Interview w/ Dare Force frontman / solo artist Johnny O’Neil (Part 1 of 2) + video premiere

Date: April 10, 2021
Interviewer: Olivier
Photos: Courtesy of Johnny O’Neil


Johnny O’Neil‘s “Comin’ For You” video:

Sleaze Roxx: Congratulations on your debut solo album! It’s really, really good!

Johnny O’Neil: Well, thank you.

Sleaze Roxx: And I know that its your debut solo album after many, many years and you had a very long stint with Dare Force. We’ll cover Dare Force in a lot of detail but can you tell me the short story of how come you’re doing a solo album after all this time?

Johnny O’Neil: Well, it’s kind of hard to separate the two answers. I mean, in a nutshell, after quite a hiatus with Dare Force, I reformed the band in 2017 with only one original member, Brian Lorenson, the bass guitarist. We had another drummer, Lane Allen, and a guitarist, Kelly Peterson. Actually, Kelly and I had been working together for a few years. We had a band called Crossroader that put out an EP in 2015 or so. We had a really good singer whose hearing went haywire and he had to drop out shortly after the EP was released. It’s one of those classic rock n’ roll tales. So I told Kelly, ‘Well, what do you think about going back out as a four-piece under the name Dare Force?’ [It’s] probably 15 years after the last performance Dare Force had put together. Anyway, he was up for that. I recruited Lorenson to get on board. Kelly was in the band for about three years. We put out a record called ‘Callin’ Your Name’ in 2018. Kelly wanted to do some of his own solo material so he left the fold and then we were back looking for a guitarist. A fellow — I think that you interviewed him — Leni DiMancari who is a local guitarist. Had him in the group for less than a year, probably nine months.

The group just — I guess long story short — between politics and the pandemic, it just became untenable as far as a working situation goes. Without wading too much into the weeds here, I am certainly a person of the more liberal persuasion. I am Ph.D. trained clinical psychologist. I don’t believe in conspiracy theories when it comes to pandemics. I am certainly not a fan of our former president [Donald Trump] so being the lone ranger so to speak along those lines, you can’t create music when you’ve got that kind of tension in the band. So the three of them went on to form their own thing. I have to chuckle. I don’t know if it was in the interview with you or somebody but Leni had mentioned that they were trying to leave the Dare Force brand behind and the name of their band is A Rising Force so [laughs]…

Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs] Right…

Johnny O’Neil: I will state from the outset that Leni is a coattail rider. I am going to be blunt on a few things here. Essentially, he’s kind of tried to use the Dare Force name to promote their new project without having contributed anything of any substance to the history of Dare Force. Like I said, it was about a nine-month stint for him. He never recorded anything with the group so good luck to them. So I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’m not going to put together yet another version of Dare Force.’ I didn’t want to start a new band from scratch. I kind of scratched my head as to what to do next and Brian Bart, the co-founder of Dare Force, I’ve remained lifelong friends with him. I was talking with him about some ideas of what to do next creatively. Actually, it was his suggestion. ‘Why don’t you put a solo album?’ And you know, it was something that I had in the back of my mind for a long time but the material that I had written was always used for Dare Force recordings and so forth.

So I thought, ‘What the hell? When is a better time to come up with a solo album than in a global pandemic.’ So that was the genesis of it. Brian [Bart] has made a living operating his own recording studio for many years and has kind of dropped away from doing live performances years ago. Otherwise, if anyone would be continuing Dare Force, it would be he and I but for a variety of reasons, he has just been so busy with his studio and so forth that he’s kind of dropped off of live performances. Anyways, I had a backlog of material for Dare Force that I had written for Dare Force years ago that had never got recorded for whatever reason, and I also had some brand new tunes, and it just kind of progressed from there. I started tracking out at Brian’s studio in May of last year, literally doing all of the vocals and guitar tracks to a click track. I didn’t even have a drummer at the time and just recorded all of the lead, slide, acoustic, and bass guitar tracks, and vocals to a click track…

