Interviews

Interview: BRIAN DOWNEY of THIN LIZZY

Due to popular demand, Brian Downey’s ALIVE AND DANGEROUS will return to the Camden Underworld on Thursday 7th November. Tickets are on sale now via the venue.

Brian Downey’s ALIVE AND DANGEROUS features Brian Grace (best known as the guitarist for the Commitments’ Andrew Strong), plus former Low Rider band members Matt Wilson (lead vocals, bass), and Phil Edgar (lead guitar).

When Thin Lizzy’s reunion wrapped in 2013, Downey declined the offer of joining Black Star Riders and decided to take a year off. In 2013, he met guitarist Brian Grace and discussed various aspects of music, and which direction he wanted to take his music next.

Says Brian, “After the Thin Lizzy reunion shows finished in 2013, I was asked to join what turned out to be Black Star Riders, but it just didn’t feel right for me.”

Continues Brian, “In January 2016, following an appearance at the Vibe for Philo in Dublin, I approached Brian Grace and that’s when we discussed getting a band together. After a few rehearsals, Brian suggested that we rehearse with Matt Wilson (lead vocals, bass) and Phil Edgar (guitar), both of whom had been in a band called The Low Riders (their name was taken from a lyric from the Thin Lizzy song Johnny The Fox).”

“In January 2017, we jammed together at the Vibe for Philo, and it went so well, that we decided to form Brian Downey’s ALIVE AND DANGEROUS and made it a full-time proposition.”

2018 marked the 40th Anniversary of Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous album.  Although the album was recorded live in 1977 at London’s Hammersmith Apollo and Toronto’s Seneca College, it wasn’t officially released until a year later in 1978.

As a huge Thin Lizzy fan since my teenage years, how could I not take the opportunity to chat to one of my musical heroes when it came up.


ANTIHERO: Thin Lizzy have been included, finally, in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I just wonder how you feel about that.

Brian Downey: Yeah, we’ve been nominated, okay. First time. Although, it’s been talked about for many years, and now we’ve been nominated, and it’s an amazing piece of news. I found out about a couple of days ago and I’ve been getting calls, and inquiries, and all sorts of phone calls from people ever since. So, it’s a big event, okay. It’s an amazing achievement, and a little bit late, but nonetheless, it’s an amazing achievement, and we’re hopefully now looking forward to winning, hopefully.

That’s the next hurdle. I think at the end of the day, we’re lucky enough to have been nominated, but yeah. As I said, it’s taken a long time to come about.

ANTIHERO: Of course. You’re touring, and celebrating the Live and Dangerous anniversary, and you’re still doing dates. I just wondered, regarding the fact that you’re still touring, one thing that was widely reported at the time that you didn’t join Black Star Riders, was because you didn’t want to tour, and yet you’re touring now.

Brian Downey: Well, that’s not quite right. The reason why I didn’t join Black Star Riders was that I didn’t want Thin Lizzy, a touring band, to finish. And that would have been the case if I joined Black Star Riders. So, under those circumstances, I didn’t want the Thin Lizzy reunion to finish up and when I was asked to join Black Star Riders, I pointed that out to everybody, and everybody accepted that. And then, nobody was willing to, not from Black Star Riders, if you know what I mean. But I wasn’t really prepared to go into a brand-new band with all the rehearsals, all the massive tours. Because I mean, what we were doing before that was pretty short tours. But going into a new band with a new record contract, you’re tied to doing long tours, and I wasn’t prepared to do that. So, that’s the reason for that.

ANTIHERO: Yeah, do you think it’s important though, that they’ve moved away and created their own band, their own songs, their own identify, outside of Thin Lizzy?

Brian Downey: I think that was the plan when, obviously, when we heard that everybody didn’t want to go on with the Thin Lizzy reunion. I think the plan was to get their band, Black Star Riders, up and running, and get out on the road. And it’s good, I just wish them all the best, I really do. I mean, they’re a good bunch of guys, lovely guys. I just wish them the best of luck for the future with the new band, well not new, relatively new, Black Star Riders. So, I wish them well.

ANTIHERO: Are you still in touch with many of the ex-Lizzy band? Scott, Gorham for example?. Are you still in touch with him?

Brian Downey: Well, the last time I spoke to Scott was just before we had a meeting about the Black Star Riders morphing from Thin Lizzy, into Black Star Riders. And that was a few years ago. But I keep in contact with them every so often, okay. When something really important comes up, I suppose. I keep in contact with Eric Bell, I was with Eric a few weeks ago. We played at a festival, here in Ireland, and that was about a month ago. So, I met him. I keep in contact with Brian Robertson, send him birthday greetings, Christmas greetings, and all that. So we are all kind of keeping in contact, but not as much as, maybe, we should.

