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Interview with Damon Johnson


Interview by Mónica Castedo-López

On a windy Tuesday evening in early October the highly anticipated Warwick & Johnson Sonic Acoustic Attack Tour landed in the heart of London's Camden Town. Right before their superb show, yours truly had the opportunity to catch up with the latter. The soon to be Black Star Riders ex-guitarist has announced he is leaving the band to pursue his solo career and be closer to his family. This​ added to the list of topics to be discussed, mainly his pure Rock and Roll new, and thus far only, full length album, 'Memoirs Of An Uprising', in which he not only plays guitar but also sings lead vocals as he did in Brother Cane. This interview was, in fact, the second interview Damon Johnson conceded to the press anywhere in the world. Naturally, the former Alice Cooper band member chose to go in depth about his departure of BSR and his brotherhood with fellow band mate BSR frontman Ricky Warwick and the rest of the BSR guys, including of course Thin Lizzy only original remaining member Scott Gorham.

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It was a very tough decision and I will never pretend that it wasn't, but we did a long tour in the United States supporting Judas Priest back in the spring and for me – I can't speak for anybody else – when I'm away from my family for more than about three weeks, I start to get really homesick and my family starts missing me big time. So during that tour, it's not that I thought "Okay, I'm going to just move on" but I did decide that I wanted to talk to the guys about maybe approaching business a little differently. Of course the first person I talked to about that was Ricky because Ricky and I always felt like a team and we make a lot of the decisions together; we certainly write a lot of songs together and Ricky is the spiritual nucleus of Black Star Riders. Without hesitation I went to him first and I said, "Hey man, I want to propose this idea: what if we changed to where we don't go out for these leaps of time? Let's go out for three weeks, home for a couple of weeks, go back out for three weeks." I knew that was asking a lot because the way our band is set up, mostly everyone lives in America but our biggest touring fan base is over here in the UK. So whenever we really work at BSR it's an international flight for all of us and away from home. It makes communication a little bit more challenging, so, to his credit, he recognised that I was being sincere.

And that was a big question. He said: "Give me a few days, let me think about this and I'll get back to you." So when Ricky called me back to say: "Look, Damon, we all work really hard for this but I feel like right now it's too early to start pulling the limits on how much we're out working. If we get an offer to go to South America to play for a month, I wanna say yes." And I completely respected that. I was disappointed because in that instant I thought, "Okay, it's time for me to move on." And I was really sad. I reached out to him and the rest of the guys later and I decided that it's time. I love you all, I love this band, it's been incredible. I completely understand Scott too; he wants to keep touring. At some point the discussion becomes not that it is just the band, but the management and the record company; we have a full infrastructure here. If Ricky had said, "Yes, let's find a way to do that", then I'm sure we could have come up with something, but I'm very realistic and know what it's like. I know how tough it is to grow a band, because in a lot of different ways, BSR is still a new band. It's really grown, especially in the UK. The UK is our core audience. It's not growing like that in the US or Australia, and I think the guys would like to try to grow it in these other places. What that means is that they're gonna have to tour a lot: five, six, seven weeks at a time. And you know what? I love those guys too much and I respect them too much to criticise them for wanting to do that. They're entitled to make that decision.

And everyone has bills to pay...

Of course. That is the tough thing about starting bands when you're older. When you're younger, you are kids and don't even care about the money. I'm really, really happy and the thing that gives me a lot of comfort is that Ricky understands that now. This acoustic tour has been the perfect time together for us to kind of establish what our new tempo is. We had a way that we worked together in BSR. I want to write songs with that guy for the rest of my life, whether we're writing them for our own solo projects or for other people. I have too much respect for him and we have too good a chemistry, so I'm going to give them some time get the new guitar player in. They have a new record to make so they have a lot of work to do. So whilst they're doing that, I'm going to be focusing on my record. And hey, look, you never know what's going to happen five years down the road. All I know is that I love all these guys, everybody in the band: Scott, Ricky, Robbie and Chad are incredible people and great musicians, and it's been glorious, I had a great time. That's inspired me to take this step now to do my own music for a while and I couldn't be happier.

Being so productive together, it is only inevitable to ask whether Ricky and Damon had written any songs for the new BSR album.

We're always writing so there are a few things we have started together but it's up to him and the band to decide which songs they wanna put on. I know a couple of them are really good and I would hope they want to include them but maybe they'll come up with 10 or 12 songs that are better than that. There's nobody that is going to be more cheer-leading for BSR than Damon Johnson, you can count on that. I want those guys to do well.

That seems to clear the thought of his new solo album title, 'Memoirs Of An Uprising', being about an uprising against BSR, because it is in fact not about that.

