HARD ACT TO FOLLOW: DAMON JOHNSON TOPS HIMSELF WITH MEMOIRS OF AN UPRISING
BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
“The entire body of Memoirs of an Uprising is really, for me, all about the lyrics. I had so much fun playing guitar on these tracks, but to tell you the truth the guitar was almost, like, secondary. Lyric writing is hard, and especially when you’re really trying to dig down deep. This record has that, and I’m so proud of that.”
Planting the solo seed after decades of topping the charts and touring the world, in and with, some of the most successful bands on the planet, former Brother Cane, Alice Cooper band, Thin Lizzy and Black Star Riders member Damon Johnson is ready to be his own bread maker. His new solo album Memoirs of an Uprising, available now, is packed with ten top shelf tracks. Hungry to look for something more, Johnson serves up songs that shed light on the truth – his truth – both personal and professional.
It had been decades since Johnson, and I had spoken. Though how long really didn’t matter. As you’ll read, it seemed as if it had only been yesterday. Johnson plans to spend a lot of time on the road supporting his solo set. Official tour dates to be announced soon.
Damon Johnson! You don’t call, you don’t write (laughs)!
(Laughs) You know what, it’s totally my fault, brother. I’ve been spending far too much time out of the country for the last seven or eight years. It’s great to hear your voice.
Likewise. I hope you got your seatbelt on because I’ve got a bunch of stuff I wanna talk to you about.
Ah, lay it on me, Jim, I’ve been really looking forward to this, brother. Great to hear your voice. Thank you for your time.
Anytime, brother. Well, let me kick off this conversation by tossing out a couple of “F” words. How’s that? Cool?
You got it. Lay it on me.
Family and future. Tell me how those two words factored into your decision, first and foremost, to put the band Black Star Riders on the shelf for now.
I’ve been so proud to be a part of that band. I joined Thin Lizzy in 2011 and was there for a couple of years, and then we thought a minute about calling it Thin Lizzy, but cooler heads prevailed. We decided to put it out under a different name. And I knew that it was the right thing to do, ethically, spiritually. But I also knew it was gonna make things really tough to kinda be out there trying to build a band from a name there’s no reference to and no awareness of. As I think you maybe read, we were on tour with Judas Priest last year. As far as that, it was going great. And I just felt that if I continued to do another record – which would be the fourth album – I felt deep inside that it would probably be more of the same. And we hadn’t really been able to move the needle very much in North America. And then when you add to that, I’ve got two young kids. I’ve got a ten-year-old daughter, a 14-year-old son. I have older kids from my first marriage, Jim, so I know clearly what that is like. So, when you add to that, I was sitting on this new record. It was coming together quickly. I was excited about the songs. I felt very resolved. I had no hesitation. I was like, it’s time. It’s time for me to move forward and chart my own course.
New chapter. Let’s talk more about this new music, this new record, Memoirs of an Uprising. The first single is the roof-raising “Shivering, Shivering.” So, there are riffs, and then there are riffs! (Laughs)
This song leaves great songs like Def Leppard’s “Photograph” in its dust. Tell me about this track.
Well, that’s a tremendous comparison, Jim. This is the perfect moment for me to talk about my collaborator on this record. He’s a longtime dear friend and another music junkie like myself. His name is Jim Troglen. We kinda came up in the Birmingham music scene together. We met way back in the early 90’s at the beginning of the Brother Cane days. I knew I wanted to make another record. I knew I had some stuff. Plenty of things to at least get started with. There was a specific moment that I sent him some things to read over. It couldn’t have been more than a couple of days – maybe the very next day – he sends me a little voice memo with a little more of a developed seed of what would become “Shivering, Shivering.” And when I heard it, Jim, I heard the entire track in my mind. I got super excited, and it truly turned out to be the first track on the album, the first single from the album. It’s the song that everyone really reacted to in my inner circle when I started playing some of the stuff. So, it’s just one of those songs, Jim. I’m really proud of it.
Any station not playing this song shouldn’t call itself a rock station.
Thank you, Jim. You know what, I say this with as much humility as I can muster, but I completely agree with you, man.
Let me ask you about track three on the record, “Down on Me.” It sounds kinda like a sonic cousin of Guns N’ Roses’ “Mr. Brownstone.”