ANTIHERO: What was your favourite line-up of Thin Lizzy? Was it that early three-piece when you guys first started, maybe it was one of the louder twin-guitar line-ups.

Brian Downey: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, the first round we had with Eric Bell, the three-piece, that was a really good line-up. I like, yeah, the first three Decca albums we played, with Eric Bell, and they really sound really good today, even. Most Lizzy albums sound good today, they’ve stood the test of time, maybe one or two albums. But the majority of the albums have stood the test of time, and I put that down to our inventiveness, and the songwriting was a massive part of that, I suppose. And Phil, singing, and the amazing amount of guitar players we had as well and… But the albums, I say sound, I have favourites, and less favourites.

As you say, the first album with Eric Bell, it was the first Decca album, was a great album. And I still listen to that, I’m amazed by the playing on that, it’s an incredible album. And when we had Brian Robertson, Scott Gorham come into the band. I like the Jailbreak album. I like, in fact, I like most of the albums we played with Scott and Robo. And I like the stuff we did with Snowy White, and also with John Sykes, I mean. I find good in most of the albums we made, just some good track, some bad. But, I mean, mostly I find good playing, good songs, incredible songs. Excellent songwriting, and musicianship, it’s good. So, all the Lizzy albums, I’ve got something in there to recommend to the fans and not fans. They’re good albums. Maybe, one or two were a bit, just, ordinary albums. But most Lizzy albums, we put a lot of effort, and a lot of thought into, and they all turned out pretty well, in the end.

So, but to have a favourite album, it’s hard to say. I do like, as I said, early Decca albums with Eric Bell, and I also like the stuff we did with Scott and Robo, as well. So, I don’t really have a favourite but you can certainly say that I like most of the albums apart from some tracks. As I listen over the years I kind of appreciate even the stuff I don’t like anymore. So, mainly, I like most of them apart from, maybe, a couple of tracks on each album.

ANTIHERO: What about, as a musician playing live, what gave you the most fun? Was it being part of the early band playing live, or the latter bands?

Brian Downey: Yeah. Oh well, the early band playing live was incredible. When we were trying to break through into the UK, we had some incredible experiences in the UK playing six nights a week, I mean, the whole experience was incredible. Going from Ireland to England, settling in London, playing all the major clubs in London, like the Marquee Club, the Flamingo, Blazes, you name it. We played all those famous clubs around in the late sixties and seventies and eighties. An amazing experience and it really stayed with us because all that experience on the road just honed the bond so well, you know what I mean?

That whole six nights per week in the UK really was an apprenticeship, I’d say. It really did, hone the bonds and hone our musicianship very, very well, because playing so many gigs automatically loosens you up and it makes you very inventive. When you’re playing so much, your whole existence revolves around gigs, playing, going to the studio, recording, rehearsals. And that just tightened the band up, no end. No matter what line-up we had, we always made sure to have everybody rehearse properly, and that really helps. So, it was an incredible time. Very happy period living in the UK at that time. We got a lot of success when we were living there, with Whiskey in the Jar got into the UK charts, we also got to number one in Ireland.

Very exciting period, and then we had a bit of a lull when Eric Bell left. We had to find new musicians to replace him. And then when we did find them, that was Robertson and Gorham. When they came in things really started to take off, we had a really successful album, as you know, with Jailbreak, and we had “The Boys are Back in Town”, and it was a big, massive, single for us. And also really good tours. It was an incredible period, those whole early days of Thin Lizzy when Eric, and   Robbo, and Scott came in, a very enjoyable period.

And I just found, for the 14 years I was in the band, I, really, didn’t have a falling out with anybody else within the band. We had our arguments, but no massive, major falling outs. And that really helps as well as, yeah, everybody was kind of happy enough with our arrangement. Nobody really hated each other. You have your words, I suppose, but it was never really a bad situation. It was a happy band, generally. A couple of problems, maybe, in the latter days. But early days it was a very happy band, we all got on well. Okay, one or two people left because of the difference of opinion within the music. But personality-wise, there were no real, massive clashes with personality with the different line-ups. So, that was a bonus as well. It’s a very happy period, and the band, generally, got on quite well with each other. There’s no real falling out as such, as I said.

