INTERVIEW AND LIVE PICTURES BY MARKO SYRJALA
Black Star Riders is a hard rock band formed in 2012 when members of Thin Lizzy’s most recent line-up decided to record new material and not release it under the Thin Lizzy name. Black Star Riders’ debut album ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE was released in 2013, followed by THE KILLER INSTINCT in 2015. Although Thin Lizzy continues on an occasional basis, Black Star Riders is now a full-time, hard-working band. The band, which currently consists of vocalist/guitarist Ricky Warwick, guitarists Scott Gorham and Damon Johnson, bassist Robbie Crane and drummer Jimmy DeGrasso, releases their third album, HEAVY FIRE, in early 2017. Ricky visited Finland a couple of weeks ago, and we discussed all matters related to the new album and the future of Thin Lizzy and some other things in life.
Well, first of all, big congrats on your brand new album. I just heard the whole album yesterday, and I need to admit that I’m totally impressed!
Ricky Warwick: Thank you. That’s great, thank you. It’s really good to hear.
My honest opinion is that although there is nothing wrong with the previous Black Star Riders albums, this one brings the band on a whole new level.
Ricky Warwick: I would agree with you totally, 100%. To me, it’s almost like our starting point; the two albums were getting us to this place. We’re Black Star Riders now. We’re not a band called Black Star Riders that play some songs and some Thin Lizzy songs. We’re very much our own band, and I think this is the best body of songs we’ve written. I think every song is really strong, and it just feels complete and feels like we have our own identity. Now when we go on the road, we have three albums worth of material to choose from.
So, it means that you can finally leave the Lizzy stuff out from the setlist?
Ricky Warwick: I think so, yeah. We’re already only playing maybe three or four on the last tour anyway. I think maybe on this one. One, two, maybe. Because Thin Lizzy is Thin Lizzy, obviously, we did a few Thin Lizzy festivals this year and shows, and that’s great. But this is Black Star Riders. I think it’s great that the songs are strong enough to stand on their own and do their own thing.
You’re finally got rid of the ghost of Lizzy?
Ricky Warwick: Yeah. I mean, it’s a good ghost to have, and it’s great that we have that and have Scott Gorham. At any point in time, we can go, hey. Let’s play a Lizzy song, and nobody has going to criticize us for it. That’s amazing to have that. But Black Star Riders have become so much more… When we first did it, we weren’t sure if it was going to work. If anybody was going to like it. If it was going to be successful, and it has been, and that’s great. So now we want to run with it, and we want to go even further.
There are many things on the new album that I just love—the songs, the sound, and the production sound just brilliant. I think was a great choice to continue working with Nick?
Ricky Warwick: Thank you. We worked with Nick Raskulinecz again because we really loved what he did on THE KILLER INSTINCT. We had a bit more time in the studio than last time. We had an extra seven days, which was great. We could go back and fix things and change things if we wanted to, which we did. We didn’t really have that luxury on the first two albums, and I think it shows this one. Nick’s wonderful, and Jay Ruston, who mixed it, is amazing as well; we love his work. So that’s a great team for us. We didn’t want to change him because we had successfully KILLER INSTINCT. We were like; we know these guys. We trust them, and they trust us, and they know what we’re good at and what we’re not so good at, vice-versa. So, we said, let’s do it again.
What’s really great thing on this new album are the new elements, like the 70’s style woman choir, which sounds just incredible!
Ricky Warwick: Thank you. That’s something that I’ve always really wanted to do and never really had the chance, and then with this record, there was just those kind of bluesy soulful songs, like “Ticket to Rise,” “When The Night Comes In,” “Testify or Say Goodbye,” which they are on. Nick was like, yeah. I know just the girls. Let’s get them in. On “Ticket to Rise,” it’s got that almost “Gimme Shelter” kind of backing vocals by The Stones, and I love it. I just love it. So, that’s great. The singers were amazing, and they were such beautiful singers in here and such amazing people. What a great day it was hanging out with them in the studio.
Does it mean that we might see the girls on tour with you?
