Interview and Live Photos by Robert Cavuoto
Damon Johnson, the former guitarist for Black Star Rider, Thin Lizzy, and Alice Cooper, will be releasing his newest solo CD, Battle Lessons, on February 19th via Double Dragon Records.
As with his last two solo releases, Damon plays guitar and takes on lead vocals to deliver fast, aggressive, and melodic songs with thought-provoking lyrics. The CD is a testament to his rebellious spirits that drive these finely crafted songs. Battle Lessons is packed with songs that offer big riffs and even bigger grooves like on “Can’t Clap Any Louder,” “Brace for Impact,” and “Casual Beast” along with a large dose of swagger.
With members from his band, Jarred Pope [drums] and Robbie Harrington [bass], Damon Johnson & The Get Ready demonstrate just how huge Rock & Roll should sound. To help complete this sonic masterpiece, Damon enlisted producer Nick Raskulinecz of Alter Bridge and Slash fame.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Damon about the energy, power, and enthusiasm that went into the CD’s creation, which song came to him like a gift from above, and if we can expect a live stream show to mark the CD’s release.
Robert Cavuoto: The guitar tones on Battle Lessons are like a buzz saw to the head! What combo of guitars and amps did you use?
Damon Johnson: [Laughing] I used a plethora of amps and guitars on Battle Lessons. It wasn’t like back in my Brother Cane days. I used my old 100-watt Marshall, which is my favorite amp, and of course, my green Les Paul. Nick Raskulinecz has an incredible amount of gear at his studio, and for a guitar nerd like me, I was like a kid in a candy store. We would try different amps and microphone positions just for fun. I’ve been using Wizard amps, which I love, so they are on the CD. Some of the amps that Nick has which we used were a Freidman amp, the new Fender amp, an Orange amp, and Hiwatt amp as well. Guitar-wise, I used my green Less Paul; it’s been a gem since I bought it in 2015. It sounds and plays the best, as it has a special Juju about it. I used my Gibson 335 and an old Fender ’52 reissue Telecaster, which I’ve had since the Brother Cane days, on some of the rhythm parts. Nick had a Gibson Trini Lopez guitar, which Dave Grohl has recently made famous, which sounded great. Nick also had a new custom shop, Les Paul, with P-90 pickups, and through the Wizard amp, the tone was perfect.
Robert Cavuoto: Speaking of Dave Grohl, “Brace for Impact” has a Foo Fighters vibe to it. Did you use the Gibson Trini Lopez guitar on that song?
Damon Johnson: I don’t think I used that guitar on that song. I believe it was my green Les Paul. “Brace for Impact” was the only song that Nick completely turned upside down. He liked the melody and the lyrics but felt it needed to be turbo-charged like the other songs on the CD. It was more mid-tempo, and he changed the energy of it around. When he was working with the band on it, and I heard it, like you, I immediately thought it had a Taylor Hawkins drum vibe [laughing]. I love the Foo Fighters because they just want to rock out, and I feel like that is where I’m at in my career. There just aren’t a lot of bands that want to rock out! So much of what is out there feels calculated like they are trying to write a hit or get on the radio. I think our CD can fill a void that needs to be filled. With the last two records, I made notes to myself that I want to write and record for my own enjoyment, and if I go, “Yeah, this rocks!” I know we have something. I get it from Clutch, a band I love, and I constantly listen to them. I also went back to the bands and records that I loved from when I was a kid to find that energy and enthusiasm. There was no small amount of listening to my favorite bands while writing this CD.
Robert Cavuoto: The energy, power, and enthusiasm is not lost on Battle Lessons.
Damon Johnson: Thank you. I felt that, too, from as early as when we were tracking the demos a year ago. I felt if we can do this properly, like the way I’m hearing it in my head, it will be very special. We recorded three songs at a time. The first three were recorded in March, right before they shut down. The second three in late May, early June, and then the next three in October after a long pause. I have been living with many of the tracks for a very long time. To keep my spirits up, I would take many walks, put on my headphone, and listen to these songs over and over. It feels great to finally get it across the finish line.
Robert Cavuoto: When we spoke last year, we talked the songs were all around 160 BPM; thanks for giving me some new work out music like “Lightning Bolt.”
Damon Johnson: There no doubt that this CD is perfect for anyone’s cardiovascular goals! “Lightning Bolt” was the first song that started everything. My buddy Jim Troglen and I wrote that. I couldn’t stop listening to the demo, and the tempo of that song laid out the CD’s framework. Brother Cane’s first single, “Got No Shame,” was like that with a lot of energy and recklessness. It feels me think of Van Halen and Guns ‘N Roses. This CD is loaded with songs that are 160 beats per minute like, “Lightning Bolt,” “Battle Lessons,” and “Can’t Clap Any Louder.”
Robert Cavuoto: Songs are written in different ways and for different purposes based on your frame of mind. Do you do find yourself creating something adequate one day, then suddenly creating something very special the next?
Damon Johnson: That’s a great question, I do! If I could talk with my younger self from the 90s, I would have encouraged him not to be so restrictive on how he approaches songwriting. In recent years I have a done a deep dive into some of the greats like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, David Bowie, and Leonard Cohen to learn about their songwriting process. Sometimes my songs start with a riff, a chorus, or lyrics. For example, “Let the Healing Being” started as a phrase on a piece of paper, and then I had to ask myself, how does that make me feel energy-wise? My enthusiasm for the future will be that I write more songs and make more records. I’m delivering on the goals that I set for myself four years ago when I decided to go down the path of being a solo artist. I’m delivering on the quantity and quality of songs that I put out. Once we get all the pre-orders fulfilled for the CDs that we received, I’m going to start writing again. Heck, I don’t know what else to do [laughing]!
Robert Cavuoto: What song off this CD came to you like a gift from above?
Damon Johnson: I would have to say “Shadow Country!” That song did not exist back in January when I first met with Nick to play him my demos. Nick’s three favorite songs from the demos were the ones we start working on first; “Battle Lessons,” “Can’t Clap Any Louder,” and “Let the Healing Begin.” Then we went into the break, being frustrated about what is going to happen. Nick told me to take advantage of the downtime time and to write another song. In my mind, I’m like, “Yeah, right, that’s gonna happen.” [Laughing] What’s great about working with a producer like Nick is that he planted that seed in my head. So one day, out of sheer boredom, I was sitting there with my guitar reviewing some lyrics, and that song literally arrived. My friend and long-time collaborator Jim Troglen had sent me song lyrics to help kick start me with an idea, and at the same time, I was reading a book at the time by Peter Matthiessen called Shadow Country. In a matter of an hour, I had this new song. We were getting ready to go into the studio to do the second batch of three songs, and I called Nick to tell him I had a new song to include in this batch. When he heard it, he was like, “Hell yeah, this is what I’m talking about!”
Robert Cavuoto: Will you be doing any streaming shows to celebrate this CD’s release?
Damon Johnson: For sure! We are organizing it as we speak. We would like to do live streaming on the same day as the CD releases, February 19th, and perform a bulk of the record. We want to do something different from other live streams we have done in the past. I enjoy getting creative and bring in special guests, but the pandemic is raging right now. We have to stay focused on our health and safety. It’s still in the embryonic stage, but you can be sure there will be a live stream to mark the release.