GREAT WHITE – Feelin’ So Much Better
Veteran Los Angeles, California-based hard rock outfit Great White performed at the My Waterloo Days festival in Waterloo, Iowa on May 30th, 2009 with XYZ’s Terry Ilous behind the microphone stand. Reportedly injured, vocalist Jack Russell was forced to miss the scheduled appearance. XYZ had performed at the M3 Rock Festival in Baltimore, Maryland the morning of the 30th, Terry immediately boarding a flight to Iowa following its conclusion.
“Terry was always considered the go to guy whenever our lead singer was down with being sick for whatever reason,” remembers Michael Lardie, rhythm guitarist of Great White. “Terry always had that ability to learn the material in his head on the plane on the way out to the gig, having great recall. He did a great job at the My Waterloo Days festival. We were like ‘Wow. Okay, this is great.’ At that point I thought I heard something pretty unique with his voice, and Mark’s (Kendall) guitar playing.
“If I had to put any tag on Terry as far as what he sounds like, to me he sounds like a cross between old Steve Marriott (Small Faces / Humble Pie) stuff and Jeff Keith from Tesla. To my mind that works out very well with Mark’s guitar playing. It’s a great match. I always kept that in the back of my mind, that if we were ever faced with that again he might be somebody to seriously think about going with. When Jack was gonna be down for quite some time in late 2010 and most of 2011, we were all ‘Okay, Terry’s the guy. He’s a proven commodity.’ We ended up doing close to 80 shows with Terry in that timeframe. He became a brother in sin, one might say.”
Original vocalist Jack Russell launched his own version of Great White, as publicly revealed on December 12th, 2011. Conflicting reports exist as to the reasons behind Jack’s departure. “Of course they do,” the guitarist acknowledges. “What do they say? There’s always three sides to every story; your side, their side, and the truth. Hopefully that will come out, though obviously I can’t speak about any of it in great detail because we’re in the middle of all that. Unfortunately it’s really ugly times that we have to deal with. We’re just very, very blessed and very happy that we have the opportunity to put out this record on Frontiers. That’s what we’re thinking about; doing shows, and the release of the record. That’s where our focus is right now.”
“I can’t really get into the deeper aspects of that, but there’ll be more to follow. Everybody will be informed of what’s going on as it gets sorted out, but like I say, the important thing that we’re focusing on is moving forward as Great White. This new record is definitely one of those things where you’re faced with change in your life, and what comes out of that change is something really positive. That’s why it was such a no-brainer to name the record Elation.”
May 2012’s Elation is the first Great White studio full-length to feature Terry Ilous supplying vocals. “We had material that we had worked on through the years up to 2011,” Michael notes. “In the studio, the energy was so amazing. It was so charged. We were coming up with new stuff every day, and it was eclipsing what we had already prepped to go into the studio song wise. We ended up keeping only two from the original time we had worked on songs together, which were ‘Shotgun Willie’s’ and ‘Feelin’ So Much Better’. We didn’t look back to try to record the rest of that stuff. I know that we all have it in some demo form. Some day hopefully we’ll work on those tunes a bit more and retool them, and hopefully a couple of them will see the light of day.
“Ten of the songs on Elation were actually written in the studio with all of us, which is perhaps slightly different than we used to write. Instead of Mark coming up with song ideas and me coming in from the side and us working on them together, it was so much about working all at once. Compositionally speaking Terry’s a great addition because he plays guitar, and writes songs on his own. It was like having another really good writer in the fold.”
Elation was provisionally titled Tabula Rosa. “Tabula Rosa kind of means a rebirth, which everyone feels as the result of the change from the past to the future,” the backing vocalist enthuses. “I don’t know. We thought that title would be really cool, and so we had that for awhile. I remember we were all writing in a van from an airport to a gig that we were doing in Mexico – and we had a driver. We were just laughing and chatting, like we always do on the way to a gig. We were talking about album titles, and everybody was like ‘Do you really like this?’ ‘Yeah, I really like it but it might be hard for some people to understand. We’ll have to give them an explanation.’ We were just throwing around ideas. It was really all about trying to find that perfect word for describing how much fun we’re having performing live and in the studio, that energy and that vibe that is present now with Terry. I don’t even remember who came up with the actual word, but when we heard it we knew.”
