One for the road: Black Star Riders

(Image: © Ed Fielding)

Scott Gorham and Damon Johnson reflect on snakes, the cocaine days and shattered kneecaps...

What was your first gig?

Scott: “When I was 17, we got ourselves a gig at this old, crumbling Hollywood relic called The Knickerbocker Hotel. There were about eight people in the place. And those were the residents who stayed in this hotel on a permanent basis, like the old lady in the hat, sipping her Manhattan. It was pretty dismal. It was pretty much a shithole. Terrible pay.”

Damon: “I think everyone’s first gig is in someone’s basement, so I’m not going to count that. My first real gig was in 1978, at an ice cream parlour in South Alabama. We played Sweet Home Alabama, Cat Scratch Fever and Takin’ Care Of Business, and made five dollars each. When we loaded out that night, I heard Van Halen for the first time, in the van of this old hippie who brought down the PA. An important night on many levels.”

What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you on tour?

What they neglected to tell me was that Alice Cooper would walk up and wrap that 12-foot boa constrictor around me

Damon: “When I got the gig with Alice Cooper in 2004, my first gig was a casino up in New Jersey. What they neglected to tell me was that when I walked out to the front of the stage to start the song Is It My Body, Coop would walk up and wrap that 12-foot boa constrictor around me. So I started the song with this one spotlight on me. And out of the shadows, here’s Coop starting to sing, with this fucking snake. I just about shit myself.”

What piece of gear is most essential to your live sound?

Damon: “I could play any gig in the world with one Boss tuner and one Tube Screamer.” 

Scott: “My Les Paul. That’s where all the feel comes from. But accidents can happen. About four years ago, when I was getting ready to go on tour in America, I opened up the case and the neck is broken right in half. 

“I called up this guy called Charlie Chandler – he’s been doing my guitars for over 35 years – in a panic, like, ‘Shit, Charlie, what am I gonna do?’ He goes, ‘Calm down, just drive your guitar over here and when you pick it up in the morning, it’ll be fine.’ And it was. But every once in a while, you run across a shock like that. It’s always at the wrong time, isn’t it?”

What’s the nearest you’ve come to a Spinal Tap moment on tour?

Scott: “In Thin Lizzy, I used to do this thing where I would jump up on the drum riser, muck around with Brian Downey, then jump down next to Phil Lynott and we’d do a little dance. I’d done this 100 times. But on this one particular night in Washington DC, I jumped down and felt my knee go. It just snapped. 

“My guitar tech dragged me off the stage, behind the amplifiers. Then I thought, ‘Well, maybe it’s okay.’ So I walked back out and jumped up on the monitors – and the rest of my kneecap ripped off. I got wheeled around in a wheelchair for the rest of the tour, and I had to sit on a stool for the shows, which was really embarrassing. 

“The first night, Phil gives me the big build-up and every spotlight in the house hits me. I was like, ‘You dick!’ But I grew to like it; I’d get a huge sympathy applause.”

What’s on your backstage rider?

Scott: “I request two bottles of Sauvignon Blanc. Back in the Lizzy days, we’d go nuts. It was whisky, gin, vodka, lines of coke. It got pretty hairy. We’d get pretty blitzed almost every night. You’d walk on and you’d try to be relatively straight. And then when you came offstage, that was when all hell broke loose.”

Damon: “You would think that Alice Cooper would have made the most exotic rock star requests. But the one thing we always had on our rider was a bag of new black socks. Well, coming from a family that was always struggling to make ends meet, I would save these socks from when I’m on tour with Coop. It’s almost six years since I played with Alice, but I still have black socks from when I was in his band.”

Has your gear ever been lost or stolen on the road?

Scott: “Back in the 70s, when security wasn’t up to scratch, we used to let people into the dressing room for pictures and autographs. This kid came in, got his picture taken, and unbeknownst to any of us, he walked right over to my guitar case, picked the thing up and walked out. But the big mistake he made was that he tried to get out of the front door. One of the security guards said to him, ‘Where are you going with that?’ And he said, ‘I’m taking it to the truck.’ And the guy said, ‘Well, you’re walking in the wrong direction – come here!’ And he nailed him. So things got clamped down after that.”

What non-musical item couldn’t you do without on tour?

Scott: “Probably my e-cigarettes. You’re supposed to gradually come off, but I’ve been using them five years. Now I’ve been off the cigarettes a long time, I’ll walk into a room where somebody’s been smoking, and it smells terrible. I never thought I would hear myself say that. But it really does.”

