An Interview with Black Star Riders: Calm Before The Storm

When I heard that Thin Lizzy were going to record a new album, the first since 1983’s Thunder And Lightning, my initial reaction was, “How dare they?” After all, Thin Lizzy’s songwriter, vocalist and bassist, Phil Lynott, died in 1986. But over the past decade, Phil’s main man and guitarist, Scott Gorham, put together some terrific touring lineups and received the blessings of Phil’s mother to carry on. The last version of the band brought back original drummer Brian Downey and late period keyboard player Darren Wharton alongside longtime bassist Marco Mendoza (Whitesnake, Ted Nugent) and powerhouse guitarist Damon Johnson (Alice Cooper, Brother Cane). Frontman Ricky Warwick (The Almighty) has the unenviable job of singing Phil’s songs, but the Irishman has earned the respect of hardcore Lizzy fans worldwide.

A little while later, it was announced that Downey and Wharton were departing and the group was changing its name to Black Star Riders. Drummer Jimmy DeGrasso (Alice Cooper, Megadeth) replaced Downey and they were soon heading into the studio with producer Kevin Shirley. Kevin’s the man who made the audio on Led Zeppelin DVDs sound so great and has produced Iron Maiden, Rush, Joe Bonamassa and many others. So when I was asked if I wanted to hear their new album, All Hell Breaks Loose, released May 28 through Nuclear Blast, I had to say yes. I liked what I heard. Even better was getting the whole story directly from Ricky and Damon when they were in New York City recently. The transcription of our conversation is below:

As a huge Thin Lizzy fan, I have to say that I really appreciate the fact that you decided to change the name of the band for this album. It made me more inclined to listen to it under the name Black Star Riders than if it came out as Thin Lizzy. It must have been a difficult decision.

Ricky Warwick: We had every intention of putting it out under the name Thin Lizzy. We got the green light from Scott about a year ago that it was time to start writing. As musicians and artists, that’s what we’re put on this earth to do. So Scott says, “Let’s do this. Let’s write some new stuff and see how it goes.” Damon and I already knew this day was coming so we’d been beavering away behind the scenes. We brought them into the guys and they really loved them. We had seven songs demoed as Thin Lizzy and set a recording date.

As it started getting closer and closer, you could tell Scott and Brian were a little uncomfortable. The rest of us were, too. Personally, I would wake up one morning and go, “I wanna do a new Thin Lizzy record! We’re part of the legacy. It’s gonna be great!” The next morning I’d wake up and go, “We shouldn’t be doing this. It’s not right, it’s a step too far.” Finally, Scott and Brian came in and said, “Look guys, we’ve been wrestling with this. We don’t feel we should do this under the name Thin Lizzy. We should just let history be history.” It was a hard decision to make because we were torn.

At that point, Brian said, “You guys should definitely make this record but I don’t want to be part of it. We’re already doing 120 shows a year, I don’t want to do 200 shows a year. I just want to be at home a little bit more and be with my family.” And Darren was feeling the same way. He’s been working on a movie for the last five years that he’s producing. The four of us—myself, Damon, Marco and Scotty—we’re road dogs. We’ll die on the stage with our boots on. You give us 250 shows a year and we’re happy.

So we split, but with lots of love. We put Thin Lizzy on ice for the time being, but needed to come up with a band name and forge ahead. We got Jimmy DeGrasso in on drums and Black Star Riders was born.

Where’d the name come from?

RW: Band names are so hard to come up with. We agreed that we wanted something with a gang mentality to it, a bit of Wild West swagger in there. We all love this movie Tombstone, a Wyatt Earp film. I watched it again and this phrase “Black Star” just jumped at me. I thought Black Star is pretty good but it’s not enough. Then I came up with Black Star Riders and phoned up Damon and said, “What do you think?” He said, “I really dig it.” Took it to the rest of the guys and we felt it summed up the songs. It just fitted. That’s it.

Damon Johnson: I want to go back to something you said earlier about the name change. If Ricky and I weren’t in the band, we’re the same guys that you are. We’re as passionate about Thin Lizzy as you are. We get it. So, as Ricky said, we were torn at that moment of like, “Okay, it’s not gonna be Thin Lizzy.” But really and truly, brother, it was an exhale for all of us. It made a lot more sense. We’re making this record for us. We want to get off on it as much as anybody but it really took the pressure off. This guy (points at Ricky) has the most unenviable gig in life!

