Great White Come Full Circle With New Album: Exclusive Interview
It was a chance encounter on a boat that brought the members of Great White back in contact with producer Michael Wagener, who has worked with Skid Row, Metallica and Accept) and had produced Great White's first EP and their 1984 debut album, Shot in the Dark. Guitarist Mark Kendall was on the Monsters of Rock Cruise and heard that Wagener was also on board and would be doing a Q&A with cruise attendees. Kendall decided to plant himself in the audience and ask a few questions that the veteran producer might not expect.
“I actually was asking questions from the audience that I knew the answers to, but I wanted the people to hear some of these stories, because I didn’t know if he was going to talk about them,” Kendall recalls to Ultimate Classic Rock. “Just some of his creativity in the studio, back in our early years and some of the stories that he told us about the way that he’d get sound effects and stuff like that. He never used sound-effects records, h’d always create them. He was just that kind of guy. He was a super creative guy.”
Later, as he and Wagener talked, a curveball came back his way that he wasn’t expecting. “We kind of said our goodbyes, and when I was walking away from him, he said, ‘Hey, man, why don’t we do something again?’ I was kind of shocked, because I really didn’t even consider that,” he says. “I was real excited when he said that, and I said, ‘Wow, that sounds like a lot of fun!’ We kept in touch over a few months and started to get real serious about it and before we knew it, we were in Nashville recording, so it was awesome.”
The new album is fittingly called Full Circle and it finds the veteran band in fine form, delivering a diverse spread of material that features Great White's signature sound that fans have grown to know across the years, as well as some songs that find the group reaching outside its comfort zone. Full Circle is the second album featuring singer Terry Illous, who stepped into his current position in 2010; the band released Elation in 2012.
As keyboardist Michael Lardie shared during a 2014 interview with Ultimate Classic Rock, Illous began to collaborate with members of the band as soon as he joined and quickly dove in, helping to write and develop material that appeared on that album. Hearing “I’m Alright,” which leads off the new collection of songs from the group, it’s clear that the veteran singer has found the sweet spot after several years on the road with the band.
Kendall talks about the new album, which is available now, as well as the 30th anniversary of the classic Once Bitten… LP during our conversation.
When you look back at the past history that Michael has with the band, what do you think it is that he brings to the table that’s helpful for you guys?
His engineering skills, and he really knows how to get a performance out of you. Some engineers, you might feel intimidated. That kind of distracts you from your performance. He’s able to make you feel really comfortable. I think that has a lot to do with his personality. He kind of just gets the maximum out of the performances. And apart from that, he’s a total taskmaster. He’s one of the best there is. And he’s always tried to improve over the years. He has these workshops where engineers come from all over the world, and they just talk shop and he’s always making improvements. He’s invented gear to get rid of hum and buzz. You’re guaranteed a great production, for sure. The band has to come with the songs, obviously, but he’s really good at fixing songs. He’s just a great producer and engineer. I mean, 98 million records sold -- and he’s done pretty much every band from our era -- Ozzy [Osbourne], Accept, Metallica, Alice Cooper -- his list is just endless. And you walk into his studio and you’re just pummeled by platinum records.
When I talked to Michael in 2014, for Elation, you guys had written a lot of songs spontaneously in the studio. It sounds like you had songs ready this time around.
It was a little different. We were a little more prepared, but we didn’t have all of the lyrics. We were kind of missing on the lyrics. We rehearsed eight times, but four of them were in the kitchen where we didn’t even work on arrangements. People were just throwing ideas around. The second four rehearsals, we got a little more serious. But we didn’t have the lyrics finished, and I don’t think Mr. Wagener was too pleased with that, but he just had to deal with us. [Laughs] The way he normally does it, he goes to a week of rehearsals with the band, and then they make a demo, and he works on it for two months. So he didn’t get any of that, but we’re real pleased with the way it turned out. We’re thrilled with the production and the songs. He does things a little different than we normally do, but I really like it. One of the things he does is when we record, we’re only going for the drums, but we all play together. We play together in a room to get the maximum amount of the drummer’s performance. And then we do the bass and then we do one song at a time. It takes two days, normally. One time, I think it took two and a half days. But that way it eliminates the singer having to sing four songs in a day or somebody playing four rhythm tracks. All of your focus is on one song at a time so you’re not distracted, you’re not overdoing it, trying to do too many songs in one day. So I really liked that. I’m sure it’s just from years and years of working with bands that he came up with that, but I really like that part of his format, the way he likes to do things.
You started your own label to put out this record.
Yeah, we started our own label called Bluez Tone Records. It's not 1987, so it makes zero sense to give a label a huge percentage when they don't put any marketing dollars into the project. We hired a huge marketing team with experience and just put it out on our own.
If a label was going to market the album worldwide and invest decent marketing dollars, it would make sense. Our experience with labels is they take a huge percentage like it's still the '80s, but they don't put any promotional dollars into the album. Our label does invest marketing dollars into promotion, so we signed with us. [Laughs]
You talked about sitting around in the kitchen rehearsing. Is that you guys sitting with acoustics? Or what does that look like?
Yeah, semi-acoustic and then maybe electric guitar with clean sound, just trying to get the arrangements down. [Drummer] Audie [Desbrow] was just using his little practice pad kind of electric drum thing. We didn’t really get a lot done until we brought it into the studio rehearsal place. Then Terry started scatting over ideas and we kind of made the arrangements. We had a lot of the arrangements, but they weren’t carved in stone. We changed a lot of things once we started recording in the studio. We worked a lot at the house that we rented. We knew we were going to work on three songs the next day or possibly two. So we’d work on three songs and get the arrangements more solid before we’d go down to Wagener’s studio. So we had the songs pretty solid, we felt, as far as the arrangements, but we didn’t have the lyrics. We had chorus ideas, like we knew the choruses were solid, but we didn’t have all of the song [completely fleshed out]. We started working on one song at a time and we’d work our butts off on the lyrics the night before, because we knew the song we were doing the next day. It was like a student waiting until the last minute to do his finals. But it worked out. We work pretty good under pressure and there really wasn’t a lot of pressure. We were just staying in the moment and enjoying ourselves.
What would you say was inspiring the material that you guys wrote?
One of the songs that I kind of dug, because it’s right up my alley, was “Never Let You Down,” which is kind of a heavy-backbeat, blues-orientated song that kind of showcases Terry’s voice a lot. I like the energy in that one and the way it came together. “Movin’ On” has a lot of cool dynamics in it. “This Is the Life” was kind of a little bit outside of the box. Audie actually came up with a riff and kind of hummed it. We wrote a song around that riff and just came up with the chorus.
Was it out of the box as far as how it came together or sound-wise?
It was a pretty heavy type of riff. Our hardcore followers might not [expect something like this]. It’s not as predictable as I think our fans would think. I mean, I hate to think for them, but I would think that when they hear that, they would go, “Wow, this is cool. This is a little heavier than we’re used to” or whatever. But you know, it has the big chorus and everything. I really liked the ballad, we haven’t come up with a great ballad for a long time and I really felt “Let Me In” was a pretty strong ballad.
The last album, Michael said that you guys were conscious of what you didn’t want to do. You didn’t want to make “an old guy’s blues record,” It’s pretty clear that you guys kind of know some of the things that you could easily fall into. You guys are continually kind of looking to push yourselves and do something different. That’s what all bands should do. That’s what you should want to do.
Well, our energy in general, being in a new atmosphere and not really knowing what’s going to happen, really helped. The way we were vibrating, we were feeling pretty high-energy in the new space with Wagener and everything, so the excitement level was pretty good. So I think the energy went onto the tape pretty well. But one thing we’ve just never done is pre-planned what kind of a record we’re going to make. We keep it really simple. We just write the best songs we can and the best songs make it. I hate to sound too simple, but that’s the way we do it. We just write the best songs we can. If we get in a room and we play together, there’s no getting away from it. It’s not like, Oh, Great White goes speed metal. It always sounds like us, no matter what. We can’t get away from ourselves. It really comes down to the songs, trying to make the best ones.
From the moment I heard “I’m Alright,” it was cool because it was like, man, this sounds like a band. Terry sounds really comfortable in his role with this band now.
I really feel like Terry’s voice is melding into my guitar now. I’m real comfortable with him and we’ve been playing with him for so long, seven years almost, I think. I’ve really learned his voice well. He has so much power that I really wanted to show a lot of that on the record. That’s the only thing I was thinking, if you want to call that pre-planning. It’s not so much that, it’s I know where his strengths are and it’s really in the power. If you do like a Foreigner-type ballad, that’s not really where I like his voice. I like his voice, if we do a ballad, in more of a soulful gospel type thing. That’s where I think he shines the most. Although he sings “Save Your Love” like Satan. He’s such a good singer. I’m really pleased. I think that anybody that has any doubts, if they hear this record, they’re going to at least give him the nod that wow, this guy has pipes.
Were there challenges for you personally as a guitar player?
I thought I’d be a little bit more intimidated working with Wagener, but it turned out to be completely the opposite. I never felt so comfortable. But as far as any kind of pressure, there really wasn’t any coffee flying out the nose, paranoia, anything like that. In that regard, I just felt more blessed to be in the position. I wanted to play my heart out and I wanted the songs to be great. That’s the only place where an argument could ever stem from if the song wasn’t working or we had to fix something. I felt pretty comfortable the whole time and at the same time, excited with good energy from the band. Everybody was real positive. When we worked in the house, it was so fun. We’re jumping all over the place like kids. Working out harmonies and everything. The vibe of the house that we were staying at, we were on a lake in Nashville in this house in the middle of nowhere with deer all over the place. There were no distractions whatsoever.
Have you guys worked out what you’re going to play?
I don’t think there’s any songs that we’re not going to play live in the set off this record. I think the first two, we’re talking about doing “Big Time,” which turned out to be the single, kind of by default. It really wasn’t what we thought we would put out, so it’s track eight on the record. Usually you don’t hide the singles like that. But we played it for quite a few people and everybody kept coming back with that song. A lot of that reason I believe is that it sounds like vintage Great White. It has all of the dynamics and the big chorus. And kind of my type of a solo. It’s very Great White-sounding, and I think that’s why fans that we played it for kept coming with that, because that’s what they expected. We just kind of said, “What the heck, let’s listen to the fans and let’s just do this.” We hired this company Infinity Media. They helped with the artwork on our record. But they also do music videos and film. They do movies. So we had them come up from Colorado for four days and we recorded a video for “Big Time.”
Watch Great White's 'Big Time' Video
As a band that you guys came up during the age of MTV, it had to be interesting for you guys, making a video like this all of these years later, because I’m sure that the process back in the day was a whole lot different.
These days if we do a video, the whole band likes to be there all of the time. In the old days, we would just be there on the days where we’re playing. The excitement level is even more now than it was in a way, because we want to be involved in everything. It’s kind of like modern technology has taken over to where you can get things done, and it’s a lot easier as far as man hours and all of that with recording, with film. I just remember these dollies and these giant cameras. Now, they get the same effect, but with less gear. So that’s kind of interesting. It doesn’t cost as much. It’s really what killed the industry in a way, especially with recording, because you no longer have to spend a week getting the kick drum sound for whatever reason. I think maybe you’re a little bit taken advantage of when you’ve got these giant budget, and the engineer and the producer might know that and so they take their time a little bit. We think it’s supposed to take four months to do a record, but these days, we can do it ... well, we did it in two, which is probably about right, if you want to do it right. If you’re rushing, I suppose you could do it in three or four weeks, depending on how prepared you are.
It’s the 30th anniversary of the Once Bitten ... album. What comes to mind for you when you look back at that record?
I remember going to nine labels and getting signed by EMI. Michael Wagener did our first album and it didn’t do as well as they expected, because there was no big radio hits on it. So they weren’t really that excited about doing record two and we felt that we should just part ways, because we don’t want them to just shelve a record and waste music. So here we are with no deal. We put out a demo record, which was called Shot in the Dark. We put that out ourselves. We were able to get a marginal hit with a song called “Face the Day.” They played that on KLOS, which was one of the biggest stations in Los Angeles and it became a little bit of a hit. Then it went to Arizona and Texas, so we’re getting a little bit of footwork with this song and he was able to get an A&R guy down from Capitol and he signed the band that night. That was a do-or-die record and that’s what I remember the most. I really felt we delivered on that.
We had what became pretty big songs with “Rock Me” and “Lady Red Light,” big MTV videos and all of that. People don’t understand how much grinding there is involved in trying to get somewhere near the heavy hitters. I laugh if I hear somebody say we were an overnight success, because you know, all of those years of grinding in clubs and the starving and then you get paid off and people say, “Oh yeah, they’re just an overnight success.” You want to just laugh. Because you want it so bad and you fight you heart out and then finally, something, the stars line up a little bit and people want to say that you’re lazy or something. But that’s mostly what I remember about it, is the excitement of hearing back in the studio, “Rock Me” with a couple of Capitol guys there. I just remember going, “God, this sounds so good.” It was so surreal and so exciting. And all of the stuff we used to pretend about was the most ironic thing. I remember standing in the living room, pretending that we were playing the Forum in Los Angeles and we’d pretend like we were playing there and we’d go, “Forum, good night!” Stuff like that, just acting like goofy kids. And then we actually end up playing there. All of the stuff we dreamed about and believed, it came to us. When you experience things like that, it’s too much and it’s so overwhelming. So I have a lot of great memories from that record, for sure.
Listen to Great White's 'Save Your Love'
What sort of memories do you have putting together “Rock Me,” “Lady Red Light” and “Save Your Love”?
Most of those songs came together very quickly. We’d start jamming in the studio and we’d have a part. We were all involved in the writing, and Michael Lardie was a big part, but I just always remember when I have a riff or someone else has a riff, how fast I want to put a song around it. So we’d go, “Here, check this chorus out,” and I was pretty good and Michael was pretty good at putting a song around the riff. That’s what I kind of remember is the songs kind of writing themselves in a way. It’s just crazy. And we were becoming a little bit better songwriters at that point. We’d already done the EP, the first album and then a whole other album. So we were getting a little bit better with our songwriting and our influences were starting to show up. The very first album, we were basically trying to sound like Judas Priest in a way. I mean, we didn’t really know what we were doing. Priest was kind of an underground band at that time that we really liked. We were just trying to be heavy metal boys. But I really grew up listening to more of the blues-style guys. Carlos Santana, Johnny Winter, Alvin Lee, Ritchie Blackmore, Billy Gibbons, that’s what I was into. So I really wasn’t being true to myself. But after writing all of the songs, 30-plus songs, when we got to Once Bitten ... , our influences -- and a lot of that had to do with Niven. He’d always hear me, in fact, Michael Lardie even told me, in between songs on the first album, I’d be playing “I’m Going Home” by Alvin Lee. Michael told me once, “I used to sit back and think when you’d do that, you should be doing that.” And it ended up happening on Once Bitten ... -- you hear it. When people hear that album, they say, “Well, there’s keyboards, but I’m hearing this blues-type thing in there somewhere.” And that’s because all of our influences are so different. But you hear the blues in there, because I’m a straight ahead blues guy. I love that kind of music, hard rock blues.
When you put Michael Lardie in the mix, who is influenced by Billy Joel and Elton John, and then you’ve got our drummer, who’s like Mr. Heavy Metal, he just loves the death metal and all of that. And then you’ve got a Robert Plant [style singer] singing. You put all of that together and you’re going, “Well, I hear the blues in there, but then you’ve got …” You don’t know what to say. But Alan Niven was a genius at bringing out our influences out of us and reinventing the band and making it real.
I’ve heard Jack Russell describe it as the record where you guys finally figured out what you were going to be as a band sound-wise.
Exactly. Because being really young songwriters and really not even thinking that way, to just be true to yourself and play what influences you. We weren’t being ourselves. We were trying to be somebody else. So the truth really didn’t come out until Once Bitten ....
Listen to Great White's 'Rock Me'
It had to be surprising for you, hearing a seven minute-plus like “Rock Me” getting significant radio airplay.
I was scared to death of it. I told the band this is a great song, but we’re not Phil Collins. We don’t have 13 hits behind this song. This is our first chance and we’re putting out a seven-minute song. This is crazy. Every single of “Rock Me” that Niven sent to radio, he put 3:59 on it. So literally we lied about how long the song was. By the time they figured it out, the phones went crazy and everybody loved the song, so they couldn’t do anything about it. It was already a hit. But that’s more genius coming from Alan Niven. He was a very smart man. But one thing we couldn’t get away with was having it seven minutes on MTV. Michael had mentioned that they didn’t even give Madonna seven minutes. You know, she was the biggest thing in the world at that time. So we tried a million different edits and nothing was working. Nothing sounded natural. So what we decided to do is go back in the studio and make a five minute version of the song. So if you listen to the MTV version of that song, we captured all of the performances and it almost sounds exact, because we used the same guitars, the same amps and so it was a very similar performance. In fact, verbatim, pretty much. Like, you can’t really tell the difference. But we cut verses in half, we shortened pieces and we just made the song five minutes so it would sound more natural. We had to do that for MTV. But I don’t think it lost much.
When you guys were doing the song, could you tell it was going to be a long one?
As long as it was, we really didn’t realize that. In fact, even when you hear the song now, if you ask 10 people how long do you think that song is, they might say five minutes, because you never feel like it’s going on like a long movie, like, they should edit like a half hour of this movie down, it’s too boring. It wasn’t like that. There were so many dynamics in the song, you were constantly being sucked into the song. You’d never feel like it’s seven minutes. That’s why I think we got away with the lie about it being 3:59.
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