Having recently reached an amendable conclusion in their legal engagement with original lead vocalist Jack Russell, the members of Great White have been particularly motivated in continuing to reestablish their reputation with newly appointed frontman Terry Ilous at helm through their live performances and new material. The band has already achieved a formidable blues rock outing in 2012’s ‘Elation,’ and are now actively working on a follow-up.
Rhythm guitarist and keyboardist Michael Lardie is one member of Great White’s longtime core of a songwriting power trio, which is also centered around fellow enduring rock advocates lead guitarist Mark Kendall and drummer Audie Desbrow. As Lardie explains in our exclusive interview, the band’s current objective is to build upon their revitalized blues rock approach first established on ‘Elation’ nearly three years ago, while maintaining Great White’s distinctive attitude.
Music Enthusiast recently caught up with Michael Lardie to discuss the rock group’s current progress on their upcoming studio album, his impressive body of work as an engineer and producer and his thoughts on the recent ‘Elation’ remixes, while also announcing plans to release his debut solo album later this year.
William Clark: You have served as an active member of Great White throughout the past three decades, however you’ve also appeared on releases by Kevin DuBrow, Jack Russell and Night Ranger over the years, not including your extensive work as a producer and engineer. What is your motivation to be involved with so many different projects?
Michael Lardie: I think it’s just the concept of creativity. I mean, that’s one thing about if you make great friends in the business over the years. Music, in my opinion, should not be one particular format, you know? Working with the Night Ranger boys is completely out of the box from the Great White thing, and doing Kevin’s record as a producer and engineer was a lot of fun. He had an interesting reputation in the business from back in the day, and working with him – I found out that I got to know the real guy. We ended up having a great relationship up until his demise, we were very, very close.
William: You’ve previously overseen albums from such names as Black Flag, Saint Vitus and Dokken, to name a few. You worked as a studio producer and engineer before even joining Great White, and after the band took a hiatus in the early 2000s, you returned to that position and went on to work with such artists as Jake E. Lee and Shaw/Blades. What’s so appealing to you personally about having that authority over the end result of an album?
Michael: I don’t know if I really consider it that way, I sort of think that being a producer is like being a nondirectional therapist. You’re there to get the best out of the artist that you’re working with, and that you don’t necessarily have some dictatorial hand over it. It’s more of a guide or Sherpa, if you will, to help them get the performance out of them that fits each individual song or an entire album. So I don’t ever approach with a real heavy hand, it’s more about, “Keep pushing. I think you got better,” you know? That’s seemed to work for me.
William: You’ve been appearing on Great White records since the band’s sophomore studio album, 1986’s ‘Shot in the Dark.’ Has anything changed as far as your approach towards writing new material is concerned?
Michael: If I could say one thing, there is no particular thing that is a rule about how we do it. With the advent of the internet, it does make it a little bit easier to exchange the ideas when we can’t be in the same room together.
That’s one thing that’s been fun this time, we’re compiling new material that we’re working on, going back and forth with MP3s with Mark saying, “That’s a great B section. I’ve got a great part that’ll go before it, check this out.”
Then we’ll put it together and send it back. I’m up in Northern California looking after my folks right now, so I can’t be in Mark’s presence all the time and that’s been a really helpful tool this time around.
William: How do you feel the direction is heading with the new Great White material? Do you feel it is heading towards the style of ‘Elation,’ or is it something entirely different?
Michael: You know, it’s hard to say until every one of the songs has got a good shake out after working with Audi and Terry and Scott. That’s how we figure out any tune in Great White, that’s the thing. There’s going to be aspects of certain styles that are always going to be… we have this group of people making music together that make a particular sound that hopefully will be different from anyone else’s band, and that’s sort of what we always strive for. So whatever comes our way, we can be assured that it will sound like Great White.
William: Alright. How far along is progress on the new album?
Michael: We have a good leg up. It’s hard to say, you know, until you actually start working the tunes out, saying, “Oh, that lyric doesn’t work there,” or “I think that core change could be a little more interesting there.” We’ve probably got, I’d say around ten or eleven songs that are certainly workable at this point. More to go, but that’s part of the process.
William: You and the members of Great White have spent the past several years touring in support of the band’s first album with Terry Ilous on vocals, 2012’s ‘Elation.’ Does it seem that nearly three years have already gone by since the album’s release?
Michael: Does it seem like it’s been three years? Absolutely not. (laughs) That’s the luck and the joy of going out and enjoying performing so much. We’ve had three terrific years, and we’re looking forward to a lot more. There is a good zen and a good head space that the band is all in right now. We have a real desire to work and to continue to come out with new music, because – I know I could speak for Mark and myself that if we weren’t able to continue making new records, we’re not sure that being a ‘Greatest Hits’ band would be relevant enough for us to continue on. So being able to perform and continue coming up with new material for a new record is kind of as it was thirty years ago. It’s still exciting to us, and there’s still that desire and hunger for it.
