The Dawning of Black Star Riders

One of the most exciting rock 'n' roll tours coming in 2018 will feature Judas Priest with Epi signature artist Richie Faulkner with support from Black Star Riders with longtime Epi fan Damon Johnson (Black Star Riders, Thin Lizzy, and formerly Brother Cane). The Alabama native is the consummate American musician--a superb songwriter, singer, guitarist--and a colleague and collaborator with some of our favorite players. 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 this fall released a burning live album with his solo band, Birmingham Tonight.

Johnson and Black Star Riders, whose members are drawn from Thin Lizzy, released their third album Heavy Fire in 2017, which was produced by pal Nick Raskulinecz whose list of credits include the Foo Fighters, Rush, and Mastodon. The album brought the band new fans in Europe and the UK and now--finally--an opportunity to do the same in the U.S.

We last spent time with Johnson in the studio as he was trying out his new Masterbilt Century De Luxe Classic Archtop and putting finishing touches on the album. This time, Damon stopped by Epiphone's headquarters in Nashville to try out his new touring guitars for the Judas Priest tour, an Epiphone Les Paul Custom PRO with ProBucker humbuckers, coil-splitting, and phase switch along with a classic Ltd. Ed. Korina Flying V with Alnico Classic Humbuckers. Damon is by nature upbeat, positive, and always ready to talk about guitar. But he was positively thrilled to be on tour with his heroes and go toe-to-toe with Richie Faulkner, who Damon calls "literally one of my favorite players right now." Visit the band's website for more info on the tour which kicks off March 13 in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.

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Congratulations on your solo album and your success with Heavy Fire. How was touring this year with Black Star Riders?

Man, we've had a really tremendous year. Particularly in Europe and the UK, Scandinavia, Germany, places like that.

I get the sense from talking to musicians that tour the UK and Europe that magazines and radio stations and promoters work together to motivate fans to attend shows and buy albums. Has that been your experience, too?

There is some different kind of infrastructure still there for rock 'n' roll. There is a connection between the promoters and the press. There are still some quality rock magazines over there that are doing well. A little bit of radio. We're lucky in Black Star Riders because we get some airplay on BBC2. Planet Rock is another place where people can tune in in their car and hear rock n' roll. The BBC structure is still there--BBC1 and BBC2. It's all kinds of music--pop, rock, hard rock.

There's a reciprocal relationship there--the radio supports the magazines, the promoters have a dedicated outlet to get the word out other than the bulletin board/ dart throw of social media...

Yes, completely. And I'm not going to discount the importance of that radio connection because they truly care. It helps that we're coming up with some good music. It's still built around guitars and harmony parts that (guitarist, singer, and songwriter) Scott Gorham is famous for in his time with Thin Lizzy. We've been really fortunate. Each record we've put out, they have embraced a couple of the songs and they play them. We're often between Oasis and Ed Sheeran and classic George Michael.

That's great for the band, though. You don't have the pressure of feeling like your audience will only respond to one sound or style. Does knowing you can 'fit-in' with any kind of music help keep your writing fresh?

I love that question for the simple fact I've said to the guys in the band how fulfilling it is that we don't feel like we have any limitations on this. We can be as heavy as we want, we can be as melodic as we want. We don't have to think: 'we can't alienate the fan base...' We came out of Thin Lizzy, we're Thin Lizzy fans and as a whole, a little more heavy. But then Thin Lizzy was also known for great melodies and incredible lyrics. They had some mainstream success. That's the way it was in Brother Cane. We had songs and choruses and tunes that could get stuck in your head. I've never run away from that. So it was a surprise to me that not only was Scott Gorham committed to that same dynamic but so was our singer Rick Warwick, who came from the punk rock side of things and grew up listening to Northern Soul music. Of course he's from Belfast so you gotta listen to Van Morrison if you're from Belfast! All of that informs our songwriting and our listening. Nobody is more excited to hear the next Black Star Riders album than I am. I'm always excited to see what we're going to come up with. I'm coming to you guys now kind of in the middle of this transition where we're finally going to come to America and do a proper tour with Judas Priest. It's going to be fantastic. Those guys are our longtime friends. We're gonna get in front of some bigger audiences in America. We have not had that opportunity yet. So this is really the first time. We've done a handful of dates in the U.S. but it's been a long time.

What will your set list consist of?

