A guitar Damon Johnson traded for in Alabama during the mid-80s played a key role on a new album that just debuted in the U.K. top 10.
The instrument is a Gibson Explorer. The album? "Heavy Fire," the third album by Johnson's band Black Star Riders, a spinoff of Thin Lizzy, the iconic Dublin-founded combo known for such songs as "Jailbreak," "The Boys Are Back in Town" and "Whiskey in the Jar."
Johnson used the Explorer, made from Korina wood, known for its responsiveness and sweet midrange sound, on many "Heavy Fire" rhythm tracks. The 10-song LP features a compelling mix of searing guitars and anthemic songwriting, on cuts like "When the Night Comes In" and "Testify or Say Goodbye."
Johnson rose to prominence in the '90s with hit-making Birmingham band Brother Cane. He went on to be Alice Cooper's guitarist for seven years, write songs artists including Stevie Nicks and Steven Tyler recorded and, finally, join his all-time favorite band, Thin Lizzy, which morphed into Black Star Riders around late-2012.
Back in the '80s, Johnson traded a Jackson guitar - then a hot commodity because Ozzy Osbourne shredder Randy Rhoads played them - to a Gadsden friend for the Explorer. "As much as I loved Randy Rhoads," Johnson says, "a Korina Explorer was like the Holy Grail of guitars for someone like me, who grew up loving Allen Collins from Skynyrd, Rickey Medlocke from Blackfoot and Jeff Carlisi from 38 Special. All Southern rock bands. All legendary guitar players.
"I've had (the Explorer) since then and it's kind of been in hibernation. I toured with it one year, I want to say 2010, with Alice Cooper. But I hadn't played it out a whole lot. And I brought it to the studio one day to let (Black Star Riders) producer Nick Raskulinecz hea,r and the amp combination he put together when I plugged it, it just sounded insane." Guitar-wise, Johnson also used a Gibson SG, Flying V and bevy of Les Pauls on "Heavy Fire." He added slippery lap steel to the "Masters of Reality"-heavy title-track, and broke out a Rotovibe, a favorite effect-pedal during his Brother Cane tours, for riff-fest "Who Rides the Tiger," Johnson's favorite song on the new disc.
In addition to Johnson and classic Thin Lizzy era guitarist Scott Gorham, Black Star Riders features singer/guitarist Ricky Warwick (whose vocals evoke late Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott without aping him), bassist Robert Crane and drummer Jimmy DeGrasso. The band's previous albums include 2013's "All Hell Breaks Loose" and 2015's "The Killer Instinct."
On a recent afternoon, Johnson, who co-wrote every song but one on "Heavy Fire," checked in from Nashville for this phone interview, before flying out to California for Black Star Riders rehearsals in advance of the band's upcoming U.K. tour. Excerpts are below.
Damon, even after all the cool things you've done in your career, are there still times when you think, "Wow. I can't believe I'm a band with Scott Gorham from Thin Lizzy"?
[Laughs] The answer to that is a resounding, "Yes sir." Even to this day, I have moments where I'll look across the stage, the studio or the rehearsal room and just think; "Wow, there he is. There's that guy that I had album covers of and even some posters on my wall, you know?" And now we're not only in a band together, we're collaborators, we're business partners. It's a weird thing, man, to go from kind of idolatry to mutual respect and a real friendship on and off the stage. Scott's one of my favorite human beings on the planet and it's a real gift for me to have that guy be such a part of my life, for sure.
Black Star Riders' "Heavy Fire" just debuted at number six in the U.K. (The LP was also number 11 in Germany.) What's an album you can remember buying the first week it came out, growing up?
The thing that pops into my head is Van Halen. That was another major band for me. Major, major band. I could see Van Halen a lot more often than I could Thin Lizzy or sadly Lynyrd Skynyrd - the band had not reformed after the plane crash. Those were my three biggies right there. And Van Halen I could see all the time, so when those guys would drop a new record I was at the record store the day it came out. Particularly I remember albums like "Women and Children First," "Fair Warning," "Diver Down," "1984." Those four records for sure. There was a Turtle's record shop in Albertville, Alabama close to where I lived up, in Geraldine was where I went to high school.
