DAMON JOHNSON: “This Is A Hard Rock Record And Certainly The Hardest Rock Record I’ve Made As A Solo Artist”

BLACK STAR RIDERS (Live at O2 Academy Newcastle, Newcastle, U.K., March 10, 2017)
Photo: Mick Burgess

Having recorded and toured with an incredible array of artists from Alice Cooper, Thin Lizzy, Black Star Riders and Brother Cane as well as writing songs for Stevie Nicks and Santana, Damon Johnson is back with his new band, Damon Johnson & The Get Ready. Drawing on all of the bands that influenced him in his formative years, Battle Lessons, sees Johnson Rocking harder than ever. Mick Burgess called him up to talk about his new band and the making of his new album.

You have a new album, Battle Lessons, out very soon. How do you feel about it ahead of its release?

The reaction from people who have heard it so far has been fantastic. There’s no doubt that I wish things were different with the Covid situation. This was the record where I wanted to hit it hard and hire people to work some songs for the radio but it doesn’t really make sense if we can’t partner that with tour dates, I’m grateful to do the press and to talk about the album and make people aware of the record and maybe when we can get back to work I’ll promote some of the songs in a bigger way.

When did you start working on the album?

We started writing back in October 2019 so everything was already written before the lockdown, with the exception of “Shadow Country” but because of Covid we had to break up the recording into three different sections. We did three songs in February, three in June but we didn’t get to do the final three until October. In between those sessions, Nick, the producer, said to me that I should write a couple more songs to see what I could come up with. I couldn’t be more proud of what I came up with in “Shadow Country”. It’s such a bad ass song and it feels as if it was something I could take to Ricky and Scott and say that it was a proper Black Star Riders song right here, just in its story telling and the power of the riff. The original plan was that I’d play the demos for Nick in January. He loved them and said that we’d work something out to get the album done. He already had a busy schedule as he was committed to do the next Evanescence album, which is a major project so I knew we’d have to make the album in spots. Even back in January of last year he and I created the schedule with the plan of releasing it in September. So that was the plan, to do some recording in February and a little more in the spring, get everything mixed, mastered and off to the pressing plant with a proper release in September and tour dates. I was planning on coming to the UK for some shows for the first time as a solo artist and of course, everything changed.

What was your plan when you started work on the record?

This is a Hard Rock record and certainly the hardest Rock record I’ve made as a solo artist. I started seeing that in my mind when I began making the demos for the record and I knew that is what I wanted created with this record. I’m loving the lyrics on this album. There’s some really unique stories and unique characters that we created. I just wanted to write something that’s timeless. I’m not interested in sounding modern or hip. I haven’t looked around to see what’s in. The goal of any artist is to express themselves be as authentically themselves as they can. Battle Lessons is Damon Johnson at his most Rock intensive, authentic and every band that has truly moved me has informed this record, more specifically from my youth from AC/DC, Van Halen, Thin Lizzy to Deep Purple. Plenty of the tempos and communication with the rhythm section is rooted in that stuff 100%. Some young people have heard this record and they dig it but it’ll have more impact on our generation that has that kind of cultural reference. If you listen to “Talk Yourself Into Anything”, brother, that is “Highway To Hell”. That is Phil Rudd playing that drum groove, there’s big power chords, nothing technical, nothing fancy, just really simple right between the eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever written a song that simple or that in your face.

There’s nine songs on the album. Did you write them all yourself or have you been working with a writing partner?

I worked again with Jim Troglen who I co-wrote Memoirs of an Uprising with. We’ve been mates since the early ’90’s. We’ve had so many parallels in our lives. We got divorced at the same time in the late ’90’s and remarried again at the same time in the early 2000’s and then our younger kids have grown up together and our wives are best friends so he is family to me. He is also a proper artist in his own right. I say this with a lot of love but Jim is a little touched you know, he’s ideas, ideas, ideas and it’s my job to put my hands on his shoulders and go “Stop! right there, say that one more time and let’s focus on that”.

How about the recording process. Where did you record the album?

Everything was done here in Nashville in Nick Raskulinecz’s studio called Rock Falcon Studio. I have great history with Nick going back to Black Star Rider’s Killer Instinct album and he also produced my EP which was really the birth of our creative relationship. Then he did Black Star Riders Heavy Fire and he did the mix on Memoirs Of An Uprising and now he’s done the full production and mixing on Battle Lessons and I’m thrilled with it.

