Former Black Star Rider Damon Johnson is preparing to unleash not just a new album, but a brand new band. Introducing “power trio” Damon Johnson & the Get Ready, the guitarist is in upbeat form as we sit down to chat. “The fun part for me as a writer, is to come up with ideas and stories that people can relate to in their own life”, he tells us, of this latest step in a career that has seen him work with Alice Cooper, Thin Lizzy, and a host of others. We caught up with Damon to chat ‘Battle Lessons’, Thin Lizzy’s future, and much more. Casual beast; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Damon, how are you getting through these strange times?
I was talking to my kids this morning, and I guess if there’s any positiver right now, it’s that we’ve sort of, all of us around the world, adjusted to what the new reality is. There’s definitely some hope; the vaccines. I’m starting to see some sort of normal activity with the vaccine, even if it’s just going to dinner with friends. I’m just ready for my shot, bro!
You’ve been travelling the world for years, so what’s it like for you to be stopped in your tracks, professionally?
It was definitely really tough in the spring of last year as the reality was setting in. There were dates already booked that had to get, not just postponed but cancelled, and understandably so. At that point there was just so much uncertainty. There was a lot of doom and gloom, some pessimism, some hopelessness. Whenever somebody would say out loud that there may not be any shows until 2021, that was really scary, certainly for my bandmates, certainly for people I know that are in the technical side of the industry; lighting, staging. I think now, people have had enough time, and they’ve found some other things to do to get through it. I’m grateful for having a new album; it’s been like a beautiful distraction.
So the new album provided some real focus for you, during what must have been a transitional time for you?
The songs were already written, but I just mean from the standpoint of having something to talk about, having something to work on; new mixes, the artwork, et cetera, and now we’re into the phase of, as you and I are doing, doing some interviews and talking about it. So it feels kind of normal, in a great way. My big fear now, man, is what the hell am I going to do in two weeks when all the promo’s over and I’m back in my office here? Like; “shit, I’m going to have to write some more songs! What else can I do?!”
Why have you decided to release ‘Battle Lessons’ under the banner of Damon Johnson & The Get Ready?
Well, my greatest influence in everything I’ve done as a musician is indeed Tom Petty. You and I have spoken often about my hard rock influences and guitar players and stuff like that, but as an artist, Tom Petty, he’s never made a bad record through the course of his forty years of doing it. I was watching that incredible Bogdanovich documentary on Tom Petty, ‘Running Down A Dream’ , and there was a lot of attention given to the fact that Tom was the star. Tom was the song writer; he was the reason they were getting all that attention from the record companies, but he didn’t want to be just ‘Tom Petty’; from day one, he wanted to be a part of a band. And my career has proven that that’s what I wanted from the beginning; to be a part of a band that had enough success so they could sustain themselves a business, and all the players in the band could support their families and just do that one thing.
After leaving Black Star Riders in 2018, you did however, start off as a solo artist.
When I started focusing on my solo career completely, I was kind of business as usual; booking some gigs here, doing some solo stuff, doing some acoustic gigs, as few electric gigs. As I started writing this record, I thought back to Tom Petty, and I’m like; “man, I’m playing with Jarred [Pope, drums] and Robbie [Harrington, bass] full time. If I could play music with those guys for the rest of my life, I would be thrilled!” They’re two of the best musicians I’ve ever known, much less worked with! So, I started thinking; “man, maybe it’s time”. And credit to my manager Kevin [Lee]; he came up with the name, The Get Ready. I told him that as time passes, I’m going to start taking credit for it myself! It’s such a good name, and in a way it reminded me of when Ricky Warwick and Scott Gorham and I were trying to come up with a name for Black Star Riders. There’s no magic trick to doing it; you’ve just got to show up with twenty or thirty ideas and start bouncing them around.
It must feel good, in that case to be part of something new, with a brand new band identity.
I love the name. It makes me proud to be a part of, what I feel like is a tradition of acts like; Neil young and Crazy Horse; Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, you know, that kind of thing.
The album kicks off with the title track, and it’s a real driving, hard rock, Thin Lizzy-esque, call to arms, isn’t it?
