BLACK STAR RIDERS – Blindsided
Black Star Riders (l-r): Robbie Crane, Damon Johnson, Ricky Warwick, Jimmy DeGrasso and Scott Gorham
On October 10th, 2012, hard rock outfit Thin Lizzy announced that it would ultimately bid farewell to touring, and not record a new album under that aforementioned moniker. Lead vocalist / bassist Phil Lynott had passed away almost 27 years earlier on January 6th, 1986, succumbing to pneumonia and heart failure brought about by septicaemia – his name synonymous with Thin Lizzy. The name Black Star Riders was eventually adopted, drummer Brian Downey and keyboardist Darren Wharton opting not to be a part of this new venture. Debut effort All Hell Breaks Loose emerged during May 2013, sophomore studio full-length The Killer Instinct being issued during February 2015.
“Writing for The Killer Instinct was pretty similar to All Hell Breaks Loose”, judges Ricky Warwick, vocalist and guitarist for Black Star Riders. “I wrote mostly all of the lyrics, and a lot of the music. Damon (Johnson, guitarist) writes a lot of the music with me; him and I write constantly, and we have a lot of ideas. We just really didn’t let up writing from the first album – we just continued working on ideas and songs. We had about 20 songs together when we got together; we sort of went to pre-production and went through them all. We write all the time, though. We write while we’re on tour, when we’re off the road, when we’re in hotel rooms – you name it. There’s just always ideas coming, and that’s how we like to work.
“Scott (Gorham, guitarist) came in with three or four killer riffs that are on there, as well. Scott walks in, and he’ll play – like with ‘Soldierstown’, which is a Scott Gorham guitar riff. He walked in, said ‘I’ve got this idea’, and played it for me. Your jaw hits the floor. It’s great that he has enough belief in Damon and I that he’ll come in, play this riff, and then we’ll take it away and kick it into a song. We make a song out of it. Obviously, we keep him in the loop the whole way through the process, like ‘What do you think of this melody?’ That’s great to have, a guy like Scott Gorham – who’s a legend – contributing in that way. When he does come up with stuff, it’s phenomenal.”
Songwriting sessions for Black Star Riders’ two outings to date were separated by a key difference. “I think the difference is that when we went in to do All Hell Breaks Loose, up until the 11th hour – as most people know – we thought that we were gonna record it under the Thin Lizzy moniker, until we really had a last minute change of heart,” the singer recounts. “There was obviously a lot of pressure that came with writing those songs, thinking that we were gonna put it out as Thin Lizzy up until the last minute.
“I think the big difference this time around is that Black Star Riders has been established; we’ve been touring, and people know who the band are. Obviously, we were spurred on by the success of the first album. There’s always pressure when you make a record, but it wasn’t as much an intense pressure. We knew who we were; we knew that we were making a Black Star Riders album, and there was no doubt about that. I think just taking that onboard gave us all the room and confidence that we needed, that we maybe didn’t have writing the first record.”
Had All Hell Breaks Loose been issued under the Thin Lizzy banner, Ricky would’ve arguably been walking up to the hangman’s noose as it were, considering how widely regarded Phil Lynott is. “That was the reasoning behind it,” he responds. “The realisation just hit us, I think. Suddenly it’s time you let your heart rule your head. In your head, you’re going ‘Oh, It’s gonna be great. We’re gonna make a Thin Lizzy record. I’m gonna get my name on a Thin Lizzy record.’ As a fan and in my heart though, I’m going ‘This is wrong. This isn’t the right thing to do. It’s been 30 years to make an album and put it out as Thin Lizzy. A studio album without Phil just isn’t right.’ I think we suddenly all just came to that realisation. There were a few things going on at that point, as well. That’s when Brian and Darren decided that the amount of touring that we were doing was too much for them as well, so taking all of that onboard, we just all got a wake-up call. Somebody just mentioned it in a room, and it was kind of like ‘I’m really glad you said that, because that’s what I was thinking as well.’
