Interview with Dare Force frontman and solo artist Johnny O’Neil

Date: August 3, 2023
Interviewer: Olivier
Photos: Live photos by Tommy Sommers Photography, All photos courtesy of Michael Brandvold Marketing 
Johnny O’Neil Links: Official Website, Facebook, YouTube, Bandcamp


Sleaze Roxx: Congratulations on your new solo album ‘Brand New Day’!

Johnny O’Neil: Thank you Olivier!

Sleaze Roxx: The album title suggests positivity or at least a fresh start. What’s the meaning behind the album title?

Johnny O’Neil: ‘Brand New Day’ looks at the world through a slightly different lens. Following the tumultuous events of 2020-21 including the global Covid-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd in my hometown of Minneapolis [Minnesota, USA] that sparked the largest racial justice protests in the United States since the Civil Rights Movement, and the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, I wanted to create an album that sparkes rejuvenation and celebrates the fact that we made it through alive, looking ahead optimistically – but without rose-colored glasses – to what comes next. Following such difficult times, I thought it was important to put out a record that rejuvenated people. Although we’re still struggling in many ways, I wanted to say that it’s time to move on and look forward to a better day. Some rock can be really dark, but there’s already a lot of pain and suffering in this world – singing angry songs didn’t seem to be the way to deal with that. The release of ‘Brand New Day’ represents our goal of reflecting positivity and hope through our music.

Johnny O’Neil‘s “Brand New Day” video (from Brand New Day album):

Sleaze Roxx: It’s been two years and three months since you released your first solo album ‘Truth Or Dare’. How have you found the transition from Dare Force frontman to solo artist?

Johnny O’Neil: It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my musical career! At this stage of my life, I wanted to assume more control of my destiny. I’ve always loved being in a band, but I thought it was time to take on the mantle of “benevolent dictator.” While I certainly value the input of my band members, I wanted to have the final say. Playing in such a band is not the easiest for the rest of the fellas, particularly in light of the outsized egos we musicians tend to have — as you well know [laughs]! However, I have been extremely fortunate to recruit four stellar musicians, John Funk on lead guitar and background vocals, Benny Craig on bass and background vocals, as well as my right-hand man, Joachim Baecker on drums and percussion — who has been with me from the start — all of whom understand the dynamics of the band’s structure, and are totally dedicated to the shared vision we have of our band and its future. I do not rule with an iron fist. Rather, we kind of straddle a line between the band as playing the role of “wingmen” who back me, and the band as “a band” comprised of four equally-talented musicians, all of whom are irreplaceable in terms of the band’s chemistry — how well we fit together, both musically and as human beings.

Sleaze Roxx: It sounds like I already know the answer to this question but what do you like better? Being part of a “band” like in Dare Force or being a solo artist?

Johnny O’Neil: At this stage of my life, I really enjoy being a solo artist. But in many ways, I have the best of both worlds! After years of paying dues with Dare Force — and I am very proud of those days and so glad I had that experience — I felt it was time to take the next step in my musical career and go on a solo path. But at the same time, I wanted a band to do it with, a band comprised of musicians whom I greatly respect not only in terms of their musicianship, but also as human beings and “brothers in arms.”

Sleaze Roxx: You released a live solo EP ‘LIVE At The Southern Theater’ back in May 2022 but only on a digital basis from what I can tell. What was the idea behind the EP and why not a full-fledged live album?

Johnny O’Neil: We were in the process of writing songs for the new studio album, and wanted to release something in the meantime in a digital download format to keep people’s interest. In that regard, it was somewhat of a promotional release to wet people’s appetite for new material, until we finished recording the new studio album. We didn’t want to spend an inordinate amount of time or funds on it, so we kept it to five songs in a digital format in order to keep our focus — and funds, of course — on recording ‘Brand New Day,’ which we have released on vinyl and CD, as well as a digital download. It is also interesting to hear live versions of three songs that are on ‘Brand New Day’ — “Take Me Down,” “Don’t Believe A Word,” and “Tell Me Your Story” — and how they have changed in regard to arrangements and such since the release of ‘LIVE At The Southern Theater.’

Sleaze Roxx: Why was the EP only released digitally?

Johnny O’Neil: Again, it was more of a promotional release. In fact, we have been giving away free downloads of the EP for fans who subscribe to our website.

