Damon Johnson: ‘Songwriting Has Begun’ on New Brother Cane Album
Brother Cane had their moment in the early '90s and it was a good one that carried them many miles. The Birmingham, Ala. band shared the stage with Aerosmith, Van Halen, Robert Plant and plenty of others who had been their rock heroes.
"Got No Shame," led by the bluesy harp work from Birmingham local Topper Price, served as the infectious introduction of Brother Cane to the world, with the song receiving heavy airplay at rock radio following its release in 1993.
Though the group went its separate ways not long after the release of their third album, Wishpool, in 1998, guitarist and vocalist Damon Johnson continued on. He lent his guitar skills to the likes of Alice Cooper and Thin Lizzy, while also writing songs for Stevie Nicks, Carlos Santana and Sammy Hagar.
Turning the focus back to his own career in recent years, Johnson has released two strong albums that served as an appropriate primer for the reunion that nobody -- including Johnson himself -- saw coming.
Brother Cane reunited in April for two shows in Illinois and Wisconsin, with additional dates planned for later this year and 2023. The current version of the group finds Johnson joined by original Brother Cane bassist Glenn Maxey, keyboardist Buck Johnson and drummer Jarred Pope.
We spoke with the guitarist, who has also been playing with Lynyrd Skynyrd for the past year, about Brother Cane's return and what lies ahead.
One of the really exciting developments this year has been the return of Brother Cane. How did this reunion come together?
I have to give all credit to my manager, Kevin Lee. I had not thought about this. It hadn’t crossed my mind. I’ve just been so focused on my last two solo records. Certainly, the Skynyrd situation required a lot of my attention and it was exciting and fun and all of that. I had plenty on my desk to stay busy with.
But Kevin came to a couple of the Skynyrd shows and not just talking with the band, but even being out talking to some of the fans in the crowd. He and I both were getting so many people talking about Brother Cane and asking about [the group] or just sharing their stories. “Oh yeah, I saw them in 1994 and they opened for Aerosmith in Rochester, New York, it was one of the best shows I ever saw.” You know, that kind of stuff. I know that’s what got Kevin’s wheels spinning. He called me out of the blue one day and said, “Hey man, I’ve got a crazy idea. What about Brother Cane?” I said, “What about it?” [Laughs] I said, “I don’t know.”
You know, I love Brother Cane so much. I love those songs so much. It’s so important to me, kind of spiritually. I guess the reason I haven’t put any thought into performing as Brother Cane again is because it had to be special. I didn’t want to just half-ass do it, just go book a bunch of shows in some bars. It’s like, no. I just wasn’t motivated to do it unless it was going to be done properly. To have a great partner in Kevin, it’s just changed the whole landscape for me. There’s no question that who was going to be in the band was an important conversation to have. You know, getting the original guys back together just isn’t sustainable. Certainly not right now. Because everyone is spread out all over the country. And, you know, everybody’s busy. They’ve got their own lives.
That said, it was a huge thrill to have that phone call with the original bass player, Glenn Maxey, and just say, “Hey man, what do you have on your calendar?” He’s like, “Well, I’ve got a few things. What have you got?” When I told him I wanted to do some Brother Cane dates, I swear I thought the guy was going to just break down, man. He was so thrilled. Just that energy of reconnecting with Glenn is a huge part of this moment in the story of Brother Cane. Because, look, he was the guy that was with me as we put it together in the first place.
It was basically the two of you initially, right?
It was. It was a little bit of a revolving door for about a year there. Different singers, different guitar players, different drummers. Glenn was in Chyld, that’s what we were called when we were shopping that original tape around when I was just the guitar player. And then we attracted the attention of Virgin Records, because they really liked the songs and they liked the band. We spent six months or so trying to find a different singer. Glenn was with me, through all of that.
He was there that night [when] the A&R guy from Virgin heard me singing some cover songs at a bar in Birmingham and pulled me off to the side and said, “Hey man, you didn’t tell me you could sing.” [Laughs] I swear, Glenn was standing right there when I was talking to this guy, Aaron Jacoves, the A&R guy who is my friend to this day. I said, “Aaron, I don’t want to be the singer. I want to be Joe Perry. You’ve got to help me find Steven Tyler.” You know, we’d already spent a bunch of money making demos and trying different singers and flying people in. He just said, “Listen man, we’re running out of time. Let’s go in there tomorrow. Just sing a couple of songs and let’s see what it sounds like.”
