För en tid sedan snackade vi med Scott Gorham och Damon Johnson i Black Star Riders. Bandet är aktuella för ett gig på Sweden Rock Festival samt ett stop i Göteborg den 5 juni. Vi avhandlade bl a det senaste albumet “Heavy fire”, döda rockstjärnor, hur det var att spela tillsammans med Aerosmiths Tom Hamilton samt det där med att aldrig neka en idé.
Don´t say no to any idea, because it just might be fucking genius. And that´s happened to all of us. You go “Nah, that´s not gonna work.” and then you try it and go “Oh shit, it worked!”
I recently read a funny quote about you guys, “The Black Star Riders are lifers in an industry less secure than a secret in a soap opera.”
Damon: (laughs) That´s good! Who said that?
Scott: Raise your hand!
Tell us about “Heavy fire”. 10 songs, about 40 minutes long. Metallica´s new album has 13 songs and it´s about 80 minutes of music. A bit too long.
Scott: Actually, you said the same thing. (Nods to Damon)
Damon: Nick, I´ll say you something we haven´t said one time in this whole week of promo. Ricky and I spend a lot of time together and not only is he one of the most disciplined and hardworking people I know, but he´s also one of the least patient people I know. We talked about that, because there´s a lot of positive things about that. It keeps you focused. People in general are busy and very distracted, so how can you feel good about giving them a song that gets laboured and dragged on? We just had real commitment that all of our arrangements this time would just get to it and keep me interested. That´s just another area that Nick Raskulinecz is key in, because we can be playing a song and he´s got his notebook and his standing there listening and if he starts to lose interest for two seconds it´s like “Ok, stop!”
Scott: You´re dead in the water. “Oh shit, he just got bored.”
Damon: I really believe that. That´s when I step back and listen to it. I love that´s it´s ten songs, I love that it´s 40 minutes, I love that it doesn´t mess around. We don´t give you much time to get distracted or lose interest.
Scott: As a kid I remember… I saw Cream four times. First time they would play the album length. Next time the solos started to get a little bit longer, but it was ok. The third time it was a 15 minute bass solo, 20 minute drum solo and you´re bored. The fourth time I went “Fuck this! I´m out of here!” You gotta keep everything down to a manageable level, to keep the interest going.
What is it Nick brings to your music and is he your go to guy now?
Damon: It´s the second album with him and we love Nick. We have a lot of respect for him and a lot of trust in him. I firmly believe we will work with him again in the future. The guy doesn´t have that résumé by accident. I already owned a lot of albums that he had produced and just the thought that we could work with somebody of that calibre was really exciting. Now he really knows our strengths and our weaknesses, he knows the moment he has to step in. Ricky Warwick has never sounded better as a singer. Nick loves the guitar. I´ve never once in my life, and I´ve made a few records, never once have I had a producer say to me “Ok man, on this next solo I want you to shred!” He´s really played a big part. Just having fun and trying different pedals and sounds and Scott always tells me how much he loves Nick´s rack of amplifiers that he gets to choose from.
Scott: He gets you trying things, combinations that you would never even touch. He goes “Trust me! Plug that in! Ok, hit a chord!” and I´m like “Fuck man! You were right.”
Damon: It kinda speaks to our old school, traditional way of wanting to hear amps and having them react to the guitar. It´s easy nowdays. You could pull up a plug in on the computer and it sounds pretty damn good, but he´s got all the cool stuff and he knows what it´s all about.
Is that what you need from a producer? Going back to the the quote about being “lifers”, you´ve all done this for so long and you could probably produce it yourselves.
Scott: You gotta remember that he´s also a great idea guy. Let´s say you´re going along and you get to the part you´re not quite sure of and you´re kinda looking around and he goes “Yeah, I know. I´ve been thinking about this and I´ve got a great idea for this.” and bang he hits you and you go “Yeah!”, because you hadn´t thought about it and you were never going to think about it. It may be obvious but it´s great and he did on almost every song. All it takes is one fresh idea and you´re off and running again. That´s what a good producer will do.
Damon: The title track “Heavy fire” has this massive tempo change, like it comes out of nowhere and it was an idea I had in preproduction and I don´t know if I would´ve even thought like that, had we not gone through “Killer instinct” with Nick, because he really encourages us to come up with things that makes the listening experience of any song interesting.
