Interview: Black Star Riders Guitarist Damon Johnson Talks ‘All Hell Breaks Loose’ and Living Up to Thin Lizzy's Legacy
Sometimes the same legacy that allows a band to pack arenas after multiple decades is the same thing that weighs a band down creatively. Fans, after all, tend to want their classic rock bands frozen in time.
In the case of Thin Lizzy, not only are there lofty expectations set by classic albums like Jailbreak and Bad Reputation, but there is also the looming specter of the band’s late, great frontman and bassist Phil Lynott, who died in 1986 and without whom the band has never released a record.
But with a revitalized lineup full of top-notch songwriting talent, it was only a matter of time before the idea of a new Thin Lizzy record became inevitable.
"That's the No. 1 question we're getting from people — are we gonna record some new material?,” said longtime guitarist Scott Gorham in a 2011 interview with Billboard. “The fans seem to trust this lineup, and I don't blame them. We've kind of jumped this emotional hurdle together.”
Late last year, it was announced that the band had decided to rechristen themselves Black Star Riders, a name suggested by Ricky Warwick, and taken from one of his favorite movies, Tombstone. It was also announced that — while the possibility of performing in the future as Thin Lizzy was not off the table — the band would cease touring under the name at the end of 2012, making it clear that this was a band ready to start fresh.
“The name change was the right thing to do,” says guitarist Damon Johnson. “It was the right thing to do, because these songs stand on their own. Ricky Warwick is a proper, professional songwriter.”
Johnson is no hired hand, either. Although he’s only been a part of the Thin Lizzy camp since 2011, there’s no mistaking that he’s been with the band in spirit since he first heard them as a young guitarist during their heyday. Johnson is the kind of Thin Lizzy fan who will happily discuss the finer points of Gary Moore’s playing on Black Rose for hours, and whose eyes light up at the very mention of Vagabonds of the Western World.
“We had such reverence for the idea of making a Thin Lizzy record,” Johnson says. “We knew it had to be the best stuff we had had a part in writing in our entire careers. That's the beauty of this Black Star Riders record is — I know people listen to it knowing this was going to be a Thin Lizzy record, and it is because of our deep love for the legacy of this band, our deep love for Phil and his genius.”
The result of that deep love for the legacy of one of rock’s all-time great bands is All Hell Breaks Loose, an album that sounds like what it truly is: a bunch of Thin Lizzy fans getting together and writing an album of timeless, working-class rock music. Tracks like “Hey Judas” and the lead single, “Bound for Glory,” feature the dual guitars and rollicking swing of early Lizzy, while the album’s title track barrels ahead like something out of Iron Maiden catalog. “Kingdom of the Lost” channels the band’s Celtic roots, while “Blues Ain’t So Bad” is a fitting nod to another late member of Thin Lizzy, Gary Moore.
“We want everyone to listen to the whole thing,” Johnson adds. “If you just want to the stuff that sounds like Thin Lizzy, it's there. But if you listen to it from top to bottom, you can't come away not thinking, ‘That's a great band.’”
With the band’s rebirth just beginning to take shape, we caught up with Johnson to talk gear, the clarity of Malcolm Young, and just why all hell is about to break loose.
GUITAR WORLD: So before we get into Thin Lizzy, how did you first get into music?
My parents loved music and there were a lot of records played, a lot of radio played. And even music shows on TV, it was constant. My folks were into traditional country artists like Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, but there was a lot of the mainstream music as well.
Growing up in Alabama, you were kind of a slave to whatever the radio was playing. But one of my friends would have a brother who had some records, or you'd have a neighbor up the street who was starting a band, and you'd hear them playing and it was just mystifying.
Who was the first band that really caught your ear and made you want to play rock music?
For anybody that was in middle school in 1976, they'd be lying if they told you that their first favorite band wasn't Kiss, because it was. It kind of started there, and that's where the love of guitars — particularly Les Pauls — came from. From there it wasn't long before I went headlong into Lynyrd Skynyrd, which was such a great hybrid of rock music and country music, particularly with Ronnie Van Zandt’s lyrics. And even back then I can remember thinking, “Wow, I wish I could write songs. That's incredible!”
Shortly after that, I had a band with my friends, and you know you turn each other onto music. I guess really it was Aerosmith and Thin Lizzy at the same time. And then of course Van Halen came along and blew the door off.
It must have been a no-brainer to pick up a guitar when you grow up listening to bands like that.
There was just so much emphasis on the guitar with all the stuff that was around at the time. I was one of the lucky kids. I had an uncle that had a Fender Jazzmaster that he played a lot, so it was really broken in. He had sort of given up electric guitar and shifted to acoustic, so he gave me this guitar. It was so easy to play. I wish I still had that guitar, because I spent hours on it picking out Bad Company songs and Allman Brothers songs.
Somewhere around my junior year of high school I turned a corner and started to be able to figure out anything. Those first two Ozzy solo records came out and I think I learned everything on 'em. I thought, "This is the shit! I want to play like Randy Rhoads!" [laughs]
You formed Brother Cane in 1990 as a vehicle for your songwriting, releasing three studio albums in a five-year span. After the band split up in the late ‘90s, what came next for you?
