In 2012, Black Star Riders seemed like a Thin Lizzy footnote; a covers band, a side project. Scott Gorham, Lizzy guitarist since 1974, had already been keeping the spirit of Lynott and co. alive with various line-ups. Impressed by two of the latest additions – frontman Ricky Warwick, formerly of punk-rooted hard rockers The Almighty, and ex-Alice Cooper guitarist Damon Johnson (who had also co-founded southern rockers Brother Cane) – Gorham saw potential to step away from the Lizzy moniker and form a brand new band. He asked Warwick and Johnson if they had any new songs. They did, and Black Star Riders was born, albeit beneath the shadow of the group they came out of.
Things have since progressed beyond anyone’s expectations. Second album The Killer Instinct hit the UK Top 20 (having been set to enter at No.5, the band tell us, until the Brit Awards “wiped everyone out”). Now, having completed their third record, Heavy Fire, Black Star Riders find themselves with a hefty catalogue for a band that have only been going for four years. Not to mention a robust fan base, covering a fairly even split of long-time Lizzy fans and new converts.
“I think we were all surprised we got to do a third album,” Gorham says in a weathered Californian accent that hasn’t left him, despite the fact that he’s lived in London since 1975. “And there’s the younger element in the audience right now, the people who are way too young to even know about Thin Lizzy. They’re strictly there because of what they heard on the radio or because someone gave them the BSR album.”
Dressed all in black, with a manner that’s part no-bullshit pro, part friendly uncle, Gorham is very much the group’s cool elder statesman. His bandmates with him today – brawny, tattooed Irishman-turned-LA resident Warwick and Nashville-based Johnson – are clearly slightly in awe of him. Rendezvousing at Classic Rock HQ after not having seen each other in six weeks, there’s a lot of very warm handshaking, backslapping and catching up chit-chat.
“The reaction I get is: ‘What, you’ve done three [albums] already?!’” enthuses Johnson, the smiley, Skynyrd-loving chatterbox in BSR. “Without a doubt The Killer Instinct was on our minds [while making Heavy Fire]. It was a big transitional album for us – beyond All Hell Breaks Loose. I wouldn’t call it pressure, but there was definitely an awareness that we had two good albums under our belt and we had to at least aim to raise the bar even higher. And I feel like we did.”
Written mostly by Warwick and Johnson, Heavy Fire streamlines elements of all the BSR histories into one, riffy whole. Naturally there’s a little Lizzy in there; shades of those inimitable guitar harmonies slide in between driving, heavy grooves and punky swagger. Importantly, however, it builds on The Killer Instinct in solidifying Black Star Riders as a band in their own right – not a tribute, or side project. And it sounds like the work of a band enjoying themselves, rather than fighting against their legacy.
“I don’t think we’ve lost that instinct we had when we were fifteen or sixteen of just turning everything up and making a racket and really enjoying it,” says Warwick. “I think that’s still with us. Maybe a little rusty, but it’s still with us.”
“There’s also, I think, a workmanlike element to our band,” adds Gorham. “We don’t fuss about it very much, we just think: ‘Okay, that’s a cool riff. Let’s try and work that one up, see what it sounds like.’ The chord sequences are a lot more different this time, there’s a different feel, especially from Ricky. He’s really come into his own as a singer/songwriter.”
For Warwick, who last year also released a solo double album, When Patsy Cline Was Crazy (And Guy Mitchell Sang The Blues), Heavy Fire forms part of an intensely productive, frills-free work ethic.
“If you don’t write constantly, in my opinion, then you’ll put on pressure when the record company goes: ‘You need to make an album’, and suddenly you go: ‘Shit, I haven’t written any songs’, and you have to go and get the cottage in the middle of nowhere and all that bullshit,” he growls with relish. “Y’know: ‘I need to get away from everything,’ blah blah blah, which I think’s fucking shit. You should be able to write songs anywhere. If they said [to us]: ‘You’ve got to go into the studio in two weeks and record another three songs,’ we have them.”
Like The Killer Instinct, Heavy Fire was recorded in Nashville with producer Nick Raskulinecz, the Grammy-winner known for work with Rush, Foo Fighters, Ghost and scores of others. What was different this time?
“Nick was really pushing us,” Johnson replies. “He didn’t give us that comfort zone as much [as before]. He pushed all of us.”