Scott: Don´t say no to any idea, because it just might be fucking genius. And that´s happened to all of us. You go “Nah, that´s not gonna work.” and then you try it and go “Oh shit, it worked!” and then you feel like a complete jerk. (laughs)
This is your third album. Do you now feel that you´ve found your place, your sound?
Damon: We definitely feel like it´s full speed ahead. “Killer instinct” was a big step for us. It did a lot for us in finding our own way. To me, “Heavy fire” is the next step. There´s really cool stuff on this record, different textures and dynamics, tempos. Things that I don´t know if we would´ve done on the last record and certainly not on the first one. Three albums in four years, you have to be a band that has it together, I think, to accomplish something like that. We love to play, we love to write, we love to perform and we love to tour. We just wanna get to keep doing it. Every time we put out a record, cool shit starts happening.
Scott: You used the phrase “found your sound”. Think if you found your definitive sound, then you´re probably pretty much dead in the water. You´ll keep treading in the same spot, which is what a lot of bands do. “We´ve found our sound, so let´s make the next album sound exactly like that.” I don´t really see us doing that, completely.
Damon: Everyone knows our history, knows our legacy and kinda where this band was born. You´re talking about another great band that has a whole catalogue that display different textures and dynamics. Thin Lizzy was not just a one trick pony. Queen was not a one trick pony. Led Zeppelin…We love those bands and we listen to that music and I love how we can come out of something as crushing and in your face as “Who rides the tiger” and then shift all the way down into a new vibe like “Cold war love” I think that´s pretty ballsy. None of my friends in their bands would try something like that. That´s pretty bold to it like that and it works, because we feel like each song is quality in its own right.
Is there stuff that you two learn from each other?
Damon: I do all the time.
Scott: It´s easy to do. I get inspired by him because he´s such a great player and because he´s got so much fucking energy. He´s dragging the old guy with him.
Damon: I´ll give you an example. One of my favorite songs on the record is a song called “Testify”. While Ricky was doing vocals with Nick in the main room, we had a kind of a guitar station set up in another room on a different computer. It was literally just me and Scott. Scott started playing this amazing solo for “Testify” and he played this little “no choice” thing that could´ve only been Scott Gorham. He doesn´t think of it but to me it was “Yes! There is that guy right there!” I was so knocked out with this melody that he played, I went in and got Nick and said “You gotta hear this!” He came in and he loved it and he looked at me and went “Great, put a harmony on it!” (laughs) There are several moments like that on the album.
Scott: He will do that to you. He will surprise you. You´ll do an improve thing and he´ll say “Double it and harmonize it!” and you go “What? Who do you think we are? Steve Vai?” But in the end he´s right. I´m glad he made me do it, that fucking prick. (laughs)
Damon: That´s another interesting point that we haven´t really talked about. Thin Lizzy wasn´t necessarily a band that was on Nick´s radar either. He´s a few years younger than us and he´s more a child of the 80´s stuff, so when he wants us to think about harmony, he´s thinking about Iron Maiden, who got their harmonies from Thin Lizzy. It´s cool, man. He never at any point wanted us to be “Lizzyesque” for any reason at all. He just wants to make a bad ass record.
There´s a great track called “Dancing with the wrong girl” When was the last time you did that?
Damon: Oh, that must´ve been the summer of 1995 in Norfolk, Virginia. (laughs)
Scott: I think we´ve all danced with the wrong girl at times.
Damon: There´s a lot of imagery you can take away from that song, because you can take it literal like you´re dating the wrong person or dancing with the wrong person or maybe you´re dancing with the wrong substance or dancing with the wrong situation. There´s a lot of ways to look at those lyrics. I think that track might be my favourite Jimmy DeGrasso drum performance in that guy´s entire career and that´s saying something because that guy has made a couple of records. For a minute I was thinking “Oh, this is like a Cheap Trick thing, but no, it´s way beyond that.” He plays great on that song.
Scott: Even he was impressed with himself. (laughs)
Another great track is one you mentioned before “Who rides the tiger”, which I believe is about US gun laws?
