If you attended an Alice Cooper concert between 2004 and 2011, there is a pretty good chance you saw Damon Johnson playing guitar in the band – barring a few years when Johnson left to perform and record with Whiskey Falls from 2007 to 2009. He was powerful, killer on the electric guitar, someone Cooper could depend on to bring tiger roar riffs to his iconic songs. The southern-born rocker was, and still is, a force to be reckoned with. His latest five song EP, Echo, is a perfect indication that his chops have only grown more passionate as the years have gone by.
Gaining attention in the nineties band Brother Cane, Johnson sang and played guitar on the hit single “Got No Shame,” releasing three albums before the band would part ways. Johnson then spent the next several years co-writing songs with Stevie Nicks, Carlos Santana and Sammy Hagar, as well as playing on Faith Hill’s 2002 hit, “Cry,” and releasing two solo albums. Johnson would leave the Alice Cooper Band when he had a chance to join his idols Thin Lizzy in 2011. In late 2012, the band would morph into Black Star Riders to develop their identity away from the Thin Lizzy moniker.
Speaking with Johnson a few weeks ago as he was spending some much-needed vacation time with his family, before the music kicked back into gear with some Thin Lizzy anniversary shows [beginning June 17th] and writing for the next Black Star Riders album, he was excited about his life and the music he has been able to accomplish. Glide spoke to Johnson about Echo, Thin Lizzy’s continued appeal, guitars and how country music has found it’s way into the fabric of his music.
You released your third solo recording recently. How did the ball get rolling for this?
Well, I think I would be lying if I said I had not wanted to make a solo electric guitar recording. I’d been kind of having that in the back of my mind for quite some time. I’d just been so busy with Alice Cooper five years ago and then the whole Thin Lizzy thing and then that morphed into Black Star Riders. But I really have to give a lot of credit to my producer and great friend, Nick Raskulinecz. He was the one that said, “Hey man, I’ve got some time. If you’ve got some songs, let’s go in and make some noise.” So that’s really how it all got started.
How much of an impact did Nick have on this record?
Well, I would imagine that you’re probably aware of Nick’s resume. As a producer it’s incredible the work that that guy has done over the last fifteen years. I was already kind of in awe of his skills and we had such a great experience making the Black Star Riders album, The Killer Instinct. Obviously, I knew that he was special and I knew that he and I worked well together and we also worked pretty fast. He would have an idea and go, “Hey, can you play this?” and I’d go, “Yeah, I can play that.” We just don’t waste a lot of time. We kind of get on about the work.
I’m really grateful for him. I had been a fan of his work before we met and it’s extra special now that over the last three years, his wife and kids and my wife and kids, we’ve all become great friends. So we kind of hang out just for fun. We take our kids to the hockey games and to Chuck E. Cheese and all that kind of stuff. So it was probably standing over the skee-ball machine at Chuck E. Cheese that he said, “Hey man, look, let’s get in the studio and make some noise.”
Did you have more than five songs?
I’ve got a ton of material, Leslie. I have an abundance of material. What I didn’t have was a lot of time and I didn’t have a big budget. I kind of bankrolled this whole thing myself, without a label, without any investor or anything like that. And in full disclosure, that was the only limitation. But without a doubt, what I want to do now is get back in there as soon as I can and do another five or six and maybe combine all ten songs and make it a full-length. I’ve had a lot of interest from different labels and some of my friends in other bands, they’ve heard the music and they’re really supportive and excited. So that’s kind of my plan going forward. Black Star Riders is my #1 priority and then in-between the touring schedule with that, I definitely want to continue to make some solo recordings cause I love it so much and like I said, I have no shortage of material. I have tons of songs.
Do you remember the first song that you and Nick started working on for this record?
Yeah, the first thing I ever played was essentially the first track on the record, the song called “Dead.” I think it surprised him a little bit cause it’s definitely a lot more modern rock sounding than what we had done in the Black Star Riders experience. That, and for no other reason than the fact that I’ve been around, you know. Brother Cane kind of had it’s radio success and touring success right in the middle of that fruitful period of the nineties, kind of that transitioning into all those alternative bands and the grunge bands. So I kind of come by a little of that sound honestly and naturally. So he thought “Dead” was really great and he wanted to start with that and we went from there.
What can you tell us about the song “Nobody Usin’.”
