Michael Lardie Of Great White Finds ‘Elation’ With Latest Album + Current Lineup
For Great White, the title of their latest album ‘Elation’ is a good way to summarize the current state of the band. More than 30 years into their career, they’re visibly recharged with the addition of singer Terry Illous, who replaced original frontman Jack Russell in late 2010 when Russell was sidelined with continuing health issues.
Great White is on the road this summer with tour dates scheduled through the remainder of the year and they’re already looking forward to the opportunity to work on new music for a follow-up to ‘Elation.’
We spoke with longtime keyboardist Michael Lardie, also a producer and one of the principal songwriters for the group, about the process of moving beyond the Russell era of Great White and continuing to make new music.
The band has been going for over 30 years now. That’s a long time to do anything. There have been breaks here and there. What is it that makes it worth it to keep Great White going at this point? Obviously with the most recent album, it seems like you guys still have songs left to write.
Well, we hope so. That’s one thing we always try to achieve is a better place as songwriters as we keep going. It’s taking inspiration from all of our influences and just pushing ourselves to continue to do it. One thing that we would never want to become would be a "greatest hits" band. I think if we all get to that point where we think that that’s how we’re going to make our living, we’re all going to kind of look at each other and go, “Maybe it’s time to call it a day!” But for the foreseeable future, it makes sense for us to continue to write, continue to do records and have a story to tell and try to be vital. And the fact that as you say, we have been around for 30 years, we want to keep doing that.
As far as what keeps it going, you know, Mark [Kendall] and I talk about this all of the time. Having played with a number of other musicians over the years, Mark himself and myself with Night Ranger for about three years, it really comes down to there is a sound that is created with Mark, myself and Audie [Desbrow] as far as the sonic push of what the band is and you know, you can try to replace those key elements and it never quite sounds like Great White to me. So that’s one of the things that keeps it fresh and you keep going back to it that there’s that sound that’s made when this group of people plays together and it’s a sound that we all really like and we’re all just happy and amazed that it still sounds like us after all of this time.
You know, that part of it is really cool. I think another thing that keeps it fresh and that we look forward to spending time together on the weekends when we’re working is that we maybe made the pact to not really lean on each other socially in our downtime. You know, our family is our family and make sure that you spend time nurturing that part of your life without being glued to the band, because it can’t be your life when we’re our age now 24/7 like it was when we were 25.
You mentioned keeping this band sounding like Great White and I imagine it must have been a bit of a process to find the right fit vocally. You’ve got Terry singing for the band now and I would guess that it was a little bit of a process to get the right guy in there that would keep that Great White sound intact without putting a clone into the role.
Yeah, you know, that is the one thing that a lot of the other bands have done. You know, going forward, someone that’s very similar to the original singer. You could list Journey, Foreigner, Warrant went with somebody similar in Robert Mason that can do the Jani [Lane] thing very closely. I didn’t think at that point that it made sense to go for a clone like you stated.
I think it made sense to go for something new and give the opportunity for the band to embark upon hopefully another 10 or 15 years or as long as we care to do it with something fresh. [We were going for] kind of a rebirth, still intact with what the basic sonics of the band are, but with something as important as the lead vocalist, somebody who is as you said, not a clone. You know, Terry to me is much more of a bluesier singer than Jack was. It’s opened up a lot of things for Mark and I as writers to kind of think about. So we’re pretty excited about getting onto the next thing. There’s no specific dates to start that yet, but you know, as songwriters it’s what we do. We continue to write riffs, put together B-sections of songs and then we all come together and throw everything in the hat and see what rattles out.
Back in the ‘80s, a handful of bands made moves like this, switching out a singer. It seems like it was much more of a risky proposition. These days, it seems like it’s a much more acceptable thing and easier to pull off. What do you think changed that made it easier for somebody like your band or whoever to make the swap at that position?