Now you can go out and play as much new stuff as you want. Whereas if it’s Thin Lizzy, people are going to be very reluctant to accept new songs.

RW: That’s exactly right. It’s the best decision we could have made.

DJ: And for guys that are so passionate about writing songs as Ricky and I are, it’s the best of both worlds. We get to write and put out some new music but we also get to be as Phil Lynott as we ever wanted to be.

So you two are responsible for writing the songs on the album?

RW: We wrote the majority of it. I handle pretty much all the lyrics. Damon and I wrote a great deal of the music. Scott would come in with the Scott Gorham riffs from hell that are just like, “Whoa!” He’d bring them in and we’d throw some words on them, then take them back to Scott.

What kind of input did Kevin Shirley have?

RW: Massive.

DJ: Kevin came in as a Thin Lizzy fan as well, which made it the perfect fit. He was committed to making it a classic rock record. And the only way you can make a classic rock record in 2013 is to put the band in one room, mic up everything and hit record. I’m sorry, but bands don’t do that now. Everything is to a click track. They lay the drums down first and then they start putting stuff on top of it. That’s all cool, man. My kids have grown up listening to those kinds of records and they dig it. But you know and I know that Fireball and Jailbreak and British Steel and Number Of The Beast gets you off way more than any of these new records and that’s the reason why. Look, I’m not gonna sit here and say we didn’t use Pro Tools, of course we did. It makes life so much easier.

You’ve been playing so long you’ve earned the right to use Pro Tools.

RW: The overdubs were minimal. Just some lead guitars and backing vocals. All the lead vocals were done with the live takes. I was terrified. I said to Kevin, “So we’re going to do vocals for a couple of days at the end, right?” And he’d go, “No, I got it.” And he had! I’m the happiest I’ve ever been with vocals on an album I’ve ever made in my whole life.

DJ: Ricky relaxed immediately. He had his whole vibe going in there, with candles burning and the lights down. I had him in my headphones and he was killin’ it. I knew it was going to be great.

The first time I listened to the song “Before The War,” it reminded me of The Clash but it also reminded me of New Model Army. Later I realized Ricky was in New Model Army before The Almighty. Was that intentional?

RW: No! It wasn’t conscious but it is part of who I am. Damon and I wrote that in the back of the tour bus outside Newcastle when we were opening for Guns N’ Roses about this time last year. I had a lyric inspired by my friend’s son who’d just got back from his second tour of Afghanistan. He’s a great kid. He sat and told me one night that when he’s at home he goes to pieces. He gets in fights and can’t live a normal life. When he’s over there, he’s with his buddies and everything is set up for him. The lyrics tell the story. He feels he has worth in his life and direction. It’s kind of absurd that’s what it takes. When he’s fighting a war he’s at peace with himself and when he’s at home he’s at war with himself. We wanted that kind of marching riff, that’s where it came from.

Was the vibraslap on “Kissin’ The Ground” a nod to previous Thin Lizzy production flourishes?

RW: (Laughs) That was Kevin’s idea. That’s him playing it, too. It’s one of the few overdubs on the record.

All Hell Breaks Loose comes out May 28 in the U.S. What’s the touring plans look like?

RW: We’re gonna hit it as hard as we can. We start in June on the European festival circuit. I know there’s plans to try and do some U.S. dates in August and September. European/UK tour right through the end of the year. Japan’s already been booked in for next February. This is what we do best. I know we want to keep the whole thing going and try to get back into the studio next year. We write all the time so we’re already thinking about the next one.

Obviously there’s a CD and download. What about vinyl?

RW: Oh yeah.

DJ: Vinyl’s cool, right? I had an argument with my wife about vinyl. I’m just like, “Look, you’re 12 years younger than me. You can’t appreciate the magic of vinyl.” It’s no different than people who are passionate about certain foods or certain sports. People just love their vinyl.

It seems like every year more and more people discover Thin Lizzy.

RW: Yeah! Welcome to the party. It’s been going on for a while but come on in!

