Interview: Black Star Riders
Every once in a while, we will do a bunch of Thin Lizzy shows but for the most parts, Black Star Riders is our main focus. We’ve always had a couple of Lizzy tracks in the set, but now 90-95% of the set will always be Black Star Riders.
During their recent tour in support of their recently released third album Heavy Fire, Steve Fallows managed to catch up with Black Star Riders guitarist Damon Johnson to talk about the album, evolution of the band and how the band have finally got their own identity.
(((o))): Thanks for your time, first of all, how is the tour going?
Damon: The tour has been incredible. I was just saying to someone earlier that you know we spend a lot of time here in the UK. We always feel like those fans are really our most passionate. It’s where we started. We could have never got Black Star Riders started if it wasn’t for these fans, so to see it grow as it has over a period of three albums in four years. We still couldn’t have anticipated the level we have got to. You think about the daunting task of taking a bunch of veteran musicians playing straight ahead rock n roll in the 21st Century. It’s pretty rare that you can put out brand new music and have such a reaction. The album charted here in the Top Ten, that’s a massive accomplishment for us.
(((o))): And you can see now, that every album is doing better than the last one. There is real growth there.
Damon: Yeah, it really has, and we are seeing that on the tour, seeing that growth in the crowd, in the band musically, the shows. Every facet of it really. It’s been great. We just have a great feeling about everything we are doing at the moment. Every night, we come offstage and take a few minutes to think about how big this whole thing has got now. It’s an amazing feeling.
(((o))): When you get shows like this with two other big name acts that have a decent history, it’s a hell of a way to follow such a successful album?
Damon: Ah, both Gun and Backyard Babies were on a very short list of bands that we wanted. Ricky (Warwick, vocalist) goes way back with Gun, and we have all done work with the Backyard Babies over the years, so the fact we could put it all together in a package like this really says a lot about where we are right now. We’re so grateful to both those bands for wanting to be involved and our fans seem to love it, so it’s great all round.
(((o))): A lot of people are really behind this album, saying it’s your strongest yet. With all of the hard work done and behind you, how important is that feedback? Have you done anything different this time?
Damon: It’s been incredible to get that reaction. I think mainly because we didn’t know what we had this time. As the first two albums, we showed up with a lot of songs and iPhone demos. Ricky and I hammering away on an acoustic guitar, did some work with Scott (Gorham, guitarist), but it wasn’t until we got into pre-production with Nick Raskulinecz, our producer, we started writing all of the names on the board and saying “these three or four are definitely on the A list, I don’t know about these.” There was never really a clear cut thing like “This is going to be the single, these three songs are going to be videos”, man we had no idea. Literally until the mixing phase, when we started to hear completed tracks and some of them turned out to be really special to us. We could have never know that ‘When The Night Comes In’, ‘Testify or Say Goodbye’ and ‘Dancing With The Wrong Girl’ would get so much radio play and such tremendous reactions. I can’t tell you Steve, how far the title track evolved. It took a long time getting that track completed, so the fact that it became the title track and the lead track on the album is pretty amazing man. That was a long time.
(((o))): You worked with the same producer again. What does he bring that made you work with him again?
Damon: He just brings so much passion about every minute detail of the process. The arranging, the performances, the sound. With this being the second time we have worked with him, he definitely knows our strengths and weaknesses. He knows when to push us and when to step back and give us a minute to find whatever it is we are looking for. He keeps a pretty tight schedule. We knocked out this recording in about three and a half weeks from the first rhythm tracks with Jimmy (DeGrasso, drummer – left the band after the tour) and Robbie (Crane, bassist) laying down the bass and drums until Ricky was putting down the final vocals. We didn’t spend a ton of time on it, we got in and captured that energy.
(((o))): Part of the promotion for this was done as a Pledge campaign, which has been a huge success for some musicians over recent years. How did you find it?
Damon: This is the first time we have participated in a Pledge music campaign and we thought it was amazing, and so did our fans. We had the chance to speak with them directly and give them access to thing that you wouldn’t normally see. They loved the behind the scenes films we were posting during the recording. They could see Ricky working on lyrics or Scott laying down a guitar solo. I wish I could have had that opportunity with my favourite bands. We were really pleased, really happy with how it turned out.
(((o))): Last time I spoke with you, you spoke a lot about your writing relationship with Ricky being special. How has that relationship evolved now you are another couple of years and another album down the line?
