Jon Lawhon (seen here on the right), bassist with Black Stone Cherry, chats with Kevin Cooper about supporting Bad Company, headlining the second stage at Download, their latest album Kentucky and their forthcoming tour of the UK
Black Stone Cherry are an American rock band. Formed in 2001, the band still has its founding members who are lead vocalist and lead guitarist Chris Robertson, Ben Wells on rhythm guitar, Jon Lawhon on bass guitar, and drummer John Fred Young.
They have released five studio albums; Black Stone Cherry, Folklore And Superstition, Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea, Magic Mountain and their latest album, Kentucky, which was released in April 2016.
Whilst getting ready to tour the UK, Jon Lawhon had a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Jon how are you?
I’m very well Kevin how are you brother?
I am very well thank you and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
Of course and thank you for being interested in what we are getting up to.
And just how is life treating you at this moment in time?
Life is treating me very well thank you. We have all just managed to get some time off after finishing The Carnival Of Madness Tour alongside Shinedown, Halestorm and Highly Suspect, and we really can’t wait to be back there in the UK.
Do you enjoy being over here in the UK?
We really do love it over there. It’s a blast whenever we are over there man.
You are just saying that because I bet one city looks pretty much like any other city to you doesn’t it?
(Laughter) not at all man, not at all. Over there in the UK all the cities are good. You just have to adopt a pleasant way of looking at one city to ensure that it doesn’t simply look like the previous city or the next city (laughter). It’s as simple as that.
And do the British fans appreciate what you are doing?
I know that you will think that I am just saying this because you are over there in the UK but truly the British fans are the best. The UK fans are and always have been one hundred percent behind us and let me tell you that feels pretty damn good (laughter).
I understand that the forthcoming tour will be a little special?
Yes it will. When we have played the UK in the past we have always been on a co-headline kind of affair but this time it will be two hours of us and our music. We will be playing for the whole two hours and being in a more intimate and smaller venue it will give us the chance to feel more connected with the audience. Let me tell you we are all really excited about this tour; it is going to be something really special.
You are coming to The Royal Concert Hall here in Nottingham on Thursday 1st December. What can we expect?
Well we will be playing songs from all of our albums and in particular songs which really do drive the band. Songs which make Black Stone Cherry the band that we are. It should be one hell of a night.
I am coming along to photograph the gig and I am really looking forward to seeing you guys again.
That’s awesome and do make sure that you come and introduce yourself to the guys in the band. It would be great to meet you when we get to Nottingham.
Will you be doing a Q&A session during the gig?
Not officially no, but if anyone wants to shout out a question or two then I am sure that we will be only too happy to answer them (laughter). We tried that out three years ago now and every third song we would take questions from the audience. We would answer four questions from the audience then play a further three songs. Because of time restraints we will not be doing it quite like that on this tour but as I say, if anyone wants to shout out a question we will do our best to answer it for them (laughter).
I think that we may be a little too polite to do that. We tend to sit, listen and then clap at the end of the song (laughter).
(Hysterical laughter) now that’s not quite true is it (laughter). The UK audiences tend to go totally crazy at our shows.
Which do you prefer intimate venues or larger arena tours?
With arena tours you can really go big with the production and it gives you plenty of room to run around the stage. It also feels nice to have thousands of people there all wanting to see you and listen to your work. However, the downside to that is that you simply do not have the connection with the back of the room that you do when you play a smaller intimate venue. Take it from me, there is a big difference between five thousand and ten thousand fans believe me (laughter).
You recently released your latest album Kentucky. Were you pleased with the reception that it received?
Absolutely, it was our first shot at producing our own record and even now some six months after we released it I still listen to it and I still do feel really proud of what we did. The songs are just a perfect fit with each other and they all made perfect sense for being on that particular record. We feel that we have managed to retain the quality on the record without producing it too much. That was our biggest fear, producing the record too much. We wanted to make sure that the record stayed raw and I honestly think that we achieved that.
There is a feeling that it is your best work to date. Would you agree with that?
I would totally have to agree with that. It encompasses all of the different styles and traits that we have learnt since we released our first album. It shows off all of the different talents that we have through all of the different genres that we love, country, blues, soul, classic rock, all of that. It really shows everything that we do.