“It was absolutely the right thing to do, it really was. A lot of people as well said that it could’ve been commercial suicide, because we knew for a fact that putting it out under the Thin Lizzy name would guarantee us a certain amount of sales no matter what the record sounded like, anyway. To suddenly turn around and change the name completely – the whole thing – we knew that we were taking a big risk, but I guess once we decided that we were gonna do that, it was a weight off of my shoulders. I felt that it was absolutely the right decision, and I know that everybody else did. We stuck to our guns, and the people out there proved us right. They supported us, they bought the record, they came to the shows, and here I am talking to you about the second record because of all that.”
Opinions were divided as to whether the musicians should cut material under the Thin Lizzy moniker, the axeman contends. “We had a lot of people saying ‘No, you should record as Thin Lizzy’ and a lot of people sort of saying ‘Why don’t you?,’ and then other people saying ‘No, you shouldn’t. Changing the name kind of shut everybody up. With people that were always like ‘No Phil, no Lizzy,’ it was like ’Well, okay. You can’t say that any more because we’ve changed the name.’ We are moving on and we are moving on in a different way, and I think it made everybody happy all round. There’s nobody that can criticise us or say ‘You shouldn’t be putting it out as Thin Lizzy,’ because we aren’t.
“It was still a tough decision to make, though, because we’d been out playing very successfully live as Thin Lizzy for three years prior to that. It was like ‘We want to make some new music and Scott, Brian and Darren were in Thin Lizzy, so why not call it Thin Lizzy?’ Like I said though, when we then actually sat down and thought about it, we just thought ‘Well, let history be history. Respect the legacy.’ I think once we made that decision, there was no going back. It was definitely the best decision that we made.”
Despite no longer using the Thin Lizzy name, Black Star Riders nevertheless wields much of Thin Lizzy’s musical hallmarks. “There’s a huge amount of Thin Lizzy in Black Star Riders, and there always will be because of Scott Gorham,” Ricky credits. “Scott’s a huge part of that Lizzy sound, so when he plays guitar, you’re gonna hear that Scott Gorham sound. Myself and Damon were in Thin Lizzy for a good three years, albeit a small part of it, but we’re both lifelong Thin Lizzy fans. We’re both very respectful of Lizzy and the legacy, and it’s a spirit and a vibe that we want to retain and keep in Black Star Riders. We don’t want to lose that. Why would we? It’s a great thing that we have, so we’re just retaining that spirit and that vibe. Like I said, Scott’s in the band, so we’re always gonna have that guitar sound. There’ll always be a part of it in Black Star Riders.”
Also harbouring Thin Lizzy traits is the composer’s vocal tones, similar to those of late Thin Lizzy leader Phil Lynott. “I’ve been singing Phil’s songs for almost five years now, and I completely immersed myself in the role,” he muses. “When I was given the job, I wanted to do it justice. I wanted to sing the songs as close to the way that Phil sang them as I possibly could, because let’s face it. If you’re gonna go and see Thin Lizzy, you wanna hear the songs the way they sounded. They’ll never be the way that Phil sang them of course, but I want to try to get them as close as I could to that.
“I studied the man’s lyrics, I studied his poetry. I’ve learnt so much from Phil over the last few years; I think it’s made me a better performer, a better writer and a better musician, just from studying the great man’s work. That’s rubbed off on me, and so that’s part of who I am now. It’s ingrained in me, that influence, so it’s just a part of it now. I don’t even really think about it. I don’t try to sound like him, but I have the vibe. I think I’ve found the right line to sort of walk down the middle of it and keep the Lizzy fans happy, but also put enough Ricky Warwick in there as well to make it my own.
“Once you’re writing and you know it’s not a Thin Lizzy album… Obviously there are certain roads that we had to go down, and we’re very aware of making it appealing by trying to make it sound like a Lizzy record. That’s not so much the case now. Like I said, we’ll always still have that vibe and that feel because of what we do. It’s just there, but I think we can try anything. You’ve got a song like ‘Finest Hour’ on the new record, which I think is very far away from that Thin Lizzy sound. You’ve obviously got ‘The Killer Instinct’ which does sound a little bit like Thin Lizzy, so every avenue is open and everything you can explore. I think ‘You Little Liar’ has even got elements of The Almighty in it – the last track on the album. It goes back to my Almighty days, so I think there’s a good Almighty influence on there as well. I can just be me, and that’s what I enjoy about it.”
