In the world of rock ‘n roll, Great White have seen it all.
Through tremendous success or horrific tragedy, the California-based band has persevered since they hit the music scene back in the late 1970’s. Original members Audie Desbrow (drums), Mark Kendall (guitar), and Michael Lardie (guitar/keyboards) survived the ‘80s when many “hair bands” did not. And the trio, along with lead vocalist Jack Russell, have continued to release new music and entertain fans around the world for more than 30 years.
Russell is also an original member of Great White, but will not be on stage with his bandmates Aug. 12 when they perform at Rockin’ The Rivers near Three Forks. Great White is one of more than 30 bands that will perform during the three-day outdoor music festival at “The Bridge” in the Jefferson River Canyon.
Nearly a year ago, Russell underwent emergency surgery for a perforated bowel. It was so serious that he nearly died and remained in the hospital for more than eight weeks.
Doctors instructed Russell to take a year off from touring, and ex-Warrant frontman Jani Lane stepped in to help Great White finish their 2010 tour. Terry Ilous, former lead singer of XYZ, has stepped in for Russell and will perform with the band at Rockin’ The Rivers.
Recently the Belgrade News caught up with Lardie while Great White was in between shows. In addition to playing guitar and keyboards, Lardie serves as the band’s tour manager. He noted that the band has been doing a “weekend warrior thing” throughout the spring and summer of 2011.
Typically, he explained, Great White will fly mid-week to plays shows around the country on the weekends, then return home for a two or three day rest.
“That’s our life pretty much between like May and October,” said Lardie, who noted Great White had just returned from a busy weekend of shows in Minnesota, Illinois and New Mexico.
Since then the band has played a pair shows in Canada, and was in Kalamazzo, Mich. for the Arcadie Creek Festival on Aug. 6. Their next show is at Rockin’ The Rivers, a venue Great White performed at in 2007.
“We love it up there,” said Lardie. “It’s beautiful country and the air is pretty pure and clean. You just look everywhere and you can just see the sky. That part of it’s pretty cool.”
While the band is best-known for its 1989 hit “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” they’re also equally known for the 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire that broke out less than a minute into opening song “Desert Moon” and killed 100 people, including a band member. Great White eventually moved on from that tragedy by doing what they do best, performing. That was one of many topics Lardie talked about with the Belgrade News. Here is the interview.
BN: You wear quite a few hats in the band as a guitarist, keyboardist, producer and tour manager. How difficult is that to juggle so many roles?
LARDIE: Well I’ve always been able to be a pretty good multi-tasker. But some days it’s a little changing. You have to be able to cut your time off and thinking and say - take the business hat off, get the performer hat on. Or put the GM hat on to go sell the show. So it’s always interesting trying to make sure that you get every bit of it enough attention to do a good job. There’s days that it goes super smooth and other days where it’s a little more challenging.
BN: Your lead vocalist (Russell) is out right now. How is he doing and when do you guys expect him to be back with the band?
LARDIE: He is recovering. Any time you have your midsection cut into — they had to reach a section of his large intestine — any time you open up your body that far, it takes quite a while to rehab the body to reanimate the nerves and all the muscles and stuff. As far as a projected date, it’s really more often than not up to Jack. I hear, and I’ve talked to him a couple or three times a week, he’s working, very, very hard to get back. He misses it terribly. He misses all of us. And we’d like him to come back when he’s 150 percent ready if you follow my line of thinking. Because I’d hate for him to come back too soon and realize, ‘Oh wow I really should have done rehab for another month before I tried to come back. Now I gotta take more time off.’ I want him to be just so ready to go that he just blows people’s minds. So we’re all being very supportive of him. And the great thing is he’s being very supportive of our scenario by endorsing us to go out and do what we’re doing. And giving Terry Ilous, who’s filling in for Jack, encouragement. He calls him a couple a times a month, and says ‘I’m hearing great things about you, thanks for singing my songs so well.’ We’re having a great time with Terry, so it’s a win-win situation. By like I said, I will reiterate, I don’t want him coming back to soon. I want it to be right, so when he’s back he’s back all the way.”
BN: How’s the fan reception been with Terry at vocals?
LARDIE: At first it’s always like, ya know — say the guy got a divorce and everyone loved his wife. They see the new girlfriend and they’re like, (Lardie hums), automatically they’re going to go, yeah I don’t know. But after they hear him sing a couple of songs they’re like holy crap. Because Terry’s such a terrific vocalist. And he is doing the songs; he’s paying homage to the songs very nicely where he’s copying a perfect amount of anality but also still putting his personality into it. So I would not want him to be a carbon copy of Jack because nobody can really be Jack just like nobody can really be Steve Perry from Journey. The guys that they have do a pretty good job of doing the Steve Perry thing, but I like it better that Terry not try to be Jack. He’s trying to pay homage to doing the songs greatly, but at the same time putting on enough of his own artistry into it. The fan response by the end of the show is like, wow, you guys picked the right guy. You can’t do any better than that.
BN: Are there any songs that you shy away from with Terry or can he jump in and pretty much do anything?
LARDIE: He can pretty much do anything. We’ve dusted a couple off that we haven’t done in a while. We’re doing Lady Red Light again and he rips up Save Your Love. He does a great job on that. We’re doing Big Goodbye which we haven’t done in a year. So it’s fresh for us too to be able to put in some of these songs we haven’t done in a while. Not that Jack couldn’t do them. It’s just that when you do them - you write them and you sing them for so many years - it’s not that particularly fresh to you like some songs are. Because it’s a fresh thing with Terry right now he can look at these songs and they seem fresh to him. So there again it feels fresh to us.
