Interview: Damon Johnson: Going Solo

Hi Damon. Firstly, how is the head after the Warwick & Johnson Sonic Acoustic Attack Tour? That was one hell of a party, and one that lasted a few weeks! “The head is healthy and completely fulfilled after an incredible tour with Ricky. We had so many laughs, and the fans were simply amazing.” When you play a show like that, it’s almost like you both get as much out of it as the audience. “There is no doubt about it. With a two hour set filled with so many great songs, there are plenty of moments when we get to recognise the quality of the work we’ve done throughout our careers. The strength of the Thin Lizzy songs speak for themselves, and there were many nights that the Black Star Riders songs received an equally powerful reception. What an experience to get to feel that passion from the fans.” There is great camaraderie between yourself and Ricky. That must have made it hard to leave Black Star Riders? “Yes. It was unquestionably the most difficult part. Ricky has become one of my closest friends, and the past seven years with him have been amazing. Rarely has a day gone by that we don’t at least text each other something about our families, a new song idea, something funny on the internet, or something related to business. I know now, as I knew several months back when I was deciding to move on, that would ultimately be different going forward. I’m already incredibly busy ramping up my album release and properly launching a new solo career, and he is fully entrenched in the multitude of things that he always has going on. Our friendship is solid no matter what, but I’m certainly going to miss interacting with him as we have in recent years.” Black Star Riders are a hard-working band. Being a touring musician with a relentless schedule and having a family must be tough? “The short answer is a giant “YES”. The bigger part of that challenge is the fact that 95% of our touring is in (for me) foreign countries, which makes communicating with home challenging. Look, I’m not going to complain about anything related to BSR. I knew what I was committing to in late 2012, just like I did when I joined Alice Cooper and when I joined Thin Lizzy. The Black Star Riders experience has happened almost exactly like I knew it would: we would get lots of support from the Thin Lizzy faithful that live in the United Kingdom (where Lizzy’s largest fan base always was), there would be a bit of support in the rest of Europe, and the remaining parts of the world would be a challenge… including North America. Now, the BSR albums are so well written, performed and produced that I was encouraged with each new effort that there was at least the chance that we could move the needle faster with rock fans in other countries outside the U.K. That is certainly happening, but not at the rate that I felt made it worth me continuing to spend so many weeks away from my family. The guys are going to carry on and do just fine, and for the most part I’m going to draw a 300 mile radius around my home in Nashville and perform any and everywhere that I can… and be home more to attend my kids’ hockey and basketball games. They are certainly worth it.” ‘Memoirs Of An Uprising’ is your brand new solo album. Damn, it’s bloody massive sounding! It explodes out of the speakers! It’s self-produced, I believe? How long have you had the songs brewing? “Thank you. The ideas for these songs started about 18 months ago, when I reached out to my long time friend and collaborator Jim Troglen to assist in making my first full length electric solo effort. I knew I would produce it myself and that I could do it easily by having so many friends with studios and gear just out my front door. I started with only a collection of lyrical ideas and a handful of riffs, but Jim quickly turbocharged the creative process with his excitement over us having a focused body of work to create. Another key ingredient was having my trusted friend (and two time Black Star Riders producer) Nick Raskulinecz mix the songs. He and I have such an easy way about working together, and we work very fast. “Working fast” was really the mission statement for the writing, the recording, and the mixing. Not to save time and money, but to trust our instincts at every level and let the chips fall where they may.” The general expectations of a solo album from a rock guitarist is that it will be 60 minutes of noodling. Was that ever an option? “It has always been about the song, for me. As much as I’ve enjoyed so many guitarists with staggering technical ability, it is still a vocal melody that you ultimately wind up singing in the shower, or while sitting at a red light in traffic. When I’ve been in a band, my role models were generally “other bands”. As a solo artist, I find myself studying the career path and song selection of solo artists much more often now. Stevie Ray Vaughn, Gary Moore, Neil Young, Peter Frampton… those are all incredible players, but always committed to quality songs. I want my fans to have expectations of good songs whenever they check out my latest album.” Who plays with you on the album? “I’ve had the same band for the past three years now: Tony Nagy on bass guitar, Jarred Pope on drums, and Tony Higbee on guitar. I’m honoured to have such quality musicians interested in performing my songs. They’re all good guys, so there is an easy way about our interactions on and off the stage.” There are lots of fantastic moments on the album. ‘Down On Me’ and ‘Rage With Me’ are great riff-rockers, but the one that I’m digging the most at the minute is ‘We Got A System’. I’m loving the intro and the heavy keyboards. Great mix. What’s the story behind this one? “Again, thank you. “System” was the last song to make the album. It’s so funny to me that I was fairly indifferent to this idea in it’s early stages, and yet it snuck it’s way onto the record in the final minutes of tracking the drums. After all was recorded and done, it is my wife’s favourite song on the entire record… so what the hell do I know? Plus, it gave me a chance to bring in the great Rob Arthur on B3 organ to create that great Tom Petty/Benmont Tench “Refugee” vibe. Rob plays in Peter Frampton’s band, and has the greatest musical spirit about him. Kudos also to our talented friend Michele Truman for her great vocal harmonies. It gives the song such a cool