Interview by Robert Cavuoto
Damon Johnson, guitarist for Black Star Rider, Thin Lizzy, and Alice Cooper released a new solo CD Memoirs of an Uprising on March 8th via Double Dragon Records. Written and recorded over the last 18 months, Damon plays guitar and takes on lead vocals to deliver songs that are meticulously crafted and searing with passion, emotion, and melody. Memoirs of an Uprising is full on hard rock CD that delivers strong hooks and memorable riffs.
I caught up with Damon to talk about his new CD, why he left Black Star Riders, and what the future holds in the way of touring.
Robert Cavuoto: I’m enjoying your new CD!
Damon Johnson: I don’t think I have ever made a record that I enjoy as much as this one. Maybe I’m a narcissist, but I literally listened to the entire CD yesterday at the gym, and I love it as much now as I ever have. I’m really proud of the lyrics and had fun producing it. I got to spend a lot of time singing the way I wanted to and sounding the way I wanted to sound. If there were things that I wasn’t happy with, I would just go back and re-sing them. There wasn’t a room full of band members or an engineer or a producer sitting around waiting on me to get my shit together. I have friends that are authentic singers; they were born to sing. I’m not one of those people. Guitar comes easy, but not singing. I’m happy with the way it has turned out.
Robert Cavuoto: How long did the process of making this CD take?
Damon Johnson: The process started over 18 months ago. I reached out to a long time collaborator Jim Troglen who is out in Alabama. We have known each other for 25 years. He got really excited, and we dove in very quickly. I had a bunch of lyrics and stories, so it came together fast. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than the quality of the song. I have a great band that lives in Nashville and knew we could knock it out quickly. We have been playing for four years. We don’t play a lot as I was with Black Star Riders [BSR]. That’s all changed now; we will be super busy as we have some dates end of April and into May. There is more stuff coming in for the summer as well. I really wanted to plan a proper roll-out of this CD. I hired a team of people to help promote it. My digital team were the ones that really encouraged me to bring in a publicist, a radio person, and get a little more juju because the songs deserve it. Otherwise, I would have put it out in November. I had a little operating capital to hire those people. It’s not a ton of money; this is life as an independent artist. Double Dragon Records is mine. If anything at Double Dragon Records is going to get promoted that means that Damon Johnson has to write a check for it [laughing]!
Robert Cavuoto: What is the significance of the title, Memoirs of an Uprising?
Damon Johnson: Uprising is tied into growth, change, and evolution as a human. It’s something we all deal with. Everybody gets up in the morning and goes to work, spends time with their wife or family. You can stay on that path, but a lot of people aren’t happy and want to make a change but don’t know what that change is. When I put the ten songs into the sequence they are on the CD, it felt like a story. It starts with this guy on “Shivering Shivering” then ” Dallas Coulda Been A Beatdown ” he is thinking of murdering someone, “Down on Me” is aggressive punk rock. It just feels like this guy went through some rough stuff. At some point, you realize it was up to him to make some changes rather than pointing the fingers at others. That is the uprising; it feels like it has Luke Skywalker elements [laughing] of sitting with Yoda going “It’s up to me to learn to how to change things.” In the end, the protagonist makes it through the other side to “Making Peace with the Wicked Beast.” I love that title, vibe and lyrics of that song. The whole thing ends on high, like being on a mountain top of energy with “Glorious.” It has the great lyrics that no one stands in our way. That song really inspired the title.
Robert Cavuoto: Each song has a different vibe and tempo, how many songs did you write in order to have a comprehensive CD?
Damon Johnson: Nine of the ten songs are brand new. The last song on the CD is “Glorious,” and I’ve been sitting on that track for five or six years. I only added it at the last minute because I felt the CD needed a little more content. The lyrics to that song were perfect. It’s not like a concept record, but there’ a thread or theme about struggling, frustration, and anger. It’s about trying to work through some of those things. That song fit with the theme. It’s easy to assume that a guy like me who has been writing for as long as I have would have a bunch of songs sitting around to put out. I do have a lot of stuff, but it didn’t tell this story, it didn’t fit with this theme. I hope I can make the next CD just like that; writing new songs that reflect where I’m at in my head in my life. That’s how Neil Young and Joni Mitchell did it their whole career. I’m drawn to those songwriters. The fans appreciate that. It’s easy to make some music and write some words over it to rock out; what is not easy is saying something that is going to connect with people to make them stop and go, “He is singing to me!” or “I have been through that and believe what he is saying.”That’s never a given and takes a lot of work. That’s an important component of this CD and why I’m so proud of it.
Robert Cavuoto: The CD sounds like it came from a place of honesty and had meaning to you.