In 2013 you headlined the second stage at the Download Festival for the second time and you are here to tell the tale so obviously it couldn’t have rained that hard.
(Hysterical laughter) yes, that’s right we have headlined the second stage at Download twice now and I have to say that both times were incredible. The first time that we did it, it really did rain, it really did rain a lot. We had a couple of inches of standing water on the stage but that didn’t stop us. I think that we are the only band that fell during our performance due to the water on the stage. We all still laugh about that to this day (laughter).
You have recently opened for Bad Company in the USA how was that?
Man, when we did that tour with those guys we were like little school girls to be honest with you (laughter). On that tour there was us, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bad Company. We have been fans of both of those bands for years now and it was amazing watching both of those bands perform because they are just so solid. Every night it is the same quality performance and the vocals are always spot on; everything is just so solid. My wife and I found out very quickly that our oldest daughter is a massive Bad Company fan. My wife and I went to see Bad Company and we took our two year old daughter with us. All through the concert she didn’t want anyone to hold her, she wanted to be on the floor so that she could dance throughout the whole show (laughter). All that I can say is that my kids have good taste (laughter).
You have recently signed to the Mascot Records Group. Is that a nice fit?
Yes it is, it really is such a fantastic fit. Everyone over at the Mascot Records Group have been fantastic with us. They are all about listening to what the band thinks about their own band which is quite different to other labels that are out there. Most of the other labels try to twist you and bend you into what they think is going to work in the radio market whereas Mascot will ask “what do you think that your band really is” and “what is the sound that you guys need to have”. We told them that we had found a studio where we wanted to work and they said great. Likewise, when we told them that we wanted to produce the album ourselves they said cool.
They also told us that if we didn’t know our own sound by the fifth album then perhaps we should think about giving it up anyway. Not only are they very supportive but they really do believe in the artists that they work with. They do not try to change them in anyway in order to suit their own needs.
In this day and age that approach must be really refreshing for you guys to find?
Absolutely, because the early days with Roadrunner Records were great and it was when they were still a fairly large indie label and not just a department for a major corporate label. However, Roadrunner are currently invested heavily by Atlantic Records and have become very corporate now and being with them really didn’t suit us at all. That simply is not us as a band.
I don’t know if the current trend has reached you over there in the States as yet but a lot of the younger bands here in the UK are now releasing their albums on cassette.
Oh really (hysterical laughter). How cool is that (laughter). However, for me personally I love vinyl, I love the sound and warmth of vinyl. In my opinion cassettes sound good but vinyl sounds better. I don’t know if the band would ever consider putting out an album on cassette. It’s cool that bands have started doing that once again and have connected with that retro vibe but I’m not quite sure that it is for us (laughter). There is so much more simplicity with CD’s and MP3’s that makes it so easy for you to listen to your music wherever you are in the world. However, if you just want to sit there and listen to every harmonic that is available to you, then you listen to it on vinyl.
I have always thought that vinyl is a lot warmer than a CD.
I would totally agree with you on that. Scientifically speaking vinyl has what is called second and third harmonic distortion. So whenever you play something that has been recorded onto CD really loudly and it merely turns into a distortion realm then that is called a digital distortion. Basically the sound waves square off and it doesn’t sound good at all. That is the digital sound that you get whenever you turn something up into the red. With vinyl whenever you turn something up into the red it adds a layer of harmonic distortion on the second and third harmonic that makes everything sound warmer, more natural, and when it breaks up and distorts it is more like making a Marshall Amplifier distort rather that making a crappy Solid State stereo distort. Now you have all of my scientific knowledge as to why vinyl is warmer (laughter).
Was it always going to be a career in music for you?
Yes it was, and I have to say that was the case for all of the guys in the band. We have all been extremely focused right since day one on having a career in music. When we first started and we were writing and learning other people’s music we would always say “when we headline Wembley” and never “hopefully, maybe, someday, we may get to the point when we can headline The Academy in London”. It was never that, we were actually thinking about the day when we would headline Wembley as we were writing our own material. We wanted them to have that arena sound ready for when we did headline Wembley. We have always been very focused on reaching those heights.
