Black Star Riders - Manchester, March 2017

Ricky Warwick & Scott Gorham - photo credit Steven Holmes

Since forming in 2012, Black Star Riders have enjoyed exponential success. From their early shows in intimate venues to now playing to thousands on their latest sold out UK tour, the snow ball has become an imposing boulder as it’s made its way down the 4 1/2 year mountain. Along the way the band have released 3 albums: All Hell Breaks Loose in 2013, 2014’s The Killer Instinct and this year their 3rd album Heavy Fire. Released in February, the record has already had an enormous impact going to straight to number 6 in the UK charts and winning Planet Rock Radio’s The Rocks 2017 award for Best British album. 

We catch up with Black Star Rider’s drummer Jimmy DeGrasso at the Manchester show to chat about Heavy Fire and the band's incredible start to 2017.

Damon Johnson - photo credit Steven Holmes

Let's kick off first with what a huge impact your new album Heavy Fire has had. Released on 3rd February, you scored your very first top 10 album in the UK when it entered the charts at number 6 and last week saw Black Star Riders win Best British Album in Planet Rock’s The Rocks 2017 Awards. How does it feel to have this immediate success?

Well I don't know if he's been so much immediate success, it's been really a 4 year build when you think about it. The band started the middle to end of 2012, something like that, so it really hasn't been anything overnight or anything like that. But it feels great! We are all pretty pleased with it but nothing with this band has been immediate. There's been a lot of sweat equity put into this. This is our third headline tour of the UK. We did a few shorter legs and some festivals and then the Whitesnake and Def Leppard package in 2015, so we've been chipping away at it. It's nice to see the fruits of our labour after all these years. It's been nice!

You won Best British Album. With only 1/5 of the band being British how comfortable are you that the British have claimed the album as their own?

(Laughs) I have to chuckle at that! I appreciate it and I think it's great but it's funny because I’m like ‘okay who’s British? Oh, okay it's Ricky, he’s the UK passport holder’. Three of us are in California, one’s in London and one is in Nashville so I don't know what you’d call us at this point. An ‘international band’?

Scott Gorham & Jimmy DeGrasso - photo credit Steven Holmes

I suppose one of the interesting things is that this was voted for by the British public. So are you comfortable that the British people have adopted you as our own in that sense? 

Yeah, I think it's because we’ve coming to the UK for years now and I've been coming to the UK for a long time so I've always felt very at home here. So to me it's almost like a natural thing because trying to expose new music in America is sort of like trying to thread a needle with a watermelon at this point. It’s next to impossible. The UK has always been responsive to us ever since the beginning, you know ever since 2012/2013. So yeah I'm very comfortable with it and this is almost more of our home - and I don't want to say more than America - but this is more of where we base a lot of our decisions on and most of the people we deal with on a day-to-day basis are based in the UK as opposed to America - which is odd because in years past everything I've done is based pretty much solely in America but I'm completely fine with it. I like coming over here - except the weather of course (laughs).

Well Manchester is actually being very kind to you today!

I remember on the last tour when we came over here, it was the same thing in that we were here for 3 weeks, I was in Cambridge one day shopping in the walking mall and the sun came out. For a moment everybody stopped and went ‘AAahhh…’ and looked up. And as fast as it came out it went right back in and everybody went about their day (laughs). I always get a kick out of it coming over here because if I go into somewhere like Boots, I go in to pick up some things during the course of the day and I always laugh because there is this huge aisle full of sunscreen. And I'm like who can possibly need sunscreen here? It's also like when you go to the mall and there is a big sunglasses store. Why would you buy sunglasses? I don't even know where my sunglasses are at this point! But then someone said it's because it's for the people when they go on holiday. I get a great kick out of that! I'm going to buy some sunscreen and some sunglasses later (laughs)! 

Jimmy DeGrasso

Heavy Fire is an upbeat and infectious record. It's also a record that does appear to have some underlying reflections about the sometimes chaotic world in which we live in and about as individuals we can all make a difference. Would that be a fair statement or are they simply well crafted songs?