Well, there’s no denying I’ve always spoken proudly and loudly about the impact GN’R had on me in the early days. When Guns N’ Roses came along in 1987, it was a seismic event for me. So, for you to draw a comparison between “Down on Me” and GN’R is about as monumental of a compliment as anybody could give. I appreciate that.
I’m gonna make one more reference here in our conversation to another band. I wanted to also let you know that the way I’m phrasing these questions comes from the fact that I’m a segue guy. I’m a segue guy because I’m thinking when I hear a song, it’s like, what’s next? And that comes from being a producer, as you know in my Rockline days, and as well as several years as the Music Director at KLOS. All that said, “Rage with Me” is the other one I wanna talk to you about. I would schedule Foo Fighters’ “The Pretender” right after that. Would you have a problem with that, Damon?
(Laughs). I would not have any problem with that! Most of us guys that love guitars and melodies in the vocal, we’re so grateful for a band like the Foo Fighters. A great rock and roll band. I don’t know that I was ever really thinking much about what some of the references were, the inspirations were. We were just trying to write good songs that were telling stories. I just wanna write songs that I love. I wanna write songs that I’d wanna hear, that I can play it in my truck and enjoy it. If I wasn’t “the artist” I’d be a fan of this record and I would go buy it today (laughs).
You would be a smart man if you did so. Let me ask you about another great track on here, “The World Keeps Spinning Round.” The line that jumped out on me is, “Our scars will be showing/These wall will keep closing/We’ll keep on getting’ out while the world keeps spinning round.” Did I get that right?
You nailed it, brother! That’s exactly right.
Unpack that for me.
Wow! That’s a biggie. That’s a big one right there, man. Relationships are gonna always hit peaks and valleys, and sometimes when you’re in the valley you’re struggling, you’re pointing the finger, you’re maybe even thinking about jumping ship. Like, wow, this is a lot of work. I wish I didn’t have to deal with this, or I don’t wanna deal with this. It’ a reminder that no matter what choice you make – to stick in and figure it out and get through it, or to bail and jump ship – the only people it’s gonna affect are you. The world will continue to spin. Nobody else is gonna know or care, because they’ve got their own closing walls, and they got their own scars they’re trying to deal with. I’ve specifically sequenced that song at that moment in the record to kind of tell the story that our hero, the protagonist in kind of all of these songs, he’s not just at the crossroads. He can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. In that song. And he’s realizing it’s just you and me. This is up to us to figure this out and get through it.
Well, I already confessed to being a segue guy, Damon. I’m also a lyric guy.
You just proved that, Jim. Thanks for asking about that lyric in particular. That’s a special one.
It stood out to me. Amongst many, of course. I want to jump into the lyrics. It’s an important aspect of the music – the words – right?
Jim, it’s extra appreciated by myself on this occasion. Especially because when you and I first met, I think still – even though I was the frontman and writing the bulk of the lyrics in Brother Cane – it was still the guitar that was sorta my sword and shield. That was the thing that I had put in the years of practice with and felt super confident with. But, this new album, the entire body of Memoirs of an Uprising, is really for me, all about the lyrics. I had so much fun playing guitar on these tracks, but to tell you the truth the guitar was almost like secondary. Lyric writing is hard, and especially when you’re really trying to dig down deep. This record has that, and I’m so proud of that.
Mission accomplished. So, you’re talking about the guitar and the guitar playing. Wow! The solo on (the song) “Glorious.” Wow!
(Laughs) Aw, thank you, man. Thank you. Thank you, brother. Can I tell you a little story about “Glorious?” I haven’t really told this story to anyone, but “Glorious” is a song I wrote with my old pal Keri Kelli, who was the other guitarist in the Alice Cooper band with me. It was really this kinda simple, almost like a pop idea that he had. But, for whatever reason, it inspired this lyric for me that I carried around in my laptop for years and loved it. I really loved that lyric. Somehow it just kinda popped back up on my radar when I was putting this album together. I knew it wasn’t complete. It needed some energy. So, for you to talk about the guitar moment in that song “Glorious,” it makes me feel great because by the time we finished it, I was like, wow! I’m so happy that we stayed in it and kept working and tried to kind of wrestle it into something special. And a lot of my fans are giving me super great feedback about “Glorious.”
