Black Star Riders have been on a steady rise since morphing from the reactivated latter day line-up of Thin Lizzy in 2013. Now three albums into their career, the five piece which features Lizzy legend Scott Gorham, along with Ulsterman Ricky Warwick and respected guitarist Damon Johnson show no signs of slowing down. We sat down with Damon in Belfast, where the band were performing two very different shows in support of their recent Top 10 charting album ‘Heavy Fire’. Dancing with the wrong girl; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Damon, how are you today?
I’m excellent, man. You know, it’s just been without a doubt, our most ambitious effort yet touring the UK. The energy around us right now is bigger, the crowds are bigger, and the new album has clearly taken us up a notch. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish, especially a bunch of old guys playing Les Pauls and Marshall amps. So it’s not lost on us that we’re very fortunate to have this kind of activity happening.
You started off today with an intimate acoustic performance in Belfast today, at Head Records.
It’s a rarity because there’s just so few physical record shops anymore. We are very blessed to have a motivated, mobilised fan base; they go right to Amazon, they order the physical copy, they’ll go to our record label’s website - whatever it takes - so an opportunity like what we did today not only gave us a chance to play acoustic for those fans, but it gave them a chance to come up and get it signed. It’s tough to get it signed at a gig. It’s not like we’re out walking around all together, so it’s nice when a fan can come and get the entire band’s signature.
Did you ever do that when you were young?
I never got to do that when I was a kid! I know what it’s like; I was a big fan of Pat Travers, and the Pat Travers Band played near my home in Alabama. I went down to the show and hung around until late. The gig was over, and those guys had beers, so they were leaving the venue to get in their bus and onto the next town. To get that album signed, yeah man, I have it to this day, and I wouldn’t dream of getting rid of it!
So you brought that feeling to the appearance today.
Yeah, and there were well over a hundred people there today, and they sang along, and they brought their kids, and then they lined up. Man, it was just special, and I feel like it’s a win / win for everybody.
Watching the acoustic performance today, it was apparent how tight Black Star Riders are as a band.
We’re playing very well together, and I think it’s also a reminder that these songs are all written on an acoustic guitar in the beginning. Whether it was Ricky and I separately, or if we were in a room together, for the most part, the bulk of all our songs on all three albums started on an acoustic guitar, because it keeps the focus on the lyric and the melody. Scott Gorham is a world class guitar player, and I’ve been playing guitar thirty years, so as far as playing electric and playing solos and figuring out parts; we’ve got that covered – that’s easy. That’s the window dressing, and that comes later. The real work is getting the initial idea; is this worthy of our time and attention?
You played a fantastic, punchy set today.
Yeah, it’s amazing to think that today we played five songs that are essentially all singles; ‘When The Night Comes In’ and ‘Testify Or Say Goodbye’ have already been singles, ‘Dancing With The Wrong Girl’ is coming, and ‘The Killer Instinct’ and ‘Finest Hour’ did so well for us, from the last album.
Did you notice that the crowd were singing along with the new songs just as loudly as the older ones?
Yeah, they were! My memory that I’m going to take home from that acoustic performance was this couple brought two of their kids, young kids; six and nine by my estimation, and I have an eight and a twelve year old, so I’m probably pretty close with their age. And they were up on their shoulders, and those kids sang every lyric to ‘Testify’. I watched them, and it’s just mind blowing. It’s one thing when we people our age know songs, but a little kid? They don’t know why they like something, they just like it, and they’re very picky, so that kind of stuff is exciting.
Something very noticeable from today, and indeed this tour, is that you’ve dropped almost all of the Thin Lizzy songs from your set.
It’s not so much a conscious thing to move away from Lizzy as much as it’s a testament to our excitement about our new material. There are songs off ‘All Hell Breaks Loose’ and ‘The Killer Instinct’ that we feel like we have to play, because they’ve connected with our audience. It’s a pleasure to play those, but we’re literally playing, I think, seven songs off the new album. I don’t know who does that. We’re playing them because we feel great about all of them. I mean, we would play the whole album if we had enough time. So to me, that’s a real credit to the strength of the songs on ‘Heavy Fire’. There’s not one song on the album that someone hasn’t gone; “Oh my God, this is my favourite Black Star Riders song yet!”
The tracks on ‘Heavy Fire’ certainly seem to have less of an immediate Thin Lizzy sound about them; has the band perhaps established a little more of its own identity?
I would love to tell you that we made a conscious effort to not sound like Thin Lizzy, but we didn’t. Just like other than the first half of [debut album] ‘All Hell Breaks Loose’, we never made a conscious effort to try and sound like Thin Lizzy. It just happened that there were three of us that were in Thin Lizzy – one of us for a long time! It just happens to be a lot of the same influences; specifically Phil Lynott, who was the songwriter. There wasn’t a tonne of collaboration; there was some, but for the most part, Phil walked in with those songs. So his study of music, his influences, his own creations are so etched into our DNA, for Ricky and I.
So Phil Lynott was a huge influence before you’d ever joined a band with him?
Before we ever met Scott, as fans, and as song writers ourselves, we studied at the feet of Phil Lynott specifically, as well as Thin Lizzy in general. So that’s always going to be a part of it. I can go back to my Brother Cane albums and I can say; “You hear that? We lifted that right off of ‘Suicide”, and nobody would catch it. I just listened to that music so much that it’s inevitable; you pick up the guitar and start to write something yourself it’s going to be in there.