Well, I think that the big bands like….even Styx did it, by using Lawrence [Gowan], the keyboard player from Canada taking over for Dennis [DeYoung]. Arnel [Pineda] of course for Journey and Kelly [Hansen] for Foreigner, I think those three bands kind of blazed the trail as far as opening up to the concept of, “Wow, we can still love the music and we can still accept the fact that it’s not the original guy, but we still love it just as much.” I think they were really kind of the trailblazers and I think it opened the door for other bands such as ourselves or Warrant to open up and be able to try somebody else in that position.
Did you guys really have a chance to deliberate over things? Because if I recall correctly, that was a switch that you guys made as you were out on the road. You had gigs to play.
Yeah, we had a year to finish off and it was an interesting year in 2010. In 2009, Jack was sick with something -- I can’t even remember what exactly it was and we couldn’t cancel the gig, so we called Terry out to sub for him and I guess if I wanted to be honest, that was the first time I kind of raised my eyebrows and said, “Wait a minute, this could be something really interesting if it ever comes to fruition,” not thinking that it necessarily would at that point.
But hearing Mark’s guitar and Terry’s voice reminded me a great deal of early ‘70s Humble Pie. It reminded me very much of Steve Marriott and Peter Frampton, that sonic sound that’s created with those two types of singers. So I always thought, “Wow, that’s an interesting sound.” Because those are two key elements in any rock band -- the main guitarist and the lead vocalist. Those are things that are staples to what you’re putting out there. When I did hear that, I went, “Okay!”
So fast forward a little bit to 2010 when Jack was yet again down for a good bit of time, we wanted to pick Terry to go out and finish the year out, but the promoters were a little bit scared about it, because even though Terry was in XYZ, as far as selling tickets, he was an unknown quantity at that time. The promoters said “Come up with something more intense and better so you can continue to do gigs and save the year.” Our former manager had worked a lot with Jani Lane and brought the idea to us and it was kind of one of those things where it was like “Okay, well let’s see if this works out.”
He came down to rehearsal and I’ve got to hand it to Jani, he reined it in and he studied the lyrics and he studied the phrasing and he came in and he nailed it. We ended up doing almost 25 dates with him throughout the year, never with the intention of having him be the vocalist in the band. He was just helping out his brothers and knowing that when we could make the switch, we always had it in mind to go with Terry.
With the ‘Elation’ album, what was that process like? There has to be a little bit of an intimidating factor perhaps, the first time you go into make a record without your longtime vocalist. At the same time, you’re writing songs with a new voice, so it’s a new canvas of sorts.
It was interesting. I think coming into the studio, we had about eight completed songs that we wanted to try out with Terry. We ended up spending time every morning in that circle, playing a couple of acoustic guitars with Terry just scatting over a couple of ideas. As it turned out, the material that we were coming up with on the fly was far superior to what we already had in the can, so we ended up only keeping two of those songs and composing 10 more in the studio.
We would get the song completed in the morning and in the afternoon we’d be cutting the drums and bass and maybe do a couple of basic rhythm overdubs and the process would start again the next day. That was just something that we developed on the fly -- it wasn’t anything that we set out to do and say “Okay, we’re going to write in the studio.”
We’d never actually done that before. We had no pre-production on the songs -- we wrote them in the studio and they were fresh, we laid them down and said, “We know what we’re doing -- we’ve done 11 records to this point, let’s just go on faith that we know what we’re doing and finish composing the songs and record them and just do the songs as Great White does recordings” and it just kind of went forward.
We ended up doing the entire record, we did the writing, recording, mixing and editing for the whole album in 34 days. That was definitely a leap of faith, but at the end of the day I’m proud of the record. There’s great moments on it for me and the others. I don’t think we missed anything, but obviously having more time would have maybe honed this or that, but overall, I think it’s a great statement that says we are what we are. To me, stylistically it falls somewhere between our ‘Hooked’ and ‘Psycho City’ albums.