Not at all. 'Memoirs of an Uprising' is more of an uprising in growing up as anyone in a committed relationship with another person. Relationships are hard no matter what and the songs on this album really reflect a lot of things I've been through in my life: some of those struggles and some of that confusion and some of those opportunities where you may think that the other person is the problem and then all of a sudden you start to go, "Hang on a minute. I said this and done that and I could have handled that better." And you take those moments to hopefully change, grow, become more than you were previously in that relationship. So these songs reflect that. I mean growth almost sounds like I need a bigger word but it is genuine growth and certainly I feel like I'm better for it. I know my relationship is better for it, so it sounds like kind of heavy stuff to be writing songs about it but the good news is that there's guitars, there's choruses, there's some humour in there, some fun, some tempos that are sexy... It's great and I'm so excited for people to hear this record because if you just read the lyrics you would think, "Wow, this is like a Neil Young record", but then you hear the music and you go: "Okay!"

'Memoirs Of An Uprising' is his first release since the 2015 'Echo' EP where the wonderful 'Scars' track was the absolute highlight, and the vibes of both albums are very similar.

I didn't realise it at the time, but that five song EP was kind of an imported seed that got planted, that led me to now. Really this is my debut album as a solo artist as far as a full length body of work. Here's 10 songs that represent where I'm at right now.

Generally, the first song of any album tends to be the one that is most representative of the whole album, but this is not the case.

The first song is called 'Shivering Shivering'. I co-wrote most of the songs with a long-time dear friend of mine. He was important to the co-writing because he, as a close friend, knew about these changes I was going through in my life. My girl and I went through some tough stuff and when I called my friend Jim Troglen (aka Johnny Blade) I said: "Hey man, I want you to help me write these songs about that time period." He was like, "I don't know, man, that was tough... that was very difficult." I said, "That's why we need to write about it. If it was difficult, let's write about it." So 'Shivering Shivering' was the song that when that started coming together it's almost like I saw the rest of the album. It was the catalyst and it's my favourite song on the album because it creates a mood, it draws you in. There's no overt love songs. There's a lot of metaphor. People can interpret things for themselves, but for me when I sing and hear that song it is three-dimensional, technicolour, it captures exactly how I wanted to present it because that's kind of where the trouble started, it's like the lyrics say ... 'I'm shivering, shivering, I'm switching lanes', like nodding off at the wheel, you're confused, what is happening? When the chorus hits the melody goes up. If people ask me next year what my favourite albums of 2018 are, I'm going to say my record is one of them because I love it and love listening to it, and I never felt that way. Some of the stuff that we've done in BSR without a doubt, but this is different because this is my story, these are my lyrics.

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As he mentioned, there are some fun moments but there's one song in particular that is very upbeat, although the song title doesn't go with it, 'Rage With Me'.

Yeah, 'Rage With Me' reminds me a little bit of an old school Punk Rock song. If you just read the lyrics on a piece of paper, it could have been the heaviest song in the whole record. There's definitely some Clash in the tempo, and there's no guitar solo! 'Rage With Me' is the moment in the story when the main character is recognising that now we're just kind of hurting each other. We have a chance to work this out but we're just throwing mud at each other and all that's doing is tearing down what we could be, so getting past that point in the record I think it's a bit of a turning point in the story. Everybody can relate to going through some struggle where you're so beaten down and it's frustrating and you feel the other person isn't listening and it almost becomes this silly sort of dance; let's just rage together because that's all we're doing, raging. There are some lines in it like ' Do you want to even the score? I don't want to even the score but if we're going to rage, let's just rage'.

It is all indeed very personal and when he points out that song doesn't have a guitar solo, one thinks straight away about the ballad 'The World Keeps Spinning Round', which has a mind-blowing heartfelt solo and fabulous guitar work throughout.

This is so exciting for me to talk to you about the songs. I give my co-writer Johnny a lot of credit. He sent me the framework of those lyrics and he was almost chanting the words into his phone. There was no melody, very Nick Cave, almost talking. I can't even explain why buy I actually sat at the piano to try and work out a melody and I've never done that in my life, I've never written a song on the piano. I started playing to try and come up with the melody and I stumbled on something that I really liked. It didn't sound necessarily natural but then I picked up the acoustic guitar and worked it out. I made a little demo of the song and I sent it back to Jim, and he called me almost in tears: "This is my favourite thing on the record." So his reaction, I think, inspired me to dig even deeper and I came up with that melody and the electric guitar solo. I was absolutely aiming high, like 'Whilst My Guitar Gently Weeps' type of thing. One of my favourite solos that Slash has ever played is on that great Guns N' Roses song on 'Use Your Illusion II' called 'Estranged' . The guitar just sweeping. Gary Moore's 'Still Got the Blues', that type of singing soothing melody. I have no problem in admitting I had raised the bar that high, I wanted to try come up with something like that. So it means a lot, more than you can know, to point that out. Thank you!

