As a self-described 'consummate fan' of the Hard Rock genre, I spent much of formative years partaking in a haphazardly-chosen combination of Classic and current Hard Rock and Heavy Metal. Not surprisingly, my most intense flirtations were focused (temporarily, at least) on the Birmingham, Alabama-born quintet Brother Cane. Led by lead vocalist/guitarist Damon Johnson, the group issued their self-titled debut in 1993, with the singles “Got No Shame” and “Hard Act To Follow” propelling it to the top fifteen of the Billboard Heatseekers. Stints with Alice Cooper, Damn Yankees and Black Star Riders would materialize soon after their untimely demise, ultimately leading to Johnson embarking upon a solo career. Now, with the release of Memoirs Of An Uprising (2018), his latest--and quite possibly greatest--efforts yet, is guaranteed to return him to the charts and airwaves.
Todd: What prompted you to step down from Black Star Riders? While I was initially surprised to 'discover' you becoming a member of the group without being their lead vocalist, I was under the impression that all was well.
Damon: “It was a combination of several things. One, I was sitting on this new record that I was having such a great time completing. The songs felt so good. Plus, I had a great experience working with my band and my long time friend and musical collaborator, Jim Troglen (a.k.a. Johnny Blade). We had worked on this stuff as an exercise and it very quickly turned into something much more. As I sat on the songs and started putting the record together, initially as another side project, I started looking at where we were with Black Star Riders. That band was an offshoot from Thin Lizzy, and I believe that the band's success really is deeply rooted deeply in the United Kingdom, very much like Thin Lizzy's success. ...Thin Lizzy was the greatest Rock band of all time and they were and are still my biggest musical influence, but what we were doing just didn't connect with the fan base at large. Certainly not large enough for Black Star Riders to be able to tour extensively in the United States and build a following. I didn't feel that that was happening at all, certainly not on the level for me to to justify being away from my family as much as I have been for the last six years. I was committed full-time to that endeavor to see what we could do and try to get the band off the ground. And we certainly did get it off the ground in the United Kingdom. The band does great over there. We could book a twenty-five city tour along with festival dates and even go into other parts of Europe. It was great, man, but to go and do those types of tours, I was constantly away from home for six, seven and eight weeks at a time. I've been doing that my life and I just felt like I was ready to make a big move. So I took this moment to concentrate on my own music and have more control over my calendar. As you know, when you are part of a band, a lot of decisions are made and they have to be made by a committee. Quite often, I was the one raising his hand saying 'Can we do just three weeks and then come home?' (laughs) And I get it. I totally understand that it's just not reasonable financially to do those kinds of things. That's a long answer to your question, man, but it really does reinforce that it was not an easy decision for me to make. A lot went into it, especially knowing how much I love those guys and how much I love all those songs. I love everything that we'd accomplished and I'm so proud of it, so it was not easy.”
Todd: The group had experienced multiple line-up changes prior to your departure (most notably bassist Marco Mendoza and drummer Jimmy DeGrasso). Was your decision to leave in part inspired by like-minded ideology?
Damon: “When you start talking about veteran musicians that have made music their full-time endeavor their whole adult lives, there's a certain business component to it that you have to pay attention to. ...Some of the earlier member changes we had had were because those guys got other opportunities and some of them were much more lucrative. We all certainly understood that. It does make it difficult to get any new Rock and Roll band off the ground in the 21st century with veteran players because it's challenging to get everybody to commit to it full time. This was especially the case with Black Star Riders. Everybody is from different continents. (ex-Thin Lizzy guitarist) Scott (Gorham) lives in London and (vocalist/guitarist) Ricky (Warwick) is from Northern Ireland originally, so he has his own fan base, his own profile and his own awareness. Ricky's incredible, man. He's a proper artist, a great writer and a great frontman. But one day, my daughter said to me 'Dad, why don't we just move to England because that's where you are all the time?'. (laughs) And I love England. I love those fans and I love their culture. It's been amazing to be a part of it. In the spring of last year, we were on tour in North America supporting Judas Priest and it was a dream come true scenario that I had been hoping for, but I still felt like it was time. It's even still difficult to talk about because it would be easy to just start wailing against whatever negatives there were because the positives always outweigh the negatives. What's cool right now is that they've just finished a new record with their new guitar player Christian Martucci (Stone Sour), who's a tremendous player and a good guy. They'll carry on and be just fine. The fans still get Black Star Riders and those great songs with those great players. At this point, I've transitioned into a different mindset about the everything. I'm so proud and grateful for that time and that experience because I don't know that I would have been ready to do something like this had I not written so many songs with Ricky. I was able to re-energize the creative juices that had become dormant because I've essentially been a side man for much of the last ten years.”