Thank you, brother. I really appreciate the way you’re describing it. That’s pretty spot on, how it made me feel. The demo that I made isn’t that different from what the record is, and I knew immediately that it was a good song. I didn’t think it would be the title track, it didn’t occur to me, but as time passed and I was working with [producer] Nick Raskulinecz, man it just felt like this track needs to be front and centre. It is kind of a proclamation of what’s going to come on the rest of the album. Yeah, I knew pretty early in the writing process that I wanted to have a lot of tempo, a lot of energy, riff-heavy stuff; nothing super technical.
That approach sounds ideally suited to the live environment, especially for a power trio.
I’ve been revisiting the songs lately because we’re hoping to put together a live stream where we perform a lot of the stuff. None of this stuff is very complicated. The stuff Scott Gorham and I put together in Black Star Riders was a little more technical, guitar hero stuff. I mean, if you can play ‘Paranoid’ by Black Sabbath on guitar, you can play the riff to ‘Battle Lessons’, or ‘Can’t Clap Any Louder’; any of this stuff.
Lyrically, you sing about “when we were young”; what inspired you to look back?
You know, a lot of the times I’m never 100% sure of what a lyric is about until later, when I can kind of step back from it. I do know that ‘Battle Lessons’, as a concept, to me was really informed more by my career path, being in different bands, things I learned along the way; good experiences, negative experiences, mistakes, things that I regret, things that I would have done differently. But I thought; “when we were young / invincible / nothing to lose”; man, when you’re a young musician and you’re in a band, and you’re with three or four other guys; back then, nothing mattered. We would do it for free, we didn’t have families and responsibilities, we didn't have kids in school, we didn't have a mortgage payment or a car payment; there was none of that. It was just; nothing to lose, we’re doing this, no matter what, because it feeds our soul, and it informs who we are.
And then real life creeps up on you.
Things change, man, as you get older, and it’s just like starting a brand new band in my late forties, with a bunch of other guys the same age, and one guy ten years older - hello Scott Gorham - it’s hard, man! It’s hard to put a band together, especially when you live on different continents, mate! And there’s no question that ‘Battle Lessons’ speaks to that. I also loved the metaphor, the dichotomy; it could relate to any relationship; a boy and a girl, whatever, man. The fun part for me as a writer is to come up with ideas and stories that people can relate to in their own life.
My favourite song on the album is ‘Shadow Country’, which is a huge sounding epic; tell me a little about that one.
Thank you so much. ‘Shadow Country’ is the one song that was not written at the start of the pandemic. Most of the material was written at the end of 2019. I met with Nick Raskulinecz and I played him the demos, he immediately got excited and he set up a schedule for recording the songs. So we did the first three, the coronavirus hit, Nashville went into lockdown, and then we had to pause. So during that break we had, Nick had said to me; “the record’s going to be great, we’ve got so much great material. I want you to keep writing; let’s see if you can write one more song that’s up to the same level”.
And that led to ‘Shadow Country’?
That’s what that was, man. I’m so proud of that song. It has everything that I would want to, in a way, represent my whole career as a rock artist. It’s got a fiery riff, it’s got ballsy energy. The lyric, and the song is totally inspired by a book of the same title written by Peter Matthiessen, which is an epic book, btw; it’s about nine hundred pages, so that was no small task in itself! So, yeah, I just remember sitting here, and when the idea hit me to put that tempo change in the middle, and bring the groove down, I got really, really excited! I was like; “oh my god, if we could pull this off, this could be special!” When I finished the demo, straight away I sent it over to Nick, and I knew, 100%, this was going on this album.
It’s funny you mention that change of pace in the middle; it kind of reminded me of the structure of the Black Star Riders track ‘Heavy Fire’ which does something similar.
Yeah, you know what, now that you say that, you’re totally right! Maybe that song ‘Heavy Fire’ did kind of influence that concept. I remember sitting in Scott’s house, he and Ricky and I, and we were working, writing that song, and I remember a similar puzzled look on, I think it was Ricky’s face, and he was like; “what do you mean we’re going to change the tempo up?!” So yeah, man, that stuff is fun! It’s fun for us as musicians, and the biggest thrill for me was playing the song for Jarred and Robbie.