Johnny O’Neil‘s “Take Me Down” (from LIVE At The Southern Theater EP):

Sleaze Roxx: You have what I will call a “crest” as part of your “logo” for your name. What prompted you to use this crest and is there any significance behind it?

Johnny O’Neil: Well, the band is called “Johnny O’Neil.” Needless to say, I am quite proud of my Irish ancestry and heritage. That logo is an adaptation of my family’s actual Celtic crest of arms. I went to Ireland in 2018, and getting a tattoo of my family’s official crest was on my bucket list. I was fortunate enough to be able to get said tattoo in Dublin, and our drummer/graphics artist, Mr. Baecker, made some small modifications adding a Flying V to make it our own, so to speak. I also was thinking in terms of marketing and branding, and wanted a symbol that could become something synonymous with the name of the band. In other words, you see an image and you immediately associate it with a band. Perhaps the best example of what I’m talking about is The Rolling Stones’ iconic “tongue logo.” The minute you see that image from any vantage point, you know it has something to do with The Rolling Stones. It’s a conditioned response, in other words.

Sleaze Roxx: Let’s talk about your new record ‘Brand New Day’. How long did it take you to put it together from start to finish?

Johnny O’Neil: We began writing tracks soon after the release of my debut album, ‘Truth or Dare’ in early 2021. We spent about a year writing and rehearsing tracks to get to the point of being ready to record the album, which we did over the spring/summer of 2022. Then there was the process of getting it mixed, mastered, and manufactured on both CD and vinyl. All told it was about two years from start to finish.

Sleaze Roxx: This time around, you recorded your new album with Joachim Becker once again on drums, but also with your two other live band members — John Funk on guitar and Benny Craig on bass. How was the experience of recording the album with those four and did they contribute to the writing of the new songs?

Johnny O’Neil: Recording with my full band was a huge step in our development. It was always my hope and intent to form a full band not only for performing, but also recording after the release of ‘Truth or Dare.’ I believe I have captured “magic in the bottle” with having John, Benny, and Joachim on board with me. There is nothing like the energy, chemistry, and dynamics that can only be captured by recording live in a studio with a full band playing together. And the album also represents the debut of the “O’Neil-Funk” songwriting partnership! John Funk and I co-wrote three songs on the album, “Take Me Down,” “My Mona,” and “Hands Up.” We will certainly continue to collaborate, and hope to become the next Jagger/Richards songwriting team!

Sleaze Roxx: What are your favorite tracks on ‘Brand New Day’ and why?

Johnny O’Neil: Oh boy, that’s like asking a parent who is their favorite child! Of course, I think all ten tracks are strong, each of which has qualities that make it unique and special. That being said, “My Mona” is definitely a stand-out track, one that really showcases our band’s ability to be more than just another “two-guitar, hard rock band.” It is also one of the three songs that John Funk and I co-wrote on the album, and it is the only track that doesn’t have a guitar solo — by design! One of our goals with this album was to really expand the tonal palette of the band, and take the listener on a journey through a variety of sonic landscapes. “My Mona” is a somewhat of an homage to The Rolling Stones, and features a blistering sax solo by Jason Peterson DeLaire, who also contributed organ and piano tracks to this track, as well as “Hands Up,” and “Tell Me Your Story”, as well as back up vocals by Brianna Jorgensen. Brianna also contributed back up vocals to the title track. I might also add that she and her husband, Kurt are our stellar videography team, as well as incredible musicians in their own right. Check out “The Jorgensens“!

“It’s Too Hard To Say Goodbye” is another special track, written by one Randall Hogan, also knowns as “Xeno,” who not only was the first lead singer we had in Dare Force, but also the original lead singer for Cheap Trick. That track was originally recorded by Dare Force years ago while Xeno was in the band, but was never released. I’ve always loved the song, and Xeno was kind enough to give us permission to re-record the tune, and add our own twist to what you could say is the “power ballad” we have on the album.

“When Janie Moved Into Town” features a slide intro played by yours truly on a 1932 “Style O” — yep, that is its actual model name — National resonator guitar. It then moves into another Stones-type bluesy vibe, with a middle slide solo that is my homage to Johnny Winter — played on a Gibson Firebird. You just can’t help but shakin’ your hips to this tune!