Ricky Warwick: I don’t think we can afford to take them on the road full-time. But maybe in the big shows, we could get them to come down, which would be pretty cool.
It’s not only the woman choir but also plenty of other interesting elements on this album that I haven’t heard of your albums before. There are many influences from the 70’s and different musical styles starting from the riffs, harmonies, and melodies.
Ricky Warwick: Yeah. I listen to a lot of soul, and I listen to a lot of Northern soul. I get a lot of inspiration from that, and I have probably been listening to that more than ever. I’ve always been a fan of it. I’ve probably been listening to it now more than ever. I think the melodies are so strong in there, but it definitely affected my writing. I don’t want it to be very direct, and I wanted the melodies to be very strong. Almost like nursery rhymes, almost like they catch in your head, and they stick there. So that was a conscious thing, absolutely. We know what we’re good at, Black Star Riders. We’ve got these two great guitar players and Scott and Damon and the harmony guitars. But let’s make everything catchy. Make the verses catchy, the choruses even catchier.
I said there are so many things that I liked on the album. But there was one thing I wasn’t that impressed with, and it was the cover art. Would you say something about it?
Ricky Warwick: The cover? You don’t like the weight lifter dude? Come on, man! That’s great. Yeah. Listen, art is subjective, as we all know. So who is to say what’s right and what’s wrong? We want to have a bit of fun with it. When you see the whole cover with the pictures and everything. We went from a very thoughtful theme. This is a very early freak show from the early 20th Century with a side-show type of look. When you see the whole thing and the pictures of us, it will make more sense. But we just want… We thought, “Heavy Fire.” Let’s get him. Let’s get a guy to lift… Let’s just be direct and be living. Almost be literal and just go, that’s it, and we had great fun.
I have only seen a stamp size picture of the cover, so maybe it looks better on the vinyl cover “Laughs.”
Ricky Warwick: Right, right. I think when you see the whole thing, it will make more sense.
However, I loved that previous album pin-up girl cover more “laughs.”
Ricky Warwick: Right, yeah. We felt we’d gone as far as we could with that, and it was time for a change.
What makes Black Star Riders very different from most bands today is that you release new material and albums very often. So the question goes, are you just very productive guys, or do you want to keep things fresh all the time?
Ricky Warwick: I think both. I think we want to keep moving forward as fast as we can. But we’re very productive; we write all the time. Yeah. We don’t need three, four years so we know we’re good to write songs. We’re always writing, and we are always working on ideas. So there is never… We can go and make an album every 12, 14 months.
That’s an old-school style to work, and it’s great if you ask me?
Ricky Warwick: The old-school style. You know what? Why not? Any other way is lazy. What else are you going to do? This is what I do, and this is my job. This is my life. So I get up every day, and I try and write. I try and work on it.
When people get older, they understand that everybody’s time is limited here, and there’s no time to waste. Have you ever been thinking that way?
Ricky Warwick: Yeah, I am as well. You’re absolutely right. I’m like, “Who knows how long I’ve got left to do this?” So, I want to make sure I can be as creative as I can with the time I have.
How about the commercial side of the business, how important the sales figures are for you?
Ricky Warwick: Important. I’d be lying if I said they weren’t. I know that they’re dwindling. I know most people don’t buy albums anymore. I understand that. I understand that the industry is changing. But it’s still nice when you get a good chart position, and we still need some to make a scene. We grew up with that. I grew up with that back in the ’70s and ’80s. So, it’s nice when the record company calls and says, “Hi guys! Your album has gone at number 13!” or 12 or whatever. As long as it gets heard, that’s the main thing for me. People are hearing it.
Many bands say that they did the new album only because they needed a reason to make another tour, but that’s not the thing with you?
Ricky Warwick: No. I’ll make an album because I love to write songs and I like to try and write new songs. I would never be so lazy just to go. Let’s just make an album so we can go on a tour that I will never do. Really, that’s crap. That’s silly, right there, “Laughs.”