You mentioned that the album was done in three separate stages.
Because of the virus, Nick had a very challenged schedule, because he was working with Evanescence, he was working with Halestorm, and it was a mess man, trying to get the schedule pinned down. So we did three songs in February, we did three more in July, and then the final three in October, and ‘Shadow Country’ was in the middle of the three songs that we did in the summer.
Another song that I wanted to talk about is ‘Love is All You Left Behind’; it’s an acoustic track, but it still fits with the album’s overall aesthetic.
I’m happy to hear you say that you feel like it fits, because I’m still not 100% sure, brother! It’s such a massive shift from everything else that had come before. I do think it adds diversity and a different texture, and I think both of our favourite albums have some of that. But I was thinking AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ album, or Van Halen ‘II’; there’s no slow songs on those records, man! ‘Love is All You Left Behind’ is an old song in its conception. I wrote it with my friend Kelly Gray [Queensrÿche, Operation: Mindcrime], from Slave to the System, a project that he and I had together. I always thought it was special, sort of in a David Gilmour, ‘Wish You Were Here’ kind of vibe. It was the passing of Edward Van Halen that inspired me to add that song to this record. Eddie was huge for me, and he was huge for tens of thousands of us that played music, that play guitar, that want to be in bands. It almost sounds like a cliché, but he just had so much joy.
You actually got to tour with Edward while in Brother Cane, and not only that, but you interviewed him for Rip magazine, in the 1990s.
It was very special, definitely unique, and a couple of journalists that I’ve talked to in the last couple of months made me understand that even though Eddie got so much coverage in the press over the course of his career, he was very particular about who he would interview with. There were specific journalists who he would speak to, so it was such a thrill for me to have that moment. We had been on the road with the band, and he was very comfortable with me already, and credit to Katherine Turman who was one of editors at Rip, she was the one who arranged that. I still have the cassette tape of the audio of Eddie and I talking, and I want to figure a way to put it out. It’s a lot to just put it out en masse, but maybe I could break it out into short little segments. Obviously, I cherish that memory, and I just felt like, to say that like; “love is all you left behind / I can see it just around the bend / I can’t explaining this feeling that remains/ but I’ll keep holding on ‘til the end”; Eddie’s going to inform my love of rock music until my time on earth is done.
Moving on, and I wanted to touch on Thin Lizzy, and the 2019 Steelhouse Festival show which saw you play the whole of the ‘Black Rose’ album.
It was incredible. It was a drag to have to do that much preparation and only end up performing the entire album one time. There was another festival in the UK that got cancelled, and we were going to play it there as well. There were two other festivals that we did and there were time constraints and we weren’t going to be able to fit the whole thing in. So we all did a great amount of work, none more so than Ricky; there was a lot of work to learn all those lyrics that we as Lizzy, had never performed before. But man, I stand by the presentation. I know the Steelhouse crowd was thrilled, the reviews were raving, and I know they could see how much fun it was for all of us.
Ricky recently told me that the time on stage just flew by.
It was a bit of an out of body experience, and it still is for me, to be a part of Thin Lizzy. This October, it’ll be ten years since I played that first gig with Thin Lizzy, in the US, we supported Judas Priest. I still can't believe that it happened. I can’t believe that I got a phone call from Scott Gorham; “hey man, would you be interested in doing this?” It’s still one of the proudest parts of my story, or my resume, or however you want to describe it. And certainly, I’m thrilled to continue to be a part of that. There’s some talk, and Scott certainly wants to do some kind of activity again at some point, so that’s a phone call I’ll be happy to take when the time comes!
To my ears, the hardest song to pull off, other than the title track, has to have been ‘Sarah’, as it’s so subtle.