I don’t know if we actually realised that we would or not back then but we have headlined Wembley twice now and it is still bashful for us to be able to walk out onstage headlining those places. We have always had the drive, passion, and focus for us to be able to do that at some point even back when we were eighteen years old.
Which artists were you listening to when you were growing up?
Oh gosh (laughter). A whole lot of everything would be the easy answer. Artists would range from Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, a lot of old blues recordings, southern rock, some metal, pop and classic rock. So as you can see I really did listen to everything (laughter).
No Motown in there?
No there isn’t, you are right but let’s just say that I forgot (laughter). I actually listened to quite a lot of Motown when I was growing up; it was one of the most life changing experiences of my life and whenever I need a little pick me up I will always put on the DVD of Standing In The Shadows Of Motown. This DVD explained everything that was going on at Motown back in the day at Hitsville with The Funk Brothers. It tells the story beautifully.
What was the first record that you bought?
The very first record that I ever bought with my own money was a Motown compilation called The Big Wheels Of Motown.
Who did you first see playing live in concert?
That would have been either Korn or No Doubt I can’t actually remember which of those two it was but it was definitely one of them. As you will see I was into all genres of music (laughter).
What was the last piece of music or song that made you cry?
That would have to be The Rambler which is on our Kentucky album. When we were recording that track in the studio Chris (Robertson) and Ben (Wells) recorded their main vocal over the acoustic backing track pretty much in one take. During their recording Chris broke down while he was singing the track. Very soon we realised that it was happening to each and every one of us as it is such an emotional song. At the time Chris had recently lost his grandfather and as you will know all of us have been friends for many, many years now. So when somebody loses a member of their family it feels like we have all lost a member of our family. Anytime that something devastating like that happens to any one of us you can guarantee that the other three guys are always there. We are all so close knit that it really does feel like a family.
Who would you say has musically inspired you?
Oh man, a lot of different artists and people in my life. My dad and my grandfather have inspired me probably the most. They both inspired me tremendously. My grandfather was a blue grass acoustic guitar player who also played the mandolin and the banjo. I remember when I was a little kid of four or five years old sitting on the floor just watching him play and sing a number of different blue grass songs. I was totally in awe of him. My dad didn’t play very much but he always had guitars in the house. My dad was always a big influence upon me and introduced me to a lot of classic rock stuff that I was listening to as a kid, stuff like Elton John, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and all of that stuff. My dad turned me onto all of it.
Those two guys would have to be at the top of the list but as far as a bass player influencing me then there is no competition that would have to be James Jamerson, who as you will know was the bass player with The Funk Brothers over there at Motown. I don’t really play anything like James but as a player there was no one who could touch him. That guy back then was playing stuff that people of today simply don’t have a clue how to make it work (laughter). As you will no doubt realise I have a very long list of people who have influenced me (laughter).
You mention James Jamerson but I have to say let’s not forget Bob Babbitt who stepped into James Jamerson’s shoes and did a remarkable job for Motown.
Yes he did, you are so right in saying that. Now that you have mentioned Bob Babbitt I will tell you a little secret. When we recorded our Folklore And Superstition album we decided to record it in Nashville and not long before we recorded the album I met Bob Babbitt in Los Angeles. I had the opportunity to speak to him for a good long while and it is fair to say that Bob and I became good friends. So when we were recording that album I sent Bob a text message telling him that we were going to be recording in Nashville, which incidentally is where Bob was living. So I invited him to come along to the studio and hang out with us.
It just so happens that the day when Bob decided to join us in the studio was bass day (laughter). So all of the bass parts that are on Folklore And Superstition, when I was recording them I had Bob Babbitt sitting around three feet behind me (laughter). He was continually making suggestions here and there and it was the most intense, horrifying day that I have ever done in a recording studios (laughter).
On that note Jon let me thank you once again for taking the time to speak to me. It’s been an absolute pleasure. You take care and I will see you in Nottingham.
Yes Kevin absolutely likewise. Okay brother, make sure that you come and say hi to the guys. Bye for now.