Joachim Baecker

There was a drummer whom I had heard playing before. I just loved his playing — Joachim (Jo) Baecker. Jo was actually playing, for a little while, in a tribute band here in town and one of the bands that they were covering was Dare Force. So they invited me to one of their gigs to get up and sing a tune that they were covering, and I was just really impressed with his playing. I also had the opportunity to meet with him between sets and we talked for 45 minutes, and we could have probably talked for two to three hours, but it was time for him to get up and finish the night. I kind of tucked his name in the back of my head and when it came time to look for a drummer, I… The call was kind of funny. It happened through Facebook messenger. I sent a message to him. I said, ‘Hey Jo, I got this solo album. I’ve got a bunch of tunes in the can but I need a drummer. Would you possibly be interested?’ So I sent him some tracks and he jumped right on board right from the beginning. We went out to a studio in town called Winterland and we had a weekend booked for drum tracks for Jo, and Jo banged out seven tunes in an afternoon. We didn’t even need a second day.

Sleaze Roxx: Wow!

Johnny O’Neil: So, at that point, I knew that I had something really special and I talked to Jo about maybe adding a little spice to things. I told him, ‘It might be kind of fun to have some keyboards, strings and so forth.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’ve got a guy that might fit the bill’ and I said, ‘Who might that be?’ And he said, ‘It’s a guy named Danny Peyronel.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ He said, ‘Yeah! He’s the original keyboardist for UFO.’ And I said, ‘What [laughs]?’ And another messenger call to Danny. Jo had connected with him first. I contacted him to see if he might be interested. So I had a chat with Danny who lives in the south of France these days. He said, ‘Send me some tracks’ and he loved what he heard, so he’s on three tracks on the album. But essentially, it’s Jo and I, and Danny playing on three tracks on the album.

I knew that I definitely wanted to have a live band though, too. The solo album was a totally different thing for me, of course, being the sole writer except for one of the tunes on the album. Literally, if there was ever a solo album, this was it. But, I wanted to have a band to get back out once the pandemic passed. So I had the album in the can and it hadn’t been released yet but I started fishing about — I had some players in my mind right from the get go to form a band, but this time around, it was going to be under my name with the thought that it would be my band. Benevolent dictator….

Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs] Right!

Johnny O’Neil: I don’t rule with an iron fist but when the bottom line comes, it’s my decision and it’s my band. There were a couple of guys in town that were veteran players — John Funk is my guitarist, my co-guitarist, who is just a phenomenal player.

John Funk

Another guy by the name of Benny Craig — he had played in the same circles as Dare Force years ago in a band called Paradox and same thing. Messenger, texted them and they were both ‘Count me in!’ So, this was in last November, we started rehearsing as a full band. I released the record on 1-21-21, the day after the inauguration. That was by design.

Sleaze Roxx: Hmmm.

Johnny O’Neil: Truth be told, it’s taken off beyond my wildest expectations. I mean, here we are, I am talking to you about the record, but you’re not the first nor the last person to whom I’ll be talking to about it. I’ve got a publicist whose been doing a bang-up job in California — Michael Brandvold. So he’s been pushing the record on social media and so forth. I have some other publicists that I’m going to start working with. I have a new video coming out for “Comin’ For You” that will be released in the next few weeks, and there’s going to be a commercial radio campaign for that. Things are just getting started. The record is barely three months old. I’ve gotten reviews worldwide about it.

So the next nut to crack is you know, getting some commercial radio airplay, which as I am sure that you are aware, it’s not an easy task being a self-released act. Certainly with the strength of the material and production values — Brian Bart is a genius in the studio – I firmly believe that there is a lot ahead for the band. We are going to get out  and play some live gigs here in the next couple of months. There’s been progress as people get vaccinated and things are returning to some sense of normalcy; the next album, that we are already started writing for, will be under my name but will feature the whole band this time around. It’s kind of a long-winded answer to your question. It’s been quite an amazing experience. When I step back and think back to what has happened in less than a year, and if anyone would have told me last May how things have unfolded to this time, I would have been shocked. So it’s really surpassed what I had hoped for and I think there are far greater things ahead for the band. I’m quite excited needless to say.