Damon: Ricky took that title from that phrase “He who rides the tiger is afraid to fall off.” and that can be related to any dangerous situation. If you´re gonna roll the dice and try this, it can lead to real trouble. With gun control, it´s interesting to get a foreigner´s view of that. Ricky´s from the UK and has now lived in America for quite some time, he has a different perspective. It is one of the hottest contested issues in our country and has been for a long, long time. When he started singing the lyrics over that riff, I don´t know that I´ve ever loved a lyric of his more when he says “If you won´t take my silver, then you must take my lead. All you need is love now and the goddamned second amendment” I might´ve literally hugged him when he said that. Then he says “Sleep with the enemy as feral as you wanna be” meaning as undeomesticated. It can be argued that´s just like caveman mentality to go “Sure, you can buy this assault rifle. It´s an AR-15, it´ll look great in your living room.” It´s fucking madness! And that´s what´s happening over there.
You´ve played some shows with Aerosmith´s Tom Hamilton. What was that like?
Scott: Tom´s been in Aerosmith for 45 years and that is the only band he´s ever played with. He hasn´t done a session with anybody else, he hasn´t been in a garage band with anybody else, he has done nothing with anybody else but Aerosmith. One of our guys called him and said “Tom, we love you man! We love your bass. Would you come out and do the Thin Lizzy gig with us?” Apparently he thought for a second and then went “Yeah, I will!” So this guy who´s never played with anybody else, has now doubled his CV. (laughs) Now he´s played with two bands. It´s pretty brave on his part, because he´s never had to worry about learning somebody else´s songs. Now he had to go in there and really study. I think he had to teach himself how to study another band´s songs. It was pretty brave.
Damon: It´s pretty humbling that someone on that level of success in this business would challenge himself like that, because he digs the songs that much. He was incredibly prepared. He had his notes and his laptop and all the songs lined up. He´s had two cancer scares and it´s slowed him down a step, but it sure hasn´t changed his bass tone. You could tell that he so wanted to do a good job and you could tell he was a little bit nervous, so he was always looking at his notes. I know what that´s like. It was like that when I joined Thin Lizzy and Alice Cooper. On the last day we were kinda laughing it up and a couple of guys went off to get coffee in the other room, so it was just me and Tom and Scott Travis (Judas Priest) on the drums. Scott just went right into the riff to “Walk this way”, which I´ve sung a thousand times in the bars and played, so I just jumped right on it and Tom didn´t miss a beat. All of a sudden his body language changed and it was like “Ah, there he is! That´s the guy!”, so we played “Walk this way”, “Same old song and dance” and we played some of “Lick and a promise” and then we topped it off with “Sweet emotion” which Tom wrote that killer bass line for.
Scott: You kicked ass that day, Damon! I was in the other room going “Man, that fucking guy can play!”
Damon: That´s what´s crazy. If I had to pick a second most influential band after Thin Lizzy, it was fucking Aerosmith. When Brother Cane put its first record out, Guitar World gave us a great review and whoever wrote it said “Damon Johnson sounds like Steven Tyler and Joe Pery rolled into one.” I bought 50 copies of that magazine and gave it to everybody I know. Big influence.
The last year or so we´ve lost a lot of legends like Lemmy, Bowie and Prince and so on. Did you ever meet any of them?
Scott: I knew Lemmy, but I never got to meet Bowie at all, which is a shame because he probably would´ve been a really cool guy to sit on the couch and just talk to. Prince would´ve been another interesting guy to talk to. Just like “How did you get from there to there?” That guy was a badass guitar player.
Damon: (Points to his t-shirt.) That´s a Prince lyric right there, “Starfish & Coffee & Maple Syrup & Jam” My wife bought me that one. There´s no bigger Prince fan on the earth than my wife. She was devastated. It was a rough couple of weeks after that. It´s been the worst year ever. It´s sad when you lose a legend like Leonard Cohen, who is one of the all time greats. What a poet! But you know, He was in his 80´s and he had a good run, but when you lose guys like Prince and Glenn Frey, that´s too soon for those guys to be going.
Scott: They all came up in the same era. They all took the same drugs and everybody got beat up just as much as everybody else. Obviously they cleaned up but there´s gonna be damage done. It´s that generations turn to go I guess. You don´t know how to sum that up. There´s no proper way of putting that.
Damon: The lesson should be for all of us that life is short. Let´s make the most of it and let´s make the best of it while we can, because there may not be a fourth Black Star Riders album… (laughs)
Text: Niclas Müller-Hansen
Foto: Erik Larsson