His unique skills as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and entertainer have carried him around the world many times.
In 2011, an unattainable dream came true for Johnson as he became the guitarist for his greatest musical influence, the legendary Irish rock band, Thin Lizzy. The band will to be releasing new music, featuring Johnson’s songwriting and guitar skills, in early 2013.
Johnson first came on the national music scene in 1993 as the frontman, guitarist and principal songwriter for Brother Cane. The band released three albums on Virgin Records (the self titled debut which sold 250,000 copies, “Seeds,” and “Wishpool”) that would yield three 1 singles on rock radio (“Got No Shame,” “And Fools Shine On,” and “I Lie in the Bed I Make”). Brother Cane toured extensively as a headliner and also as a supporting act on tours by Van Halen, Aerosmith, Robert Plant, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Candlebox. After unsatisfactory performance on the part of their record label, the band asked to be released from their contract, and amicably disbanded in 2000.
Johnson continued to hone his songwriting chops, ultimately having his songs recorded by a wide array of artists: from Stevie Nicks to Carlos Santana, to Skid Row, Sammy Hagar, and Queensryche. He has also played guitar on recordings by Faith Hill, John Waite, Hagar, Ted Nugent, and even the legendary Temptations.
Damon has contributed to several other projects over the past decade. He sang and played guitar in Slave To The System (featuring Queensryche drummer, Scott Rockenfield), recorded an outstanding rock album as bassist/vocalist for Red Halo, was a member of country rock vocal group, Whiskey Falls, and was lead guitarist for rock legend Alice Cooper between 2005 and 2011.
I had a chat with Damon recently in Belfast prior to Thin Lizzy’s “Farewell” Belfast show.
Firstly this tour is billed as the “final “tour by Thin Lizzy. I have read differing media reports regarding this,can you please clarify the official position on this for our readers?
Damon: “It is indeed,a proper final tour.,what people can hopefully understand is that there is a difference from going out and doing a few shows from time to time and from doing a 6 week tour .
Its a lot man,its a lot of work,a very physical ammount of time to be to be on the road. I know particularly for Brian,and for Scott,man they have been legends for quite some time.
All of this stuff in a way Mark has played some role in all of our discussions on what is the plan for next year,because as you well know, as recently as the summer we were cutting demos with the intent of it being a Thin Lizzy record.
Even when we were here in August(for the Belsonic festival)we were still thinking that we were going to make this a Thin Lizzy record. There is so many moving parts that went into our decision to change our minds about that,especially Brian.
He was like “I know how much work is going to be required to promote a new record,its going to be a lot. We all kinda had to take a step back,and think about what makes the most sense. The other thing too bro,we are very aware of all the chatter,we try to be very in tune with our fanbase.
This is an amazing line-up of the band,and Ricky and I both have got so much positive reinforcement,not just from the fans but from Scott and Brian. They feel that its the best line-up they have had since the early 80,s.
That is a huge honour for the both of us,we both know what an amazing job Ricky has been doing. If I was not in Thin Lizzy,and as a person that is a fan(,I mean this music changed my life,like It has yours.
and so many others.)I wouldn’t want them to make a new record,I just wouldn’t.
Its not that I would not go to see the show,we have certainly proved ourselves as a live entity. We have got such great support not just from the fans,but from Phil,s family from his widow,from his daughters..
They all love the fact that there is this celebration of Thin Lizzy,s music and obviously of Phil,s music. Phil wrote all those songs ,the guys collaborated on some stuff but the vast majority of it were songs that Phil wrote.
To go back to your original question. Thats why we are calling this the “final “tour. There will be some Thin Lizzy dates that will pop up from time to time,we don’t know when. I feel so blessed to get to play music for a living,its my job and I have a responsibility at home. I have a big family,and that’s the way that I feed them and put them through school.
I think a lot of people are kind of freaked out that this is it, this its the last time that I will see Thin Lizzy.
No,they can see us again, they may have to travel. They may have to get on a plane, and fly to London or they may …who knows?? There will definitely be no more of these hundred dates a year touring.
The last two years Mark has been very intense,I think there was almost 110 dates last year,and It will be close to a 100 this year.”
Dates are still being added regularly to this “farewell “tour, so clearly the demand is still there for the band”?
Damon: “It definitely is,and again we are grateful for that,and at the same time you have to give some real credence to the fact that there is a lot of song-writing talent in this band.