Yeah, ‘Sarah’ is very special. Scott had never played it live, ever. Lizzy never played that song live, and I think it was originally meant for a Lynott solo record. So, I just remember when we first started working it up, I’m proud to say, it came together pretty quickly. I think I had some cautious optimism about that song in particular when we went into rehearsal, but everyone had definitely honed in on the dynamic. We knew we had to clean the guitar tones up and stuff like that, because it’s all about that lyric and Ricky sang it brilliantly.
There’s a very unique tone to that solo too; was that difficult to pull off?
It was a thrill for me to tackle what is, to me, one of Gary Moore’s most unique guitar solos he’s ever recorded. I do believe I had like an octave pedal that I kicked in to kind of replicate that tone. I do think Gary doubled it [on the studio recording], like an octave higher and an octave lower. But it is not something you jam; those chord changes are almost jazz, but in the solo section, especially; that chord progression in the solo only happens there. It’s not like he soloed over the chorus or soloed over the verse, it was really tricky. And again, the guys, they just killed it, man, they did a great job playing it. So, yeah, if we were ever going to play that song again, it would be a tonne of work all over again!
Moving on a little, and what some people might not realise is that you’ve worked as a song writer with an incredible list of people including Sammy Hagar, Damn Yankees, and Santana.
I’m so grateful for every one of those experiences. Most of those outside collaborative things kind of happened by default. I didn’t go in search, really, of any of them, now that I think about it. Sammy Hagar called me, Ted Nugent called me. The Stevie Nicks song [‘Every Day’, 2001] was a song I had written with a friend of mine, thinking I might make a solo record - this was twenty years ago. The same with the Carlos Santana Song [‘Just Feel Better’, 2005]. I wrote it with a friend for his record, and the song made its way to Clive Davis [producer] who was working on the next Santana record, and Carlos called Steven Tyler to sing it; it’s crazy! I don’t really know how else to tell people about it; to me it’s just work. I’ve always been committed to keep moving, keep working. I’m a very grateful man that some people I have found myself around would think enough of my ability to ask me to participate.
You’ve also written with Skid Row.
We did those dates with Van Halen in ‘95, and Skid Row was also on a few of those shows, and that’s how I got to know Rachel Bolan and Snake Sabo. ‘Thickskin’ , that was the first record they did without Sebastian [Bach, vocals], and they called me and said; “hey man, you want to get together and write some stuff?” Come on man, I was thrilled! Those guys know how to write some great rock songs, so I was really flattered that they would call. And all those song writing collaborations lead to something; it’s lifelong friendships. I’m always appreciative when people mention that stuff and bring it up. I’ve been really fortunate, but I’ve learned a lot from those experiences, and obviously, that informs what I’m doing now, making my own records. I’m thrilled to just move ahead, write as much as I want, write whatever I want to write; I don't have to appease anyone but myself now. It’s a great feeling.
With ‘Battle Lessons’ due for release, what’s happening for you going forward?
Well, I will tell you this, once a week I speak to my manager and my agent. There’s a few things starting to bubble up. There’s an outdoor gig that we’re very probably going to play in April, and there’s talk of a couple of support dates maybe in June - like a ZZ Top show that we’re going to get to be support on. We’re already on the books to play with Blue Öyster Cult, and you know, we’re ready to go. One of the most fulfilling things for me now, not so much as an artist, but as the leader of a power trio, is that we can operate so quickly, so efficiently. There’s no international flights just to have band rehearsal; the guys live just down the street, and we can get together two or three times, easily get these songs in shape, revisit the old songs, put together a set list that covers my whole career, and we can literally load that stuff into; I’ve got one of those giant American SUVs that definitely guzzle way too much gas, but man, it’s good for us, for a touring rock and roll band!
It sounds like you’re good to go as soon as the pandemic allows it.
You know man, we can go anywhere! We’re ready. If we got the call tomorrow; “hey guys, there’s a show in 48 hours, can you do it?” The answer is; “yes”. So, we’re ready, man. Going back to the very beginning of our conversation, we’re super hopeful and optimistic about the vaccine, and the entire world’s had a year to get a handle on this and manage it as best as we can. So, hoping we can get out and put this music in front of some people and perform it live.
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Damon Johnson & The Get Ready release 'Battle Lessons' on 19th February. Click here to order.