AN INTERVIEW WITH THE MOTORBELLY
By David Iozzia
Guitarist Damon Johnson's newest musical project is called The Motorbelly. Damon's not only a great songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist, he's one of the nicest guys I've run across as I traveled down the rock and roll highway. I've interviewed Damon about his band Slave to the System, and I've done an in-depth, career-profiling interview with Damon that touched upon his days in Brother Cane, as well as his current endeavors writing and touring both with Alice Cooper and Whiskey Falls. When I offered to interview Damon about The Motorbelly and their "Spin like a Drill" EP, he insisted that I get guitarist Johnny Blade and drummer Michael Rollings involved in the interview. It was a lot of fun chatting with Michael and Johnny, via long distance phone calls to Atlanta and Birmingham, Alabama. In-between those phone chats, Damon dragged me and my tape recorder onto the Alice Cooper band tour bus following their soundcheck at an Englewood, New Jersey, concert.
Dave: Hey guys. I'm really digging your new EP. Tell my readers and I all about the origin of The Motorbelly.
Johnny: When Damon Johnson's band Brother Cane was derailing, I was playing in a band called The Autumn Lords that was also derailing. I don't know what pop means, but we were all invested in the pop idea, as in songs that could make us money. I was recently divorced, and Damon was in the midst of a divorce. We were getting together and exchanging our pop songs, trying to out-pop each other. The next thing you know, we started playing The Motorbelly stuff. They were a bunch of scrub songs that were lying around. I had four songs that my former band mates never cared for or grasped, and Damon had two leftover songs from Brother Cane. Some of my ex-band mates were suffering with severe narcotic issues. They weren't thinking they were wild and crazy; they were scared of their own shadow. When I played them those songs, it literally scared them. But I could have played "Hey Jude" on a piano and it would have scared them. So those songs were never used. Fast forward and Damon and I quickly switched from playing cute little pop songs to showing each other these stupid rock songs. We threw the pop mentality right out the window! The songs were funny, and we were having fun playing them. We grabbed Michael Rollings, a drummer we knew from Atlanta, and when he got into the room we turned the amplifiers on. Now we had something. We whittled down the ten or twelve songs we had to a more solid bunch. We cut them, cleaned them up and added vocals, and shipped them to Kelly Gray in Seattle, where he cleaned up the mess. This was about nine years ago. We played together as The Motorbelly two or three times, and we all went our separate ways. That was a bit of a disappointment. Damon was working with John Waite and Damn Yankees, Michael was out touring, and I got busy doing some other things. Years passed, but we recently decided that The Motorbelly needed to see the light of day. We needed to take action steps to get the record out for people to listen to and enjoy or it wasn't ever going to happen. We pressed some CDs, got the MySpace page going, and off went The Motorbelly. Up until then, we hadn't nurtured it to the potential it deserves to have.
Michael: Johnny and Damon knew each other from Birmingham, and I knew Damon since we were teenagers. We always kept in touch. I went over to jam one time with Damon and bass player Roman Glick, You'll remember him from Brother Cane, and now he's in Jackyl. We were playing all of these songs Damon had written. One of them eventually made a Stevie Nicks record. They all were supposed to be this or that, but they all sounded like rock songs once I started playing, hitting heavy like I do. Damon stood around for a while and said we had to do something else; we had to do a rock band. At the same time, things were happening between Damon and Johnny Blade, who had a bunch of crazy songs. Johnny was more punk rock, and he and I saw more eye to eye. We all got together, rehashed Johnny's songs, and that's what got The Motorbelly started. We were going to call it Goddamn Rockstar, which I liked, but Damon and Johnny didn't want anything profane in the name.
Dave: The 21st century is a musical era where music fans can discover new bands and hear their music immediately via the Internet. Yet my humble website is purposely old-fashioned and text only. I'll add links to The Motorbelly MySpace page where fans can hear your music. But until they get there, give my readers a verbal description of The Motorbelly. Entice those readers into giving the band a listen.
