Interview by SickthingsUK
Live Photos by Bill Crowe
Back in November I was lucky enough to meet current Alice Cooper band guitarist/songwriter Damon Johnson a couple of times during the UK shows and both times intended to ask him whether he would consider doing an interview for STUK. Both times he was so friendly and chatty I completely forgot to ask!! So I'd like to express my gratitude to the Slave To The System webmaster Curt for setting this up for me and of course to Damon for doing it!!
STUK: Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions for us. Lets start at the beginning. Where are you from and how did you come to first pick up a guitar?
Damon Johnson: I was born in Macon, GA, which is where the Allman Brothers started their career (making Macon the home of "southern rock"). But I've lived in small towns in Alabama ever since I was 5 years old (Monroeville, Geraldine, and Guntersville). I moved to Birmingham in 1987 and continue to call it my home base. Both sides of my family are very musical; my Mom started me out with piano lessons and vocal "encouragement", and my Dad taught me my first guitar chords.
STUK: What music originally influenced you as a guitarist?
Damon Johnson: I've got to give lots of credit to the records my Dad played around the house: Johnny Cash, Glenn Campbell, Chet Atkins. But as a teenager, the music that got me really passionate about committing so much time to practicing was Thin Lizzy, Lynyrd Skynyrd, AC/DC, and Aerosmith.
STUK: Did you always want to be a professional musician or was it something that kinda just fell into place?
Damon Johnson: It definitely sort of fell into place for me. I graduated with academic honors in high school and went to college for 2 years studying electrical engineering. But I always had a band together to play parties on the weekends. After a popular band from Birmingham asked me to join in 1987, I considered doing it professionally for the first time.
STUK: Around 1988 you played in a band called 'Chinatown' with a certain Eric Dover. Was it this connection that eventually got you the gig with Alice?
Damon Johnson: Well, let me say first that I LOVE ERIC DOVER! Eric was the only guy from Birmingham that I truly believed had what it took to be a star. He had it all, and still does to this day. We did indeed play in Chinatown together, but we kept close tabs on each other while he was in Jellyfish and Slash's band and I was in Brother Cane. We've always had a mutual respect for each other. And there is absolutely no doubt that I wouldn't be playing with Alice if it were not for Eric. (Thanks again, bro!!)
STUK: You seem to have been a little unlucky in the first couple of recording bands you played with. According to the info I could find you missed out on actually playing on albums by both Witness and Delta Rebels. What was the first album you appeared on?
Damon Johnson: Wow, Si...you guys have really done your homework! The correct word is probably "late" rather than "unlucky". In both cases of Witness and The Delta Rebels, the bands had already recorded their albums and then went out to put together a band to tour behind. The first album I actually appeared on was Brother Cane's debut in 1993.
STUK: The first time many people would have maybe heard of Damon Johnson was with Brother Cane in the early 90s although the band had been around for a few years as Chyld. What made you take over as lead singer/frontman of the band?
Damon Johnson: It was my decision to become the frontman after searching for the better part of 2 years for a singer. We already had a development deal with Virgin Records, and our A&R man came to one of our bar gigs in Birmingham one night. After hearing me sing "Melissa" by the Allman Brothers, he was very adamant that I front the band.
STUK: The first self-titled Brother Cane album was pretty successful (250,000 copies!) and 1995 saw the release of the 'Seeds' album and some major support tours. What was your greatest memory of the period?
Damon Johnson: There are several: hearing my song on the radio for the first time, playing Madison Square Garden with Aerosmith, having Robert Plant tell me my slide playing reminded him of Jimmy Page, opening for Van Halen at the same venue that they "changed my life" when I was a teenager (in Birmingham), having our song "Got No Shame" go to number one on the rock charts.
STUK: The second Brother Cane album seems to have a noticeable move to a slightly heavier sound, losing some of the 'southern' influences of the first album, especially the keyboard parts. Was this a deliberate move?
Damon Johnson: Well, sort of. We didn't feel comfortable with the tag "classic rock" being attached to Brother Cane. We were the same age and had the same influences as many of our contemporaries like Stone Temple Pilots, Collective Soul, and Pearl Jam. But all of these bands were playing for the"kids", while we had a noticeably older audience. I recall us choosing more of our "riffier" material when we were putting the second album together.
