DAMON JOHNSON & THE GET READY – “The Hardest Rock Solo Thing I’ve Ever Done”

February 16, 2021, 3 months ago

By Aaron Small

feature hard rock damon johnson

DAMON JOHNSON & THE GET READY – “The Hardest Rock Solo Thing I’ve Ever Done”

“I love it, it’s awesome! It is the hard rock record that I want to be able to hear in my car,” enthusiastically states Damon Johnson, regarding his new solo album, Battle Lessons, out February 19 via Double Dragon Records. 

Damon didn’t just step onto the music scene back in 1993 with Brother Cane, their self-titled debut erupted, due in large part to the hit single “Got No Shame”. After three amazing albums, the group disbanded and Johnson would form Slave To The System with members of Queensrÿche, releasing one vastly underrated album. Shortly thereafter, Damon was recruited to play guitar in Alice Cooper’s band. Following that he joined Thin Lizzy, which subsequently led to Black Star Riders; not to mention a slew of songwriting collaborations along the way including Stevie Nicks, Ted Nugent, Skid Row, and Santana.

Now in 2021, the time has come for Damon Johnson’s sixth solo effort, Battle Lessons. “When I was writing these songs, and when I started recording with (producer) Nick (Raskulinecz – Alice In Chains, Rush, Foo Fighters, Stone Sour), I just wanted to make a bad-ass rock record,” admits the singer / songwriter. “Let’s be as Van Halen and as AC/DC and as Rainbow as we wanna be and can be. Nick got really excited (by that), especially when he heard the demos for the songs that I had put together at my house. I knew we were off to a good start.”

Immediately noticeable is the band name – Damon Johnson & The Get Ready. All of Damon’s previous solo releases have been credited solely to Damon Johnson. “I took on management for my solo stuff for the first time,” begins Johnson. “Back in the summer (of 2020). And I really like Kevin Lee, my manager; we’ve known each other for a long time. It’s a big step for any artist, especially an independent artist to bring in someone else. Cause obviously the goal is to try and grow my audience and build this thing. Early on, he said to me, ‘I think your whole image, and everything you’re working to accomplish, would be better served if you had a band moniker with it.’ You know – Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, that kind of thing. He said, ‘The goal is for us to get on festival dates, especially when we can get you back over to the UK where you have added profile from being a part of Thin Lizzy and Black Star Riders.’ I’ve got to really give him credit for the idea, because I’d never thought about it. He also said, ‘You have put out a lot of records as Damon Johnson; this differentiates all that.’” 

“Clearly, this is the hardest rock solo thing I’ve ever done. There’s no comparison, none of the other records compare to it. And playing with my trio over the last year and a half, there’s no question, it informed my writing. The quality of the songs is what got Nick Raskulinecz excited. We’re friends, great friends. Our families hang out, we both live in Nashville. But Nick is a first-rate producer! He’s busy all the time. He doesn’t have time to do friends favors. He’s too busy for that. I knew I had to impress him with the songs before he would carve out the time in his schedule to help me get this done. The combination of writing, getting Kevin Lee on board, and again, I’ve got credit Kevin for the name – The Get Ready. We had a meeting one day; we both wrote down 15 or 20 ideas. We sat down across the desk and just started tossing ‘em back and forth. He was going down his list, and I don’t remember any of the other names. I went, ‘Hold it, wait a minute, what was that one?’ He said it again, The Get Ready. I loved it straight away!”

Introducing The Get Ready – Jarred Pope on drums, who played on Damon’s previous solo album, Memoirs Of An Uprising, and has also worked with Cinderella frontman Tom Keifer. Then there’s Robbie Harrington on bass, who played with Steve Vai – both incredible musicians. “Yeah man, Jarred and I first met back in 2007. I was part of a country band for a couple of years called Whiskey Falls. I met Jarred though the guys in that band. Jarred’s from California, as were two of the members of the band. He just wound up being the guy who filled in on drums one night. I loved his playing so much; I convinced the other guys that we needed to have him playing with us. We had about a year, a year and a half, playing shows together and getting to know each other. Ironically, it was in that same time period that I met Robbie Harrington. He was playing bass for a big country artist, Dierks Bentley. The year before that, he had been Keith Urban’s bass player. He was a super-pro. I was first impressed with the denim jacket Robbie had on. It caught my eye and I thought, ‘That guy must be cool if he’s wearing a jacket like that.’ As we got to visit, and I heard him play, we kept in touch. There was an opportunity for us to do a show together a couple of years ago… I brought him in, and he hasn’t left since. I’m really, really grateful for the world-class quality of both of these guys, as people and as musicians.”