Did you ever get jealous while recording, like, “Hey, I wanna get down on that riff?”

RW: No, I was enjoying it! My guitar playing’s OK but I ain’t in that league. There was no need. It let me concentrate on the lyrics and vocals and not have to worry about playing guitar for the first time, ever.

DJ: I was so blown away by the job Ricky had done with the lyrics, they’re amazing. It took an Irish guy to write lyrics that were up in the same universe as Phil. The mind-blowing experience for me making the record was Scotty and I standing in front of each other working out a part. I would have an idea and Scott would say, “Okay, what if you play it like this?” He would put this bend in and I would be like, “There it is! That’s Thin Lizzy!” Scott is so underrated, man! Gary Moore or Brian Robertson get so much of the credit but no one can touch Scott Gorham when it comes to melody.

Economy, too.

DJ: Economy was important to this whole thing. It was so cool for me to be able to remind him of that. I’d be like, “Look, bro, I chose those notes because of your influence.” For me, it’s the guitar record of my life. I’ve made six or seven albums and have played a lot of guitar but nothing like this, man.

You’re on Dirty Diamonds by Alice Cooper, right? Did Wayne Kramer (MC5) play on that one?

DJ: No, he was on the one before that.

Wayne Kramer and Scott Gorham are two of my favorites. I would have been very jealous if you got to play with both of them.

DJ: That would’ve been fuckin’ cool to work with Wayne Kramer!

RW: The MC5 are one of my favorite bands. Have you seen that clip on YouTube where he puts the guitar behind his head and he starts dancing across the stage like James Brown? What song is that?

DJ: “Looking At You.” We watch that all the time.

The MC5 used to play a lot of free shows in the park on Sundays.

RW: It’s too bad that doesn’t happen anymore. A flat bed just rolls up and the band cranks it out. So awesome.

DJ: I hope we can do some of that. Can you imagine? Black Star Riders for free in the park in Dublin? Come on!

RW: That would be brilliant.

So you’re originally from Birmingham, Alabama?

DJ: I still live in Birmingham.

How and when did you discover Thin Lizzy? Were they popular down south?

DJ: They came to Alabama and did a show with Ted Nugent. I went to see Ted not knowing who the opening band was and it changed my life. I literally went out the next day and bought four records.

Which lineup?

DJ: Check this out! I saw one of four shows that they did as a three-piece on the Black Rose tour when Gary Moore split [July 1979]. This was right before they flew Midge Ure [from Ultravox] in. I have pictures from the show. I took my little camera in to take pictures of Ted Nugent. All of a sudden the show starts and this guy comes out with a huge afro and a bass with a mirrored pick guard on it. I go, “What the fuck?!” Yeah!

It’s like they had a spot on stage waiting for you.

DJ: Ha! I never thought about it like that. I was already immersed in Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers with their great guitar parts that were like songs within the songs. For me, Thin Lizzy was like the next logical step. But I was way more inspired by Phil’s lyrics, man. I loved all the story lyrics, which are almost Dylan-esque or a Van Morrison-type thing. So as soon as I started putting my own bands together and writing original music, I was trying to sound like Thin Lizzy.

When did you first discover Thin Lizzy?

RW: Oh man, 1973! Six years old watching Top Of The Pops, “Whiskey In The Jar” on black and white tv. Thursday night used to be bath night. Back then you’d just get a bath once a week and I was allowed to stay up late to watch Top Of The Pops. I remember seeing Lizzy doing that song and it just stuck in my brain. They went off the radar for me and I grew up a little bit. I think it was my eldest sister Tricia who brought home the Fighting album and played it to death. Then I’d see the band in the magazines and again on Top Of The Pops. I’d think, “Why do they look like that? Why do they sound like that? This is amazing!” By the time I got to about 14, 15, I couldn’t get enough of them. But by ‘83 they split up. Being Irish, you know, they become a soundtrack when you’re growing up. I never got the chance to see them but I did get the chance to see Phil in Grand Slam.

Was that good?

RW: No, it was awful. It was amazing that I got to see Phil on stage, which is brilliant, but it was right before he passed away. It was a buzz just seeing Phil that it didn’t matter to me. They could’ve played “Hickory Dickory Dock” 10 times for all I cared.

