A Black Star Rider takes a star turn
Alabama native Damon Johnson is the consummate American musician—a superb songwriter, singer, guitarist—and a colleague and collaborator with some of our favorite musicians. Johnson's songs have been covered by Carlos Santana, he served as lead guitarist to Alice Cooper ("he is an excellent golfer you know"), and will soon be recording a new album with Black Star Riders whose members are drawn from Thin Lizzy for whom Johnson toured in 2013. Earlier this year, Johnson released a new EP, Echo, produced by pal Nick Raskulinecz whose formidable list of credits include the Foo Fighters, Rush, and Mastodon. That's pretty heady company. Johnson has been a friend of the "House of Stathopoulo" for his entire career and we're especially pleased that a recent chance meeting with Epiphone President Jim Rosenberg led to Johnson becoming one of the first recipients of a new Masterbilt Century De Luxe Classic Archtops. We spoke with Johnson in Nashville as he took his new De Luxe Classic through its paces.
Thanks for speaking with Epiphone.com, Damon. Tell us about your new guitar!
I've got this new gorgeous vintage-looking De Luxe Classic. It is a work of art. I don't know how else better to say it and I'm really proud of it (laughs). I can't say enough good about it. Had it not been for (Epiphone President) Jim Rosenberg being in Amsterdam to unveil the new Gibson/Epiphone Showroom there, maybe I wouldn't be writing so much now. It was great to get a first-hand exposure to the guitar. Of course, Jim was there and had a couple with him. And we started singing Neil Young songs together while he played guitar. Bro—let me tell you something; he really knows his stuff. His passion for playing has certainly carried over as an occupation and his life's work for him. And it shows with the Masterbilt Century Collection. Just beautiful.
Were you already an archtop fan?
I'm really pleased to tell you about my association with an archtop and it goes way back to when I was a kid. As you know, the archtops had really gone away with the advent of rock n' roll—the British blues guys and 70s classic rock. My grandfather had one of those old —and I'm sure it was inexpensive—wartime archtops that you'd buy at Sears & Roebuck or Woolworth's. It was literally one of the first guitars I ever spent any time with. And this was when I was very young—11, 12 years old—and was just starting to pay attention to the guitar. And I just remember the smell of it and the look of it. It wasn't an easy guitar to play. It wasn't set up great. But it was enough to get started.
I was beginning to associate the names of the notes on the fingerboard with the notes on the piano. I was taking piano lessons—my parents got me lessons when I was very young. I wasn't necessarily crazy about it, but it really helped me as far as understanding guitar and how the neck was laid out. So it was that old Sears & Roebuck archtop that I first started to play on. When Jim and the Epiphone guys pulled out these Masterbilt Century guitars I thought: "Wow, man—these are so beautiful." And the playability is so spectacular. The feel of the neck, too. I do a lot of solo acoustic stuff in-between my band commitments and I really want to take this thing and perform for some of those. As Jim and I discussed, the playability is so fantastic. You can play rhythm on it just as you would any acoustic guitar. And you can play single note stuff on it, too. With the Sonic™ HD preamp and the NanoFlex™ HD pickups—man—all six strings resonate loudly, and clearly. Even with the various acoustic guitars I've played over the last couple of decades, that can be very hit or miss. And even on my expensive J-200 or any other guitar I play, sometimes you don't get the full volume of the first E string or the 6th E string. This Masterbilt stuff just sounds so great. I'm really looking forward to giving you guys some more feedback once I can get it into the studio and play some shows. It makes a tremendous difference. And certainly for a performance setting that NanoFlex pickup—I just can't believe it. I have a corner in my bedroom where I usually keep an acoustic and I replaced it with the Masterbilt. I've already been writing songs on it and getting very comfortable with it. I love it. It's got a permanent spot in my arsenal for sure.
Do you primarily compose on an acoustic guitar?
Yes, 90% of the time for me it's on an acoustic guitar for songwriting. Like a lot of other writers, I find it keeps you focused on the melody and the vocal, the cadence, the chord progression. If I'm playing an electric, I tend to play more riffy or notey—not that we don't use that a lot. In Black Star Riders and my new solo album that just came out that is fully electric, there's a lot of riffs that were first born on an acoustic guitar. You've heard it before I'm sure that if you can play it on an acoustic guitar and sing it that way and it sounds great, it's only going to sound better when you plug it in and work it out with a band.