Recording of Battle Lessons began in March 2020, and those sessions were abruptly halted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Damon Johnson & The Get Ready were finally able to resume work on their album in August 2020. “We only got about two weeks in, which is really a lot of time, if you think about it. Two weeks was enough to do the whole pre-production, and then get started with… we did three songs. We got three completed. I’ll never forget it man, I was in the vocal booth, doing the vocals on the title track, ‘Battle Lessons’, and the engineer was looking at his phone. He said, ‘Hey guys, they just cancelled the entire NBA basketball season.’ I think, the next morning, they cancelled the NHL. Then, Nashville went straight into lockdown. We couldn’t go to the studio anymore. So, as you mentioned, we did a restart in August. It’s just been a very undesirable piecemeal method of recording an album. But I’m proud of the fact that we made the best of what we had. The record would have been out in September (2020) otherwise. Now that we’re still in COVID stay at home, my publicist and management agreed, let’s get this record out.” 

That four-month break certainly impacted what’s heard on Battle Lessons, as Damon attests to. “Track four is a song I’m really proud of called ‘Shadow Country’. ‘Shadow Country’ did not exist in February and March (2020). That was absolutely written before we started the second batch of three. It was another song I worked on at home. I co-wrote most of these songs with my old friend, Jim Troglen. There was another lyric laying around, and out of boredom, I said, ‘Let me see what I can do with this.’ Man, the track turned into something ultra-special, something I got really excited about. I’d already planned with Nick and the guys, here’s the next batch of three we’re going to track. When I finished writing ‘Shadow Country’, I sent the demo to Nick and I said, ‘Hey bro, am I crazy? Or, is this worth dropping one of the other songs and adding this one to the three?’ He hit me right back and said, ‘Hell yeah! I love this riff. I love the arrangement of it.’ So, yeah man, that was definitely a product of that.” 

“And the other one that wasn’t really on my radar back in the spring is the next to last song, ‘Love Is All You Left Behind’. You’ll be interested to know, that’s a song I wrote with (Queensrÿche guitarist) Kelly Gray – we were writing songs for what we thought might be a second Slave To The System album. We’ve got another batch of songs that are just as good, just as strong. We’ve eternally talked about, ‘Man, we should do the follow-up.’ That’s still something we talk about today. I had an affection, a real deep affection for that song, ‘Love Is All You Left Behind’. I wasn’t sold on the original arrangement, and I knew the lyric needed some more work. So again, because of COVID and being stuck at home, I revisited the song, got out my guitar, laid the lyrics out in front of me and… the thing that really brought my attention to the song was the passing of Eddie Van Halen. The world knew that Eddie had been battling Cancer for a long time. There had been some whispers over the previous six months that his health was declining quickly. So, when the day finally came that he was gone… all of us that grew up worshipping that band and worshipping his guitar playing… I did a deep dive once again on listening to the records and his playing. It was special. So, I was thinking about how much joy he brought to so many people, throughout the course of his career. Of course, you saw all the images of him on stage, always smiling, always having a great time. As I looked at that lyric laying on the page, just that title – ‘Love Is All You Left Behind’ – it made me think of Ed, cause that’s what he’s left behind, just love. I’m so grateful that Brother Cane got to do a run of shows with Van Halen back in the ‘90s. I spent a little bit of time with Ed, and it was great cause I was able to tell him all of this to his face. ‘Hey man, you changed my life. Thank you! I’m a professional musician today – you had a large part to do with that.’ I figured that was a story worth sharing.”

Seeing as Battle Lessons is comprised of nine songs, it comes as a bit of a surprise that one was dropped to make room for the aforementioned “Shadow Country”. Nine songs isn’t too many, in fact, ten songs would have been quite welcome. It must have been difficult to pull one song after it had initially been green-lighted. “Yeah man, that was another thing I had that was a challenge. Nick’s got so many bands on his radar. His business shut down just like the bars and restaurants shut down. He has his own studio, there’s a lot of expense there. He had a couple of big projects on the books. One was Evanescence, and the other was Halestorm. After that long lockdown, and things opened back up, he was in need of getting back to work quickly, with as many, shall we say, high profile, high paying clients, as he could get in there. I remember he called me and said, ‘Look man, we’ve gotta finish your record, but we gotta figure out when. Here’s my challenges, here’s what it looks like.’ That was the moment I said, ‘Let’s do this in sections; three songs at a time. One more session in August (2020), one more session in October (2020), and we’ll be done. And it worked out. I would have loved to have ten or eleven songs on there, I’ve definitely got the songs. But just listening… I go for a lot of walks – that’s one thing that’s helped me keep my sanity. It’s the perfect time to listen to music, and it was just those nine songs that really took shape for me. Nick played a big part in that idea. He said, ‘That’s still a full-length record. You’ve got some other good songs… I’m sure some of those songs will show up on the next record.’ He felt they needed more development time.”