STUK: When listening to the Brother Cane albums I must admit to being especially impressed at your vocals. Do you enjoy being the vocalist, guitarist AND frontman or is there a part of you that would prefer to just concentrate on the guitarwork?
Damon Johnson: Thanks for the compliment. There was absolutely an evolution for me over the course of the three records. For the first album, I would have loved to only had to concentrate on the guitar work. But by the time we recorded "Wishpool" in '98, I was very comfortable with my vocals and put considerable more effort into my writing and singing. Plus, I was fortunate to work with great producers.
STUK: A tour of the US with Van Halen led to you meeting Sammy Hagar and working with him in 'Marching To Mars' when he left VH. How was it working with Sammy?
Damon Johnson: - I've said this before, but Sammy Hagar is one of the greatest "souls" I've ever had the pleasure of meeting and working with. He's got a generosity that is unusual in our business. All the Van Halen guys were very good to us and dug our songs, and Sammy called me about three days after he split from the band in late '96 and asked me to come out and write some stuff with him. He said he wanted some of the"swampier" vibe on a couple of his new songs, and that's what we did with"Salvation on Sand Hill" and "On the Other Hand".
STUK: 1998 brought the final Brother Cane record 'Wishpool' which you`ve described as a very personal record and the bands best. Did you feel you would have trouble topping it if the band continued?
Damon Johnson: Hmmm...I never really thought about it that way. "Wishpool" was a struggle to make on a lot of levels: the band was struggling to find a larger audience and, still, a musical identity; our record company was changing employees like I change my socks; and the entire record lyrically was inspired by challenges I was dealing with in my marriage, which at the time was very up and down. I think those four individuals could and can continue to do quality work. It was simply time to move on.
STUK: Your bio mentions that Brother Cane split due to "an unsatisfactory yield for the time and energy invested". I'm reading that as meaning you thought the band should have had more success then they achieved. Why do you think Brother Cane didn't get that final break to the big time?
Damon Johnson: The short, simple answer is timing. If our first album had of come out 3 years earlier, we would have had a gold record, guaranteed. If "Wishpool" had of come out at a different time, it was certainly deserving of selling more units. And I hate to sound typical, but our record company was not the best. We had the greatest radio promotion department you could ever hope for, and our success at radio is proof of that. But Virgin is a very urban, pop music company. There were absolutely people at the label in positions of power that did not give a shit about Brother Cane, or care about getting product in stores in smaller cities in the mid-western United States, which is where our biggest audience was. Some of our problems were not unusual; others, especially now looking back on it, could have easily been avoided.
STUK: In 2000 you recorded an acoustic album, 'Dust'. Why an acoustic album for a debut solo project?
Damon Johnson: 'Dust' was an album I had no plans of putting out. It was simply a live recording of a couple of acoustic shows I did just after Brother Cane split, and several friends close to me encouraged me to release it. And it gave me an outlet to play several new songs I had written, and to simply stay busy at a time that I truly had no idea what direction I wanted to go in my life or in my career.
STUK: Dust contains a cover of Thin Lizzy's 'Borderline'. Why that song?
Damon Johnson: It's my favorite song that Phil Lynott ever wrote. Everybody knows that I'm one of the biggest Thin Lizzy fans on the planet. "Borderline" is a song I remember playing in my car tape deck when I was in high school and knowing that it was a "step above" much of the other stuff my friends and I were listening to. Phil's influence ultimately led me to the all-time greats like Van Morrison, Dylan, and Springsteen.
STUK: How did you get to join up with Damn Yankees?
Damon Johnson: Their A&R man, John Kalodner, was a fan of mine, and particularly of a new batch of songs I had written around '99 and 2000. He played them for Jack Blades, who called and invited me out for a jam. It was when Nugent and Michael Cartelone showed up that I first heard of the Damn Yankees reunion. Originally, Tommy Shaw was obligated with Styx, but he came in later and the band consisted of the five of us...at least it did for about 15 minutes (hahaha).
