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Exclusive Interview with Slave to the System Singer Damon Johnson

By Debby Rao, Boston Contributor
Sunday, March 19, 2006 @ 8:36 PM


"We are already playing some n

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Slave To The System are an exciting new band comprised of vocalist/guitarist Damon Johnson, and bass player Roman Glick of Brother Cane fame, guitarist Kelly Gray ex- Queensryche, and longtime Queensryche drummer Scott.Rockenfield.

Slave To The System recently released their self-titled debut album "Slave To The System", on Spitfire Records. The first single is entitled, “Stigmata", and could be easily compared to early Gun "N" Roses with heavily laden guitar hooks, a pulverizing rhythm section, and powerful vocals.

What makes Slave To The System stand apart, is that members of the band are able to shine away from their signature sound and stand on their own with a fresh, new energized sound. Slave To The System is a band that is made up of veteran musicians, who bring their unique style and musical influence to each song in their own individual way. Slave to The System are not afraid to experiment and deviate from their signature sound of Brother Cane or Queensryche to expand their creativity and bring a fresh new sound that is reminiscent of GNR but at the same time has a modern flair of an early Alice in Chains.

The band will embark on a Midwest Tour, which is slated to begin April 7.

I spoke with lead vocalist Damon Johnson about his new project. In this exclusive interview for KNAC.COM, Johnson offers an in-depth look at the making of Slave To The System, the new album, highlights of his career, and life as one most sought after musicians in the music industry today.

KNAC.COM: The new album is awesome; it has a great new sound. I'm from the Boston area, and we are hoping you make it out here soon with Slave To the System.

JOHNSON: That is a definite priority there is a lot of Rock and Roll fans in Boston for sure.

KNAC.COM: It is so great to see musicians of your status and talent in a new band that is making great music great again. It seems music these days is lacking great guitar hooks and lyrics that mean something. How did Slave to the System come about and did the band have a mission to bring solid songwriting back to the industry?

JOHNSON: Well I appreciate you saying that Debby. I think I can answer both questions effectively. Roman and I started Brother Cane in 1992. We made our third record in 98. That is when we met Kelly Gray. We really kinda fell in love with Kelly. He and I speak the same language creatively. I just really loved the spirit of making that Wish Pool record with him. As soon as we finished that record., right after that Kelly ended up joining Queensryche. He is from Seattle, he basically grew up with those guys, and he met them in high school. He called me and Roman from the road one day and was with Rockenfield and they had been talking about getting the four of us together. I really have to give Kelly the credit for being the brain seed. That’s when we got together for the first time I think it was 2001, the premise was that we were really going to go right into writing the material and possible do some recording. This was at Kelly's house in Seattle. What wound up happening was Roman and I stayed up there for three weeks. The record that we are releasing now 10 of the 12 songs were from that period of time. The whole thing happened super fast. The recording was easy to do because it was relaxed. We didn't have a record company, we didn't have managers, we didn't have anyone to answer too. Kelly had a studio in his house that is why is why it didn't cost us anything. So to take all of the usual worries out of the picture make it very unique, it had never been like that in any situation before.

KNAC.COM: How many new songs are on the album and did you have to remake any of the songs?

JOHNSON: No Debby, the only thing we did was re-master the songs. Again I have to give Kelly a lot of credit, he is an amazing engineer in the studio as well. We produced it as a band. Kelly was running the microphones and turning the knobs, and saying “Hey man let's record that acoustic again, I think we can get a better sound that this microphone.” That kinda stuff.

:KNAC.COM: How do you think it differs from the signature sound of Brother Cane and Queensryche, or to put it another way, did the band want to go into the studio and plan on doing something totally different from those two bands?

JOHNSON: We have been asked that question a lot. You have to believe me when I tell you; we never gave any thought to what the stuff would sound like. We just thought let's just start writing. You have to take into consideration each guy's input as a writer. In Queensryche it is primarily Geoff, Marco, and Chris Degarmo had written most of the material. In Brother Cane I did most of the songwriting. So Roman contributed more to the Slave To The System than the Brother Cane stuff. It was a great release for him, (a) great release for Rockenfield. Every review I have read on the board is like Wow! Slave To The System doesn't sound like Queensryche or Brother Cane. It is a straight-ahead rock band.

KNAC.COM: Back in the day the focus was on the lyrics as well as the melody. Do you feel that Slave To The System is all about that, and does re-create that kind of emphasis in song?

