Scott Gorham (left) and Damon Johnson of Thin Lizzy.
Few bands return with a new album after a 29-year hiatus. Fewer still attempt to do so without the superstar frontman that defined the band’s image. But that’s what Thin Lizzy are going to do. Gibson.com spoke with new guitar recruit Damon Johnson (ex-Brother Cane and Alice Cooper) about the new Thin Lizzy album due in 2013.
Thin Lizzy as a recording band split in 1983, and with the tragic death of bassist/songwriter/frontman Philip Lynott in 1986, the band seemed over. But guitarist John Sykes and Lizzy legend Scott Gorham did keep the band alive as a touring entity from 1996, albeit one playing the classic hits only.
But now there is to be new Thin Lizzy material and a new studio album. Thin Lizzy 2012 comprises Scott Gorham on lead guitar, original drummer Brian Downey, latter-day keyboard player Darren Wharton, bassist Marco Mendoza, singer Ricky Warwick (ex-The Almighty) and also on lead guitar, Damon Johnson.
Johnson achieved fame with his own band Brother Cane in the ’90s, and has since toured/recorded with Alice Cooper, Sammy Hagar, Stevie Nicks and Whiskey Falls, among many others.
But right now, Johnson is excited to be part of a re-launched Thin Lizzy…
Damon, how did you join the latest version of Thin Lizzy?
I have to give credit to a lot of people. First of all, Richard Fortus who was in Lizzy before me. He played with the band in summer 2011. We did a concert together when I was playing with Alice Cooper, who I’ve played with five of the last seven years.
Richard mentioned to Tommy Henriksen [bassist for Alice Cooper] that he had to go back to Guns N’Roses and Lizzy would need someone else. Without skipping a beat, Tommy said: “Get Damon – he knows Thin Lizzy songs better than any of you guys!”
I first met Scott [Gorham] back in 2006. But I’ve been a Thin Lizzy fan my whole life.
This must be a weird situation: joining a “heritage” act to tour, but you are now recording a new album?
It’s a unique situation. But the history, the legacy, of this band means so much to me I didn’t even think about it. For example, it did occur to me when I joined Alice Cooper. I knew that “Coop” was a “heritage act” and I was a fan, but nothing compared to how I love Lizzy. And Alice knows that, we’ve talked about it, and he understood.
The experience I had in Brother Cane and working with Alice prepared me for this. I’ve joined a band with a history of amazing guitar players, but also a band that wants to do something challenging – make a new album for the first time in 29 years. I’ve been ripping off Thin Lizzy for my whole career, so I can’t think of anyone better qualified for this gig than me!
You’ll be aware that some will find a new Thin Lizzy album highly unlikely news…
Of course. We all know it’s going to be under the microscope. We know there will be pundits who criticize it. But pundits aren’t necessarily fans. The fans have always wanted these amazing songs to continue to be performed live.
And, now, we need new material to put extra life into this.
Thin Lizzy were never huge in the U.S. – how did you discover the band?
I saw the band live when I was 15, they were opening for Ted Nugent. Me and my friends didn’t know who the support band was at first, it later said Special Guests: Thin Lizzy. I only thought I’d see Ted Nugent. I knew (the Thin Lizzy song) “Jailbreak,” but that’s all. But when I saw them, my jaw just dropped.
I’d never seen anyone like Phil Lynott. I was like, are you kidding me? – this seemingly seven-foot-tall Afro/Irish bass player and poet? He had the mirror pickguard on his bass and was reflecting it onto the faces of the girls in the audience as he played and sang. Honestly, it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
Another thing. If you want to play guitar and look like the coolest guy in the world? Watch Scott Gorham. He wrote a rulebook on that. Phil and Scott together just blew my mind.
Was Lizzy’s twin-guitar sound an influence on you as player?
Oh, definitely. I’m from Alabama, so I grew up with a lot of Southern rock. There’s a commonality between Lizzy and the Allman Brothers, to me. And after that gig, I hit the streets buying as much Thin Lizzy as I could find. First albums were Live and Dangerous and Johnny The Fox. I bought Bad Reputation and Jailbreak the next day, literally. It was a feast! You take those four albums, and you can learn how to be a musician, a songwriter, a rock star, a guitar player… it’s all there.
You are stepping into some big shoes here…
Yeah, and I might have been intimidated. But I’ve done a lot of performing, I’ve made a lot of records. Thankfully, Scott and Brian have been brilliant. The whole band have been great. They watched me play with Alice Cooper, met me, and decided I was a nice enough guy. You only play onstage for 90 minutes, but in a band you spend a lot more time together. If you’ve got personality hang-ups, it will never work. But to get such positive feedback from Brian Downey and Scott Gorham has been amazing.