Now that the album is out there and you’ve been playing shows, I know that you alluded to new material. Do you have a pretty good idea of where you’d like to see things go once you go back in?
You know, it would be interesting to figure that out. One of the things that Mark and I have discussed is that we don’t want it to be an “old guys blues record,” which would be very easy to fall into. Obviously, we want to make it edgy. Terry as a writer and a singer contributed a good deal to ‘Elation.’ He didn’t wimp out -- he didn’t come in and say, “Well, I’m new to the band and I’m not sure about my ideas.” Everybody had the latitude to come up with something on the fly and see how it worked.
Some of the stuff that we were coming up with and stuff that he brought in that we finished off, it was a good experience and there was a good circle of trust that happened between all of us. As far as where it goes, I’m not sure that I would do another ‘...Twice Shy,’ but there are elements of the band that will always stay intact in my opinion and that one you can’t really escape. I think if we try to do something as heavy as a Linkin Park or something, I don’t think our fans would really get it.
I’d like to see that though, just to see how it would play out.
[Laughs] Great band. There are so many bands, like Avenged Sevenfold, that do that type of really heavy stuff and you know, it would be interesting to take a stab at it to see what it would sound like, but at the same time, our fanbase is such that they expect us to do bluesy rock and roll.
Do you ever feel like you’re in a box with that?
Oh, I don’t think it’s too small of a box. I think maybe it’s a four- or five-bedroom house. I’m not too uncomfortable with the dwelling.
The video for ‘Complicated’ is one of the better videos that I’ve seen in quite a while. It’s evident that you guys had a lot of fun making this one.
Oh yeah, with the green screen and all of that stuff and getting the set director as he was going along sending a few more frames of this and that. You know, we got a chance to get the raw footage and see what he was on about and then [offer our input] You know, the original ending had way too much to do with just the one scene of us all dancing with a girl and I said that’s not going to work -- faster cuts, c’mon, let’s go! So we worked very much together and it was a lot of fun to bounce off of each other and kind of hone it into what it became.
We were one of the bands back in the day that was really not about acting at all. If you look at all of our videos, they’re pretty much live performance, either in a rehearsal format or actually onstage playing a show. I think the most interesting one as far as location was probably ‘Desert Moon,’ out in the middle of 29 Palms in the middle of the night. But outside of that, we were pretty much always in a rehearsal or performance setting just doing what we did and then just intercutting to stuff that didn’t require us to be actors. Not that we couldn’t have pulled it off, but it just didn’t seem right for the style of band that we were.
Videos from the ‘80s, there are a good number of them that are filled with ill-advised storylines that haven’t aged so well and I think that’s what kind of sticks out about this video is that there’s a story of sorts, but it’s all very tongue-in-cheek.
I’m glad you get it. You know, I’ve heard people say, “I don’t understand this video. I don’t know what they were thinking” and I’m like, “Really, you don’t get the fact that it’s so tongue-in-cheek? So thank you for getting it!
Great White had the luxury of coming up in the age of MTV. Were there pros and cons?
You know, we had a great team at Capitol Records that had to do with getting the stuff played and getting it on there. We understood that the monster was necessary to feed in order for us to be contemporary with everyone else that was out there. It changed a lot of things for a lot of people in a sense that growing up in the ‘70s with [Led] Zeppelin, the only imagery that you had of Zeppelin was in Circus Magazine or going to see them live.
So as kids back then, we had to use our imagination more for what we imagined things to be. We were talking the other day about sitting on the grass in our front yard at 3:00 in the morning when we were like 14 years old, just dreaming of being rock and roll people. We weren’t force-fed with how you were supposed to become a rock star or how you were supposed to be, you just imagined what it would be like to write a song and you just worked on it and worked on it and worked on it. There weren’t a million tutorials like, “Okay, write a B-section like this.”