JOHNSON: Absolutely! I guess in a way, we all have been writing and making music since the period that proceeded video. Ya know everything is so image cautious now, probably more than ever. I can only speak of myself, but growing up in the South, I had so many different influences, I had so many great bands and artists that I could go and see. People I could talk to and learn from and ask questions. There were metal bands, there were gospel bands, there were R and B bands I just happen to pick rock; that is what I loved the most. All of those influences are there, they come out in the vocals, they come out in the melody, and in the songwriting. We just chose hard rock in a way to present it. I mean there are several songs on the Slave To The System record like "Gone Today, Live This Life." I mean you could do those with a R and B band , and it would still me a great song. It is just in the treatment that you give it.

KNAC.COM: I can hear some Southern influences on the new record.

JOHNSON: Those Southern influences I am proud of. In situations in the past, there were times I was in a band I almost wanted to get away from that. I was like, “We need to make a pop record,” or, “We need to get on the radio.” I was always kinda fighting that, but that is who I am. My influences are what they are. To be in that room with Kelly, Scott, and Roman in a situation where they totally wanted me to be whatever I wanted to be…I can't understate how important that was.

KNAC.COM: Brother Cane and Queensryche came out during the rock video era. Does having such great exposure from the videos help your career as well as your perspective?

JOHNSON: Really MTV had nothing to do with Brother Cane. We got so little airplay. Everything that happened to us was all on radio and thru touring. Queensryche were the much bigger success story and continues to be. That is something I know, Scott and I talk about often. I am very fortunate to be a member of a band like that and have the good fan base, and the wide range of appeal that they have. At the end of the day, all any of us want is to just have a career. The cool thing Scott is working with Queensryche, or me working with Alice Cooper, who I still work with, those artists are only going to work a certain amount of time. It's like music is why I get out of bed everyday. If Alice is off the road, I want to keep working. I have stuff that I want to do, songs that I want to write. I am proud of having these outlets with these guys. They are super talented that want to participate in something together. I feel like it is an extension of our careers for all of us.

KNAC.COM: Are you going to making a video for your song “Stigmata”?

JOHNSON: We would like very much to make a video, but I am not going to kid you. The thing that is hard for bands is to make a decision about spending the money to make a video. ‘Cuz there is a real chance, you can spend a large amount of cash on a video and then nobody even gets to see it. It is a real challenge. If it can get played and it can be used for a tool to reach more plans then by all means you need to step up and do it. We are still in the early stages of the record, and if it can make sense for us then we will do. Right now we are still kinda waiting to see. I know we can make a great video for "Stigmata" ‘cuz it is a great song.

KNAC.COM: Slave To The System is going to be doing some shows soon starting April 7, is it just going to be the Midwest?

JOHNSON: We are doing a complete run of shows in April. This particular leg of the tour is focused kind of in the Midwest, a lot of Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, I think we are reaching out to Kansas, we are going to try and tour the South a little bit, maybe Nashville, and then the next leg of the tour which will be in August or September, and then it would an absolute priority for us to get up the East Coast. We are getting a lot of airplay up here and there are a lot of people that want to see the band.

KNAC.COM: I can remember seeing you guys perform on Axis on Landsdown Street in the mid 90's…it was Heavy Metal Wednesday.

JOHNSON: What a good memory you have my dear, Yeah I remember that. That was cool. Boston is special to me cuz that is where Aerosmith, J.Geils, The Cars are from. Those are all bands that were big influences on me. To get up in that part of the country and play, there are a lot of people that like no frills straight-ahead rock. We felt kinda motivated when we saw the success of Audio Slave, even Velvet Revolver. I mean our record was already done. When those bands started selling and we saw people getting into that, we just thought well man Slave To The System is the perfect niche in that same direction. When people compare us to Sound Garden or Guns N’ Roses I mean we take that as a compliment. We love those bands. Just like so many millions of other people "Appetite For Destruction" just changed my life when that record came out.

KNAC.COM: As you get ready to go on tour, is the band excited about the great response that they have been getting from the album?