I wrote “Nobody Usin’” with my great friend Johnny Blade. Johnny lives in Birmingham, which was my home for over twenty years, and we had kind of come up through the Birmingham scene together. And I guess it was ten years ago, or maybe more, we were both kind of freshly divorced and getting together to write some songs and see if we could get some inspiration together. And I have to really give him a lot of credit. He brought that riff and that title and he had some lyrics and we just developed it. He wound up wanting me to sing it and the lyrics really spoke to both of us. It’s kind of an aggressive put-down of, I don’t know, drug abuse, substance abuse. We had both been around that a lot in our previous bands and we felt like we had a front row seat to how much time you waste, how much life is wasted. And listen, we’re not do-gooders by any means. I’ve done my share of experimenting and trying stuff. I love a great glass of beer to this day.
But you’re glad to be on this side of it and not back on the other side
Yeah, no question about it, Leslie. That’s well said. So “Nobody Usin’,” I love the tempo and the energy of the guitar. Even Nick said it himself, “Man, this reminds me of ‘Got No Shame’ from Brother Cane cause it’s so in-your-face and heavy.” And I like that. That’s a barn-burner for sure.
“Scars” is another great song off of Echo
Thank you. “Scars” is the one track on the record that I did not contribute songwriting to. My great friend Marti Frederiksen, he and I wrote all the Brother Cane stuff together on all three albums. Any song that was a radio hit, Marti and I wrote together and we’ve remained great friends to this day. And I was at Marti’s house, we were just kind of catching up, and he was playing me some things he had been working on and he played me a demo of “Scars.” It was very different sounding from the way I did it on my album but the lyrics leveled me. It really spoke to me, especially the hook that says, “What makes us great are the scars.” We’ve all been through stuff, we’ve all been through challenges and successes and failed relationships and losing friends, just a lot of stuff. And I think there’s some real power in the idea that, maybe don’t run away from those experiences but embrace those because you learn more and you take it into the next phase of your life. I’m really, really proud of “Scars,” really proud of how it turned out. Nick and I almost treated it sonically like a Pixies song. We wanted it to have really quiet spots and then really powerful spots and I think we accomplished that very well.
Who else plays on the record with you?
My bass player’s name is Tony Nagy. He was introduced to me by my great friend Chuck Garric from the Alice Cooper Band. We played together for a long time and we’re still really close to this day. And my drummer is Jarred Pope and he played drums in my band Whiskey Falls. Whiskey Falls was a band I had together around 2007/2008. Jarred is from Bakersfield, California, and we met when he was still living there. He played with that band for a couple of years and I always said to him, “One of these days we’re going to make some rock music together,” cause I love how he plays, I love his instincts, he can play the rock stuff but he can also create a lot of space for the vocal to connect. And I felt like he was perfect for this and he truly was. He did an amazing job.
Which guitar did you use primarily recording this EP?
You know, I got to say I’m a Gibson guy and have been my whole life. I bought a new Les Paul just before we started recording the songs and I really used that a lot. It’s my favorite Les Paul ever and I’m so proud of it. I guess I kind of spoiled myself cause the Gibson Custom Shop is right there down the street from me in Nashville. And when the wife and kids said, “What do you want for your birthday?” I said, “I want to go to the Custom Shop and order a guitar!” (laughs) I think they regret asking me that now because we’re still paying for that guitar (laughs). But I love that new Les Paul.
I also played my Korina Explorer that I’ve had for twenty years now. It’s one of my favorites. But I also have to say that Nick had some incredible guitars in his studio. He’s got this amazing three pickup SG that I played a lot of the rhythm tracks on. And he also has a beautiful BB King Lucille model. I think it’s called a 355 and I wound up playing that on a lot of stuff too. I wouldn’t have thought I would have played a hollow body guitar but on a lot of the rhythm tracks that is in there as some support; especially in the choruses, we would plug that into a heavy amp and thicken up the choruses with that guitar.
When riffs come to you, do they tend to be more rock type riffs or more ballady?
Always rock (laughs). You know, if it’s riffing it’s usually heavy. Usually the ballad stuff starts more with a chord progression or a vocal melody, a chord sequence. But yeah, the riffs are always heavy. The riffs certainly for “Nobody Usin’,” Johnny just kind of spit that out and I was like, “Yeah, man, that’s killer.” And it’s the same with Black Star Riders. Ricky Warwick, the singer in Black Star Riders, he’s a really good guitar player as well so he’ll play something and I’ll go, “Whoa, what is that? Play that again!” We love the riffs. There’s no shortage of riffs, thank God. If you put a gun to my head and said, “I need ten riffs in half an hour,” I’d be like, “No problem. I got that.” (laughs)
When you first started learning to play guitar, what was the most difficult thing for you to get the hang of?