Throughout all of this, Damon Johnson’s fans have been incredibly supportive. He utilized an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to cover the cost of making Battle Lessons. In phase one, pre-COVID, just over $8,500 was raised. And in phase two, a little over $19,000 came in, putting the total at slightly more than $27,500. “It is awesome,” proclaims Damon. “And my fans, I’m indebted to them. That’s the fun thing that’s happened, I’m writing a lot of cheques, thanks to those fans. Not sparing any expense on the CD, the Vinyl. Hiring the publicist, hiring a UK publicist. We’re shooting another video soon. There’s no way I could have done that on my own – even if we were working, but much less in a year where we’re not working. The songs deserve to be presented with as much pizazz as we can give it. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the fans, I’m eternally indebted to them; they’re incredible!”

There’s actually two versions of the “Battle Lessons” video – the in-studio clip, which was released last year, and the new official promo piece. Considering it was put together under COVID quarantine, the “Battle Lessons” promo utilizes a great mix of black & white and color, while brilliantly showcasing the trio as performers and musicians. “Thank you, man. You know, under different circumstances we would have spent more time on it; probably would have spent more money on it,” admits Damon. “But I feel like the clip is cool. I love that the image of the album cover is throughout; it kind of brands that whole visual. I think it’s a good place to start. I’m just committed to doing any and everything I can to promote this record properly, and do as great a job as I can, purely as an independent artist. We had a couple of scenarios where there was some small record company interest… I don’t know, it feels kind of cool doing it myself. Putting it out on my imprint, calling the shots. Look, if Interscope, or Sony Music calls and says, ‘Hey, let’s talk.’ We’ll take that phone call. But there’s something empowering in owning the record, owning my masters, uploading all the files to the digital services; it’s cool man. Again, there’s plenty of time to do that this year.”

Speaking of visuals, Damon elaborates upon the cover art for Battle Lessons. “The cover art was done by my brother-in-law, the very talented Carl Johnson. Yes, I married another Johnson, my wife Linda. Carl is a super smart, full blown Star Wars nerd, graphic artist. I was at home one day messing around on Instagram, and I came across Carl’s profile; the only thing he puts up is art. Most of it is computer generated images, and I immediately thought, maybe one of these might make a good album cover. I really was drawn to that image, and it ultimately worked. When I reached out to him about it, he did an additional edit to enhance the color some. For me, I see that image, I kind of read it from left to right. It just looks like this travelling energy that hits some core, or some intersection, and obviously it explodes and expands. It just felt like this weird kind of image of my career, and my music, and kind of the enthusiasm I have right now for being my own artist. I’m as passionate about writing songs now as I’ve ever been at any point in my career.” 

“After Brother Cane, in ’99 / 2000, when that band ended, I definitely took a break. I sort of felt like, maybe that was my shot. We had a good run, and we had some good experiences, but it just wasn’t meant to really happen. As you know, that’s what started several years of sideman, playing with John Waite and Alice Cooper. All that stuff was great, but I wasn’t actively being an artist anymore, you know, writing songs. Move the clock forward to me joining Lizzy, and ultimately Black Star Riders – where Ricky Warwick and I did start writing together, a ton. That got the juices flowing again! I just feel like Battle Lessons is that point in the middle of that album cover image. Everything is me moving in this direction, and once all the ingredients came together: the trio, the music, the arrangements, Raskulinecz producing, new management – hey, I feel like everything’s happening! Everything is exploding, everything is energized, and turbo charged.”