Let's talk about Echo. Was it always planned to be an EP?
Echo was produced by the "legendary"—and I say that half serious, half tongue-in-cheek—Nick Raskulinecz. Nick's resume is staggering. And we worked together on the Black Star Riders' album Killer Instinct in 2014—where is the time going? We made that record together and we've since become great friends—his family and my family—since we both live in Nashville. Nick was the one that kind of reached out and said: Hey man, I've got some time, the studio is dormant have you got any songs? I've always got songs! His encouragement was vital.
So he did a great job and I only had time and budget to do 5 songs but I was so blown away by the response and reaction to it. We're actually going into the studio with Nick for the third Black Star Riders album starting in three weeks. So once we get that completed, mixed, and mastered and ready to go, I fully intend to get back in with Nick and I'd love to do 5 more songs and maybe take the two groups of 5 and make a full-length out of it. And who knows—maybe get some real distribution. I'm speaking to a few label situations. You never know. I just feel really inspired and feel really grateful to have a platform to wear all these different hats if that makes sense.
Do you enjoy producing?
Well, I definitely enjoy every facet of the process but I put out a solo acoustic album about six years ago called Release and I did produce that one myself. And I'm certainly proud of it and there's a lot of great songs on there and performances. However, getting a year or so distance away from it, I can now say that if this could have been magnified, if I could have brought in a producer... you know, just to bounce ideas off of. Someone to say to me: Hey man, I think we can sing that better. Let's take another pass. Let's go have some lunch and come back and try this again. Because as a solo cat, it's as much about my voice as it is about my guitar playing. So Nick was incredible in that role. And as far as results, as far as I'm concerned, I want to have a producer partnering with me in every situation going forward.
You're living in Nashville now and the music community is going through a big transformation. How is it going here for you?
My family and I moved here in 2013. I had lived in Birmingham, Alabama for—gosh—the past 20 years. I'm from the state—I grew up in small towns outside of Birmingham. We love it in Nashville. The musical opportunities are so fast here. You can take Nashville or use Nashville for whatever you need. You can write. If you want to record, there's a mountain of great studios to work in. A lot of my musician friends are here so it's great to have this lifestyle and community to be a part of.
The scene is very diverse.
That's right. There's no question if your goal is to write songs and pitch material and try to get on country radio, you can do that. But that's a full time job. That's its own... I don't want the term "rat race" to sound negative. It's just there's a lot of talent in that pool and you got to get up early and stay up late and treat it like a punching-the-clock-day job because there's so many people vying for that. For me, I came to the town for the lifestyle, more for the relationships, more for the friends that were already here. But very quickly, as you said, everything is really here. You can make it whatever you want. It's crazy to me that I could leave Alice Cooper's band in 2011, join Thin Lizzy, then Thin Lizzy morphs into the Black Star Riders which is filled with guys from all over the place—three of the guys are on the west coast and Scott Gorham lives in London. So it's kind of an international group. But we're making our second record in Nashville and I love that! And I can sleep in my own bed. I can get up and take the kids to school and be at the studio at 11 o'clock, no problem. I can't tell you how happy it makes me to be able to do that. It would be really hard to do that anywhere else but Nashville.
Will you be bringing your new De Luxe Classic into the studio?
Without a doubt! You can count on that. I'm so motivated and committed to keep you guys informed and you can come visit when we're tracking. I have this really special history with Epiphone because legitimately it was my first real endorsement as an artist in Brother Cane. And I still have my awesome Epiphone AJ-200S and all my kids learned to play guitar on that thing and I still record on it. I'm really precious about it—I don't take it on the road. But it's great to reconnect with Jim and Epiphone—such a good soul. That's one of the greatest surprises about us moving to Nashville. Gibson and Epiphone are right here. I'm just really excited. I've had a guitar in my hand since I was a little kid.
Maybe you should design your own Epiphone...
Bud—don't even tease me about that. That would just be over the top.