We’re so inundated with media now that people’s imagery and image is so finely crafted that it’s harder for a fan to create their own imagery about what a band thinks or what a band feels when they’re writing music. So that part of it has changed and obviously the MTV generation changed that because it made image so incredibly important.
It’s interesting to hear you mention Zeppelin, because as a band when you’re presented with the prospect of doing a video, that has to be interesting when you think about some of your heroes and the imagery that’s out there. Using Zeppelin as an example, there was ‘Song Remains The Same,’ where there are still some people today trying to figure out what parts of that movie mean.
Yeah, what did [Don] Henley and [Glenn] Frey from the Eagles say about deeper hidden meanings? Everything about what they try to do in every one of their songs had something that only the band itself would ever know about and I think that Zeppelin was good about that too. Really, the excitement of ‘Song Remains The Same’ was the fact that that was their big concert movie. You got to really study that if you wanted to. But you know, you weren’t being force fed what they looked like. You didn’t know how many bowel movements Jimmy Page had today. With Twitter and Facebook, it’s like that, you know? [Laughs]
With the MTV thing, where did you see things really start to change?
Well you know, obviously I think the big change was the anti-approach with the Seattle movement. That was a big change to everything. Because everything at a point, once you passed over ‘89 and ‘90, everything video-wise started to become somewhat formulaic. You had the band that had the big hair that had the chicks in the video and that was the look. It was all slick. Then you had the blast of the beautiful part of ugly from Soundgarden and Nirvana and all of that sound and the approach to the video, their look to their videos was very harsh and very real and that changed the bar as far as what was hip to look at.
I think people were clamoring for some kind of change, because it was becoming very formulaic at that point with what our contemporaries were doing, you know, all of the bands. But it’s like anything stylistically, if you hop on the train, at least when the record companies were around, the majors had their types of bands.
Geffen had Tesla, Polygram had Cinderella, Capitol had us and Poison. So every A&R guy was trying to sign their version of bands that were having great success. So the whole thing in my opinion, started to become watered down. They were a little close to what type of band they aspired to be and that was one of the big changes, I think, having a fresh sound and an angst-ridden sound come out of nowhere. It really broke the mold for the formulaic thing that was going on.
I know Jack Blades produced the ‘Can’t Get There From Here’ album….was that what opened the door for you to later join Night Ranger?
You know, they took us out on the road in 1987 and I love to tell this story, because at that point, we were looking for somebody who was going to be able to help us break the ‘Once Bitten’ record and we had just released a seven-minute single in ‘Rock Me’ to radio, which was pretty ballsy for a band up to this point who has only sold eighty thousand records! But for some reason, radio got it and they went with it and they believed in it and they played the heck out of it.
Being able to be out with Night Ranger and in front of some really good numbers at fairs and festivals and small arenas, it really helped us get to a number of people that were akin to them in a sense that they were very much a video band. In the early times, from ‘83 to ‘86, they had all of those videos on MTV and they were hugely popular. Their fanbase wouldn’t have necessarily been of the harder rock or metal type of area that some of our real contemporaries were, so I think it opened up a fanbase that we wouldn’t normally have gotten to so quickly.
So I’m always grateful that they took us out. But at that point, I’d met Jack and we just got on like thieves right off the bat and we hit it off. We kept running into Jack, whether it would be Night Ranger or with Shaw/Blades, we always seemed to be running into him. When we were looking for a new deal in late ‘97 and early ‘98, I had called a friend of mine, Tucker Williamson, and he was working for Warner Brothers at the time, I think. He said, “You know, you should call Jack Blades up and do some writing with him and see where that goes.”
As it turns out, it was a very smart move, because Jack is so connected to John Kalodner over at Sony and John was starting his imprint label Portrait and was able to sign us. He heard the demos that we had worked with Jack on and he just basically said, “I want to do a record, but I want Jack to produce it. Are you guys good with that?” and we said, “Sure, yeah. It’s all good!” It was just one of those things that from that point on, I started working with Jack on other projects in his studio as an engineer and sometimes as a co-producer.
