The Gibson Interview: Black Star Riders
Black Star Riders is the new band formed by the touring members of Thin Lizzy. Debut album All Hell Breaks Loose is out now and is getting rave reviews. Understandably so, as Black Star Riders’ debut echoes the classic twin Les Paul sound of ‘70s Thin Lizzy with added punch, swagger and some seriously good guitar to go.
Black Star Riders are Ricky Warwick (ex-Almighty frontman), Scott Gorham (Thin Lizzy Les Paul legend), Damon Johnson (guitarist for Brother Cane, Alice Cooper), Marco Mendoza (bassist for Ted Nugent, Lynch Mob) and Jimmy DeGrasso (drums for Megadeth, Ozzy, Alice Cooper).
That’s some caliber of experience and dual-lead guitarist Damon Johnson can’t wait to explain to Gibson.com how it came about…
All Hell Breaks Loose is out now. It must be an exciting week for Black Star Riders?
It truly is. It’s the culmination of 12 months of very, very focussed work. The first songs that Ricky [Warwick] and I wrote for the band was April 2012. I took a flight from my home in Alabama to Los Angeles, where Ricky lives, and we took three days to write. It’s ironic that [lead single] “Bound for Glory” was written, completely, on the second day of that session. We didn’t demo it with the band, we just carried it around in our heads for nine months.
Well, we blasted it into our cellphones. Every song on this album was pretty much recorded initially on iPhones! So, kudos to Apple for helping create the Black Star Riders album.
Scott Gorham says you recorded the album’s 12 tracks in just 12 days?
Yep. Kevin Shirley came in as producer and said that is what we need to do. There was a wave of shock from everyone in the band, not the least Scott Gorham. Scott said, “what, Thin Lizzy never made records like that!” Scott has told me how Phil Lynott would turn up in the studio with five or six rough ideas, so then they’d book a studio for eight or 10 weeks. They’d hash it out in the studio.
So, it took a couple of days with Kevin to realize; yes, we can do this. No time for going to the pub. It was 12 to 14-hour long days. Get some sleep. Get back in the next day. It was a challenge, but I think everyone delivered.
Black Star Riders’ PR rep tells me you wrote most of the music on the album: is he just being nice or is that true?
That would be an accurate statement. Ricky and I come from very much outside of Thin Lizzy, even with the recent tours. Y’know Marco Mendoza has been touring with Scott [in Thin Lizzy] for 15 years. Ricky and I were so new to the thing that we were filled with the idea that if a new album was to be released, it would have to be very special. We both believed: these songs have to be the best that we’ve ever done, otherwise there’s no point putting the album out.
It was a special day, last June, when Ricky and I sat down with the songs we had and said: “here’s what we’ve got.” Scott just lit up, wow. He actually said, “I knew you were good, I didn’t know you were this good.” That was the ultimate green light. I’ve talked many times about how I love Thin Lizzy’s music, but when Scott said, “Great, let’s get going...” Man, that was a special day.
We had 20 or so songs, altogether, in the end. There’s songs not on the record that I think are quality. They’ll hopefully see the light of day somewhere down the road.
It’s got the classic Lizzy guitars but is also tough – it reminds me Thin Lizzy’s Black Rose era?
For me, that’s a massive compliment. But we never sat down and said “we need to write a song that sounds like this, or that.” We just threw ourselves in. Ricky and I had been immersed in this sound for three years or so, from touring. Through touring Thin Lizzy songs, Ricky got to know Phil Lynott’s lyrics and songs so well. As Thin Lizzy, we did 100 shows a year. So there was no way that influence wasn’t going to reveal itself.
But for the new songs, Ricky had so many lyrics prepared. He’s always reading, always writing… There wasn’t one time when I played him some music and he didn’t have something to sing. It was a joy. I’ve written music and lyrics together before, but this was almost easy! I say that with humility. We had a boundless amount of ideas. And we agreed: we can sound as “Thin Lizzy” as we want to sound… because these are new songs.
