It’s interesting that a California-born guitar player became known for playing in one of Ireland’s biggest rock bands, Thin Lizzy. But for Scott Gorham, whose ancestry can actually be traced to the Emerald Isle, it was just meant to be, having been drawn from an early age to that wave of sound that emanated from the UK in the sixties. Now a bonafide Brit, white ass and all, the formerly tanned guitar god has a new record, Another State Of Grace, with his band Black Star Riders. It’s their fourth since forming in 2012.
A rock band to their core, BSR came about when a latter-day version of Thin Lizzy decided to make new music without the pressure and pre-conceptions that would naturally rear it’s head upon trying something different. Gorham, along with Lizzy mates guitarist Damon Johnson, singer Ricky Warwick and bassist Marco Mendoza, recorded All Hell Breaks Loose with famed producer Kevin Shirley and they have steadily built a strong following from there, with a kick-ass live show that keeps fans coming back for more and more.
Although there have been some personnel changes – Johnson and Mendoza have departed with Robbie Crane, Chad Szeliga and new guitarist Christian Martucci all now in – the band has consistently maintained their signature sound, putting out solid albums that feel good from top to bottom. That is something that BSR is insistent about: the music has to be there, has to be fresh with that hint of where they came from and has to rock, no ifs ands or buts about it. And with Another State Of Grace, they have achieved what they set out to do with songs such as the title track, “Underneath The Afterglow,” “In The Shadow Of The War Machine” and the poignant “Standing In The Line Of Fire” all highlights.
Glide spoke with Gorham a few days ago about the music, his guitars, not being a political band and having fun with Phil Lynott onstage.
Black Star Riders have been around long enough to know what you’re doing – do you?
(laughs) That’s a really good question. Do any of us really know what we’re doing at all? (laughs) Yeah, you know, when we changed the name and decided on Black Star Riders, I don’t think we really realized what we were getting into; not really. You know, the hard work it takes to get a brand new band up and running, there’s a lot of hard work in it. It’s kind of a humbling experience, especially when you come out of a band like I did with Thin Lizzy where everybody knew the band, everybody knew all the songs. Now you’re in a thing that nobody knows your name, nobody knows the songs. So you’ve got to slug and it’s a lot of hard work. But I think with this fourth album, Another State Of Grace, I think people can see where we’ve come from, how well the band has done and really what we’re all about.
With these four albums, you’ve been consistent with your sound, even with some line-up changes. How do you maintain you, Black Star Riders, with new people coming in?
Well, a couple of things here. Back with Thin Lizzy, there were so many guitar partner changes it was unbelievable, so I’m well-versed in new guys coming in and how to handle the situation and all that, right. And what I used to tell them, which I do now to this day, the reason that you’re in this band now is because we like what YOU do. Yes, there is a blueprint that has already been thrown down and you have to adhere to that. But with this new album, there’s a lot of wiggle room there. Like I said, you’re there because we like what you do so you give us that. Everybody’s really satisfied with that. They know that they have to adhere to the blueprint that’s gone on historically but for somebody to say, yep, let it rip, when it’s your time to rip, let it go, man, you be you, I think that frees these kinds of people up. That’s what I would want to hear also.
The title track has that strong Irish element to it, which is not unusual for you guys. Did that song start off with that or did it come later as you were meating out the song?
That’s Ricky’s riff. I’ve written a couple of the other Irish ones but this one right here, this is definitely Ricky’s riff. It’s something he felt really strongly about. He actually talks about the Troubles that he grew up with in Ireland, which he really hasn’t done in the past, because we don’t really consider ourselves like a political statement kind of band. We don’t feel that we want to shove our beliefs down everybody else’s throat. Our main thing is for everybody to have a great time. But with this one here, and there are a couple of these on the album, it was really Ricky saying this is how I grew up, this is the meaning of the Troubles. It means a lot to him.
And yeah, with every album we have thrown a nod to Ireland. I don’t think it’s just because Ricky is in the band, we really truly love the Irish musical side of things – the rhythms, the grooves, the chord patterns, kind of the happiness that Irish music throws out to everybody. For me, I like to throw the nod to Ireland because if it wasn’t for Ireland, I might not be sitting here talking to you, cause the people of Dublin and Belfast and Limerick and all those places that really got behind me and made sure that I was going to stay in the band. So I love giving a nod to Ireland on as many albums as I possibly can.