Yeah, that solo just soars, and when you think it peaked it continues, and that’s a very good thing. We mentioned the lyrics in the song. I believe there’s a line – and again correct me if I’m wrong – that asks, “Can we really have it all?”
So, now I’m asking: can you? Can we?
The answer is yes. And I feel like at this point in my life, in my career, where I’m at with my family, where I’m at as an artist, my ability to see the way forward and where I see myself going as an entertainer and a songwriter: the answer is yes! I feel like I have it all – for the first time maybe in my adult life, Jim. I really do. You know, rock and roll has been great to me, brother. All the amazing musicians that I have toured with, performed with, written with, recorded with. So much talent. So many great guys. And it’s hard when you’re in a band and you get that email and it says here is the dates for the summer. We’re gonna be gone for nine weeks! We might as well just go to the moon!
Time to move on. Next chapter. I’ve got two more questions for you, brother, and then I’ll let you go…for now. Hopefully, it won’t be as long next time we chat.
No, Jim. We’ll get some face time. I’m gonna be on the road a lot this year, and definitely coming coast-to-coast, so let’s get together. I’d love that.
Absolutely! So, I rarely ask anyone to explain the album title, but in this case my curiosity is strong.
Well, you know what, Jim, in a way the questions you’ve asked me today about specific songs and even some of the lyrics that you’ve mentioned, you’re kinda answering that question yourself. It is all contained within those songs you mentioned, and some of those lyrics. The whole thing just felt like a story. It didn’t start out that way. The sequence, track one to track ten, like you were talking about – you’re a segue guy – you know, I was thinking about that stuff. The running order just knocked me out. I felt so great about it, and early on I felt like, wow, this does sound like a memoir. It sounds like this character started out in some struggle, some betrayal, some anxiety, maybe some rage and thoughts of revenge, and some self-awareness and some looking inward and maybe open to making some change. And then at the end, he comes to a peaceful place, and the lyric in “Glorious” was the perfect exclamation point at the very end. Yes, we can have it all! It felt like the memoir of an uprising. And the uprising could be a person, it could be a couple. It could be a group of people. It could be a band. It could be an entire country, for that matter. It’s just a lot of power in that imagery.
Pun intended here, but the album does come to a glorious finale. Final question for you, and this is one that I don’t think you and I have discussed, and I bring up often in these conversations throughout the years, and that is what I refer to as the proverbial Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment. What’s yours? Was it a song that came on the radio? Was it an album that you heard? A concert you went to where you said, I need to do this for the rest of my life?
Is it possible to have two?
Because they happened within about six months of each other. I mentioned earlier that I grew up out in the country, in a rural area of northeast Alabama. I had to drive all the way to Huntsville or to Birmingham to see a big show. Well, in 1979, I was 15, I went to Huntsville with my friend. His dad dropped us off, and the opening act on the show that night was Thin Lizzy. And all I knew about Thin Lizzy was “The Boys are Back in Town.” And those guys came onstage, Jim, and I’d just never seen anything like it. You know, I was instantly captivated with this guy standing at the center of the stage (frontman Phil Lynott) with this bass guitar with a mirrored pick guard on it. And he was this black man with this badass Afro. And singing different and phrasing different. I just never heard anything like it. And then you got this guitar player (Scott Gorham) up there looking like a supermodel. You know, hair down to his ass and a Les Paul, just killing it! So, of course I went on to discover who it was, and the names of the guys and I started going down that rabbit hole. Well, about six months later we drove to Birmingham and e saw Van Halen. That would have been 1980. They were touring behind Women and Children First. It was a sonic blast into my skull and into my psyche like had never happened before, and it’s never happened since. There’s not really been anything to equal the impact of that. To inspire me. To like, hey man, that’s what I wanna do. I wanna do that! I’m going to do that! Whatever it takes, I gotta do that!
That’s great. Thanks for sharing both of those, because that ties it together. Alright man, I’ll let you go for now. Congratulations on this album. I just loved it from top to bottom.
Jim, that makes me so happy, brother! I mean that, thank you. All the best, Jim, thank you.