Interview – Jon Lawhon of Black Stone Cherry

Interview – Jon Lawhon of Black Stone Cherry

black-stone-cherry_0110crThere is a saying that real Rock-n-Roll will never die. That is all thanks to the passion and devotion of bands like Kentucky’s own Black Stone Cherry. Coming from the heartland of America, Black Stone Cherry marry the soul and roots of Rock-n-Roll, becoming one of the most successful international bands around today. From the beginning, with their 2006 self-titled debut, to their most recent 2014 album, Magic Mountain, the band has achieved eight charted US singles. Their success does not start and end there though, with integrity, they look to continue to write music from the heart and keep the flame of Rock alive. Recently we sat down with co-founding bassist Jon Lawhon for an in-depth look at the band’s journey, standing above the bureaus of the music industry, love for music, and more. – Black Stone Cherry began over fifteen years ago when the band members were still in their teens. After years of hard work, the band finally saw the fruits of their labor with the successful debut self-titled album in 2006. Looking all these years later, what as the journey been like for the band?

Jon Lawhon – It is like the fastest roller-coaster you can ever imagine, to be perfectly honest.  It does not feel like it has been that long, but it absolutely has.  John Fred, Chris, and I started playing music together a couple years before the band actually started.  The three of us went to High School together, we were in drumline together.  I believe those three years of drumline in the school band is what we can attribute to how tight we are too.  When you are playing percussion instruments together, you have no choice but to be one hundred percent on.  It is not like a guitar where a note can carry over, it is an instantaneous beat, so if you are not together, it falls apart.  In 2001, we met Ben, and honestly it just started rolling immediately.  As soon as we met him, he picked up his guitar, we jammed with him and were like, “Dude, do you want to come back tomorrow and practice?” He said, “Yeah I’d love to!” At the time, we were all teenagers. Chris and I were playing dual combo amps, we had one instrument a piece.  Then Ben came, he had three guitars, two twelve combo, sitting on top of a four twelve cabinet, we thought, “This dude is ready to tour” (laughs). It all started there, and honestly Ben helped us evolve into a Rock band because at the time, we were playing a lot of Blues, more Soul music.  When Ben came around, he said, “Ok, I’m big on Aerosmith, lets do some kind of Rock stuff,” and we said, “Lets do it!” Of course we had our ’70s Rock influences too, but at that point in our lives we were trying to stick out, so we were doing this Blues thing.  The next thing we know, here comes Ben and we are playing this Southern Blues Rock and it some how transpired into a world touring band.

Roadrunner – That is a great story. Obviously as a band plays together more they become more in tune with one another personally and thus progress musically. As mentioned, Black Stone Cherry’s sound has always been rooted in Blues, Southern Hard Rock, but continuously progressed from album to album. What do you attribute the experimentation of the band’s sound with?

Jon Lawhon – Honestly, a lot of it is just age, with anybody, every human being on this planet goes through some sort of evolutionary path.  Where you start off when you are a kid, you might be into Heavy Metal. As you get older, you mellow out a little bit, you get into more Rock.  Sometimes people go backwards, they start off with Rock because their parents introduced them to AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, and as they get older, they listen to Slipknot or Lamb of God.

Everybody has their own path that they take. With us, as we have gotten older; I have two little girls now Chris, our singer, has a little boy, Fred just had a little girl, and Ben has a dog.  I think it is the touring and the different places that we have been to and the different bands that we toured with.  There is always the record labels influence of course, because they help find us people to do co-writes with that have different learning experiences and all that.  Then honestly, it is the way things have snowballed that brought us to the point we are at. You never know what kind of turn we are going to take because it all depends on what life does.

Roadrunner – Exactly, that makes perfect sense, as you get older things change, it is just a natural progression of things. The band’s latest album, Magic Mountain, was received to much acclaim from fans and critics. What was the writing and recording process like for this record?