vibe having a female vocal component in harmony with mine.” ‘Call It A Trade’ opens with the lines (I think!) “Let me choke on your spirit…”, before the song comes to life with an real aggressive guitar sound. What’s the song about? ‘Call It A Trade’ was the one song that almost the entire lyric was written by an outside artist, in this case James Hall. James is a regional legend here in the south, both as a solo artist and as a dynamic frontman in Pleasure Club, and his early band, Mary My Hope. When Jim and I were assembling the songs, I felt there were a couple of holes that needed filling in the storytelling department. He brought in several things for me to listen to and ‘Trade’ was one that he and James had written together. Those lyrics just levelled me from the first listen. I took some liberties with the arrangement at the end, and took the vocals into an aggressive air space that fit the intensity of lines like the ones you mentioned. The cherry on top was having my daughter Jolene add some stacked background vocals. What an amazing experience to see her face when she heard the finished mix of the song!” ‘The World Keeps Spinning Round’ is another favourite. The guitar tone is gorgeous, and had me thinking of Gary Moore. You are, of course, performing ‘Don’t Believe A Word’ on the new Gary Moore tribute album, arranged by Bob Daisley. That must have been a special moment? “That means a lot to have any kind of comparison to Gary. He’s just the greatest of all time. I have no problem confessing to holding him as a measurement for the soaring melody featured in “World Keeps Spinning Round”. Certainly, his playing on songs like ‘Still Got The Blues’ and ‘Parisienne Walkways’ are huge to me. It’s impossible to reach his level of specialness, though his spirit was certainly there. Indeed it was a huge honour to be asked by Bob Daisley to contribute to his tribute album with ‘Don’t Believe A Word’. It’s a very unique arrangement that Bob came up with, and a lot of fun to work on.” Is ‘Glorious’ a co-written with fellow Alice Cooper alumni Keri Kelli? “Yes, ‘Glorious’ is a song Keri and I wrote when we were in Alice’s band in 2010. I was always very proud of the lyric, which mysteriously reappeared one day while I was looking through some old emails. There’s a ‘Paradise City’-inspired guitar solo at the outro, and I’m proud of my obvious tip of the hat to Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’ in the drum figure that opens the track.” Anyone who approaches ‘Memoirs Of An Uprising’ without knowing too much about you, and previous bands like Brother Cane, might be surprised how strong your vocals are. Have you always sung? “Singing was always something I did in the early club days, only to give the main singer a bit of a break. I’ve never had that craving for the spotlight that a lot of singers have, and I only reluctantly stepped behind the microphone when we put Brother Cane together in the early 90s. That’s probably the reason I’ve continued to be involved in so many band situations, even into my middle-aged years. It’s from those early dreams of being a Jimmy Page or Joe Perry, and finding my Robert Plant or Steven Tyler. I do not consider myself an authentic singer, like so many monster talented vocalists that I have worked with or written songs for over the years, but I’ve never been more confident behind the microphone than I am now, and that’s the excitement of this new path for me.” Is there any special meaning behind the album title itself? “Everyone goes through struggles in life, and I’ve certainly been through plenty myself. Over the past decade, I’ve immersed myself in singer-songwriters like John Hiatt, Joni Mitchell, Jason Isbell, and Neil Young: all of them writers that walk a magnificent line between telling their own truth while creating fictional characters to tell an interesting story. When Jim and I had assembled these ten songs, I felt an almost 3-dimensional picture of struggle and change that resolves into a new path and some real hope… a lot like my own life. The title of ‘Memoirs Of An Uprising’ simply popped into my head one day, and I knew it was the perfect title for this group of songs.” The cover-artwork is stunning! Who created it? “Just beautiful, inspired work by my long-time friend Stephen Jensen and a wonderful illustrator, Megan Mushi. My wife Lynda has always said that the hawk is my spirit animal; I’ve been obsessed and captivated by their flight since I was a child. When we presented that concept to Stephen, he ran with it and ultimately brought in Megan to assist. They have created a timeless image that suggests the same “struggle resolving into hope and release” that these songs, consumed as a whole piece of music, suggest. The cover image is so brilliant. Just a gorgeous work of art.” You set up a pledge music campaign to launch the album. How did the acoustic house performances go, and were there any bizarre situations you found yourself in? Also, you offered pledgers the chance to play a round of golf with you. Did it get competitive, or did they let you win? “This Pledge has been so much fun, and I’ve been quite humbled by the support my fans have shown. The house concerts have been fantastic, and I am always entertained by what I find in each performance setting: everything from setting up in someones back yard or in their living room or garage… and they always have such great food! The golf pledges are getting fulfilled over the next couple of weeks as I’m performing in Nashville, though my golf game is not in very good shape at the moment. I love playing so much and I assure you the fans will have a great time.” Lastly, what are the plans for 2019? “With all the hats I’m wearing now, I’m also the president of my own record company, Double Dragon Records. We are working with a new team of talent right here in Nashville to help me properly promote the album, and there are no doubt plans for lots of touring in 2019. That includes performing for the amazing fans in the United Kingdom.” Thanks for your time Damon. Good luck with the release of the album, and I hope to catch the live solo tour somewhere down the road.   ‘Memoirs Of An Uprising’ is out on general release now. More information here. Interview: Dave Image on header: Stephen Jensen All live images: Rob Wilkins]]>

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