Like we know, the album sales aren’t getting much better, and there is not much you can do about it. But fortunately, there are many new ways to promote and bring up yourself as you did with PledgeMusic.
Ricky Warwick: Yeah, yeah.
What kind of experience was it for you?
Ricky Warwick: It’s great. I think it’s great. I think it’s if you’re lucky enough to have a solid fan base, which we do. It’s fantastic because you’re dealing directly with the people that buy your albums and come to your shows, and this way, you can listen to what they want. React one-on-one with them, and record companies don’t pay the big advantage that you… I just did a double album, a solo album where they played a number… I would have never been able to do that on a record company budget alone these days. But the fans enabled me to do that and recorded the type of album I wanted and the studio that I wanted with the producer that I wanted. It’s a necessary evil, but I guess it’s great because I think they feel involved. I think you can listen to what they want. What they like, what they don’t like. I think it’s a genius way to go forward.
Do you think that things like PledgeMusic will become more common in the future and determine where the music business is going?
Ricky Warwick: I definitely think that you have to interact with your fans the way it is now with technology. Days when bands were like “don’t let them too close” are gone.
So, you’re saying that it’s definitely worth trying these new technologies?
Ricky Warwick: Yeah. I think it’s a good way. No. It’s not easy, and you have to… People are investing in you before they’ve heard a note of music played. So that’s a big ask to somebody. It’s like me going to you, going I’ve got this great business. Can you give me 10 pounds? And you go, “What is that?” I won’t tell you until you hear it. That’s a lot of trusts right there. So you have to make sure you’re getting good video updates, good content. As I said, make sure they’re involved even down with the artwork or decision-making or whatever. I think that’s the way to do it.
TRACK BY TRACK
There are 10 tracks on the album. Which are your personal favorites at the moment?
Ricky Warwick: Wow! At the moment… it changes every day. I think I really like the song “Who Rides the Tiger” at the minute. I just love the feel. I love the vibe of it. It’s so much in your face. I like the lyric. I like the meaning behind it. I think the solos between Scott and Damon at the end are just amazing. So, that’s the latest one, but tomorrow it might be something different “Laughs.”
What if we next go through the album track by track. Just comment on each song briefly.
Ricky Warwick: Yes, okay.
And let’s start with the title track, “Heavy Fire.”
Ricky Warwick: Yeah. I mean, that’s a song that obviously was the title track of the album. The lyric is about the state of the world, presidential run in America. When I was writing, it had a big effect on that, watching that freak show that was going on there. That song really came together in the studio quite a lot with Nick, working sort of the time change half-way through. Almost going kind of like Sabbath feel. That was a lot to do with Nick. It’s a great Scott Gorham riff to start the song off, and yeah. I think that song came out really, really well. It’s quite different for Black Star Riders, and I like it.
That song could be an ideal opening song on tour!
Ricky Warwick: I think we’re starting with that, and I don’t want to give the game away. But how can we not open with that? “Laughs”
Right. And next online, we have the first single, “When the Nights Comes In.”
Ricky Warwick: I think that’s very traditional Black Star Riders in your face, very simple chords. Very anthemic chorus. Having the girls on there was amazing—just a great big sort of in-your-face Rock and Roll song. I’m looking forward to playing that one live as well.
I think that it’s the catchiest song from you so far.
Ricky Warwick: Thank you.
Then we have “Dancing with the Wrong Girl”?
Ricky Warwick: Yeah. Maybe that’s the most Lizzy-sounding one in the record, just the chords and the riff. That’s one I wrote again quite early on, and I had the lyrical idea and the chords. I just pieced it together and sat down with Damon, and we finished putting the song together. It’s almost poppy, but the lyrical subject is actually quite dark behind it. That sounds happy, but it’s actually not a very happy song.
Your favorite “Who Rides the Tiger” is next. It does have quite critical, or should I say heavy lyrics on it?