Michael: The Motorbelly is just rock and roll. I can't put it anywhere else. It's clever. It has a little bit of punk, a little bit of country, and a lot of growing up in the South with 11-month summers. It is what it is.
Johnny: The Motorbelly is sizzlin', it's borderline shreddin', and it's hillbilly yelping.
Damon: The Motorbelly is definitely trashy. That's a word that hasn't been associated with anything that I've ever done. That's where Johnny Blade has to get so much of the credit for this record. We've known each other for years. Back in the day, Johnny's old band, The Autumn Lords, did some shows with my band Brother Cane. They were an awesome late night rock and roll band, hard punk, and above most of the 70s trash rock bands. Right after Brother Cane, I ran into Johnny and he played me some songs ideas that he had. I remember being blown away at the quantity. He had so many ideas. When he talked, he was like a little kid describing Christmas morning, or a kid describing going to Disneyland. He was so animated. I thought to myself that Johnny was very prolific, but that he needed somebody to help him weed through all of it. There was a lot, but I heard all kinds of good stuff. In a way, I put on the producer hat and tried to let the music stay as true to the original thing that I first heard as it possibly could. I think we accomplished that, staying true to the vibe of the initial meeting we had because it was so exciting for me. The Motorbelly stuff that we captured on tape are great songs with some great parts. The songs go somewhere. We might namedrop bands like The Stooges, but I'm a big Thin Lizzy fan. All of their songs had great parts. I'm always standing for that. A song could be a great idea, but it has to have other parts around it. The Motorbelly is also a lot of fun. Some of my other bands, Brother Cane, Red Halo, Slave to the System, and all of the other stuff I've done, creatively, they were definitely a little more thoughtful. I don't want to say they were more serious, but they were more thoughtful. The songs covered a whole array of different subject matters. The Motorbelly is just about having a good time.
Dave: What's your favorite cut?
Michael: I'd have to name "Pretty Namedropper," because it's one of the beefier tunes. "Hot Stuff" is also fun to play. Johnny just brought up the Donna Summer song and started playing it, and I kicked in with an Iron Maiden beat. We never really learned the song. We just played it a few times and then recorded it. We covered the song more than we covered Donna Summer. I'm glad we did that one because quite a few people dig it.
Johnny: I like playing "Nobody Usin." I was proud of that song the instant it came out of my gut. I remember the night that I showed it to Damon. He got it and understood it. I remember writing the lyrics in one flow, and I felt very blessed. I've written hundreds of songs in my lifetime and only five or six have been exorcised from my soul with that level of speed and thoroughness. That's the most amazing feeling of the whole damn deal. Think about it Dave. When you go on a vacation, you can't take Cancun back with you. If you write a cool song that makes sense, and it's on tape, that shit is captured in a bottle forever. That's a lot of fun and I get a big kick out of that. It's like digging up a diamond. That song is a good warning. It's like passing the blame without seeming like you're throwing somebody under the bus. It has pretty direct language and the three chord rock is about as dumb as it gets. I was also proud of the way Damon sang that song. I was coaching him and by take two he was nailing it. He was my Robert DeNiro and I was Martin Scorcese. I had to beef my game up, Damon had to dumb his game down, and we met in the middle.
Dave: Is there a game plan in place for growing The Motorbelly?
Damon: I'd like The Motorbelly to be something we can do forever, but only whenever we have the time to do it. Everybody has different day jobs, priorities, and musical settings that require more time and time away from our home base. In early 2010, when I'm off the road from touring with Alice Cooper, maybe we can hit it hard and play a dozen or so shows around the Southeast. That's what's great about MySpace and the Internet. We all have fans from the other things we've done in the past. You can hit those people up and tell them what you're doing and what shows you're planning. It's so flattering to me when fans come in from out of town. Dave, like you said with MySpace earlier, fans can hear the music even if they don't have The Motorbelly EP on hard disc. They still have an idea of what The Motorbelly is all about.
