BLACK STAR RIDERS – Ricky Warwick and Damon Johnson

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Black Star Riders is a rock band formed in late 2012 from the ashes of the latest line-up of Thin Lizzy . The band released its first album, ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE, in May of 2013 and the sophomore album, THE KILLER INSTINCT, is scheduled for release in early 2015. The band’s singer / guitarist Ricky Warwick (The Almighty) and guitarist Damon Johnson (Alice Cooper, Brother Cane) arrived in rainy Helsinki in early December to promote the upcoming album and here is what they had to say. Read on!


KILLER INSTINCT KILLER INSTINCT is the name of your upcoming album. Is there a theme, deeper meaning or “master plan” behind that title?

Ricky Warwick: No, there’s no master plan. We wrote a song and we called it “The Killer Instinct”. The lyrical theme behind it was I was watching a documentary on Mohammed Ali and I was blown away by how much adversity he overcame his early life being a poor black kid and growing up to be a heavy weight champion in the world; and how positive and how strong character he was and how much he believed in himself. His whole attitude on life. I just thought he’s got a good killer instinct and taking out to something broader that we all have to deal with and the craziness out there just to get through every day and you got to be strong, you got to believe in yourself. Even when you have bad days, you are going to try and keep your chin up and try and battle through it and ultimately try and find some happiness. I think that’s what “the Killer Instinct” was based on. Who has the best killer instinct in the band?    

Ricky Warwick: Scott! But we’ve all been… we are all passionate. We are really passionate about what we do and we all believe in what we do.

Damon Johnson: That’s a great question.

Ricky Warwick: That’s a really good question.

Damon Johnson: I would have to say Ricky. He doesn’t just talk and he walks it and when you take a group of musicians that have been playing professionally, separately as long as we all have it’s going to take a pretty extraordinary energy to kind of bring it all together and keep it focused. This band is based around Scott Gorham and his history and his background, but also Ricky and his vocal style and his song writing. When we were working on that song “The Killer Instinct” I loved the lyrics, I loved every line of it right out of the gate. I was like; “Wow! This is great!” And when he mentioned the idea that this could be the album title and I went just, there was not a second thought. I was like; “Of course, that’s it”. That’s perfect title for this band, for this time, for who we are, for where we are heading, for what we want to accomplish. I’m sorry to sound all up with people, but fuck man, it is a tough world out there. If you can just listen to a song and get motivated, inspired or pumped up then I think that’s a good thing. That’s what I get from it and I feel real confidence that our fans they feel the same energy. I remember when I heard “Killer Instinct” for the first time and I was thinking that it reminded a lot of “Bound for Glory”. Both songs are extremely catchy and easy to remember so I think that it is just a positive thing?

Ricky Warwick: Yeah. I can hear that too, you mean it’s got that same great dual guitar thing that the guys came up with from “Bound for Glory”. It’s uplifting; it’s fist in the air song. I’m absolutely fine with that and it crossed my mind, I thought; hey! Maybe this is the “Bound for Glory” on the second album because it is like an anthem song, I think. That’s cool, it’s cool you pick up on that.

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THE RECORDING PROCESS Originally you were going to record this album with Joe Elliot (Def Leppard) but things changed. What happened with that original plan?

Ricky Warwick: Joe agreed to produce the album one year ago, but we never actually started working on it with him. He just agreed that we were going to do it, we were already scheduled to do the album around about September, October this year. That’s when we pretty started and Joe approached us at the end of our tour, just before Christmas last year and said; “Hey! I want produce it” and this is when we are going to record. But, we didn’t actually do anything with Joe.

Damon Johnson: Joe had never even heard any rough ideas or anything.

Ricky Warwick: He just heard the first album.

Damon Johnson: All he heard was that, yeah. We are all friends with Joe, Ricky and Joe are best friends. It made a lot of sense on a lot of different levels. So once things didn’t work out with Joe you decided to work with producer Nick Raskulinez.

Ricky Warwick: Yeah. Nick is best known for his work with such names as Foo Fighters, Marilyn Manson and Alice in Chains. How was he to work with because your sound and style is overall quite different from those bands, I mean, in my books you’re more like 70’s hard rock band?