I think that is a fair statement and I think you've pretty much nailed it on the head. Ricky wrote the lyrics but of course we're all aware of what he's writing about and it is very poignant. You've pretty much hit the mark. Especially on the last tour, there's so much chaos everywhere, especially in Europe where we've had issues travelling because we have so much going on over here in Europe right now. It's affecting the UK and it's affecting everybody. Everyday there's so much going on. I don't know if maybe we're getting older and noticing it more but it just seems that it's affecting our daily routine of trying get around from country to country and there's always something we have to deal with, and I won't go into specifics and details, but the things we used to do 20 years ago when I used to travel over here, it was very simple. Now you have to deal with a lot of problems and we have to deal with a lot of people and turmoil, and there's a lot more places that are a little more turbulent and dangerous than there were. You certainly can't be naïve about it. These are situations we have to deal with while we are travelling and doing other things as far as touring. When we were here the last time, we were in Paris I think a few days before the shootings (Black Star Riders were in Paris on 4th November 2015, the shootings took place on 13th). I'd played that club a couple of times with other bands and I just never thought about anything like that happening. So these are things I wouldn’t have given a second thought to 20 years ago or 10 years ago that we have to concern ourselves with now. So yeah, it's reflected in Ricky’s lyrics. That's not to dwell on the negative, I think there's some uplifting messages on the record as well. That's the one thing with Ricky – he writes lyrics that tell a story. I've been in many bands over the years and in some of them it's sort of ‘fire’, ‘desire’, ‘love’ lyrics and there's really nothing there. It's basically what hook can we get on the radio, and this is going back years past to when the American radio active and all this stuff was in place in America. Here again you answer your own questions. I think our songs are well-crafted, our lyrics tell a story and if you listen you can sort of draw your own interpretations from them. Like Cold War Love, I mean listen to the lyrics. It's heavy and it's dark and I love that song. We had that in Nashville and we started going into pre-production and we have things flying left and right in terms of ideas and half done songs. We have wipe boards with titles and titles of songs, keys and chord changes, and I heard that. We put it together pretty quick, we played it twice and I said that's brilliant! And it wasn't even in its final form yet. I saw the lyrics and thought this is brilliant. It's just so perfect! Everyone else was like ‘mmm’ (acting casual) and I said this is going to be the standout track! I knew it from the second time I heard it. 

You mentioned Nashville. The album was recorded in Franklin, Tennessee. There’s a growing trend for bands to record their music in The Volunteer State. What is it about Tennessee that creates this draw? Is it Damon’s influence as he lives down the road?

Yeah, he wants to stay home! It's Nashville because our producer Nick Raskulinecz has a studio there. I like Nashville - I like LA and like doing records in LA personally – but we do it there because Nick’s studio is there and he likes to work out of there. I would like to do an album in London to be quite honest. We've done 2 in Nashville and 1 in LA and I would like to do the next one somewhere completely separate. Still use Nick but go somewhere geographically different. I think it's better when you put everyone out of there comfort zone and give them some new surroundings. Sometimes it gets some different creative juices going. But Nashville is great! 

Ricky Warwick & Scott Gorham - photo credit Steven Holmes

A recent publication said in a review of the album that Black Star Riders were ‘breaking away from the Thin Lizzy shadow’. Was that the intention or will there always be a respectful acknowledgement to the Thin Lizzy roots and legacy?

I think it wasn't intentional. We're not Thin Lizzy. Scott was in Thin Lizzy and there’s a way Scott will write some guitar solos or chord structures, and the same with Ricky because he came from that influence anyway so there's going to be that hint of that. So there was never an intentional process to be it or not be it. It’s always going to have a hint because of Ricky or Scott I think but we've never thought in those terms. We've just kind of done our own thing and everyone goes it's still haunting of Thin Lizzy. It's great. As long as people enjoy it, they can read what they want into it but there's never been any pre-thought to either be that way or not be that way. The only thing that really stands out other than some chord structures here and there is that I thought the guitar solo in Dancing With The Wrong Girl totally sounds like Thin Lizzy to me, which I thought was great. I said no thought to doing it and no thought to not doing it. I said that's brilliant and it reminded me of old Thin Lizzy, but other than that I don't really hear much of it. There's no real blues tracks or swings shuffles. Not really doing much of that. A couple of things are more like Motown soul music now which are different vibes to create song structures.

Absolutely! It does sound different to Thin Lizzy to me. Even from the very first track Heavy Fire we hear a couple of time changes in there and even slide guitar. Later in the album we hear flashes of funk (Thinking of You Could Get Me Killed).

Yeah, that's right!

Moving on to the Live shows, you are now mid-way through a 16-date UK and Ireland tour. These are your first shows since you concluded an arena tour with Def Leppard and Whitesnake in December 2015. How does it feel to be back out there playing live again?