After Brother Cane ended in 2000, sort of by accident I just got on this journeyman career where I was writing songs, I had a couple of cuts that other people recorded. I played with a great singer, a guy named John Waite. That was my first real sideman gig that I ever took. John turned me on to a lot of great music. And then the Alice Cooper call came out of nowhere, and that was just an amazing opportunity for me. I don't know that I would have been ready to take an opportunity like Thin Lizzy if it hadn't been for Alice.
You talk about some of these classic band that are so revered, you have to be a great performer as well as a great player. And there's no better performance school than Alice Cooper!
And then in 2011, the call comes down to join Thin Lizzy…
It was a great moment in my history. In July 2011 I was with Alice and we played a show in Belfast — Def Leppard, Alice Cooper and Thin Lizzy, all on the same bill. I was so elated. I had met Scott Gorham a few years earlier with Alice — we had actually played golf together. And it was such an amazing day for me because I had such reverence for Thin Lizzy and Scott. I thought, How cool that I get to meet one of my greatest heroes and spend some time together.
We stayed in touch, so in 2011 I was excited to get to see Scott again and watch him with the band. I remember going out front and watching the show. Before going back and putting the makeup on for the Alice Cooper show, I was in the crowd. That very night, Richard Fortus, who was playing with the band at the time, had a conversation with Tommy Henriksen, who was one of the guitarists with me in Alice Cooper, and he said, "I'm about to have to go back to Guns N' Roses and the guys are going to have to get another guitarist for this run of dates they're doing in October in the States with Judas Priest.”
And without missing a beat, Tommy goes, "They should call Damon. Damon knows those Thin Lizzy songs better than anyone!" So that night on the bus Tommy told me that he said that to Richard, and I thought it was really cool of him to say that. But I said, "That's not going to happen." And sure enough about two weeks later I got a call from their management and it just blew me away.
Alice has been so good to me. He's been like family; I just love those guys and their families. We were together for five or six years. I called Alice. That was my first phone call after I talked to my wife about it, and he didn't skip a beat. He said, "Damon, that's your favorite band of all time." I can't tell me how many times Alice was recording his show on the bus, and whenever he would play Thin Lizzy he would get me on the air to talk about them. [laughs]
So he said, "You've got to do this." So that was an incredible endorsement. I've said it before, it wasn't like a dream come true, because I would have never fathomed that that would even be possible. It was just incredible.
How soon after joining the band did you realize that a new Thin Lizzy record was a possibility?
Well, about three shows into that tour, we had a great couple of rehearsals. I think they thought Richard was going to come back. But we had a great time, and I know Scott had expressed to management that, "We need a band. We need a guy who can always be there." Because Richard and Vivian Campbell are both word class guitar players, but they happen to be in enormous bands.
Scott asked me one night after a gig if I wanted the job permanently, and I think the very next day was the first time I heard talk of a new record. I knew that a new Thin Lizzy record was a massive concept in itself, and on paper you think, Here's this classic band that wants to continue to grow and expand their fan base and do like so many other classic bands, and the only logical thing is new music. You have to have something to talk about, something to promote.
So I just remember, Ricky called me after Scott asked me to join and said, "Let's get lunch together." And he said, "Listen, they want to make a record, do you think you would have any ideas?" I said, “Fuck yeah I got ideas!” [laughs]
We had such reverence for the idea of making a Thin Lizzy record. We knew it had to be the best stuff we had had a part in writing in our entire careers. That's the beauty of this Black Star Riders record is — I know people listen to it knowing that this was going to be a Thin Lizzy record, and it is because of our deep love for the legacy of this band, our deep love for Phil and his genius — you know, Phil's a part of this record. We wouldn't have written these songs if it wasn't for Phil. There's no way. It wouldn't have sounded like that.
When you guys made the decision to call the band Black Star Riders instead of Thin Lizzy, for obvious reasons, did you feel a bit of relief that you didn’t have to live and write up to that legacy?
It was a tremendous amount of pressure off, especially for Ricky. And Ricky deserved that, because Ricky needs to be recognized on his own laurels and on his own talent and ability. Plus, I'm as big a Thin Lizzy fan as anyone, so to the people who were already expressing concern or outright distaste for a Thin Lizzy record without Phil on it, I completely understand. If I wasn’t in the band, and you come to me and tell me they're making new music, I would have been like, “No way, I'm not interested. I don't want to hear it.”
And how much of a drag is that, and how unfair is that to Scott and to Ricky? So I think selfishly he and I both wanted to make a Thin Lizzy record, just because of the legacy, just to be a footnote in history. And I guess in a way we are still a footnote to Thin Lizzy because the whole idea of having a classic sound and changing the name, I can't think of another example of that.
When writing the new album, how did you and Scott develop your roles within the dual-guitar sound of the band?