STUK: Was it daunting to be working with guitarists with the reputation of Tommy Shaw and especially Ted Nugent!
Damon Johnson: Haha...Ted is another close friend, who I feel the same about as I do Hagar (with the exception of some of Ted's politics!!). Brother Cane had played several shows with Ted, and he was always talking us up in magazine and radio interviews. And Tommy is another huge talent, on the "Eric Dover" kind of level...he's got it all. Even though I was never a big Damn Yankees fan, I had albums by all of these guys in their respective bands when I was a teenager, so it was certainly cool to be writing and recording with them.
STUK: Why was the Damn Yankees album you recorded never released?
Damon Johnson: It was the classic case of "too many cooks in the kitchen", and that included the producer and the record company. Plus, we never really had the time to gel properly. It was all done so fast and furious; and, with the exception of two or three songs, I was not knocked out with the final mixes myself. Perhaps it will see the light of day in the future, but I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you.
STUK: How did Stevie Nicks come to record your song 'Everyday'?
Damon Johnson: "Everyday" was another song from the batch that led me to working with Damn Yankees. I wrote it with my friend John Shanks, who has gone on to become a Grammy winning, multi-million selling producer. He was still playing guitar for Melissa Etheridge at the time, and Melissa had the same management as Stevie. When John heard that Stevie was looking for an extra song or two to complete her new album, he sent a collection of songs over to her office. And as fate would have it, the one she picked was "Everyday".
STUK: In 2002 you also turned up playing lead with Faith Hill on her hit single 'Cry'. How did such an odd pairing come about?
Damon Johnson: That was another case of being at the right place at the right time. I just happened to be in Los Angeles, and my long time partner Marti Frederiksen called and asked if I had a guitar with me (which I did) and asked if I wanted to come to his studio and play on this "thing" he was working on. The "thing" turned out to be producing this new song for Faith. He already had the rhythm section, the piano, and her vocals recorded, so we started layering guitars on top of that. We had no idea it would become the hit that it did.
STUK: You joined Alice Cooper's band in what seemed at the time rather unusual circumstances when Eric Dover left the 'Eyes Of Alice Cooper' tour rather suddenly. Did you know about the gig some time in advance or was it just a emergency call out of the blue?
Damon Johnson: It was out of the blue, sort of (haha)! Eric had actually called me several months earlier and was telling me about his band, Sextus. He said that if the time came for him to move on from the Alice Cooper Band, that I was the guy he was going to recommend for the job. To be honest with you, I completely blew if off, thinking Eric would find a way to do both at the same time. Fast forward to August of '04, and I get a call from Alice's tour manager, Toby Mamis. "Hello, Damon. We need a temporary replacement for Eric for six weeks and he says you're the guy for the job." But Toby went on to explain there would actually be an audition involved, and that several other guitarists, all from Los Angeles, would be trying out as well. Then, things really got interesting when he told me that there was only one day in L.A. that the auditions could be held, which was Thursday, August 26. This would be exactly two days AFTER my wife Lynda and I were going to the hospital to induce her labor for the birth of our son, Gabriel. The first thing I had to do, of course, was discuss this with Lynda. We knew it would be a great opportunity, even if it was for just six weeks. So, as scheduled, our son Gabe was born on Tuesday morning, and I spent the next two nights at the hospital with my guitar and my iPod learning the five Alice Cooper songs that Toby had sent me (and for the record, as soon as I heard "Halo of Flies", which is a song I'd never heard before, I knew it would be the "deal breaker" in determining which guitarist would ultimately get the job). On Thursday morning, I kissed my wife and new baby, left them at the hospital, and flew to Los Angeles.
STUK: How much time did you have to learn the songs before having to play them live?
Damon Johnson: Very little. As any of the guitarists who have played with Alice will tell you, his songs are not necessarily hard to play, but there's a lot of arrangement and parts to them. When you add to that a set-list that consisted of twenty something songs...it was certainly a lot to digest in a short period of time.
STUK: Were you a Cooper fan before you got the gig?
