Exclusive Interview: Black Star Riders – Damon Johnson

Posted on by Oran

On a bright sunny Monday afternoon, Overdrive were welcomed into the backstage confines of the Olympia, for a sit down with current Black Star Riders guitarist / songwriter, Damon Johnson, to talk about his legendary musical past, the new BSR album “The Killer Instinct” jamming with Stephen Tyler and Jeff Beck and writing a song for Stevie Nicks.


OD – This is the first date of the European tour, have you played any of the new material live yet, or will this be the first night it will be performed?

DAMON – Essentially, no. We played a holiday camp (Butlins), and it was great! The gig was great, the fans were great, and we did stick “The Killer Instinct” in there, and gave that a kick in the tyres. It felt really good, man! But we have got 5 or 6 songs from the new album on the set tonight, and you will see a fairly frantic group of boys on stage tonight, not for any other reason but to cram as much music into 70 minutes as we can. It’ll be a lot of fun.

OD – Ricky (Warwick) was telling me about the new album and how you recorded in Nick’s studio in Franklyn, can you talk a little about the way it was recorded, ie. Did you all go in there and jam it out, or was it a case of layering down the parts separately?

DAMON – Well we actually kinda did it both ways. I’ve come to learn that that’s how Nick pretty much treats any album he does. We set up in a room, and we basically played him everything we had – it was 19 or 20 songs. Some of it was just Ricky and I on the acoustic, but the bulk of it, we had worked on it as a band. And he very meticulously went through every single song; like – the pencil and paper never left his hand. Sometimes he’d stop and go “Oh hey- I’ve got an idea. Will you try this?” And we’re like “Of course!”

A guy with that resume, your’re gonna say yes every time! And without exception, every idea was significant. That’s not to say we ended up using every idea, but the guy is SO musical, and he’s learned to trust his instincts and I think that the greatest gift as a top notch producer. He knows that his instincts are sharp and the only reason that is, is because he loves music. He loves it as much as YOU do, as much as I do….like, the guys a junkie for it. And I won’t lose track of your original question, but to prove what a junkie Nick is, we’d be in the studio tracking for a couple of hours, and we’d wanna take a dinner break, and we’d think that he’d wanna rest his ears, but he’d go over to the turntable and put on Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, or it would be Iron MiadenNumber of the Beast” another day or KISS. It was frantic! So, we did that for 4 days, went through every song and then on the last day, it was kinda like the pecking order where we said “OK”. He goes: “OK guys this is just me, but here’s 5 songs that absolutely HAVE to be included”. Then that 5 went to 7 before he’d even ended his sentence. So we had another 2 or 3 that we debated. Man, I wish we had a video of that, but in a good way. So then we moved into the studio, and those notes that I mentioned earlier? I don’t if we wavered from those notes one time for the next 3 weeks. There were times that Jimmy would be playing and he’d go “Nope, remember Jimmy we’re gonna stay on the ride cymbal to transition because we doubled the lead etc”. Jimmy is like “Oh yeah that’s right”. So he’s great – he’s special.


OD – Can you talk a little about the way you guys wrote this album (The Killer Instinct). Was it a situation of all you jamming things out or were you sending demons back and forth before bashing them out in a studio?

DAMON – The riff on “Soldierstown” was a game-changer. I think I stood up and hugged him (Scott Gorham); I was like, “yes!! The record needs THAT energy right there!!”It was the colour that we didn’t have. But we had some heavy stuff. Let’s be honest – there’s a tip of the hat to the past and to some of the textures of that song, and we always wanna embrace that. He knows that better than I do. No-one’s a bigger Thin Lizzy fan than me in this city, in this country… but no-one can tap into the essence of that more than the guy who was fuckin’ there! Like sometimes I have to crack Scott on the knuckles and say “Look dude – don’t look to ME to deliver the goods! Like, I’m all about hard work – I’ll get the early and stay there late, but c’mon get in the game! You gotta bring something to the table!

On the first album, I flew to LA. This is when we still thought it was gonna be a Thin Lizzy record. Ricky and I had never written on note together. We had no idea if there was even any chemistry, and it was a leap of faith on everybody’s part. So I just booked a flight and went out there. On the first day, at his house in California, we wrote ‘Someday Salvation, Bound for Glory“and “Bullet Blues“, which is on this record, and the next day we wrote “Hoodoo Voodoo” and one more. It escapes me. But, we knew we were on to something.