Jon Lawhon – It was a big breath of fresh air.  The first record we did, was all songs we have written before, there was never a record label involved.  We had our whole lives to write that album. The second album, we wrote in a matter of a few weeks.  Bob Marlette, the guy that produced, came in and we did the pre-pro with him.  We had pieces of songs and some songs finished, he dove into it with us. Honestly, even to this day, I would say the most we ever learned in the shortest period of time, which was the fastest evolutionary process was that record, Folklore and Superstition. When Bob came in, he is just a plethora of information. He is super cool, a laid back guy. He taught us so much about songwriting, the way to achieve different emotions in one song with dynamics, and ways to make those dynamics come through. It was really an amazing experience, and still to this day, “Uncle Bob” is still top of the list of people we enjoy to work with.

When we came to the third record, we did co-writes with everybody.  You name it, we were digging them out of the cracks doing co-writes. After we did the second record and we worked so closely with Bob, we wanted to have a broader experience again, so we were going everywhere we possibly could doing co-writes. We were going from Nashville to LA, we were flying back and forth and dudes were coming to the practice house where we always write and rehearse. It was just a whole lot of working with everybody to make that record happen. Then Howard Benson’s method of recording is honestly very Pop driven, of course he does Kelly Clarkson, it makes sense.  Working with him was interesting. He came in and did drums and disappeared. We then took control for guitars, bass, all that stuff, and he came back to do vocals.  He stepped back in, trying to see how things were going in the middle of it, but for the most part all of the middle stuff, guitars, bass, the fairy dust guitar parts, all the added stuff, was all on us and the engineer Mike Plotnikoff. He came in and did a lot of the rearranging. After we were finished, there was a whole lot of other stuff that he would grab, move parts around in a song in a post production style, which was really different because we have never dealt with anything like that before.

The last record, was a very organic process.  We wrote, there were a couple of songs that we did co-writes, but it was only a couple. The rest of it was written by us, no big major changes or anything by Joe Barresi.  Barresi’s biggest thing was the music. He helped us understand that in today’s time, radio is not necessarily the biggest thing people need to be focusing on. Honestly, in our market in the US, we have fifty something active Rock stations and there is only five slots for new artists. Therefore, there is no point in beating your head up against the wall for that when we already have such a great career in Europe, where people are seriously music driven.  With that said, we extended solos, we made jam sections longer, we added jam sections when there were not any there. We just really had fun with the musical side of our band and extended songs out longer than we would have based off of everything that we have learned up to that point. It really gave us this sense of putting the music before the thought process of the radio.  If the radio needs edits, then we edit, but until then, we write what we want to write.

Roadrunner Records
Roadrunner – That sounds like a good process and outlook. The record certainly has a very live feel to it. Each of your studio albums has featured work with a different producer. Working with Joe Barresi this time around, did the band feel comfortable with the direction he was leading the band’s sound?

Jon Lawhon – Yes, just like I was saying earlier about the whole evolutionary process, we felt up to that point, each time we would want to work with someone different.  If you listen to any Zeppelin records, not two of them sound the same. There was a huge evolutionary process between 1969’s Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II.  Same thing with The Beatles, and all of the bands we grew up really digging.  The only band that I grew up digging that released practically the same album every time is AC/DC.  They had their niche and they stuck to it, and it was smart on their part.  All of the rest of the bands had this big evolutionary change, from album to album.  Zeppelin is honestly one of the biggest changes from record to record.  Still to this day, I find it funny that “Stairway to Heaven,” Robert Plant’s whole thing was, “OK, fine we’ll cut it like this but, if we’re going to do it like this, then whenever we play it live it will have to have more of a Reggae feel.” Which was really bizarre to me, but of course it was a humongous song for them and they never did that and kept it like it was (laughs). – As a musician, it is completely understandable wanting to have a different sound for each record. There is no doubt that Black Stone Cherry is a live band. Seeing that the band does spend a lot of time on the road and on the stage, what are some of the more important things you have learned about touring?