ANTIHERO: I’ve looked around and there’s an absolute ton of Lizzy books out there in the market, but nothing by yourself which surprised me-any particular reason for that?

Brian Downey: Yeah. No, nothing by myself. Nothing, no. I haven’t gotten around to doing it yet, maybe when I retire, I might sit down for a couple of months, and put my talents on paper. But as we stand now, I have nothing planned for a book or anything like that at the minute.

ANTIHERO: I’m sure you’ve been asked many times.

Brian Downey: Yeah, I’ve been asked a few times, okay.  I thought about it, but I find the time factor quite daunting. You need time to sit down by yourself to start thinking about the past and what happened in the past. That alone would take me maybe weeks, to get my thoughts together, and put them down on paper. But, I mean, I suppose when everything cools down and calms down. Eventually, I might sit down and do it, in a couple of years’ time, you never know.

ANTIHERO: Okay. One question that has been bothering me for years, as a long-term Lizzy fan. It’s regarding the show at the Sydney Opera House back in 1978.

Brian Downey: Oh, yeah. That’s the one I missed. Yeah, you know what I mean? I kind of came down with a kind of pneumonia situation. I was pretty ill, to say the least. And well, I informed our manager about the situation, I was really ill, and he said, “Well, it’s too late to cancel the tour.” And he said, “You don’t mind if we replace you with a stand-in drummer?” And I just, I said, “Well, you know, I’ve really no problem with it.” Because I mean, I was so ill I didn’t want to start arguing the toss about it. And, so, he got Mark Nauseef. Mark Nauseef had to fill in for me, for those couple of dates in Australia.

Unfortunately, he had a film crew at one of the major gigs there, at the Opera House. And it was just unfortunate that I missed it because it became a big DVD. Well, not on DVD, it wasn’t released promotionally, but it became a big Lizzy fans favourite, not DVD, a video. And then, it was just one of those things, I couldn’t travel, I was just so ill.

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And they just had to replace me for those, and the dates were confirmed, you couldn’t get out of the contract. So, they had to fulfill those days no matter what.

ANTIHERO: Did Lizzy play a full set? The video that I’ve got, I think it’s only about eight songs, 40 minutes. Was that the full set that they did that time or was it a full set and they didn’t release the rest of the material?

Brian Downey: They did a whole set. They did, like, an hour and a half, maybe an hour and 40 minutes. So, I think it’s just edited down to eight songs. I don’t why they edited it down, but that seems to be the case. The song’s missing off of the DVD, off the video. So, I don’t know why they left them off and I have no idea why they did that. I’m sure the other tracks could be lying somewhere. You never know in some, in some studio vaults somewhere. So, I suspect that at some stage they might take them out, and release those as well, but I haven’t seen them yet.

ANTIHERO: No, me neither. Okay, you’ve toured to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Live and Dangerous. Just wondered if you had any plans to, maybe, feature any other albums in the live sets, in the future.

Brian Downey: It’s actually funny you say that, because we were only speaking about it about a few weeks ago, about doing Black Rose in its entirety, as well. We know, maybe four or five, six songs off that album. So, there’s no reason why we can’t introduce some of those tunes in this. I think our next rehearsal we’re going to have in a week or two’s time, maybe we can run over a few tracks off the Black Rose album again. And maybe for the UK tour in February, we could introduce one or two of those back into the set, or into the set.

I know we did do Black Rose at a couple of gigs last, not last year, the year before last. And it went very well. So, we have tried a few of those tunes already, and they went down well. But we had to drop them, we didn’t have to drop them. But we did drop them to keep to the Live and Dangerous set. We didn’t want to upset the set too much. So, yeah, I agree with you. I think we should maybe do new tunes, or you know back catalogue tunes, and as I say, Black Rose was definitely one of those tunes, we have ready to go. And, yeah, we just need a rehearsal to get more tunes on board. And there’s no reason why we can’t introduce those tunes at some stage in the very near future. Yeah, I agree.

ANTIHERO: Okay, you’re still based in Dublin. I just wondered; do you keep in touch with the current music scene there? Do you go and check out new and upcoming Irish bands?  Have you got your ear to the ground, on what’s new, upcoming?

