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Damon Johnson Left Alice Cooper to Play with Thin Lizzy; Here's Why

Damon Johnson
Damon Johnson
Courtesy of MIM

The name Damon Johnson may not ring a bell automatically, even if you are a hardcore rock 'n' roll fan. But this Alabama-bred guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter has been a part of rock's favorite acts. His band, Brother Cane, released three albums and two number one singles on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, as well as toured with Van Halen, Aerosmith, Robert Plant and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

In 2006, he was a part of the country music group Whiskey Falls and then was hired as a guitarist for Alice Cooper for two stints, from 2004 to 2007 and again from 2009 to 2011. He contributed songwriting and guitar duties to Sammy Hagar, Stevie Nicks, Ted Nugent, Carlos Santana, and Faith Hill and has released two solo albums, with one featuring a duet with his daughter and a guest appearance by Alice Cooper on the harmonica and vocals.

But in September 2011, Johnson was given the opportunity of his lifetime.

As a longtime Thin Lizzy fan, he was asked to join the band as full-time guitarist. At that point though, the last lineup of the legendary band decided to record new material under a different name, sort of like the "next evolution of Thin Lizzy."

So Thin Lizzy alumni Ricky Warwick (guitar, vocals), Johnson (guitar), Marco Mendoza (bass) and the addition of drummer Jimmy Degrasso (Alice Cooper, Megadeth, Suicidal Tendency) decided to found Black Star Riders. The band released its debut album in 2013, and the response from old Thin Lizzy fans and new fans of hard rock was positive and enthusiastic -- to say the least.

Damon Johnson playing with Alice Cooper
Damon Johnson playing with Alice Cooper
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But Johnson seems to be just getting started on his career. He says he will never, ever tire of switching from electric to acoustic guitar tours. He has endless stories about rock stars, and he just moved to Nashville, where you can't even return your cable box without running into a talented musician to collaborate with. Oh, yeah, and he hopes that he'll still be performing when he's 72 years old, like Paul McCartney.

So how is this solo tour fit into your schedule?

Basically, the way my calendar -- or my year generally -- works is that, whether it was with my time in Alice Cooper or when I joined Thin Lizzy two years ago and that band kind of morphed in my band now Black Star Riders, we'll be doing stuff usually in the summer and the fall. So, during the first part of every year, I love that I can go out and play some acoustic and solo shows.

I enjoy that work so much, and it is so fun to cultivate that and make a few new fans. I've put out two solo acoustic CDs in the past 10 years, and they were both so much fun. There was never any intent to take over the world or anything like that. [Laughs] It's just been really fulfilling, and I feel so fortunate that I can stand up there with an acoustic guitar and play some of my favorite songs I've written, songs from bands I've been a part of, or even play my favorite Bob Seger song or Bob Dylan song.  

On what basis do you create the set list? What can Phoenix fans expect?

That's a great question, and the interesting thing about my answer is that I never even make a set list. That's part of the biggest fun for me . . . I generally start the show with one or two songs, in particular, that I know will be good to set the tone. Then I read the room, and in a lot of these instances, I'm playing for people that are longtime fans, friends, or even family members.

I try to be accessible and talk to people before the show. The thing about the show in Phoenix is [that the Musical Instrument Museum] is such an amazing venue. There isn't a bad seat in the house and the sound quality is amazing. I've had a big red star on my calendar for a few months on this date.

Have you had a chance to explore the Musical Instrument Museum?

No, I haven't, but we're actually coming into town a day early and see the place and meet some people at the venue. Hopefully, we'll have a little time to look around.

So the Black Star Riders are working on a new album right now, correct?

We just started writing some new songs. We're just trying to stay ahead of the calendar right now. We had a really big tour in Europe at the end of 2013, and we're in the process of booking our U.S. tour this year -- for April to May, I think. Then we'll do Japan and some of the festivals in Europe. If we could have our way, we'd be in the studio recording our new album in September.

We just learn through our accumulative years in the business that if we go into the studio prepared, it takes the stress off when it comes time to write that check to the studio and hire the producers and engineers. Ricky, my singer, he was here at my house in Nashville last week and we wrote seven or eight brand-new songs. We love to write.

What's the next evolution from All Hell Breaks Loose?

Well, we could not have been happier and more proud of that first album and certainly of the reaction that we got from the fans, particularly the die-hard Thin Lizzy fan base that exists in Europe. That's really where that band's biggest audience has been. That kind of excitement and support has been very inspiring for us. I don't know that we really would've changed the direction.

I think we'd like to show more diversity on the second album. We want to keep the guitars up front. Ricky is such a great storyteller, and he learned how to write songs, as did I, in the style of the original Thin Lizzy band. They were such a classic band back in the '70s, with great songs like the "Boys Are Back in Town" and "Jailbreak." Those songs changed my life, and it's the same for Ricky. We feel like that we are definitely qualified to be the band that would have evolved out of the 21st-century version of Thin Lizzy. And we don't take that support lightly, so we want to continue to give our fans [good music] and win new fans.

What are some of your favorite songs to play on stage that you always incorporate?

I really love to play the material on my latest acoustic album. I put that CD out two years ago and it's called Release. Within the context of those 14 songs, some of the songs I've written or co-written over the last five or six years, I just feel great about those songs. There are some real . . . nuggets of surprise on that CD. I've had two songs that were recorded by some famous artists.