We want to get that music out there, so when we had the discussions about not wanting to tour so much,it was just obvious that the next logical step is to record these songs under a different name.
We can promote It ,and let people know that these are the songs from the guys that are in Thin Lizzy ,and these are the songs that were going to be the new Thin Lizzy record.
I feel proud of the fact that the classic Thin Lizzy sound is in there,its never going to sound like Johnny The Fox ,Fighting and Jailbreak,because its not Phil. There is not a better person in the world to write under that umbrella of Phil Lynott’s songwriting and inspiration than Ricky Warwick., and myself.
Guys that …..Anything ive done in the 20 years that I have been a professional, cant overstate the impact that Thin Lizzy,s music has had on me my entire career. Was I excited,to contribute possibly to a Thin Lizzy record?
Fuck yes man!It would never even have occurred to me that would be fathomable ,and to get the blessing of Brian Downey and Scott Gorham right from the outset..
When Scott first called me about joining the band he said “We want to make a new record”.that was a motivation for me. I was working with Alice Cooper,who is still one of my great friends and an icon.
That was such an amazing experience to be part of that band,but I felt I would like to come and join Lizzy and it would be more than just doing concerts.
We could write some songs,and record and put out new music. I have always been passionate about that,so we are really excited about next year man.”
Taking you back to a former musical project Brother Cane,there still seems to be an underground interest still out there for that band. Has that band finally been laid to rest?? Im aware of several brief reunion shows in recent years?
Damon: “No I would not say that It is totally behind me,we did just play some shows last year,and we just had the best time man. The thing about any project if its solo,an old band like Brother Cane,the thing about these things Mark is that its down to time management. I am just so proud of what we accomplished with Brother Cane.
Obviously we made a much bigger impact in the US,than we did over here. We didn’t really get to come over here. I just feel like if I want to do the Brother Cane stuff,I wanna do it right. I would love to make another record,and have some new music to incorporate.”
It did end badly though, I’m referring to the split with the record company?
Damon:”Well it was what it was,rock music was in a funk in America right then. We were signed to a label that outside of the radio promotion department,nobody else really understood who we were. We were still a straight ahead rock and roll band,we were not even an alternative band which was still the big thing.
We were just 4 guys from Alabama,that wanted to make a record and tour,and we got to do that. I am grateful for the people that are interested.”
Regarding the setlist at your forthcoming gig with Ricky Warwick this Friday at the Diamond Rock Club,any clues?
Damon: “Well its Ricky’s show-its his night,and I was so flattered when he asked me did I want to come and play. Initially I thought I’ll accompany him,because I love to do that ,sit in with people,especially with the acoustic thing.
Play a solo over their songs ,and maybe sing some backups and that kind of thing. Yeah,I’m going to do a Brother Cane song,there may be some other “new band collaberations”in there also. Again I sort of left that up to Ricky,that guy has such an amazing catalogue of great songs in his own right.”
Over your wide and varied musical career,have you fulfilled all your dreams and goals,or do you still have some left?
Damon: “Absolutely man,one thing I would love to do at some point,hopefully in the next 4-5 years is to make my first proper electric solo record.”
You have several solo acoustic releases under your belt?
Damon: “Yes,and those things were almost done,,as an afterthought. I didn’t go out ,trying to get a deal,and do some big promoted tour. I’m always writing songs,and I just felt that it was time in 2010 to put out that second album,and I had a lot of good material sitting around the house.
As I’ve gotten older ,and particularly going through this experience working in Thin Lizzy,it has been so inspiring man to play with this iconic band,to meet a lot of the fans and to talk about the things that they like about my songwriting, my guitar playing. I would love to get that down onto one record,and not have to do it under umbrellas “It has to be a Brother Cane record,or a Thin Lizzy record”
Do you miss the role of frontman then?
Damon: “Great question,that is a really great question. I don’t know that I miss it.I look at being a frontman Mark as something I can do ,and I feel like I do a good job of it “I do think that there are some guys that are born to be at the front,and I feel like I was born to play guitar,that’s what I love.so much People say to me “What do you like to do for fun “,and I reply “play guitar”.
They reply”but that is your job”I am then like “No”,my job is getting on aeroplanes,,and buses,and checking in and out of hotels,that is my job.
I love to play guitar,I have never really made a record where I can just say ..well maybe I want to play something really bluesy,or maybe I would like to play something that has a cleaner tone.