The most difficult thing for me was learning the intro chord progression to “Stairway To Heaven.” I knew I was playing it in the right key but it just didn’t sound right. I knew it didn’t sound right but I didn’t know enough about guitar yet to really understand it. There was a neighbor up the street that had a band. He was about four years older than me and I could hear those guys rehearsing and I’d be out in my yard playing with my brother or my friends in the neighborhood and I would hear them. So one day I got the nerve to walk over there to their garage and I just stood there with head peering around the corner. The guy’s name was Bob and he was supercool, very nice, and he invited me to come in and that very day he showed me how to play “Stairway To Heaven” properly. And I’ve never forgotten that experience as long as I live. It was like, I didn’t know you could play chords further up the neck. I thought they all had to be down in first position like an acoustic guitar. I thought the rest of the neck was just for playing solos, which I was terrible at at that point. So I have very vivid memories of struggling with that song and then my neighbor Bob saved the day and showed me the light.
How old were you?
I was thirteen. I started pretty early. My dad played guitar. His brother was an incredible flattop acoustic player. So I was around it a lot but it was still very challenging and almost mystical to me. But like so many of us kids that grew up in the seventies, there was just so much incredible music and everybody wanted to play guitar, everybody wanted to start a band. So once I found the circle of friends that had a similar mindset, I was off and running. There was no turning back after that.
How long after you learned to play that guitar did you create your first real song?
Wow, I probably didn’t write my first song until a few years later. I just wanted to learn to play. I wanted to learn songs off the radio, songs off my favorite records. The idea that I could create something myself, it just never occurred to me. I just thought, that’s impossible, nobody would ever want to hear something I wrote or had to say. So I just continued to try to learn Aerosmith songs and Skynyrd songs and later Thin Lizzy songs. So it was probably not until my late teens that probably me and a friend were working together and going, “Oh yeah, let’s develop that into a song!” I’m sure the lyrics were terrible. I’m glad I can’t remember it (laughs).
When you started to make some money playing guitar, what was your first big guitar gear splurge?
That would have to be a Marshall amplifier. I bought a 50 watt JTM 45 and you know, that’s all we ever talked about – everybody dreamt of getting a Marshall and wanted to have a Marshall. All our heroes played Marshalls. So that was a biggie. That was a really special day. I think I had saved money from cutting grass, that’s what I was doing making money, and playing music on the weekends. So between those two incomes I was able to save up enough. What’s funny is I kind of was making a living, certainly making money playing music before I got out of high school. I knew that was a way to make some extra scratch but still it never occurred to me that it would be a lifetime profession until I was much older. I feel like I got the golden ticket (laughs).
When it comes to the acoustic guitar, what are the adjustments you have to make when you’re doing an acoustic live performance as opposed to a rock live performance?
I feel like I have two separate skills. I can perform as an electric guitar player and I can perform with an acoustic guitar. And the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve been surprised at how both are very different. Like, I know great acoustic players that would be mortified to walk onstage and play a lead guitar solo and vice versa. Even the guys in my own band, you know, Scott Gorham, he’s one of the great rock guitar players of all time and he’s seen me play acoustic and sing and be in front of an audience and it just blows his mind. He acted like I was, I don’t know, Al Di Meola (laughs). He was like, “Wow, man, I had no idea. I can’t do that.” And I was like, “Well, you could, you absolutely could if you just put the time in.”
But for me, the big key is that with the acoustic in my hand, the focus is always much more on the songs. The acoustic is just a vehicle to get a song across. And it’s fun to pick moments within that song to maybe play a couple of flourishes or some lick on the acoustic guitar. But for the most part, I really simplify what I’m playing and put the emphasis on the lyric and my voice and just trying to connect with the audience as a singer. I’ve said before, I feel like kind of a poor man’s Neil Young. I’ve followed Neil’s career for so many years and I love how he’ll make these beautiful kind of singer/songwriter records, if it’s Harvest or After The Gold Rush, and I’m such a fan of those records; and then he’ll put Crazy Horse back together and he’ll blow your mind with Ragged Glory or something heavy like Weld or any of those records. It’s two very different things and I absolutely love them both equal amounts. I enjoy both of them and I feel really fortunate to kind of switch back and forth.
Who first put a guitar into your daughter Sarah’s hands?