Brian Downey: Yeah, well, I try to keep my ear to the ground. Going out to see bands is not easy anymore, because some of the venues have closed down. There are not any venues left apart from the major big venues, like the arena, the RDS, and places like that, massive venues. But the average small-ish venues are very few and far between, now. Rock bars and places like that. Yeah, there’s still a few around, but there’s not very many. But I try to get out. I went to see a band last week. Paddy Goodwin and the… I can’t remember the actual band’s name.    But they were quite good. Paddy’s a friend of mine anyway, I know Paddy for a while,

Oh, the Holy Ghosts. That’s it, Paddy Goodwin and the Holy Ghosts. They’re a good band, I really enjoyed it, and it’s a great venue When’s. It was the upstairs venue, in When’s, an excellent venue for bands starting off. And the downstairs venue is for more established bands, it’s a great venue as well. But the venues are, kind of, closing down. We had…  JJ Smyth’s closing down, a few months ago, which was a real loss to the blues scene. It was kind of a blues and jazz place, that’s gone now.

So, I mean, I try to get out and see bands, I try to keep my ear to the ground. And it’s still happening, there are still bands around, but there should be more venues. I’m really surprised that the venues are closing rather than opening up. I think it should be, obviously, the other way around. But that’s the way we are nowadays, unfortunately, there’s a lot of distractions around to keep people busy, and away from music, and unfortunately, that’s the way we are now. So, no, I still live in hope. I’m still optimistic that the scene will improve. It’s not bad by any means, but I think it could improve with more venues, and other venues for bands to play. I think that that should be the case. But at the minute, unfortunately, the venues are closing rather than opening.

ANTIHERO: What do you do in your spare time? Do you even have any? How do you relax?

Brian Downey: Yeah, a good question. Oh, yeah, I do a bit of fishing, I try to get out for the bass, and the mackerel, and all the rest of them. I mainly see fish, and this is a good time of year for bass if the weather stays good. So, I’ll try and get down to County Wexford to fish for bass, within the next couple of weeks, because we’re right in the middle of the season now and it’s pretty good, I hear from a couple of friends of mine. There’s definitely been lots of fish being caught, but our bass are a very slow-growing fish. So, I normally throw them back, and give them a chance. I might keep one, or two, but the majority of fish I catch nowadays, I try to back and conserve, conserve the stocks.

But that’s what I do for pastime. And I like watching football, the usual stuff I like. I kind of like soccer, and I like a bit of Gaelic hurling. So, now sports is a good favourite of mine, fishing, apart from that I just like drumming, as well. That keeps me busy with practising at home, and with the band as well. I still like drumming and playing live for an audience. that’s a big bonus, as well. It doesn’t affect me much at the minute, but when it does, as far as I’ll have to retire, but that’s right into the future, I hope.

ANTIHERO: I’ve noticed that you’re doing some dates, I think next year, with Don Airey.

Brian Downey: Yeah. Oh, yeah, well, my old friend Don, we’re going on the road with his band, and really, really looking forward to playing with Don in the UK. I think we’ve got five, or six sites for them. It’s something I’m really, really looking forward to, and the rest of the guys are as well. I mean, Don is an absolute legend. He came into Deep Purple and filled Jon Lord’s shoes, and he’s an amazing, incredible, Hammond organ player, and keyboard player, generally, and an amazing guy. And a really good friend of mine over the years, and I’m really, really looking forward to seeing him, hanging out, and playing with him over those five, six days. I can’t wait for February for that tour. I’m really looking forward to it.

ANTIHERO: Just squeeze in the final one then. Obviously, you played tracks like The Boys are Back, In Time, Jailbreak, many, many times. How do you keep them sounding fresh? Do you never get fed up going, “Oh, dear; We’ll have to do that one again tonight”?

Brian Downey: Sometimes that can happen, when you’re not in a good place mentally  or, if you’re tired, or you’ve been travelling for seven, or eight hours to get to the gig, when you get out on stage sometimes you just want to get back to the hotel and go to bed. But no, I mean, generally, you kind of look forward to the gigs.

It’s something I always wanted to do, was to play in a band, and play drums since I was, like, very young. Lucky enough my dad was a drummer back in those days and he encouraged me a lot, and gave me lessons as well, on the drums. So, it was something I always wanted to do, from day one, really. I feel privileged to actually get up there, and it’s an honour to get up and play in front of our fans, and it’s just so enjoyable to entertain them, and look, and see how happy they are when the song is finished.

So, that gives you the incentive to play these songs even though, sometimes, they might sound a bit ragged but we try to keep them fresh. As fresh as possible as we try to stick to the  Live and Dangerous album by being dedicated to the sound. We know why we’re there, we want to entertain, we want to put on a good show, we want to please ourselves, as well, by playing as well as we can. I think that’s maybe the main point, which keeps you interested in playing the song as good as you possibly can. That keeps you on your toes and that makes it enjoyable, as well. The songs are so iconic nowadays, that alone would be enough of an incentive to go out and play the songs over, and over again, and keep them fresh.

