DAMON JOHNSON – Echoes, Scars and Quality Songs
- by J. Nepper
- Posted on 08-09-2016
I am not quite sure how to introduce Damon Johnson to you. I could start out by telling you how much I love his new solo EP, the one entitled "Echo", or I could try to sum up how much I love and cherish his work with Thin Lizzy, Black Star Riders, Alice Cooper, and Slave to the System. From my perspective, Damon is one of the most inspiring and active musicians out there today. Following his career is extremely rewarding simply because there is always something exciting happening. However, it does not quite end there. Apart from being a great guitarist and musician, he is also one of the coolest and nicest guys one can hope to meet. But why listen to me ramble on and on about Mr. Johnson? Eternal Terror Live caught up with the great man a few days before Thin Lizzy’s final show of the year at Sweden’s Skogsrojet Festival. Enjoy, ladies and gentlemen, and do not forget to check out "Echo" the very second you are done reading this interview.
Greetings Damon, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions of mine. I really appreciate that. How are you feeling? Are you back home in the US or still in Europe with Thin Lizzy? You guys haven’t planned anymore shows between the one in Sweden next week and the one in January next year in the US?
D: I’m currently at home in Nashville, but headed to Sweden in a couple of days. This will be our final Thin Lizzy festival date for this year, and we are indeed performing on the Rock Cruise in January in the U.S. Beyond that, there are no other Lizzy dates on the calendar.
There are so many things that I would like to ask you, but first off let us talk about your latest solo EP, the excellent "Echo". It is such a dynamic, memorable, and well-executed effort. Could you briefly touch on the five songs that constitute the EP and what each track means to you? Any anecdotes or interesting stories relating to the songs?
D: Thank you. These are 5 songs from a batch of a dozen or so that I’ve been considering recording for quite some time. Most of them are a bit older. "Dead" and "The Waiting Kills Me" were written with my friend Kelly Gray for what we were planning to be a second Slave To The System album. "Nobody Usin’" has evolved a good bit from the original version that I did in a side project called The Motorbelly. "Scars" and "Just Move On" were written or co-written by my longtime friend Marti Frederiksen.
Lyrically speaking, "Echo" is quite deep and emotionally charged in some places. I am specifically thinking about that line in "Scars" where it says "what makes us great are the scars". That line always makes me reflect on my past. Are the lyrics very personal to you and what inspired them?
D: "Scars" is my favorite song on the album, and ironically the one song that I did not write. Marti and I were hanging out at his studio one night and he was playing me several things he had been working on. The lyric to "Scars" spoke to me loudly and on a personal level as well. A few weeks later I called Marti back and said, "What are you doing with that song?" When he said it was meant for a movie that never got filmed, I asked him if I could record it. I was elated when he gave me the green light to do it.
To me, "Echo" has a positive and uplifting vibe to it. I cannot put my finger on why, but it just sounds so fresh, vital, and energetic. Would you say that the mood and atmosphere of the EP is a reflection of how you feel about life in general, i.e. optimistic and excited about what the future holds?
D: Well, I certainly take that as a compliment, because optimism and positive energy has informed my entire career. There was no motive or message beyond simply playing a batch of songs for my producer Nick Raskulinecz and seeing if he thought any of it was great. After that, we went straight to work and got all the songs recorded in only a handful of sessions.
Did you write and arrange everything yourself, or did Jarred Pope (drums) and Tony Nagy (bass) contribute ideas to the songs? What was the vibe like in the studio when you recorded the songs?
D: I co-wrote all the songs except for "Scars". Nick had a big hand in taking the arrangements of "Nobody Usin’" and "Just Move On" to another level. Jarred and Tony are super pro musicians and longtime friends of mine. They literally knocked out their parts in a single day. The energy in the studio was always about rockin’ out and having a great time.
In retrospect, how do you feel about your two previous solo outputs, namely "Dust" and "Release"? I have met some musicians who cannot stand listening to their own music and are haunted by their own sense of self-perfection whenever they listen to something that they wrote and recorded in the past. What about you?
D: I’m proud of both albums. There are certainly things I would do very differently now, particularly on "Release", from a production standpoint. "Dust" was a fluke from the beginning in that it was simply a friend of mine coming to two of my very first acoustic performances (ever) and recording them. I wanted to take advantage of the profile I had at the time at the end of Brother Cane’s relationship with the record label. But I’m confident both albums are filled with good songs. That’s really all that matters: quality songs.