Todd: What inspired the title Memoirs Of An Uprising? Upon first hearing it, I immediately imagined a group of slaves rebelling against their master amid the Civil War. Obviously that's not the imagery you intended to create.
Damon: “I had operated for a long time thinking that I was going to use one of the many colorful song titles from within the ten songs that make up this record. It was at the back of my mind and I wasn't focused on it because I was doing final overdubs, getting it Mixed and getting the artwork together. ...Once the final Mixes were close to being done and I'd put a sequence together, I finally listened to it front to back. It's not a really long record. Those ten songs clock at about thirty-eight minutes I remember thinking 'Wow. There's a continuity here. There's a common thread running through all of these. It feels like someone's telling a story.' It starts with some drama and some tension. The protagonist is going through some heavy stuff and trying to find his way and at the end, there's some results where it's like 'I think I've pulled through this and I'm going to carry on.' Before I mentioned the word 'uprising', I immediately thought 'Well, that's the name of a classic Bob Marley record, so I can't do that.' But when I started thinking about the concept of a journal or a written story, the word 'memoirs' kept popping into my head. It felt really unique and it sounds like nothing else. When you hear those words together, it doesn't represent anything you have ever heard except 'This is a Damon Johnson record from 2019.'”
Todd: Taking that into consideration, is Memoirs Of An Uprising is a conceptual record? It certainly tells a story.
Damon: “Not at all. I can see where people might think that, but I was just focusing on having some different tempos and songs that felt differently, even some songs that, for lack of a better description, you could almost dance to it. That's what I love about my favorite old ZZ Top records. I've been listening to a lot of David Bowie the last couple of years and I don't know, man. There's a rhythmic head space and the things that Jim and I have been working on together have a lot of that. I was focused on riffs and energy at the start of the writing process for these songs. The lyrics turned out to be what they were and I'm proud of the stories for every single song. I have to give so much credit to the sequence that I put together that day. It was all so random. I was like 'Well, maybe we should have “Shivering Shivering” flow right into “Dallas Coulda Been A Beatdown” and “Down On Me”. It just fit, man. It felt like putting a puzzle together. ...It was like 'Click. There it is. Now it's all complete.'”
Todd: How did the first single “Shivering Shivering” come together? While there's a definitely many colorful pieces on Memoirs Of An Uprising, “Shivering Shivering” immediately stood out as the most noteworthy track.
Damon: “I had been out of town and was on a flight writing some free form, stream of consciousness stuff. I wasn't really thinking about a song in particular, just throwing up ideas, as a buddy of mine would say. When I got back home, I sent it to Jim and said 'Hey, man. There's some really cool stuff in here. Give it a look.' The following week, he sent me an iPhone voice recording, which was how we wrote every song on this record, of him tapping on the kitchen counter to create a drum groove and using his mouth to simulate a guitar part. And then he sang the very first lyric almost word for word 'Something's got me all shivering, shivering. I'm seeing double and I'm bending shapes' and I loved it straight away. I grabbed a guitar and spent some time with it and bent it into a melody. Some of the other songs I had made a proper demo of with a drum machine and some bass so I could play it for my guys and say 'Here's what I'm thinking.' Jim and I kept bouncing ideas back and forth, never demoing it properly, just singing into an iPhone. I was even able to play it for my guys and I remember every one of them going 'Dude, that song is killer.' And it was totally naked. It was just the lyrics, the melody and some simple guitar parts, so that was a really good sign that we had something substantive that'll stand out.”