JOHNSON: Yeah, Kelly especially. Kelly isn't in Queensryche anymore. He basically did two tours and one record with them. The last two or three years, he has been spending a lot of time producing other bands in the studio. Now that we are doing our record and now touring, Kelly is like an animal out of the cage. He is so excited and everybody feeds off of that. What a fucking honor to stand up there and sing. And there is Scott Rockenfield behind me playing drums. I am a big fan of those guys especially "Mindcrime." I can't remember ever being more motivated to play and to go on the road and do the work then to be in the band with these people, I am definitely excited.

KNAC.COM: What is the difference between fronting your own band, and playing guitar for Alice Cooper? How do you make the transition?

JOHNSON: This has been a great last couple of years for me because I guess it is kinda like a guy who runs a business. Sometimes you want to have two or three businesses going at once. It is fulfilling for me as a musician to keep all of my chops kinda in shape to do everything. If it is playing guitar, if it is singing, if it producing, if it writing, I just look at this as my job. It is a job that love. I definitely enjoy putting in the time and punching the clock. It is Friday I am going to do some writing today, I am gonna play some guitar. To go on the road and play with Alice, who is a legend, he is a visionary, and continues to do great work. I have learned a lot from Alice and learned how to put a good show together, even about fronting a band. I can all of a sudden flip a switch, and zoom I am the guy up front with my guys. It is just fulfilling to wear the different hats.

KNAC.COM: I think Alice Cooper and David Bowie were the two artists that actually started the whole theatrical showmanship concept.

JOHNSON: I have to agree with you there. For Alice to be able to be doing this 30 years into his career is just great. I can think of the Stones, but there are not many people who are able to do this, but he is able to do this on that level.

KNAC.COM: You will heading out on the road with Alice soon, is that correct?

JOHNSON: Yes, As a matter of fact, I think there is a Canadian run in May, then we head over to Europe for June, the first part of July, we are doing a few dates in The States, then immediately after that is when we are going to go back out with Slave To The System. It is some juggling, as you would imagine, every body's schedules, but we are committed to it, and just gonna make it happen.

KNAC.COM: In the past, you have worked great guitarists like Sammy Hagar and Ted Nugent. What was it like working with these legends?

JOHNSON: As a kid I use to go see these guys. I had the posters on the wall. I had the cassette tapes in my car. It was awesome. My manager is like hey man when you talk about these other artist you gotta remember you are your own artist, you are your own rock star, so try and keep that in perspective. It is hard for me to try and separate myself from just being a fan. The enthusiasm from guys like Ted, and Sammy and Alice as many years as they have been doing it is just inspiring. For me to write with them and record with them is a learning experience. I am just grateful to them for seeing my talents and stepping up and saying hey man I dig what you are doing.

KNAC.COM: I can see that all of the experience is definitely paying off and I think it is the right time for the debut of Slave To The System. The music industry is all about being at the right time, at the right place and I think it is the right time now for a new super group.

JOHNSON: I couldn't agree with you more. I do think there is some timing in our favor. We certainly want to do everything we can to do spread the word and turn as many people on to this as we can.

KNAC.COM: The world can hear KNAC.COM now. Scott Rockenfield has done so many great interviews for KNAC.COM. I know in the past KNAC.COM were big Brother Cane supporters.

JOHNSON: I appreciate that a lot. It is funny, when Brother Cane first came out; KNAC was our one outlet to get our music played in California. It gave us a good excuse to come to Los Angeles and play a show.

KNAC.COM: How did you feel about the Grunge scene taking over the heavy metal scene in the 90's?

JOHNSON: Well Brother Cane came out in the 90's. I always kind of look at it like there was all the 80's hair stuff, and then Guns N’ Roses came out and really added a big shot of fuel in the whole thing. I was never a fan of modern 80's stuff. I was listening to more Southern stuff, more like British rock stuff like that, I mean GNR and then the Black Crowes in ‘89 or ‘89, is like that is when it made me say to myself, “Hey Man, you’re gonna start a band, you are gonna get a record deal.” Brother Cane, our first record came out in ’93. We met so many great bands. People from our region even Blind Melon, we use to play show for those guys, and then we would meet other guys on the road like Soundgarden, or Alice In Chains. I mean there was so much great music going on at that time.

KNAC.COM: Did you get to play with Alice In Chains?

JOHNSON: We never got to play with them but we met Jerry a couple of times, we were just listening to those records and going, “Hell Yeah! These guys are making great music and writing great songs.” There was more of an art than just, “Hey let's try and write a song, get it on the radio and have a hit and have a lot of money.” There was more expression in the songs and writing.

