GOLDMINE: You and Ricky have exciting albums coming out on the 19th and you both have released a couple of songs in advance of the albums that Goldmine readers can check out now. Thank you both for sending me all the songs ahead of time for today’s session. Congratulations on what you, Robbie and Jarred have created with your new album Battle Lessons.
DAMON JOHNSON: Thank you so much. I am over the top proud of this record, the band and all the hard work we have done to bring a full body of work over the finish line, especially during a pandemic!
GM: You and I met in 2006. Like you, Eric Singer was playing with Alice Cooper, and Eric and I had our own private 30th year high school reunion that year by meeting in Reno. That’s when he introduced me to you backstage.
DJ: That was my favorite year playing with Alice from a touring and musical perspective. It was a good run and a great band.
GM: I saw you the following year, too. We had just moved from Nevada to Florida and went to Alice Cooper’s Psycho-Drama Tour in September of 2007. My daughter Brianna and I learned a song that night which you co-wrote, “Woman of Mass Distraction.” It has the power of The Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!).”
DJ: My experience of working with Alice on his Dirty Diamonds album is another favorite memory of mine from that time. As a songwriter, it was among the work that I am most proud of. Playing those songs every night over a couple of stretches, which added up to about five years, was fun. I loved Alice Cooper songs as a kid, and it was an honor to play the songs live. I love to work, create and write, so it was a thrill when Alice said that he wanted to co-write his next album with the band. “Woman of Mass Distraction” was one of my favorites along with the title track, “Dirty Diamonds.”
GM: That one has the non-stop energy of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid.”
DJ: The day we started writing together was a career event for me, to sit down at a table and watch this guy who I had become friends with, spending time with him on stage and the golf course, to all of a sudden see him become Alice Cooper the songwriter. It was a thrill of a lifetime. I am proud of the songs that I got to write with Alice on that album.
GM: Alice is such a nice and down to earth guy, too. After your time with him, Eric told me that you became part of a country band named Whiskey Falls which he was so excited about. I bought the CD and Brianna and I both love it. The song “Let the Whiskey Fall” is rowdy fun, like a Big & Rich number.
DJ: I am so happy to hear that you enjoy that music. That was another unique experience. There was a lot of possibility and potential with that band. One of the things that I am most grateful for is that if I hadn’t spent two years with that band, my family would probably not live in Nashville. My family and I are so happy living here and it opened a lot of doors for me as a rock artist, but at that time we were fully committed to being a modern country band. We played festival dates with artists who are now massively successful. I remember when Luke Bryan was touring in a van and pulling a trailer. Whiskey Falls sang the national anthem at an Atlanta Braves game one night and Eric Church was there and sang “God Bless America.” We were all playing clubs and now both of those guys sell out stadiums. Whiskey Falls had already written some great songs. Buck Johnson and I came up together in the Birmingham music scene and he is the one who brought me into Whiskey Falls. He met the other guys in California. It was a positive experience but disappointing that it didn’t catch fire because we really gave it our all. We had some challenges which were outside of our control and just couldn’t sustain it any longer.
GM: I still have the Whiskey Falls window sticker inside the CD case.
BJ: Ha ha ha. When the band called it a day, somehow, I was the only guy in the band who wound up with two to three boxes of CDs. To this day I still offer those CDs on my website and whenever you buy a CD on my website I always sign it, so when I take the shrink wrap off of that CD, the first thing that happens is that sticker falls out.
GM: When I was working at Peaches Records & Tapes in Cleveland in 1978, my co-worker Dale would play Ted Nugent’s Double Live Gonzo! album over our speakers, any chance that he could. I learned “Stranglehold” and already knew “Cat Scratch Fever.” I love your story about the following year, when you saw Ted Nugent and you learned songs from the opening act.