Your band has gotten a lot of credit in the press for using a different name, Black Star Riders, instead of an established brand, Thin Lizzy. (The band did a handful of 2016 festival dates as Thin Lizzy, including some with Aerosmith's Tom Hamilton on bass.) Why do you think more classic bands with vastly different latter-day lineups don't do the same thing?
It's a very simple answer and I'm just going to be brutally honest: It's about the money. They can go out and tour as that established band and they can play all the hits from the heyday and they can simply get far greater guarantees from the promoters, venues and festivals around the world. And there was no question that we could have stayed Thin Lizzy and it would have been much easier for our management and our booking agent to get gigs - better gigs, bigger gigs - as Thin Lizzy. But as Scott has always said, he would have just been continuing to play the same 20, 25 songs that he'd been playing literally for 30 years or more. So, when Scott expressed interest in writing new music, initially we did entertain the idea of putting it out as Thin Lizzy. And it wasn't until we go through the demo process and really gave it some hard thought and going, "Man, these new songs are great but how can it be Thin Lizzy without Phil Lynott?" Phil wasn't just the singer. He was the genius of the whole thing. He wrote those songs, he lived those songs, he sang them, he arranged them. He was really an extraordinary artist. So, from a common sense standpoint and respect level for the fan base, that if we were going to put out new music we had to put it out under a new name.
And I also confess that it was an experiment. We had no idea how the debut Black Star Riders album was going to be received, and there's a real chance that if that record had tanked and the reaction had have been apathetic not to mention negative, who knows man, we might've gone back to being Thin Lizzy and booking shows and being on festivals and do package tours and that kind of thing because, again, it's an established brand. Look, we don't look for extra credit. We're not asking for special treatment because we did step away. It was a tough decision. And there was a lot of factors that contributed to that. So, we're just grateful that Black Star Riders has been able to generate three albums in just four years and the reaction has been positive.
Hardcore rock fans today still know about Phil Lynott. But it feels like he's much lesser known than a lot of other rock legends from that era, in the mainstream and among casual fans. How does it feel to get Phil's name out there in the press with what you guys are doing with Black Star Riders?
I can speak on this for Ricky as well: It is one of the great honors of our careers, of our lives, for this very unique, extraordinary iconic artist, that we can assume that role of kind of carrying that torch. Reminding people about him. Talking about him. And more than that, being inspired by him. We never ever sit down and try to copy "The Boys Are Back In Town" - that's just not how we have evolved as songwriters, individually or collectively. But Phil Lynott's spirit is absolutely there every time we write a song, every time we make a record, because literally we would not exist if not for the work that he did and the music he created. The songs that came from that guy's brain, I would have never met Scott Gorham and Ricky Warwick had it not been for Phil Lynott. And that's just a fact. And I can pretty much guarantee that we're always going to be respectful of that, grateful for that and spread the word to the next generation about how special Phil Lynott was.
What are the chances of Black Star Riders doing some U.S. dates this year?
The chances are very good. We're literally discussing it every day, we're trying to find ways to accomplish that, that make sense. It is genuinely a challenge. There are not as many outlets for straight ahead rock & roll in the U.S. as there is in Europe. That's certainly unfortunate. But we're not going to invest our energy complaining about it. We're just going to try and figure out some ways to do it. We've got to take this music to the people. And if that means doing it on smaller scale, we're motivated and excited to do that because we're very proud of the band.
Black Star Riders. (Courtesy Robert John)
Can you recall a concert you saw as a kid that really showed you, "Now this is what a rock show is supposed to be like"?