There was one with Stevie Nicks back in 2003 called "Every Day," and I put my more acoustic version of that song on my CD. Then in 2007, I had a song on a Carlos Santana album called "Just Feel Better." And that was a radio hit song. Steven Tyler from Aerosmith sang lead vocals on that. And that was a crazy honor for me.

So I love to play those songs live and tell the story a bit about how they all went down. It was so cool to get a phone call one day that Carlos Santana was going to record one of my songs. I don't think I've gotten over that yet. [Laughs]

And it seems fans enjoy the aspects of that album. I also love to play a few Alice Cooper songs, which will obviously be a big deal this weekend in Phoenix, as he is a resident of your fair city. And people also love to hear my Thin Lizzy stories, since I grew up as a kid loving them as a band and was then asked to be a member of the band on the guitar. You can't script something like that; it's like that movie Rock Star. But I don't mind if people ask questions during the performance. I like the presentation of my acoustic show and I'm always thinking two or three songs ahead.

Yeah, I was going to ask about your collaborations with artists like Faith Hill, Ted Nugent, Sammy Hagar. You probably have a lot of stories you indulge on stage?

There's no shortage of stories about rock stars. And again, people enjoy hearing those stories. And I always come back to the fact that these people are really successful because, really and truly, they are just like you and me. They love music, they work really hard, and I've found that almost, to a person, they are very grateful and kind and giving.

Not only with their talents but also their time, and allowing other people to participate in that success. That's been a real significant philosophy for me to be able to observe and understand. And I certainly hope that I can continue that in my own small way in giving that to my audience, friends, and fellow musicians. That's what I love about living in Nashville. My family and I just moved here last summer, and it's just such an incredible network and gathering of so many talented people.

It's cool to just pick up the phone and call . . . like Alice Cooper's producer, Bob Ezrin. I mean Bob is a legend and to be able to call him and say, 'Let's get coffee!' It's so great. If you would've told me that was gonna happen when I was 13, I would've lost that bet.

I was in Nashville last year covering Bonnaroo, and I've never been in a city that was so musically and historically rich. Especially checking out the studios and museums.

Yeah, it really is. It doesn't matter where you go. There's someone in your peripheral that is a songwriter or performer, guaranteed. Literally, I took my cable box back to get it exchanged, and I'm standing in line and struck up a conversation with a stranger, and they say they are a songwriter. So you exchange numbers and they send you a song and you're like, "Wow! You're really good!" I don't know if there is another city like Nashville on the planet, for sure.

Was there any other factor that influenced your decision to leave Alice Cooper's band in 2011 to go to Thin Lizzy? Besides the fact that they were your favorite band?

I gotta say that Alice and Sheryl, his wife, and his kids are absolutely my extended family. I could not have more love for another group of people than I do for the Coopers. And Alice really took a chance on me when he gave me a job back in 2004. Most of the guys he had in his band were all West Coast-based or from New York and had impressive résumés. And then here was this guy showing up from Alabama in jeans and a T-shirt on a day when everyone else looked like they were going to a Guns N' Roses video shoot. Being a part of his band changed my life.

But when I left Alice to join Thin Lizzy, I told him that he could call me if he needed anything -- like, if a guitarist gets sick -- and that's exactly what happened this past summer. One of the guys in the band had his first child -- a great reason to be at home -- and Alice called me up to fill in for a few weeks.

You know, when I got the call to join Thin Lizzy, Alice was my next phone call. And the instant he heard, he told me, "Damon, you have to do this! You've been in my band for six years and all you ever talk about besides Lynyrd Skynyrd is Thin Lizzy!' [Laughs] He could not have been more supportive and gracious and more amazing. I don't think I would've been prepared for an opportunity like Thin Lizzy if I hadn't had the experience of playing with Alice. He taught me about being prepared, putting a show together . . . it really grew my confidence. He made me much more of a professional than when I first joined. I guess that was 10 years ago. Crazy!

Some guitarists only take the instrument out of the case when it's time to tour; others seem like they never put it down. Where do you fall?

I'm definitely one of those guys that never puts it down. And that goes back to what we started talking about earlier. Electric guitar in a band versus acoustic shows; I am so in love with that diversity and being able to do them both. It would be impossible to ever really fatigue doing one of the other all the time. It renews my excitement to do one or the other.

We did nine weeks in Europe with Black Star, so I had my Les Paul and the amps, the cords and the lights, and it was fantastic. Then I come back home and switch gears to the acoustic, and you sort of fall in love with that all over again. So I have one or two things that I'm doing in between now and April when Black Star gets together, but I assure you, when I pull that Les Paul out of the case and strap it on, it will be euphoric in its own way. But I've always got the guitar on Lauren. There's one sitting next to me in the chair and another one downstairs because I tracking a new song last night.

Man, I'd love to be doing this when I'm 72, like Paul McCartney. You know, I have kids of my own and I'm hoping my oldest daughter will give me grandkids one of these days. And you always hope that you can pass something on to your kids, you know? Or at least set that example. I know they are paying attention, too, because they ask about it. I took my 9-year-old son to one of my acoustic shows in Tennessee last week. We had the best time -- milkshakes, cheeseburgers, staying in the big hotel. He loved it. I'm sure his wheels are spinning like, "I gotta figure out how to do that when I grow up!"

Damon Johnson is scheduled to perform on Saturday, February 22, at the Musical Instrument Museum.

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Musical Instrument Museum Music Theater

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