Ricky Warwick: We don’t think of ourselves as ’70s hard rock band at all, we don’t put a time frame on anything that we do, it was interesting that you said that title sounds like ’70s, doesn’t mean there is the word bananas in there for ’70s word. It’s like; can you guys put fucking labels on everything. It’s an expression. And you don’t sit there and you got to get this ’70s song going, that’s a bit too ’80s you can’t do that, like it’s too ’90s. Honestly, I swear to God, I hang my heart; we just like fucking change and if they sound good to us will record them and hopefully those songs are good to you guys and obviously the people are buying. We do not sit and worry about what criteria it’s going to fit into, we have done this too long, we are too old. Once you start doing it, it’s crossing, it becomes a joke and it becomes… You stop chasing your tale. We are more than a band, we write for the day, for now. On a whole fucking song like that, I don’t want be one living in the fucking past. It’s like; right now I’m going forward, I don’t want to be revivalist. I’ll leave that to the revivalist bands. But about working with Nick…We worked with him because his resume is just fucking mind blowing. There is shit that he’s done with those bands and those records sound amazing. They sound huge, huge. Then we got to know Nick because Damon was in Nashville and they met up socially and when Joe said he couldn’t do the record because Leppard got busy, obviously because Def Leppard went on tour with your favorite band, “Laughs” Damon reached out to Nick and just said; “Hey! Any chance? Think?” and he said “Yes. When do we start?” which blew us all away.  He’s just phenomenal to work with. He really was great, and we learned a lot from him. How was Nick different to work with compared with Kevin Shirley who produced ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE?

Rick Warwick:    He’s definitely got more time on his hands when it comes to making the records. I didn’t feel like there was a gun in the hand “We got to get this done tomorrow!”  “Laughs”. No, it was… They are two different kinds. Kevin is a South African and he’s very full-on and he’s got a great way of… His style of recording is very quick, capture the energy and the feeling; “Let’s get it done”. We played Kevin the demos, we hadn’t really changed one thing from the demos. Kevin just said; “Guys, I’ve already got it. I’m just going to go in there and throw the mics up. You guys are going to play, we were done in 12 days” and it was kind of like; “What?” When you are finished, you are like; “Okay, I kind of want to go back and…” “No, you are done” And it worked great. The attitude and the energy that the ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE has is great. I love it. I would have like to have gone in and polished up a few thing on that in the hindsight, but that wasn’t the plan. The plan was to go in and capture it as live as we could and get that energy and in turn which Kevin did with this record but with Nick, we wanted that little bit of extra time, we wanted to go…  I’m going to let this guitar slow down, but I’m going to go home tonight and I’m going to listen to it and maybe change it tomorrow. I’m going to do the vocals on this track and then I’m going to… I’m not sure with that last verse, I want to rewrite it and then we will try it again tomorrow. So, you’ve got time to work on it and play and agree with the songs. There is also a ton of pre-production done and Nick came in and did a week of pre-production where he completely… We played a song and he’d take it apart, some were left the way they were but a lot of them got re-contracted and totally changed and moved around. He’s very much hands-on that way, full-on member of the band when he’s working with you. Very emotional, very passionate and just a complete music nerd. Even when you are not working and you are taking a break he’s got a record player in the studio, a Sweet album would be on or a fucking Kiss album would be on. Then you master an album, it just worked on, would be on it. It was like there was no like; I need to rest my ears. It was like; fucking, I just love music and that’s very infectious. It sounds like the right way to work.    

Rick Warwick:    It is.

DSC_1233Black Star Riders in Helsinki 2013

EVOLUTION The band has now been together for three years. You’ve done tons of shows and know each other inside out. What was the biggest difference in making this album compared to the first one?

Damon Johnson: I think the biggest change is just the confidence that we had that we can do this. We felt like we had good songs on the first album, but we had no idea if any audience was going to care. We just didn’t, we were coming out of the Thin Lizzy thing and there had been so much said about that and done about that. Now there is none of that, there has been total support not only by the Thin Lizzy fan base but by just the rock community in general. They have been incredible to us. So, that just gave us a lot of confidence that maybe we didn’t have as much of on the first album. That pushed us to write better song and then once Nick got interested and wanted to participate. That pushed us even more like; wow! This guy, he’s really special. So we want impress him as well. It would be amazing if it just happened like that every hour. That we can just go off and write some songs, Scott brings in some riffs and we just assemble it. We don’t even make demos ever again and then we just go in with Nick and go; alright, we are going to play you 20 songs. Here we go, check them out. Which 10 should we record? Very, very different in that respect on this album versus the last one. I know that it’s you and Damon who do most of the writing for Black Star Riders but how much do the other band members take part in writing and the creative process?