Growing up in the South, I was wondering if Southern rock in general has had an impact on your own way of crafting songs and writing melodies and so on, or rather; how much of an impact has it had on you? I lot of Southern rock has a very special atmosphere to it that one does not find anywhere else, and I remember your song "Nobody Usin’" giving me this awesome Southern vibe the first time I listened to it…I don’t know if that is just me.
D: Southern rock consumed my life between the ages of 13 and 18: The Allman Brothers, Skynyrd, The Atlanta Rhythm Section, Marshall Tucker Band, Molly Hatchet. And there is no question that some of the chord progressions, tempos, and vibe of those bands have informed every recording I’ve ever been a part of; at least in some small way. There is a certain bluesy feel specific to it that is imbedded in my DNA. It doesn’t matter if I’m recording with Alice, Slave To The System, Brother Cane, Black Star Riders, or someone else’s album. "Bluesy" is the adjective people most use to describe my playing and singing. I admit there being a time that I tried to maybe distance myself somewhat from that, particular in the 90’s when alternative was dominating the radio and we (in Brother Cane) were trying to stay alive as a viable band. But I’m born and raised in the South. The melting pot of music that I’ve been exposed to since childhood is simply the greatest learning tool anyone on the planet could ever ask for. I’m very grateful to be confident in where I’m from and who I am as an artist.
Have you ever considered releasing an album through, say, for instance, PledgeMusic?
D: I’m considering it for my next solo album. There are many productive components to that format that could help me achieve my main goal of giving the fans what they want. We shall see.
I was telling my wife the other day that "I am pretty sure Ricky Warwick and Damon Johnson are the hardest working musicians out there today". You guys are constantly touring and working. Back in spring there was the Warwick/Johnson "Unplugged and Dangerous" tour, you are currently performing with Thin Lizzy, there is Black Star Riders, both of you recently released solo records, you have done some touring in the US with your own band this year, and I know that Ricky is planning a UK tour in November with the Fighting Hearts. Heck, even the day before Thin Lizzy’s show at the Ramblin’ Man Fair, the two of you performed one of your unplugged shows. I guess my question is this: do you ever sleep? Ha-ha. J To tell you the truth, following your careers is extremely rewarding and inspiring. There is always something happening, be it new music or tours or whatever. If I had told you 25 or 30 years ago that you would be more active/productive than ever before in your early 50s, would you have believed me?
D: Being the son of very hard working parents, I probably would have believed that I’d be working this much. For all the things that Ricky and I have in common (and there are many), the greatest single trait is our strong work ethic. It was apparent right from the start of my joining Thin Lizzy in 2011 and we started writing some songs together. Black Star Riders has been a blessing for all of us in that it has given us a platform to record new music as "older/veteran" musicians and yet still grow a new, energetic fan base. Those fans are passionate and pleased at the output of material this collective of people has generated just in the last three years. Ricky and I know what it’s like for the phone "not to be ringing". Right now, it’s just the opposite. And we are grateful to have so many ways to write, record, release and perform new music along with material from our back catalogs. Do not count on us slowing down for quite a while.
Given that I am a sucker for live albums, did you by any chance record any of the unplugged shows for a future live album? I think those intimate performances would lend themselves well to a live album.
D: Most definitely, we are going to do that. Count on it.
It must be quite rare that one meets someone like Ricky Warwick where everything just clicks, not just musically and so on, but also on a personal level. The chemistry between the two of you on stage is almost otherworldly, and the quality of the songs that you have written together speaks for itself. Could one refer to it as a brotherhood of sorts?
D: We have certainly become the best of friends. I can count on one hand the number of musicians that I have such creative chemistry with, combined with a similar set of values and perspectives about family, work and life. It’s an extremely rare thing to come across at all. I value his opinion on many things, and it helps to be a great listener whenever he is in the room.
Tell us about the Thin Lizzy anniversary shows this year and how the festival dates have gone down. I so wish I had the chance to be there to see you guys on stage. The 2016 line-up is impressive, to say the least, and all the footage on YouTube clearly shows that you guys still rule the stage with an iron fist J Personally, I love the idea of Tom Hamilton and Scott Travis being there and becoming part of the Thin Lizzy legacy. What has the atmosphere within the band been like this summer? Did you all meet up in the UK to rehearse beforehand?