“In Search Of” was a tune I wrote while in Dare Force when I was 20 years old. We played the tune for a short while live, but never recorded it. I was in the studio with Brian Bart one day and started noodling around on the signature chord progression. Brian immediately said, ‘That’s “In Search Of”! You have to record that!’ That’s just one of the benefits of having a co-producer whom I’ve known since we were nine years old! And so, a song that had been dormant for decades raised its hand and said, ‘It’s time to record me!’ You can definitely hear the influence of Wishbone Ash on this track, and Andy Powell himself was quite impressed with it.

But perhaps the tune that I consider the album’s “magnum opus,” “Tell Me Your Story,” best exhibits my band’s ability to soar! Featuring Jason Wolfe on live violin, piano by Jason Peterson DeLaire, as well as a midi string arrangement by the Blood Brothers O’Neil and Bart, this nearly eight minute song really takes the listener on an aural journey. The lyrics also incorporate the vantage point of a psychotherapist sitting in the chair across from a patient, and provides the listener with a glimpse into what psychotherapy is all about.

Johnny O’Neil‘s “Tell Me Your Story” (from LIVE At The Southern Theater EP):

Sleaze Roxx: Speaking of psychotherapy, you work as a clinical psychologist in terms of your work career. Do you find that this has helped you or hindered you with respect to your music career, and why?

Johnny O’Neil: Oh, my “day gig” as a clinical and forensic psychologist has by no means hindered my music career — quite the contrary! Rather, my experience gleaned from over 20 years as a Ph.D.-level psychologist in private practice has provided me with a most unique perspective of the human condition, which in turn has inspired me as a musician and lyricist. “Take Me Down” is a song about the terrible affliction of opioid addiction, for example, and I have already mentioned that “Tell Me Your Story” shares a glimpse into the world of a psychotherapist. The only issue I have with my “dual life” is that I wish there were 28 hours (at least) in the day! The running joke I have is “where’s my fucking clone”?

Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs] As a veteran from the ’80s era, how difficult is it to get new music out there to the masses compared to back in the day? It seems that there are so many bands and artists out there these days and new releases tend to come and go very quickly. How do you find these changes and what have you done to adapt to those changes and get your new music out there?

Johnny O’Neil: As you well know, Olivier, this crazy business of music has been turned upside down with the advent of the Internet, streaming websites, and radio’s focus on urban contemporary and hip-hop music. Not to mention that everyone and their mother seems to have a “home studio” with technology that wasn’t even imaginable in the ’80s. As such, there has been a deluge of music produced by many more “artists” of quite varying quality. But there is an upside to these changes, too, in that it allows one to get music heard worldwide without having to secure the infamous “record deal.” Yet, that requires the artist to be their own label — hence, our release on our own label, “Bearded Maggie Records” — and hustle all the more in wearing hats that range from writing, recording, and performing music, to self-promotion and marketing on social media. Another creative avenue that we have really focused on is videos and our YouTube channel. Videos are almost as important as the music itself, and are so fun to create with the help of our stellar videographers, Brianna and Kurt Jorgensen. All this takes a significant amount of time. However, we have been extremely fortunate to have a genuine social media, marketing, and publicist master as our manager, Michael Brandvold, who has been an invaluable asset in getting our music out to the masses.

Johnny O’Neil‘s “Red Suns In The Sky” video (from Truth or Dare album):

Sleaze Roxx: I’m going to take you back a little bit. Please tell me about Dare Force’s experience opening for KISS on their ‘Creatures of The Night’ tour. There’s not that many people that can say they did that type of stuff.

Johnny O’Neil: Yeah!

Sleaze Roxx: And did you ever get to see them without make up or you didn’t get that chance?

Johnny O’Neil: Yeah, that was quite an adventure. We have the Pat Travers Band to thank for a couple of shows. That and we also opened for Ted Nugent. Both times, the Pat Travers Band was the scheduled opener and in the case of KISS in ’82 — KISS had different opening acts during that tour. In fact, I think that Wendy O’ Williams opened on that tour for a few dates. Pat Travers had a leg of the tour and there were a few acts. Anyway, the night before, we played with them in Sioux City, Iowa [USA] at the Civic Auditorium and I think the night before, they had played in Denver [Colorado, USA]. There was a hellacious snowstorm — surprise, surprise — in December of ’82. So Travers were snowed in. Their trucks and so forth couldn’t even get out of the city. We got a call from the agent that we were booking through at the time on the day of the show. This is probably Noon or one o’clock. ‘Hey, do you guys want to open for KISS tonight in Iowa?’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, I think that we can probably make that time for that.’

Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs]

Johnny O’Neil: So we drove like bats out of hell. I don’t know if you recall the old Cadillac limos, kind of the JFK era limos. We had one of those at the time. Yours truly was white knuckling it down Interstate 35, which goes straight down to Iowa. There were times on that journey where the roads were so bad. It was down to one lane and you don’t know whether you’re going to meet with a car head on or not but I was bound and determined to get us to that gig. We got there and it was probably half an hour before we had to go on. We were late as hell. We pull up to the loading dock and it’s all hands on deck. We had a three man road crew and typically, we would strut in with our guitars, plug in and play. Well obviously, in this type of circumstance, it was all hands on deck. There was this guy — I had seen this guy walking in and out of our truck to unload gear. It turns out it was Paul Stanley helping to unload gear.

Sleaze Roxx: Wow!

Johnny O’Neil: And then, I look over and there’s this guy decked out in leather from head to toe, and he comes up to me and he goes, ‘You must be with the front act. Hi, I’m Gene Simmons.’ He sticks out his hand and shakes my hand. The ‘Creatures of The Night’ tour, it was their 10th anniversary tour, the last one they did with make up before the unmasked era so none of us had any idea what these guys actually looked like. I saw this guy in leather and figured he must be somebody. Well, it tuns out he is Gene Simmons. They were super gracious. Paul Stanley’s helping us unload drums out of our truck for Christ’s sake! So they caught our set and after their show, we stayed at a Hilton that night. They had rooms that night but they didn’t stay that night. The hotel had the top floor bar so we hung out with them for awhile after the show and they took off. They didn’t even stay. I don’t know where their next show was. We spent the night and the next morning, we were at the hotel café having breakfast and people [laughs] thought we were KISS…

Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs]

Johnny O’Neil: …. since of course no one knew what they looked like. We had people coming up and asking for autographs. We looked at each other and thought, ‘OK, do we play along with this?’ We thought, ‘Screw it, we’re going to be KISS for awhile.’ We were signing autographs. I was Paul Stanley and our bass player all of a sudden became Gene Simmons. There’s probably some poor souls out there that are running around thinking that they have original KISS autographs. I’m sorry to say that they got mine [laughs].

Sleaze Roxx: That’s so funny.

Johnny O’Neil: We did get to see them without make up and they were just really gracious. Gene Simmons — he said, ‘Yeah, I caught your set. You were the guy with the red leather.’ At the time, my attire consisted of spandex or leather, and I had a pair of thigh high women’s leather boots that I bought at a department store here in the Twin Cities. He goes, ‘Yeah, I saw you. You were the dude wearing leather and those high boots. You guys are really good!’ ’82 was an outrageous time for the band. That was the end of it. The beginning of the year started with back-to-back shows with Shooting Star one weekend at the Orpheum Theater here in Minneapolis. The next weekend, we opened for Triumph, and the weekend after that, we flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico for a headline show. That’s the year we should have gotten signed.

Sleaze Roxx: Yeah, for sure. For your KISS encounter, did you see Vinnie Vincent or Eric Carr?

Johnny O’Neil: Vinnie Vincent was in the band of course. No. Nor Eric Carr. The only people that we talked with were Gene and Paul. Put it this way, if I met them, I don’t recall [laughs].

Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs]

Johnny O’Neil: But meeting Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley — that sticks out in my brain. I am not going to forget that.

Sleaze Roxx: What are your plans for the rest of the year and beyond?

Johnny O’Neil: We are going to keep pushing, pushing, and pushing with new videos, social media, radio, and YouTube campaigns, as well as live performances to promote ‘Brand New Day.’ Also, I am very excited to develop the songwriting partnership John Funk and I have embarked on. John is a most gifted guitarist and songwriter, and we are just getting started as a songwriting team! As I mentioned before, our goal is to become the next “Jagger/Richards” — look out!

Sleaze Roxx: Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you would like to mention?

Johnny O’Neil: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention all the support we have received from not only our fans, but our families. It really takes a special person like my incredible wife, Amy, to put up with all the craziness that being married to a musician / psychologist entails. I also would like to thank all of the fans from the Dare Force days who have continued to support me and my band in my solo career. At the risk of sounding incredibly cliché, I truly believe that I am one of the luckiest human beings on this planet! And with the luck o’ the Irish, how could I not be?

Thank you to Michael Brandvold Marketing for facilitating the interview.

Johnny O’Neil‘s “Snake In The Grass” video (from Truth or Dare album):