Johnny O’Neil‘s “Snake In The Grass” video:

Sleaze Roxx: For sure! Now, I have quite a few follow up questions. One thing that I wanted to point out is that I did not know your connection to Dare Force when your CD got to the Sleaze Roxx headquarters….

Johnny O’Neil: [Laughs]

Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs] You think it’s funny! So I’m listening to your album and thinking, ‘This can’t be Johnny O’Neil’s first album because it sounds way more mature, way more polished than a debut album.’

Johnny O’Neil: Yeah.

Sleaze Roxx: And finally when I dug in, I realized, ‘Now I know why’ because you have a lot of experience [laughs] so…

Johnny O’Neil: I literally thought of the name Dare Force. I own… You mention in your review that the Dare Force [Facebook] page is under my control. Yeah, I own Dare Force LLC. The name, all rights are under my control. And actually, we are — I’m going to give your feature a little tip — Brian Bart and I are in the midst of negotiating with a label for a reissue of Dare Force material from the ’80s.

Sleaze Roxx: Oh! That sounds interesting!

Johnny O’Neil: We put out three records in the ’80s. We had our debut [album] that came out in ’82. ‘Makin’ Our Own Rules’ came out in ’85. The original run of the band ended in ’87 and then Brian [Bart] and I put out yet another version in ’89 with a new rhythm section and a new singer, and we put out a record called ‘Firepower’ in ’89. But really the ’80s — from ’76 to ’87 — we played full-time. Fifty weeks of the year, four to five nights per week and by ’87, we were just fried frankly. So the original group disbanded, but we gave it one more shot so we put out what I think is a really strong record — ‘Firepower’ — just before the grunge thing hit [laughs]. Timing is everything so that was the death knell for the original crew. Yeah, we are going to be re-releasing material and that’s in the works right now. I am the only person on the planet that has played in every version of this band over the last 40-something years. So you know, when I hear people talking and saying, ‘Yeah, we were part of this international band and the three of us [referring to A Rising Force which features three former Dare Force members], and so on and so forth, I have to chuckle, because aside from Mr. [Brian] Lorenson, the other two [drummer Lane Allen and guitarist Leni DiMancari] are, to put it bluntly, mere footnotes in the history of the band.

Sleaze Roxx: What made you decide to call your album ‘Truth Or Dare’?

Johnny O’Neil: Well, as I mentioned before, one of the things that was so funny is that I would catch flak, I’ve never tried to be overtly political. I’m not going to release a Bob Dylan album or something like that. But it’s important for me to be informed and to use critical thinking skills and so forth. And the last four years in America, we’ve been under a cult of delusion. I really don’t want to refer to it, but about 40% of the American population has lost its collective mind.

Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs]

Johnny O’Neil: I thought that it was important to speak about some things and there is one tune on the record — “Tell Me What You Think You Know” — that kind of speaks for itself. But it talks about things like systemic racism, white privilege… You know, I’m in Minneapolis [Minnesota, USA] right now and I’m sure you’re aware of all the incidents that have followed the killing of George Floyd.

Sleaze Roxx: Yeah, for sure.

Johnny O’Neil: It opened up a whole worldwide revolt if you will. Anyway, on occasion, I would comment about something on Facebook and I wouldn’t make an original post, but if someone was talking bullshit, I would jump in. The other guys were like, ‘Well, you’re going to offend half of our fan base.’ But what about the other half of the fan base that we have [laughs]? As I mentioned before, I am a clinical psychologist. I’m a trained research scientist. I believe in empirical data so when I hear about conspiracy theories — the virus is a “hoax;” you can spray some aerosol in your lungs and perhaps that will cure you…

Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs]

Johnny O’Neil: …crap. So that’s the “truth” part of it. The “dare” of course is a link to Dare Force. It became kind of a situation where ‘do I continue working with people who do not share [laughs] the same world view that I have’? So it was a play on words I guess you might say.

