BLACK STAR RIDERS – Coming Under Heavy Fire
COMING UNDER HEAVY FIRE – AN INTERVIEW WITH RICKY WARWICK
The US/Irish hard rockers Black Star Riders released their all-out brilliant third album entitled "Heavy Fire" just a few days ago. If you haven’t heard it yet I can guarantee you that you’ll be blown away by just how memorable and catchy the songs are, how moving the lyrics are, how tight the musicianship is, and just how much feeling and emotion these guys have poured into the album. You can bet your wrinkled old ass that "Heavy Fire" will turn out to be one of the very best records released in 2017 and possibly even this entire fucking decade. Yes, you read that right. Anyway, Eternal Terror Live had the utmost pleasure and honor of catching up with vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Ricky Warwick to discuss the new album, the importance of words and lyrics, the ceaseless desire to write great songs, having a strong work ethic, and friendship. I must admit that I was slightly nervous before calling Ricky and there was a lot of stuff that I probably should have asked him, but he was so cool, funny, and inspiring to talk to that all the questions I had prepared went right out the window and we just let the conversation flow naturally. Enjoy, ladies and gentlemen.
R: It’s me, how are you doing, pal?
I‘m doing great. How are you doing?
R: Very well, thank you.
Are you back home in LA?
R: I am, yes.
Alright. How did the Rock Legends Cruise go?
R: It was fun. I was a bit ill and got a bad chest infection, so I wasn’t feeling too good on the boat, which was a bit of a shame, but I was able to get through the show and that was the main thing.
I was watching a few clips on YouTube before calling you and you guys (Thin Lizzy) sounded great.
R: Thank you, thank you.
You didn‘t by any chance record any of those Thin Lizzy anniversary shows, did you?
R: No, we didn’t, no.
Alright then, but listen, Ricky, we should talk about "Heavy Fire".
R: Yeah. Let’s do it!
Actually, I didn‘t receive the promo version until 3-4 days ago, so it‘s still relatively new to me, but I‘ve been spinning it pretty much non-stop and I have to say that I love it.
R: Thank you, thank you very much.
From my perspective, it‘s your best album so far.
R: Right on!
I think it really encapsulates who Black Star Riders are and what you guys are all about.
The album as a whole is very cohesive and coherent, and as usual, your lyrics are great. They’re like small journeys in and of themselves, so I was wondering if there were any themes in particular that inspired you this time around in relation to coming up with those lyrics?
R: I get inspired every day by something, someone, some place, or by something that’s going on in the world. If you’re a writer, you’re trying to get your opinion across, but what you’re really doing is a diary, a diary of where you’re at and where your head is at that particular moment in time. When we’re writing a record, I really get into the zone and I get inspiration from everywhere. It could be my kids, it could be my family, it could be friends, anything. I just kind of soak it up like a sponge. The track "Heavy Fire", for example, was written about this time last year with the build-up to the presidential election here in the States and I could kind of see where or where I thought this was going and how scary it was with the media manipulating everything and everybody. That’s what inspired the song "Heavy Fire".
I‘ve been listening closely to that song and its lyrics. Depending on one‘s interpretation of it, one could argue that it has political undertones to it.
R: Definitely. It’s probably even an anti-war song, but it’s more than that. It’s about the manipulation of the media to control the masses. That’s unfortunately what we’re seeing more and more now with false news. There’s so much propaganda and Trump’s running the show, it’s just crazy. There’s so much to write about if you have an opinion. Whether you’re for Trump or against him or whatever, now is the time to put the pen to paper, you know?
Exactly, but it never feels to me as if your lyrics are preaching anything. You‘re never preaching anything, you know what I mean? Your lyrics always leave room for reflection.
R: Thank you. That’s what I want. I don’t like bands that preach and go "This is what I believe and you should too." All I’m saying is "This is what I think. These are my thoughts and this is my opinion." If you share it that’s great. If you disagree that’s great as well. All I’m doing is giving my opinion. I’m not giving you the answers – I know what the answers are. I’m just relaying "This is what’s going on in my world."