And the song “Battle Lessons” is such a great way to start the album. It’s an energetic song with a killer solo, and a huge hook! It’s so catchy, not to mention the poignant lyrics: “When we were young, nothing to lose, we were invincible.” It makes the listener think about better days gone by, but it also seems to be about a relationship that didn’t work out. “You’ve nailed it! You’ve hit the bullseye. When I write with my buddy Jim, it’s not like Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Bernie will send Elton all the lyrics, and then Elton sits down at the piano and writes the melody and the arrangement. With Jim and I, it’s all included. He may send me a riff; I might send him a lyric. I might have an entire arrangement of music and I go, ‘Dude, what does this make you think of? What should this be about?’ And he’ll send something back. So, he had sent me this rough on his iPhone, this piece of music. It just sounded like ‘The Trooper’ by Iron Maiden. Full disclosure – it sounded so much like Maiden to me that I totally discounted the idea. I just skipped over it and went onto some other stuff. When I went back to his house to check our progress on several ideas, he brought the song up again. I said, ‘I don’t know about this one.’ He goes, ‘No, don’t give up. There’s something there.’ So that second time, I was standing there with a cup of coffee, he played that rough again, and I started mouthing different vocal melodies. I have the little recording still, to this moment, on my phone, when I went ‘Da de dada, Da de dada’ – I sang it just like that. I just knew it was cool. I said, ‘Hey man, play that one more time, let me sing that again.’ I brought it straight home, down to my little laboratory. I brought it to my desk where I work, it’s about the size of maybe a broom closet. I just sit there with my laptop and my drum machine, and my bass and my guitars. I started messing around, and it came together so fast. I sent it back to Jim, and he was over the moon. He goes, ‘Yes! Wow! I would have never thought it would have turned out like that.’ It’s the part of the process… I don’t know what I love more than that. Finishing a song and knowing that you’ve got something extra cool.”

Before wrapping up, Damon delves into a couple of super cool songs from Battle Lessons, beginning with “Let The Healing Begin”. It’s such a commanding song, with story-like lyrics: “Light the fuse cause it’s the only way out.” It opens up a plethora of possible situations. “To me, there’s a connection with ‘Let The Healing Begin’ and the lyrics to ‘Battle Lessons’,” explains Johnson. “Really, even that cover art too man. Like you said, ‘Light the fuse cause it’s the only way out, Play it cool but don’t walk it back down, Let them choose right here and now, You can’t save them all, Let the healing begin.’ You know, I was frustrated at the end of my time with Black Star Riders. Not with the music, not with the guys, but I was frustrated with the business model we created for ourselves. No one lives in the same town; our fan base is in an entirely different country. I just felt like it wasn’t sustainable for me and my family any longer. It was nobody’s fault, but it didn’t make it any less frustrating when I began to get really ancy, like, maybe it’s time for me to move on. Not go join another band, but maybe it’s time for me to start my own thing. And ultimately, it was a good thing! It was good for me; it was good for them. I just felt like that was the heart of the lyric, ‘Let the healing begin.’ Good stuff can come from this; good stuff has come from this. You’ll be interested to know, I played Nick twelve songs back in January (2020), and the first three he said we have to record were ‘Battle Lessons’, ‘Can’t Clap Any Louder’, and ‘Let The Healing Begin’. So, for a long time, those were the only three songs I had finished, and had mixes of, to listen to on those long walks.”

The lyrics to “Casual Beast” read like a movie script – “The last thing I told you in Vegas was to cool out and hide.” Again, infinite scenarios are running through the listener’s mind. “Yeah, man. Jim and I have such a great, creative partnership. Jim’s almost on the spectrum a little bit. He just walks around and hears voices in his head, like aliens or something. I remember he had that lyric concept story. And I don’t know that I’ve ever written a song like ‘Casual Beast’. Because it does sound like a Tarantino movie. But I loved the refrain of what I guess is the chorus when it goes, ‘You’ve got to believe in me now.’ It’s like if you’re trying to convince somebody to commit a criminal act – ‘I’m not going to steer you wrong. We need to do this, the payoff’s going to be big.’ Or maybe it’s a relationship with a life partner – ‘There’s some problems, but we can make this work. I’m invested, I need you to be invested. You’ve got to believe in me now.’ I guess it kind of represents several things. It’s got a little bit of a stoner element too man, and that’s always a green light for Nick. He loves shit like that. To tell you the truth, about your earlier question of nine songs, could it have been ten? I told you I wrote ‘Shadow Country’ during the break.  Originally, ‘Casual Beast’ was one on my B-list. I wasn’t going to bring it to Nick. Cause I knew, as soon as Nick hears that riff, and that tempo and vibe, he’s gonna love it,” laughs Damon. “Sure enough, when we got to the final batch of three, I had included ‘Love Is All You Left Behind’, and I love that track ‘Lightning Bolt’. We needed one more, fuck it! I’m going to play him ‘Casual Beast’, I bet he loves it. And of course, he did.”

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