In the lead up to their highly anticipated return to Australia in 2017, Rogue Inc. was fortunate enough to speak with Black Stone Cherry's Jon Lawhon to talk about their 5th album Kentucky, the influence of Motown, the up’s and down’s of touring and...James Bay?
Read on below to see how it all went down!
Black Stone Cherry (L-R John Fred Young, Ben Wells, Jon Lawhon, Chris Robertson)
After 15 years and 5 album releases, you finally made it to Australia last year supporting Steel Panther. What did you guys take away from your first trip Down Under?
Your weather is beautiful that time of the year. *laughs*. That’s a fact, cause when we left home is was cold and nasty. But yeah, the Australian audience, they’re very into their music, and its a very honest reaction that you get out of them, and we were really appreciative of that. People just seem to let loose and not care what the person next to them was thinking. And that’s important at a rock show, to be able to cut loose and have a good time. The people who showed up to those shows, they were just really kind and really acceptive.
In a very unique setup for bands these days, all 4 of Black Stone Cherry’s lend their vocal abilities to your songs. Do you all contribute to the lyric writing process?
Oh yeah, ever since day one this band has been an equal split; four-way writing process, four-way royalty split, four-way everything. We’re all equal partners in this, we all own the publishing, the song-writing, 100% equally and we give an equal contribution to the band. We’ve all found our own little “niche”, so to speak, within the business itself, from social media marketing to the artistic side of things regarding merchandising, music videos, photography, and so on. And so when it comes down to the things the bands put out for the people to see, it’s a full on contribution from all four of us.
You recorded your latest album “Kentucky” at the same studio where you recorded your debut self-titled album. What was it like returning to your roots so to speak?
Man, it was great. I don't know if it was so great to be able record the album Kentucky, or to come home and kiss my wife and cuddle my kids at night. *laughs*. Either way it goes, we had a great time recording the record and a great time sleeping in our own beds at night, so it worked out really well.
Barrick Recording was the studio that we went to, and David Barrick is the guy who owns and operates the studio, he does the engineering and so on. He’s a great guy to work with, great character and personality, and works well with our band. He has a comfortable environment to work in, and he’s comfortable guy to work with cause there’s no nervousness, or I don’t have to worry what David’s gonna think, there’s just none of that happening in that building.
It was very personal, laid-back and very home like, which made a lot of sense for a band like us to go that way. And it was nice to revisit where we cut our teeth, so to speak, in the early days, as it was the place where we recorded the demos leading up to our first album, including our first album, with David and that same equipment we used on the Kentucky record. So it was really, seriously like going back to square one and starting the path over again, but with greater insight. So it was a really great experience all round.
Black Stone Cherry - Me and Mary Jane
Who have been your biggest influences, musical or otherwise?
Oh man, musically speaking, I would have to say James Jamerson, Tom Hamilton, "Jaco" Pastorius and probably Reggie Hamilton, I don’t know if you’re familiar with his stuff, he’s the dude who played on all of the Madonna stuff back in the day. He’s a killer, KILLER, player. I had the great fortune of meeting him in Los Angeles year ago at the Fender bass convention, the “Bass Bash” as they call it. He was there doing a clinic, and I was doing singings and a clinic as well. I hit it off with him really well, and made buddies with him, same with Bob Babbitt. A lot of people don’t know who Bob Babbitt was, but he was the one to replace James Jamerson in The Funk Brothers, after James passed away. And for those don’t know who The Funk Brothers are, they’re the guys to play on every Motown hit that has ever been released. That band has played on more hits than The Beatles and Elvis Presley combined. Just a stellar group of musicians.
But Jamerson was always this big highlight bass player for me, and just the simple fact that he played to the song over having a particular style. And that’s what I try my best to do with every song, because if you listen to our catalogue, it ranges from really aggressive, hard rock “in your face” borderline metal, all the way to the softest most laid back, heartfelt ballad you can imagine. It’ll twist you into a country music world, and it’ll twist you back into the blues. And I learnt how to do that from paying attention to James Jamerson honestly, more than anything.
And Bob Babbitt is the guy who replaced James Jamerson when he passed, and he was just an absolute great person to meet, and I’m just grateful that I was able to call him my friend. He came to the studio when we recorded Folklore and Superstition at Black Bird Studios in Nashville, the day that I did the bass tracks on that album. And I remember him sitting behind me in the studio, and leaning over my should while I played every lick on that album. And it was the most intense, scary, but amazing experience of my entire life.
And I guess with the Edwin Starr cover of War on Kentucky, you’re keeping that strong Motown influence with you.