As I said, your songs and lyrics are like small journeys in and of themselves. If I think back to when "All Hell Breaks Loose" came out, I would listen to that, read the lyrics, and all of these visual images and characters and stories would pop into and evolve in my head. Now, three-four years later, things change and I can read something new into the words. I don‘t know if that makes sense.
R: Absolutely! I think that’s good, that what’s relative to me may be completely different to you. I’m not a big fan of when people go "The lyrics really don’t mean that." They can mean whatever you want them to mean. That to me is a compliment. I have something to say and my lyrics mean something to me. I can tell you what I was thinking when I wrote such and such a song and why I wrote it, but that doesn’t mean that it has to mean the same thing to you. I can go "This is what I meant" and you can go "Oh, I thought it was about something totally different," and to me that is great, because art is subjective and that’s what all art should be.
I totally agree. Let‘s take "Dancing With the Wrong Girl", for instance. That‘s something completely different again, but it‘s a great story, I think.
R: Thank you. That’s a triple-edged song. It’s interesting. In a town called Texarkana in Texas, there was a mass murderer who was never caught called the Phantom Killer. He would basically stalk these kids leaving dances. He terrorized the town and it was basically known as The Town That Dreaded Sundown, because for a year everybody there was terrified because this serial killer was on the loose. I thought "Wow, that’s so fucked up and crazy" and this thing about being in the wrong place at the wrong time, so I started writing it. And then I was talking to Scott Gorham on the phone while working on the song and Scott starts talking about his dark days with what was going on with Phil (Lynott) and heroin. He was telling me these stories and I was like "Wow, that’s pretty trippy" and again this thing about doing the wrong thing and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But then I also wanted to write a straight up love song about a guy who cheats on his girlfriend. As simple as that. I wanted to take all of those three ideas and make it sound as innocent as I could. The song is very… you know, simple chords, very easily structured, almost like a pop song, but it’s got these darker, deeper meanings to it. I kind of get off on that, I kind of dig that. That’s really how that came about.
To my ears, it strikes the perfect balance between being uplifting and melancholic.
R: Yeah, I think so, yeah. I’ve always been a big fan of people who can write very catchy and great pop songs but with a really hard-hitting lyric, like "Rock the Casbah" by The Clash. It’s great, it’s catchy, and it’s brilliant, but if you read what Strummer is saying in that song, the lyrics are very heavy and very meaningful. I think it’s great that you can do that. I like the chorus "he’s dancing with the wrong girl" and that you can sing along, I love that, but I also love the fact that somebody like yourself or a real hardcore fan will go "Wow, what’s he saying there, this is kind of deep". I like to be able to do both, if that makes sense.
At the same time, they‘re left open for interpretation so that guys like me over here in Norway can read our own stuff into them, ha-ha.
R: Ha-ha, well, you know, Jens, it’s one of those things where, to be honest with you, I express myself better when I write than what I do in conversation. I’m more comfortable there than I am in conversation. I always said to anybody that if you want to know what I really think, read my lyrics because everything’s there.
Wow, that‘s really interesting. Your solo albums and the live albums that you have done with Thin Lizzy all have a real heartfelt quality to them. That also goes for the "Stairwell Troubadour" covers album. My wife and I love that one. We listen to it constantly.
R: Thank you!
There‘s something about those renditions of those songs…I can‘t sum it up into any meaningful words or sentences, but you know what it‘s like when a song really moves you.
R: Oh, absolutely, yeah, it’s the best feeling.
I think that quality is all over "Heavy Fire" as well.
R: Thank you. I don’t think I’ve ever had as clear a vision for a record in my life. When I was starting to put stuff together for this about 14-15 months ago, I was very, very focused. A couple of things happened to me personally. I lost my father unexpectedly. Getting together with Damon (Johnson, BSR guitarist) right after that happened, and…I don’t know, it was almost like a reawakening. I could see everything clearly. I had the album title. I had most of the lyrics written as of this time last year. Writing this album was incredibly easy.