It got to a point where when Great White took its break in 2002 for Kendall to do a solo record and for Jack to do a solo record, Jack came to me and said, “What are you doing” and I go, “You know, I’m having the hardest time figuring that out, because Great White has been my life for about 22 years non-stop, so I’m kind of wondering what I’m going to be up to next.” He goes, “You know, we’re not having issues with Fitz [Alan Fitzgerald], but he’s working and he’s doing this and he’s working on this project and he’s playing keyboards for Lenny Kravitz and he’s doing this and he’s doing that and we can’t really count on him to be around as a permanent guy, so would you like to come in and sub?” and I went, “Well, it would be great experience!”
So my baptism by fire, to make a longer story hopefully shorter, I learned 14 songs in nine days and then came out and played with them. After doing about 15 dates with them, they were all kind of like, “You know, we’re really kind of comfortable with you, we enjoy your energy and you’re doing a great job, so we’d like to keep you if that’s okay with you” and I said, “Sure, man!” So it turned into almost four years with them and we were talking about the reformation of Great White in late 2006 and that was a hard decision to make, because it was great playing with Night Ranger. They’re all fantastic musicians.
The one thing I did miss about playing with Night Ranger is not having a forum to actually play guitar, but then again, what was I going to contribute to Brad Gillis and Jeff Watson? I mean, c’mon! So I did miss that part of my creativity that I had the ability to do with Great White and we were talking about the reformation and that just made sense, because that was the band that I had been in for so many years and it just felt like home. So we made the changeover in 2007. But working with Jack, I still work with him -- I worked with him on both of his solo records, and a Shaw/Blades record we did in 2006 -- it’s one of those musical things that I just connected with him and we’ve been lucky enough to do some really cool work together over the years.
When you step into a situation like that, how much work do you have to do as far as getting the keyboard sounds right and all of that?
Oh, that was pretty challenging.
Yeah, because sometimes they have the samples, but sometimes you’re walking in cold and just have to figure it out, I would think.
Yeah, well, see what happened was that they had the cards with the type of keyboard sounds that Fitz was playing and all of the sounds were on board and I did about 10 gigs with those and all of the sudden when he felt like it was going in that direction, he called back all of those cards, so I had a week of baptism by fire to scramble on my Triton and get all of the sounds emulated to what he had originally come up with. So yeah, that was a bit of a shock to have to go to that place. But you know, I think life presents you with challenges and I think it’s how you face them that I think ultimately defines you.
It doesn’t seem like there would be a lot of pressure with a gig like that ultimately though. As long as you can get the material down, you’re playing a bunch of hits, so at least you know the reception is going to be positive.
Yeah, then there’s that! You know, that issue is not a problem. But still, they were challenging parts. Fitz is a really strong creative keyboard player and the parts that he came up with over the years are not the wimpy I-III-V chords. You had to be on your game, so that’s what I enjoyed being challenged with every night to make sure that I performed but also played the parts as they were written.
Great White-wise, what else is there that you want folks to know about?
Well, you know right now, it just makes complete sense for us to keep going. We have another record in mind and God willing, we’ll be lucky enough to have it last as long as ‘Elation’ did. I mean, we’re working on our final single for the record and it’s almost two years since its release, so we’ve been pretty lucky to work it that long. I think a lot of people would be very happy with that and the way the record business is now, it’s slipped so much.
You used to do a record and go out on tour to support the record and now you do records to tell the story that you’re relevant so you get gigs. [Laughs] So we want to continue to work and we want to continue to do good gigs and play with many of our compatriots out on these big shows. So it makes sense for us to do another record. I would say at some point, there’s probably a proper acoustic record in the plans at some point over the next couple of years. So we have ideas and based on the fact that people still want to come out and see us, it still seems to make sense to us, so we’re just going to keep pushing forward.