BN: So with Jack not there right now, I assume the band’s not working on anything new.
LARDIE: We always write songs because that’s what we do. And we always think in terms of how it would sound with Jack singing them. Mark and I have created music and melody for these songs over the years. Kind of like in your mind when you’re at home working on a song going ‘where would Jack go with this. How would he approach this.’ We keep doing it no matter if we have a project specifically in mind or not. So when we do get to that point where we’re doing another record we have a wealth of catalog to be able to draw from. And hopefully have 10 or 11 really good songs on it out of 100 ideas.
BN: How does the band go about making a new song or a new album? Is everybody involved in the writing? Does it start with a riff?
LARDIE: It’s varied, it’s not just styles that we do. There’s no steadfast rule. Back in the early days when Mark and Jack just started working together in ‘79-80, they would set with a guitar and they would just riff over each other and they’d figure out the songs. With the advent of computers now what we do is come up with an idea - we can like make an empty pre of it - and bust it off to Kendall and say ‘what to you think of this?’ He goes ‘oh I got a great beat section that would go right there.’ Sometimes we’ll fill entire songs that way via Internet. And when we get together everybody pretty much knows the arrangement. That’s one way to do go. Sometimes we all just sit in a room and jam, and songs like Mista Bone come up. So it’s varied. I wish I could say there’s a specific formula, but I kind of like it that there’s not.
BN: Most people remember songs from the 80’s like Save Your Love, Rock Me and Once Bitten, Twice Shy. When you guys perform live do you like to mix it up or try to stay with the old staples?
LARDIE: There’s always going to be a certain number of songs that your fans are going to, in a delightful way, kind of demand that you do. And I couldn’t imagine not doing the songs you mentioned. And add to that list House of Broken Love, Desert Moon - there’s a number of songs we do. But we’ve been trying to do at least one from the new albums we’ve done in the last four years. That being Back To The Rhythm and a song called All Or Nothing from the new one, Rising.
BN: Do you guys still enjoy playing the old songs?
LARDIE: Oh yeah. I’ve always approached it as when you’re playing it that night you’re playing in front of a group of people that you’ve never played for ever before. And the energy that you receive from actually performing it live it’s so much different than it is in the studio. What do they call it? Making a record is kind of like having solo sex. Playing live is like going to an orgy. (Laughs) There’s just energy to it when you’re playing live. So I think all of us keep that in mind saying ‘this group of people, this configuration or this venue, have not heard us play that song.’ So I think if you keep that in mind it keeps it fresh.
BN: I’m sure every time you guys do an interview an interviewer will ask you this question because unfortunately the band will always be linked with the Rhode Island night club fire back in 2003. How difficult as a band was it for you guys to move on after that?
LARDIE: Well it’s an interesting scenario because myself and Audie Desbrow, the drummer, we not in the band at that time. I don’t know if you’re aware of the fact that Jack had done a solo tour and realized that it wasn’t selling quite as well as he would have liked. So he called up Mark to come in and play the tunes, but then used his back up band on his solo project to play the Great White tunes. So from my standpoint of course it’s difficult because these are my friends, my brothers, that I have been working with for a very, very long time. But my approach is different. Convincing Jack and Mark that playing the music that makes people happy is the only way to cathartically move forward and help to heal the wounds that was the tragedy. That’s the most important thing. To go out with a brave face and always pay homage to it because it’ll never be forgotten, of course. But use the music that you helped to create that makes people happy. Do that and that’s going to help you cleanse as well.
BN: The band’s first album came out in 1984. Since then many bands have come and gone. And I’m sure as a band you guys have had your squabbles and what not. But what’s been the key to the band’s longevity?
LARDIE: I think it’s just the joy of actually performing together. When these five people actually play songs together there’s a certain sound that to me it’s not really that reminiscent of anybody else. And Jack’s voice is very unique, Mark’s guitar playing is a certain style. And I think because of the sound that is created with this group of people it’s still so much fun to play live. That we can do it and we push really hard to do it the best that we can do it every night. Because I would hate to ever think that anybody in the band would want to do it by road or by the numbers.
BN: For some of your younger fans that might not know this, what’s the story behind the band’s name?
LARDIE: Well that actually was a nickname that Mark Kendall had. Because when he was not follically challenged back in the day, he had extraordinarily white natural hair. And to look at him, he had sun glasses on, you could see his eyes. He’s not an albino. But his skin and his hair color would give you every indication that he was. So they called him The Great White.
BN: You guys played Rockin The Rivers in 2007. What can the fans at this year’s show expect?
LARDIE: Just another high energy Great White show with hopefully all the hits that everyone wants to hear, and a couple of new little surprises here and there. And I encourage everyone to check out the show with Terry because he’s doing a fantastic job and he’s singing our songs and we’re just playing like a well oiled machine this summer.
BN: Well Michael I don’t have anything else. Is there anything that you would like to add?
LARDIE: Just a shout out to and a thank you to all the fans in Montana. And for being there with us through our very high ups and our very low lows. We’ve always looked at it as a career and it still makes sense for us to do what we do and how we do it. So thank you for being there and we look forward to seeing all of you at the show.
Rockin’ the Rivers runs Friday through Sunday at “The Bridge,” 13 miles southwest of Three Forks. Great White is slated to perform Friday. For more about the concert and to purchase tickets, visit rockintherivers.com.