“I ask the same old question and get the same reply. It forever seems I’ll chase that dream until the day I die.” – “The Road” by Brother Cane
Damon Johnson is a guy who I’ve been following in one form or another since 1993. In 1993, a buddy of mine was listening to a CD by a band called Brother Cane and what I heard was a harder edged Black Crowes full of fire, grit, and just good ol’ southern songwriting. I became a fan instantly and followed the band until 1998 when the band disbanded. From there I watched Damon release a duo of stellar solo albums, take the guitar slot with the legendary Alice Cooper, then alongside Scott Gorham to resurrect Thin Lizzy, and then finally with Black Star Riders where he currently resides.
I recently had the chance to talk with Damon Johnson for the first time and as corny as it sounds it was like talking to an old friend. We talked about his love of the Brainfart (seriously!), connecting with Jason Isbell about Iron Maiden, how he becomes Bon Scott whenever he hears “Highway to Hell”, and his undying love and passion for the music he makes. This was without a doubt in my top 5 favorite interviews and I’m so excited to share this one. So kick back, get a cold one, and get to know the great Damon Johnson.
Damon, thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy day to do this!
Don, it’s all good man. I want you to know something, Don. I’ve come aware of the Brainfart in the last couple of years and I’m a fan, brother. If I’m not mistaken, didn’t Black Star Riders make your list of best shows last year?
Black Star Riders was indeed one of the best shows I saw last year.
Don, that’s really flattering brother. We are so grateful for cats like you. We need you now more than ever because really, all we’ve got are people like you talking about us and spreading the word. We really appreciate all the accolades from you. That means a lot.
Damon, that right there is why I love doing what I do and hearing that makes it all worthwhile.
At the end of the day, Don, regardless of the changes in the music business or increases and decreases or whatever, you, me, and the guys are still getting do what we love and at the end of the day, that’s what matters the most. Well done my friend. You kick ass [laughs].
I’ve been a fan of yours since hearing the first Brother Cane album back in ’93. Looking back on it all, is this where you thought you would be at this point?
I would’ve never been able to see myself where I am right now; certainly not even 10 years ago. I kind of figured that when Brother Cane wrapped up that, from an artist stand point, I was pretty much done. I just felt like that was my shot. I had the big record label, we had the tour support, we were on the road, had radio airplay but we just never reached critical mass. We not only hoped it would but we needed it to in order to continue doing it full time. I kind of became just a journeyman/sideman and continued my songwriting and writing songs for other people. Honestly, if you would’ve told me, “Dude, in your late 40’s you’ll join Thin Lizzy and then it’s going to morph into a new and you and the singer are going to write the bulk of the material and it’s going to be badass” I would’ve said, “No way.” [laughs]
Man, talk about exceeding all of the expectations you ever had and some you didn’t even know you had!
[laughs] Totally. I didn’t even really become a songwriter until I formed Brother Cane. I had been a guitar player since I was a teenager but didn’t really start writing songs until my mind 20’s. My love of songwriting has grown so much over the last couple of decades so to find myself in this situation where I have such an incredible partner in Ricky Warwick who loves to write as much as I do and who also has two decades of experience as a songwriter, it’s a formidable team. Then you put the guys all together on stage and in the studio. Man, just to have their support of the songs that we’re bringing to the table is awesome. To have fucking Scott Gorham go, “Gosh, that’s bad ass. Let’s track that song.” C’mon man, how does that happen? [laughs]
As a songwriter, you’ve had songs recorded by acts such as Stevie Nicks and Carlos Santana. Is there anyone out there that you haven’t written for that you’ve said, “I’d love to write for this person”?
Well, there are definitely people I would love to write with very much. I’d love to write a song with Sting. Man, the guys that I’d love to write with are the top of the top. Billy Joel. I mean, how bad ass would it be to tell Billy Joel, “Look man, I’ve got this guitar riff. Check it out.” [laughs] That would be mind blowing. I’d love to write a song with Joe Perry. I’d love to write a song with Jimmy Page. I mean, not be the singer but just write something musical; write something timeless like those guys are known for. That’s the scene that I bring to collaborations. Nobody loves music more than me. Nobody [laughs]. Honestly, I listen to a broad diversity of music. I’m as much a fan of singer/songwriters as I am James Hetfield’s right hand [laughs]. All that stuff just fuels my intensity and I’m always looking for something to plug that intensity into.