What does he bring to the creative and recording process?

He brings everything. He brings arrangements, drum and guitar sounds and he pushes me vocally. He has so many great guitars and guitar amps so I only brought a couple of my own favourite guitars and amps, everything else I played Nick’s stuff because his gear is incredible. Anyone who has worked with Nick will tell you that his level of enthusiasm is infectious. He has the same energy that we all had when we were teenagers, going to shows and getting excited. He inspires me. The reaction to the first couple of songs and the video for the title track has been great, everyone is excited about this record and I have to give Nick so much credit for that. He wanted me to become a guitar hero on those Black Star Riders records and he used to say that he wanted me to play faster and longer and play like I was Angus Young or Gary Moore. I said that I didn’t really play like that but he said that he heard me warming up and said that I sounded like George Lynch and he said that I should play some of that right now. It was the push that I needed and the push that I’m grateful for.

What about the recording process? Were you able to get the bulk of it record before the lockdown?

It was a mess. We recorded the first three tracks “Battle Lessons”, “Can’t Clap Any Louder” and “Let The Healing Begin” in late February going into March then we had the shutdown. We were going to get back in around June or July to do “Brace For Impact”, “Shadow Country” and “Talk Yourself Into Anything” and then Nick had to go back and work with Evanescence so we had another pause and couldn’t go back until October and that’s when we recorded “Lightning Bolt”, “Love Is All You Left Behind”, which is the one ballad and the final track “Casual Beast”, which I love.

Did you record everything that you had or did you have a couple of songs left behind?

There’s definitely some songs left behind. I have about half a dozen songs that I wrote for this record that we didn’t have the time or resources to record them properly but maybe they’ll see the light of day sometime.

How do you see Battle Lessons being a step on from your last record, Memoirs of an Uprising?

There’s definitely more guitar histrionics. There’s bits that when I go out on tour, I’ll have to sit down and learn it like I used to do with those old Van Halen records when I was younger. The difference this time is that I knew that going in that Nick would push me and I was ready to go nuts when I started tracking guitar solos.

When is the album’s official release date?

It’s out on Friday February 19th.

This record is actually a band record by Damon Johnson & The Get Ready rather than a solo record. Why did you decide to do that?

I felt that giving the band a name was a statement to the fans, to the radio, to the press, to festivals and promotors. If you see the name Damon Johnson & The Get Ready on a poster you know it’s going to be a band and you know it’s going to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll band. I’ve been around so long and my solo discography is all over the map. There’s a couple of acoustic records, some leans to the more Alternative and some more Americana. Damon Johnson & The Get Ready is a Rock band, playing Rock songs and playing Rock shows. To me, the name just simplifies that. It is a bold statement. It’s like if it says Neil Young, it could be just Neil Young turning up with his Martin guitar and singing those killer songs. If it says Neil Young and Crazy Horse then you know what’s going to happen.

Your band is a classic three piece featuring Jarred Pope on drums and Robbie Harrington on bass. Why did you decide on this format?

I’ve been in so many great two-guitarist bands in my life from Brother Cane, Alice Cooper, Slave To The System, Thin Lizzy and Black Star Riders and I just felt like I’d done so much singing over the last 20 years that I feel that I have much more command of the microphone at the centre of the stage than I did as a young man. As a musician I love the idea of performing in a Power Trio where I’m in absolute control of the dynamics. I can take my hands off my guitar and grab the microphone for a minute and just leave the bass and drums driving the song for a minute knowing that when we come into the chorus and I roll up the volume and go “BOOM”, it’s just going to make that chorus hit even harder. No disrespect to any other guitarists I’ve ever played with. They were just different kinds of bands with a different dynamic. I’m convinced it’s going to make us unique and our live shows unique. I want to play a different set list every night. I don’t want to be that band that has the same 14 songs in the same order every night. That’s not what I want. I came up in the bars where you changed it up every night. I want to change the songs that I play and if we want we can stretch a song right out one night.

When did you first meet up with Jarred and Robbie?