Damon Johnson: I appreciate you saying that. There is no doubt most songs started from real life events or something someone close to me had gone through. There were definitely a couple of moments where I had to stop and question, “Do I really want to tell that much of this story?” [Laughing]. “Is this going to get someone in trouble?” The names have been changed to protect the guilty [laughing].
Robert Cavuoto: Are you more comfortable as a songwriter now than when you started out?
Damon Johnson: Yes, I’m a much more confident now. I do less self-analysis and trust my instincts more. I have done it for so long. If there is a lyric or melody that keeps me interested, chances are its really good or has some quality to it that captures my attention. I’m very particular what I spend my time listening to. I refuse to listen to music that I think is insincere or somebody is just going through the motions. I listen to blues which is a different theme than my contemporaries in rock and hard rock. You better have something to say, or I’m just not interested. Maybe that is why I listen to so many singers/songwriters tapping into the human experience and real life. I thought what if I can do that as a hard rock guy who is rocking out with a Les Paul through a Marshall. Quality lyrics and stories that might make somebody feel better or get through something. That is what other artists do for me and what an honor it would be to do that for a listener. That’s the goal, and the only way to get to that place is to be more confident. I give a lot of credit to Ricky Warwick of Black Star Riders. I put my songwriting on the back burner for a long time when I was with Alice Cooper and Thin Lizzy. Great gigs, I didn’t have to think about anything. Somebody hands you a perfectly tuned guitar, and you go on stage to rock out then every Friday they send you a paycheck. But the artist and songwriting thing reared its head again when I got to BSR. Rick is a proper songwriter, authentic and special. It was a great thing for me to be in such close quarters to work with him. He and I co-wrote every one of those songs on the three CDs. Ricky could have done a lot of that by himself, but he wanted to bring the band and me in. He wanted a unit that we were all invested in. I owe Ricky some credit for helping be a better songwriter.
Robert Cavuoto: There are great songs on all the BSR CDs, but Heavy Fire is my personal favorite.
Damon Johnson: Heavy Fire has so many great moments, and I’ll be forever so proud of the three CD I did with the guys. The great thing about music is no one can ever take that away from you. It’s great to know that you put in the time to create the songs because they will live forever. What was the legacy of your songs? Were they any good? Did they affect people? These songs affect people, and Ricky is such a consummate storyteller. It’s so great to have those three CDs on my resume now.
Robert Cavuoto: I have to say I was sad to hear that you left BSR. Was it a tough decision?
Damon Johnson: It was tough because of the emotion and connection to it. I loved the guys, and we had so much fun. In the UK and other parts of Europe, we moved the needle and had a good following with a lot of passionate fans. We were grateful for all the support. It just felt like I was spending too much time out of the country and away from my family. At this point in my life, I have two kids. I have talked to a lot of people who have come to similar crossroads: I’m an artist and performing and need to tour as that’s how you make any money. I started thinking, “Maybe I’m touring too much, maybe I’m gone too long.” Where do you find that balance? When you are part of a band, it’s a committed effort, and you have to say yes. Sometimes those runs were turning into six, seven, or eight weeks. That’s crazy long for someone like me who has small kids and really wants to be home with them compared to when I was in my 20s and 30s. I’m cool with touring but fucking hell, I’m doing a two-week run in May, and it’s perfect. I’m going to rock out, have a great time, and make some new fans. Then get home to work on new songs. That’s my goal to administrate the calendar.
Robert Cavuoto: Do you think BSR had a strong enough foothold in the US?
Damon Johnson: That’s a good question, and I don’t have a good answer. Part of it is because the rock music thing in America is liquid. It’s not solid. The band members live not just in different cities but different continents. When you are going to get everyone together to do a tour, you have to be able to pay everyone and make some money. It has to make sense economically. For some reason which I don’t understand, how we couldn’t make the numbers work to play in America. We were elated to get the call from Judas Priest to take us out. They did help us out to make it work. We also booked some shows in between, and it made it work. We are not getting calls like that from other bands. We have friends in Guns & Roses, Metallica, and KISS but they have other bands they take out with them. That’s just how the business works. If we had more opportunities like that, I’m sure we would have taken them. You also have to remember that Thin Lizzy came up in the UK and Europe. It’s were the diehard fan base was. It was easier to get more attention there. I don’t have to wish them well because they will do well. They have already completed their fourth record, and it’s going to be killer. Ricky will always be my mate, and I have some things I want to work with him on.
Robert Cavuoto: Any chance of an acoustic tour with Ricky?
Damon Johnson: That’s not out of the question; it’s something we want to continue to do as its so much fun. He and I had a few laughs and the audience loves it. We had a few successful runs of that in Europe, and we would like to do a proper run in America. I have a feeling you will see that sooner than you think