Sleaze Roxx: Actually, I was very surprised when we initially started talking. It’s the first time that I heard that a band really splits up over US politics and it’s funny that happens because I have actually tried to stray away from politics on Sleaze Roxx because I know that there are certain readers, even Sleaze Roxx writers, that are pro-Trump and we could certainly get into arguments. But I am surprised to hear that a band broke up because of the politics that are happening in the States.

Johnny O’Neil: Yeah. Well I mean, that’s part of it. Honestly, the band folding and that last version of Dare Force — again, it was just a mere shell. The true Dare Force is myself, Brian Bart, Mark Miller — our original drummer who is deceased, he died several years ago — and Brian Lorenson. That is the real deal. There were versions after that and this latest version, which is just a shell of it. In my mind, part of an artist’s responsibility is to call out bullshit and I’m not going to write an album full of political protest songs, but when you’re living in an environment for the past four years that has been so toxic… It’s politics but it spills over into every aspect of life and the impact that it’s had on peoples’ lives is something that you just can’t ignore as an artist and really as a human being. If I offend some people, frankly my dear, I don’t give a flying fuck!

Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs]

Johnny O’Neil: I am going to let the music do the talking. I mean, I find Ted Nugent offensive but yet, he does not seem to mind flapping his gums and so forth. I’m a stubborn Irishman…

Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs]

Benny Craig

Johnny O’Neil:…. so maybe you’ve picked up on that already. I’m not going to be one to be told to shut up. That being said, I am certainly not going to be out to stir things up, trying to purposely cause controversy. But when things get to a certain point that is so blatant, the level of deception and lies… I mean, we’ve had a global pandemic and the United States [of America] has lost half a million people and I think that Trump has the blood of several hundreds of thousands on his hands. But I don’t want to make this whole interview about all that kind of stuff. But I’m also not one to shy away from those types of conversations if they come up, too. I will say this. The current group that I have, if you’re going to create any kind of art with any group of people, you’ve got to have chemistry, a similar mindset, a similar sense of awareness… I’m not saying that you all have to agree upon everything. I mean, that would be boring. But there has to be some commonality between the players involved, and the group of guys that I have now, not only are they among the finest musicians with whom I have ever worked, but they are also extremely intelligent and we share similar views in terms of the world. That’s what makes it even more special. You have to have that in order to be able to create music that will be any good.

Dare Force (line-up: Brian Bart, Johnny O’Neil, Karl Young, Dean Vallecillo and Paul Peterson) performing “Fire Power” at The Mirage in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA:

Sleaze Roxx: I think that you’re right on that point. In terms of the break up of Dare Force, was there any talk of the other three continuing as Dare Force and who initiated the break up?

Johnny O’Neil: Ummm, those three guys… Well, first of all, there was never any discussion about continuing the band as Dare Force without me being in it. I flat out told Leni [DiMancari], ‘If you even think of using the name, you’ll find your ass in court.’ I thought of the name. I own the LLC. It’s trademarked, copyrighted, and so on, and so forth. Leni owns a booking agency also. I should back up a little bit. I told him, ‘Take down any reference to the band. You guys can go ahead and play the dates that are booked but you’re not playing them under the Dare Force name.’ I’m not going to have that legacy sullied by coattail riders who are a pale imitation of the legacy that Brian Bart and I started when we were 18 years old. That is my baby [laughs]. I take great pride in that and I protect it. There was never any question that there was going to be a band that continued without me. A band called Dare Force without me playing in it, so to answer your question, no. I didn’t even realize that they were going to continue a group. I just happened to hear about it through happenstance.

