Thin Lizzy guitarist Damon Johnson speaks about his Alice Cooper days, Brother Cane and classic rock
I’ve interviewed a lot of artists over the years where you can sort of tell how they rose to prominence, sometimes it’s pure talent, sometimes it’s being in the right place or having a certain charisma and sometimes it is a combination of a lot of things. Guitarist Damon Johnson has all the technical skills necessary to play with legends like Thin Lizzy or Alice Cooper. It’s also obvious from speaking with him that he is a great guy who can communicate and work with people; treating them in a way that makes them enjoy being around him. In a business often filled with people whose egos far exceed their talent a person who has what Damon brings is quite simply invaluable. Damon recently talked with us about being in Thin Lizzy (the band he idolized growing up) his work with Alice and what it’s like to be able to do all that and still have a solo career. Read on….
Legendary Rock Interviews: Hey Damon, thanks for calling us. How are things out on the road with THIN LIZZY? Has it been a long time since the band has played some of the places you’re hitting?
Damon Johnson: Yeah, it has. The response we’ve been getting is pretty mind blowing too. We were confident that there were a lot of Thin Lizzy fans out there but they have just been incredible to us. Some of these shows are live nation promoted events and many of them have an early curfew so we go on really early sometimes, as early as 6 o’clock in some cases and we are still pulling in great crowds and getting a great reaction. It’s making everyone feel great, Scotty (Gorham, guitars) and Brian (Downey, drums) are just smiling onstage ear to ear every night so that makes it all worthwhile for us.
LRI: You guys are opening up for Judas Priest so fans are getting a true double dose of classic music every night. How has that been for you personally?
DJ: I have watched those guys almost every night, at least 2 or three songs. I love checking them out, they are in TOP form man. It is as great a show as I can imagine Priest every really putting on in terms of production and set list. Deep, deep cuts mixed in with fan favorites. I’m personally blown away by their new guitarist Richie Faulkner. I met Richie several years ago when he was the guitarist in Lauren Harris’s band (Iron Maiden bassist Steve Harris’ daughter). I thought when I first saw him with Lauren that he looked like a star and he is. He is just so poised up there and so comfortable and he is an incredible guitar player. It just works. He reminds a lot of us of a mix in styles between K.K. and Randy Rhoads. On top of that he is just a really cool cat and a great guy to hang out with and spend time with. This is a big moment, a shining moment for him and he is really rising to the occasion. I’m telling you the truth John, it is inspiring to watch.
LRI: You’re a pretty major talent as well and have had a chance to not only do your own thing in Brother Cane and solo but to play with Alice Cooper and now with Thin Lizzy. Can you sort of relate to Richie and understand each other’s experiences?
DJ: Very much so. We’ve had some opportunities to actually talk about that a couple of times and he’s actually said “You know man, Thin Lizzy was your biggest influence and Judas Priest was mine so it’s pretty crazy how this ended up.” One of our guys on the road said to us when we were together, “You guys are like the real life version of Mark Wahlberg in Rock Star” (laughs). It’s true in the sense that the dream we have had is now reality. For me personally, I think that all of the different experiences I have had in my career have been what has prepared me for this moment. I am so grateful for all of the experience I had in Brother Cane but I REALLY have to give a lot of credit to Alice Cooper and all of the guys in that band because if it weren’t for that opportunity and that experience I can probably say that this THIN LIZZY dream would probably never have happened. I have a lot of gratitude towards Alice and everyone around Alice.
LRI: Thin Lizzy is a band with such a history and legacy of success not only here but on just massive levels in Europe and worldwide. What was it about the band that attracted you so much to them as a kid growing up in Alabama?
DJ: They were just IT for me as a kid. Those records, those songs just seemed to have EVERYTHING to me and seemed to have it over and over again on a consistent basis. It really spoke to me and influenced me man. The musicianship was top shelf in particular the guitar style of Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson in that era of the band. That era was during the beginning of the whole Van Halen thing and so many guitar players, young players were diving off and trying to be Eddie and trying to be flashy. Eddie was one of my biggest influences ever but it wasn’t really the flash or the tricks as much as it was his guitar tone and his feel and attitude that he projected. I started really getting into LIZZY when all my buddies were all running off to learn “Eruption” and play like mathematicians with a bunch of notes and dive bars, tapping and tricks. The Thin Lizzy material is so strong and packs so much power in it’s presentation and Phil Lynott’s lyric writing was just second to NONE. I feel that Phil had a lot more in common with Van Morrisson or Bruce Springsteen than he did with any of the arena rock acts of that time.