The set list is mostly a good slice of all three albums. I was speaking to a friend of mine in Nashville last week and he was like: man, when you guys first started in 2013, it was kind of half and half Black Star Riders and Thin Lizzy. That's correct--we didn't have enough material. We didn't even know if this crazy experiment was going to work, if anyone was gonna even care. So for the second album tour, we did a few less Thin Lizzy songs. So now, there's only one or two in the set and the fans have supported that. I think we have no problem letting them be the boss. And if the feedback was: hey guys we love these new songs but you know, could you give us a couple more of the old classics, we would certainly consider it. But that's not been the case. They've been really supporting the new music. If you had told me it was gonna be that way, I would have lost that bet.

If you know radio will at least give you a chance and so will press, that must make it easier for the songwriters in the band.

I think you're right. I think there are enough people in the rock press that are paying attention. They've been really good to us. They have not labeled us with that ridiculous adjective of supergroup-band because that's not what we are, man. We're a genuine band--an actual band. Nobody is passing through here on his way to something else. We're committed to this and we love it. And I think that comes across in the songwriting and in the quality of the music we're coming up with.

What stands out to you about the idea of touring with Judas Priest? Here's a band that has not only survived but flourished in an industry that has turned itself inside out in the last decade. Do you look to them for advice in terms of what your future as a band might look like?

We have a great relationship with Judas Priest. When I first joined Thin Lizzy in 2011, my very first run of dates with them was in America opening for Judas Priest. So in that sense, it's almost like a reunion. Scott has known those guys for decades. They come from that whole 'British Rock' thing. But there's another unique component because Ricky Warwick was really successful in Europe back in the 90s with his band the All Mighty. It's a surprise to me that a lot of the Judas Priest road crew were all All Mighty road crew guys back when they were kids. So there's this real family connection. Those guys take care of us, they look out for us. There was never one stupid conflict about this dressing room or anything! It's like going on the road with your buddies. So, I think that's the thing we're most looking forward to. They're giving us a great opportunity. It's not as easy as it used to be to be the headliner and say 'we're gonna bring our friends on tour.' It's not like that anymore.

When you watch Judas Priest or Alice Cooper behind the scenes what do you notice about their sound and their attitude? What do you think has made their sound durable?

I always come away thinking about the songs. Those bands just had amazing songs and so it's no accident that they, along with another 50 acts that started in the 70s, have stuck to it. In some ways, the songs are bigger than the band. People just want to come and hear that stuff. For us as Black Star Riders, the big take away from that is very simple: the songs have to be good. We've got to set the bar as high as we can. It's not just--here's a cool riff, let's throw some lyrics on there... It's got to be really, really good. It's got to have something to say. As I get older, my confidence in my band has never been greater. Any of the bands I've ever been in, there's always been some level of insecurity, some uncertainties, looking at the competition and thinking: oh they're heavier than us, they have a better record company than us... We don't even see that stuff anymore. We just feel like it's our time. There's a lot of effort that goes into balancing our personal lives with our families and touring. That's one big difference. When I was in Brother Cane and we were in our late 20s in the early 90s, we lived in that van and pullin' that trailer and the Super 8s.

Will you be debuting any new songs?

No, but we're definitely writing new songs. Ricky and I have been kicking some things around. And honestly, that's one of my favorite things about this whole deal. The shows are great but my favorite part is when we both pull out our iPhones and say: "ok what, what do you got? Here's a riff I came up with at the hotel last night!" We start digging around. It's like mining for gold. I love it.

Tell us about the Epiphones that you will take on tour.

So I got the Epiphone Les Paul Custom PRO and the Korina Flying V. It was a really easy decision. All my career, I've been a fan of classic guitars. I'm not looking for the LED readout on the fingerboard. Brother Cane had a relationship with Epiphone in the early 90s. We did an ad and everything. And a black Les Paul Custom in my mind--when I play that guitar--I see Brian Robertson from Thin Lizzy, I see Peter Frampton, I see Keith Richards, I see Joe Perry. It's a classic guitar. The Flying-V I've been associated with a long time. I played one with Alice Cooper.

Do you notice a slight difference in tonality between the two guitars? Joe Bonamassa noted that he feels the Korina Flying V has a slightly lighter tone.

With the V, I think Joe is dead on-point. There's an upper end to the attack--the way everything comes together. It could almost lean a little like a Les Paul Jr. tone. But the V in its design and shape, it makes me play differently. It feels different on your body. And in a strange way, it makes my brain react differently to what I'm hearing and what I'm feeling. I would love to think the two guitars are interchangeable but I know that they're not. Bringing the V on this tour--what's more classic on a Judas Priest tour than a Flying V? This is an incredibly special moment for Black Star Riders. I can't wait.

(Live photos courtesy of Andy Bradley.)