Jon Lawhon – The most important thing any band could ever learn while touring is do not take life so seriously, that is the biggest thing. Focus on rehearsing and make sure you got yourself together, but if you make a mistake, do not cut yourself off at the knees, you get to do it again tomorrow (laughs).  We have been historically famous for being too hard on ourselves for shows. It has not been up until the last couple of years we have said, “OK, so we made a mistake. What was the mistake? We can fix it up for tomorrow, nobody freak out.”  We have always been really hard on each other to make sure everybody plays and are staying 100% exactly how it is suppose to be, which is suppose to be ten times better than what it is on the record.  We have always been this very serious band when it comes to our show. We always will maintain that, but you have to take that stuff with a grain of salt. At the end of the day, people are there to see you play and be a human being.  People make mistakes, the mistakes are honestly some of the cooler things because that proves that there is no tracks running. – One can imagine adding all of that undue pressure on yourself makes things worse.

Jon Lawhon – It does, it creates this cloud of stress.  The whole reason why anybody picks up the guitar, or bass, or a pair of drumsticks, it is because you found something that you love and have fun with. Do not turn it into work.

black-stone-cherry_0074cr – Very true. The band recently completed some dates with Shaman’s Harvest and Rival Son in May. You have toured with Rival Sons in the past, how exciting was it for the band to hit the road with them again?

Jon Lawhon – They supported us in Europe, two or three years ago, on a month long run, roughly.  They are good dudes, they had a different line up with the band at the time. We were trying to put some dates together and they said, “Dudes, come play with us,” and we were all about it.  We are used to the whole flip flop headlining thing.  Another example, Sevendust, who we opened for in The States many times, they were a first of three on a big headline tour over there a couple of years ago. Shinedown as well, we always open for them over here. We are working on stuff right now for them to be supporting us in Europe. You never know what is going to happen. – It is quite cool that the bands can flip flop like that; how one can headline one tour, and next, the other.

Jon Lawhon – The biggest thing is if you do not have an ego about yourself then, it would get you a lot farther in life. There are no egos here. – That is essential. Rock-n-Roll has certainly gone through many changes through the years and it seems there are so many sub-genres, but Black Stone Cherry are pretty true to the roots of Rock-n-Roll. With that said, how important is it to the band to keep the approach direct and pure?

Jon Lawhon – We have never said, “Hey we’re a Rock band,” or, “Hey, we’re a Southern Rock band,” or, “Hey, we’re a Hard Rock band,” or a Metal band for that matter. We always just said we are Southern, because we cannot help it (chuckles). We are Rock at our core.  Whatever comes out of us from there, it is what it is.  We have always just wanted to write good music regardless of the style or the placement of radio, or any of that. At the end of the day, we just want people to say, what a great song, what a great performance, or both. – Sometimes labeling a band can be limiting, to pigeon hold a band. You do not want to do that.

Jon Lawhon – Right, our second record, there is a song called “Sunrise.” The whole chorus is straight up Reggae, big time Reggae, there is no hiding it, it is Reggae.  We wanted to have something unique on that particular track because the way the song was written and lyrically what it said.  We wanted it to be different and to really stand out.  There is also “All I’m Dreamin’ Of,” on the third record, which is almost like a Pop Folk kind of thing.  We all listen to so many different styles of music that all of it is going to find a way out in our music at some point. I spend so much time listening to music, I have Sirius XM in my truck.  Whenever I am at home I listen to Classic Country, Modern Country, I listen to the Pulse a lot; which is all of the new Modern Pop stuff. Of course there is some of that which is a little too bubblegum or cheeseball for me to handle, so I will skip around to something else. As far as Modern Rock is today, I really do not listen to it to be honest with you, because everyone has lost the heart and soul of what Rock-n-Roll is supposed to be. It is all rebellion and no form now.  Active Rock radio, when we first started, was active Rock radio. Now it is Metal radio with a long list of bands that do not deserve it in my personal opinion.

ldo_0061 – Understandable. There has been a level of a generic value with Rock and Metal sometimes today.