“It kept the fear there,” says Gorham. “Fear can be a great motivator, no doubt.”
“We brought in twenty songs, and he said:‘You need another song,” Warwick recalls. “At which point I had to stop myself from running across the room and smacking him in the mouth. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a genius. But he got me so angry that the guys left the room and I just grabbed the guitar and started playing Letting Go Of Me, which is the last song on the album, and it’s all about Nick – it’s all about me wanting to kill him. But it made the record, and he made it happen. He fired me up. And being the thick Paddy that I am, I fell for it.”
Lyrically, Warwick feels this is their most politically charged album, appropriately, after a year not lacking in political controversy. “There’s so much to write about at the moment,” he says.
What are your feelings on Brexit, Trump, so many stars dying…
“Shock and awe,” Johnson says with a sigh.
“I think the Brexit thing is okay,” Gorham reckons. “I think Britain is gonna come out of this on top. But I never thought that Trump was gonna get elected. I woke up the next morning, and there was that horrible thing when you see that the next US president is Donald fucking Trump. And I thought: ‘Really?!’ And to this day it just seems unreal that this game-show host – I don’t look at him as a builder, I look at him as a game show host – is now gonna be running the world.”
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Rewind to the summer of 2016, and the BSR men here today were headlining Ramblin’ Man Fair – as Thin Lizzy. The reception they received after their set was unanimous delight. Today, it’s tempting to read such a performance as a means of drawing a line under the Lizzy era; as a swansong for the band that started it all. Was it? And if so, did that colour the making of the new BSR album?
“I think it’s probably the end for long extended tours,” says Gorham. “But I think there’s always going to be a place where we can do these one-off special events. We all still love playing those songs, they’re still great vehicles for musicians to play on. To kill it off stone dead I think would be the wrong thing.”
After years of playing classics such as The Boys Are Back In Town, have their feelings for those songs changed over the years?
“I know Ricky in particular was nervous. He wanted to make sure the Phil [Lynott] thing came over in a true fashion,” Gorham says. “I said: ‘Listen, you’re gonna have to stop worrying about that. I’ve asked you to come here and be the guy in the spotlight because I like what you do. I wanted the Ricky Warwick personality. And that’s what he’s given over the years. It could’ve been so easy to get one of the lookalike and soundalike guys.
“And if you look at each album Thin Lizzy did, it was always different from the last one. And I think that might have killed a lot of popularity of the band [laughs], because we didn’t go down that certain path every single time. But then I get other people going: ‘No, that’s why we really love you – we never knew what we’ were gonna get.’”
For Warwick and Johnson, getting to play songs they’d adored as kids was a huge part of the appeal of BSR.
“Damon and I have such a connection to these songs because they were the soundtrack of our youth,” Warwick explains. “Certainly with me being Irish there was a huge connection there, and pretty much everything that Phil sings has some sort of connection on a personal level. So when I sing them I’m singing them like my life depends on it. I’m singing somebody else’s songs, but they mean so much to me. So I’m not just going up and thinking: ‘Isn’t this great? I’m singing a Thin Lizzy song’, I’m going: “These have to be delivered with heart and soul and passion.”
“I may have played Jailbreak and The Boys Are Back In Town as many times as Scott Gorham has,” Johnson says, grinning. “I’ll be playing those songs until the day I die.”
Indeed, given the enduring affection that surrounds the Thin Lizzy songbook, you can understand BSR’s reluctance to ury it forever. And perhaps it’s this acceptance of their past that allows them to fully embrace their present – unhindered by any chips on their shoulders, or the need to totally separate themselves from their roots. The odds were stacked against them when they started, but with their third album it seems they’ve made that rarest of transitions: from revived 70s group to new 21st-century band.
“It’s kind of validation, don’t you think?” Gorham muses. “We can have fans from all these different eras. It’s pretty cool.”
As for BSR’s future, as far as Warwick’s concerned it’s only just beginning.
“Why would we stop now?” he says, simply. “We all really enjoy each other’s company, and I think that’s important. We’re proud of what we’ve achieved. So let’s keep going. It doesn’t feel like it’s reached anywhere near the end. For me it feels like we’re just getting started.”
Heavy Fire is out now via Nuclear Blast. Black Star Riders tour the UK from March 2 to 19