June , 2013
By Vinny Cecolini
Black Star Riders
Bound For Glory
JAM Magazine Interviews Singer Ricky Warwick
All Photos Courtesy of Black Star Riders Facebook
Singer Ricky Warwick was conflicted.
The former Almighty front man and solo artist had been touring with the reconstituted Thin Lizzy the past few years, celebrating the life and music of the band's late leader, Phil Lynott. It was an opportunity for Warwick to live a dream by filling his boyhood hero's shoes and standing onstage alongside surviving Thin Lizzy members - guitarist Scott Gorham, drummer Brian Downey and keyboardist Darren Wharton.
Warwick's restless nights began when he began collaborating on new Thin Lizzy music with Gorham and fellow newcomer, former Brother Cain / Alice Cooper guitarist Damon Johnson. The singer would lie awake in a quandary. Though he was excited to be on a Thin Lizzy record and tour, was he tarnishing the name of his idol and that of the group he founded? Thankfully, Warwick's band mates shared his concerns and agreed to record the new music they were creating as Black Star Riders. After Downey and Wharton both stepped away from the band, drummer Jimmy Degrasso was recruited and the band headed into the studio with record producer Kevin Shirley. In a little more than two weeks, the band emerged with All Hell Breaks Loose.
Lynott's spirit is present throughout the Black Star Riders' debut. A reverent homage to Thin Lizzy, it harkens back to album-oriented-radio's heyday and is highlighted by at least five radio-friendly tracks - "Bound for Glory," "Kingdom of the Lost," "Hey Judas," "Someday Salvation" and the title track. An album that would have been declared an instant classic during the late '70s, All Hell Breaks Loose is not only the best rock debut of 2013, it just might be the best rock record of the year.
JAM: How did growing up during the '70s in Belfast influence you as both a musician and a songwriter?
Ricky Warwick - It was a strange situation, but it was like anything else. When you're born into something, you don't know any difference, it's normal to you. It was normal to see the army on the streets; it was normal to hear bombs going off; it was normal to have road blocks; it was normal to be searched going everywhere; it was normal to be under curfew after 6 p.m. Actually, the memories I have of growing up there are mostly happy ones. Now that I am older, looking back at some of those days, I think to myself, "Wow that bomb went off just a street over from where I was!" When you're a kid, it's exciting. Certainly, you're influenced by the music; music on both sides of the division. Back then it was an important part of the cultural fabric. If you were Catholic, you had your own music, your own pipe bands and your own songs. It was ingrained into you. I grew up with bag pipes and flutes and all of that. I have two older sisters who were into Rory Gallagher, Van Morrison and, obviously, Thin Lizzy. From the age of 10 or 11, I watched "Top of the Pops" each Thursday Night on the BBC. I saw Lizzy perform on the show one night and thought they were amazing, especially since they were from Ireland. I thought, "If they can do it, maybe I can do it." It starts you dreaming.
JAM: I assume Northern Ireland did not have a thriving music scene.
At the time, a lot of bands refused to play in Ireland because of the violence. I lived on the outskirts of Belfast and the city wasn't a place you were allowed to go into at night. You had to sneak in. The bands that did tend to perform there were our own, like Rory Gallagher, Stiff Little Fingers and Undertones. When I was about 14 and really getting into music, Stiff Little Fingers were playing at Ulster Hall. It was the night I said, "Screw my parents, I'm going to sneak in and go to this gig. I have to see this band." I went into the city, absolutely shitting myself, and saw the band. It was the night that changed my life forever.
JAM: Did you end up playing with them?
I did. Ironically, I ended up being great friends with their singer Jake Burns, who was my ultimate hero when I was a kid, besides Phil Lynott. I've been blessed. Today, Jake is one of my best, dearest friends and we share the same management. I've been lucky that I have had the chance to meet most of my heroes that inspired me.
JAM: Until recently, I was unaware that you played with New Model Army. You have quite a resume, don't you?
Again, I've been lucky that during the last 25 years, I've been able to make music my job as well as my love. It really did start with New Model Army back in '87. I was in a little band that opened up for them at a few shows and their singer, Justin Sullivan, knew I was a big fan who knew the songs. The band was looking for an extra guitarist to tour the world with them and so it began. That was my first taste of America. I arrived in New York City and the band immediately headed to play at an EMI party on the Staten Island Ferry. Going down the Hudson River and seeing the sights did not disappoint. It was exactly how I saw it in the movies. Justin is a phenomenal songwriter, front man and musician. My year with the band provided a great education.
JAM: Many Irish songwriters possess a remarkable storytelling talent.