And don’t forget the guys who are in the band are absolute massive Thin Lizzy fans as well. So, they’re steeped in the   history of the old songs, the old albums that’s been around for a long time now. They seem to have grown up with these songs in their house, and when they came into rehearsal, a couple of years ago, when I formed the band we’d absolutely no problem going through these songs, back to back. There was no stopping, and starting, and discussing what we should do for arrangements. They knew the new arrangements and that was a massive eye opener for me. They seemed to know, instinctively, how these songs sounded. It was just incredible to find that out when I formed the band. The guys were so steeped, and well-versed in the tunes, more so even than me, in some instances. So, that keeps everything fresh and vibrant.

Getting out there, and knowing that the guys who you’re playing with, are equally passionate about the songs, and about the band, and that’s what it’s all about. The passion, and the whole how you go about constructing the set, that’s interesting as well, putting the set in order, back to back songs have to be right. So, it’s all very enjoyable, the whole process, and long may that continue. I’m just enjoying it so much, just long may it continue. Yeah.

It is great.

ANTIHERO: Do you find it physically challenging, though. I mean, to play songs like, “Bad Reputation”, and stuff? That are demanding? Certainly, can’t be easy to maintain that level of physical energy especially with the advancing years?

Brian Downey: Well it can be, it can be physical. It can be draining. As I said, if you’re on the road for seven, eight, nine hours travelling, when you get there, you’re completely drained, but you have to, sort of, psych yourself up, and get on there, and try and put on the best performance possible. That’s what we try to do, to keep everything nice, and fresh… What was the original question again? I just forgot there.

ANTIHERO: I mean, do you find the live shows more difficult these days? Physically? I mean, the physical demands of playing live.

Brian Downey: Yeah, no, I do find it difficult. As I say, if I’m tired. Yeah, but you really have to go through the pain barrier when you’re fading out. The pain barrier is there, there’s no doubt about that. But you have to go through that pain barrier when you’re tired, and when you’re not feeling one hundred percent so, that can be a problem. But I try to never let that become a problem because, really, at the end of the day, you’re up there to do a job. We want to entertain the people who come and see it. The fans who’ve come a long way, in some instances, to come and see you. So, no matter if you’re tired, or you want to go back to the hotel and sleep, no. You want, you need to get up there, and play. And that’s the attitude, and that’s the policy from day one, with me, anyway.

Even with Thin Lizzy when we were, back in those days, travelling six, seven days a week on the road, tiredness was never really discussed. It was something you just accepted, and just get on with. If you’re tired, that doesn’t matter. You just have to play. And that’s the kind of way we were instructed by our management, and all the people who were around as record company, and all the rest of it. Once the tour is on, and once the record company says you do the tour, or you do the album, well you do it. Yeah, that’s your job and you do it, and you don’t complain about it. As I said, you know, you feel privileged, and it’s an honour to go out there, and play for the fans and the general public. And that’s the way I like it.

The motto is… the only exception to that, is if somebody comes down sick, or ill on the road, and you have to reconsider or maybe cancel, or maybe even postpone the gig for another day, for another time. That would be the only time, I’d say, you need to take stock, and that’s if somebody comes down with the flu, or pneumonia, or something else that’s more serious. A simple head-cold, no. You couldn’t cancel a gig for that.

If it’s something serious I would say, “Let’s cancel the gig, or let’s reschedule for another time.” But it would have to be a serious illness for that to happen. So, I mean, you just go on. As somebody said to me recently, old soldiers never die, they only fade away. It’s like, old musicians never die, they only fade away. It’s a similar kind of situation, I think.

ANTIHERO: Thank you very much for chatting, and I hope to see you in Manchester on those dates with Don Airey.

Brian Downey: Oh, excellent Mark. Looking forward to seeing you there, then.

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Mark Dean

I'm a 40+ music fan. Fond mostly of rock and metal - my staple musical food delights. Originally from Northern Ireland, I am now based in the UK-Manchester. I have a hectic musical existence with regular shows and interviews. Been writing freelance for five years now with several international websites. Passionate about what I do, I have been fortunate already to interview many of my all-time musical heroes. My music passion was first created by seeing Status Quo at the tender age of 15. While I still am passionate about my rock and metal, I have found that with age my taste has diversified so that now I am actually dipping into different musical genres and styles for the first time.

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