D: It has been a "home run" on every single level. The lineup is tremendous and the performances have all been met with great enthusiasm and 5-star reviews across the board. It’s an honor to work with both Tom and Scott T. The level of respect they bring to the Thin Lizzy catalog of material is very humbling and quite noticeable.
Speaking of Tom Hamilton, I was wondering if Aerosmith has been an inspiration to you? The reason I ask is that some of your own riffs have this awesome 70s-Aerosmith-vibe to them. I don’t know if that is just me. One of the things that I love about your riffs and melodies is that they sound modern but with a nod to some of the greatest classic rock bands of the 70s as well.
D: No other single band informed my own earlier bands more than Aerosmith. Van Halen was my favorite American band in my teens, but I could never really play guitar or write songs like Van Halen. I could get COMPLETELY inside the Aerosmith songwriting, swing, and musicianship on every level. Their catalog of timeless, killer songs is massive. They looked über-cool, played with a unique feel, and every girl I’ve ever met loved Aerosmith. All the boxes are ticked with those guys. I listen to them often, to this day.
Have you recorded any of the Thin Lizzy shows this year for either a live album or DVD? I know that Ramblin’ Man Fair will release a compilation CD containing a live version of "The Boys Are Back in Town" from your recent show there, but is there any chance that a proper Thin Lizzy 2016 live recording will surface at some point?
D: I’m not sure about that one. It has not come up in discussions of late, but we would certainly be interested in listening to any quality recording of these dates and see what we’ve got.
There are many who are opposed to the idea of Thin Lizzy even existing without Phil Lynott, but I have to say that I am extremely grateful to Scott and all of you for keeping those brilliant songs and albums alive and "visible" out there. To tell you the truth, I did not get into Thin Lizzy until the "Live at High Voltage 2011" album came out. I knew some of the classic songs and so on, but I just never got around to checking the band’s discography out properly, which sounds kind of lame considering that I have been into hard rock and heavy metal for twenty years. Anyway, when the aforementioned live album came out, I was blown away, but when the excellent "Live 2012 – O2 Shepherds Bush Empire" live discs were released, I was hooked. Such a raw, intense, and honest live document. The chemistry between you guys on that particular album is a beauty to behold. Richard Fortus was great on the 2011 live album, but those two 2012 discs just ooze class and aggression in my opinion. I guess my point is that if it hadn’t been for the last few incarnations of Thin Lizzy, I may never have truly discovered and absorbed the awe-inspiring discography and legacy of the band. I kind of lost track of what I wanted to ask you here…oh yeah, what are your thoughts on the 2012 live albums, and would you agree that the different line-ups and incarnations of Thin Lizzy make for a rich and interesting band history? From a fan’s perspective, I certainly find it interesting that so many extremely talented musicians have poured their heart and soul into the band’s albums and tours. I like the variety between the different albums and line-ups, if that makes sense.
D: The Shepherds Bush Empire show is particularly good, in my opinion. Thin Lizzy accomplished so much between 1971 and 1983. The combination of great songs, stellar guitar playing, and Phil Lynott’s iconic greatness makes it possible for Scott Gorham to carry the legacy forward for as many years as he has. The rest of us are fortunate to get the call to be a part of it. The fans have been incredible and outwardly express how much they want to be able to continue to gather and see/hear this great material performed on the stage. I hope it lasts, in any number of member lineups, for years to come.
Just out of curiosity, who is in charge of putting the set list together for Thin Lizzy? Scott?
D: This summer, Ricky and I actually put a basic list together and presented it. Scott is certainly the final word and was impressed with what we came up with.
Were there any specific Thin Lizzy records that changed either your perspective on music or perhaps how to approach the guitar?
D: "Live and Dangerous" is a "desert island disc" for me. It changed everything in my musical life in 1979. "Johnny The Fox", "Black Rose" and "Bad Reputation" were albums of particular influence on my guitar playing. Brian Robertson…Scott Gorham…Gary Moore. All made a big impact on me then, and now.
Did you by any chance catch the band live in the US back when you were a teenager? Any memories that you would like to share with us?
D: I have told the story often of seeing Thin Lizzy open for Ted Nugent in Huntsville, Alabama, in July of 1979. Gary Moore had literally left the band two days earlier (Brian Downey told me that story) and is the reason why they performed as only a 3-piece that night. I’ve got some photographs that I took with my Kodak instamatic camera that I concealed in my boots that night. They opened with "Jailbreak" and the sirens and smoke and volume and Phil in all his awesomeness. Changed my life.
You recorded a haunting and beautiful cover version of Thin Lizzy’s "Borderline" back in 2000, and then 11 years later Scott called you and invited you to join Thin Lizzy. That is such an amazing and beautiful story. What was your initial reaction when Scott reached out to you?
D: Thank you, and it is indeed an amazing story. Could be argued that there is a bit of a "destiny" component to it. When I got the call from Scott’s manager, Ace Trump, I was in genuine disbelief. Ace is a fan of my old band, Brother Cane, and I wasn’t sure if he was simply excited about that and trying to stoke my ego. But I soon spoke to Scott (whom I had first met on the golf course in London with Alice Cooper in 2006) and he confirmed that the spot was available. Scott initially was very hesitant to have me step away from a great gig like Alice Cooper, but Alice himself knew what Thin Lizzy means to me and was very supportive of my transition.
It pleases me to no end that "All Hell Breaks Loose" and "The Killer Instinct" were so well received everywhere. I read somewhere that Black Star Riders plan to enter the studio later on this year. Has all the material for the next album already been written, and are you planning to release the album in early 2017 or perhaps even in late 2016? Who is going to produce it?
D: Black Star Riders will enter the studio on August 9 in Nashville, Tennessee with producer Nick Raskulinecz (same as "The Killer Instinct"). We have 20 songs to work up and sort through and choose the best for the album. The plan is to have it mixed and mastered by mid October and we want to set a release date sometime in very early 2017.
I love and cherish the "Dirty Diamond" album by Alice Cooper. Your work on that album is utterly brilliant. Songs such as "Perfect" and "Woman of Mass Distraction" make the hair on my sloppy arms stand up J How do you think back on your time with Alice? From my perspective, that 2006 touring line-up was killer!
D: Alice Cooper changed my life, plain and simple. And to go straight into the studio with him to record "Dirty Diamonds" after I joined in early 2005 was unexpected and incredibly exciting. I’m proud of the fact that I was a part of that band as he wanted to make a return to form with a "trashy rock and roll album". My family has nothing but love and gratitude to Alice and Sheryl, their entire family, and the band members that I worked with over those 5 years.
Speaking of Alice Cooper and tours, I caught your show in my hometown, Frederikshavn, in Denmark back in June 2006, and it was such an unbelievably cool experience. It was at this small intimate venue that holds approximately 500-600 people. You guys played your asses off and I will never forget meeting you outside after the show and you signing my copy of "Dirty Diamonds". Just thinking about it makes me nostalgic and sentimental! I guess there was not really a question in there, I just thought that I would share that very precious memory with you and say thank you J
D: Hey! It’s always my pleasure, and is great to meet fans of any band that I’m a part of. It’s the most important wheel in the machine of "the music business".
Some of your other songwriting contributions include "Middle of Hell" by Queensryche, "Just Feel Better" by Santana, and "Ghost" by Skid Row. Let us not forget the Brother Cane albums as well as the Slave to the System album and all the tours and so on. Does it ever feel surreal to have had such an amazing musical journey and written so many great songs for not only your own bands and solo project, but also legendary musicians such as Santana, Stevie Nicks, Ted Nugent, Sammy Hagar, and so on?
D: Yes. My path has taken me places I never imagined as a kid. In all honesty, just the idea of making music for a living seemed impossible and certainly improbable for someone from rural farm country in Alabama. But I’ve simply kept working hard and surrounding myself with quality talent.
When looking back on your career and all the people you have worked with, do you harbor any regrets?
D: I regret the amount of time I was away from my family during the Brother Cane years. It was of course necessary to tour aggressively to promote a new band, and there are certainly people I met during that time period that have informed and improved my life incredibly since that time. But the old saying of "you can never get that time back with your kids" is true beyond words. Nothing is more important to me than my family. I’m incredibly lucky to have had their support all these years.
Finally, do you plan to tour Europe at some point with your own band?
D: Oh yes. It’s something I’ve dreamt of for a long time. Scott and Ricky and the guys have been very encouraging and supportive of my solo material. Once we slow down the touring cycle for the new BSR album, I’d love to come over and do a 12-15 show run with my own band. It will be awesome.
I think that was about it. Thanks once again for taking the time to answer these questions of mine, Damon. Any final words to our faithful readers?
D: Thank you and thank you and thank you. To infinity…