Damon Johnson fronted the band Brother Cane in the 1990s, and although the band no longer exists he is adamant he will keep the name alive.

Yeah, Brother Cane is really no more. I love all those guys, we keep in touch and I hope we do something together one day. Much like I've learned in Black Star Riders it's a big commitment when you call up people that have other lives and other activities. "Let's get the band back together" is not that simple anymore. Everyone lives in different towns and has other commitments. I thought long and hard many times about trying to get the band back together, but again, this moment that I'm in right now I think it feels really good to finally let go of that. I'm going to play those Brother Cane songs forever — we're doing a couple tonight. When I start performing with my band, the dates will start in North America in November, we will do plenty of Brother Cane. I wrote those songs, I sing those songs and there's part of my fan base that loves hearing those songs. I really want to try and be Damon Johnson from here on now. It's the ten year plan. I'm ready to be the boss for a while.

Despite doing backing vocals in both BSR and Thin Lizzy, the question is whether he missed doing lead vocals.

I can answer that question with total honesty ̶ I did not. I thoroughly enjoyed singing lots of backups. There is no better fit of a singer to sing those Thin Lizzy songs than Ricky Warwick. He sings them with such honesty and respect that it was inspiring. Cause I'm a Thin Lizzy fan as well, just like everybody else, so when I first heard Ricky singing I was like "Yeah, that's the right guy." And then Ricky and I write together. I didn't miss singing in BSR because whenever Ricky and I write together I was always thinking like a singer so I think that's what makes our song writing so seamless, because I'm not trying to shove a guitar part down there. Ricky has been so encouraging when I did my EP, he loved it. I sing a lot in Warwick & Johnson. I always went into singing kind of hesitantly and I think what makes this moment for me very special is that I'm ready now to totally be a singer, not just a guitar player that sings. I'm really working on my vocals and I'm never gonna be an authentic singer like Beyoncé, Michael Bublé or Tony Bennett. I love those real singers and I love to listen to them but I don't have that gift. However, I do have my own voice and I do now have something to say, and to me that's what makes great artists: Patty Smith, Mick Jagger...

After playing with the legendary Scott Gorham for seven years, I am curious to find out how Damon would summarise in one sentence what he learned from him. After a long pause, he reflects.

What a great question, and it deserves a good answer. I think what I learned from Scott is the importance of being in a band. The very first time I met him we were on a golf course. I was in Alice Cooper and the three of us went playing together. I was really nervous to meet Scott because he was my hero. I asked him one day, 'Scott, why didn't you ever do a solo record? Gary did solo records, Brian Robertson did solo records. You certainly could because you're so admired and loved", and in his California cool voice of his he goes, "Hey bud, I'm just more of a band guy, I love bands and being in bands." He's been that from day one: he loves to hang, he loves to be in the dressing room together, he loves when we work on the set-list together, he loves to rehearse and the whole process. It has given me the advantaged experience I've dreamed of as a kid: "Hey, I am Brian Robertson and I'm playing with Scott Gorham" or "I am Gary Moore and I'm in a band with Scott Gorham". I've lived that now. Who else gets to say that? How many people haven't had that? Indescribable, amazing! I think it's a good way to end this. It's like for me to have endorsement from people like Alice Cooper, Scott Gorham, Ricky Warwick saying "Hey man, you're the real thing." What more do I need to have the confidence to chart my own path? If I get high marks from those guys, that's enough for me for the rest of my life.

It is evident that Damon remains firmly with his feet on the ground and his attitude is still tremendously humble despite his outstanding CV.

Thank you very much for that. That humility is probably going to get tested now that I'm going to be a solo artist but I'm ready for it. I've been through so much, I know what it feels like to be on both sides of the barricade. I know what it's like to be a fan and I know what it's like to be an entertainer and I don't want to have those separations. I love to talk to the fans. The fans on this tour have been so amazing because they did read the press release, they know what's up so they always come to the merch booth and they all said, "We're going to miss you so much in BSR, but thank you. For everything you've brought to the band we're going to follow your music and can't wait to hear your new record." You can't put a price on that. The time is right for me to give this a shot and see because if I don't do it now I'm never going to do it.

See Damon Johnson performing his last dates in the UK with Black Star Riders in November and look out for his solo tour.

For more information, pls. visit Damon Johnson on Facebook:

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