Ricky Warwick: It’s really just me and Damon to be honest with you, we don’t want take anything off from the others but actually it’s just how it goes down. We write the bulk of the stuff, Scott will come in with like the song “Soldierstown” was a killer Scott Gorham riff. He was just walking in and go; “Hey! I got this” and we were just like “What? “ It’s real testimony that he believes in us, he’ll say; here, I got this for you guys and we go give it a shot, will take it away and will say; hey! This is what we have done with it. Most of the time, I love it, it’s great. Certainly we do play Scott everything that we are coming up with as well and go; this is what we are working on. What do you think? If Scott is not digging it, isn’t into it probably won’t go much further. But he’ll come in and he’ll make a suggestion and he usually just help, chord change or an arrangement change like that. But once we feel we’ve got the songs to what we think is almost finished state, then we will say “Jimmy and Robbie check this out. What do you think? What can you add to this? Put your magic in this”. I think just getting in with Robbie, Robbie has only just joined the band. I think Robbie will certainly bring in some ideas to the next record. I was going to ask, how is Robbie’s Thin Lizzy past? “Laughs”.

Ricky Warwick: He is a big fan, a big fan. When he came down to audition for us he played “The Boys Are Back in Town” and Scott said that is the closest he’d ever felt since Phil played it. That’s pretty huge comment right there and straight away we knew he was the guy.

Damon Johnson: But we are the same and just to touch on back to the previous question you had. There was a period that the guys were very expressive with some quality ideas and that was the one week that we were in pre-production, when we were showing them the songs and we were working them up as a full band.

Ricky Warwick: Yeah, because Jimmy plays phenomenal, his drum parts are phenomenal. Robbie’s bass playing is phenomenal and then that makes those songs.  I’m not saying that they do not contribute. Fuck, they contribute a lot. But we were just come in and go; here it is on the acoustic guitar.

Damon Johnson: We want to make it easy for them, we want to say; look, here is a full song. Top to bottom arrangement, lyrics and parts. Let’s make it sound like Black Star Riders. It can’t sound like that without them, but a perfect example is like “Through the Motions”. When Jimmy suggested changing the swing of that riff, we put it in a difference place on the beat. Man! It just took it to a whole different place. Same thing with Scott, Ricky and I have a song that we are very passionate about that made the record called “Charlie I Gotta Go” and as we were playing it Scott goes; Robbie, maybe you can play this part with the bass and he played this one lick and we were like; fuck dude! That needs to be a guitar part. The whole band needs to play that part, that’s killer. And all over sudden man, now it sounds like a bad ass Rock N Roll band; all because Scott just came out with this simple idea. For me that’s when I get really excited… when we work it up with the band. So, electric guitars full-on. Man! Fuck, I can do that all day, every day. When you now mentioned Thin Lizzy, I have to ask…. how much does Black Star Riders live in Thin Lizzy’s shadow?

Ricky Warwick: We will always live with it and I think it’s always going to be there, and that’s okay. That’s more than okay for me personally. I love Thin Lizzy and I love that band. We’ve got Scott Gorham in our band, so it’s always going to be there. But I know what you are saying, your question. It’s a very relative question. I think people are accepting fact that we are establishing Black Star Riders and giving it its own identity. I actually had an email from a guy one day, that I know is a huge Lizzy fan and he’s a DJ. He said; “I want to drop you a line and let you know, congratulations. You guys are going to be really making this thing your own identity”. I went; “That’s really cool if you say so!” If he noticed it, he says; you guys are… You are now establishing this band and not having to rely on Thin Lizzy, but it’s certainly not having to rely on Thin Lizzy as much as we did maybe in the first album or just going out there because we were nervous. Have you ever thought that it was a mistake to set up first the new version of Thin Lizzy because instead you would have been able to directly to form this new band?

Ricky Warwick: No. I always felt it was the right decision. Once we agreed to do that, there was sort of weight that was lifted off my shoulders personally. I just felt it was right. I just felt this was the right thing to do. You certainly know. You don’t know, but I would be funny knowing… Know if we made a Thin Lizzy album with my name on it as a lead singer. I don’t think I would sit very well in it now, to be honest with you. No matter how great that album was, I think I’d be like. Lizzy is Phil, that’s the guy. That’s the guy; it’s always been the guy. I don’t think of Thin Lizzy, I don’t see it in my mind with me singing. I see it back in the day with Phil, that’s the right picture in my head. And that’s the way it should be seen.

DSC_1082Damon and Scott on stage 2013

TRACK BY TRACK I have listened to the album maybe five times and I have chosen a few selected songs which are my favorites on the album. “The Killer Instinct” is definitely one of those but “Soldierstown” is another gem there.

Ricky Warwick: “Soldierstown” is based around a folk riff. And it’s based around the Irish cultural Celtic thing that I grew up with and Lizzy grew up with, and it is a part of our small or big fans of it and it’s something that we like to keep. We are big fans of that Celtic rock vibe. Gary Moore was much into that thing as well and Horselips, Rick Gallagher and all those bands. It’s great song. I love that stuff. How about “Blindsided”? It is really different track from you and it sounds like a mix of US AOR and some early 70’s stuff.

Damon Johnson: I was certainly a champion for that song, the very instant I heard Ricky put those two chords together the way he played them. It was played in such a way, because I play a lot of guitar and I listen to as much folk music as I do rock music. But the way he played those two chords, it was like someone struck me with something. It was like; “What! What is that?” He was; “It was just this thing I had from my solo album, I don’t know?” And I said; “We are fucking…

Ricky Warwick: Because it used to be fast, it used to be… As you can imagine.

Damon Johnson: You didn’t play it fast

Ricky Warwick: No. Because I slowed it down.

Damon Johnson: Yeah, he was just messing around and I said; “Well, we have to work on that” I said; “You got to remember that or do I need to go get my recorder”. He said; “No, I’ll remember it.” When I first heard it, it sounded like “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd. It sounded like that with some of the great like Southern music that I grew up with, there is a great Lynyrd Skynyrd song called “Tuesday’s Gone” and that has that same guidance, that same heartbeat. When this guy came up with this lyric for it, I still can’t believe that we came up with something as quality as that. It is my favorite song on the record and I don’t know that I will ever tired up listening to it, the lyric just takes me away every time. I think it’s going to touch people the same way as a lyric like “Tuesday’s Gone”, as a lyric like “Civil War” by Guns N’ Roses. There is an epic quality to it. Is it a ballad? Yeah, but it’s an epic. There is a difference, it’s not a power ballad. It’s a great story. You’re right. I can feel the spirit of Lynyrd Skynyrd on that song.

Damon Johnson: You said Lynyrd Skynyrd? That’s great man. Last but not the least is “You Little Liar” and…. that is one epic song. It’s not that commercial but I would say that it’s probably the best song you have written so far.

Damon Johnson: That’s exactly it man. That’s exciting that someone like yourself said it. Got to give Nick some credit on that song. When we first brought it to him, it was much more the three and a half minute, boom, boom Rock N Roll song. When he had Jimmy break the drums down to this, all over sudden Ricky started singing it in a completely different way. I just said; “Now it’s like a stoner anthem”, it was so great. And the story Ricky is telling is compelling and there is some bad ass guitar in the middle, in the end. Made my favorite piece that Scott played on the whole record, the outro, that’s him that starts that real epic grand. It was like a Brian made the thing, it’s so good. I’m glad you picked it…

Ricky Warwick: It’s great you picked up on that song, yeah. There are even some Hammond sounds on the track.

Ricky Warwick: It is as B3, is it?

Damon Johnson: Yeah. Who played the keys on the album?

Damon Johnson: That was Nick. It was just a mellotron, but it was the organ sound that we dig up on the old mellotron. It was a great instrument. Those were the four of my favorites on the album but “Bullet Blues” deserves a special mention as well because it sounds like Motorhead playing blues “Laughs”

Damon Johnson: I’ll take that, that’s great.


SPLIT WITH MARCO MENDOZA I know that Robbie is great bass player but whatever happened with Marco Mendoza?

Ricky Warwick: He didn’t like catering. He just couldn’t get enough sushi “Laughs”.  Marco was the man of many moves and he’s always moving and he’s always rolling and he’s always moving and shaking. He’s always got a lot of things going on. He had a couple of offers on the table and I think he preferred to be in the Dead Daisies rather than the Black Star Riders. I think he felt more at home there, just musically and spiritually. In fact we knew he wasn’t on this, we knew he wasn’t happy long before he said; “Hey guys, I want to leave”. We were like; this was going to happen at some point. We just got that vibe and there was nothing bad and he just said; “Guys, I’m going to do this American tour. I hope you guys find somebody else, if somebody wants to come down and use my gear and sound check and whatever. I want you know that I’m happy to do that”. That’s what happened, when Robbie came down in LA and used Marco’s gear and actually the first tour we did Marco loaned Robbie his bass rack, it was already over in the UK. I just think that Marco… if he feel that he gets in the band situation, he’s been there long 18 months. He kind of, you can see him start look around and he’s never really been in a band for that length of time. I think he just wanted to move on. In fact, every time I have met him, he’s been on tour with a different band. “Laughs”

