they can tell we’re having a great time.

Alex Obert: When you were starting out, which bands and musicians captured your attention and helped to shape you?

Damon Johnson: My answers have probably evolved throughout the years. But to truly label the stuff that I was able to sit down and start to pick out at the guitar, it was stuff like Bachman-Turner Overdrive, those guys always had great songs and guitar solos that you could sing because they were so melodic. I was a huge Molly Hatchet fan, they had some really melodic solos. You could really make your way around the neck of the guitar with their songs. AC/DC for sure, man. Highway to Hell and Back in Black, those two albums were pivotal for me when I first started. And then later, I got into Aerosmith and Thin Lizzy and Deep Purple and Van Halen.

Alex Obert: Which singer would you say you prefer, Brian Johnson or Bon Scott?

Damon Johnson: Well I prefer Bon Scott simply because his lyrics and the way he sings them resonated with me more, particularly in the early period stuff like High Voltage and Powerage. I don’t know if Angus and Malcolm were as involved in the lyric writing then. I think we all know that Bon had a lot to say, he had a great way of saying it. You believed him when he started talking about being a rock ‘n’ roll singer, you knew he meant that. Dirty Deeds and Rock ‘N’ Roll Damnation, I could go on. I much prefer Bon. Brian’s incredible, he’s singing as great now as ever before. It’s mindblowing when you consider how old he is and he’s singing like that. It’s just unreal. I hope AC/DC lives forever. I hope Angus and Brian and Cliff Williams, I hope they live forever. I don’t want to live in a world without AC/DC! (laughs)

Alex Obert: When you watch live footage of Thin Lizzy from the seventies and eighties, how do you view it?

Damon Johnson: My story with them is unique because I saw the original Thin Lizzy in 1979, I was fifteen years old. And of course, you weren’t really able to see video footage that fan, you have to go see the band live in concert. Anytime I do see footage of the original band, I’m kind of transported back to seeing them live in concert. And I’ve said this in so many conversations about the that era, particularly bands from the U.K. and Europe in general, they were untouchable. They had a different thing going on. It was more than just guys playing songs and playing their instruments. They were rockstars, man. Phil was the consummate rockstar, absolutely on a level with Freddie Mercury or Elvis Presley. For him to be starting a band that had these amazing songs and these great Celtic melodies and great lyrics and poetry that Phil was always passionate about creating, there’s nothing else like it. Nothing.

Alex Obert: There’s just a magical stage presence that some bands have. I’m very curious about what you took out of sharing the stage with Alice Cooper. Did you learn a thing or two from him?

Damon Johnson: Well the thing with Alice Cooper is that he is the show, he’s the entire show. As much of a fan as I was of the original Alice Cooper band, which had great characters in it as well like Dennis Dunaway and Ben Buxton, it just took on a whole nother thing once he made that first solo album with Welcome to my Nightmare. The whole Broadway-vaudeville thing got really ramped up. To get an opportunity to be a musician on stage with him and playing those songs and being a part of the presentation that he’s evolved enough to last all these years, there’s no one better. I don’t think Alice Cooper has ever done a bad show in his whole career. I literally mean that, man. Even if he was struggling vocally, he still is able to perform and extend his vision of his performance and everybody goes home happy. It’s not just the singing and the songs, it’s the whole presentation. I just love that Alice puts the show together no matter what year he’s touring, no matter what album he just recorded or what time period, he’ll cram twenty, thirty songs into a ninety minute set. Nobody else can do that. He doesn’t talk to the crowd, it’s one song after another and there’s a flow and there’s a pace and a tempo to the show. And that’s probably the thing that I learned the most from my time with him.

Alex Obert: Did he ever get to take you out for a round of golf?

Damon Johnson: I think that in my six years of playing guitar for Alice Cooper, and this is not an exaggeration, I would venture to say that he and I played somewhere in the level of about three hundred rounds of golf. Do the math, we’re doing a hundred concert dates, we played seventy five rounds. No joke, man, no exaggeration. It’s just a drag my handicap isn’t any lower, it should be! (laughs)

Alex Obert: How did you guys go about looking for golf courses in the area that you’re playing that night?

Damon Johnson: This is the extraordinary thing about if you love golf and you play with Alice, he’s got this amazing relationship with Callaway. They have sponsored him for decades now. So Callaway would set it all up. We’d send them the tour dates, they would call their dealers and golf pros in different cities and say, “Hey, Alice and guys are coming to town, they wanna come out and play. They’ll get you tickets to the show, whatever.” Never did anyone turn down an opportunity for that. It wasn’t if we were gonna play golf, it was where and what time. Every day. It was always exciting for the members of different clubs because word would get around fast. “Alice Cooper’s coming to the track today!” It’s a great social setting as well, man, you learn a lot about interacting with other people. I love golf. I love it. I’ll love it for the rest of my life. I’ll never forget that experience, playing that much golf. (laughs)

Alex Obert: You brought up earlier that he is the spotlight of his show, but you happened to be in the spotlight on That Metal Show as guest guitarist. How was that set up?

Damon Johnson: It was amazing. We’ve got some great fans of Black Star Riders in the form of Eddie Trunk, Don Jamieson and Jim Florentine. I know right from the beginning once we decided to change the name and not make new music as Thin Lizzy, but rather do it under a different name, they were so relieved. And it was a bonus when we put out the debut album and it was really good, some great songs there. It wasn’t just going in the studio in drawing up some mics and banging out some riffs and that’s it, there was a lot of time and passion put into those songs. So when we released this sophomore album, which I know has taken the band to a whole new level, we had no greater, louder or faster support of The Killer Instinct than from the guys on That Metal Show. So I was really flattered and honored that they would ask me to come on and be the guest guitarist.