I met both of the guys when we were all playing contemporary Country music. In 2007 I was in a modern Country band called Whiskey Falls, a four-part harmony group with Southern Rock roots. We were the face of the band but we still needed a couple of guys on the road to be part of the performance. Jarred Pope became the drummer and I wouldn’t have met Jarred if it wasn’t for my time in Whiskey Falls. He is without doubt my favourite drummer to write with and record and to perform with. He has a seriousness in his craft that speaks to me in my progress as a guitar player. He’s not interested in twirling his sticks and standing up showboating. He’s an artist like any great Jazz drummer. We listen to all kinds of music together while we’re on the road so I was thrilled when he moved to Nashville just a couple of years after my family moved here in 2013. Ironically Jarred and I met Robbie Harrington at the same time when we were in Whiskey Falls and he was playing bass with a country artist called Dierks Bentley, who has had a lot of success. Robbie always stayed in touch with me. When I started playing with Thin Lizzy he’d message me on the road and ask what Lizzy songs I was playing, whether I was doing “Emerald”, or “Black Rose”. We just kept in touch and when I started the Damon Johnson Band, the first rule was that you had to live in Nashville so there’s no more flights to have band rehearsal. It’s not sustainable for me as an artist to have members of my band who don’t live down the street. It’s been a blessing and has worked out to perfection, more so during Covid, as we’ve been able to do live streams together and record songs and Jarred and me have even been able to do a little golf so it is what I hoped it would be.

Has having your band living close by helped you through the current lockdown situation?

I’m so fortunate that my band lives here and my producer and studio is here in town too. I have another friend with a home studio where the three of us can go in and set up and that’s where we’ve done the livestreams from. As we’re all local and none of us need to get on a plane or travel, it’s made all of that stuff possible. We haven’t done any proper gigs yet but there’s talk of some outdoor shows in the spring but they’ll have to be safe and pass social distancing regulations. We’re committed to doing whatever we can do to play but safety first in every situation. I do know we have a show booked in Illinois in April and that’s an outdoor thing that looks like it will happen so who knows, that might be the first show we’ll play. These are historic times and an almost biblical nature in its scope. I’m the same as everyone else and I make an effort every day to stay optimistic and positive and try not to let myself to get too consumed with the reality of what is happening. We’ve lived with it for so long now that I’ve lost the excuse to get bummed out by it. It is what it is and we’ve all had to make adjustments. My wife and I focus totally on our kids to help them get through school. They haven’t seen the inside of a classroom since last March. It’s an excruciating thing for them. They don’t even know what they are missing out on. My daughter is 12 and my son 16. Let me tell you, 16 was one of the greatest years of my life. I’m not one for reminiscing and looking back to the past but 16 was a pivotal year, driving, parties, school events, discovering music and dating for the first time properly and kids of missing out on all of that so it’s very hard for them too.

You’re funding the album through Indiegogo. How has the campaign been going so far?

Way better than the last time with Pledgemusic. Indiegogo has been perfect. They have already delivered every dime of the campaign. I feel so much gratitude to my fans who have supported this record and also those who supported the last one as well. For an artist like me who doesn’t have the infrastructure of a record label, it has given me the absolute fuel and power to bring in a first-class producer and work in a first-class studio and go to the best pressing plant for the vinyl and work with the best publicists. No expense is being spared as the music deserves that and the fans deserve that and I’m so grateful that they’ve given me the ability to do that.

What’s been the most popular perk so far?

The most popular one is the autographed CD and vinyl but it’s so much fun to offer to play a round of golf with fans and do a private house concert where I come to their house and play for a group of their friends. Again, I feel so comfortable in that environment that I can offer that to my fans and they enjoy getting a 100% unique experience that no one else is going to have. I’ve done that enough times now that we have a system to make it work really easy. As soon as I receive the email from someone that’s interested, we are able to hold their hand and guide them through what needs to happen to get it done. I’ve also offered some stage worn clothes that were unique. I think it’s something that’s going to continue into the future for me as an independent artist as it gives my company some operating capital to do more things to promote the record properly and I’m really grateful for that.

Once Covid eases off, is the plan to head out on tour?

Absolutely. We want to come over to the UK and Europe and when we are over there, we want to take advantage of the time and play as much as we can. The beauty of being a three-piece is that we can move quickly, efficiently and economically. We’d be thrilled to come to Europe and stay for three or four weeks. The way we treat touring over here in North America is different as we usually go out and play weekends which is when people tend to go out anyway. It’s tough to get folks out on a Monday night to a Rock show. When you’re part of a big band like Black Star Riders it’s difficult to operate like that as you have a big road crew, a big band and a lot of infrastructure, it’s a giant operation. I was grateful to be part of that and thrilled that Black Star Riders could make a big enough impact that we could play that many shows. It just took me away from home for far longer than I wanted to be away from my wife and kids. There was no phone conversation that I’d dread more than any than when I’d have to call home and tell my family that an extra month had been added. Some people are set up for that and make it work but that’s not why I married my girl in the first place and we wanted a life together. I don’t want to minimise or devalue touring and the experiences I’ve been able to have. I just love being the boss man. The buck stops with me with those decisions. Robbie and Jarred love that and love the way that we tour as they have families too.