You know, she certainly grew up around it and without a doubt she started playing one of my guitars and asking questions. I remember my son Marshall, who is a year and a half older than her, he had wanted to learn to play some riffs like “Crazy Train” or “Enter Sandman” or something like that and I remember sitting on the couch with him and trying to teach it to him and he was trying but he was struggling a little bit. So when he got up and left the room, Sarah, who had been sitting there watching, she goes, “Hey Dad, can I try it?” And I was like, “Yeah, of course you can.” And she just picked it up and played it like she had been playing it for six months, you know. And I said, “What have you been up to?” (laughs) And she said, “Nothing, it looks like a pretty easy thing to play those four or five notes.”
Shortly after that I taught her a few chords and I went on tour, went back on the road with Alice Cooper, and unbeknownst to me, she was sitting at home on the computer and pulling up things on YouTube. And of course like so many young girls at that time period, she was way into Taylor Swift and the idea that a young girl like that could write songs and make records and be on TV. Sarah was very taken with that and I know that really influenced her a lot. So when I came back home from the tour she blew my mind. She had learned like three songs and was singing them as well. You know, I never did that. I didn’t sing and play guitar when I was her age. The singing didn’t come until much later. She’s very special, has really got a great natural talent and she just does it for fun. She has no desire to do it professionally but she absolutely loves it and loves it to this day.
I saw the video of you and her on YouTube
Leslie, that was a very special moment and I’m so grateful to my friend that captured that on video and posted it. A lot of people have seen that and commented on it. She’s really special. She doesn’t have an ego about it, she’s very kind of aw shucks about the whole thing. We couldn’t be more proud of her.
What is your first memory of hearing Thin Lizzy?
I had heard them on the radio. I had heard “The Boys Are Back In Town.” But it was almost an accident that I saw them live in concert. I was fifteen and I went to Huntsville, Alabama, to see Ted Nugent with no idea who or even if there was going to be an opening act. I remember my friend’s dad dropped us off in front of the arena and there was a big sign out front and it said, “Tonight Ted Nugent with special guest Thin Lizzy.” I was like, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of those guys.” I didn’t know enough about them to get excited, you know. But when those guys hit the stage and they turned on the red siren lights and the smoke and all that and then they kicked into “Jailbreak” and Phil jumped up onto this riser and he had his mirrored pickguard on his bass guitar and was shining it on the girls in the audience, I mean, our minds were blown, Leslie. I cannot quantify the level of just explosion it was for me mentally to hear that, to see that, to feel that. I’ve said it many times, I hit the streets the very next day looking for as much Thin Lizzy as I could get my hands on.
Playing those songs for the first time live with Scott standing right there beside you, were you more nervous about him or the audience?
No, I wasn’t nervous at all. I was very emotional. That music has meant so much to me my entire life. I named my daughter Sarah after a Thin Lizzy song. I had a band named Chinatown. Lizzy has just been the blueprint to so much that I have been able to accomplish in my career, certainly as a guitar player but also as a songwriter. They just raised the bar for me of a level of quality to aspire to; not that I necessarily achieved it but they were a great example for me to attempt to follow. So to walk onstage with those guys and have Brian Downey count off the intro to “Jailbreak,” it was just, I can’t even really describe it properly. I just remember looking down at my shoes and thinking, who does this? Who does this even happen to? How is this possible that I’m getting to play these songs with these guys? I’m so proud of it to this day and I’m very honored to be even a small footnote in that story.
Which Thin Lizzy song do you think should have gotten more attention than it has?
Wow, there’s a lot. I could rattle off six or eight songs because as popular as “The Boys Are Back In Town” is there are so many other songs that could have been just as big mainstream hits in the United States; songs like “Dancing In The Moonlight,” “Waiting For An Alibi.” These songs were all hits in England and Germany and Scandinavia, much of Europe, and other countries as well. But they just never really had hits in America like that. You know, even “Bad Reputation,” “Southbound,” “Killer On The Loose.” They did it all. They had pop songs, hard rock songs, beautiful ballads, great folk songs, great stories and I feel really fortunate that I became such a fan of a band that wasn’t necessarily as available to everyone in America as they were in some other countries.
I understand you have some Thin Lizzy Anniversary shows coming up. What can you tell us about that?