LRI: I can actually hear the influence in some of your songs in Brother Cane. Even a song like “Got No Shame” kind of has that free-wheelin THIN LIZZY vibe to it.
DJ: When I started comin into my own and writing songs for myself or my own band Thin Lizzy was no doubt a major influence. I’ve been talking about THIN LIZZY my entire career (laughs). I’ve had people send me some old Brother Cane interviews where they’re like “check this out” and I will read my old press clips and literally I would spend the entire time talking about Thin Lizzy (laughs). That fiery old rock guitar of Brother Cane was certainly fueled by Brian and Scott’s playing on those old records. I think most of the guys from my era would say that. I’ve spent some time with Zakk Wylde since his band has been opening these shows and he’s a huge Thin Lizzy fan because they just had everything but mostly the SONGS. If you were a kid and looking for a template of a “rock star” all you had to do was look at Scott Gorham or Phil Lynott. That was how you should dress. That was how you should move. That was how you should talk in interviews. They showed everyone how it was done (laughs), it was REAL easy for everyone that followed.
LRI: With the vast catalog of music is it difficult to nail down a setlist? Obviously you have to hit songs like “Boys are Back in Town” and “Jailbreak” every night.
DJ: The cool thing is that we’re getting to headline some shows on other nights John. We’re hitting other venues in the midst of this Judas Priest tour where we’re the main act and do a full 90 minute set where we can cover the whole history and include a lot of deep album cuts. That is just a blast for us and we do it as often as we get a chance on the days we can. The Priest shows are great as well but they are just crammed to the gills with as many fan favorites as we can hit in 45 minutes, we hit all those major highlights and those songs we know people came out to see. There are a couple spots in that support set where we can change a tune or two once in a while to shake things up a little but you can’t ignore “Emerald”, or “Boys are Back” or “Jailbreak” or “Cowboy Song”. Those are in there every night and I will say truthfully that I cannot EVER imagine not playing them or EVER growing tired of playing them every night.
LRI: I don’t think there’s any doubt that the new Alice record, Welcome 2 My Nightmare is one of THE records of 2011. This past decade of albums he’s done including the DIRTY DIAMONDS one that you co-wrote have just been so strong. Does it ever surprise you that he continues to be so prolific at an age where a lot of guys would just count their money and call it a day?
DJ: I’m certainly never surprised just because I’ve spent so much time with him and I know what commitment Alice has to being an artist. If you look over all of the activities that guy puts time into whether it’s his family or his career, no matter what he’s doing he never stops talking about music that inspires him. He talks about new music that inspires him and he talks about old music that inspires him. I am certainly never surprised at the QUANTITY of work that he puts out just because of that passion for all things music that he has. I am so happy though and so impressed that he delivered the goods on WELCOME 2 MY NIGHTMARE. There was certainly a lot of pressure on him due to making the announcement that Bob Ezrin was coming back to produce an Alice Cooper album again and I gotta hand it to both of those guys, to Alice and to Bob. They knocked it out of the park and if you’re an Alice Cooper fan you’re certainly sitting pretty. It’s a great, great time in Alice’s long and productive history. I think Everybody’s really just enjoying it all and celebrating the artist that Alice continues to be. There’s certainly some examples of artists that have achieved at a high level but so much of what he’s accomplished is kind of unprecedented really if you stop and think about it. There’s no too many examples of people you can compare him to and certainly not anyone selling tickets and making records that are as vital as ever. He really matters and I am really happy for him. I am just grateful to have some small part in Alice’s history and to be able to talk about it.
LRI: That DIRTY DIAMONDS album was so swanky and songs like Jesse Jane or Perfect are just such a return to that dirty garage rock sound of the old Alice. Was it fun to work out that kind of material and bounce ideas off of the old master?