So this time, he said “look mate, last time you came to my house – this time, I’m comin’ out there and you can stay home with your family”. I thought that was awesome. So we did the same thing. He came out – we spent 4 days together to get the ball rolling. On that trip, we wrote “You Little Liar” and “Bullet Blues” we kinda hashed out, and 2 or 3 other songs…. ‘Charley I Gotta Go” in the basement in my house. There’s a bonus track called “Gabrielle” that we wrote in my house as well. So I think that’s sorta the way it works for us now, twice. So maybe that’s a great way to start a record. He and I, away from the road and away from all the chaos, just sit and focus and just get started. And then we start sending stuff to the guys… then when we get back on the road we’ll be like “Hey whaddaya think?”.

But there’s no question: he and I write the bulk of the stuff, and as we said earlier, Scott comes in with some killer riffs. There’s no doubt that man, he is just so solid. ‘Soldierstown” just keeps turning your arms – it’s a classic Scott Gorham guitar riff. He heard the melodies in his head and everything. We’re so proud of it. It’s the best of all the worlds man – it’s the story of who Ricky is, and where he’s from. It’s almost like his sharing with the world. Like, as you guys know, it’s one thing for Phil (Lynott), to grow up in Dublin, but for Ricky, he’s from fuckin’ Belfast man. A kid in the ‘70s… so, I can’t fathom what that’s like – how that colours your life and that perception about day-to-day and you know, whatever. So when he started rattling off about 10 verses of lyrics, I was just like “FFFFFFUUUUCKK!!!” He’s like “It’s pretty good, right?” We’re like “How are we gonna put all that into a song?!” So it’s a special track.

OD – Now that you guys are building up your own material, will you be slimming down on the Thin Lizzy song’s or will they always be a staple in your live performances?

DAMON – Well if you have to call it slimming down, which would make sense, the simple reason for that is we were just do fortunate to be as embraced as we were on the first album… not just by the Lizzy faithful, but by the rock community in general. Like, we’ve got 3 or 4 songs off the first album that Black Star Riders audiences expect to hear. What a great feeling for us. So then at the same time, we also have this obligation to play the new stuff ad fit that in there. And of course man, – Thin Lizzy is always gonna be a part of our story. I will never tire of saying what an honour it is to have Scott Gorham in this band, because Thin Lizzy was his band, and he asked us to join and be a part of that. But this is OUR band, you know? Scott Gorham is in my band! It’s insane! It’s literally indescribable. I mean certainly I’ve done it enough now, that we see each other as peers and as equals. Which again, is an honor for me. But certainly, when I first joined Thin Lizzy, it was emotional for me. I mean, that first show, I was enormous! I was just emotional, I mean It was heavy! I’ll never forget walking out on stage, the lights are down, and the intro music is playing and I’m looking up at that mirrored logo, and there’s Brian Downey opening up his arms, and there’s Scotty over there, and I’m like “How the FUCK has this happened?!” Because, you know, especially the classic line-up of Scott and Brian Robertson, it changed my life. People are probably sick of hearing me talk about it. It was like a fairytale or something. People are going “is it a dream come true?” It never occurred to me that something like this would even be fathomable. Like, it’s not like I dreamt that I’d grow up and be in Thin Lizzy. But when it happened it was crazy.

OD – Are you still in touch with the guys from Brother Cane and what is the possibility of any new material or some live shows in the future?


DAMON – Oran, lemme tell you what’s happened, and thank you for asking, because I’m very proud: what Black Star Riders has done for ME, is raised my profile in a way that I thought that maybe my time had passed. It really has. It’s been great for me as an artist, as a songwriter and as a guitarist, and it’s even brought attention back to Brother Cane. It’s almost impossible to get that group of guys back together again, simply because everyone is in other bands, everyone lives in different places now. It’s just tough. It’s not like Brother Kane was Alice In Chains or Soundgarden. Ultimately that’s why we called it a day – we just couldn’t really make a living at it anymore. It was tough. But we still made great music. I mean, we were a great band. So my goal for this year is to essentially go out (and I’m gonna start in America), it’s gonna be promoted as Brother Cane’s Damon Johnson.