When you first announced that you were leaving Black Star Riders you said that it was a difficult decision for you but you wanted to spend more time with your family. Looking back now after the dust has settled are you happy that you made that decision?

100%. As you know, that is no disrespect to the guys. It has been exponentially incredible for my family for me to be home more. It’s been incredible for my own song writing and my own productivity as an artist. I felt like an artist 25 years ago when I was in Brother Cain because I was the principal song writer and the leader of the band. Then I took the path as a sideman was incredible too, to play with John Waite, Alice Cooper and later in Thin Lizzy. It was the time, working with Ricky and writing with Ricky and being a part of Black Star Riders that it just lit a fire in me. It inspired me and excited me to get back behind a microphone. Those Warwick Johnson shows and the response we’d get from the audience was just great. Ricky was so supportive in wanting me to tell my stories and sing my songs. Those times were priceless. Memoirs Of An Uprising would never have happened without Black Star Riders and specifically the song writing partnership with Ricky. I learned so much from him. It’s just great to be doing my own thing now and running my tiny independent business putting the record out on Double Dragon Records and doing the pre-order campaign. On Apple Music, we finally have a proper photo on the profile for Damon Johnson and the Get Ready, there’s photos on Spotify now. There’s a video channel now too. My point is, I’m the one doing that. I’m the one on the computer sending messages to Spotify to sort things out. They talk to me like I’m the record company because I am the record company.

Now that you are in control of everything, do you get your family involved in the business too?

The thing that’s awesome is that putting out a record is an awesome event regardless of the level that you’re at. Even more so when you’re an independent company like Double Dragon Records and Damon Johnson Music. The pre-order is almost done, the CD’s should be here in a week and the vinyl later in the spring. For a little business there’s so many orders and so many people have bought the music. Somebody has to put all that stuff in the envelopes and that is going to be me and my wife and I’m going to get my kids involved. To answer your question, we’re making this a fun project and doing it together as a family and downstairs there’s stacks of envelopes and everything is already labelled and ready and the minute we get that CD here we’ll be putting them in and sending them off. Let me tell you something though, if I was off on tour now, my wife would be so angry at me as she’d be stuck with all that.

Going back to getting back out on tour. Have you thought about songs that you will play live? Obviously, you’ll do some from your last two albums but will you pop a couple of Brother Cane or Black Star Riders into the set too?

We’d already got into that with the tour dates in 2019 where we’d mix it up every night. I’m always proud to tip my hat to the big bands I’ve been involved with like Alice Cooper and Thin Lizzy and the audience digs that. I’m lucky to have all these connections so I will be playing a few songs from the bands I’ve been a part of over the years.

You spent a few years playing alongside Scott Gorham in Thin Lizzy and Black Star Riders. What did you learn from playing and recording with him?

I learned so much. In a way I feel what I learned has led me ultimately to independence. What I took from working with Scott and Alice Cooper too, was confidence. I was not very confident back in the Brother Cane days. Everything happened so fast and I became the singer by default. I didn’t necessarily want to be the singer but we made it work and had some success in North America but once I joined up with Alice and later with Scott in Thin Lizzy I felt that I had everything I needed as a guitarist to do what I wanted. Then to go through Black Star Riders and even more specifically writing songs with Ricky Warwick, I could never have anticipated meeting a partner and a mate like that where collaboration would be so much fun. It was easy writing with Ricky. Song writing had never been easy before until I started writing with Ricky. There wouldn’t be Damon Johnson solo records without having worked with Ricky and Scott.

You say that song writing wasn’t easy for you but you’ve managed to knock out a few songs for the likes of Stevie Nicks over the years which isn’t too bad?

There’s been a couple of instances where the work got done. I was fortunate enough to have some incredible co-writers and collaborators like John Shanks who I wrote that song for Stevie Nicks with. His career is incredible. He’s won Grammy’s as a producer and as a songwriter and his list of credits far dwarfs mine. That spoke to my work ethic and being open to try new things. I had some good people helping me to bring those relationships together but certainly I deserve the credit of taking advantage of that, showing up and being on time. It was a bonus that Stevie Nicks heard that song and said “Can I record that song?” and of course I said “Yes, ma’am, you can.”