Johnny: I don't know Dave because we might never be forced to make this band any bigger than what's already been created, which is the chance to push play and listen to the music. Playing, touring, meeting people, and building a fan base will be a pretty difficult move for us. Releasing an EP that's direct enough and brief enough for people to get it and enjoy it, that might be the biggest reward for The Motorbelly.
Dave: Social networking to grow bands through websites like MySpace and Facebook takes time out of your workday. Does it interfere with the creative process?
Damon: No man, you have to look at it like answering your e-mail. For the last ten years, all traveling musicians have found a routine that we get into regarding computer time. For me, if I'm writing music, I write early in the day. That's when my brain is most aware. I always set aside an hour or two later in the day to check my websites and to read and answer my e-mails. I have to stay on top of that stuff. I think that when fans see that they can actually communicate with the band, they are more prone to come back to the website and to tell their friends all about the band.
Michael: It's a necessity these days. It doesn't interfere if you set aside some time each day to do it. I like to do it when it's quiet at the end of my day.
Johnny: I don't know how much time we'll spend social networking. For the moment, people just might have to find The Motorbelly on their own.
Dave: Is The Motorbelly able to go the old-fashioned route of pounding the road and bringing the music to the people?
Johnny: First and foremost, we have to look at what Damon has planned with Alice Cooper and Whiskey Falls and what I'm doing with my band Player/Kommander. Michael, like Damon and me, has a family. We've procreated to the maximum. Between the three of us there are ten children. All I know is that if things do happen, we would be a good band because we're old and we're wise. I'm being honest because that's a very pretentious thing to say. The Motorbelly wouldn't be 20-year-old, beer guzzling children. We'd be some grown men that would really value the tremendous opportunity to bring the music to the people. We'd definitely have to forecast things; it couldn't be last minute. If everybody's calendars match up and there's a decent offer out there, we would probably do it.
Michael: If any one person in this band said let's do something now at the last minute, it would be a problem. We all have schedules; we all have families and kids. It would take a lot of planning with a lot of logistics that need to be worked out before The Motorbelly could pound the road. Getting in a van and touring would be fun, but it would be a big deal. We're looking at doing some shows regionally in early 2010.
Dave: If and when The Motorbelly plays live, how would you fill out the setlist?
Damon: Johnny and I have spoken a lot over the past few months and I know there's a bunch of new original material. I'm sure we'll play the whole EP, a few tracks we completed that didn't make the EP, and some new stuff. Man, there's no better way to get a feel on it and check it out than to work it up and play new material at a live show. The Motorbelly isn't Brother Cane. It's not a band that's more structured in its membership and more structured in the way it wants to present its songs. The Motorbelly is really loose, and I think that's what people are going to like about it. People discovering The Motorbelly can tell right away from the way that it sounds that they can be and do whatever they want at any second. It doesn't require a lot of thinking. The Motorbelly is all about a good lyric, a good riff, and a good time.
Michael: We've discussed that briefly and we'd have to include a few covers. Everybody has ideas on what songs they'd want to do so it's something we'll have to sit down and think about. You can't do anything too goofy or something too way out there that wouldn't fit. Brother Cane used to cover The Police and it fit because they were real serious. The Police wouldn't fit The Motorbelly.
Johnny: There are a handful of songs that didn't make it to the record. It's not that they weren't good songs; we just had to make a choice as to which would fit the record best. We have a song called "Use Cunning Instead" that has a bunch of drunk sailors singing sound. We're real proud of that one. It was whippin'! It had a part rockabilly thing with those crazy vocals, not like monks and not like some sort of Marilyn Manson goth leftover. There's not a lot of smokin' heavy metal bands that have songs with drunk sailors in the chorus! We might revisit that one. I don't know if we'd revisit our individual back catalogs, but I have no reservations about playing any song, anywhere, or anytime. Some people have a comfort level or don't want to overstep boundaries. Personally, I don't know how I would overstep a boundary. My theory is that songs are only beats and notes: beats per minute and notes on a scale from A to G with sharps and flats. You heard the treatment we did with Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff." We added an Iron Maiden gallop to it! We could throw in a cover or two, adding wicked Tommy Aldridge-like tom-tom work to Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield." That'll spin some heads. Our running thing and motto could be that we only do covers of songs by women bands.