You‘re almost describing the writing process as an exorcism of sorts.
R: Yeah, it was. It was just very clear and very definitive. It was great. I don’t know if I’ll ever have that feeling again or if it’ll ever be that easy again, if that makes sense. Everything just seemed right and every idea seemed to work. It was a good experience and a very necessary one.
It‘s a great feeling when things come naturally, almost as if the songs are writing themselves, I suppose.
R: Yeah, absolutely.
(Photo: Robert John)
When you guys head into the studio, is everything planned and set in stone beforehand or do you experiment a lot in the studio and do stuff on the spur of the moment?
R: What usually happens is that Damon and I work up everything to the point where we think that it’s a finished song or what have you. Obviously, there are some Robbie Crane riffs and some Scott Gorham riffs, and we work those up into songs and write lyrics for them. Because of the geography of the band with us living all over the place, we can’t just get together once a week or once a month to rehearse. Some of the guys aren’t really hearing a lot of the stuff until we get to the pre-production stage, but they’re cool with that and it’s great that they trust Damon and I to deliver. What happens is that we’ll do about two weeks of pre-production before recording the album. The guys are such phenomenal musicians that they pick the songs up so quickly anyway. Then Nick Raskulinecz (producer) will start going through every song and every idea, and that’s when things can change completely or not at all. The song "Heavy Fire" changed so much musically that you wouldn’t believe. That one was probably chopped and changed the most. It changed so much right up until we finally put it on tape and recorded it. It’s never say never in that we write until we’re actually walking away from the studio and are done. We continue things up to the last minute. Even while recording we might sometimes be changing things. We might go "That one needs another section" or something. We’re very open-minded that way and that’s why we work with Nick because he’s so great when it comes to arrangements and has musical ears. Phenomenal!
When listening to the album it sounds as if Nick gets you and that he knows what BSR is all about.
R: He totally does. Him and I argue a lot too, which is great. We butt heads quite a lot and that’s what I want. I don’t want him to just go "You guys are brilliant, everything’s great, let’s go, let’s record." Nick’s confrontational and so am I when it comes to the songs, but that’s healthy. The last song of the album, "Letting Go of Me", I wrote that in the studio. That wasn’t even written and it wasn’t one of the songs that we brought to the table. I got into an argument with Nick one night in the pre-production studio because he said he felt we needed another song. I was like "Fuck you, dude. We’ve given you nineteen songs and you’re telling me that we need another song?" I was furious and really angry. Everybody kind of went home and I was sitting in the studio on my own. In anger, I grabbed the electric guitar and wrote "Letting Go of Me" directed at Nick and my feelings about what he was making me do. I recorded it on my fucking iPhone and just went "There’s your extra song, you bastard." And of course, he called me back the next day and he went "I love it, it’s great, it’s going on the record." I went "Hang on a minute. I’ve just been played, haven’t I?" and he went "Yep." He knew what buttons to push me and he knew that I would rise to the occasion. He went "I knew you had another song in you and I had to get it out of you." That’s the genius of the man, that he knew that and that he pushed me, and of course I fell for it because I’m an idiot, ha-ha, but that’s just great. The fact that we got that wonderful song written is a testimony to Nick more than anything.
It‘s really cool that he‘s able to bring out the best and worst in you guys, ha-ha.
R: He’s totally the best. Nobody wants a "Yes" man. We trust him and we trust his judgment, but
if I disagree with something, I’ll call him on it. We’ve been doing this a long time, too. We’ve all been doing this for years and I’d like to think that I have a fairly good idea of what I’m doing when it comes to writing songs and being in the studio at this point.
Sure. The songs and lyrics are like your babies and creations.
R: Of course.
And a little discussion is always healthy, I think.