We're a country of dreamers, wanders, travelers and fighters. It's engrained in our culture and our history. We're proud of who we are and what we are. I've never tried to disguise that. I grew up idolizing Phil, Jake, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison and Joe Strummer. All are phenomenal storytellers. When I started writing songs, I wanted to have something to say. I wanted to be an entertainer more than anything else, but I wanted to tell stories; create songs that meant something and went somewhere.
JAM: Did working on Tattoos & Alibis (Warwick's 2003 solo debut) with Gorham result in the invitation to front Thin Lizzy?
It had something to do with it. I've known Scott since about 1990. My ex-wife and his wife worked together at MTV Europe. When I heard that she was working with Scott's wife, I said, "I have to meet him." The funny thing was that the famed Castle Donnington Music Festival was going on that year and MTV was filming it. Both my ex and Scott's wife were going to the festival a day early. Scott's wife arranged for him to give me a ride to the show. He was aware of my old band, The Almighty, and we just hit it off. I was bending his ear about Lizzy during the entire ride. We just clicked and we became friends. I stayed in touch, ringing him up every couple of months. Joe Elliot (Def Leppard singer) was producing my solo record, and he says to me, "Hey, you see Scott recently?" I said, "No." And then Joe said, "We should get him to play on the record," which I thought was an amazing idea. Scott flew over to Dublin, played on the record and we had a great time. He played his ass off as he always does.
JAM: That experience certainly left a lasting impression on him.
Maybe it did. Several years later, around 2010, a friend of mine, Alan Parker, who has written a ton of rock 'n' roll books and biographies, heard through the grapevine that Scott was putting Thin Lizzy back together and my name had been mentioned. Alan said, "I'm calling to give you a heads up. I just heard this and I think they're going to call you." I thought, "Me? They're not going to ask me to do it." Monday morning comes, the phone rings and it is Scott. He says, "Hey man, how is it going? How's the family? Are you doing any solo gigs? What's going on?" I'm going along with it, but I'm thinking, "Ask me the question." Scott says, "Hey man, I'm thinking about putting Thin Lizzy back together and I was wondering if you wanted to sing?" Before he could finish I said, "Yes! Yes! Of course, I do!" That was it. Scott then went on to say, "I think you're the man for the job. I know you. I know what you can sing like. You're Irish, which helps. And I think you can make this work."
JAM: He paid you quite a compliment calling you after so many years.
When someone is so honest and nice and believes in you that much, it really inspires you. And if I did not believe that I could do it and bring something to the band, I would not have said yes. I am too much of a fan. I came off of the phone, turned to my wife and said, "You'll never guess what just happened?" She said, "I think you will do a good job." And I said, "If for one second it feels weird or not right, I am not going to do it." And hand on my heart, it has always felt good. I have never felt like I'm doing the wrong thing or that I should not be there.
JAM: When it was announced that this Thin Lizzy lineup were going to record a new album, long-time fans were concerned.
The band was as well. When I started writing songs with Damon Johnson, I knew it would be great. We just clicked right away. Then Scott Gorham started bringing in his trademark riffs. Damon's and Scott's ideas were so strong, so cool and so catchy. I said, "You want me to write lyrics to this?" The songwriting process was so easy it almost wrote itself.
JAM: Why did the band ultimately decide not to record as Thin Lizzy?
It was because of the high expectation and the fact it had been 30 years since Lizzy's 1983 swansong, Thunder & Lightning. There was also Phil's legacy to consider and what it means to the band's faithful. Touring the world, playing live and celebrating the songs with a whole new generation of Lizzy fans is one thing. Up to then, it had been a mind-blowing thing. However, recording under the name itself, for me, and I'm putting my fan head on now. If you had said that Thin Lizzy were going to record a new album with a new singer, I would not have wanted anything to do with it. I wouldn't want to hear it. I would not have been interested.
JAM: Ironically, you're the obvious choice to sing the material.
At the time we were recording, I told Scott that my confidence had been shattered. Half of me is waking up in the morning pumped up that I am going to be working on a new Thin Lizzy record. I mean, how cool is that? It's the greatest thing ever. The other half of me is saying, "This is so wrong. What am I doing? I can't do this." And I said, "For that reason alone, we can't do this as Thin Lizzy." I think that everyone in the group was feeling the same way. Once the elephant was out of the room, it felt okay. We said, "We love these songs. We have to figure out a way to record them."
JAM: Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Black Star Riders.