Once things get back to normal in the world, are you still open to playing a few festival shows with Scott and Thin Lizzy if he calls you up?

As soon as that call comes, I’ll be there. I’ve spoken to Scott recently and he definitely wants to play some shows and the fans want to see some shows. The music is just too good not to. For me it’s perfect. Go over, rehearse and play a few shows, have some fun, see the guys, play for the fans and come right back to my stuff, my schedule and my songs and career. That’s my dream life. Scott has no interest in doing long tours with Thin Lizzy, just a few shows now and then. I think he and the Phil Lynott Estate are treating Thin Lizzy in a great way, paying tribute and respect to Phil and his legacy because it was his band. He wrote those songs and he sang those songs. He was one of the most charismatic artists of our time.

Did you get to see Thin Lizzy with Phil Lynott?

I got to see them as a three-piece just after Gary Moore had left and Midge Ure was literally flying over. When I joined Lizzy in 2011, I spoke to Brian Downey about it and he told me the story that they were in the middle of a tour when Gary left so Scott had to do all of the guitar stuff and they played three shows as a three piece before Midge made his way over and I saw one of those shows as a 15-year-old kid.

What about Ricky Warwick. Those tours you did together were a lot of fun. Do you hope to do another one as soon as you can?

100%. The Warwick Johnson thing is so special and unique, it’s like nothing else. What you have is two guys with decades of experience, coming together and now with a shared history with Thin Lizzy and Black Star Riders. We’re great mates and have written songs together. I just think there’s endless possibilities with it but the big challenge is the schedule. Ricky is in four bands, Black Star Riders, Thin Lizzy, Ricky Warwick and The Fighting Hearts and his own solo band, oh and Warwick Johnson, so that’s five. I don’t envy his calendar. I’m in if he wants to do it.

What about doing an acoustic record together? Is that something you’ve talked about?

We’ve always talked about it and we could totally do it. It wouldn’t take a whole lot of effort. Again, the problem is the calendar. If we’re going to take the time to make a record then we want to give it the attention it deserves and that’s going to require doing press and doing tour dates. We’re both very busy so we’d have to juggle some things but I’m open to having that conversation.

Outside of your new band, are you involved in any other projects on a session basis, a writer or as a producer or is your main focus now, getting your band out there?

I started to say unequivocally, NO. No more projects, no more bands, but I have played on some friends records here in Nashville and I love doing that. There’s also the Slave To The System album that I put out in 2001. Kelly Gray and I were the two principals in that band. We are in the process of remastering that record. The goal is to get it out on the digital sites and we may invest some time in doing some interviews just to bring attention to the record. The songs are great and there’s a bit of a Grunge influence in some of it and it’s definitely heavier than Brother Cane. All credit to Kelly, that was such a creative juggernaut and I was so grateful to be part of that and I think that’s one record from my past that deserves to be heard again.

Looking forward to 2021. What have you got lined up for the coming months?

Damon Johnson& The Get Ready are going to do a live stream where we’ll be doing the bulk of the new album. We can’t do shows on a big scale right now but we thought it was a good way of bringing attention to the record. The record comes out on 19th February and we originally planned to do the live stream then but I’m having surgery on my knee so we’ll have to move it back a little bit. I’ll also at some point, be doing an encore presentation to the tribute to Thin Lizzy live stream that I did back in November. We did so much work to pull that off and it was a huge success. So many fans have said that they wanted to see it again. So, again, the power of being my own little company, Double Dragon Records owns that performance. As the President of Double Dragon Records, I’m going to approve a reissue of that show. I’m looking forward to doing that on St. Patricks Day and Scott Gorham’s birthday and we’ll have a little celebration. I’ll try and see what Ritchie Faulkner is up to and will record a little message for the fans and have a Q&A. It should be great. We do have a couple of socially distanced shows booked in April which will hopefully still go ahead and we have some shows with the legends that are Blue Oyster Cult but they are further down the line in August. As we are in town, we can move quickly. If I get a call saying they need someone to play an event, yes, we can be there, no problem, we love to play. I’m just so excited and proud about this record. It’s a bad ass Hard Rock record and I’m thrilled for people to hear it.

Battle Lessons in out on 19th February on Double Dragon Records. See damonjohnson.com

Interview and Photos By Mick Burgess


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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