Glenn didn’t hesitate to pull me aside and go, “Dude, you have to do this. You should do this, man. You don’t sound like anybody else, because you haven’t been standing in front of the mirror pretending to be Robert Plant or Roger Daltrey or whoever. You’ve just been focused on songwriting and being a guitar player.” He added, “But you have a great voice. Let’s give it a shot.” So Glenn was pivotal in that, man. It changed my life, obviously, that moment. I’m really thrilled to be playing with Glenn again. It feels incredible.
What's the plan for the rest of the year and beyond as far as Brother Cane?
There’s no question that the Skynyrd situation is part of our weekly meetings, Kevin and I. You know, they’re already looking at doing shows in 2023, but they wouldn’t really get fired up until the summer of next year. So there’s this poetic beauty about getting to kind of step back and forth between Brother Cane and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Because Skynyrd is this built-in promotion for Brother Cane! Johnny Van Zant introduces me every night in front of 10 to 20 thousand people and says, “This is our friend Damon Johnson, stepping in to help us out for Gary Rossington, from Brother Cane.” You can almost see people look straight to their phones, like, “I’ve got to look this guy up!” And then they go, “Oh yeah!”
Listen to Brother Cane's 'Got No Shame'
Is a new Brother Cane album possible?
I think the short answer is yes. It’s yes, because you know me, I’m always writing. I just need something to write for. It’s like, what’s the focus? That’s what’s been so fulfilling over the last five years is that I shifted gears and went, “I’m going to make solo records.” I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job. So if you said, “Alright, well maybe it’s time for a Brother Cane record.” It would certainly bring attention to the band, it would give us some new songs to play.
I think you know better than anybody that pretty much any of those songs off of Memoirs of an Uprising or Battle Lessons, could have been Brother Cane songs. So whenever I pick up an electric guitar and stand behind a microphone, it kind of sounds like Brother Cane. To me, just the thought of making a record, I have nothing but positive feelings about that. There’s no trepidation or eye-rolling or exasperation. It would just be a blast. I’ve got no idea what it would sound like, but I know we wouldn’t put it out unless we felt it was great.
I got a great phone call from my buddy Brian Wheat from Tesla the very morning we put out that announcement about Brother Cane. He may have called within the hour. He goes, “Hey man, listen, we’ve got to talk. We’ve got to put something together. You didn’t tell me you were going to put Brother Cane back together. Fuck, I love that band. That band had hits, Damon!” He added, “Do you understand how branding works?” I’m like, “Yes, yes, I understand how it works.” [Laughs]
As we wrap up, what else is on deck for you? I have to ask that, because I didn't have a Brother Cane reunion on my bingo card.
It wasn’t on my bingo card either. I’m going to use that. That’s awesome. I have a deep desire to make another acoustic record. I spend hours a week, just me and an acoustic guitar, either writing or just playing songs that I admire by other writers. You know, for a music fan to just put on that record in the right mood, the right frame of mind, I love folk songs and I love singer-songwriters. I’m proud to consider myself one of those as well.
So yeah, I really, really want to make one. I’ve got about a half dozen songs that I’ve written and I’m always picking random and sometimes obscure songs by other artists where I go, “I should do a cover of that and make it my own.” That wouldn’t require a bunch of bells and whistles to pull that off. I’ve got a great microphone right here at my house and a couple of pieces of recording gear. I can knock it out here and take it to somebody like Nick and have him mix it and be done and get it out. I really want to put that out.
But you know, my iPhone is just full of monster riffs, buddy. I’m always putting the riffs down. I just went to my amp guy and got two of my favorite amps tuned up and ready. I’m jonesing to get back in the studio with all of my gear and with the band and bring out some songs. You know, see what we can come up with. I’ll definitely be with Skynyrd all year in 2022 in some capacity. Then, we’re going to book Brother Cane dates around that. Hopefully in early 2023, it would be great to announce a package that Brother Cane is on with another band or two that would be a good fit with [us]. But yeah, man, the songwriting has begun in earnest. I’m excited about that.
Watch the Video for Damon Johnson's 'Battle Lessons'