Dave: I'm New Jersey-based, and I could write all day and talk all night about the music scenes in the Northeast. Yet I know very little about the music scenes in Atlanta or Birmingham. Is it enough to build a fan base for The Motorbelly?
Michael: I haven't spent any time recently in Birmingham so I can't speak for that city. Atlanta is really diverse. The "big brother eye," the "TV eye," is on the hip-hop and R & B type stuff. But there are a bunch of great metal bands that come out of Atlanta. Mastodon is from here. There are a couple of super underground heavy bands down here. It's a real competitive scene in Atlanta. Everybody gets mad if you hit it big. They won't come see you play. It's no longer a joke to me to hear a band "is big in Belgium," or "big in Japan." I doesn't matter where you go if you find that pocket of people that appreciate you. There's enough people down here for a band like The Motorbelly to grow a fan base. The Motorbelly is just rock. It's unpretentious. It's not goofy but it has a sense of humor to some degree. It's played by some dudes who know what they're doing and who are serious about doing it the right way.
Johnny: Over the years, Birmingham has spurned a lot of good stuff, including Brother Cane, a band that I know you're well aware of. If I started naming names, I'd overlook somebody, so I won't make a list. The scene itself has never been as cohesive as it is in other markets across the South. It's not as pulsating as Atlanta, Austin, or cities like that. Birmingham does not have a consistent nightlife with a multitude of choices like Atlanta. There's one mainstay in Birmingham, a dirty little rock club that's been around for 25 years called The Nick. It does what it does real well. Birmingham is the biggest city in Alabama and it has a pretty big metro area. Even when Brother Cane was at the peak of their popularity, they never pulled the huge crowd or built the hometown fan base that absorbed their music to the extent of what they saw in other cities when they were out on the road. My band The Autumn Lords, for a fleeting millisecond, had local momentum. A few other bands had it going on, but nobody has ever been able to consistently capitalize on hometown momentum in Birmingham. That's sort of sad. There's really no radio here, and we only get the generic tours passing through. I don't want to discount things, but nobody's coming through here looking to invest themselves in this market and make Birmingham part of their future touring itinerary. Bands have to build their fan bases outside of Birmingham. My other band, Player/Kommander, as an example, has played here twice in the last three years. We've played more in Wisconsin and Utah than we have in Alabama, where we can be comfortable in our own beds and have friends and family come to our shows. It's not that we don't try.
Damon: My perception is that the Southeast music scene is very fragmented. But it's like that all over the country nowadays. It's because of the Internet. Anybody can make a recording; anybody can make a CD now. It's hard for music fans to weed out all of the trash or all of the so-called musicians sitting in front of a computer screen screaming into a microphone. There's not real music inside all of that stuff. As a music fan, you have to go and search for it. It puts the power in the band's hand and in the fan's hands. Take a great band like King's X. When they put out a new record, they know where their target audience is. They let those people know what's up. That audience knows they can depend on being able to stay in touch with the band and too know what's going on. That spreads out. And those people aren't just fans, they're diehard fans who are very committed to the band.
Dave: What do you think is the next logical step for The Motorbelly?
Damon: It's definitely playing some live shows. That's obviously the best way to reconnect with each other and to get the wheels spinning. I'm in awe that no matter how many other things Michael, Johnny, and I are involved in, when we throw on The Motorbelly hat, we know what that is, without having to define it. I can tell immediately if a musical idea that I've just written is right for Alice Cooper or The Motorbelly or for any of my other stuff. As far as the other stuff I've done, there's nothing else even close to what The Motorbelly is. It's a lot of fun to have The Motorbelly as an outlet. That's what I love about writing and working with Johnny and Michael, it's never anything but a great time. There's a lot of respect between the three of us and that works well.