I remember seeing Heart one time in Huntsville and the thing that knocked me out about Heart was there songs. As much I loved going to see Van Halen and Kiss, who were amazing every time, there was some spectacle in the production of the show as well. With Heart, it was very simple kind of light show but the songs were just amazing. And I remember that informing me always. "I want to grow up and be a musician that focuses on the songs and not so much the show." So, it's almost comical that I would grow up the ultimate showman's band, in Alice Cooper, who I never got to see in concert, by the way. But there were some other really badass live rock bands. I saw Pat Travers several times when I was young and they were always playing smaller venues, but the music it just pummeled me, man. His bands were always tight and the riffs were heavy and in your face. That made a huge impact. I saw Mother's Finest open for maybe a half a dozen different bigger acts back in the day and they used to slay everyone. [Laughs] They were so good. Jean Kennedy, great singer, great frontwoman, the band was just badass, man. That stuff used to fill my head with excitement and imagination and totally fueled my desire to get to do it professionally when I grew up.
What's a more underrated Alice Cooper album you'd recommend to those who just know the Alice hits classic-rock radio plays?
I would have to say "Love It To Death." I had a conversation with the great Warren Haynes at an Allman Brothers show several years ago, and he was so knocked out that I was playing with Alice. He was sharing with me what a pivotal rock album that was for him as a kid. That was literally one of the first rock albums he ever bought and he loved it. So that's the one I would recommend. There's some hits on that album but there's also some understated album cuts as well that are just fantastic.
You're a busy guy with a cool gig. But who's an artist that if they called and wanted to work with you, you just couldn't say no to?
That would be Sting. I loved The Police, I loved every solo record the guy put out. I'm inspired by the twists and turns his musical direction has taken over the course of his career. He's been an influence not only musically, but lifestyle - that guy has taken such great care of himself physically. I actually did a one-off with Sting in Las Vegas in 2011. If you're so inclined, you can look it up on YouTube; all you have to search is "steven tyler jeff beck sting." If you can believe it, that was the band I was in to do two songs in Las Vegas that night. [Laughs] Sting played bass on "Sweet Emotion" and I had the honor of standing next to him and helping him learn the arrangement because he was not very familiar with Aerosmith. [Laughs] I'd love to write with Sting, love to record with Sting. He's a big influence on me.
What's the very first guitar you ever owned?
The very first guitar I ever had was a Fender Jazzmaster. I got it when I was 13, I got it from my uncle John, my dad's younger brother, and John had that guitar, I don't know where he got it, but he never played it anymore. He played a lot of acoustic - a lot of flat-picking and country and more singer/songwriter stuff. So, he gave me that guitar and it had such a massive impact on me simply because it was already broken in, it had light (gauge) strings on it, the neck played really easily. You know how people start on guitar and they talk about their fingers hurting and the calluses and all that? I was able to kind of bypass a lot of that because this guitar played so well. And it pains me to tell you I don't have that guitar anymore. I traded it for a Marshall amp in the early-80s and it was a good trade but I could have gotten a Marshall amp anytime. It's going to be hard to get another late-60s Fender Jazzmaster. [Laughs]
What do you think is rock music's best chance to get back in the mainstream and be a major social force again, particularly in the U.S.?
Great question and I have a great answer: And it's youth. The next generation of great rock & roll bands. I have never really been one of those guys that talks about, "Oh, everything is cyclical and it comes and goes." No. I don't believe that. But what I do believe is that some kid with a guitar and something to say will always have a voice. And without question there's a lot going on in the world right now that some young person is finding it frustrating, finding it a struggle, finding the need to yell and scream and bang on a guitar. That's coming. The next Joe Strummer is coming. The next Bruce Springsteen is coming. The next Jimi Hendrix is coming. But he's going to need to be between the ages of 21 and 27 and that's how it's going to have an impact on the culture at large. Because rock & roll is a young man's game, man, because it takes that youth to get in a van and do 220 dates a year. I'm too old to do that now, bro. I've got a wife and kids and there's no way I can be away from them that length of time. And I don't want to and they don't want me to. But a 21-year-old Damon Johnson, that's a different story.
More info: blackstarriders.com
Cover art for Black Star Riders' "Heavy Fire" album. (Courtesy image)