Ricky Warwick: There you go. That’s fine, that’s great. But he let us know, he gave us plenty of warning, didn’t leave us in the shit. He just said; “Thanks guys, I love you but I want to go and do Dead Daisies and do my solo stuff” and whatever. We were like; that’s cool, that’s fine. Because we could feel it coming too and I think we were kind of, maybe this is best for everybody concern. Then getting Robbie and who is also a big personality. But Robbie has been in a couple of bands, he was in Ratt for over 12 years. So, he’s very loyal. He wasn’t really playing when he got the call to come down and try out first, he was kind of saying maybe I’m done with touring and stuff like that. He loved ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE so much, that’s what fired him up. But Robbie is a much more aggressive bass player, his bass is down on his knees, you know. He’s got a new aggressive side and fits Black Star Riders. I remember seeing Robbie playing with Ratt and Lynch Mob in the past.

Ricky Warwick: Yeah. He just fitted straight away. So, you are replacing one big personality with another big personality. They both are phenomenal bass players and they are both different players but Robbie’s sound and his attitude is perfect for Black Star Riders. Speaking of line-up changes, what if Scott someday announces that he’s going to retire. What will happen with the Black Star Riders in that case?

Ricky Warwick: That’s a great question. We don’t know. Who knows? I like to think that we could continue, maybe we can maybe we can’t. I don’t know. But it would be nice to be in a situation where we have that choice where the band has established enough, if Scott does want to hang up his guitar at some point; let’s hope to God he never does. But we can go; maybe we can still continue here, maybe we can still forge ahead. Who knows? But would be great to be able to take, we can still keep going if we want to or maybe it’s time, maybe that’s the time for all of us to stop this. I don’t know. I think Scott will keep playing until he mentally and physically can’t anymore. I think that could be 10 years down the line, 15 most. He lives for it, Scott doesn’t have any children and this is it, he’s passionate about this. He gets excited and when we are going on the road he gets bored, when we don’t. That keeps him young and keeps him going.

DSC_0845Damon, Ricky and Marco Mendoza playing acoustic songs in fan M&G 2013

THIN LIZZY TALK It’s been a year and a half since you did the last shows with Thin Lizzy.

Ricky Warwick: Yeah that was Australia with Kiss, your favorite band, and Motley Crue. You have said in many interviews that Thin Lizzy might play some selected gigs in the future. Is that still going to happen?

Ricky Warwick: That’s still a possibility, but we need to do the right thing. We need to be the right show, we need to be the right situation and we have been so busy with Black Star Riders that we are focused on that. That’s where the desire is. I think Scott would like to do a couple of one-offs at some point, and obviously he’s our boy and will be there to support him if that’s the case. But I think yeah, I’m more than happy. I look like how it was great with Thin Lizzy and if it doesn’t happen I’m fine with it as we’ve got Black Star Riders.

Damon Johnson: The component of that is all of us have been in projects and we never ever want Black Star Riders to be in project, from the first conversation it was a real band with commitment to building it. We just know from our experience of the past, that to give this a fair shot, we have to give it a 100%. We know it will be tough, but things have worked out great. We feel like just a momentum, there is some positive energy. So, we want to continue that. It’s hard for any band right now, and we feel very blessed for lack of a better word. A lot of things are working in our favor, the way things happen with the album, getting Nick onboard and the quality of the songs. There is something in the universe saying that you guys are doing what you should be doing.

_AAZ7073Thin Lizzy live at Hammersmith Odeon 2011

THE FUTURE PLANS KILLER INSTINCT is out in March and after that do a lot of touring in the U.K. But what you’re going to do after that?

Damon Johnson: We will tour more. We are booking dates as we speak on these festivals and we are doing some stuff in the States and we’ve got an album to promote. The idea is to stay out on the road as much as we can and we are putting that together right now. We will definitely come to Finland.  Do you have plans to shoot any promotional videos?

Ricky Warwick: Yeah, definitely. We want to shoot one in January in London. From which song?

Ricky Warwick: We will probably shoot two videos. We will probably do “Killer Instinct” and I think the second single is going to be “Finest Hour”. So, we will probably do those two. We are going to do those two videos in January.

Damon Johnson: We are committed to making performance video this time, good color. People really see the band. YouTube is a powerful tool; it’s even more powerful than it was two years ago. We need to let people see what this band is, because that’s what all three of us do. If somebody says; we need to check out so and so. You go straight to YouTube, you type it and whatever the first video is it shows up. You hit that; this one had the most views. We need a bad ass video that shows the power and the passion of this band, and I know we can do that with “Killer Instinct” and “Finest Hour”. What people can like use those to really finding the kind of statement, piece of video that they can watch and go; yeah. Thank you guys.




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