Scott Gorham has had many guitar partners – Brian Robertson, Gary Moore, Snowy White, John Sykes… Was writing new songs with (and for) Scott a fear? Or excitement?
Good question. I felt confident with the technical aspects of my playing. And there’s no better preparation than playing the Thin Lizzy catalog for two years. If there was “difficulty” it was about Scott feeling comfortable doing it at all, if that makes sense. Scott has lived his entire life under the umbrella of Thin Lizzy. But he really wanted to go somewhere else with the guitars. It took a while. In the end, I think he thought: “I’m going to have to do this because the guys won’t let me get away with NOT doing it!”
There was one day in the studio, for “Bound for Glory.” I’d tracked out a melody guitar part and we were listening back. Scott was out the room. But it was the sound, again, of classic Scott. It was close to the sounds of Scott and Brian Robertson on “Massacre,” Johnny the Fox, 1976! We all had goosebumps. I thought Jimmy DeGrasso was about to start crying! When Scott came back in and heard it he just smiled and said: “we can do this.”
But spiritually, it was difficult at first. But I’m just happy. And I’m proud that Scott Gorham is proud with the result. ‘Cos he’s bringing us all a gift, the gift of the name Thin Lizzy. Ricky and I have talked about this. We had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play Thin Lizzy songs in front of thousands of people; we had the chance to play with Scott Gorham and Brian Downey… To take that sound into a new realm, with new songs, is honestly the musical highlight of my career.
And this band can now stand on its own. We feel strong enough to make, who knows, a dozen albums? I’m just so excited to see how this evolves.
There’s a big Celtic influence on “Kingdom Of The Lost” even though Ricky is now the only Irishman in Black Star Riders…
Ricky drove the final sound of that. We’d been working on a song, very different in fact – Celtic sounding but more punk-influenced. And Ricky suggested an almost military riff, so I started playing a couple of things. It’s a regiment-of-fighters song! I heard the melody one night in my sleep, and literally whistled it into my cellphone as I got out of bed. I even checked with Brian Downey [Thin Lizzy drummer, but not in BSR] first, asking him: have I just copied another Lizzy song? I don’t think I have, but…
It’s a Gibson Les Paul album, obviously. What did you play?
I made the whole album with one guitar, seriously. On past records of mine I’ve used seven or eight, and loads of amps, but I didn’t want that. My #1 – and it has been for 20 years or so – is a mid-’90s Les Paul Premium Classic Plus, with a beautiful honeyburst top. I’ve played it lots with both Lizzy and Alice Cooper. I put BurstBucker #1s in it as soon as Gibson came out with that pickup – took the guitar to an even greater level. I’m a fan lower ohmage pickups, I’m not a fan of super-hot ones. Other than that, no mods to it. It’s a just a Gibson USA model, not a Custom Shop build, but it’s just a great guitar.
I have a great guitar store near me in Birmingham, Alabama, where I’ve been shopping for years. When they got this one, the owner phoned me and said: “Damon, you’ve got to come and see this guitar! Bring some other guitars to trade ‘cos you are not going to go home without this one.” He was right. I bought it straight away.
The first ‘proper’ guitar I had was a burgundy Les Paul Custom, when I was in High School. That was the main guitar I used in Brother Cane, it’s on the MTV videos and all that. So I’ve got to know Les Pauls.
My other mainstays for touring are an amazing ’57 reissue Goldtop. The serial number is 75757 – on a ’57 reissue Goldtop! Can you believe that? If it ever gets stolen, there’s no question who it belongs to… I know the serial number off by heart! Plus I have the white Les Paul Custom I played with Alice Cooper a lot.
It’s funny – I recently saw an old girlfriend of mine who used to witness me playing all these Thin Lizzy songs. She said, “when I was with you, you used to dress like Scott Gorham but play like Brian Robertson.” I took it as a compliment. And, now in Black Star Riders, look where it’s ended up.
Thin Lizzy’s Great Guitarists