Alex Obert: How did you prepare the riffs? Do you have them in your head beforehand or did you improvise?

Damon Johnson: I thought about preparing some stuff and as the day got closer, I was feeling like there wasn’t really a point in doing that. I didn’t want it to sound clinical. I wanted to treat it more like how I do when I play my solo gigs. That’s when I read the room and get a vibe on what the energy is around me, the other people in the audience, how my guitar sounds, that type of thing. My guitar sounded amazing in the studio, I brought my own amps and some of my pedals and stuff. That helped a lot as well. So right before we did the actual taping, I made a couple notes and went from there. They tell you in advance that you can’t play a piece of music that’s already been recorded because the show’s just not set up to pay the royalties on stuff like that. So I kind of pulled a fast one, I played a solo from one of our Black Star Riders songs. I also played a riff from an old Slave to the System song, a band that I was in back in the early 2000s. And it sounded great, man, it all came out cool.

Alex Obert: What was it like watching them converse with Kirk Hammett and Michael Schenker for that show’s taping?

Damon Johnson: It was a lot of fun for me. I’m a fan of both those guys. I’ve got albums by both players. And it was a real mindblower for me to find out that the episode that I was gonna be on was gonna have both those guys on there. I think if I had been a little younger and a little less experienced, I might’ve been fucking freaking out, like nervous. Those guys are icons. But at this point in my career and certainly in my life, I’m just very at ease with who I am as a musician and as a guitarist. And I just do what I do. There was certainly nothing that I was gonna play that was gonna blow their minds, there’s not. That thought never even entered my mind, I just wanted to play some cool rock guitar and just do my part by contributing to the night.

Alex Obert: And I understand that it meant a lot to you recently that you got to jam with Brad Whitford.

Damon Johnson: Now that was heavy! Brad is such a sweet, sweet human being and he is the single most underrated guitarist in all of rock history. Joe Perry is such a rockstar and a great player in his own right, but Joe gets a lot of the spotlight. He gets a lot of the press, he gets a lot of the guitar chatter most of the time. But Brad is a player’s player. Again, it’s just another cool coincidence that Brad is another rock musician that lives here in Nashville. We wound up playing together a charity event and he took me to school, man. He took me right to school. When he would step up and play, I would just turn my guitar off and just stand there like everybody else in the crowd. I love Brad Whitford’s guitar playing.

Alex Obert: Have you been to a concert where the performance of the guitarist was so amazing that it basically brought a tear to your eye?

Damon Johnson: That’s probably happened several times. Seeing Van Halen for the first time was an emotional experience. I knew they were gonna be great, but I didn’t know they were gonna be that great. I was such a fan of Eddie’s guitar playing before I ever saw them, so when I go to the show, I’ve got him in my face just shredding my brain out. And those lights and that sound and David Lee Roth and the girls in the audience, just the whole spectacle of a Van Halen show in 1980. They were in their prime and those guys were vicious. Getting to see Stevie Ray Vaughan play for the first time, equally as impactful for me. That was a real changing of direction for me. Hard rock and metal was starting to get almost classical and I couldn’t really relate to that because I’m from the South, I grew up on blues and gospel and R&B and all of that stuff mixed in with the great hard rock bands like Zeppelin and Skynyrd and Lizzy. So Stevie kind of re-inspired me to approach my instrument differently than a lot of the players around me were at the time. Everybody was learning to sweep pick and scallop their fingerboards and be Yngwie. That’s great and he’s incredible, but it just doesn’t speak to me. It’s not my thing. But Stevie certainly spoke to me and changed my life for sure. He’s one of a kind, he’s extraordinary. Generally, anybody that had anything negative to say about Stevie, they’re just jealous. You had to be an idiot not to recognize that guy’s specialness.

Alex Obert: Before we wrap up, I wanted to get your thoughts on the recent speculation regarding the possibility of a Guns N’ Roses reunion with the original lineup. Do you think it will happen?

Damon Johnson: I hope so. I was such a fan of Appetite for Destruction, that album inspired me to put my own band together and get my own record deal and write my own songs. That’s ultimately how Brother Cane got off the ground. I just think that if it does ever happen, it’s only gonna happen for one reason. And that’s money. It’s not because they dig playing together or they dig hanging out together. But you know what, those songs are so great and that band was so great, I’m not gonna bitch about it. I would like to see that and I think the rest of the world would like to as well. But it’s gonna take a lot of money to see that come together. And I assure you that there will be some false starts if they tried to get it off the ground.

Alex Obert: Just like Chinese Democracy, that was fifteen years in the making.

Damon Johnson: It’s gonna be tough, man. It’s gonna be tough.

Alex Obert: In closing, what other dates do you have lined up for the next couple of months?

Damon Johnson: It’s all really Black Star Riders, that’s the focus. We’re headed to Europe to do some festivals. We’re playing Download Festival in London. We’re gonna go down to Prague. We’ll be in Austria, Sweden and Romania. Just wanna try and maximize the opportunity that we have to spread the word about this album that we’re so proud of. I don’t have any kind of a date as to when I can get the solo material out, but without question, this summer is gonna be me trying to wrap this up and get it mixed and packaged and out there. And hopefully get to play some dates with my band as well.

Alex Obert: I’d love to thank you so much for your time and a great interview.

Damon Johnson: Alex, it’s my pleasure. Good to talk with you, man!

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0 Replies to “On The Line with Damon Johnson of Black Star Riders”

  1. Damon is a class act. We’ve been fans since the Brother Cane days and have followed him throughout his career. Thanks so much for this interview.

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