Jon Lawhon – It all comes down to this, in the early ’90s everybody was looking for the next big thing. They were looking for something different and unique, something that would create a shift.  We had Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, all of that comes out in hits.  People are still looking for something different, and then all of a sudden we end up in a more lounge-like Rock-n-Roll when bands like Counting Crows and Hootie and the Blowfish hit. On the heavier side you had Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson.  People are looking for something unique and different, and things were as they were.  Bands sounded different from each other, like they were supposed to.  At some point the record labels got lazy, and instead of looking for the next big thing, they looked for the next big thing that is big right now.  That is what happened to Rock-n-Roll, the record labels killed it.

So many people blame it on fans because they download records.  People have been finding ways to get music for free for years, whether they are playing the vinyl record and dubbing it with a cassette tape, copying it from one cassette to another, or burning CDs for each other. All of that crap does not matter. It has been happening for years and years. Yes, it is more simple now, people can just download it or burn it .  The thing is, the reason why people stop buying Rock records is because Rock bands stop putting good songs on records.  They put out one, maybe two good songs, which are the radio singles. Everything else is still crap, and that is because the record labels program them that way.  That is why we end up with so much crap back and forth between us and our label because we tell them, “No, we are not done writing, we are going to get this right. We are not going to put out two good songs and the rest of it be just junk.” That is not who we are. – That type of integrity is appreciated by the fans.

Jon Lawhon – To be honest, I believe it in my heart that is the reason we have a great career in Europe. The European audience will not be fooled.  I have seen bands go over there that are massive here and watch them fall flat on their face over there because they cannot hack it.  The American audience can be clouded and programmed by radio. Over there, they have maybe one Rock station per country.  They are so lacking in radio, not to mention the fact that when they do have Rock radio, their Rock radio over there is so watered down they have to have what is called a “gold mix.”  That is where there is about zero heavy guitars and only acoustics.  In those, the only heavy guitar you hear is the solo. It is really watered down over there.

The fans are hardcore in Europe though, big time.  They show up to the gigs, they buy the merchandise, they support the band.  They are on the forums, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and they are sending messages to the band.  I see the messages from all of our stuff, all of the time, and 99% of them are messages from Europe. It has been that way the whole time, even before we even got big. It is just because when someone says,  “Hey I’m into Rock music,” over here that means they get into their car, turn on the active Rock channel, and mundanely drive to work and listen to Rock on the way. Occasionally they might go to a festival, maybe they go to a show, but they are not really out supporting the scene.  You do have those hardcore people, God bless them, that are trying to keep Rock alive in this country. They are few and far in between.

Over in Europe, they come out in droves. They understand, for some reason, they get it, if they do not go see this band live they might not get to see that band again because they might not be able to afford it. A lot of people in America think, “Oh well, they are rockstars so they make millions of dollars.” Not true at all, this is not the ’80s anymore folks.  That is not how it works anymore, the record labels make all of the money and the bands do not make crap.  The only reason why the bands are still around in most casts is because people come out to support them and they make just enough money to get by.  The reason why I still play music today is because I love playing music.  It is bands like that too, that will stand the test of time.  In my opinion it is those bands that are just say, “You know what, I’m not making a million dollars, but I don’t care. I love playing music and our voices need to be heard,” it is that simple.  They pour themselves into it and eventually the cream always rises to the top.

black-stone-cherry_0128cr – Absolutely, you hit the nail on the head right there. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. covers music and Horror films.  You clearly find inspiration in literature, but if you are a fan of Horror films, what are some of your favorite Horror films?

Jon Lawhon – Absolutely, I am kind of a classic Horror movie fan personally.  When they did the re-creation of The Wolfman (2010), I was all about it.  Frankenstein (1931), Nosferatu (1929) as well. I love the old classic Horror films because there is something today that seems so eerie from those films back then. Obviously they were not made from the production we are capable of doing today. Rob Zombie, for example, makes excellent Horror movies, but they are super modern, they are very gory, and all of that.  The ones back in the day, like Nosferatu, they never speak, it is a silent film, all black and white. The story about the guy who played Nosferatu, he became the character. Stuff like that is what really amazes me and makes me want to pay close attention.