Ricky Warwick: Yeah. Damon came on with the riff for the chorus, and it was great, and I picked the guitar up and wrote the verse riff behind it. I think the other riff was in it and had the idea of “Who Rides the Tiger.” I was getting very pissed off about all the shootings in America and the crazy gun laws. Where nobody seems to fucking care about it and the NRA is getting away with the murder unintended, and all hip-hop surrounds that. The second amendment is the right to bear arms, but it’s called an amendment. Because an amendment means you can change things. People seem to have forgotten that. So, a heavy lyric for a heavy riff.
Then we have “Cold War Love,” which is a kind of ballad type of song?
Ricky Warwick: Written for a friend of mine who was going through a rough time with his family, and it was written from my perspective looking at his situation and sort of saying, “Hey bro! Fight what you love and what you believe in”. So yeah. Yeah, it’s like that.
Then we have “Testify or Say Goodbye,” which is a very positive song with great vocals.
Ricky Warwick: Thank you. “Testify or Say Goodbye.” It’s a melodic song with really light guitars. It’s a very uplifting song, very positive. About standing up for yourself, believing in yourself. Saying what you feel, following your heart. A happy song for a change.
“Thinking About You Could Get Me Killed”
Ricky Warwick: Yeah. Again, that was just… I love the bass guitar at the start of that. It’s so great. It’s just a killer groove. It’s got a real kind of almost Clash guitars on it in verse, which is great. The song was based on a conversation I had with a homeless man in Los Angeles, and he was busy telling me about his life, and I kind of wrote the song based on that.
“True Blue Kid” is another song with some deeper lyrics on it.
Ricky Warwick: Yeah. Again, written for a friend of mine who had been in prison for five years for doing something bad, and he got out of prison. But he was a good guy and just got involved in something he shouldn’t have. He’s trying to put his life right and be good, but certain people around him want him to go back to how he is, and he’s trying to keep straight. I think it’s just about him dealing with that. He’s very loyal. He’s a very passionate guy. But he has these demons.
Right, okay, so it’s another personal song.
Ricky Warwick: Yeah, very personal. Yeah.
In a way, it’s a funny thing that this album’s feel change from positive to negative and back all the time?
Ricky Warwick: Yeah. They are all over the place, right. Yeah.
It’s like a rollercoaster.
Ricky Warwick: That’s cool. That’s cool, the way you’re putting it.
Yeah. Then we have “Ticket to Rise.”
Ricky Warwick: “Ticket to Rise” by The Beatles is my favorite song. By The Beatles, I love that song. I listened to it, and I just thought I sing “Ticket to Rise,” man. Wouldn’t it be cool if somebody said, here is the ticket. You can just rise above all that bullshit and be floating free, not have any stress or worries, and just feel great. I just sort of wrote it about… A little bit about my life in there. Mistakes that I have made and just know I’m older and I feel good and I’ve got a ticket to rise. I’ve got an opportunity to be a better person, and I’m going to take it, and again the girls are amazing on that. They really are. They made that song so good.
Then we have the very last song, “Letting Go,” which is my favorite album.
Ricky Warwick: “Letting Go of Me,” funny. Great story behind this. We came into the studio with 20 sons, and Nick Raskulinecz came in, and we played on the stuff, and he was like… We were finishing going through, and he says, you need to write one more song. I was like, fuck off. Really? That’s going to be 20 fucking songs, and I’m not writing another song. I sweated blood to write these songs. No, no. You need one more song. I’m like, fuck you. I don’t care you’ve worked with all these amazing bands. You’re wrong, and blah, blah. He’s no; I think you can write one more song. I was fuck. No! He leaves the studio, and I’m angry. I’m really fucking angry, and the guys go home to the hotel. I’m sitting in the studio, and I’m like, I’ll make my own way. I’m pissed. I’m really angry at Nick and blah, blah. Fuck off. I’ll show him. I’ll write him another fucking song, and I’ll write it about him. I picked up the guitar, and I wrote the song about basically being angry with Nick. About him making me write another song, which is the lyrics about. I played it, and the guys in the band went, that’s great. I played it, and Nick went, it’s great. It’s going on the album. I went; you did that on purpose. You tricked me, fucking tricked me. You bastard, and he did, and he’s a genius, and I love him for it. He knew me and knew that Irish temperament I have, and he was like, I’ll get this guy pissed off. He’s going to write me another song. It was a challenge, and I’m like anybody gives me a challenge, I’m like, okay. I’ll do it, and I did, and it’s great and kind of about me saying to somebody. I think you’re an asshole, and you annoy me, but secretly I know you’re right. Do you know what I mean? So, that’s it.