Damon Johnson: Yes. You'd have to be a moron to be any kind of a student of rock music and not be an Alice Cooper fan. However, I did not own many of his records."Goes to Hell" is without a doubt my favorite. It was an album that I got from a record club as a kid and I flipped out over the cover picture...and ultimately I was knocked out by the concept within the songs.
STUK: What was it like walking out for the first time playing with a legendary artist like Alice Cooper?
Damon Johnson: It was, as we say down South, "the shit"! The first show was a bit of a blur because I was trying to remember all the parts of the songs while experiencing the thunderous volume that the band plays at live. It was like a fucking freight train! But it was ultimately the second show that I really felt comfortable and was able to absorb more of the experience. The first real "Wayne's World" moment for me was looking over and finding Alice standing next to me with the snake wrapped around him while we played "Sick Things". Completely fucking brilliant!
STUK: After the 'Eyes..' tour the band headed into the studio to record 'Dirty Diamonds' on which you played and co-wrote. Alice has made a big deal about how the album was written and recorded in two weeks. But how much of the material was actually ready when you hit the recording phase?
Damon Johnson: Very, very little. And I mean literally, like only one or two songs. Roxie really stepped up with lots of ideas he had been working on, but most all of them had to be constructed into actual songs.
STUK: How did the writing process work? Did someone bring in a song to work on or was it spontaneous, ideas coming from jamming and just playing together?
Damon Johnson: It worked several ways. The most fun were the songs that did come from actual jamming: "Woman of Mass Distraction" and "Steal That Car" started that way. On other days, Ryan and Chuck had some things that they would play for us at the start of the day, and then we'd hammer out the arrangements as a band. At the actual time we were doing it, it felt a bit reckless, and sometimes not in a good way. My experiences as a writer have always been sitting down with one other person and finishing the entire song. This"communal" vibe was very new to me, but ultimately it worked and Alice deserves lots of credit for keeping us focused on his original game plan.
STUK: 'Dirty Diamonds' is a pretty eclectic mix of songs, from the rock and roll of 'Sunset Babies' to the heads down charge of 'Dirty Diamonds' to the heavy grinding of 'Run Down The Devil' and even the country-flavoured 'Jesse Jane'. Was there ever a worry that it was too diverse?
Damon Johnson: Certainly at the time it was being created, we were all at least wondering how the whole thing would mesh together. But the reviews speak for themselves; they've been positive across the board, or at least that's what Ryan is telling me!
STUK: Alice And Roxie have been together for a long time now. Was it hard to come into that sort of situation after being in full control on your own projects?
Damon Johnson: Not at all. For me, it was a nice change, and it's been a very relaxed situation, creatively and socially. Alice definitely defers to Ryan about many things, and I think that's because Roxie has proven himself to always have Alice's best interest at heart (has Alice ever worked with any musician longer than Roxie?). Ryan and I have lots of mutual friends in the music business, and it was cool for me coming into this situation having at least some knowledge of his background. I've never been in a situation like this, where everyone is a proven professional. This is truly a monster band, and we've got a pretty cool singer working the microphone.
STUK: Were you disappointed that more 'Dirty Diamonds; songs didn't make the tour setlist? Was there any one or two songs you really would have liked to have played?
Damon Johnson: For me, it's all about Alice's incredible catalog of amazing songs. Remember, I've not played these songs hundreds of times like the rest of the guys, so I'm excited to play them all at this point. And besides, my favorite "Dirty Diamonds" songs tend to be some of the mid-tempo ones that might not work as well in the live show, like "Zombie Dance" and "Perfect".
STUK: How much input does the band get in choosing the setlist? It seems like Alice pretty much just decides what to play and delivers the setlist to the band to learn?
Damon Johnson: He's definitely got at least a general idea of what he wants to put in the new show. One of Alice's real gifts as an artist is that he surrounds himself with great people, and it makes it easier for him to be open to suggestions on everything: the setlist, the show, songwriting, album production. He handed us a giant setlist before tour rehearsals that we whittled down, depending on what flows the best, and what works well with the theatrics. The band certainly knows who's name is on the marquee and who's legacy we've got to live up to every night. Everyone in the band loves Alice, and we want to do a good job for him.
STUK: Does Alice take part in all rehearsals or does he just come in towards the end once the band has the songs ready to perform?