That’s where Black Star Riders comes in right?
Absolutely, Don. With Black Star Riders I’ve got an outlet for those ideas and an incredible group of guys to express them with. I feel really, really fortunate to be here in 2015, dropping a really good record, and getting back out on the road.
I really loved hearing about that diversity. I just love music as long as it’s good no matter what the genre tag it has attached to it.
That’s it, Don. It’s all about loving music and it’s all about that diversity. I have to tell you, you know who Jason Isbell is right?
Yeah. I love Jason Isbell and his work with Drive By Truckers as well.
Yeah, his solo stuff is spectacular like on the par of Steve Earle and John Prine and some of those other great American songwriters. Well last year I was at Iron Maiden at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville and it was incredible. So I’m Tweeting that I’m there and the first retweet and comment I get is from Jason and he was as pumped about Iron Maiden as you and me would be. He was like, “I can’t believe I’m not there!” [laughs]
Man, I have to say that I feel like for some reason us Southern boys tend to be a bit more open minded than most would believe us to be. Maybe I’m just partial but…
A-fuckin-men brother [laughs]. I’ve been all over the world with Alice Cooper and Thin Lizzy. Those bands have taken me to places I would never have gone without them and I’m telling you, there’s no other plot of geography that I would have rather grown up in than in the Southern United States. Nowhere. You just can’t get what we get there. There’s just so much of everything. That essentially colored and formed whatever I am as a writer, a guitar player, and an artist. I’m just so grateful to have had the upbringing the exposure to the different music that I’ve heard living in the South.
I’m also a huge fan of your albums “Release” and “Dust.” I love that they are this kind of darker southern thing. What is it about the south that makes us play and write the way we do?
Don, first off, let me say thank you. Both of those releases were very important to me and I’m very proud of them. It means extra when I speak to anyone and find that those records have spoken to them. Basically, I just released them myself and sold then on my website and gigs so the fact that they’re on your radar at all is really flattering. So anytime I’m by myself and I pick up a guitar I’m not thinking of a band or radio or mass exposure or anything. I just want to play what feels good to me. As a sound, as a vibe, it’s always leaned towards darker things. Maybe it’s from being such a Zeppelin fan. Those album tracks on like Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti. They would go down these rabbit holes that weren’t the bombast and the hip shake if “Whole Lotta Love” or “Heartbreaker.” You mix in stuff like that with the Allman Brothers and Pink Floyd and it’s just a mesh of all that stuff. I’ve just always loved that more melancholy, dark thing.
I loved that about the Allman Brothers Band and even more recently the Drive-By Truckers. They get that darkness and really sing about it. Maybe it’s the heat down here? Who knows?
[laughs] That sweltering heat has a lot to do with it. Man, I love the Truckers myself. It’s sad that I haven’t had an opportunity to meet those guys face to face because I’m a fan. They spin this unique, almost poetic take on southern culture and the southern experience but they wrap it up in this almost kind of Neil Young and Crazy Horse kind of vibe. It’s like a drunker version of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers [laughs]. It’s fucking killer. I love that stuff very much.
Congrats on a stellar follow up to All Hell Breaks Loose. One of the things I have to say that I noticed is that Killer Instinct definitely has Black Star Riders forging more of their own sound as opposed the heavier Thin Lizzy influence. Am I even close in saying this?
Of course, Don. It’ll be no surprise to you that this has been the consistent review from anybody that we’ve been talking to now since doing press for the record. Honestly we never really thought about it as we were writing but now that the record’s finished and we’ve had a chance to step back and have objective ears on it, I don’t think you can say it better than that. The first record was originally meant to be a Thin Lizzy album and you completely hear that in the songs. Now, we’ve had a year and half to establish within ourselves who we are. Now we know who we are and we are really confident. I’d be a fool to deny that there weren’t some moments when we were writing when we went, “Yeah. That sounds like that could’ve been on Johnny the Fox or Black Rose because we love those records. There are no two people more respectful and more humble about the opportunity to be a part of the Thin Lizzy story than Ricky Warwick and myself. I don’t think that’s every going to change and we don’t ever want to take that for granted or disrespect it in any way. We just feel like we’ve got our legs under us now, we’ve got the big gust of wind, we’ve got the sails up, and we’re moving forward as Black Star Riders. We will always celebrate Thin Lizzy because that gave us a launching pad to get it started.