Michael: Getting together and getting out a few more songs is the next logical step. There is a stockpile of stuff waiting to be pampered. We could also get together to write some new songs. With the right amount of planning, maybe jumping into the van for a month and touring makes sense. We're all relatively close. I'm two and a half hours from Birmingham so it's not like we could call each other and say meet me at my place in a half hour. It would take planning.
Johnny: Maybe making another record makes the most sense as far as that next logical step. We did this record in 48 hours, no lie. Four or five eight-hour sessions, from the first night we met up in the apartment until the time we had a disc in our hands. Knowing what we did the first time, we could do some really dumb stuff now. I've been thinking about doing another record for years. I've got a bunch of leftovers that need a destination. The cool thing about The Motorbelly is they don't need to be polished; they can just be leftovers. Maybe we can record some stupid shit that will make us some money.
Dave: For the music fans reading this interview who are familiar with Damon Johnson but don't know Michael Rollings or Johnny Blade, talk about your musical influences.
Johnny: As a songwriter, naming one influence is really hard. Put a gun to my head and force me to name one and it's the combo of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. As a guitar player, it's definitely Keith Richards. I know what got me here personally. That was the influence of Jagger and Richards, who had a more consistent effect on me over my lifetime than anybody else. I don't know how much those influences come across to a listener on "Spin like a Drill," definitely not in my songwriting. Maybe those influences come across a little when I sing, unlike when Damon sings. He is a fiercely on-point, wonderful singer. I think he's one of the best singers in America. I mean that. I don't just say it because we're buddies and musical collaborators. I put him right up there with the Chris Cornells, guys that have that majestic voice who can really deliver some depth.
Michael: One of my biggest influences on drums is Tommy Aldridge. He's definitely in the Top 5. You have to look back to all the influential musicians I listened to as a kid. I loved KISS, but Peter Criss did nothing for me as a drummer. I wanted to be one of the other guys. I guess my favorite drummer is me!
Dave: As the last piece of the puzzle Michael, besides being a hard-hitting drummer, what intangibles do you add to the band formula?
Michael: I'm a pretty laid-back guy. I have a pretty decent ear for this and that production-wise, not that I'm the one in there doing it. If the riff sounds better backwards, I'll tell you. I've know Damon forever, and Johnny and I hit it off immediately. There is chemistry. They could get anybody to play drums, but I deliver it the right way. I don't do anything special drum-wise, but collectively there is a vibe that might not have happened otherwise with another drummer.
Dave: Johnny, is there anything I've neglected to ask about The Motorbelly that you'd like to add?
Johnny: I can't overlook Duquette Johnston, who made some great contributions on this record. He's more like a guest player, because we're essentially a three-piece band at this point in time. Damon, Michael, and myself have actively held this thing together for this long. If we were to formally play some shows, to keep the double guitar thing between Damon and me going, we'd have to enlist some bad-ass bass guitarist. My only requirement would be that they'd also have to sing. Yet in the spirit of punk rock and roll, if we were playing down at the neighborhood pub, Damon or I would grab a bass guitar out of necessity.
Dave: Before I forget, how can old-fashioned music fans get a physical copy of The Motorbelly EP "Spin like a Drill"?
Michael: Damon better have copies available when he's touring with Alice Cooper! People can buy a physical copy from us at our MySpace page, and we're working on getting it at i-Tunes for the downloaders. That's my preference since I don't buy CDs. I download everything into my i-Pod. That's the 21st century thing.
Damon: Fans can go to The Motorbelly MySpace page or damonjohnson.com to buy a copy. They're not selling them at the merch booth when I'm touring with Alice Cooper. But if somebody comes up to me after the show and asks, I'll get one out of my bag and give it away. Hell, if they want it bad enough, they can find it and download it for free anyway.