And you live in England
I live in London, that’s right
And Ricky now lives in the United States
He lives in LA. We just kind of traded places (laughs)
“What Will It Take?” features the great Pearl Aday [singer and wife of Anthrax’s Scott Ian]. When did you know this was the song for her to be on?
I’m glad you brought her up. Ricky knows her. We had her on the last album [Heavy Fire, 2017] and she did such a great job and she’s such a great singer and a great person to have in the studio. When the female vocal backup thing came up, I think she was like first in line. We gave her a call and absolutely, she was bang, straight down there. I think she did a great job. I think all the people on the peripheral edge, you know, the session musicians that we brought in, I think there were only three, but every single one of them did a top notch job on every part we gave them to play.
And you have a new producer?
Jay Ruston, yeah, he had mixed our two previous albums and he had already expressed interest, saying, “I don’t just want to mix these guys, I want to produce these albums.” But we were already contracted to Nick Raskulinecz on those two albums. But as soon as this album came up, it was kind of one of those things, and I hate to use this phrase no brainer, but it kind of was. He’s the guy who knows what we sound like, he knows what we need and he gave it to us. Jay is one of those guys, when you’re the producer and you’re sitting in the chair, you are the general. You’re the guy that makes a lot of the decisions on how this album is going to sound and maybe a direction or two and he’s also the guy that, you’ve written this song and you think everything’s great, there’s nothing wrong with this song and then you listen back to it and you go, “Oh my God, there’s something wrong with this song! And I don’t know what it is!” (laughs) And that’s when Jay will come in and go, “Ah, okay, this is what I think.” And he’ll come up, because he’s a great musician, right, and he’ll go, “How about instead of doing blah-blah-blah, we do blah-blah-blah.” And you go, yeah, I never even thought of that! And you go out and do his blah-blah-blah and it would work.
It’s great having a sort of sixth guy like that, that is right in there with you and concentrating the whole time – because his name is on the album too – so he wants to make things as good as absolutely possible. But he comes up with great ideas, he’s a great guy, telling jokes, he kept the atmosphere really light in the studio. I think you could probably hear the vibe in the studio because we were having so much fun with this with him. But yeah, we all love Jay to death and I’m sure that when it comes down to doing the next album, he will be the general again.
You’ve been playing guitar since you were a little kid. What was the hardest thing for you to get the hang of?
Wow, what a good question. I think at the beginning, the very beginning, and I think it will probably resonate with a lot of guitar players or people who didn’t quite make the grade or whatever, it’s the simple barre chords. It’s wrapping your hands around the coordination to be able to put all your fingers in the right place and then move your hand up and down the neck. As soon as you kind of master that, then you’re off and running. Everything becomes a little bit easier at that point but you’ve got to master the barre chord first or you’re not going anywhere (laughs).
What was the first song you obsessed over learning to play?
You know, I’ve never been in a cover band in my life. No, I tell a lie, I was in kind of a 50/50 cover band in Hollywood where 50% was covers and the other half was original stuff that we were trying to write ourselves. But probably a lot of Stevie Winwood stuff or maybe a Deep Purple song that we were trying. But it’s funny, like I say, I never really considered myself a guy who came out of any kind of cover bands at all. My focus was on always trying to write my own stuff, which if you think about it, it’s so much easier probably if you come from a cover band because you’ve learned all these different chords and lead lines and all that. And then when you go to write your own material, you have kind of a library of stuff to fall back on, like, I remember that song and the way that guy did that riff, and I learned how to do that. I never really had that, you know. So I just sat there and kind of picked all the notes out that sounded really cool to me to be able to write these original songs that I was writing.
You know, I grew up on the West Coast and the British wave hit the West Coast really, really hard and I fell in love with it. When The Beatles came out, the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Fleetwood Mac when they came out with Peter Green and all that, I fell in love with these guys and I almost immediately stopped listening to American music and almost exclusively just listened to the British side of things. Because, it came to me, this group of people, living on this island, which I didn’t know much about, right, but the sheer volume of hit records that are coming out of this one area is just phenomenal. That big reason alone made me want to come to England and figure out, what are you guys eating? What’s in your water? Why are you guys producing so many great songs like this? I don’t get it, you know (laughs).