One of the things I loved about seeing you guys last year was that the set was like ½ Black Star Riders stuff and ½ Thin Lizzy stuff. I loved that you guys really stood strong behind your own material.
Thanks for saying that, Don. I think we did a good job on that first record. Kevin Shirley was a huge asset on that record and he helped us put that thing together quickly. He didn’t give us a lot of time to over think it which is probably a great thing. I won’t deny that we had some doubts and we had some anxieties like, “What the fuck are we doing? Is anybody going to care? Is it going to be any good?” We didn’t really know but we had to take a shot at it. Scott Gorham wanted to tour and write new music and it just wouldn’t have been right to do that as Thin Lizzy. He knew that and he was confident in all of us as band to do this. It would’ve been a lot easier to just keep being Thin Lizzy and go out there and play all the hits. It’s a legendary brand and people know the name so to change the name to something completely different in 2013 is almost career suicide [laughs].
I totally agree and again, that night that I saw you guys, I saw Black Star Riders doing some Thin Lizzy songs, not Thin Lizzy.
That’s a huge compliment, Don. There’s no question about it. Phil Lynott was Thin Lizzy. He was the heart, the soul, and the spirit of that band. He was the meat and potatoes. Scott would be the first one to tell you that and the fans know that. All we’ve done is gravitate towards the supporters and fans that are grateful that this group of musicians is continuing to play those songs but also writing some pretty bad ass new music. Scott doesn’t have to do this. He could just play golf every day and just ride off into the sunset but he’s not content to do that. He’s not ready to pack it in. He loves music and loves playing new music.
The Thin Lizzy fan base has been really supportive of Black Star Riders it seems.
Absolutely. The Lizzy faithful have been really supportive. People like you have been great allies for us getting the word out there. We’re not on the radio. We’re not going to get on the radio. It’s just not that kind of a band. In this day and age, in the information age where there’s so much noise we’re just going to keep writing and keep putting out there and see what we can do.
Damon, I gotta ask you this question that I asked Ricky last year. What Thin Lizzy song would you love to see in the set list that hasn’t been played yet?
I want to so desperately play “Got to Give it Up” from the Black Rose album.
Did you know that was Ricky’s answer to that question?
[laughs] You have to be kidding me! [laughs] It wouldn’t surprise me because he and I have talked about that one. Dude, you’re going to love this story. The reason that Scott doesn’t want to play it is because he says, “That riff just gets boring after a while. It’s just the same riff over and over.” [laughs] I’m like, “Scott, with all due respect, that song is not about the fucking riff. It’s about that lyric. It’s incredible.” He’s like, “I guess I better pay more attention to the lyrics then” and I just said, “No shit Sherlock.” [laughs] I’m going to push hard for that one this year.
Social Media has really torn down the walls of the “rock star” persona. Do you like having this kind of open availability to your fans or do you miss the more “rock star” mystique?
I know exactly what you’re talking about. For me, I think it’s been a great thing for me because it’s who I’ve been my whole life. I grew up on a farm in a small town in northeast Alabama. I don’t know anything about rock star mystique. It’s just not who I am. I just love music. The ability to connect with fans face to face and on Twitter or Facebook has been great for me. Those people know that if they come to see me play anywhere, with Alice Cooper, with Black Star Riders, or my solo stuff, they know that the chances are really, really good that we’re going to have a face to face conversation at some point in the night. There are some artists like Roger Waters who don’t tweet and I like that. I do like that mystique. My man Sting isn’t on Social Media. He has a team that does it for him. I just think that for a working class musician at any level now is the best time in the history of music to do what you do. Now it doesn’t mean it’s easy. It doesn’t mean you’re going to have an easy time selling a million records because you’re not. That part of it is harder than ever and it may never be a reality that you can sell that many units so the emphasis is on the live concerts now. That’s why I was so stoked about your review because that’s where the rubber meets the road. Can you kick ass live and can you create some great new music?