It's great! In one respect it feels like we've been gone a long time but in another respect it feels like we've been gone about 2 weeks! When we got back together we hadn't played for a year and a half but then after you start playing for a few days it's just like putting on the same pair of shoes. They still fit and you just get up and go. It's fun, it's exciting. The first couple of shows you have to work out some kinks obviously, and we had to mess with the set list and make some changes here and there, but for the most part it's really been effortless. It's come along really well and I think the band's playing really well right now. 

Obviously you will have been playing some tracks from the Heavy Fire. What’s the audience reaction been to the new material?

Great! I was watching last night and a lot of people at the front are singing along to the new songs. They know the lyrics and that always amazes me because I remember on our very first tour we played Download and it was only a couple of weeks after our first record came out. I remember at Download I could see down to the barrier and a lot of people then were singing along to the songs. I think it's great and I'm always surprised because even I don't know all the lyrics! The response has been great. We can tell because if we put a song in, especially a new song, and the response is like luke-warm, we’ll take note of it and maybe shift things around, but we haven’t had any of that to the new songs. People really know all the new material so far. So it's been really positive. Sometimes you put a song in there because we really want to do it and then we realise people aren't as excited about it as we are so we might change it around, but it's been great so far.

I think one of the very interesting qualities about a Black Star Riders show is that they are multi-generational. You see grandads, dads and sons. This suggests as band with longevity and a massive future. That must be quite satisfying.

It is and you're right. It's interesting because we do get younger people and we do get middle aged people and we do get the older crowd that have been following rock music for a long time. So it's not  just one demographic that has embraced us, which is pure again – this is great – because back 20 or 30 years ago it was more like your demographic was smaller, say 16 to 21 or something like that. But now it doesn't have that. The demographic has more of a 40 year spread to it. 20 years ago your demographic had a 5 year spread. That's really interesting because I find that with the reluctance for some people to make new music, especially the stuff coming out of America, I find younger people and kids searching more for  older stuff and even classic rock. That's why classic rock has actually become more popular. I don't even know how you would categorise us anymore – some people call us classic rock. I don't know what you'd call us – because most classic rock bands really don't release new music and we do. I'm not afraid of any tag on that or any reference to us. When we make new records I think there's genuine interest. When more established artists make records, it's really just to give them a reason to maybe do another couple of years of touring. For us, we release new music because we have new music and we want to. You see a lot of kids today listening to the first AC/DC record or listening to old Zeppelin from 1969. My kids were the same way. They were into The Beatles for a long time and now they're into Nirvana and they're like "show me how to play Nirvana on the guitar". And that's like 1991. They're finding things via the internet, streaming or downloading. One of my kids loves Cheap Trick which is great. Younger kids don't care if it's old music. If it's good music it's good music!

Just taking a moment to reflect on your achievements as an artist, you have been part of some of the biggest bands in the world: Megadeth, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne and David Lee Roth to name but a few. How does being a part of Black Star Riders compare to the other bands you have been a part of?

Is hard to compare apples and oranges. I mean every situation has been completely different, whether I've been a band member or sort of a hired-gun – which some of those situations were which is totally fine. Everyone has been different. I've had a lot of exposure to a lot of great musicians and a lot of great music. It’s going to make a great book someday,  that's all I can tell you! It’s been a real interesting ride and it's been a long time. Even I'm still in shock to be quite honest. Black Star Riders is just another step in the journey I guess. I thought I'd be out of the business by like 1989. I was like I'll just make this Y&T record and see what happens and go back to college or something and it just kind of kept going and going. So even I am a bit surprised by it and I feel really fortunate. Black Star Riders has been great. It's been a lot of work, I'm not going to lie to you, and everyone’s really put a lot into it. It's been a lot of fun and hopefully it will just keep getting bigger and better so we’ll just wait and see.

You've been a part of Black Star Riders right from the very start and for over 4 years now. Does it feel like home?

Yeah! When you spend as much time together as we do you do become family - a dysfunctional family - but you do become family. It's been an interesting ride. There's been some great times and there's been some trying times, but it's home.

Whats next for Black Star Riders?

It's still a work in progress. I see touring. There’s festival dates added here and there and we’re trying to connect a few dots. I know we have offers from other regions. We're going to see if it’s viable to go to some different countries that we haven't been to before. We haven't been to Japan in a couple years so I see us going to Japan this year, possibly South America and possibly Australia. So I see pretty much touring this year and at the end of this year we’ll just reassess and figure out whether we tour more on this record next year or whether we will work on new material. We have to play it by ear. There is no master plan right now other than to tour and support this record as much as we can where possible. At the end of the year I think we'll probably sit down and get a plan together and figure it out.