But when I came over here, I DID get it. The English stuff maybe got a little left behind because of the whole WWII thing and they really did try so much harder than say us American kids. It seemed at that point it was so much more important to them that it kind of cleared up their heads a lot and they just filled it all with music. But they did fill it up with American music at the same time. But that’s the reason I came to England, because of the sheer volume of amazing records that we still listen to today that came out of England and Ireland and Scotland.
I’ve seen you list Paul Kossoff among your influences but I’ve never seen where you said why he was an influence. What about his playing attracted you?
First of all, he had an amazing tone. He wasn’t a guy who sat there and blitzed you with a million notes a minute. He seemed to just really pick out all the right notes. But he had this incredible vibrato that I’d never heard any other guitar player get. If a young guitar player wants to learn vibrato, go back to those early Free albums and listen to this guy, because he’s just got the most incredible vibrato ever.
What is your main guitar today and why is it that one?
I play the Gibson Les Paul Axcess and that’s got the Floyd Rose whammy bar on there. I like everything about it, the tone that it gets. It’s a little bit thinner than the standard Les Paul. Gibson does chambering on the guitars. It’s where they take a little bit of wood out of the body to make it much lighter. I’ve had a bad back since I was seventeen years old and to be wheeling around like twenty-five pounds of guitar for two hours a night, four nights a week or whatever, after a while it absolutely took it’s toll on my back. So Gibson said alright, we’ll give you a couple of guitars, we’ll chamber it to make it nice and light for you, and as soon as I saw the Axcess that had the Floyd Rose on there, I was like, that’s my guitar. I’m not going to play anything else.
Did you try anything different on the new album in terms of gear?
No, I did not. I used the same equipment that I used with the last couple of albums. Although, Christian had a little pedal that it took me back to the 1970’s, an SPX-90, and what it is is a phaser. Now back then in the seventies, we didn’t have a whole lot of stomp boxes. You had a wah-wah pedal, maybe some sort of convoluted delay thing and these phase pedals and a little bit of my sound is the phase pedal. But he got one of these vintage pedals that I hadn’t seen in, I don’t know, thirty or thirty-five years. When he hit the button, it took me back to the early albums and I fell in love with it. So I went out and got one myself (laughs).
You mentioned earlier that you guys weren’t really a political band but there’s a song on the album called “In The Shadow Of The War Machine” and that’s pretty straight forward. Looking back, you were a young man while the Vietnam War was going on. How did that affect you?
I think everybody of my age, eighteen years old, and every young man at that point that was eighteen years old, you either wanted to go in and you went down to the recruiting station and you volunteered or for a whole year you sat by the front door waiting for that brown envelope to come shooting through the letter box saying, “Hey Scott, come on down and let’s have a physical here. We want to get you over to Vietnam.” And it never came. What they had done by that point, it had become a lottery and you had your alphabetical letter and then you had your lottery number. I remember mine was, I think it was G125. I had my draft card and I was 1A but the G125 ball never came up so I was never asked to come down to have the physical to see if I would go to Vietnam or not. Thank God for that. I have no idea of what I would have turned out as a person had I gone to Vietnam. Hey, I might have been a better person or not. I don’t know but I know it probably would have changed me.
Did it affect the music you were creating at the time?
No, I didn’t go write an anti-war song but I knew what these songs were doing to the guys, the young men who were over in Vietnam, because they would fly back and they’d get to the airport and there were instances where people were actually spitting on their uniforms. I hated that. Go ahead and don’t like the war but don’t spit on the guy that got drafted, who didn’t want to be there in the first place but went over there and fought for your country regardless. Don’t be spitting on this guy because you’re hearing these songs saying what a terrible situation our government has put us in, blah-blah-blah. So I became sort of an anti-anti-war-song guy, if you will. It incited too many bad thoughts for too many people that resulted in, like I said, these guys being spit on and told they were baby killers and all that.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
Well, wow, that is a really good question. You know, it’s funny, when you get in a band over here and you’re touring all over the place, you’re meeting people all the time but I remember the first rock god I ever saw like in the flesh was, there’s a store over here called Harrods, a big famous store, and I was walking through Harrods and I said to my buddy, “Oh my God, you know who that guy is? That’s fucking Paul Rodgers!” (laughs) He was the first guy. And in LA, I did the same thing. I remember seeing Tony Iommi and he was getting his guitar fixed at some shop and it was strange because I don’t think I’d ever seen anybody so pale in my life. In California, we’re always tan and he just seemed like a ghost almost he was so white.
And now you’re all white, right
(laughs) Pretty much. You know my joke is, when I came over from California the only thing on my body that was white was my ass and now my back is the same color as my ass! (laughs)
In your career, what guitar solo took you the longest to create, to get it to feel right?
Wow, you’ve come up with questions that I haven’t heard before (laughs). I guess it would be “Bad Reputation” off the Bad Reputation album. I guess. I don’t really know, I’m just throwing a song out at you (laughs). I can’t lie to you, Leslie, I am lying (laughs).
Well how about this – when you joined Thin Lizzy, they already had some albums out. Do you remember what was the hardest song for you to transfer to the live stage?
All of them. That’s the easy question because I had to work on all of them because when I went down to meet Phil and both the Brians [drummer Downey and guitarist Robertson], I had never even heard of Thin Lizzy at this point. So I had no chance to actually listen to any of their music, had no idea where these guys were coming from. I had thirty days left on my six-month visa and in thirty days time I was getting back on the airplane and I was going home. When an Irish friend of mine said, “I know this band from Ireland that are looking for a guitar player, do you want to go down and have a jam with them?” I said, “Well, yeah. I’m leaving in thirty days anyway, I want to meet as many people as I can.” I said, “What’s the name of this band?” And he said, “It’s a group called Thin Lizzy.” And I actually said, “Wow, that is a really bad name.” (laughs) “These guys are never going to make it with a name like that.”
But I think the hardest thing in the very beginning of Thin Lizzy was really the stage presence. We had been, I guess rehearsing, in this rehearsal hall about three weeks and as you do, you’re not jumping all over the stage while you’re rehearsing. You’re trying to get your parts together, aren’t you. So we get to this one little gig, our very first show, and Brian Downey looks at all of us and says, “You ready?” Then one-two-three-four and he kicks it and boom, Brian Robertson and Phil Lynott start jumping all over the stage and I’m looking at these guys going, what the hell is going on here? Nobody said anything about this! (laughs) So I cowered back to my amps and Phil keeps looking at me and tipping his head to get me upfront and I’m going, “No, no, I’m okay back here.” And he’s like, “Nope, come on up front.” He finally came off the microphone and grabbed me by the shoulder and dragged me over there and said, “Don’t fucking move from there all night.” (laughs) And I didn’t. So that was more than the songs. That part was probably a bigger hump for me to get over than the songs in the beginning.
Do you remember what song was the most fun to play with Phil live?
You know I don’t think there is any such thing. All these songs were so much fun to play that every night we had a great time. And also, it goes in phases, cause you’re on the road for such a long time that you’ll like a certain song and then after a while you get to the point where you’re kind of tired of it and then you find something else to do on another song and that becomes your favorite song because you’re waiting to play this new part that you’ve thought of. And on and on and on, it perpetuates like that.
I did use to really like to play “Still In Love With You,” the ballad, with Phil. I loved the way he sang that. He always used to put a lot of feeling and emotion into that song. But then again, “Bad Reputation,” that was a great one, “Jailbreak” was a really fun song to play all the time. I could go on and on with favorite songs.
Black Star Riders are about to go on a tour in a few days
Yeah, we’ve got fourteen shows in the UK here and then we jump over to Europe for, I think, six weeks, something like that. And as we’re speaking right now, management and agents are trying to lock us into some sort of an American tour. Whether it’s our own tour or it’s support for one of the other bands, that remains to be seen. But we definitely, definitely want to come to America and show everybody what we’ve got. We want to have a party in America!
Photo credit: Robert John