Todd: Am I correct in assuming you'll be touring as much as humanly possible in support of Memoirs Of An Uprising? With your newly modified touring format, you should be able to reach key markets with relative ease.
Damon: “Yes, sir. With everything we talked about at the start of our conversation, I'm so happy and energized to have control of my calendar so I can make decisions about performing with what works best for me. One of the reasons I moved to Nashville with my family in the first place is I always dug a lot of the bands based out of here. How they work and how they operate their careers is that they essentially go out on the weekends. They'll go out and play Thursday, Friday and Saturday, come home on Sunday and take their kids to school on Monday. It may not sound very Rock and Roll, but that is the life for me. I want that. I love that. There's so many places for me to work and play, particularly in the Southeast and the Midwest... The other bonus is that Brother Cane had its strongholds at radio in the '90's in those regions, so as I go about trying to educate people that this record exists, they'll be like 'Oh, yeah. That's that guy founded Brother Cane, the band that had those songs that I heard every day in heavy rotation from '93 to '99.' It's been really gratifying to get that reciprocated back to me. The phone is ringing and the E-Mails are coming in between my booking agent and the friends and relationships I've got around the country. ...It's not rocket science to do this stuff, but it's also not easy. I've always been really hands on with much of the music business portion of it, so I'm actually having a great time wearing a lot of different hats. I do my best to split up every day into sections like 'I'm going to work the phones for an hour, answer some E-Mails and then I'm going to pick up the guitar and try to write something for a couple of hours.' The I'll have lunch with the missus, have a meeting in the afternoon and then get back on the phone. It's my job. My vocation is to not just write songs and be an artist but also to try to come up with ways to connect with the greater audience at large. There's so much noise in front of people now. It's a real challenge to get something to go through. You've got to work hard and you have to pay attention. ...That's certainly what I'm doing right now.”
Todd: At this point, do you have any idea what type of set list you'll be using? There is a lot of ground to cover.
Damon: “I'll be playing a good amount of the new record, but we will certainly be revisiting the Brother Cane catalog. I'm so proud of those songs. I'm happy that so many of them really have stood the test of time. ...I also tip the hat to some of the other bands I've been a part of. We have a bad ass Alice Copper medley and we play a couple of Thin Lizzy songs. I picked seven or eight of my favorite Cooper songs, and ironically, most of them are from his early career with the original band like Billion Dollar Babies (1973) and prior, so that's always fun, man. I've always been so fortunate to perform with and work with some real legends and my audience really loves hearing that stuff so it's great to get in that material. I'll definitely be including some of that in the set list.”
Todd: At what point did you realize Brother Cane was coming to an end? Was there a clear, defining moment where it became evident or was it a subtle series of changes that highlighted the inevitability of it 'wrapping up'?
Damon: “There was a lot happening at our record company (Virgin Records). It was like a revolving door. We had, over the course of three records, three different label presidents and we also had three different product managers, which is the person that really is hands on in getting an artist's CDs in the stores. Plus, we also had two different A&R men. When we lost the guy that signed us, we inherited someone else, and that someone else was super cool and very knowledgeable, but not as emotionally invested into Brother Cane as our previous guy had been. And at that same time, there was a shift at radio about what rock radio was playing. When we first came out, we started at the same time as many of the Grunge bands. We came in right on the heels of Nirvana Nevermind hitting in '92. We came out the next summer and were proud of the fact that we were such a straight ahead Rock and Roll band. The songs were kind of undeniable and we were able to maintain that through the second record with the song “And Fools Shine On”. It was a huge hit in '95 and '96, but when we put out the Wishpool record in '98, Rock radio had gotten really heavy, really dark and really angry. You had Korn and Limp Bizkit taking over. As a guitar player, a singer, a guitarist and a Rock fan myself, I knew that that was certainly not something I was going to start chasing. ...And we also weren't Pop enough to land on the same stations that were playing Goo Goo Dolls, Hootie And The Blowfish and Sugar Ray. I remember standing on the side of the stage at a festival we played in Virginia watching Sevendust, who I love. I was with drummer Scott Collier and the place was going nuts and I said 'Well, I think we might be out of business'. (laughs) The the other component was that we'd been on the road forever. We started in the spring of '93 and, man, we were going almost continually. A couple of us were headed for divorce and there were also some substance abuse issues. We were just a mess, so we very wisely ran up the white flag and said 'We're going to move on and try something else' and that's what we did. I love those guys, we stay in touch and are still good friends to this day.”
