Black Star Riders talk tours, Paris attacks and plans for 2016

© Eamon O'Neill

As guitarist with Black Star Riders – a band he leads along with Ricky Warwick and former Thin Lizzy guitarist Scott Gorham – Damon Johnson has had a busy year. Releasing a critically acclaimed album as well and bookending the year with two lengthy U.K. tours; one with Europe and one that’s just begun with Def Leppard and Whitesnake the guitarist now also has a solo album in the works. We caught up with Damon on the opening night of the Def Leppard tour at Dublin’s 3Arena to discuss his 2015.

How are you, Damon?

Great; glad these dates are finally here. It’s been a good year for Black Star Riders. It’s been a lot of hard work, and an opportunity like this for us is tremendous. We’re truly getting a chance to convert some new fans.

Your second album ‘The Killer Instinct’ was released at the start of the year. Have you been pleased with the reaction it has received?

Incredibly pleased. It was such an obvious evolution. Everyone could hear it immediately; our fan base could hear it, the press could hear it, and we just knew that we had made the first ‘proper’ Black Star Riders album. We weren’t operating under the possibility of it being a Thin Lizzy album as the first one – ‘All Hell Breaks Loose’ – was. We’re always going to celebrate our past and where we’ve come from, and it’s an honour to get to do that, but there’re a lot of songs on this album that I don’t think would have been on the first album.

It’s a much more expansive release than its predecessor.

For sure man. There’s no question that ‘Blindsided’ wouldn’t have made it on the first album. Ricky and I certainly had a lot more time to grow as a writing team. I was really proud of him kind of experimenting in some different lyrical content. He’s such a great lyricist and he writes great stories.

That probably goes hand-in-hand with your own writing style, because he’s pretty into that ‘Americana’ style of writing, isn’t he?

That’s very observant of you my friend, and I would say ultimately that that very thing right there is probably the key to our chemistry. It’s not so much our mutual love of punk rock or British rock – it’s more the Americana connection because it’s really all about the songs. Nobody likes a great guitar riff more that Ricky and I, but the thing that really connects with the fans is the lyrics, and you see that every night with songs like ‘Kingdom Of The Lost’, ‘Bound For Glory’ and ‘Finest Hour’.

Thin Lizzy was clearly Scott Gorham’s band whereas Black Star Riders seems more and more to be Damon Johnson and Ricky Warwick’s. Is that fair to say?

There’s no question that Ricky and I occupy a lot of real estate in the songwriting department. In that respect, we’re so grateful to Scott for being so supportive and trusting. It’s a great feeling to know that Scott Gorham respects your songwriting because the man has written a lot and he’s part of some of the greatest music of all time. So we don’t take that lightly. I think that the pride and respect that we have for Scott and his legacy is part of the fuel of Black Star Riders.

Going back to the Europe tour at the start of the year, and the two bands had very juxtaposing sets; Europe’s was initially quite sobering compared to Black Star Riders full-on party vibe.

Well, I give Ricky a lot of credit for that. Ricky is so committed to connecting with the audience with passion and energy and power, and I think that our songs are good enough that we can do that without just beating people over the head with volume or with tempo. It’s more about the ebb and flow of the melodies, the arrangements of the songs and what song works. I think that’s a great observation on your point – it was that way on that tour, and we’re committed to being that way all the time.

With the year at an end, are thoughts turning to a new Black Star Riders album?

Oh for sure man – we’ve already started. We’ve already got ideas bouncing around and Ricky and I are booking some time in January to get together just to have some undistracted focus time. We can always get a little work done on the road, but it’s hard to find a place that’s quiet.

Would the plan be to release a new Black Star Riders album in 2016?

That’s yet to be seen. It is very early days, and to be honest with you we just want to take as much time as we need to make a great album. We’ve put out two quality records and what we’re asking is; what if this third record blows away the first two? That’s what we’d love to pull off. There’s no question that the band’s great live, but we feel that we still have something to prove – I think we can write better songs. We can go beyond ‘The Killer Instinct’, and we can go beyond ‘Finest Hour’. Those are all great, great songs, but I think we can beat those.

With 2016 marking the 30th anniversary of the passing of Phil Lynott, might Thin Lizzy reactivate for a few shows?

You know, that’s something I’m always open to, and I know Ricky feels the same way. Black Star Riders is ‘our’ band; me, Jimmy [De Grasso – drums], Robbie [Crane – bass], Scott and Ricky. Thin Lizzy is Scott’s band, and Scott is our friend, he’s our bandmate, and he’s our hero – still. It’s really down to Scott. If he feels like it’s the right time, then without a doubt. But to go out and perform any Thin Lizzy date it would need to be special. The band would need to be really tight and it would need to be on a whole other level.

Finally, some year-end questions for you. What were your favourite shows that you saw this year?

I saw Faith No More at Download. I thought they were brilliant; really, really special. They’re such a great band, and I’m glad that those guys are back together. Also Ricky and I got to see the Eagles Of Death Metal in Prague. We had a night off and were able to go and see them. This was back in the summer, and those guys are so much fun and it’s such a great show. It’s always great to go and see a show that you’re energised by.

I have to ask you how you felt about the Paris attacks.

Oh, shocked, devastated, frightened, angry, sad; just every emotion that everyone in the world went through. We’re still feeling the ripple effect of that, and you know the whole rock community is so tight knit – we know people in the band, we know people in their road crew – so it was just horrific. And more than that, just the fans; it’s still hard to even know what to say. It’s still hard to put into words what it’s like.

What were your favourite shows to play this year?

I have to say the night that we played after that attack was in Madrid, and it was incredible. We had a full house of Black Star Riders fans and there was this energy that we were grateful for each other; the fans were grateful that we performed and we were grateful that they came out. It was almost a show of respect and a tribute to the fans that had died the night before. It was really powerful. I have to say, when we came on stage it was emotional, very emotional.

Finally, what are you looking forward to in 2016?

I’m putting out a solo record next year. I’ve already got it in the can and I can’t wait to get it out. I’ve made a couple of acoustic solo albums but never a proper electric one and that’s going to drop this year. I’m good to go. It’s going to be a busy year!

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Eamon

Music Journalist and classic rock / metal enthusiast.