A lot of the modern movies are great, like the Insidious movies are great, they really are. They are some of the better ones that came out in the last few years because it is similar to The Omen movies on a religious basis. There are so many religious people in this world that believe all of that.  When you hit a movie that is digging into all of the religious facts in the bible, such as the Antichrist and insidious with all of the demonic presence.  When you have something that has a biblical backbone to it, it becomes ten times more horrifying because it is real to you. It is not just a film, it is a true possibility. – You look at movies like The Exorcist (1973), that movie is terrifying.

Jon Lawhon – That left Linda Blair messed up.  They were seriously bouncing her off of the mattress and they scared the hell out of that girl.  When she was crying, that was not acting, she was really scared.  They tormented her in that film to get the reaction out of her that they wanted.  Personally, I think that is terrible, but I think that is the aura of that movie. That is why it is so terrifying. When that movie came out, there were people vomiting in the theater, that is doing something.  Kind of a Horror movie, not really, was 1953’s The War of the Worlds. I remember reading about when the original came out, they did one of the radio broadcasts with different characters, making it sound like a news broadcast. They made it sound like aliens just entered our atmosphere and we are attacking people.  There were suicides following the broadcast, it scared the hell out of people.  You think people would sit back and say, “Wait a minute, I don’t see any lights in the sky, maybe I want to think about this, I will walk out this window if someone walks through the door, how about that?”

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures
FilmDistrict –  It is crazy that people would do that. You speak of the reactions that these older films had on people, and they still have on people.  It seems, nowadays, that a lot of films, perhaps because we are jaded as a culture, have no effect on any of us anymore. It seems like everyone is so apathetic to everything.

Jon Lawhon –  I believe you nailed it in the head with the whole jaded thing.  That is the biggest thing. A lot of it has to do with the way our culture has evolved with our morals.  If you look at my grandparents for example, my grandma, my grannie, sweet little old grannie, had no idea what sex was until she got married. The day she got married, I know for a fact actually, she found out what sex was the morning of the day she got married, had no idea before that.  Today, you have eleven year olds with babies. When moral values drop and things become what they are, people do what they want, whenever they want. It is like Adam and Eve, the knowledge of good and evil, once you know what those bad things are, if you are allowed to just do them whenever you want and there’s no consequences and repercussions for those actions, everything becomes normal and nothing bothers you anymore.  Nothing affects you. – You are right.  There has to be a happy medium where you can be knowledgeable of things, but not overexposure yourself where everything becomes so mundane.

Jon Lawhon – I think it has to do with our kids.  Everyone does what they want to with their kids, I will be the last person to intervene and the way that they parent.  I will tell you right now, I will not have my kid watch Horror movies at five years old. So many people let their kids watch whatever the hell they want to watch. That is why kids are so jaded, they are never sheltered from anything as a child. My house, it is cartoons. I want my children to have a childhood.

Tour Dates:
JUN 16 Dublin Academy Dublin, Ireland
JUN 17 Ulster Hall Belfast, United Kingdom
JUN 21 Graspop Metal Meeting Dessel, Belgium
JUN 25 Dauphins Countryfest Grounds Dauphin, Canada
JUN 27 Flaming Gorge Days Green River, WY
JUL 16 Moondance Jame Walker, MN
JUL 17 Rock Fest 2015 Cadott, WI
AUG 7 Reload festival Sulingen, Germany
AUG 8 Reload festival Sulingen, Germany
AUG 10 Budapest A38 Budapest, Hungary
AUG 12 Z7 KONZERTFABRIK Pratteln, Switzerland
AUG 13 Summer Breeze Festival Dinkelsbühl, Germany
AUG 15 Elb-Riot Hamburg, Germany

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