I’ve got a rhythm section, and maybe have a different guest to come out from time to time as well. But the show will essentially be new music that I’ve written, lots of Brother Cane, some BSR, some Thin Lizzy. You know, it was actually it was an Alice Cooper fan who put the seed in my head. He said “You were in Alice’s band for 6 years, and you were in Brother Kane only 1 year longer than that. That’s a long time. In a way you sorta have ownership”. But people enjoy seeing me get up there and see me playing “Billion Dollar Babies“, or “Muscle of Love” – like these are badass songs. Plus, I sing a really good Alice Cooper. We’ve actually played a couple of dates, man. One in Kentucky and one in Alabama, and we just had a fuckin blast. The guys we were playing with, they were as excited as if Clapton had asked them to join Derek and the Dominoes, just over the moon about it. And they’ll play anything I want. I get a text, going “Dude we worked up Killer Instinct, coz we gotta play it!” I’m like “FUCK YEAH!!

damon johnson

Like, I’m so grateful for the profile that BSR has brought to me. It’s so much easier to stick the 3 of us on an aeroplane and come over here, and go play the clubs, man – go do a run. And do all the Brother Cane, because I wrote those songs, I sang those songs, and they’re certainly a part of my life. And I wanna do it right – I have so many friends in bands who were a part of an older band about 15-20 years ago, and I say this totally respectfully, but I kinda look to Gary Moore for inspiration. He was a role model for me in so many ways, the least of which was how he ran his career, how he ran his business. Gary would go out there and play “Still In Love With You“. He’d get up there and play “Don’t Believe A Word“, and he would include that Lizzy stuff in his set because that’s a part of his history as well as playing all his other stuff and all is other music.

OD – Regarding today’s current music scene, are there any bands that you are listening to at the moment and can you recommend anything worth checking out?

DAMON – Yeah man, always, always… I feel like it’s almost clichéd right now, but everybody is talking about Royal Blood. It’s great! Like. I heard that early on. And you know, man, I’m effectively, admittedly, old school. And those kids have their heads in classic, blues-based, riff-rock! Everybody bitches in all the magazines, all the video interviews, about “oh its not like it used to be! Where are all the kids today that’re rockin’ out?” well god-DAMMIT, THERE THEY ARE!!! Embrace them! They’re getting there, they’re doing well and I’m sure it feels like those dudes feel like they’ve been hit by a meteor! I think those guys are great, and I love the new Ryan Adams album; shit man, the new Marilyn Manson album’s got some great stuff on it as well. My wife has made me a Sleater Kinney fan, and it’s so great to have those girls back, and they’ve made an album that’s as great as anything they’ve ever put out. I love seeing all the push they’re getting behind it. That’s a great record. I’m still listening to a record that came out about 2 years ago by a young Alabama artist called Jason Isbell. He is special, he is really special. He is one of those guys that will be around for 30 or 40 years, and just have that kind of career like Guy Clarke has had, or Steve Earls or something like that. He’s very well read, and puts a twist on every lyric and he also does it like he has walked in your shoes. It is a gift. He expresses things better, certainly than I can, so it’s inspiring to be able to listen to stuff like that.

 OD – You have had a rather fortunate journey through life having played and touring with some of the most iconic musicians in music history. Do you have any real stand out memories that you can share with us?

DAMON – Wow man, what a great question! There are many. I mean, I have to say, one thing I’d tell you man is that I don’t know that I’ve ever been more fulfilled musically than I am right now at 50. I don’t know that I’ve ever put out an album, or been in a band, that I’ve been more excited about than THIS album, and THIS band. So that makes any of that reflection almost like the cherry on to as we were talkin’ about earlier.