He just pushed the right buttons. “Laughs.”
Ricky Warwick: He won. Fucking won, man.
That’s a sign of a great producer.
Ricky Warwick: It is, and he won. I’m like; you won dude. Fucking played me, and he won.
TOUR PLANS AND SOME THIN LIZZY TALK
There’s, of course, one obvious question, and it’s about your future touring plans. When the actual tour will start, and what have you booked so far?
Ricky Warwick: Thank you for asking. We’ll start in the UK in March. We got a great bill over there, and we have Gun opening for us and Backyard Babies, which will be a lot of fun. Then we’re looking at festivals in the summer on European dates as well.
I heard that Sweden Rock is already confirmed?
Ricky Warwick: Sweden Rock is already confirmed. More dates are coming in. We’re looking at confirming some US dates in early May as well. I think it will be in three weeks in May in the US. And more dates will be as it goes be added.
Last summer, did you do a few gigs under the name of Thin Lizzy.
Ricky Warwick: Yes.
How you picked up the line-up, which was, should I say, interesting.
Ricky Warwick: Really, I would sit down with Scott, and Scott wanted it to be like a celebration of Thin Lizzy. It was decided we get a guest drummer and a guest bass player. So, we had some names. It was up to who wanted to do it, who was available. To end up with the guys that we got was amazing. I mean, Tom Hamilton, c’mon! What a fantastic guy he is.
And Scott Travis.
Ricky Warwick: And Scott as well, it was just brilliant. They were great to work with, and Ian Haugland played one show with us in Sweden, too, from Europe. Ian is an amazing drummer and a great guy. He’s a good friend of mine. So, it was great fun. It was just great to be playing Lizzy songs with all those guys. It was a lot of fun, a lot of fun.
When you announced the tour, you had first announced Mikkey Dee as your drummer, but he needed to step out because of his new gig.
Ricky Warwick: He got the Scorpions gig, yeah. Good old Mikkey. It would have been lovely to do the shows with him as well because Mikkey is great. But it was a great gig for Mikkey, the Scorpions.
It’s always great to hear Thin Lizzy classics, but of course, it would have even better if Brian Downey could have been involved as well. I heard he had some health problems, and that’s why he couldn’t do it this time?
Ricky Warwick: Yes. But I think he’s doing really good now. I haven’t spoken to him in a while, but I think he’s well now, and he’s okay. But I know he was ill for a little while there. But I think he’s fine now.
When was the last time you played shows as Thin Lizzy before this summer?
Ricky Warwick: It would have been 2013. The last Lizzy shows we did actually were with Brian, and everybody was in Australia. At the start of 2013 with Kiss and Motley Crue. That was the last show we did.
I heard that the summer shows were great, and people were eager to hear the old stuff again.
Ricky Warwick: Yeah.
So do you think that there will be more Thin Lizzy shows in the future?
Ricky Warwick: I think it will. I think it will happen again, maybe not next year because we’re so busy with Black Star Riders. Maybe in 2018. That’s really Scott’s thing, and it’s up to Scott, and I think he just wants to do two, three shows with Lizzy. Maybe no more tours?
That makes sense.
Ricky Warwick: It makes sense, right.
And I believe that it is the right way to provide more value to Thin Lizzy’s name?
Ricky Warwick: I think it does, and I think it makes it more of an event and a celebration and everything. We’re very much focused obviously on Black Star Riders, which is definitely the main thing for me.
That’s all by now, Ricky. Thank you, and see you on tour!
Ricky Warwick: Thank you, Marko.