DJ: Absolutely dude. That was such an exciting time for me because that time we spent writing the album was literally right after I had joined the band. I was SO excited and I just remember being amazed that Alice would include the band members in the process as much as he did because throughout his career, depending on who was producing his latest record he’s either gravitated towards or had to work with session players or musicians or writers that a particular producer wanted to use to make a given record. The DIRTY DIAMONDS record was very, very special to us as a group because it was myself, Chuck (Garric, bass), Ryan (Roxie, guitar) and Tommy (Cluftos, drums) banging it out tracks in the studio together and coming up with ideas and Coop would just be on the other side of the glass freestylin man (laughs). It is such a mind-blowing experience to be there and SEE him, watch him BECOME that person, to watch him create and transform into ALICE COOPER. He is such a legendary songwriter and to work with him was such an incredible experience. I will never ever forget how special that time was for me.
LRI: He’s said so many times himself that there are two different people, the regular family guy who plays golf and loves his kids and the sicko, creative monster that he becomes. Did you get a chance to become acquainted with both over the years?
DJ: Oh yeah, and I do think it’s productive that Coop has so many things that he is excited and passionate about. The family, the music, the radio show, the golf game. I do think that the golf game has been as important as anything because he can get up early everyday and get out there and be active without thinking about the music or the show or the two hours worth of interviews he has coming up. The only thing he has to focus on for those hours is that ball so by the time he gets around to all those other things he has a clear head and a fresh perspective.
LRI: You came around our area here in the Midwest, Rockford, Illinois to be exact, and you played a special acoustic set at a little club here, including a little bit of everything and taking requests. People were raving about how good it was well after you left. Is that something you see yourself doing again sometime when time permits?
DJ: Thank you, that is so awesome! I love playing those shows. That was a few months back when my last solo release, ironically called “RELEASE” came out. Dude, I cannot properly explain or express how much I enjoy playing those acoustic shows or what a pleasure that whole experience with the audience is. It’s just so fulfilling that a roomful of people would show up and be supportive of me just standing up there with nothing but an acoustic guitar. I pretty much get to play whatever the hell I feel like playing at any given moment. If I’m playing with Alice or Thin Lizzy there’s always a set list and I am totally aware of what’s coming and what’s next in the show because there’s all this production involved, at the very least there’s guitar changes involved. The acoustic thing is the total opposite, I literally walk up there with my guitar and have no idea what I am gonna play or in what order and I kinda read the room . I’ll take requests and it sort of takes on almost a “Storytellers” kind of vibe which completely blows my mind that people would wanna spend a night captivated watching me talk about some of these fantastic experiences I have had or the thoughts behind some of the songs. You can absolutely count on me doing more of that in the future for sure. I enjoyed doing the acoustic album too for that matter, I just had this bulk of material that I had written or co written FOR other artists which is something I enjoy doing. I just felt like I really liked this set of songs and was motivated to sing and record them. It was that simple. I am so happy with how it turned out and that I got to involve not only Alice on it but also my amazingly gifted daughter Sarah. I would love to make another acoustic album soon but it will just depend on the material. I would really have to feel that the songs are there. I am really humbled and amazed by the reaction that “Release” has gotten.
LRI: Last question….You have managed to pull off the grand trick of fulfilling those rockstar dreams with not one but TWO major arena acts while also keeping some artistic freedom and integrity with your solo gigs and albums. Do you really understand and appreciate how cool that is to be able to make a living in a horrible climate for music while still pursuing your art????
DJ: Dude, I am the luckiest son of a bitch on the planet, I really, really am because of exactly what you just said. I am so fortunate that I can perform as a guitarist on such a big level with these legendary bands and then in the downtime do some of my own projects. I have to give a lot of credit to my family, to my wife and all my kids, because it IS tough on them. The touring I do does keep me away from home more than any of us would like but I think they know that this is my calling. Music changed the course of my life and I was lucky because I got an opportunity to play music and make a living. There’s just this big juggling act that I feel I do sometimes, as a guitarist for Thin Lizzy or Alice I am a musician, then to pursue my art and my songs on my own and then just being a part of my family, being me. I am truly blessed in all areas and thankful to be able to do what I do because times are tough now like you said John. They are tougher now than they’ve been in a long, long time but I wanna tell people that if you’ve got some skills, if you can sing and write and perform then it IS possible to follow your dreams. If you have those skills be ready to hustle and work hard be prepared to face some setbacks and realize they will happen. You CAN feed your family and your habit….. because music is a drug man and I expect to be fully addicted for the rest of my life.
Special thank you to Damon Johnson and David Lowry