BJ: That story is almost not to be believed, about a kid growing up in deeply rural northern Alabama on a chicken farm, who loved rock and roll and bought albums at Turtles Records & Tapes by AC/DC, Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Led Zeppelin, was discovering Ted Nugent, and making friends with some of the guys on the football team who said that their dad would drive us to see Ted Nugent. I had just moved to this little town. We got to the show and Thin Lizzy was the opening act, which we didn’t know about until we got there. The only Thin Lizzy song we had heard previously was “The Boys are Back Town.” We didn’t know anything about that band other than that song on the radio. Those guys came on stage. I was primed for that impact. I was fifteen years old, loving music and becoming more proficient as a guitar player. Scott Gorham walked out with his Les Paul guitar and Phil Lynott came out, jumping on the risers with his bass. That was heavy stuff! Then, 25 years later, I received a call to be the guitar player in Thin Lizzy! C’mon! I still play with them. Scott has no plan to be a road dog like Alice Cooper, who does close to 100 shows a year. Thin Lizzy does a half dozen or more festival dates, every other year, which is perfect for me, to not only keep a focus on my solo career but also my family. I want to be with my wife Lynda, our kids, and we have a new granddaughter now, too. Life is great, so I have that balance.
GM: That is wonderful. Let’s discuss one more Thin Lizzy song. The other song I heard in Cleveland on the radio was the flip side of “The Boys are Back in Town,” which is “Jailbreak.” My wife Donna heard it for the first time on the radio here in Florida recently and knew instantly that it was Thin Lizzy.
DJ: “Jailbreak” was the song that Thin Lizzy opened the show with when I saw them at that 1979 concert. I would argue that the guitar part in “Jailbreak” is as timeless and powerful as any Black Sabbath, AC/DC or Led Zeppelin guitar hook. No surprise, I hit the streets the next day looking for any Thin Lizzy records I could find, and Jailbreak was one of the albums that I bought and I went to my guys in my high school band and told them that we are learning this song. I have been playing “Jailbreak” my entire adult life and I never fatigue from playing it right now in my mid-50s as I did as a teenager.
Flip side: Jailbreak
A side: The Boys are Back in Town
Top 100 debut: May 15, 1976
Peak Position: No. 15
GM: The main act that you went to see at that concert was Ted Nugent and I hear a bit of “Cat Scratch Fever” in the title song of your new album, “Battle Lessons.” I just love the song and the video is fun, too. The visual effects, with the lines through it, remind me of needing a head cleaner for our VCR.
DJ: Ha ha ha. I love that analogy. In writing this album, I was shamelessly wearing my influences on my sleeve from my entire life. I think these are the only records I want to make from here on out. I don’t have the desire to come up with some new genre of rock but what I can do is to try to set the bar as high as I can to make the songwriting as special as I possibly can.
GM: The next song on the album has my favorite title, “Can’t Clap Any Louder” and is so catchy.
DJ: Thank you. That is my favorite song on the album and one of the first songs that I wrote for it. I would play a demo version of it on my headphones when I was running around our subdivision. Lyrically, the concept of “Can’t Clap Any Louder” is inspired by the concept of social media. Some of my friends get carried away posting, “Here’s a video of me making spaghetti” and “Here’s a video of my Nike shoe collection” and “Here is me bragging about my new Tesla automobile.” Ha ha ha. I say, “Hey buddy, I’m really happy for you. I can’t clap any louder.” If that makes them feel good to document every little aspect of their lives, they can knock themselves out, but I’m not going to do it that way.
GM: Let’s talk about your bandmates. “Shadow Country” has a great tempo change, reminding me of Black Sabbath, and a great bass line from Robbie.
DJ: I am so thrilled that circumstances worked out that allowed Robbie to become a member of my band. We have been friends for over a decade. I have known Robbie and Jarred for a long time, meeting Jarred through Whiskey Falls, as our touring drummer. The image of that band were four guys who were singing but we had other players who we would take on the road with us. Robbie was playing for Dierks Bentley, the country artist, when I first saw him play, and prior to that he had been Keith Urban’s bass player for a few years. His tone and sound are great, and he is a snappy dresser as well, which gets extra credit in my book.