Damon Johnson: He's pretty much there for everything. We do, however, prefer to get a couple of good rehearsals in before he comes down just so he doesn't have to sit through us working out arrangements and vocal parts on songs that he's performed a thousand times.
STUK: While on tour you often turned up on Alice's radio show 'Nights With Alice Cooper', especially if he's introducing a southern rock song! It sounds like Alice has a mobile unit on the bus and he sits there recording the show links while everyone else comes and goes around him?
Damon Johnson: Yeah, the radio show is TOTALLY relaxed, and I think that's what ultimately makes it such a success. The listeners can feel that vibe about it. Chuck has a little studio in his computer that allows him to record Alice's shows, and when you're traveling as much as we are, sometimes the only opportunity to get it done is between cities. And whenever someone walks into the room, Alice will immediately throw a question their way. And yes, I'm obviously the "token redneck" of the Alice Cooper Band: a title that I take great pride in!
STUK: Judging from what we heard on the radio show it sounds like the band and Alice have a really relaxed relationship and have a lot of fun together. What's your favorite cool or funny Alice stories from the road?
Damon Johnson: There's so many. We probably have more fun on the golf course than any other place, because you really get a chance to learn each others personalities. Alice has a funny saying for every golf shot you could possibly hit. And believe me, we've hit them all! And, on the road, there's always some good jokes floating around, some of which take on a life of their own and wind up lasting for several weeks; you know, the "inside jokes". For example, the next time you talk to Alice or one of the other guys, ask them who "Marvin Bearden" is. Or tell them that for Halloween, you're dressing up as a pirate. Then come and see me and I'll explain everything!
STUK: Who won the 'Dirty Diamonds' tour poker championship this year?
Damon Johnson: I believe that would be Ryan Roxie. He definitely played steady the entire tour. But I gotta tell you that yours truly, DJ, won the big pot at the "End of Tour Bonus Hand". Everyone on the bus puts in $20, even the people that don't play in the nightly game, like bus drivers, tour managers, etc. It was a nice, fat take for a guy that is certainly NOT on the list of "best poker players on the tour."
STUK: Is it correct that Alice has now managed to get you and Chuck and Roxie ALL addicted to golf?
Damon Johnson: Make sure you understand that I was addicted to golf long before I joined the band. I've been playing since '96, when I picked it up on the road with Brother Cane. But we play an INSANE amount of golf with Alice, which is a huge perk of being in his band. Alice has become such an ambassador for golf, that his reputation precedes us in every town we come to. But yes, Chuck and Roxie are bitten with the bug as well now. And it's been awesome to watch those guys improve as quickly as they have. Alice is a great teacher, and it certainly helps to be playing four or five times a week. We LOVE it, and are all excited about hitting the road, and the golf ball, in May.
STUK: What`s the deal with all the facial hair turning up in the band? First Chuck's sideburns, then Roxie's pirate look and Eric's goatee? Can we expect it to spread to you as well?
Damon Johnson: Hahaha!!...Well, I had my run with facial hair during the grunge days. Lots of musicians from the southern states have always sported the "soul patch", or "flavor saver", under the bottom lip. But once all the Seattle boys started wearing it in the '90s, we figured it was time to shave it off. Plus, it's impossible to be as super fabulous as Chuck or Ryan, so I'm not even going to attempt it! (insert laughter here, too)
STUK: While working with Alice, and Slave To The System, you also manage to have a third band, The Welfare. Can you tell us a little about them?
Damon Johnson: The Welfare is the greatest bar band in the world! It's a three-piece group, with my good friends Allen Park on bass and Billy Wilkes on the drums. We've all known each other since we were teenagers, and we know so many songs together; we never rehearse. Once we've started the show, there are no breaks between songs...kind of like James Brown style. We play mostly the college bars in the southeast, all with good, built-in crowds. Most of these kids have no idea who Brother Cane was, and they only know Alice Cooper from the Staples commercial (haha). But they know there's no band they get to see that plays as well as we do or that has as much fun. The only down side of being on tour with Alice so much this year is not getting to play Welfare shows more than we did.