Damon: We seem to keep besting ourselves and challenging ourselves and each other. I remember on Killer Instinct we went in and knew that ‘Blindsided’, ‘Finest Hour’ and ‘Killer Instinct’ were really special songs. This time when we went into pre-production, I knew that we were sitting on six or seven really good songs. I think people like hearing the story that when Ricky and I first got together to write new material for this album in January 2016, we spent three days writing, and in those three day we wrote ‘Cold War Love’, ‘Dancing With The Wrong Girl’, ‘When The Night Comes In’, ‘Testify Or Say Goodbye’ and ‘Ticket To Rise’. All five of those in just three days. There were two or three others that we came up with in that time too, which was pretty incredible when the idea was to sit together and see what we had. I remember sending some of the roughs to the rest of the guys and they were like “fuck, this is going to be a good album”, so I think that gave us a good starting point. That chemistry we have is great to be a part of. He’s such a hard worker, and a special lyricist. Both he and I come from blue collar backgrounds and we bring that work ethic to this thing so it’s a great partnership.
(((o))): It’s been quite a settled line up throughout the band history so far. Does having your own projects away from Black Star Riders help with that settled atmosphere?
Damon: I think it does. I just think that we’re all artists in the best sense of the word. We like to be creative, we listen to a lot of different music and the cool thing speaking personally, it’s nice to be able to wear different hats. It helps that creative energy keep flowing. Being on this tour for three and a half weeks, I’m going to go back home, do some solo stuff. You’re always writing in your head or when I’m home I try to continue writing as much as possible. I just think that these different situations you find yourself in, you are hearing different music, and are around different musicians. People are saying “oh, check this out, here’s an old song, here’s a new band” and that fuels that creative engine within all of us and I think that’s why when Ricky and I got together, we were so productive. We had done all of these other things so when we got together it was like “man, we have so much stuff to get through and pour out”, so I think it’s good. I want to believe that it’s something that will continue in the future and we will continue to be involved in a variety of things.
(((o))): With a settled line up, and increasingly successful records, do you think that Black Star Riders now have their own identity, and have separated themselves form the origins of the band?
Damon: I think so, I really do. We really feel that now. It’s not that we want to step away from our past, and where the band originated, and we are proud of that and we respect that our fans are also proud of that. I’ve found that even when we were doing interviews in advance of the album coming out, there was still a lot of Thin Lizzy questions. We are always going to embrace that. We understand how much that band means to so many people, not just fans, but the media too. I think that as long as we keep that in perspective, our fans will appreciate that. This album has taken us giant leap forward and particularly as you know, we did half a dozen festival shows as Thin Lizzy last year, and the fans dig that, so now it’s two different entities. Every once in a while, we will do a bunch of Thin Lizzy shows but for the most parts, Black Star Riders is our main focus. We’ve always had a couple of Lizzy tracks in the set, but now 90-95% of the set will always be Black Star Riders.
(((o))): You said the writing for this album started last January, so while this material is brand new to fans, it’s been around the band for some time. When writing, when does the process start, and do you know if you are writing for Black Star Riders, or solo. How do you decide on material for each project?
Damon: That’s a great question. For Ricky and I, our continually gathering content, writing down lyrics, watching movies and getting inspired by them and you just kind of compile it all. For all of us, Black Star Riders is the priority, I can’t imagine a situation where I would go “Oh, I’m going to save this idea for my solo thing”. If it’s a great idea, I’m going to play it Ricky and get his feedback. It’s already started for the next album to tell you the truth, we have already started recording stuff into my phone on this tour. I put a couple of riffs on it the other day, little bits and pieces you know, you never know what it will turn into.
(((o))): Once this tour is done, what’s on the agenda for the rest of 2017?
Damon: Now that the album is out, there has been a real reaction from promoters, and other bands and their management and that’s very fulfilling for us and we are starting to take calls from other acts. We just announced we are doing a run with Foreigner in Germany in May, which will be really good. Festivals coming in from all over Europe, we are doing Rambling Man here in the UK, so yeah just more and more of this stuff so it’s cool. It’s a lot of fun to get an email saying this just got confirmed or we got a call about this and to see it all come together is awesome. I know there’s going to be more in May and June, they’re pretty filled up. There’ll be another run in the fall too. We’d love to do a run in the US, it makes sense as most of us are either American or live their full time. We’d love to come back here maybe at the end of the year and do some more dates.
(((o))): It must be cool playing venues like this (Manchester Ritz) and then playing arena shows too?
Damon: I agree totally with you there. I love doing these venues, they are my favourite to play and your description is very accurate. They’re big enough that you can bring in a proper show and lights, backdrop and Marshall stacks and everything. It’s big enough to add a bit of theatre to it, but it’s intimate enough to connect with the fans, certainly different to the arenas. Arenas are great because you are playing to more people, that when you have a chance to turn people onto your music that’s never heard it before, and that’s why you do this, to reach people.