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Gnarly Charlie hangs out on the Alice Cooper tour bus and chats with guitarist Damon Johnson

By Charlie Steffens aka Gnarly Charlie, Writer/Photographer
Wednesday, August 23, 2006 @ 7:38 PM


"I was a fan. I wasn’t a huge

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“The fountain of youth? The first thing you gotta have is a relationship with Lady Clairol (laughs). And secondly …I don’t know what it is, man. I’ve always said a lot of it is just the music itself.”

The classic Alice Cooper group line up was comprised of guitarists Michael Bruce and Glen Buxton, bassist Dennis Dunaway, drummer Neal Smith and a rather odd fellow named Alice Cooper, who sang. The band was the epitome of what a long haired rock and roll band was supposed to be back in those days, though its singer seemed a bit deranged compared to other singers who were on the scene at that time. During the mid-70’s “Billion Dollar Babies” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy” were getting continuous play on the AM and FM airwaves, and the shock-rock theatrics of Alice Cooper’s electrifying stage show made legions of fans. The records sold in the millions.

Over 30 years have passed since the original band split, and since that time Alice has hired many different musicians who he has written, recorded and toured with. Great players have been in Cooper’s employ since day one, which is a blessing, since man can only get by on his striking good looks, boa constrictors and mascara for so long. Alice has it all these days, however, currently touring with a group of musicians that sound as good as their predecessors.

Damon Johnson was hired by Alice Cooper in August of 2004 to join the touring band and soon played a key role to the songwriting of 2005’s Dirty Diamonds. Johnson had brought with him a wealth of experience, being the frontman and lead guitarist of Brother Cane as well as writing songs that have been recorded by Stevie Nicks (“Everyday”) and Carlos Santana/Steven Tyler (“Just Feel Better”), among others. Johnson’s most recent project outside of the Alice Cooper Band has been his involvement with Slave to the System, who is to be back in the studio recording new material soon. Meanwhile Johnson is out “having the time of his life”, as he calls it, playing guitar with the legendary Alice Cooper.

KNAC.COM: How did the job with Alice Cooper come about?

JOHNSON: Well, one of the guitar players here, right before I joined, was Eric Dover. Eric and I grew up together in Birmingham, Alabama. We kind of came up in the scene together there, and while I was in Brother Cane Eric did so many amazing things. He was in Snakepit with Slash and he was in Jellyfish for a while, and had his own band Imperial Drag. He wound up working with Alice and he was getting ready to move on to do more of his own stuff. He just called me one night and he said “Hey man, if you’ll just get to the audition, however you can … get there –you’ll get the gig.” I went ‘How can you be so sure?’ He says “Well, because you sing, you play, and you write.” You do all the things that Coop is gonna want in a guitar player.” I was just pretty skeptical. I was a fan of Alice growing up, for sure. I just assumed …I kind of went in there thinking it would be a little more image heavy, like he would want some guy to have the right look. At the time I auditioned my hair was really short –I don’t have any tats yet, man. My wife’s still on me to make that happen (laughs). And on top of that, our son, Gabriel, was born on a Tuesday and I flew to LA two days later for the audition. The night he was born, he and my wife are asleep in the hospital room and I’m sitting in the chair with my iPod learning all the songs that they had sent me the disc of for the audition. It worked out just like Eric said. I went out and jammed with those guys and it was a big deal the day that Alice called me and he said “Hey, if you want the gig it’s yours.” And I’ve just been having the time of my life ever since.

KNAC.COM: Did you know the whole song catalog prior to the audition?

JOHNSON: I was a fan. I wasn’t a huge fan. There were probably 4 albums that I was really familiar with, but I remember talking with some of my friends, particularly on the West Coast and they all said the same thing. They’re like “Man, you’re going to have so much fun, because Coop has so many great songs and it’s so guitar heavy.” It was that way right from the beginning. There hasn’t been one song that we’ve played in the set that I discount or sweep under the rug. They’re all amazing. They’re all great songs.

KNAC.COM: You’re still involved in Brother Cane?