STUK: Is there a Welfare album in the pipeline?
Damon Johnson: If my guys heard you ask that question, they'd roll their eyes and laugh! I'm always talking about wanting to do it, but I seem to have one distraction after another get between us actually getting it done. But I'd love to set up our gear in the studio and just riff. You know, write a bunch of guitar based rock songs on the spot, and put it out. I'd really love to do that.
STUK: You co-wrote the new Santana single 'Just Feel Better'. How does it feel to have Steven Tyler singing one of your songs and Carlos playing it!!
Damon Johnson: It's an honor. A huge honor. I know Steven from touring with Aerosmith in '94, but have not really spoken with him since. To tell you the truth, there's a real chance that he has no idea that I had anything to do with writing the Santana song! Carlos is another legend. He's a musician's musician...it's just an honor to be involved. My resume' has certainly gotten fat this year with some good stuff, and I'm very grateful for it. If you told me, when I was a kid, that I'd be Alice Cooper's guitar player, that I would write a song for Carlos Santana that Steve Tyler sings on, AND that I'd get to put out my own album all in the same year? That's ridiculous! I'd have probably punched you in the face and said, "piss off and stop harassing me!"
STUK: The Slave To The System album is released in February from Spitfire Records. The band actually formed in 2002. What brought you together with Scott Rockenfield and Kelly Grey of Queensryche?
Damon Johnson: Kelly produced the "Wishpool" album for Brother Cane, and I really connected with him musically. When he wound up replacing DeGarmo in Queensryche the next year, it was his idea to get Roman and I together with him and Rockenfield. We truly had no expectations for our project, other than to have an outlet away from our other projects. This album is certainly one of the best things I've ever been involved with and I'm very, very proud of it.
STUK: Some places seem to describe the album as a 'debut' while others as the second STTS album. How different is this version of the album to the original version?
Damon Johnson: There's simply two new songs added to the Spitfire release. We put the other one out just independently...selling them through our websites or at gigs with our other bands. But the new one has been mastered properly, and sounds significantly better than the original version.
STUK: Will Slave To The System be playing any shows (UK?)?
Damon Johnson: STTS will definitely be touring. I would love to play the UK more than you could possibly imagine. One of my big regrets with Brother Cane is that we only came to Europe once, in '96. Rock fans in the UK, and Europe in general, have a greater appreciation for music history than American fans do. And many of our influences (in STTS) are British rock bands, so it would only be fitting for us to come over play.
STUK: How do you manage to juggle not only Alice Cooper, Slave To The System, and The Welfare but a reformed Brother Cane and producing other bands as well? Do you ever sleep???
Damon Johnson: I've never worked harder in my life than I did in 2005. But it set the table for the things that are coming up this year. It's simply a blessing to get to do this for a living. I wasted a lot of valuable time in my life during the '90's (Brother Cane not included), and I guess maybe I'm trying to make up for it. Maintaining a balance between my family and all this work is a challenge in it's own right, and there's no way I could do it without my amazing wife, Lynda.
STUK: Aside from Alice, Slave To The System and The Welfare what else should we be watching out for from Damon Johnson this year?
Damon Johnson: Oh, I don't know...watch out for my Callaway driver on the golf course? Seriously, from the minute I joined the Alice Cooper Band, it helped me re-discover my love of simply playing the guitar. It's a goal to work on my chops this year, particularly some other "colors" like slide guitar and the dobro. I've been on a huge diet of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash this year. I want to write some new songs, more like story songs, instead of worrying about "getting on the radio".
STUK: Lastly I'd like to thank you very much for taking part in this interview and ask if there's any message you'd like to send out to the fans?
Damon Johnson: One of the surprises of my year was being completely accepted by the Alice Cooper fans, and I want to send a heartfelt thank you to all of them for that. And extra thanks to you guys at SickThings; you've got the best Cooper site in the world! See you all on the road this year...dj
I'd like to thank Damon for answering so many questions and Curt for helping set up the interview. The Slave To The System album is out in February through Spitfire Records and is very highly recommended. You can order it now by clicking the links below!
Make sure you also check out the following links regularly to keep up to date: