Jimmy DeGrasso of Black Star Riders
With a monstrously successful career that includes work with everyone from Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Suicidal Tendencies and Megadeth, Jimmy DeGrasso is definitely a drummer that leaves fans saying “What could possibly come next?”
We recently caught up with DeGrasso to ask him just that. He told us all about his latest collaboration – Black Star Riders – with several members of the current lineup of Thin Lizzy. Their first disc All Hell Breaks Loose debuts today (May 28) in the US. Check out all the details below.
Interviewed by: Roger Scales
Your new band Black Star Riders was born from the last incarnation of Thin Lizzy. With the amount of talent contained in BSR does it feel like a brand new band for you with something to prove?
Boy that’s an interesting question. In some ways I think so. A lot of people were curious what we were going to do. The band had a solid foundation so I do think there was an expectation for something solid. The last lineup of Thin Lizzy did really well. It did so well that Scott (Gorham) felt he needed to create a musical entity outside of the Lizzy legacy. He started to create some new material with Damon (Johnson) and Ricky (Warwick) and that’s how Black Star Riders was born. There were a lot of people that wanted it released as Thin Lizzy and others that were vehemently opposed it being released as Thin Lizzy. It’s been a very unusual situation (not in a negative way) of what are we going to do with this great music? At the end of the day after much debate we ultimately decided to just change the name. Honestly not much has really changed other than, with no disrespect to Brian (Downey) the drummers have changed because Brian decided that he didn’t want another round of a heavy touring cycle this year. Something I totally understand because it’s really hard to be away from home. When we decided not to continue on with the name Thin Lizzy something that we really could have done, the record label (Nuclear Blast) after considering it for a day or so still wanted to release this because they felt so strongly about the material. It wasn’t the name Thin Lizzy that had attracted them to the project but the strength of the songs themselves.
Were all five of you actively involved in the writing process for you debut album All Hell’s Breaks Loose?
No not for the most part. A few things here and there. They (Scott, Damon & Ricky) had been working on these songs for the better part of two years and there were a few things that I had listened to initially in demo format that was in acoustic guitar with Ricky singing so I had to then make something out of it. The funny thing about the song ‘Bound For Glory” it was never demoed in any format. It was something that Damon and I had been messing around with in an LA rehearsal room the day before we went to the recording studio. Damon was like I’ve got these cords and I have this idea let’s just jam on this. We started messing around with it and within about thirty minutes and had this thing pieced together. We did a little changing here and changing there and I thought it had some potential for a cool song and didn’t really think much of it because we already had a lot of material already to go. We took it and tracked it a couple of days later with Kevin (Shirley- Producer) and I thought it was really starting to sound good. Then Scott came in and he added a guitar lead. I was in the control room with Kevin and we both started laughing and then we both said ok now it sounds like Thin Lizzy! As soon as you put Gorham on it, it sounds like Thin Lizzy.
Another funny story along with this one, there was a band right next to us in the studio in LA and one of their assistants told me this he was right outside our room while we were tracking and he’s like these guys have really copped the whole Thin Lizzy vibe. Whoever these guys are they owe a lot to Thin Lizzy. When I told him who we were he was like Oh, never mind! I’ve heard a lot of different takes on the record so far. Somebody said to me it really could have been the next Thin Lizzy record. Couple of people at the label have also said that also and I take it as a compliment. It wasn’t pre mediated with that sole intent. I know these guys well and I know how they create and they didn’t just sit down and say let’s write a Thin Lizzy type song. It’s just the way they write. Damon has been a huge Thin Lizzy fan since he was a little kid and Ricky has the whole Lizzy legacy in his bloodline as well so working with Scott the songs just flowed naturally. I hear hints and traces of that here and there throughout each track. It’s not intentional really it just happened.
The creative process has been really interesting to watch because it’s been really organic no premeditated notions to do one thing over another. I’ve been in bands where the whole focus of the song is ok we are going to cop this vibe, we are going to sound like this, I got this idea from this other single I heard and so on. There is no discussion like that in this band. We just come up with licks and ideas and just sort of piece them all together. We are still writing even now even though the record is done. We had 24 songs for this record. As soon I said I would do this back in October (2012) they sent me demos. Then they sent me more demos. Then they sent me demos that weren’t even demos they were just Ricky & Damon singing some ideas on acoustic guitars. So then they were like make a drum thing out of this. Ok..all right. That’s still going on now. They have all still been writing and I know that there are plans to write when we go to Europe in early June. Right now all of the creative juices are really flowing so we want to take advantage of it. I’ve been in bands were there were no creative juices flowing because they have all dried up. It’s a really exciting time for all of us.
There is quite a buzz about your first single “Bound For Glory” was it tough to pick a first single?
Yes. It really was. Working with Nuclear Blast we don’t have the traditional label/band relationship like back in the day you have an A&R guy who says you need a couple of songs like this..oh I don’t hear a single. Go back and write a couple more songs like this. Then suddenly he says OK that’s your single. Then you focus everything on that one song because that’s the one that’s going to radio first. Radio is a lot different now so that methodology is outdated. We basically had the record completed and we were all listening to it and I had a couple of thoughts and I think based on that everybody was pretty much on the same thought process and the label had their point of view. It pretty much could have gone a couple of different ways for me and that was the one that came up and I said Yes..ok. Ultimately at the end of the day it really is the bands say for the final decision but we want to be working with the label and forge that lasting relationship. I thought it was a good pick. I think it’s a good representation of the band along with a strong song.
Have you ever worked with producer Kevin Shirley and what was that experience like?
No I haven’t. I was familiar with a lot of the work he done and the bands he was worked with (Journey, Rush, Iron Maiden, Mr. Big, Aerosmith, Dream Theater, Black Country Communion) so I was a fan. I think he’s a great producer but our paths had never crossed. Kevin’s great. He’s very low key. He’s one of the guy’s. He’s a musician himself. He’s got a great work ethic and he works very fast. When I first talked to him he was like we will do a track per day break for dinner and we’ll be done. I had never done a record like that before. We would literally get to the studio around 11 or 1130 and screw around in the studio for awhile and we would start playing and Kevin would just record it. By 5 o’clock we had a finished song. In the past the way I had normally worked you do drums first, do about 3 or 4 drum tracks per day. Then you did bass tracks for 3 or 4 days. Then guitar solos for a week or 2 weeks then vocals which would be another 2 weeks so now your 6 or 7 weeks into it and you haven’t even heard a finished song. Most of our stuff was done live. Almost no overdubs or anything touched up. Most of the guitar solos were done on one take. I don’t think any of the drum tracks or bass tracks had to be done over. A lot of Ricky’s vocals were all done live. I don’t think Kevin touched any of his vocal tracks. He would leave him singing in a cavern in the middle of the studio and it’s really organic. What you hear is exactly how the band sounds like.
Looks as if you have some dates booked for Europe in early June and then again in late November. Are there any plans to our in North America in 2013?
Right now it’s all up in the air. We’ve got those dates booked in Europe in early June and then we come home. We kind of have to let the record get out for a month or two before we do too much. The fans need a chance to hear it and digest the new material. We are hoping to hit the states in late summer or early fall. The dates in the UK in late fall have already gone on sale and tickets are moving really well. We are done by December 15. After that we are coming home for the holidays and then Asia possibly in January and then there is talk again of getting back into the studio in February or March of 2014 to record the next record. Then head back out on the road in the spring of next year and spend almost all of next year touring. We do have a game plan in place and hopefully it will all pan out.
At 50 years old Jimmy your resume is quite impressive having played & recorded with Ozzy Osborne, Y&T, Suicidal Tendencies, Alice in Chains, Alice Cooper, Megadeath, Lita Ford, White Lion, David Lee Roth, Stone Sour, Dokken, Marty Friedman, Mama’s Boys, F5, Fiona, is there anybody you haven’t played with?
The Beatles! I’ve been really fortunate I’ve always seemed to get calls to play drums! I still do. It’s what I love doing so it’s just worked out that way.
The first record I ever heard you on was Y&T’s Ten which was also the last record the band did before breaking up in 1991. Now you only played on a handful of tracks with Steve Smith playing on the rest. Did you enter into that project after it had already started?
No, that was a weird one. We did the Contagious record (1987) and then Geffen Records had us writing songs for two years straight. John Kalodner was our A&R guy he was really picky and when we finally go to the studio and the producer we picked (Mike Stone) was odd to be in the studio with. I don’t want to sling mud here or speak poorly of him because he has since passed away but I remember doing the drum tracks and it was not a lot of fun. Then after having completed them he then says well I want to do some of the drum tracks over and have someone else do them. I was like OK fine. At the time I was over it pretty quickly because after two years of writing and it was difficult in the studio and I just wanted to push forward. Then he has Steve come in and do some tracks and then just a ton of second guessing. Then suddenly he didn’t like mine or Steve’s tracks then he wanted to come back in a second time and I flat out refused at that point. I wasn’t interested in doing anymore because the process wasn’t going on smoothly or that well and that just turned into a very hard record to make.
I don’t know why exactly but I think for us we didn’t pick the right producer. It just didn’t work out right. It is what it is. It happens some times in this business. I have also been in the other position where I have been called in to play tracks after another drummer has already played tracks. I’d listen back to the original tracks and I’d go well these tracks are actually perfectly fine. But I’ll redo them anyway. Back in the 80’s there were a lot of so called Rock Producers who had to have THEIR guy play drums on any record they worked on. I’m not quite sure when that trend started most of it was uncalled for. As far as Ten goes when the record finally came out it fell short of our expectations as a band. That was kind of the end of Y&T at that point..although not for long.
The first time I saw you play live was for White Lion at The Channel in Boston MA in 1991 which also was the last show the band ever performed live. How did you land that spot and were you comfortable enough in that band to continue on had they not broke up?
I’m not sure if I would have stayed or not. The way that came about, after the Ten record was released I played a few shows and then I basically quit Y&T. The thing that was difficult for say the last year of Y&T was that they were not touring much & I was getting really bored. In the mean time I’m getting contacted by other acts to play like Alice Cooper and I couldn’t do anything because I’m signed to Y&T and Geffen Records but the band was basically dormant at that point. To me I have to play, I have to work. Although I did agree to return to record the live record Yesterday & Today Live which I’m happy I did because that came out amazing.
I was also working on Fiona’s record Squeeze (another Geffen project) when I got a call from Mike Tramp who I knew from when White Lion supported Y&T on the Contagious tour, stating they need a drummer to finish the tour for Main Attraction in the states. I said yea sure I wasn’t doing anything else at the time and I had a lot of fun playing that summer with Mike, Vito & Tommy. I thought White Lion was a terrific band for that period and suddenly it just stopped. There was no fighting or anything that I saw they just told me that this was going to be the very last show for the band. Very bizarre.
Did you feel discouraged at all joining two big time bands and have them both just end suddenly or were you comfortable enough in your talent and drive that you knew something else was just around the corner?
Good point but I have never stopped doing what I do. The Y&T thing was a little bit easier to understand. They had pretty much done everything that they were going to do at that point. It was a collective closer sort of speak. Although in hindsight we really didn’t break up for very long. We started playing shows again in 1993. We were having fun. Again. I played on both Musically Incorrect (1995) and Endangered Species (1997). The White Lion thing I couldn’t understand then and still don’t know why the band ended so abruptly. They were pretty much at the height of their MTV driven popularity. Their sales probably were not where they wanted to be and it was also the onset of the grunge era.
After that last show in Boston with White Lion, about a week later I got a call from Lita Ford and then went out on tour with her. I came home in early 1992 and suddenly I had nothing going on. Then I thought well maybe that’s it for me. Then one day that summer I got 3 phone calls in one day. I got a call to go down in LA and play with The Cult. I knew that was probably going to be a short lived situation because they had already had a revolving door of drummers up to that point. Then I got another call in the same day to play with Olivia Newton- John who was at that point coming out of retirement to play a 3 or 4 month stint in Las Vegas. Then an hour later I got a call from Robert Trujillo of Suicidal Tendencies who said hey man I got your number from so and so would you like to come down and jam with us in LA? I said yea I’m going to be In LA on Monday. I had three gigs in the same day! I played all three in one day but having to learn Cult songs, Olivia songs and Suicidal songs all back to back was grueling but at the same time fun! I got a call from Olivia’s manager a week later thanking me for coming down to the audition but that the tour plans have been cancelled because Olivia has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. I was blown away. I was shocked that the manager actually took the time to contact me. Most management companies would never contact you directly. Robert called me an hour later and offered me the gig and I took it.
You worked with Jake E Lee and Bob Daisley on the original demos for Ozzy’s 4th record The Ultimate Sin ultimately being replaced by Randy Castillo. How did that come about & were you close with Randy Castillo before his passing?
I was living in LA at the time having moved from Pennsylvania where I grew up. I was just starting to get into session work at the time. Around 1984 I think. I was talking to a friend one night and he told me Ozzy was auditioning drummers at a rehearsal space in North Hollywood. I thought Tommy (Aldridge) was still in his band but I guess he wasn’t anymore. The next day I called Ozzy’s label (Epic Records) and asked how to get in touch with Sharon about getting an audition. I guess at 21 years old I had no fear! They told me the hotel that they were staying at so I called and asked for her room & they actually put me through! I introduced myself and she invited me down to the studio the next day at 230. I go down the next day and there was like 300 drummers there! It was like a meat grinder for drummers. One guy might go in and in like 10 seconds they would say THANKS..next. The song you had to play was “Over The Mountain” and if you couldn’t even nail the beginning you were done. This went on all day. Ozzy left after about 1 hour I think. It was just Jake and Bob. I don’t think I got in there until like 8 that night. I played the whole song. They didn’t say anything. So I just started to pick up my stick back and leave and they were like where are you going? Well I’m leaving I guess I’m done. But then they said do you want to play some more? I said sure and we played like the entire live set at the time. Then Ozzy came back and we played some more.
Like a week later I was in London. We wrote songs for a couple of weeks and we went in and recorded with producer Chris Tsangarides (Judas Priest, Anvil, Helloween, Thin Lizzy. Gary Moore, Yngwie Malmsteen). Then the whole project just started to fragment. Bob Daisley and Ozzy had a falling out. Then nothing happened and we were sent home because the project was on hold and we are not sure what we are going to do next. Then Ozzy did his reunion gig with Black Sabbath at Live Aid and then there was talk of a reunion with the original lineup (even then) which didn’t work out. Right after this I got a call to work with this Irish band called Mamma’s Boys and I went to Europe to play on a bill with Gary Moore throughout Europe. I did that for 3 months then I picked up a copy of Kerrang! Magazine & saw a picture of the new Ozzy band. Jake was the only holdover from my session work. That’s how I found out. No call nobody ever told me anything about why I was never asked back.
My paths crossed with Randy Castillo while he was a touring member of Motley Crue around 2000 or so. I had never spoken to Randy directly up to that point in time but I do know that he basically took my drum parts for The Ultimate Sin and copied them and that’s what got used on the record. The label had already switched to producer Ron Nevison at this point because he was riding high having just pulled Heart back to number #1 status. I ran into Randy at a photo shoot together for Remo also having just discovered that Megadeath and Motley Crue were going to go out on tour together that summer. Great guy. I have a photo of him & me together from that shoot I keep in my office. Just 3 weeks later the tour starts and Randy is not in the band. We were so looking forward to spending the summer together hanging out and having some fun on this tour. He had an ulcer that had burst in his stomach and had to have emergency surgery to save his life. So he missed the tour. A couple of months later he had been diagnosed with cancer and passed away in early 2002. It made me sad because we had just gotten to know each other but I never got to really spend any quality time with him. Life is short. You never know. I liked Randy a lot I thought he was a good drummer.
If my 11 year old son asked you to pick just one CD that you played on the best represents you as a rock drummer other than All Hell’s Breaks Loose what would you pick & why?
I would say Yesterday & Today Live (1991) and Suicidal For Life (1994). Just because the vibe on those two records I thought was great. They were great band environments at the time they were recorded. The Suicidal For Life record does contain quite a bit of profanity so be careful if you are going to let your son take a listen!
Just out of curiosity had you ever seen Thin Lizzy live when Phil was still alive?
No, there just wasn’t the opportunity because I wasn’t really able to drive yet when they came around. I lived about an hour and a half from Philadelphia so that would have been the closest I would have got to seeing them. I know they played the Tower Theater like once a year. When I was 16 years old I was already playing out in clubs in PA 5 or 6 nights a week. I was working a lot myself so I missed a ton of stuff that way as well. I was raised by a single parent so my mom wasn’t going to drive an hour and a half each way to see a rock show when I felt like going. I didn’t really even blame her at the time much as I wanted to go. My first concert was KISS at the Spectrum and my friend’s mom drove us. I was about 15 I think. Then after I got my license shows started to come to Allentown so at the Fairgrounds I got to see Cheap Trick. Aerosmith I missed as well. In 1980 after Joe Perry left they were playing clubs. I remember they played in Cherry Hill NJ and I wanted to go but it sold out in like 10 minutes. I remember driving in a blizzard to Ticketron located in a shopping mall about 15 miles from my house to get tickets to see Van Halen on the Woman & Children First tour. I told Alex (Van Halen) that story and he laughed his ass off! Third Row ticket cost me 8 Dollars.
Black Star Riders should be a very huge addition to that growing resume Jimmy. Best of luck to you!
Thanks. I think if we don’t jump on a package tour by late in the summer we will wind up doing House of Blues type venues. I know that there is one in Boston right behind Fenway Park that used to be called Avalon I believe? This band rocks and I’m so pumped to get out on the road and meet all the old Lizzy fans & new ones as well.