R: Totally, and (no pun intended considering that the album is called "Heavy Fire") you need a bit of fire when you’re making a record. It all adds to the playing and the tension you want. Jimmy (DeGrasso, drummer) will walk out of that drum room drenched in sweat because Nick is pushing him and pushing him and pushing him. It’s a testimony to everybody that we do it. Nobody turns around and goes "Screw you, I’m not doing that". Nick says "Hey, you can get that better" and you might go "I don’t think that I can, but I’ll try to get it better." There’s always that willingness within the band to try to get it better. It’s an old-school way of recording. It’s very much about performance and attitude and then putting that into the playing. Yeah, we use Pro Tools, but we don’t say "Hey, you played the first chorus once, great, we’ll just fly that in for the second chorus," because you might play the second chorus a little bit different and that might be great. Everything is played the whole way through. Everything is done with emotion and by human beings and not a machine.
That‘s definitely emphasized on the album.
R: Yeah, I think so too.
Every member of the band is right on the money and every note is delivered with passion and intensity. It‘s also the most dynamic album of yours, I think.
R: We’re four years into this now and this is our third record. I don’t think that we fear anybody or anything, and I think that comes across in the confidence of the playing and the writing now. We’ve developed our own style and our own sound. It’s taken us two albums to get there, like it did in the old days when a lot of bands didn’t hit their stride until their third or fourth record. Unfortunately, nowadays a lot of labels and bands don’t get that opportunity because everything is so instant and so "NOW NOW NOW!", but with Nuclear Blast and obviously with the success of the first two albums that has given us the chance to develop and mature and get our own sound, which is wonderful.
That chemistry that you guys have, not just on the album, but…like, whenever I listen to a radio interview or watch a video interview with one or more of the band members, it seems like all of you are having a great time together and a lot of fun.
R: We are! I mean, there are no egos and nobody goes "ME ME ME" or any of that stuff. Everybody seems to accept their role in the band and realize what they’re good at and what they bring to the band and is comfortable with that, which is a testimony to them for their belief and passion in what we do.
Right, there is a sense of trust there.
(Photo: Robert John)
Going back to "All Hell Breaks Loose", didn‘t you and Damon initially present the material to Scott? You had written and recorded a bunch of demos, right?
R: Yeah, it was one of those things where…you know, it was really weird, to be honest with you. Scott sort of said "Maybe we should think about writing some new material," and this was obviously very much when we were playing as Thin Lizzy. We thought "Great." I’m very much just happy to be there and I don’t want to rock the boat, but nobody seemed to be sort of taking the reins and writing the material. As time was moving on, I said to Damon "I’m a songwriter, you’re a songwriter, how about me and you just write a couple of songs and take them to the guys?" and we did and they loved them, but that just seemed to be…they just seemed to be "Alright, Ricky and Damon are going to write the songs." Obviously, Scott brings in killer guitar riffs, of course he does, but the heavy lifting and the bulk of it have always been done by Damon and me. I think we were kind of expecting…well, I don’t know what we were expecting. Were we expecting "Are we all going to get together and write in a room?" when we first started? But nobody seemed to want to do that, so Damon and I were like "Okay, we’ll do it." Then it just progressed from there.
I interviewed Damon some months ago and we actually discussed your relationship. You guys have a special chemistry. You did the acoustic tour together last year and there‘s just something there. I see it on stage with Black Star Riders, Thin Lizzy, and the aforementioned acoustic tour. There‘s just something…I don‘t know…I guess…
R: I think we’re pretty similar. It’s very funny. Even if you take the music away. We’re both Cancerians. Our birthdays are two days apart. We both were brought up on small farms with a very working class blue-collar ethic with a family that was very big on morals and manners and doing the right thing and being honest. That was instilled in us. We’re both very similar in our look on life and we don’t suffer fools at all. Both of us have a big work ethic. You add Damon’s pedigree and my pedigree and put that into it as musicians and songwriters and it just clicks. We want to go out there and write the best songs and have fun. Again, there are no egos or anything stupid or silly. It’s more like "Isn’t it great that here are some guys in their fifties that are still able to play and make music that is relevant and play some great shows". We appreciate what we have.