Does that influence carry forward to the present day?
I’m in the same band as Scott Gorham, and we love to write melodies on guitar that can be harmonised. It’s not about burning guitar solos as much as we like to create melodies that people will sing. I think right now of ‘Dancing With The Wrong Girl’; the guitar solo in that may be my favourite guitar moment of all three Black Star Riders albums. There’s something there that to me, captures the essence of everything that I would want our band to be, as a collective.
The last time we spoke was at Ramblin’ Man Fair where Thin Lizzy were playing as part of a short anniversary tour.
Believe it or not, we only did six dates; that was it. I loved it, I know Ricky loved it, Scott loved it, and we know without a doubt the fans loved it. It was just perfect. It was the right time. We had been writing the new Black Star Riders album, and it was an important year ; forty years since [the release of] ‘Jailbreak’, thirty since Phil’s passing - it just made a lot of sense. And if you think about it, and I never thought about it until literally this tour, it was truly the perfect event to allow Black Star Riders to really step away, to step as far away from relying on Thin Lizzy material as we probably will.
Thin Lizzy had an interesting line-up that day; What was it like playing with Scott Travis from Judas Priest?
We’ve toured with Judas Priest several times. We all have so much respect for that band, and Scott Travis has earned legitimate rock star status, because he’s been with Priest so long now, a long, long time. He’s such a powerhouse drummer, and I know Scott and Ricky and I were all looking forward to playing with him, particularly on the heavier Thin Lizzy songs like ‘Emerald’ . He just brought this other thing to it.
You also played one date with Ian Haugland from Europe taking over on drums.
Ian Haugland, he’s another Damon Johnson; he’s a guy that worshiped Thin Lizzy records. Ian was almost nervous. When we first talked to him about it, he was like; “Oh, I don’t know. Wow… What?!” And I said; “Brother, you’re an amazing musician, and the fact that you do kind of hesitate and go ‘I don’t know’ means he’s the right guy. I know it was the same for Ricky, it was the same for me. When Scott or management calls you and says; “Hey, you’re name has come up to play in Thin Lizzy”, your initial reaction is; “Holy shit, really?!”
For you, personally, it must be nice to have a stable home as a musician in Thin Lizzy and Black Star Riders.
This will be my sixth year now with Ricky and Scott. The phone rings still about different things and people needing a guitarist, and all kinds of opportunities and situations, but this is my band, this is my home, and it’s really because of the chemistry that we all have together. I joined Lizzy to play with Scott and Brian, but I did Black Star Riders because of Ricky. We had some really special chemistry as writers, and we’re best friends. We have so much in common in our personal lives, and our commitment to music, and our work ethic. Ricky’s really that partner I wanted in my whole career, and never really had.
That partnership is obviously working, because Black Star Riders are on your third album now, in five years.
Four. Think about it; we went in the studio in January of 2013. We had never performed as Black Star Riders, ever, and the record came out, I think two and a half months later. So, yeah, wow!
This time around you achieved your highest charting album yet, with a a top 10 UK album.
Incredible. Just, stupefying; like; “What, number six?!” I’m proud of my band, and I’m proud of our team; we have such great management, and we have a great record label. There’s a lot of serendipity of good will, and intent, and hard work and commitment to doing it right. It’s an amazing thing to be a part of, and all it does, is it keeps growing our desire to keep doing it. We’ve accepted the reality that chances are pretty good we’re never going to be millionaires playing in Black Star Riders. It’s a great, honest days’ work.
But you’re at a good level right now.
Well, yes, for us just to keep doing this, man; to make records and build this fan base as we have and will continue to build, that loves this music, and loves our performances. And I do believe that they feel a connection to us on a personal level, because we are approachable. I was just down by the bus talking to twenty or thirty people lined up in the queue. We don’t want to be that untouchable - I don’t get to do this without those people
Looking to the future, and is it focused completely on Black Star Riders, or will there be another Thin Lizzy tour?
I can tell you with real confidence there probably won’t ever be another Thin Lizzy tour. I think there’ll be some one-offs, I think there’ll be some festival dates. Ricky and I always leave that up to Scott to some degree. Scott has been the soul flag bearer, truly, of that legacy, and he’s done a pretty amazing job with it for decades now. So, it’s cool to get that phone call from Scott; “Hey brother, I talked to a promoter today and there’s an opportunity”, and if Scott wants to do it, we’re going to always say yes.
But there’s a real distinction between the two bands now?
We’re two different entities now, more than ever. When we released ‘All Hell Breaks Loose’, we needed to tell people; “Look, this is why you need to pay attention”, because on paper ‘Black Star Riders’ is just some name you’ve never heard of. So we had to do something to say; “Hey, this is why you need to check us out”. We don’t have to do that anymore. Now, it’s an established enough brand and I know that 2017 is crammed full of Black Star Riders dates, probably into early ’18.
So you’re looking ahead, always?
Ricky and I have already started writing more songs. We had a riff going on the bus yesterday. Yeah, we’re always looking ahead, and that’s not just a testament to our desire to keep growing, but it is a testament to the success the band has had.
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Black Star Riders' 'Heavy Fire' is out now via Nuclear Blast.