Authoring Elation’s compositions was very much a collaborative effort. “Instead of it being completed song ideas demoed up with no vocals on them yet, there might’ve only been one or two that came in that way out of the 12 that we recorded,” Michael discloses. “It’s really so much of a difference. Sitting around and imagining how The Eagles might’ve done it 35 years ago, it was just the three of us sitting around with acoustic guitars, Audie (Desbrow) our drummer playing on some kind of beatbox, and the bass player playing on acoustic bass. Before you knew it we were constructing entire songs that way, and going straight in.
“It was ‘What do you think of this part?’ ‘Oh yeah? What do you think of this part that might go with that part?’ The songs were structured so quickly; since we were already in the studio, it was just easy to get our instruments and lay the track down. They either lived or died at that point. We were very lucky to find those ten songs in a very short period of time. So much of what I love about the way the songs sound to me is so much of it… As a songwriter I can at least speak for myself. You think about what is inherent to a song, and what feels right. The first thing you play more often than not comes from the gut, and is the right way to go. We then spend time overthinking something and overtooling it, and then we eventually go back to the original idea because it was from the gut. With so much of the songs and the way they were composed, when we heard what was right we knew it instinctively. I was very surprised and very happy that that kind of relationship as writers happened on the fly. For Mark and I, that was pretty remarkable.”
And as well, penning lyrics was very much a collaborative affair. “I always think that a vocalist should have a major contribution to what they say when they’re singing the words,” the producer opines. “I believe when you own something as a vocalist, I think you really believe in what you’re singing. With the basic premise behind that I think it’s important to give those reigns to the vocalist that’s in your band, but we did actually write quite a bit among the three of us – Mark, myself, and Terry. As we had a basic track cut, we would all think about ideas that we had for the hook. We would then sit down, see what each other had, and kind of edit it down, which is different than we used to do.
“Back in the day most of the lyrics were written by our manager / producer Alan Niven, so it was a different approach that way. The three of us worked the lyrics towards something that made sense. It was great for Terry because I think he was maybe not so confident, given that he didn’t write a bunch of lyrics for XYZ. He would look at me and say ‘But I can’t do this. I’ve never done it.’ ‘Yes you can, yes you can. You have to own these songs, and you need to be a part of what’s happening with the words that you’re singing.’ He would tell you the same thing. I think that he really feels blessed that he pushed even what he thought his abilities were in the recording of this record.”
Lyrics Michael mainly conceived include ‘Complicated’, and ‘Heart Of A Man’. “Terry’s were ‘Lowdown’ and ‘Promise Land’, and Mark’s were ‘Love Train’ and ‘Resolution’,” he divulges. “What was great about it was it was just so much of a collaborative effort that I’ve never experienced in the band ever before. It was a great treat for me.”
The theme of elation naturally permeates the record. “I think the content of a song like ‘Feelin’ So Much Better’ is the feeling of freedom that we have within the framework that we’re in now with Terry,” the axeman reckons. “I think ‘Love Train’ is about the human condition, getting onboard, and having those feelings in life. Not to be too redundant, but the concept of elation is through most of the record and really has that feeling. With every song I can feel that there is that upbeat mood to it, even on a track like ‘Lowdown’ which has kind of a gritty, dirty blues thing. He’s calling out a girl for cheating on him, but still has a little bit of fun with it.”
North American and European territories sport ‘Lowdown’ as Elation’s bonus cut. “We had to pick one of them to be considered as a bonus track,” Michael stresses. “I think at the beginning, we had no idea that the song was gonna turn out to be as cool as it did. You always think there’s gonna be one that doesn’t stand up to what you envisioned it to be, but it exceeded my expectations. That was already turned in to Frontiers though, and touted as a bonus track. I think you’d have to poll the band but I think everybody’s of the same mind, in that we’re lucky everybody has different picks for what their favourite song is. We’re finding that all over the place. Usually on a record you find two or three songs that everybody agrees on as being their favourites, or perhaps potentially being songs that could be played on radio and be hits. It’s so across the board on this record though that I feel blessed. The record hopefully comes across to everybody as having enough depth to make it difficult to choose a song.”
The pianist’s favourite tunes from Elation change from week to week. “Producing and engineering the record as well, you get so immersed in the songs that by the time you finish the record you’re not interested in hearing it for about a month,” he chuckles. “I know every aspect of every note on every song from mixing all that stuff. The ones that stand out for me are ‘Love Train’, ‘Promise Land’, and ‘Feelin’ So Much Better’. ‘Complicated’ does as well because to me it kind of has that looseness about it that reminds me of how we did Once Bitten… (June 1987) and … Twice Shy (April 1989).”
‘Lowdown’ is arguably the record’s heaviest track. “I would say between ‘Lowdown’ and ‘Feelin’ So Much Better’, there is a passion in the approach and the performance on the songs – for me anyway – which comes across as ripping it up,” Michael feels. “Then again though, ‘Heart Of A Man’ is reminiscent to me of some Australian rockers that we all know. To me it comes across as being played passionately as well.”
Blues is a great influence on Great White. “I would say it is huge,” the multi-instrumentalist agrees. “It was interesting back in the day when the band first came out, before I was actually in the band. In ’83 when I met them their vibe was probably a little more like Judas Priest, and had a lot of bass driven rock like ‘On Your Knees’ and songs like that. I would hear Mark play during the morning when he was warming up though, and he’d be playing Johnny Winter, Alvin Lee, John Mayall – just a lot of the stuff was so blues driven.
“When you have the opportunity to see someone play guitar or an artist play a song, if they’re being true to themselves I think you can kind of see their soul come out. That’s definitely what I saw when I saw Mark play that kind of music. I think it was over a period of a couple of years and a couple of records that it kind of morphed itself into that blues area, and most assuredly with a song like ‘Rock Me’. A lot of people ask me ‘What song do you think defines what your band is?’, and I would say that that was absolutely a watershed moment. To me that was kind of like the turning point; at that point, to me it became what we sound like as far as the blues. I don’t think we ever escaped that (laughs).”
Fluent in several instruments, Michael performs harmonica on ‘Love Train’, supplies piano to ‘Love Is Enough’, provides Dobro guitar to ‘Resolution’, and uses mandolin on ‘Promise Land’. “It’s always enjoyable for me to add a little bit of I guess what my bandmates have called frosting,” he laughs. “I’ve been very lucky to have their support for me to try different things, and I think it just takes it out of the realm of ‘Oh, that song sounds like song 11.’ With a little bit of spice here and there, it hopefully comes across as allowing us to leap out of that ‘They have three songs on there; even though they have 12, they all sound the same (laughs).’”
March 2009’s Rising was the first Great White album to feature Scott Snyder occupying bass, Elation the second. “Having played with us for almost four years now. when we go into something everybody knows what they do the best,” the guitarist judges. “They know about themselves, about how they do it, and what compliments the band. Even on the first take with each tune, what Scott brought was such an amalgam of cohesion in terms of how he fits with this band. It was great. It wasn’t necessary to have a lot of discussion about ‘What if you played it this way?’ because he just felt it, and that’s one of the things I love about the rhythm section of Audie and Scott.”
Elation shares musical traits with past Great White albums. “That’s something that we’re being asked too, where would this go in the hierarchy of our records over the years,” Michael admits. “To me this record would’ve fitted perfectly right between Hooked (February 1991) and Psycho City (September 1992). For example, I think there’s such a strong blues influence on the record which was very prevalent on the Hooked record. If you look back at things like ‘Cold Hearted Lovin’’, even songs which I co-wrote with the producer of The Angels (Alan Niven), ‘The Original Queen Of Sheba’, and ‘Congo Square’ which was a very atmospheric kind of tune, I think those elements are infused in songs like ‘Resolution’ and ‘Love Train’. It’s got that serious blues rock influence, and that tipped over into this record as well. There’s also some real… I wouldn’t say angry energy, but there’s an energy that has a confidence which I think was prevalent on the Psycho City record. To me it’s kind of the best of both of those records, and that would be where it’d fit in our timeline for me personally.”
In discussing Elation, the backing vocalist stated that ‘The difference in this studio experience was simple. Everyone was completely present and contributed to the making of this album.’ “The way we used to do records back in the day was we’d know the songs; we would have done pre-production,” he reminisces. “The drummer would come in first and do his parts, the bass player would come in and do his parts, and then Mark and I would start working on the guitars and keyboards. We’d then we’d put Jack’s vocals in, and then we’d do overdubs. All of that would be done, and then the mix would occur.
“Things were happening so frenetically, but at the same time everybody was immersed in the writing. The difference was that everybody was around all day every day, because we didn’t know exactly when inspiration was gonna strike. What was different was Audie and Scott were there from when we got there at 11am till 10-11pm. There was one night we actually cut a basic track after 10pm, and may have been there all day. They were there, and there was a real band unity as a result of that. Nothing was being held up; we were cutting them when they were still very, very fresh because everybody was absolutely around.”
Michael shared co-production and engineering credits from studio album three (Once Bitten…) through to studio album nine (July 1999’s Can’t Get There From Here), becoming a fully fledged producer on July 2007’s Back To The Rhythm (album ten). “It was just one of those things,” he downplays. “I’d always done it back in the day with Alan, but I know that the three of us did Once Bitten…, Alan, myself, and Mark. I had done production work and engineering work with Jack Blades and Tommy Shaw over the years, and worked on this record and that record. On Back To The Rhythm and Rising I took over the duties full stop, but it was interesting.
“Before we started this record, Mark and I sat down and asked ‘What was the most fun you ever had doing a record?’ He said ‘Probably Once Bitten…,’ and I said ‘Yeah, me too.’ We felt like we were there every single day, even when Jack wasn’t there or Alan had went home for the night. Mark and I were always there working on tunes and thinking about it, so we just sat down and decided ‘Let’s do it like we used to do it; let’s do this together. It’ll be a blast.’ It really was too. We could lean on each other to make sure that we were watching out for what we were trying to do. The band was totally into it, and the support system was completely there. I’d do it again like that; it was very enjoyable.”
For the producer, the role entails “just looking after the songs. I have to make sure the arrangements are together, and decide what kinds of things to put on top of a song. Things like deciding a song would be really cool if we change it to this, or have that instrument going during that section. It’s a lot of that for me as an engineer. Once we decide on what we’re attempting to put on a song, you have to get the sound correct as you’re recording it. Producing and engineering is kind of a two-fold thing for me; looking after the songs and making sure you’re putting the right touches on them, but at the same time making sure that you record those touches and the rest of the song so that it best represents what you’re trying to put across.”
Great White’s 30th anniversary performance at the Key Club in Hollywood, California on March 22nd was professionally filmed and recorded for an upcoming live album and concert DVD. “LA shows are always interesting because a lot of musicians there come to the shows,” Michael observes. “If you get them to rock by the end of the show then you’ve absolutely done your job. I feel like we really did that. At some point we’re going to actually take footage from this show there, some backstage footage taken throughout the year, and make kind of a compilation. It won’t be a full on concert but just snippets of what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis, just the lunacy and utter elation we feel as a band of people. It’d be fun for them to be able to see that. We’re trying to make it a little more interesting and outside the box than a standard concert DVD. We’re still working on it, and filming a lot of footage.”
Shark Tales – The Tell All Book: 30 Years Of Rock And Roll is also slated for issue during 2012. “As far as I know, we’re gonna try to keep it close to the chest,” the axeman reveals. “I know there are a couple of different viewpoints. When Aerosmith did Walk This Way (October 1997), they worked with a lot of people throughout the years and had a lot of direct quotes in the thing. I think our lives have hopefully been interesting enough to be able to tell the story from our collective individual experiences.
“We try to record our thoughts when we’re all together and we all try to journal our experiences and feelings, our perceptions of how the same events unfolded. Between the two, I think it’ll make for some interesting reading. We’re compiling so much of the information at this point, and want to touch base on everything before we go to work with somebody.
“It’s more of that thing we were talking about, talking about what happens in a day rather than just telling the story flatly. Bouncing around telling a lot about what has got you to that point of receiving your first platinum record in your hometown before a sold out show at the Forum. Talking about the days that led up to those wonderful moments, and how we got to where we are as people. One thing we found out from our fans is that they appreciate knowing how it is we arrived at those places, and not just what we did.”
Elation was released on May 18th, 2012 in Europe and subsequently on the 22nd in North America, all via Frontiers Music Srl.
Interview published in May 2012.