Black Star’s bassist Marco Mendoza played with Ted Nugent for a long time. That’s an interesting coincidence.

DJ: Ricky and I enjoy stepping back and looking at all these little accidents that have happened over the years that have brought us all together. When he was in The Almighty, they did a show with Brother Cane. I don’t even remember it! He had to remind me of it. This was destiny, I guess.

I’m a guitar freak. I want to know all about what was used on the record and what you’ll use live.

DJ: I used in the studio exactly what I use on stage with Lizzy, my main Les Paul Standard that I’ve had since the mid-‘90s.

RW: You used a Strat on one song.

DJ: I did. And that was Kevin’s call and that was a great call because it was right for the vibe of the song.

Which song?

DJ: “Blues Ain’t So Bad.”

That’s my favorite one on the album, actually.

DJ: That’s got Kevin’s stamp all over it. He said, “I don’t want you to play conventional, just go out. Get Pink Floyd on me, Damon!” I was like, “Awesome, let’s go!” I’ve been playing Wizard amps made by a guy up in Canada named Rick St. Pierre. I just think they’re the best amps ever made. We’ve worked closely. He’ll send me something and ask me what do I think. That’s flattering in itself.

I have great respect for Rick. I used a Modern Classic and he made a new amp two years ago called the MTL and that’s what I played on the majority of the record. If I was doing a rhythm track I’d just back the gain off a little bit. When it came time to do a solo, it went back up a couple clicks and that was it. I had a wah pedal and I brought in my Rotovibe for a couple of solo bits. It’s mind-numbingly simple. If you think about it, bro, that’s what all those Thin Lizzy records were. Great guitar, great amp, great songs, hit record.

Didn’t Rick work on AC/DC’s amps?

DJ: Yeah, and he still does. He doesn’t modify Angus and Malcolm [Young’s] amps but he restores them and makes sure they have quality components in them.

Sonically, there’s a lot of room on the record. The guitar tracks aren’t these multi-tracked walls of sound.

DJ: Brother, Kevin and I absolutely talked about AC/DC’s Highway To Hell and how epic that record sounds. The total simplistic clarity of Malcolm on the left and Angus on the right. Back In Black is the same way. That approach has a huge amount to do with why those records sound so killer. Plus the guitars are just cranked up and Kevin absolutely did that.

What did Scott use?

DJ: Scott’s been using ENGL amps, the Ritchie Blackmore model. He’s been playing those for quite some time. Scott’s tone is a little more saturated so I try to make mine a little cleaner and transparent.

And he’s back to playing Les Paul’s, right? He was using Strats for a while. It’s funny. In all the old photos from the ‘70s he’s playing a Les Paul with mini humbuckers and he didn’t even like that guitar. It was all he could afford. Meanwhile, everyone wants to try and emulate his tone from then.

DJ: Your reaction’s the same as mine. I just laugh at him. “What are you talking about?!” That shit’s legendary!

People would buy one of his old curly guitar cables thinking it would make them sound like him.

DJ: That’s exactly right. On the record, I think you can distinctively tell who was who. Again, I’m so proud of this moment, not only as an artist, but as a fan of Scott’s and Brian’s and Gary’s. I just never thought this would have ever happened. I’m just so proud of the way everything came off.

Ricky, what are you using for the live shows?

RW: A Les Paul or a SG through a Marshall JCM800.

Is it hard to stand out amongst six humbuckers on stage?

RW: It does sound pretty mighty!

DJ: It is very Lynyrd Skynyrd of us, I guess. In that spirit, we’ve taken care. Rarely is everybody bashing away on the same thing. Ricky’s good about finding his spots.

RW: A lot of the times when the guys go into the dual lead stuff it’s nice to have a rhythm guitar pumping away behind it.

That’s all I have. Anything you want to add for the Thin Lizzy freaks of New Jersey?

DJ: There are so many die-hard, rabid Thin Lizzy fans in this part of the world. It’s a priority for us to get up here and set up camp. I’d love to be up here for three weeks playing all over the Northeast.


Black Star Riders’ new album, All Hell Breaks Loose, is available now through Nuclear Blast. For more information, go to