Another sad part of the story, Brian Lorenson, a person with whom I played for decades, didn’t have the courtesy to tell me that they were going to continue. I kind of found out about it through rumours and so forth. So that was disappointing, but I don’t wish anybody ill will. I hope that they do fine with their thing, but the break up of that band [laughs] was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me in my musical career. It really gave me the impetus to release a record, to be honest, that I think is the finest piece of music that I have ever produced. And so, I am very proud of the solo record and it also gave me the impetus to put together one hell of a band, but this time, I’m calling the shots. There’s a time when you…. You know, the democracy thing can only work to an extent.

I kind of liken what I am doing to Bruce Springsteen. I am not a great fan of his music, but I am tremendously respectful of him as an artist and a human being. He’s got a band that is killer, but it has the same type of set up. It’s ‘Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band.’ He calls the shots. I think that he’s even used the term ‘benevolent dictator’ so I think that at some point in your career, you develop to a point where you’re like, ‘You know what? It’s time for me to take the reins. I have been at this long enough. I have a vision in my mind of where I want to be musically and where I want to go. I’m just not going to let anyone… There’s a line in a tune from ‘Firepower,’ the line goes ‘Lead, follow, or get out of my way.’ I’ve always been a leader and it was just time for me to fully take the reins. Just step forward and put something out under my name, which was an interesting experience, but it’s paid off in spades.

Sleaze Roxx: Yeah, for sure. I found it interesting on your album that you have two instrumentals. You have nine tracks and two are instrumentals. I find that to be more of a gutsy move and so, what made you decide to do that?

Johnny O’Neil: Well, I don’t know that it’s such a gutsy move. I mean, there’s a dude named Joe Satriani…

Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs]

Brian Bart and Johnny O’Neil

Johnny O’Neil: … that’s had a stellar career [laughs] putting out all sorts of instrumental albums. But to answer your question, “Ode To Mark” was a tune that I had written as a 16 year old and the “Ode To Mark” actually involves two Marks, one of which is Mark Miller, the original drummer for Dare Force. I mentioned that he passed away. That was back in 2012 due to cancer. The other Mark is a fellow by the name of Mark Damman. I started playing clubs here in the Twin Cities when I was 14. When I was 16 I was in a band with Mark Damman, a fabulous guitarist, and I had this tune, an acoustic piece, that just seemed to work perfectly with a piece that he had. As you’ll notice, there are co-writing credits, myself and Mark Damman. Well, Mark and I played together for a couple of years. He was a few years older than I and tragically, he was killed coming home from a gig with another band. A drunk driver hit him. I was 17 years old at the time. Mark was in his early 20s. His younger brother, John Damman, went on to become the sound man for Dare Force. There are many twists and turns in the tale but that song has been in my mind forever. I started thinking about tracks to play. Brian Bart said, ‘You know, you’ve got that acoustic piece. You’ve never done anything with it. You know, it’s really cool. You should record it.’ And I thought, ‘That’s a great idea [laughs]!’ So, I put it down on the record.

The other instrumental piece ‘World Run Amuck,” there’s three sections to the tune — parts that I’ve had for years. Again, Brian [Bart] said, ‘Well, you’ve got these three parts. I’ve heard you playing them for years. If you put them together, that would be a really cool tune.’ Brian has co-writing credits on that as well. “World Run Amuck” is kind of my ode to Joe Satriani. Not that I am trying to compare myself to Joe Satriani, but I wanted to have one song on the record that really showcased, for a lack of a better way to put it, my chops. And I wanted to do something that was going to blow people’s minds from a guitarist’s standpoint. I played like five guitars with three different amp set ups. Brian and I, we got all sorts of different tones and we just wanted to do something that would blow people’s minds from an instrumental standpoint. And it was just a kick ass closer to the album too. That’s kind of where the impetus for those ones came from.

Sleaze Roxx: I thought that was really cool!

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Sleaze Roxx’s interview with Johnny O’Neil!

Johnny O’Neil‘s “World Run Amuck” track: