Interview by Alex Stojanovic
Damon Johnson has been a staple in the music scene since the late 80s, having performed, toured and recorded with many different bands like Brother Cane, Alice Cooper, Thin Lizzy and of course Black Star Riders.
He has also collaborated on albums from not just rock artists, but artists from all over the musical spectrum like Sammy Hagar, Queensryche, Ted Nugent, Carlos Santana, Skid Row, Stevie Nicks and Faith Hill just to name a few. He also has a few solo releases, and goes out and does solo shows where he plays much of the music he's been involved with as well.
We had the great pleasure of speaking to Damon on the phone about the upcoming Black Star Riders tour with Judas Priest and Saxon, how he got started on playing guitar, some of his past projects, the next Black Star Riders album and more.
Damon: My pleasure!
Alex: I guess the big thing you guys have going on right now is your upcoming tour with Judas Priest. I know you've toured with them before as Thin Lizzy, right?
Damon: Yes, that was 2011, ironically that was my very first tour I did with Thin Lizzy.
Alex: Right! I believe this tour will also feature the first Canadian shows for Black Star Riders?
Damon: They will indeed, which everyone is pleased about in the band, but none more so than me because back in the 90s when I was fronting my band Brother Cane, we played in Canada so much and I love that country, I love the people, I love the music that Canada has produced, both old and new. It's just really special for me and all the guys to get up there and play. You guys have a different level of passion for whatever music you love, so I'm looking forward to the Canadian dates.
Alex: Awesome, thank you for the kind words. You've been touring behind the latest album Heavy Fire for the last year, and it's another really solid album, just as great as All Hell Breaks Loose and The Killer Instinct. This would also be the last album to feature Jimmy DeGrasso on drums, who's a killer drummer. Now you've got Chad Szeliga in the band. How did he come in the picture?
Damon: We met Chad, ironically on the 2011 tour that Thin Lizzy did with Judas Priest. The other act on that bill was Black Label Society. We had several opportunities to spend time with him and we knew he was a monster talent. When we had the position open back in 2017, I have to credit our manager Adam Parsons. He called me out of the blue and he goes 'Hey, you remember that guy that played with Black Label?' and I said 'Oh yeah, the guy's name was Chad!' and he said 'We should call him!' and we did (laughs). He's just been an incredible compliment to our band. It's changed our chemistry and it's changed it in broader ways. Chad is just a great hang, Alex. He's so good in the dressing room and on the bus, in rehearsals, just loaded with energy and ideas. He grew up on Thin Lizzy as well, but he was just a fan of the music, he's been keeping up on our progress and everything we've been doing. It's a tremendous compliment to us that Chad would want to come and jam with us and everything worked out, so we're really happy with Chad. It's special for him because he's got a lot of fans himself all over North America, so it'll be great for a lot of those people to get to see him play.
Alex: Absolutely! I'm also familiar with Chad's work in Black Label Society and also Breaking Benjamin before that, so he's a killer drummer.
Damon: Yeah, he's special. He's just got a lot of experience. We're certainly looking forward to getting in the studio for album #4 with Chad. He's going to bring a lot of energy. I'm sure he's going to be turning some of these songs upside down. It'll be great.
Alex: For sure. How did guitar start for you? Were you self-taught or did you receive lessons and training?
Damon: I was kind of self-taught. My dad plays guitar and my earliest memories just as a little kid were just sitting on the living room floor and he would have either his younger brother, who is a monster talent guitar player and singer just for fun. Or a couple of guys that he knew in the town we were living in, and just play the songs of the day. For them, it was stuff that leaned a little more country. There was a lot of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, some Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings, but they also played things like Glen Campbell and Chet Atkins, which was a little more complicated than their abilities, but they would certainly play the single-note melodies in some of the songs, so getting exposed to that just made a huge impact on me. The uncle I mentioned earlier, once I really started getting into rock 'n roll bands, as we all did in the late 70s, he gave me a Fender Jazzmaster as a birthday gift. This thing was great because it was already broken in. It was played a lot, the action on the neck was so easy to play. I didn't go through the whole calluses thing because the strings were too heavy and too high on the neck, so it's immeasurable really what that did for me in the beginning. I had played a little bit of piano. My mom started me on some lessons. Once I connected the dots between the names of the notes on the piano or the notes on the guitar, it was like rocket fuel, I was off and running after that.
Alex: Awesome, great to hear! A couple of years ago, you guys did some Thin Lizzy shows in tribute to Phil Lynott on the 30th anniversary of his passing. With Black Star Riders being the primary focus right now, would you maybe have an idea of when you'll do some more Lizzy shows in the future?
Damon: That's a window we'd like to always keep open for sure. It's an honour, such an honour to be a part of that, to even just be a foot note in the story of Thin Lizzy. We've been leaving a lot of that up to Scott [Gorham] and our manager to pick some spots on the calendar that make sense in the big picture of, as you mentioned, making Black Star Riders a priority. I think it's been good for Thin Lizzy because we haven't been shoving it down people's throats, kind of over touring it. Particularly in Europe, where the band's biggest fan base is, I think we've been really smart and not overplayed the markets, like Scandinavia and Germany, and especially in the U.K., the fan base for Thin Lizzy is just rabid over there. When we did those anniversary shows in 2016, they were really well received, because we stepped away from it for a little while. Possibly some Thin Lizzy dates, maybe sometime next year, but like I mentioned, we're gonna make a fourth BSR album this summer, late summer or early fall, and we'd like to get that out about this time next year. You've probably heard this from other musicians that you've interviewed, but the calendar is always the biggest challenge when it comes to scheduling. We're pretty selfish, particularly Ricky [Warwick] and myself. We love to write songs, make solo albums. We write most of the stuff for BSR, Ricky writes for other people. We're just really inspired right now, and to get to include some more Thin Lizzy performances in the mix of all that is just awesome.
Alex: Yeah, absolutely! You never know when the calendar is going to change, but it's great that you guys are keeping that little window open for possibly next year.
Damon: Yeah man, for sure!
Alex: Talk about your time in Alice Cooper. You played on Dirty Diamonds, but what were some of your favourite tours with Alice?
Damon: Well, the Dirty Diamonds experience is certainly one of my favourite of all my time there, maybe because it happened so quickly. I had only joined the band the previous October, October 2004, and we did about a seven week run in the United States, took a break for the holidays, then Alice called me and says 'Hey, we're gonna go into the studio and make a new record. If you have any ideas or riffs, let me know.' and that was just music to my ears. I couldn't believe, I was like 'Hell yeah, absolutely!' What a thrill to get to write some songs with one of the masters, another huge influence on me when I was younger, so to be in a room with an electric guitar and a pen and paper with Cooper and watch him kind of turn into that guy that we all love musically and creatively, it was really special. I played with so many great musicians in my time with Alice. It's kind of spread out over two sets of three years, because I did '04, '05 and '06, then I did '09, '10 and '11, just before I joined Thin Lizzy for that tour we discussed earlier. I love the band he has right now. I'm friends with all those guys... and girls. Nita Strauss is a great guitarist. Anytime Alice comes to town, my wife and kids and I always love to go down. My two youngest kids, they grew up with Alice. He's uncle Alice to them. They just go rolling right up in the backstage and they want to know where Cooper is because he's just going to load them up with Mountain Dew and twizzlers and get them jacked up on sugar (both laugh). He loves it, they love it, it's always a good time.
Alex: Nice, that definitely sounds like a lot of fun with Alice. One project that you were a part of that I would like to touch on real briefly, that I think was pretty cool was Slave To The System with Scott Rockenfield of Queensryche. The album you guys put out was cool as well. What are the chances of maybe something happening with that band again?
Damon: I wouldn't say that it's impossible, I certainly wouldn't say never. It comes back to what we mentioned a little bit ago about the calendar. It's so difficult to get everyone's schedules to line up, particularly when you're talking about a band that is comprised of guys that are all involved in other bands that are a greater priority. I think it's tougher now than it was in the early 2000s when we made that debut album, but there's no question that that group of people had some great chemistry. I love those songs on that album, and I get asked about it all the time. I'm really proud of the work we did. Whenever I play my solo dates, kind of closer to home here in the southeast, I always love to play a couple of Slave To The System songs and they go down great. My band loves playing them and the fans love hearing them, so I would certainly be interested in trying. It wouldn't be easy time-wise, but it would be a lot of fun. I really hope it can happen.