Ricky credits Nick Raskulinecz as being a central component in The Killer Instinct’s resultant sound. “Not that Kevin Shirley (producer for All Hell Breaks Loose) isn’t great, but we had a bit more time to record this time around. I feel the songs are stronger, and I feel that the band’s tighter. You’ve gotta remember that when we went in and did the first Black Star Riders album, Jimmy DeGrasso (drums) had literally been in the band for three days when we went in the studio to record. We hadn’t done any live shows as Black Star Riders. It was all completely new, uncharted territory for us, and we recorded that album pretty much live very, very quickly with Kevin.
“This time around, like I said, we’ve had two years of touring, two years of getting to know each other, and two years of establishing Black Star Riders. I think that makes a difference in the sound and the confidence, and just the general attitude in the songwriting. Then you put somebody who’s as experienced as Nick Raskulinecz as a producer into the mix. For me, it just took the whole thing up another level.”
Def Leppard vocalist Joe Elliott had initially approached Black Star Riders to sit in the production chair for The Killer Instinct. “Joe wanted to do the second Black Star Riders album and so we were gonna do it with Joe, which would’ve been fantastic,” the Black Star Riders frontman enthuses. “Joe’s a great friend of ours. We were gonna record in his place in Dublin, but then his year got really busy with Def Leppard. They went out on the Kiss tour, and started writing some new Def Leppard stuff. He just said ‘Look guys, I can’t give you the time that I promised you. I think it wouldn’t be fair of me to try and do your album when I’ve got all this other stuff going on.’ He had to pull out of doing the record, but we were very lucky.
“Nick Raskulinecz was somebody who we have always admired. Obviously, the Alice In Chains stuff sounds great. The Mastodon stuff and the Foo Fighters obviously just sounds fantastic. I mean, everything that the guy does sounds great to me. The last Mastodon album (Once More ‘Round The Sun, June 2014) I thought was really cool too, so it was a no-brainer. We didn’t think that we could get him, because we didn’t think that his schedule would fit with ours nor were we sure if he wanted to work with us. We got in touch with him, though. We invited him down to a show that we played in Nashville, Tennesee. He loved the band, loved the songs that we played him, and agreed to work with us – which he did. It was a wonderful experience. A great guy, absolutely brilliant.
“We recorded at his studio, just outside of Nashville. It’s great, a beautiful studio. It’s about ten miles outside of Nashville, in the countryside. There’s not much around there but beautiful scenery, so it’s a great place to make music. We just went there to make music. We didn’t really go out in Nashville at all, because we were too busy making the record. I think we actually went out for one night the whole time I was there. I just immersed myself in making this record, and these idyllic surroundings were really conducive to just getting in, and writing and playing and recording.”
Nick Raskulinecz is “quite an emotional person,” Ricky feels. “He lives and breathes music 24/7; he always talks about music, and music is always on. He’s always jumping up and down about it, which is very infectious. He gets really emotionally attached to the band. He throws himself into you as a person, as a band; what makes you tick, why you wrote that, why you’re playing that. We spent about a week in pre-production, going through all of the songs, working on arrangements, and working on parts. Then we went into the studio and started recording.
“He’s just full-on, hands-on. He’s there to basically produce, get the best out of us, get the best out of the songs, get the best sound sonically, and make the best Black Star Riders record that we can make. Like I said, he gets very emotionally attached. He becomes a member of the band for that time that you’re in the studio. He’s certainly a laid-back guy, but he’s got great people skills. He’s very good; he’s a very positive guy and very experienced, and all that just works to your benefit. He’s very motivational, and I would work with the guy again in a heartbeat. He was phenomenal.”
The recording approach of Nick Raskulinecz differs to that of Kevin Shirley, who produced All Hell Breaks Loose. “They’re completely different,” the lyricist critiques. “You’ve got two different people with two different personalities, and different ideas of how to record a band. Kevin is very much get in, get it done, and try to get it done as live as possible with a minimum amount of overdubs – capturing the energy and the attitude. Nick is definitely more ‘Let’s listen to what everybody’s playing. Let’s work on these arrangements. Let’s get the best out of the arrangements.’ Definitely more methodical, but he’s still all about capturing the vibe as well. Everything was still very much done live, but obviously we had time to go in and overdub stuff this time around, which suited us a lot better.”