Brian being back in the band makes such a difference. He’s such a great drummer. No one plays “Emerald” like Brian. No one can play the shuffle of “Dancing in the Moonlight” like Brian. Seriously, this is a joy.
What can you tell us about the new album recording so far?
There’s been a commitment from everyone to embrace the diversity of what Thin Lizzy is. Towards the original end, they made Thunder and Lightning. That album was so heavy. A lot of the writing, it seemed Phil wanted to go down a heavy metal route for a while. That’s not what the new album will be.
There are some big fat riffs. Classic. I can assure you, we have the riffs. We have eight-to-10 songs written, we want to finish another 10.
And how is Ricky Warwick handling it all as the new frontman?
Ricky has been amazing. There is no easier target in this than Ricky – he knows that. But he has blown my mind with his writing. He’s constantly writing, constantly reading, changing things to make lyrics better. I’ve done my own share of lyric writing, but I’ve never seen someone work so hard as Ricky.
We can bring any piece of music to Ricky, and he comes up with a killer lyric. He deserves a huge amount of credit. He’s not just “a new frontman.” The guy is a class songwriter. And that’s what Scott and Brian needed to make another Thin Lizzy record.
Is it tough playing dual-harmony guitars with Scott, who’s been playing that style for years?
No, it’s not been hard. Working with Scott is all about feel. It’s been incredible for me as a Thin Lizzy fan to watch Scott Gorham turn into “Scott Gorham from Thin Lizzy” in the studio, if you know what I mean? My kids and my wife just don’t understand my excitement about this, haha! But we’re focussed on the quality of songs, lyrics and arrangements. We have at least four songs finished that fans will say: yeah, that is the Thin Lizzy sound.
You’re now in a classic Gibson Les Paul band, and you’re a Les Paul man, too?
Oh yeah, I always have been. I’d love to dazzle people with a tale of a ’57 sunburst that Billy Gibbons gave me, but not true, sadly. But I love my Gibsons because they still sound great and look amazing.
My main Les Paul is a mid-’90s 1960 reissue, a beautiful honeyburst/flametop. That’s been with me since Brother Cane days. I also have a Gold Top, a ’57 reissue. Ironically, I bought that guitar from Gibson when I was working on a Thin Lizzy tribute album back in 1997 in Los Angeles. Plus, I have a really cool Custom Shop-made Les Paul Custom, in white, that I just bought from a store. I used that one a lot with Alice Cooper. Gibson Les Pauls are part of the Thin Lizzy vibe, a big part of the look.
But for a while Scott didn’t play Les Pauls, but various double-cut guitars?
Scott has a back problem, something he’s had since childhood. Playing a Gibson Les Paul, for him, has sometimes been like carrying a boat anchor. But he has a chambered Les Paul now. It looks great, feels great, and sounds like classic Scott Gorham.
What else are you using in the studio?
I like Wizard amps. Totally handwired, classic Marshall-like “Plexi” tone and they are built for the road. No disrespect to any other amp maker, but these are solid. I’m nuts about guitar tone. I want to be clear, I want my sound to be transparent, I want to articulate. The new Wizard Modern Classic, its dual-channel, gives me everything. I’m sure we’ll have a selection of amps to finally cut the album, but my Wizards will be there. This album has a lot to do with my tone.
Thin Lizzy were always been blessed with guitar talent – Eric Bell, Brian Robertson, Gary Moore, Snowy White, John Sykes and Scott. Who is your favorite, apart from Scott of course?
Brian Robertson. Everyone knows, man! That mid-’70s four-piece of Phil, Scott, Brian Downey and Brian Robertson was totally amazing. Brian [Robertson] was never the most technical player but he had feel. He had a lot of blues influence, and I’m like that too.
But I try not to think too much about Brian. Or Gary Moore, or Eric Bell or John Sykes. I have a lot of recording experience, and I’m just trying to be the best Damon Johnson I can be.
That said, I’ve got the wah pedal going on this album. You’ll hear. You cannot play in Thin Lizzy without some wah!
The new Thin Lizzy lineup are playing live in the U.K, in August, with a bigger tour to go through to December 2012. Scott Gorham says, “We may even throw in a surprise or two.”
A box set containing expanded editions of the ’70s albums Nightlife, Fighting, Jailbreak, Johnny the Fox, Bad Reputation and Black Rose will be released in August.
Anyone looking forward to new Thin Lizzy?
Thin Lizzy’s Greatest Guitarists
Gibson Remembers Gary Moore
Photos: Robert John