Yeah, we do. We’re very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish with Black Star Riders and we’re so grateful for Scott Gorham cause he’s been invested in that with his time and his energy. So with his blessing, we kind of put Thin Lizzy on the backburner for a while. So the timing of everything simply worked out this year that we weren’t going to be out as Black Star Riders, focused on writing and getting ready to record our third album. It was a good time in Scott’s mind for us to maybe go out and book a few dates. When you add to that that 2016 is indeed the 40th anniversary of the Jailbreak album and it has been thirty years since Phil Lynott passed away, I think we all felt like it was a great time to pay tribute to the whole legacy. And for us to be able to go out and have some incredible guest musicians performing with us: Tom Hamilton is going to play bass and then we’ve got Scott Travis from Judas Priest on drums. It’s going to be incredible. I’ve been talking with those guys and they are fired up and so excited to be a part of this.
When will Black Star Riders do something?
We’re writing and we’re going to go back into the studio with Nick Raskulinecz in August. We’ve got it all scheduled out and the time is blocked. I think the last Lizzy festival we’re doing is like August 5th and then Scott and Ricky and myself will fly straight to Nashville and meet Jimmy DeGrasso and Robbie Crane there and we’ll get right into pre-production and get this new album started.
When you were in Alice Cooper’s band how did you feel about being in that environment of a structured show, where you have to be here at one moment and there at another?
I loved it. I had never done anything like that. It was really one of the first things that Alice and the band discussed with me because when I came for the audition, I mean, I’m a pro, I was ready, I had all the songs down, the background vocals, and I really did a good job with that. And Alice was like, “Wow man, great. You’ve got that nailed. Now here’s the other part that we’ll have to spend a little bit of time on.” So he sat with me and we went down the song list and he said, “Alright, right here we’re going to transition, there’s a prop that’s going to come out on your side of the stage so be looking for that.” He wasn’t anal but he was meticulous and just very focused and obviously he’s put a lot of thought into every show he’s ever done. The guy has never done a bad show. You know that. So that was an incredible learning experience for me. Me and Coop and the guys, we had a lot of laughs and I’ve said it before, Leslie, I would have never been ready for a situation like Thin Lizzy had it not been for the experience of playing with Alice. He was just incredible to me, so supportive of my transitioning out of his band into Lizzy because he knew what a fan I was. I’d been with Alice for five years, I’d been playing those songs for a long time, and I think he could sense that I was ready to move on and have a new experience doing something else. He’s been so supportive of Black Star Riders and my solo stuff. He’s my big brother and one of my great friends and I was proud to be a part of that.
I may be wrong but I hear some country influence in your sound
Oh yeah, a lot of that just comes naturally. I grew up in the South, I grew up on not just the traditional country that my folks played on the record player all the time but whatever modern country there was on the radio. I remember back in the early eighties, it was the band Alabama, Clint Black and Garth Brooks and that stuff was everywhere. I heard those songs as much as I heard Van Halen and Motley Crue and Guns N Roses. So I couldn’t really get away from that and without question if you start talking about Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, I mean, you’re talking about some of the great artists and great songs and that’s the great American songbook right there. So I just feel like I was really fortunate to grow up in this melting pot of stuff cause I was hearing Bob Dylan, I was hearing The Beatles, I was hearing Robert Johnson and all this traditional blues stuff as well as country, as well as zydeco, gospel and R&B. I love it, I love the musical environment that I kind of grew up in.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
Wow, I guess the first real rock star I ever met may not have been until I was, I guess, nineteen or twenty and I went to Chicago to go to the NAMM show with my friend. His dad owned a music store and they let me go with them. I remember I was in the lobby of the hotel and Tommy Lee from Motley Crue came in and I’d never met anybody like really famous like that before, ever. But you know what, I take that back. I have an even better answer. The first real rock star I ever met was Ricky Nelson and this is going to blow your mind even more. I was playing guitar in a house band in Guntersville, Alabama, in 1985. And the guy that owned the club was an old friend of Ricky’s. So Ricky agreed to come and play his place. So Ricky played Guntersville, Alabama, got up the next day to fly to Dallas to play for New Year’s Eve and the plane crashed. My band played a show with Ricky Nelson, his last show.
What was it like playing with him?
I just remember the excitement of the audience. Obviously, his fanbase was older; my folks had grown up on Ricky Nelson. But people were excited. They couldn’t have been more excited if the Pope had come through town or Willie Nelson. I don’t even know what to compare it to. People were standing on their heads they were so excited. So I remember getting a buzz off of that and being like, wow, these people are freaking out, this guy is the real thing. He was sort of Elvis right before there was Elvis, you know what I mean.
Photos by Stephen Jensen