JOHNSON: Well, yeah …I’m hanging on to this pipe dream that we’re going to be able to do another album, whether it’s with the whole original band or with some other guys. Brother Cane was always sort of my thing and it was definitely an outlet for me to show a lot of my Southern influences and things that I had grown up listening to. I love the history of that band, I love all the songs, and I love to go out and play them anytime. And if we can have the vehicle of a new album as some extra fuel to get out there and play –I would love that.

KNAC.COM: How about Slave to the System?

JOHNSON: Slave is something that I hope continues on forever. I just spoke to Scott [Rockenfield] today, as a matter of fact. They’re in rehearsals at home in Seattle, getting ready to do another run of dates in the US. I think we’ve got 8 songs in the can. I mean, written, recorded, mixed, ready, finished. If we can do another 6 or 8 and then pick the best of that, we’d love to get the second album out as soon as possible.

KNAC.COM: What kind of equipment do you use?

JOHNSON: I guess the first thing I got to talk about is these custom guitars I’ve been playing from ESP. Allen Steelgrave, Matt Masciandaro and the guys from ESP have been incredibly supportive right from day one. As a matter of fact, I have to thank Eric Dover again for that, because he had played some of their stuff. My good friend, Allen from over there came down to my first LA show bearing gifts, and we’ve been working together ever since. Only recently I have reconnected with my long time good friend Rick St. Pierre, who is the owner and designer of Wizard Amplifiers. For the last couple of years I’ve been working with the guys at Krank down in Phoenix, who are amazing cats and they make some great stuff. Rick and I have known each other for about 10 years and there was vacancy for another guitar tech and I was just calling him on a fluke thinking he wouldn’t be into it, because Rick works with Angus and Malcolm Young all the time and I knew they had been working on a new album. So he’s like “Yeah, man, I’m in” and I was like ‘Holy shit. That’s awesome.’ So he shows up and we just start going tone crazy. I’ve had a couple Wizards at home where I keep all my gear, so right before he came out we brought both amps out. Right now I’ve got this monster tone. It’s so much fun, man, to have not just the fans come up and comment about it but even the guys on my crew that hear that hear the show every night. The lighting guy or the monitor guy, they’re like “Dude, that’s the fuckin’ most rad guitar sound I’ve ever heard in my life.” I’m really proud of all my gear, man. I’m kind of a geek about this stuff, you know? Especially when it sounds as good as it does right now.

KNAC.COM: I saw your birth date on your bio and I thought there’s no way. You have to tell us how you keep your youthful look.

JOHNSON: The fountain of youth? The first thing you gotta have is a relationship with Lady Clairol (laughs). And secondly …I don’t know what it is, man. I’ve always said a lot of it is just the music itself. I have kids of my own that I adore. I have 4 incredible kids and I kind of live vicariously through them.

KNAC.COM: Ages?

JOHNSON: I’ve got three teenagers, ages 13, 15 and 19. And I’ve got my two-year-old, Gabe. Heather is a sophomore at the University of Alabama and my son Marshall is playing linebacker for the Thompson Warriors, down there. My daughter Sarah is a cheerleader and probably the most gifted musician I know. She just won’t do anything with it (laughs). She’s great on the piano. She has a great ear. She just kinda has that same gift that I was lucky to be born with. She can pick out things on a piano or on a guitar –melodies and things like that. I know if she would apply herself a little bit she could really do something with it.

KNAC.COM: What is your favorite Alice Cooper song to perform?

JOHNSON: I really love “Go to Hell” because Goes to Hell was this album that I just fell in love with. I remember being in the record club, the Columbia House record club and I didn’t send in the statement one month by accident, so they send you the record anyway if you didn’t send it in. We play poker in the back of the bus almost every night and typically Alice always wants to hear something that’s not rock. So we’ll listen to Sinatra, we’ll listen to some reggae, or we’ll listen to some …we had this avant-garde, like big band shit the other night. Well, one night he pops on the bus and he says “Hey man, I really want to listen to this.” And it was Goes to Hell. I said ‘Wow, that’s weird. You wanna listen to one of your own records?’ And he’s like “This is my favorite record.” And that was kind of validating for me, because everybody debates what the best Alice Cooper record is and Goes to Hell isn’t always on that list. So to get it from the man himself shows that I’m a genius too (laughs).

Click on the thumbnail shots for larger pictures.





Photos by Charlie Steffens aka Gnarly Charlie


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