We demoed about 10 songs and secured a record deal. Then Brian Downey said, "Guys, a lot of stuff going on here. When we started touring, I honestly thought it was going to be a couple of tours a year and that was it." In a great way, Thin Lizzy became a victim of our success. We got to the point where we were doing more than 100 shows a year. He said, "I didn't sign up for that again. It's a lot of shows and I don't want to be away from home as much as we have been." He said, "We're talking about recording a new album and all of the promotion that will entail. You guys are going to want to tour behind it as much as you can and I understand that. It's just not what I am about right now and not what I want to do." God bless him, Brian has earned that right. He said, "Look guys, I wish you all the best, but I just don't want to be a part of this. I'll step aside and let you guys go on with it."
JAM: And thus enters a Thin Lizzy alumnus, bass player Marco Mendoza.
Me, Marco, Damon and Scott are the 250 plus gigs a year guys. We'll do that, no problem. We're the boys who will die on stage with our boots on. We live for those moments and it's all we want to do. We just wanted to get out there and write, record and play. It was a really amicable split. Darren Wharton was the same way. He is working on a new movie. To be brutally honest, there is not a lot of keyboard stuff in the new music. He said, "Guys, go off and do it. I'm with Brian. We're going to take a backseat on this." That was fine, though it put us in a position where we needed to a drummer.
JAM: How difficult was it replacing Brian Downey?
Brian Downey is a legend. He's a unique drummer who plays like no one else. Has a feel for his instrument like no one I've ever seen. Where the hell do you start your search to replace someone like that]? I thought it was going to be difficult, but within five minutes, Damon walked into the studio and said, "I've got the guy." I laughed, "Already? You've got the guy?" He said, "Jimmy Degrasso. I played with him in Alice Cooper's band." Like Marco, he's a veteran of several bands, including Suicidal Tendencies, Megadeth, Y&T. He can play that stuff. So we called him. Found out that Jimmy is a massive Lizzy fan and he worshipped the band. He just walked straight into the studio and killed it, both personally and on the professional level. He became the fifth member of the band and the lineup was finally completed.
JAM: And the name?
Obviously we needed one, and quickly. What to name a band is always a tricky part, because all names are shit when you first come up with them. Until you hear the music and it gets ingrained into your soul, it's very hard to come up with a cool group name. We were struggling and throwing ideas around left, right and center. Nothing was sticking. We all agreed that we wanted a name that sounded great and looked cool logo wise. We wanted the name to have an outlaw gang feel to it; a little bit of a Wild West attitude if you will. We're all fans of cowboy movies. My favorite is Tombstone starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer. I sat down to watch it again and see if anything jumped out at me. Sure enough, the words "black star" were mentioned and I thought "Great, but it needs something more." A day later "riders" suddenly popped into my head. I thought that had an outlaw gang feel to it. It sums up the music. I always joke that Scott Gorham is Doc Holiday on stage. It all made sense. I phoned up the guys and said "I think I have it; I think we have what we are looking for." A couple of the guys were not sure at first, but the next day, they phoned me back up and said, "It's brilliant. We have to go with that."
JAM: Is it true that it took all of 12 days to record All Hell Breaks Loose?
We recorded the album in 12 days and mixed it in five. Kevin Shirley was given the demos, which he loved. He saw how much work we put into them. He came into the studio and said, "You guys really have it. There is nothing I really want to change. The songs are structured really well. It's all there. If you want to make an old school, raw, big sounding record, we're going to have to do it old school. That means you guys have to stand in a room, bring your equipment into the room, set up and look at each other. I'm going to mic it up. You just play and I'll hit record."
JAM: And that was it?
Yes. Basically, we recorded a song a day. Kevin was great at capturing the right vibe, attitude and performance. It helped that we were well rehearsed, but everything we recorded live was kept. The only things Kevin overdubbed were some of the harmony guitars and backing vocals. There were no "these three days are for vocals." All the singing you hear on the record is me belting it out while I played with the band.
JAM: You never entered the vocal booth?
No, and at first it was terrifying. I've never recorded an album that quickly. We thought about each take, but Kevin said, "No. It's done." When we listened back, the recording just sounded so good. It gave us so much confidence. We said, "This is going to be great. We can do this." And we flew though the recording process from there. Kevin only used pro-tools to remove a section of one take, then cut and paste it with another section of another take. It was the only modern indulgence we took advantage of. There is no auto-tune; none of that stuff on the record. It's just five guys knowing the songs they're going to record walking into the studio and playing their hearts out.
JAM: Kevin Shirley is a workaholic.
The guy never stops. The day we finished and were loading out our equipment, he was getting ready to work on a Beth Hart / Joe Bonamassa record. He is a machine. Kevin has a great sense for songwriting and he captures killer sounds.
JAM: Would you agree that despite all of the reservations, Phil Lynott's spirit resonates throughout All Hell Breaks Loose?