GM: “Brace for Impact” is Foo Fighters-like with steady tempo drums from Jarred.
DJ: Jarred killed it! Thank you for mentioning “Brace for Impact.” A lot of credit goes to Jarred and my producer Nick Raskulinecz for bringing this song up to the level of “Can’t Clap Any Louder,” “Shadow Country” and the title track.
GM: “Love is All You Left Behind” is a softer, acoustic offering, reminding me of a family favorite, Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters.”
DJ: Thank you. The origin of that song goes back to the early 2000s, when I had a side project with my friend Kelly Gray called Slave to the System. We had one album and then worked on second batch of songs and this is one that has been sitting in my laptop for well over a decade. I always loved it and felt like it was special. The passing of one of my guitar heroes, Edward Van Halen, was the motivation for revisiting “Love is All You Left Behind,” and I inserted an additional section. The reason why I hadn’t put it out before is that I felt it wasn’t complete. I loved the title, lyrics and melody, so I wrote another section and feel it is a tribute to Edward. When he passed, in our sadness we were revisiting his catalog. He had a beautiful spirit on stage, always jumping and always smiling, having the time of his life.
GM: Yes, and Donna says that of all the In Memoriam articles I wrote in 2020, he was the biggest musical loss in rock. You mentioned the early 2000s. That is when Stevie Nicks recorded another of your beautiful songs, “Every Day.”
DJ: Thank you so much. That was another thrill of my career. I received a phone call from my friend John Shanks, who I wrote the song with, and he said, “Hey man, you aren’t going to believe this, Stevie Nicks wants to record our song.” I said, “No I don’t believe you!” Ha ha ha. She is one of the great songwriters of the rock landscape. It was such a compliment to me. I was humbled by it and honored that she would think so highly of that song. It is a thrill for me and my family. Enjoy your session with Ricky next. There is no one who has made a bigger impact on my songwriting in the past decade than Ricky. The time I spent with him in Black Star Riders and our time, still, in Thin Lizzy is so much fun. I learned so much from him, doing the songwriting on the first three Black Star Riders albums. We share a common work ethic. We are both deeply passionate about writing and gathering ideas and inspirations. I owe Ricky a debt of gratitude for really inspiring me with my solo career. I love Ricky and his family and am really grateful for his friendship. Ricky’s new album is fantastic. Thank you for our time together again. I am convinced that I would have never gotten that Alice Cooper gig had it not been for our mutual friend Eric. He was so outwardly over the top about my playing and singing. I love that guy and am grateful for our friendship. All the best to you, Donna and Brianna, and I hope that our paths cross again.
GM: Before we discuss your new album When Life Was Hard and Fast let’s start with Thin Lizzy. I just spoke with Damon about both sides of the U.S. single version of “The Boys Are Back in Town” and “Jailbreak.”
RICKY WARWICK: I don’t think Thin Lizzy has a bad song. As much as I sing those two songs on stage, I don’t get tired of them, because they are both so iconic. I also like to sing some of the deeper cuts that we play like “Got to Give It Up” from the Black Rose album. I get excited on stage looking at the set list and say to myself, “My god, this song is next and then this one.” It’s just so wonderful. With Thin Lizzy being my favorite band, it is such a dream come true to sing all those great songs that the boys wrote.
GM: You are also in Black Star Riders with Thin Lizzy’s Scott Gorham. “Another State of Grace,” the title song from the latest album, is a very guitar driven exciting song.
RW: That’s a great song to sing, too. When the album came out we were able to get to Europe for seven weeks of touring before the pandemic hit, and we would open the show every night with “Another State of Grace,” and it was really amazing to open the show with that song.
GM: My favorite song on the new album is “I Don’t Feel at Home.” It is a sad story but done so well that it just stays in my head. I get it. It is emotional. We have met people who struggle with living in the world.
RW: Thank you. Dizzy Reed from Guns N’ Roses is with us playing some wonderful keyboards. That is one of the last songs that Keith Nelson, who produced the record with me and co-wrote with me in the studio. Lyrically it deals with addiction, loneliness and alienation and is a dark song. Sadly, someone in my family had been dealing with that issue, which impacts others. So, the song was written about them for them, as a way of saying, “We love you.” It has a great mix of a Rolling Stones and southern rock sound to it. I have known Dizzy for a long time, as a great friend and great musician.
GM: You have guys who I saw play with Buckcherry, opening for KISS in 2009, on the record, Keith, who we just mentioned, on guitar, and Xavier Muriel on drums. They are prominent on “Fighting Heart,” along with Robert Crane on bass from Black Star Riders.
RW: “Fighting Heart” is the first song that Keith and I wrote together. Keith left Buckcherry, had a studio, and invited me over. We wrote that song, but not with anyone in mind. I walked away with a demo of it and found that we had a great chemistry. I took it home, listened to it, and called Keith and said, “We have the guts of a solo album with this song. Would you like to produce a record together?” He said, “Absolutely!” Keith and I are kindred spirits and get along great. We share a lot of vintage guitars. I just had a great time working on the record with Keith. We wanted to put a band together to record the tracks as live as possible. Robert from Black Star Riders is my boy, my bro, the greatest bass player in the world. He is a good guy to have around, always funny, positive and up. He keeps everybody laughing and entertained. Keith suggested Xavier, as he played with him in Buckcherry for a long time, and he joined us and that became the nucleus of our band. We knocked out the backing tracks in two days.
GM: Luke Morley from the band Thunder plays guitar on “You Don’t Love Me.” They have a new album coming out and I have heard a couple of advance songs which are so powerful.
RW: Yes, they are. I’ve known Luke since I was in the band The Almighty. We were coming up around the same time. Luke is also an honorary member of Black Star Riders. He joined us for shows in South America. I told him that it was about time that he played on one of my records and he said that he was only too happy to do so. He played an amazing guitar solo on that track.
GM: In early 1983, when my wife Donna was pregnant with our daughter Brianna, Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like a Wolf” was on the radio and I think Brianna was kicking along with Andy Taylor’s guitar parts. I love what Andy brings to “I’d Rather be Hit.”
RW: Ha ha, thank you. Andy produced an album for The Almighty back in 1991 and we have been friends ever since. He is a great guitar player, producer, singer and songwriter. I have co-written songs with Andy for his solo album coming out later this year. I asked him to return the favor and play guitar on my record, and he just knocks it out of the park on that song.
GM: I have seen KISS a half dozen times with Damon and my friend Eric Singer on drums, and like I did with Buckcherry, I saw KISS share the stage with Def Leppard. Joe Elliott did a wonderful job vocally on their classic songs, and now he has joined you vocally on the title song “When Life Was Hard and Fast.”
RW: Joe produced my first two solo albums at the start of the 2000s. He has been a friend of mine forever. I was the best man at his wedding. He is my sounding board. I send him songs that I am working on and I value his opinion. He always tells me the truth, whether I want to hear it or not, which I really admire. He has sung with me before and our voices blend well together. He is such a great singer and did an outstanding job of backing vocals on this track.
GM: Let’s conclude with your daughter Pepper. I love her voice, joining you on “Time Don’t Seem to Matter.”
RW: Thank you man. She’s the most special guest of all, right? The song was written about her and for her. I told Keith that Pepper is really getting into music, as a pre-teen. She plays violin, ukulele and guitar. I heard her every night in her room singing and I thought this girl has a good voice. I said, “This song is about you. Do you want to sing on it?” She said, “Okay, Dad.” We had a great day hanging out in the studio. It was a super proud dad moment for me. I have three girls and one boy. My wife Tina and I also have a black goth cat named Ash, named after Daniel Ash from the goth band Bauhaus, and I am the official litter box cleaner for the family. Thank you so much for this interview article, spending time with me and Damon. We appreciate it so much.