Damon, do you have that special guitar that you always gravitate to when it comes time to write a song?
Well, that’s a great question man. I am happy to report that I’m at a place as a songwriter that I can write a song on just about anything. I’m like a chopsticks level piano player but I can sit at a piano and bang out a few chord fragments and make something out of that [laughs]. I will tell you though, I do have my favorite acoustic. It’s an early 90’s J-200 that I got right when we started Brother Cane. I recorded all three of those albums on that guitar. I’ve written some Alice Cooper songs on that guitar, some solo stuff, Black Star Riders stuff. When I’m at home, that guitar is always on the guitar stand next to me. I’ve said many times that if there was a fire at my house that would be the first one I would grab [laughs]. That’s definitely a special guitar.
Looking back on your body of work, what song/album do you feel best represents Damon Johnson?
Whew. Wow [laughs]. Don, I’m loving these questions man [laughs]. I have some new information I’m going to share with you [laughs]. I’m getting ready to record my very first, proper, electric solo record. I’m very excited about that. In communicating with the people I’m going to be taking into the studio with me, we’ve revisited some of my albums from my past and I’ve kind of pointed out the strengths of each of the albums to just kind of dip into all of that stuff and have this new album represent that. That said, it’s impossible for me to say that this one record represents all that I am. I’m really proud of my solo album Release. Maybe the definitive Damon Johnson album will be this next one but I will say that Killer Instinct is definitely in the top three. As a writer and a guitar player, I feel that album is as solid a piece of work that I’ve ever been a part of.
When you’re driving around, what song do you have to sing along with no matter how badly off key you might be?
“Highway to Hell.” [laughs] In those three minutes and twenty seconds, I am Bon Scott. I am invincible. I am a super hero [laughs]. That is the greatest fucking rock n’ roll song and arguably the greatest rock vocal in the history of recorded music.
I’m convinced that first line of that song is Bon Scott squeezing his nuts together.
[laughs] There is not another singer that means it more than Bon Scott.
I know you’ve pretty much lived the dream playing with Alice Cooper and Thin Lizzy but if you could play in one band from any era for just one night, who would it be and why?
You know, it wouldn’t suck to play in Led Zeppelin [laughs]. More than anything for me it would be because of the diversity of that body of work. So many styles, so many tempos. I’d get to play with Bonham, with John Paul Jones, and to literally have a painter in the form of Robert Plant up there. That guy never sang a song the same way twice. Every time it was like a blank canvas. However he felt at that moment is how he sang it. It would be hard to find another band that I would be more stoked to perform with but I’d want to be the fifth guy. I mean, Page would have to be there [laughs]. Maybe we could put some harmony guitars on “Dancing Days” [laughs].
If you could go back in time and give a young Damon some advice for the future, what would it be?
I would tell young Damon to put more emphasis on your songwriting and a little less emphasis on girls [laughs]. I think young Damon would’ve benefited from that. Middle aged older Damon is happily married, a father of five and an incredibly fulfilled person but I wasted a lot of time as a youngster [laughs].
If I wasn’t a musician I would be _________________.
I would be a psychologist. I’m a fan of human behavior. It’s just fascinating. There’s enough material just in that to write songs for two centuries.
What are you looking forward to most in 2015?
There’s a lot of stuff cooking. We just got a great offer to play the Download Festival this summer. We’re really excited about that. We’re putting together a promo run that will probably be some shows in New York and Los Angeles to be like an album release kind of thing. Really, we just need to get in the bus and come to Atlanta [laughs]. We want hit all the cities because there’s lots of great rock n’ roll fans and lots of Black Star Riders fans out there that we want to see.
Thanks so much Damon for taking the time to do this interview.
Don, I appreciate that. This has been a killer interview brother. Thank you for all these great questions and for all the enthusiasm about anything that I’ve had something to do with. I really appreciate that.
You are as awesome as I hoped you’d be to talk to. Let’s have beers when you’re in Atlanta. You do drink beer right?
[laughs] I do drink me some beer, brother. I’ll drink some Atlanta microbrews with you. Let’s hook up. You rock, Don and thanks for everything. This was a fabulous interview.