Alex: Yeah for sure. Like I said, it's a great album. Songs like "Stigmata", "Walk The Line", great stuff.
Damon: Wow, thank you. I really like "Walk The Line", that was a special song in that album. Thank you for mentioning that one.
Alex: Yeah, no problem. I think this also goes back to the calendar we were talking about, but any chances of some more Brother Cane activity in the future?
Damon: You know, Alex, we came really close last year. There was a window of time, there was an opportunity that we could've maybe gotten everybody together and done about a dozen shows, but those just didn't come to fruition. I had a conflict because of a little bit of Black Star Riders activity in Europe, and Roman, our bass player was pretty busy. He plays bass in that band Jackyl. They had some dates in the calendar. We were still going to try and make it happen anyway and maybe get us up for a couple of shows we had to. The good news about that is that we all keep in touch. I love those songs so much, they hold such a special place for me. Definitely wrote some great songs in that band, I learned so much, making music with those guys, so I always welcome any opportunity for us to play together. It would be a shame when we only have little reunions when we were raising money for a friend or someone who has passed away and you get together to pay tribute to them, so I would love to do some more Brother Cane, no doubt.
Alex: Yeah that would be great. I'm only 25 years old, but I remember when I was little kid, my dad would play songs like "And Fools Shine On" and the hits, so it's great to know that all you guys still keep in touch.
Damon: Well, Alex, that's so special. Please give your dad my regards. It's interesting because you and my older son Marshall are almost the exact same age. It's funny because he and his friends, whenever he brings he buddies to see the other bands I've been in, they all ask about Brother Cane, because their parents brought them up on that. We were definitely staples on the radio in the 90s, so yeah, great memories and great experiences with that band. Really proud of the body of work we created.
Alex: Absolutely. Great music as well, and thank you for the kind words. Last thing I will ask you before I let you go is that it's been over a year since Heavy Fire came out. Has new music starting coming together for album #4?
Damon: Yeah, Ricky and I especially, are always writing. Just at random times, I'll get a text on my phone thinking Ricky's got a question about what time do we eat, or 'I can't find my acoustic guitar that I left in the storage room.', but then it'll be a little iPhone voice memo of him banging out a riff, or singing some lyrics that he put together and it always gets me fired up, so we start throwing things back and forth. We got about a half a dozen things going already, and typically we like to write easily 20-25 things just to give ourselves as many opportunities to have some great songs as possible. We always bought into that philosophy that if you write ten songs, there's a good chance that one of them is going to be really special, so our thing is like: 'Well, let's write 30 and three of them will be really good.' (both laugh). The more good songs you have, the better, always, always, always.
Alex: Awesome! Well, I'm looking forward to seeing you guys when you come up here with Priest and Saxon, and good luck with everything going forward, and I'm looking forward to also hearing some new Black Star Riders, would you say sometime next year?
Damon: Yes, count on it, guaranteed, it will happen, Alex!
Alex: Excellent! Really looking forawrd to it. Damon, thank you so much for spending some time chatting. I wish you all the best, and I will see you with Priest in Oshawa next month!
Damon: Alex, for sure brother! I really enjoyed this. Thank you for your time and the great questions and take care, we'll see you in a few weeks!
Alex: Yeah definitely, Damon! It was an honour! See you soon!
Damon: Thank you brother, my pleasure! Take care, bye!
Thank you so much to Damon for taking the time to chat with us a bit. It was a great pleasure to chat with him. Black Star Riders' upcoming tour with Judas Priest and Saxon will be hitting over 30 cities across the U.S. and Canada. It will be kicking off on March 13th in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania and will continue through March and April before wrapping up on May 1st in San Antonio. Tickets are available now, so be sure to go see this great triple bill. You can go to any of the three bands' websites for information, and look for dates and tickets in your area.