KNAC.COM: What about Pantera? Were you a big fan of Dime?

JOHNSON: I was definitely always in awe of Dime's guitar playing. The fact that those guys could make an impact in a genre that was really dominated by Metallica…Pantera kinda took it to a huge level. I got to spend some time with Vinnie and Dime at a music convention out in California. I was so flattered that they knew who Brother Cane was. But they were fans. Dime said he had the record. He was talking about he and his girl use to listen to our record in the hot tub. That is hot! I love it. His energy has left a hole for sure.

KNAC.COM: What is your favorite thing about touring, and what do you enjoy most about being on the road?

JOHNSON: The thing I dislike the most is just being away from my family. My wife and my kids…they rule my life. I wouldn't want it any other way. I am cool with traveling; it was my dream when I was younger. The best part without a doubt is being able to play for the fans. Getting to talk to the fans after the show. If it was not for them, we just can't go thru it. We have to have their belief in the songs and in the sound. It is going to be a lot of fun when we do this run in April ‘cuz the record has had a chance to get it's wings. People will have had the record; they will be more familiar with the songs. It will be great to seeing them sing along and hang out after wards.

KNAC.COM: What has the highlight of your career been? What are you most proud of accomplishing as a musician?

JOHNSON: Wow, that is a good question. I guess this is my favorite record that I made, and Brother Cane did some good quality work. These are songs I am gonna play for my grandsons someday and I will say I wrote this. Me and my guys we made this record and this is a special piece of work. I guess the thing that I am proudest of the most would be the vibe that my music always has. I am proud for the direction of it. I don't think I have ever written or recorded anything that I am ashamed of. I mean no offense but some of those bands that we were talking about from those 80's band, they gotta see some of the videos and kinda go, “Oh my God, what was I thinking?” (Laughter!) I met a lot of great guys that when I played in bands that were older than me, and they use to ride my ass about that stuff. They would say you need to be listening to Bob Dylan, you need to be listening to Johnny Cash, or the Beatles, studying those songs. There is no way of knowing that far back that I would be able to work with the great artists I have and write the songs I have. I am proud of the thread of consistency that has fallen thru all of the different records that I made.

KNAC.COM: I know you probably don’t have much time to do hobbies, but do you like to play golf? I know Alice Cooper is a big golf fan.

JOHNSON: Deb, you hit it right on the head with a bulls eye. I love it. I started back in the Brother Cane days. It just became a great outlet to kinda go and clear your head, to relax and do something that you are out in the middle of this beautiful scenery. You always get to meet these great people. Golf is something I enjoy very much. I am a huge sports fan in general. I watch a lot of ESPN. We're getting ready for the baseball season.

KNAC.COM: Are you a Red Sox fan or Yankees fan?

JOHNSON: I’ll tell ya this: I was pulling for the Sox.. It was their time. So many great talents on that team I felt were real deserving. For the team to have so many people, so passionate, it was the story of the decade. My tour manager in Alice Cooper is a huge Yankee fan, so we had a lot of fun with that. I will never forget him sitting there on the bus totally like rubbing it in that the Sox were gonna get blown out. I mean it was 2 outs in the bottom of the ninth in the forth game. For The Sox to come back from that, I don't think any other team in any other sport in history is going to be able to re-live that. That was the most singular, incredible thing that has ever happened. Let's face it…it was the biggest choke of all time on the Yankees part. You had to feel good about it.

KNAC.COM: That was such a great moment. I think a lot of people almost had heart attack form the excitement. The sad thing was my Dad is the biggest Red Sox fan in the world, and he went to bed early, because he was so disgusted. He watched the replay on TV the next day.

JOHNSON: I am sure he wasn't the only one. I am sure a lot of Red Sox fans did that. (Laughter!)

KNAC.COM: What can the fans of Slave To The System expect to see from you this year?

JOHNSON: Ya know what? Believe it or not, we are already playing some new material. There is a couple of songs that we got in the set. We already got another batch of songs written and recorded and mixed. We want to put another record out a year from now. They can definitely look to hear the newer stuff. We are playing a couple Brother Cane songs, and we are playing a couple of Queensryche songs. We've just trying to have a good time. Our job is to entertain people. The bottom line, we're entertainers. I don't every wanna be one of those guys that is going to do what I want and everybody has to like it. Give the people want they want.

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