Though schedules failed to align with respect to The Killer Instinct’s recording, Black Star Riders may nevertheless still work with Joe Elliott in future. “Listen, we wouldn’t rule anything out,” Ricky offers. “Joe’s a great friend of everybody in the band, and we love him. Somewhere down the line, whether he ends up playing or singing on something that we do, who knows. Yeah though, I would like to think that we’ll work with Joe at some point.”
The Killer Instinct’s lyrics are personal in nature, meanwhile. “It’s all written through my personal experiences, of what’s happened to me, friends, family, and situations that I have been in, or that they have been in,” the axe-slinger describes. “Each song tells a different story.”
‘Soldierstown’ was lyrically co-authored with Sam Robinson. “He’s a really good friend of mine from Belfast, and he’s a great writer,” Ricky compliments. “We had the idea for ‘Soldierstown’; Sam and I worked on that together, and then we based it around Scott’s riff. It’s a pretty dark song. It’s based on an idea, which is going around the world now. It’s about the whole terrorism thing, which happens a lot. You just get a knock on the door, and you basically have to give up your strongest child – your strongest son – to go off and fight. If you don’t, the other option is that they’ll slaughter your family. It’s about that scenario. You’ve got to kind of lose a finger to save a hand. It’s going down that road, about everything that is going on with ISIS and Iraq. Just the worldwide terror threat that’s going on right now, about how it’s corrupting the families and the people that live in these places, and the futility of it all, and the damage that it’s doing.”
The title track, on the other hand, was inspired by a biographical tome about boxer Muhammad Ali. “I was just really inspired by his whole attitude to life, about how he overcame all of the adversity, about his attitude just to living, and his attitude to becoming the greatest heavyweight champion in the world,” the singer divulges. “He’s a very positive guy; he had an attitude that no matter what he was gonna do, he was gonna make sure that he was the best at it and did it to the best of his ability. That really struck a chord with me. I thought that you can adapt that to everyday life, that you’ve gotta try your best and you’ve gotta be positive, and you’ve gotta have that killer instinct to move past all of the obstacles that life puts in your way.
“Again, I was watching the riot going on back home in Belfast last summer over all of these flag protests, just seeing the futility of it all. I thought about instead of just being the mindless kind of violence that comes with all that, how it would be great if these people tried to be positive and direct that aggression and anger in a more positive way instead of shitting on your own doorstep. It’s just bringing that positive attitude into life that you’ve gotta get out there. Yes, you’ve gotta have that killer instinct, but you’ve gotta use it in a positive way.”
The cover artwork design for The Killer Instinct shares stylistic traits with its predecessor’s artwork design. “That’s pretty much it,” Ricky confirms. “We wanted to do a continuation. Everybody was really identifying with the theme on the first album, and we felt that it was really strong imagery. It was something that we wanted to continue a little bit further, so we’ve got a B-17 bomber this time. It’s dropped the bombs, and it’s backing away – it’s done its mission. We’ve got a pin-up girl riding the bomb. It’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but it’s still got that rock ’n’ roll pin-up girl art thing that we really love. Like I said, it’s a continuation of our logo and our theme.”
A digipack edition of The Killer Instinct includes a bonus disc, featuring four acoustic renditions as well as two original compositions. “We write everything on acoustic guitars, me and Damon,” the axeman informs. “When it came down to wanting to do some acoustic stuff, it was very easy because it was all written that way. We sat and stripped it down, and they went on there as the bonus tracks for this deluxe edition. They were just recorded really quickly and as live as we possibly could, and I think they work pretty good. ‘Gabrielle’ and ‘The Reckoning Day’ were two songs that we recorded with Nick, but we decided that they weren’t gonna make the final ten, that they were gonna be the two bonus tracks. They’re rock ’n’ roll songs too, so go out and listen to them. ‘Gabrielle’’s an acoustic-based song, while ‘The Reckoning Day’ is a sort of full-on bluesy rocker with some great guitar work from Scott and Damon.”