The thing I've got to tell you from a guitar/writing standpoint, Scott is so free of any ego about it. Never did he make me feel like it had to be a certain way. It was kind of the opposite. He said, "Damon I want you to write anything you want. Don't try to sound like Gary [Moore] or anyone but yourself."
I think the Thin Lizzy-ness of the songs, some of that has to do with the tempos, some of it is the chord structure, but there's no question that the instant we would put any kind of a harmony on there — when Scott Gorham bends a note, it's so uniquely him. Just in the way so many great blues players are, like an Eric Clapton, like a Jimmy Page.
Your guitar tone on this record is really crisp. How did you go about dialing it in?
From a gear standpoint, for me, it could not have been simpler. When the idea came up to make a Thin Lizzy record, I thought, I know the four amps I'm going to bring and I'm going to bring like five guitars and I'm going to need a bring a box full of pedals, just to have options.
I made the entire album with one Wizard amp, one Les Paul, a wah pedal, a Rotovibe pedal, and then I played Kevin's Stratocaster on one song, “The Blues Ain’t So Bad.” That was it, that was absolutely it. I didn't even change speakers. I'm passionate about Wizard amps. I've been working with Rick St. Pierre at Wizard amps since 1995. We became friends, and he developed what he calls the Modern Classic. It's a dual-channel amp. He sent me one of those to try right as I was joining Thin Lizzy, and I just thought, "He's done it."
So with Lizzy I have a Vintage Classic and Modern Classic, and I run them at the same time. I don't switch between them. The Vintage Classic is like an old super lead, pure tone. The Modern Classic gives me a little more gain, a little more sustain, especially for the Gary stuff.
When I was in the studio, I had the Modern Classic and Rick's new amp, which is called the MTL, and truthfully I think the MTL was on 85 percent of the record by itself. Kevin, who's recorded some amazing guitar player, the very first day, the very first, "Okay let's try to get a sound." I plugged straight into the amp, cranked down on a couple of power chords and he said, "Well that was easy. We're done!" I really wanted to get some of that Malcolm Young clarity.
AC/DC represents another great classic band that never went overboard with stacking guitars and still managed to achieve some truly massive sounds.
Kevin Shirley and I specifically talked about Highway to Hell, that whole album, when we were setting up to start recording. With any producer, they'll ask what you're feeling, and I just said that I would love to have the economy of those early AC/DC records, just the overall sound of it. And if you listen closely, those aren't stacked guitars on those records; it's one great guitar tone and one great guitar part in each speaker. That's what Scott and I were going for.
I’ve seen a lot of people try to replicate those tones with the gain cranked all the way up, but most people don’t realize how clean Angus’ guitar tone really was.
Totally transparent. When those guys hit a power chord it's like you can hear every string on the guitar. To me, that makes it musical. You're hearing the notes, it's not just sound. It's music. Here's a chord, and they put the third in this chord here but they don't when they go to the chorus. It's a different vibe, a different place on the neck. You can't hear that if you've got your amp just totally gained out.
I don't know, brother. I think that's a massive influence that comes from growing up in the South. I had some great players, and they really put me through the ringer about finding my tone. I mean I got my feelings hurt, in my early twenties, because I'd show up with my Marshall amp with the gain cranked to 10 and my pedal, and I'd turn that shit on and I could play a thousand miles per hour, and they're like "No no no no. First, we're going to take this pedal away. Then you're going to plug straight into this really cool amp that you've got and back that gain back to about 3."
"Three?! What? No way, that's going to sound like shit!" But they loved that I kind of got it quickly. That was good fortune that I had that happen. On this record, you can hear Scott really clearly in one side and me on the other.
I’m not sure if it’s Kevin Shirley’s production, but the first track on the record, “All Hell Breaks Loose,” has a few sections that are reminiscent of another great two-guitar (well, now three-guitar) band, Iron Maiden.
That's a heavy track. What I can tell you about Kevin on that song, is that "All Hell Breaks Loose" was another song where we wanted to think AC/DC. The original demo that we had had a little more of a shimmy in it. It was a little busier with the rhythm section and the verses. But when you listen to it now the drums are all four on the floor, and it give us room for those big ringing power chords to have space.
That was a great Scott Gorham riff.
There’s an unmistakable Thin Lizzy vibe to many of the songs on the record. Was there a conscious decision to start the record off with something that might subvert expectations a little bit?
It's the perfect track to set the table, because it isn't so overtly Thin Lizzy. It isn't metal, it's just overtly powerful hard rock. The record immediately follows with “Bound For Glory” and you think, There's the Thin Lizzy! Scott really fought against "Bound For Glory" being the first single. And he's since come around.
And then “Kingdom of the Lost,” which is so Celtic and kind of anthemic. We put a lot of love into the sequence, a lot of debate. By committee, everything worked out. I think we got the right single, we got the right sequence, we got great artwork, and we definitely go the right guy to produce it. So many people made record and go, I wish we would have done this, I wish we would have done that. Maybe I'll get into some of that later on, but I just feel like, man, we did it! It's just right.
Black Star Riders’ debut album, All Hell Breaks Loose, is available now on Nuclear Blast Records.