Damon: “Not including my toothbrush, it might be my running shoes. In the time Black Star Riders have been together, I’ve been through five pairs. I find that if I go for even a short run, man, I sing better, I play better. 

“Y’know, our show is pretty relentless and Ricky [Warwick, frontman] is very old-school punk-rock in his whole delivery, so there’s not a lot of time to catch your breath. The fifth of Jack Daniel’s and the pint of Guinness are always nice, too. But I seem to pick up the running shoes more than the booze now.”

What’s the strangest venue you’ve ever played?

Scott: “We did one of those cruise concerts. The very first one was the worst. It was a passenger boat, but it just kinda went around Sweden. And because the booze was so much cheaper, all these Swedes would get on and just get as drunk as they could. It was bedlam. The boat would be going over these waves, and your mic would fall down, you’d be falling over. After that boat ride, I said, ‘I’m never doing that again.’ But since then, we’ve gone on cruises and they’re actually a lot of fun.”

What’s the worst journey you’ve had to or from a gig?

Damon: “Back in the old days, when you just wanted to play anywhere, I remember taking rides in some guy’s pickup truck, down dirt roads, to go to some farm right in the middle of nowhere. I wouldn’t make that drive now. But back then, man, it was glorious. 

“We were just like, ‘Fuck, this is great.’ I’d sleep in the back of the truck with the gear. That’s the only way we could get anybody there. I remember the heat more than I remember the cold. It was pretty hot back there. I don’t miss those days, my friend.”

Which airline, from a musician’s point of view, do you find is easiest to travel on? 

Scott: “United is pretty good. Do I remember any flights with Thin Lizzy? Well, I remember one flight to Japan. For some reason, there were three guys in the road crew that just hated my guitar tech, and during the flight, they were pulling pranks, throwing drinks on him, and the stewardess came over and tried to calm them down. 

“Then the stewardess got it, so she told the captain. The captain landed in Hawaii. The Hawaii Five-0 came on and dragged the three guys off. So we were thinking, ‘Holy shit, there goes half the road crew, right there.’ I think we picked up some Japanese crew when we got there.”

Describe your current stage rig…

The Hawaii Five-0 came on and dragged three of our guys off a plane. We were thinking, ‘Holy shit, there goes half the road crew, right there’

Scott: “I’m pretty much exclusively a Les Paul guy these days. The weight was starting to do my back in, so Gibson’s Custom Shop in Nashville built me a few guitars with chambers. I’ve just switched over from Engl to Marshall DSL100s with the 25 Greenbacks.”

Damon: “I’m playing Les Pauls, and for the better part of the last 15 years, I’ve been playing Wizard amps. My main stage rig consists of a 50-watt Vintage Classic and a 100-watt Modern Classic. I run them together and I split the signal with the Radial Tone Bone. Way Huge makes a killer pedal called the Green Rhino, and that’s really been my overdrive pedal of choice from the time I joined Thin Lizzy in 2011. I’m a big fan of the MXR Carbon Copy delay. My favourite delay is the Line 6, the big green box [DL4]. But I keep tripping over the damn thing!”

What’s your best tip for getting the audience on your side?

Scott: “Play really well. If you play like a douchebag, they’ll walk out on you. And make a lot of eye contact. Phil could take a huge venue and shrink it down into a small club. Ricky does the same thing. We were doing the KISS tour in Australia, playing these massive cricket stadiums, and he got everybody up on their feet. It was incredible to watch.”

Damon: “There’s times when you’re playing to an audience that is apathetic, and you could set your hair on fire and it’s not gonna make any difference. But if the crowd is interested and you play with intent, they’ll come on out. They always do.”

What do you do to warm up?

Scott: “Probably a half-hour beforehand. I’ll sit on the couch and play by myself. Just scales and all that. I call it dry-humping.”

Damon: “It’s just about getting my muscles to wake up. Now I’m getting a little older, I’m really grateful for my flexibility in both hands, so I want to protect that.”

What’s your favourite live album?

Damon: “You know I’m gonna say Live And Dangerous by Thin Lizzy. That album fed my sense of wanderlust when I’d hear the audience react to a song like Emerald.”

Scott: “Tony Visconti mixed [Live And Dangerous] really well. It’s got all the right songs on there. I actually remember that night when Phil asked the girl if she wanted any Irish in her. It was the first time he’d ever used that line. He got me. Even I started laughing at that one…!”

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