Absolutely. People need to realize that when I got the Lizzy gig, I knew the songs. But Phil became like a brother to me. I have never learned so much from a dead man before and probably never will again. I lived and breathed him every day at an insane level. For five or six hours each day, I would listen to Phil's lyrical phrasing. I had to in order to do the music any kind of justice. In order to pull of the Thin Lizzy gig, I had to be that well informed. I had to absorb everything Phil Lynott put into those Lizzy records. For three years, that's what I did. I still do it now, though not to the same extent. Those three years of playing Thin Lizzy music, I really feel like I got to know Phil. I got to know what he was writing about and what he was trying to do. Phil was always there. He was always on my mind.
JAM: In some ways, Phil is immortal.
When I close my eyes and think of Thin Lizzy, I don't think of the band with me singing. I see the band with Phil behind the microphone. That is the way I will always see it. But I learned things from him by studying his words, his rhyming and phrasing that will stay with me the rest of my life.
JAM: The spirit of late blue's guitar legend and former Thin Lizzy member, Gary Moore, shines over "Kingdom of the Lost."
Absolutely. And it was intentional. I grew up in East Belfast about a mile away from where Gary grew up. Although I never had the privilege of meeting the guy, I was a huge fan. I've shown my love for Celtic music in my solo stuff. I thought it was important that Black Star Riders keep that Celtic edge. And we will retain it as we move forward. Hence, that was why "Kingdom of the Lost" was written.
JAM: So there will be life beyond All Hell Breaks Loose? What is Thin Lizzy's status?
All of our energy and focus is on Black Star Riders. Thin Lizzy has very much been put on the backburner. There is the chance of the odd show, or the odd couple of Thin Lizzy dates if it makes sense. If that occurs, then Brian and Darren will come back in. But that will be the extent of it. There will be no more mammoth tours under the Thin Lizzy name. If we were offered the chance to open for another artist, we'd push for us to be billed as Black Star Riders. That is the plan moving forward. We want to continue making new music and establish the name.
JAM: Don't you find it ironic that Black Star Riders have the potential to be more successful in the States than Thin Lizzy?
It's a strange ol' world. After what has happened to me the last few years, I would never rule anything out. I would be delighted, if that is the case. If more people went back and discover Thin Lizzy's wonderful catalogue because of Black Star Riders, then that would be a great double whammy.
JAM: What is the story behind All Hell Breaks Loose's first single, "Bound for Glory"?
It was one of the first songs Damon and I wrote. Scott wasn't excited about it. He thought it sounded too much like Thin Lizzy. My response was, "What the fuck did you expect?" We never demoed it with the full band; Damon and I just recorded an acoustic demo. When we were turning the demos into the labels, Kevin Shirley and everyone else were picking up on it. So we recorded it. Scott is a decent guy. If other people feel strongly about something, he'll go along with it. We went in and recorded the electric version of it and it sounded good, but it needed a tag line. So I told Damon and Scott to go for it. They walked into the studio and it was one of those magical moments. I just watched the two of them standing with their Les Paul guitars writing this thing on the spot and then just lay it down. They transformed a good song into an amazing one.
JAM: Would you agree the lyrics soar on the composition?
Lyrically, the song champions the underdog and people who never give up. It was also influenced by this great story about Scott and Marco. When they're both in Plymouth, England, they often go out Monday nights for a Chinese meal at this quaint, really quiet restaurant. Often, they are the only two diners in the place. One night, the little Chinese waitress notices that they're rock 'n' rollers and asks, "What band are you in?" When Scott says, "Thin Lizzy," she freaks out. She explains her father is the biggest Lizzy fan ever. She runs over and gets this little old man, who comes sauntering over with the biggest grin on his face. This guy proceeds to tell Scott and Marco about how he moved to Britain with nothing and how he started a Chinese restaurant; the hard life he's led to be where he is now. He was quite a character. His name was Johnny Wong. I thought it was a great story for a song. That was the first verse.
JAM: That is amazing as well as funny.
The song's second verse is about something from when I was a kid. When I lived in Belfast, I had this girlfriend who lived in a one-room apartment. We'd go back there after we had gone out and get it on. She had this picture that had writing on it. The line read "Elvis in the backroom and Jesus is on the wall." Her name was Mandy, but I changed it to Mary because it just fit better. The picture she actually had hanging up on the wall was of Phil Lynott, but Scott was a bit funny about that, so I changed it to Elvis. And I'd be doing the nasty with her with that picture of Phil holding his bass looking at me. That image has always just stuck with me. (laughter)
JAM: Yes, I imagine those moments with Mandy were particularly difficult to forget after all these many years have passed.