There is no greater example,than Gary. Gary Moore made such a diverse array of solo records.
There is some stuff that he did later in his life,that was kind of in between the blues stuff,and the harder edged rock stuff.That is all a part of my repertoire,and I have got a lot of songs. Ricky and I have talked about co-writing some stuff,that would maybe be appropriate for something like that. That is definitely a goal.”
So as music seems to be all encompassing,is there any room for any other pursuits or interests? You mentioned your family earlier to me..
Damon:”Yeah,my family for sure man I am so thankful for them. They allow me to come out here and follow my bliss,I could not do it without them. I am definitely passionate about my golf”
That golf passion is something that you share with your former employer Alice Cooper?
Damon: “I played before I joined Alice’s band, but to get to join up with him, Alice plays almost every day on the road. What an amazing experience for me who already loves golf, to play with this iconic guy.
He bases a lot of his tour ,and says well we are going to go on this particular route because the golf is happening there. It definitely helped me to get better,a lot faster. I am proud to say that I finally have a real golf swing. Scott and I have also played a few times, not as much as we would like.The weather isn’t always helpful..”
So you are a fair weather golfer then..?
Damon:”no, listen man I will suit up ,put on a rain suit,and get right out there and pound them.I love the challenge of a little more of a hostile terrain. You have got to think about every shot,and you have some fun challenges getting out of trouble.,when it is like that”
What changes both good and bad have you seen in the music industry since you first started around 20 years ago?There is more of an onus on the artist,with the demise of the major record labels?
Damon:”I have felt like,for someone like me,a guy that has been doing it for a long time(.I turn 49 in July of next year).Most people consider that middle-aged,which is pretty accurate you know.
I have always felt that recently there is not a better time for a guy like myself..Its not about how old you are anymore. If you can perform and play your instrument,if you can write songs. If you have got some genuine talent ,then man all you have got to do is do the work. Go out there and find your audience,and the people that dig what you do.It doesnt matter what level it is”
What about social networking, its certainly helped to dissolve the former barriers that existed between musicians and their fans.They are now able to communicate directly through those mediums.
Damon: “I think it has definitely been helpful,particularly if you are a mid-level artist like I am when I do my solo stuff.Social media has been incredibly valuable,to just help spread the word.Back in the day if I was going to go to Dallas,Texas and play a club show you would have to spend money at the radio station and promote it.
You would have to take out ads in the newspapers and talk about it.That is all very expensive.Now you dont have to do any of that,you get on twitter or Facebook,you know where your core audience is.
Hey Damon is coming to Dallas,they start spreading the word for you.Next thing you know there is 150 people there to listen to you play your acoustic guitar.That is a gift,and I am grateful for that”
Over the years with your various musical projects that you have done many interviews. If you were the interviewer who would you like to be sitting opposite you and what would you ask them?a personal hero,music,a golfer-whatever?
Damon:”It would be pretty cool to sit down and talk to Wayne Gretzky (a Canadian former professional ice hockey player).As far as music I am in to so many different artists. I think if I could sit and really pick somebodys brain in a proper interview,I would probably want to talk to Prince.
Prince to me is the total package. Amazing writer,,amazing guitar player,arguably one of the greatest performers. I have seen him 3/4 times and everytime you just leave thinking “that guy is going to go down as 1 of the greats. He is the James Brown of our generation.”
Looking back on your career as a musician what are the best and worst releases in your musical back catalogue? Do you go back and listen to your previous material or do you prefer to focus forwards rather than look backwards?
Damon:”I dont do too much listening back to the old stuff,sometimes it will pop up on my computer,or on my ipod if I am at the gym,and a song will come on.I feel that I have been pretty fortunate that that most of the stuff that I have been part of has done pretty well.As far as standing up over time I dont think that there is really any stinkers in the stack..
I think Mark that if I could do anything I would love to go back and maybe reapproach some of the vocals on the very first Brother Cane record.
Simply because I wasnt a singer .We had got a record deal and the label was very helpful,because they loved my guitar playing and the songs that we had.They werent crazy about our singer so we spent about a year looking for another singer.
It just so happened that our A&R guy came to our hometown ,to check our progress.He heard me sing,1 of the songs I sang that night was “Cowboy Song”
Damon(laughs) “He is like”you didnt tell me that you could sing”,and I said that I would prefer to find somebody,and so I sort of took over the job by default,but I am still proud of that first record man.That record changed my life.”
By Mark Dean