The Killer Instinct number ‘Blindsided’ is more of a laid-back affair, as well. “It’s laid-back, in that it’s also an acoustic guitar-based song,” Ricky scrutinises. “It’s got quite a gritty lyric; it tells a story of a guy who’s basically had a problem most of his life with alcohol and drugs, a guy who falls in love with a woman who promises him salvation, to take him away and start a new life. He cleans up his act, and arranges to meet this woman. On the day they’re supposed to get out of the city and run away to this new life though, she fails to show up. He basically thinks ‘Okay. Well, maybe I was better off just being the guy that I was before this woman promised me the world. Maybe I was happy when I was just being drunk. Looks like I got blindsided.’”
The platter doesn’t boast the services of bassist Marco Mendoza, whose departure from Black Star Riders was publicly disclosed on May 30th, 2014. “Black Star Riders was always full-time, and it always has been,” the songwriter notes. “As soon as we started Black Star Riders, it was always about being committed to Black Star Riders. Everybody else in the band has other stuff going on, though. I have my solo stuff, Damon has his solo stuff, and Jimmy plays with a few other people, and the same with Robbie, but Black Star Riders is a priority and it comes first before everything else.
“Marco’s just a busy guy. Marco’s one of these guys who has a million things going on at the same time. He just couldn’t commit to Black Star Riders as much as he would’ve liked to and as much as we wanted him to, so he decided that he wanted to move on. Other stuff was starting to get in the way, and there were conflicts with scheduling and stuff like that. He made the move, and he saw that. He knew that, and it was fine. We wished him all the best – there was no drama. He said ‘I’ll do this American tour, and then I’m gonna step aside. I wish you guys all the best.’ We wished him all the best. None of us were particularly surprised. It happens.”
Erstwhile Lynch Mob and Ratt member Robbie Crane was named as Marco’s replacement. “Robbie was suggested by our drummer Jimmy DeGrasso, who had played with Robbie a few times in Ratt,” Ricky reveals. “Jimmy just said ‘This guy’s not doing anything right now.’ A great bass player, a great guy. Robbie came down and jammed with us. We played a couple of songs, and he just blew us away. He fitted in seamlessly, and he’s brought so much to the band. We really think that he’s the perfect fit for Black Star Riders. He’s more of an aggressive bass player than Marco, and I think that that suits our style. A great guy, great onstage, and just a real good addition to this band.”
Black Star Riders’ immediate aim is to tour the globe in support of its second offering, Thin Lizzy material naturally figuring among the setlist. “That’s what we do; put the record out, and then you get on the road and try to play to as many people as you can in as many countries as you can,” the frontman observes. “That’s really it. The Black Star Riders material goes down great. We’ve been playing eight or nine songs from the first record for the last year-and-a-half in our set, and that’s a big chunk of material that’s not Lizzy. Like I said, we wouldn’t be playing that many songs if it wasn’t going over in any great way, which it is. People have been really cool, and I think people want to hear the Black Star Riders stuff just as much as the Lizzy stuff. I think we’ll always play Thin Lizzy songs though, because – number one – we want to, and people expect it. I think there’ll always be some Thin Lizzy songs in the Black Star Riders set.”
In addition to fronting Black Star Riders, Ricky has cultivated a solo profile in recent years. December 15th, 2014 witnessed the PledgeMusic issue of two solo affairs: When Patsy Cline Was Crazy (And Guy Mitchell Sang The Blues) and Hearts On Trees. “When Patsy Cline Was Crazy (And Guy Mitchell Sang The Blues) is a full-on electric album, while Hearts On Trees is an acoustic album,” he outlines. “They’re only available if you actually pledged through the Pledge campaign, so you could’ve got download, vinyl, CD. They’re not gonna be commercially available until the end of 2015. I’m talking to a few labels at the minute, so hopefully I’ll find the right home for them and make it known when the time’s right.”
Further solo activity is hopeful. “It’s whatever I can fit around Black Star Riders,” the wordsmith clarifies. “We’re entirely busy with Black Star Riders at the minute, which is great, but if I get a break, obviously we’ll try to go out to promote the solo albums at some point.”
The Killer Instinct will be released on February 20th, 2015 in Europe (excluding the United Kingdom), on the 23rd in the United Kingdom and subsequently on the 24th in North America, all via Nuclear Blast Records.
Interview published in February 2015.