Absolutely, we did Edwin Starr’s War, which was Chris Robertson (lead vocals, guitar) and I bouncing songs off one another, and we really wanted to feature a Motown song, cause we’re the two members of the band who share a real passion for Motown music. It was honestly meant to be a b-side, but as we started cutting it, everybody in the band, and including David Barrick, we were all saying “this has to be on the record; it sounds like us, it makes perfect sense for us, it makes perfect sense for the day and age in which we live in today, we have to put this on the album”. We moved another song to the b-side list to make room for it
There’s another song we did by OneRepublic, called Love Runs Out, it has a 1-4-5 blues progression. I picked it out of the line-up, and I said “it’s a blues songs, it’s a 1-4-5, but it’s also a pop song”, so it worked really well. But that kind of came from me being a big fan of the Motown thing, because while it’s a blues song, but there’s a real Motown influence on that track.
When not on the road with Black Stone Cherry, how do you spend your time? How do you switch off and relax?
“Switch off and relax”, what’s that? *laughs* I don’t know what that’s called. I am the father to two beautiful little girls, and my wonderful wife, so they take up a great majority of my time at home, thankfully. And when I’m not spending time with my family, I’ve got my face buried in a laptop, or now a proper computer monitor cause I’ve finally set up my big computer. I do a tonne of photography, video, designing and editing.
I’ve been handling all that stuff for the band for a long time. I recently started my own merchandise company and I’m taking care of 100% of the merch for the band in the United States and Canada. But I do a tonne of design work; I design all the artwork for the album, cover photos, etc. It keeps things inexpensive for us. Then there’s a few other bands I work with here and there, and I get new clients every other day, so it keeps me busy. So whenever I find myself having a free moment, somebody always reminds me that I don’t *laughs*. It definitely keeps me active, and keeps me up at night.
What can Australian fans expect from your very first headline tour in a few months?
We will play a variety of songs from all five albums to try and give the best representation of what the band is, was, and will be. We always put our best foot forward when it comes to a performance, and we give it everything we’ve got. You can guarantee that when the show is over with, the crowd will be tired and the band will feel ten times worse. We always put an energetic twist on everything, and just try to have as much fun as we can.
What is your favourite part of touring?
Waking up in a new city, every day. As short and sweet as that answer is. And the fans of course, we have great experiences with them. But waking up in a new city gives you that feel of constant feel of adventure.
What is your least favourite part of touring?
Leaving my wife and my kids behind, by far.
What does the rest of 2017 have in store for Black Stone Cherry?
We’re gonna do some US touring in March, and then come down and see you guys in April, and then from May onwards, we’ve got some touring through the South-West and West Coast, and a few one-off shows here and there. Then we’re going to be writing and rehearsing for the sixth Black Stone Cherry effort yesterday, so that’s already being thought about. The first stuff that we came up with yesterday was nice, it was awesome. The riff was very, I can’t really describe it to be honest with you, but it had a very James Brown meets Aerosmith vibe to it. It was a pain in the butt to play, I’ll tell you that!
That’s what I love about writing music in the band that I’m in, cause we all think so differently when it comes to music, because we all love different genres of music and we all dabble in the same kind of music as the guy next to you, but we stretch out to such far extremes in the four corners of the band, that when we come together and write a riff, all four of us will come together, and John will be singing melodies, and the other three of us will be playing stringed instruments off putting riffs and licks together. It can end up so confusing sometimes, that we’ll sit there going “how do I play this again?”. *laughs*
Every Rogue Inc. interview is not complete until you take on the Quick Six.
Six quick-fire questions that encourage the most creative answers! Are you ready?
The Quick Six
What was your last "HOLY F**K" moment?
*laughs* I don’t think I’ve had one in a while, nothing is coming to mind easily.
If you could collaborate with any artist/band, living or dead, who would it be?
If you could make one cover song part of your live set forever, what would it be?
Stairway To Heaven
You are on death row. What is your last meal?
If you had to change your name for witness protection, what would it be?
The album or artist playing in your car right now is?
I’ve been listening to James Bay, basically on repeat for the last few months, and I believe I’ve about made my wife want to divorce me because of it. But, I discovered the dude a few months ago. My youngest daughter misinterpreted the lyrics as “don’t eat water”, and my wife and I are looking at her like, “what are you saying?” But I discovered him, and he has really great songs, he really delivers the songs. You can feel the emotion that’s in his voice. If anything ever feels forced, I don’t care to listen to it.
Thanks for taking our call Jon, we’ve looking forward to seeing you in a few months time!
Anytime, we’re look forward to getting back down there. Take it easy, brother.
You can catch BLACK STONE CHERRY at the following venues in April!
Thursday 20th April - The Triffid, Brisbane
Tickets at mjrpresents.com
Friday 21st April - The Factory Theatre, Sydney
Tickets at mjrpresents.com
Sunday 23rd April - Corner Hotel, Melbourne
Tickets at mjrpresents.com
Monday 24 April - The Capitol, Perth
Tickets at mjrpresents.com
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