It was amazing to get the phone call on the first Brother Cane tour that Aerosmith wanted us to open for them, because that band was MASSIVE for me… Steven and Joey, in one of the guitar magazines, put out a review of our record, and famously and mind-blowingly to me, said that “Johnson is Steven Tyler and Joe Perry rolled into one!” this is before we even got the tour! I was like “YEEEEEEAAAAH!!” My ego was rampant after that! That was big. Uhmm… (pauses)… Stevie Nicks recorded a song I wrote in 2002. It was the first single on her album. Stevie is one of my favourite songwriters ever, man. So to get that phone call, I still can’t even wrap my head around how that happened. It was just timing – it was great timing. My friend John and I co-wrote the song. He just happened to be represented by her management company, and they said “Hey Stevie’s lookin’ for another song to finish up the record”, and he sent her a CD of about 15 things that he had worked on, and she heard our songs and “I like that.”

Back 4 years ago, my great friend Marty Frederickson, who co-wrote all the Brother Kane stuff, the songs that were radio hits in America, Marty’s had an amazing career as a writer and a producer, he called me and asked me if I would play on guitar and him on drums, with Steven Tyler on vocals in Las Vegas! And I said “Er… YESSS!! WOW I love you! Thank you!” and he said “Would you be cool playing rhythm guitar?” I said “Of course man! I’ll do whatever you need. Who’s playing lead?” He goes “Jeff Beck”. And if that weren’t enough, he goes “Well, there’s more. We’re gonna have a guest bass-player, on “Sweet Emotion“.” I said “Who? Fuckin’ John Paul Jones!?” He goes “Better. Sting is gonna play bass.” When you get a chance, look that footage up on line: Steven Tyler, Jeff Beck, Sting, and you’ll see my skinny Alabama ass over there playing the guitar.

I wound up in the position of being the musical director on that project. I had to help STING learn to lay the bass lick for “Sweet Emotion“. My wife was in tears – we love STING! Dude – it was Thin Lizzy, Aerosmith and The Police! I mean, he couldn’t have been more of a gentleman, and thankful, and just amazing. I convinced Jeff Beck to play the talk-box on “Sweet Emotion” and his guitar tech almost fainted, and he came up to me and said “I can’t – 2 things: I cannot fuckin’ believe you asked him to do it, and I can’t believe he said he would! That’s amazing”

But you know man, that first  Thin Lizzy show in San Antonio in 2011 with Brian and Scotty. It’s hard to top that one. It was pretty big. Like right now, the album, we’re just so proud and so elated at how well it’s been received. It’s number 15 in the UK charts. In 2015, old guys with electric guitars? Like how did that happen? We couldn’t be more happy or more excited, man! It would like, get you off every day. Like we’re DOING IT! IT’S HAPPENING!!”

OD – What’s on the cards for The Black Star Riders in 2015 and are you currently writing for the next record?

DAMON – Oran, you will not be surprised to hear me say that we are committed to start writing immediately. We know that the absolute rocket fuel in everything that’s happening is the songs. If the songs weren’t quality, Nuclear Blast (Records), doing this huge campaign.. it’s about the music. That was the absolute reason when we decided not to call it Thin Lizzy. Monte (Connor) didn’t blink! He goes “these are good songs – we’re gonna put the record out anyway”. Ricky is one of the greatest gifts that’s ever happened to my musical life. He’s a gift, man. We make a great team. And we’re both junkies for music, we’re always listening to music, we’re always writing lyrics, melodies, my phone is just full of stuff man! Like, it’ll be a little hectic this first few days but like I said man, it wouldn’t be bad to come off tour and have 2 or 3 new things. Because, that’s how it works.

We found a way to write on the road and it’s just because we have to: because everyone does live in different places. And we’ve learned that rather than sitting up late and drinking a bunch and feeling like shit the next day, it’s better to get some sleep, go for a run, coffee, sit-down, lets pick up the guitar and see what we got today.

You’re catching us at an exciting chapter for the band. It’s exciting for Scott. Like, he could certainly have never envisioned this. We all wanted to see Scott doing this. For Ricky to get on board with Thin Lizzy, that was a real coup for Scott. Because he didn’t just need a guy to sing the songs, he needed a guy that believes it, and is also a quality writer in his own right, and has something to say. Ricky has LOTS to say. And to me, that is the simple defining factor for any great artist or great man: do they have something to say? And we do, man. We got a lot to say, and we got a guy there who says it well, and delivers it well. It’s all there.

Damon Johnson & Oran O'Beirne

 Words – Oran O’Beirne

Transcription – Shaun Martin

Photography – Steve Dempsey of Down The Barrel Photography & stock photos