From a fan‘s perspective, following your careers is extremely rewarding. You guys are constantly keeping busy. There‘s always something going on.
R: Life’s short. I’ve got a long time to be lazy when I’m dead, ha-ha. That’s when I’ll relax. I want to make sure that when it’s my time that I can sit there and go "Right, I worked hard and I did a lot. Okay!"
Back in your childhood or teenage years, was singing something that came naturally to you?
R: Nooooo, it never came naturally to me, are you kidding? Ha-ha. It still doesn’t come naturally to me. It was the old attitude of a bunch of 14-year old guys in a bedroom with guitars and their first drum kit and that kind of thing, and nobody wanted to sing:
"Who’s gonna sing?"
"I don’t wanna do it."
"Well, I don’t wanna do it."
"I don’t wanna do it either."
"Okay, I’ll do it till we find someone else."
So you got stuck with the job?
R: That was in 1980. It’s now 37 years later, and we still haven’t found anybody else, ha-ha.
You grew up in Northern Ireland, right?
What was the scene in Northern Ireland like back then? Was it inspiring to you, like the club scene, for instance?
R: Well, I never got as far as the club scene because I moved from Northern Ireland to Scotland when I was fifteen. That was when I met the guys at school who would later on become The Almighty, so that was when I started getting really serious about music, when I moved to Scotland and was in my first band and stuff like that. It was much better in Glasgow, because every band came and played Glasgow. Because of the trouble in Belfast, a lot of bands just wouldn’t come over, so in Glasgow I got to see all those bands that never came to Belfast. It was a very exciting time for me and I just soaked it all up. I started going to the Glasgow Apollo and the likes and saw everything from the Cramps to Hawkwind and everything in between.
Absorbing it all.
R: Yeah, soaking it all up and watching every band, watching the guys on stage, trying to learn as much from it all as I could.
That sounds inspiring. Did any of that stuff shine through on the "Stairwell Troubadour" album? You got Iron Maiden, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, and lots of different bands and artists on there.
R: Totally. That’s all stuff that I love and appreciate, songs that inspired me. Even like Dead or Alive’s "Youthquake", which is just a great record. I remember when that first came out. I think what I’m trying to prove with "Stairwell Troubadour" is that I just love music, meaning good music played from the heart, and that can be as diverse as you want it to be.
If you compare your solo albums to Thin Lizzy or BSR, they are different, just as they should be, but to me it‘s all straight from the heart. Honest and moving songs that reek of truth.
R: You have to be honest and you have to be truthful in your work. All the great artists are. Once you start writing music to make money or just try to have a quick hit…I just…I don’t really believe in it. You can smell it, you know. I can’t do that. Some people can. Some people can do that. Then it becomes a chore and a job and something that you don’t love. To me, that’s the difference.
One of the most refreshing things about "Heavy Fire" is that…well, obviously, you guys are old-school. You‘ve all been around the block a few times…
…and the album is brilliant from start to finish and rules in its entirety. But the youth of today, they pick favorite songs online and compile playlists and so on. Nobody really listens to an album from start to finish anymore, which is a shame.
R: Well, if you are under twenty-five then you don’t, that’s for sure.
Right. I‘m thirty-two, so I grew up with the album format and there’s nothing like putting a record such as "Heavy Fire" on, because once I put it on I listen to it from start to finish. I CAN‘T take it off! It‘s just inspiring that sometimes the "older guys" make the best and most solid albums where each and every song is important and form a part of a larger whole. Often, the "old" bands and musicians are (still) the best.