The key line in the song is that we know we can never win; we just try to lose a little more slowly. I think that is what life is really all about. We'll probably never get what we really want. And I think it would be boring if you did. So, let's have some fun, while trying to lose a little more slowly.
JAM: David Lee Roth once said, "We often achieve our goals, but it is how we grow as people that makes it seem like we never do."
That is certainly a way of looking at it. How can you say you've failed when you're doing your dream job, singing in your favorite boyhood band? But your goals change, your boundaries change, you start a family, you have kids and there are dramas and worries that come with it. That affects your mood and how you feel.
JAM: Given the album's cool cover art by legendary pinup artist Gil Elvgren, "Bound for Glory" would have also made a great title.
Yes, the whole B-17 bomber thing, and the graffiti on the plane's nose cone, certainly ties in with "Bound for Glory." It all just seemed to flow well. When the vibes are good, and everything is just fitting together, the artwork comes quickly. Incidents like that don't happen very often. When it does, you just have to go with it, 'cause you don't know how long it is going to last. With this band, so far, things have been very organic, really easy and it's been fun. We haven't had to push anything or be stuck for anything. It's a great situation to be in.
JAM: Are you concerned that the band's success spells impending doom?
[Laughing] That's human nature. Scott, who is half Irish, is that guy. We all believe in this band and we're prepared to do whatever it takes to make it successful. You just have to keep working hard. Some days will go in your favor and others will not. You just have to keep on, keeping on. It's something that comes with getting older and maybe being a little bit wiser. But you do not get anything in this life for free.
JAM: The title track "All Hell Breaks Loose" seems like the obvious choice for the next single. Hopefully, rock radio will pick up on it.
Scott and I were over in Europe promoting the record in five different countries. And now Damon and I are working this thing in the States as if we were a new band. We aren't a new band obviously, but we are working this record the same way we would have starting out 25 years ago. We'll do whatever it takes. We want to spread the word because we believe in this record and we're so damn proud of it.
JAM: And then there is touring.
We wanted to get the album out and let people get familiar with it. We're going to do a couple of weeks of European music festivals in June. Then we have a little bit of a break. We're looking at hitting the States in either August or September. Ideally, we'd love to get on a tour as a special guest or opening act. If not, we'll come over, play the clubs and start from there. Then we head back and hit Europe, Japan and all of those places. People should go to Black Star Riders' Web site (blackstarriders.com) or our Facebook page for dates as they are added.
JAM: What is going with your original band, The Almighty?
The band hasn't done anything since 2008, when we did about six shows. There has been talk of reissuing some of the albums to celebrate The Almighty's 25th anniversary. We've been approached to record some extra tracks. When we asked for a budget, it was not what we wanted. The thing is it was never easy with The Almighty. We were just one of those groups where everything was a struggle. That is why it ended the way it did. Nothing was ever easy with us, and I just can't explain why [laughs]. Black Star Riders, on the other hand, has been going like clockwork. Maybe the constant struggle is a reason why The Almighty was great for its time. During the first few years, that aggressiveness kept us going, but it becomes harder as you get older. Everyone in the band gets on fine. It's just hard for us to all agree. And I don't know if we have the patience for it to happen anymore. But I would like to do something to celebrate the anniversary, and I feel that there are enough ideas kicking about that we can eventually do something cool. Again, it will happen only if I have the time to do it, because Black Star Riders are my priority.
JAM: And your solo career?
I have a lot of songs written, a lot of ideas. I'm probably sitting on about three albums worth of material, but it's been put on the backburner. I'm waiting for the chance to get into the studio and do something. I'm not a person who can do three or four things at the same time. I like to put all of my focus and energy into whatever I'm doing at that time. This band is my love right now. If we decide to take a break in 18 months, then maybe I'll stick my toe into those waters; take a look at the solo stuff and see where I'm at. I need to have the time to do everything properly. To record something, then not have the time to promote it properly, defeats the purpose of doing a project in the first place. I want to give everything I do a good crack of the whip.
JAM: That was my biggest concern with Black Star Riders. I thought the band recorded this great record, would promote it a bit, send it out into the world and then not tour behind it.
Absolutely not. We are all in this for the long haul. We're already fielding tour offers and thinking about the next record.
JAM: Any thoughts on how to differentiate from All Hell Breaks Loose on your follow-up album, or are you heading in the right direction now?
I think that Kevin Shirley captured an energy and attitude that does not sound like anyone else. Yes, we have a connection to Thin Lizzy, but I do think we have a unique sound, which I really love and I don't see the point of changing that. I like to think we'll keep recording the best songs we can, keep the sound that we have and try to develop it even more.