Todd: How did you become involved with Damn Yankees? How close did the resulting recordings (i.e. the still unreleased Bravo) come to seeing the light of day? It would have been interesting to hear the end results of that.
Damon: “I tell people I was involved with Damn Yankees for about fifteen minutes (laughs). I was a member of Damn Yankees in 2000. Brother Cane had just called it a day and I had written some more songs I didn't load up and I wasn't sure what I was going to do with them. That group of songs made its way to (legendary A&R executive) John Kalodner. ...He was also spearheading the next Damn Yankees record and the timing of that was that Tommy Shaw had just acquired the rights to the name Styx. Tommy, (Styx guitarist) James 'J.Y.' (Young) and the band had parted ways with (original Styx frontman) Dennis DeYoung, so he was going to need to focus on that so they could stabilize the situation and rebuild that brand. He talked it over with the other guys and said 'Let's bring in somebody else to make this record' and I turned out to be that guy. We wrote some songs together. I already knew (guitarist) Ted (Nugent) because Brother Cane had toured with him and he was always a huge advocate of me and my songwriting and playing, so there was a lot of things that added up. We spent about three months together. We wrote, recorded and made a record and had a great time. Tommy came in and sang backups and added some guitar parts, so it was all cool, man. It's kind of anticlimactic to say that when we got the finished product, everyone, myself included, was underwhelmed. I said 'I don't know'. Truth be told, I don't know that there was that one undeniable song. If you are an established band, a classic band, you're going to put out a big record and have the record company behind it. If you're going to book dates and get out on the road, you better have a hit. Something that's going to make people go 'Wow, look at what these guys pulled off! They've done it again. They've released a song that I keep hearing everywhere.' I don't know that song was on that record. That was really the end of it. By that time, everyone really needed to get back to their other jobs. Ted had his solo career and (vocalist/bassist) Jack (Blades) as part of Night Ranger. But I did have a great time.”
Todd: In retrospect, how do you view your time with Slave To The System? Will there ever be a sophomore release? Considering the schedules of all parties involved, I would imagine that would prove extremely difficult.
Damon: “I've been having some discussions with (ex-Queensrÿche guitarist) Kelly Gray who might be the real musical mastermind behind the group. He's the one that brought us all together in the first place. We are making some efforts into Re-Mastering the record and we also have three or possibly four brand new unreleased songs. They're not new songs. They're songs we'd written and recorded for what we hoped would be our second record. ...That's the great thing about the digital world we live in now. You can put out a record with twenty songs on it and put it directly onto Apple Music and Spotify so people can play it. Don't be surprised if that happens in the next six months. ...Those are some great songs. I'm proud of so many of the lyrics on that record, man. I co-wrote with (former guitarist/vocalist) Scotty Heard who is the other singer on two or three of the other songs. Again, credit has to be given to Kelly Gray for having the vision to bring it all together. He had just joined Queensrÿche after (original Queensrÿche guitarist) Chris DeGarmo had left the band. At one point early on, he told (Queensrÿche drummer Scott) Rockenfield 'We should do something. Let's get Damon in and see what we can do.' Everyone was into it and we put forth the effort and made the time. We spent a good deal of time at Kelly's place in Seattle and we made a great record. It was always flattering when I was out on tour with Alice Cooper and somebody would bring me a Slave To The System CD to sign. A lot of people dig that record, man.”
Memoirs Of An Uprising (2019)
Heavy Fire (2017)
Birmingham Tonight (2017)
Echo (EP) (2016)
The Killer Instinct (2015)
All Hell Breaks Loose (2013)
Slave To The System (2006)
Live At Montreux (2006)
Dirty Diamonds (2005)
Brother Cane (1993)
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