R: Absolutely, it can be, but some of the older guys fall into the trap of relying on their past a lot too and putting stuff out that is substandard just to get out on the road and tour. I don’t think of an age or a number. I mean, I’m fifty years old, but I still feel like I’m twenty-five, you know? People go "Oh, you’re classic rock" and I’m like "Why not? I can make classic rock." We’re relevant, we’re rock, we’re classic rock, we’re just ROCK! It’s all labels. Some go "Now you’re fifty" and I’m like "So what?". It’s just music. To me, it shouldn’t be one thing or the other. I will not go out of my way to fit into any particular category or genre. All I’m doing is writing music that I love and that I’d like to hear myself. Hopefully with great choruses, great melodies, really loud guitars, and crashing drums – that’s the kind of music that I love.
That‘s the thing with BSR. Everything is delivered with class and aggression. It‘s slightly rough around the edges, it‘s organic. to me it‘s just everything that constitutes great rock music. I guess there wasn‘t really a question in there, more like a compliment.
R: Brilliant, thank you.
I seem to recall reading somewhere that you were going to turn up in a movie this year…
R: Yeah, that’s not going to happen, man. The question is annoying for me now and it has nothing to do with you. Three years ago a young moviemaker who had a great idea for a movie approached me and he was going to go down the Kickstarter route to get funding. He asked myself, Joe Elliot (Def Leppard), Al from Ministry, Sin from Ministry, and so on, to be part of his movie. These are all buddies of mine. I thought, "Great, yeah, I don’t want to be an actor, but I want to be in a movie with my buddies. It sounds like fun." There was no thought put into it and I just went "Yeah, give me a call when you guys want to shoot and when you’re ready," but I guess they had problems raising the money. So, it never materialized, but it’s not important to me, to be honest with you. It was just a bit of fun, not something that I want to pursue or something that I’m interested in. I have no aspirations to be an actor.
Alright, I was just curious.
R: Yeah, it’s totally alright, it just comes up in almost every interview now, ha-ha, and I’m like "Jeeesuzzz." I feel like getting a hold of Bobby and going "You see the trouble you’ve caused me with your fucking movie?" ha-ha.
I see exactly what you mean. But apart from that, aren‘t you quite fond of movies? You have the whole outlaw theme going on in some of your songs.
R: I love them! I’m a big fan of westerns and action movies and stuff like that. I love watching them, but I let the actors be actors.
Isn‘t the name Black Star Riders from one of the old westerns…or is it "Tombstone"?
R: Yes, it was inspired by the movie "Tombstone".
My dad loves that movie. It‘s one of his favorites.
R: That’s a great movie for sure.
One final question for you. When looking back on your career and the different bands and people that you have worked with, do you harbor any regrets? Were there any opportunities you wish that you had pursued, musically speaking? Any genres that you would have loved to explore?
R: No, not really. I’ve been very blessed and lucky in that I’ve worked with and met more or less all of my heroes, toured the world, made some amazing records, and I’ve been in some incredible situations. Like many other musicians say, I wish that I’d looked more into the business side of things when I was younger. I’ve made up for that in the last fifteen years, but that’s about it. I wish I’d paid a bit more attention to where the money was going in the early days, but when you’re young you don’t really want to hear it, you just want to play and rock out. You don’t really worry about tomorrow, but then when you get older and get married and have kids you suddenly go "Hmmm, okay," that kind of thing, but that’s my only real regret. But I think that’s just the fallacy of youth. You don’t really care when you’re young, you don’t really care about tomorrow.
Yeah, you focus on the music and the here and now.
R: Right, so artistically there are no regrets at all. Nothing that I’d like to go back and change or anywhere where I go "I wish that I’d done that."
Listen, Ricky, this has been an honor for me. I hope to see you in Scandinavia on tour.
R: This was great, I really enjoyed talking to you, Jens! We’ll be announcing tour dates very soon for Scandinavia and Europe and all of that good stuff.
Awesome, I’ll keep an eye out for them.
R: Fantastic! Take care, my friend.