William: I talked with Mark Kendall right around the release of ‘Elation,’ and he brought up that if the band only went out and played “Rock Me” and a few other hits, he wouldn’t want to continue the group. Is that the general consensus in Great White? I know that there are other bands from the 1980s hard rock/glam metal period like Cinderella and Slaughter who solely rely off the hits live.
Michael: Well, yeah. I can only speak for this group of people, and we’re still very interested in staying in the game as songwriters and hopefully continuing to get better at it with every record that we do. I mean, we’ve always looked at it as our craft. It’s not something that we just got lucky enough to get some success and want to ride off that success, there’s got to be more to it for us.
William: Further referencing my earlier conversation with Mark, he recognized the challenges that came with replacing Jack Russell with Terry Ilous, moving past that split and then working on new material. What do you recall about the making of ‘Elation,’ and how did it differ from when you made Great White records in the past?
Michael: Great White records in the past, usually the material was already written before we went into the studio and did rehearsals. This time around before we started ‘Elation,’ we had seven or eight tunes that we thought were pretty good, you know, to get going. As you can go back and read anything that The Beatles talked about, if you had that many tunes to go in to start recording, you were in pretty good shape.
But as it turned out, we were starting to come up with stuff just on acoustic guitars sitting in a circle, playing and singing, that was eclipsing the quality of what we had, so we just kind of went a little crazy with that. Every morning we’d sit around. “What’d you got? What’d you got?” We’d sit around and play some parts, and before we knew it we wrote a song. Usually by the late afternoon, we were cutting the basic tracks for it, so we wrote ten of the twelve songs for ‘Elation’ in the studio as we were recording. That was different than anything we’d done before.
William: Was there initially any hesitation when you and rest of the band were considering recording a new Great White album without Jack Russell?
Michael: No, I don’t think there was. I mean, our whole thing wasn’t so much about… Mark and I are the primary songwriters, and had always been in the band, so accomplishing the identity and the sound of Great White that, to me, was intact, and certainly with Audi on drums, there’s a core sound that’s made with these three people that, as I said earlier, hopefully is different than anybody else. I didn’t have any fear or intrepidation, I knew Terry had certain abilities that our former singer did not and I really felt like it was going to be exciting. As much as Terry brought into the writing process, he was also willing to listen to what Mark and I were doing, and he was great at emulating and being part of the team to create what we did on that record.
William: I was going to say, Terry does a solid job at keeping a degree of that original Great White sound alive on the last album, but clearly isn’t some Jack Russell clone. Some bands like Journey might go out specifically looking for that type of vocalist, but that isn’t the case here. Was that a quality the band was looking for in their new singer?
Michael: Absolutely. I think that’s something we all sat around and talked about prior to deciding which direction we were going to go. It gave us the opportunity to kind of have a better spring forward for reinvention, so to speak. Finding, as you said a clone, per say, would have been great for anybody, but there’s also that sort of contention within your fan base that would say, “Well, if you got somebody who sounds like your original guy, why not just get your original guy?”
Having Terry there, he has a respect for the original melodies but certainly puts his own twist on it. To me, Terry is more in that realm of singers that have that edgier sound to their voice. If you could think of another singer who’s sort of totalitarian as far as their approach, it would be like how Eric Martin would sound over a Great White tune, you know? There’s a certain edginess to his voice, but he can still go pure if he needs to, and then go back and forth with it. And you know, Terry has his own style, and that’s what we tried to find: a happy medium for him to honor the tunes, but also bring his own uniqueness to them.
William: Aside from such tracks as “Feelin’ So Much Better” and “Shotgun Willie’s,” there is a good half of the album which has this modernized blues rock attitude that’s not exactly like anything found on previous Great White albums. Granted there are some similarities, but for the most part it’s an entirely different animal and not just some simple rehashing of the hits. Were you trying to branch out somewhat from what familiar listeners might expect, or rather try something different?
Michael: There’s a couple of points to that one. I think you certainly don’t try to set out and go, “Well, we need this year’s ‘House of Broken Love’ or ‘Angel Song,'” or something like that. I think we had just asked that the tunes would come, and this group of people playing them would be enough to sound like Great White without sounding, like you said, a rehash.
William: Specifically, “Lowdown” has almost this heavy metal character to it, what with the brooding vocal harmonies and the drop-tuned chord progressions. What’s the story behind that number?
Michael: That was just one of those things, you know? One of the feels when you talk about 80 beat triplet feel for a blues tune, we have sort of always tapped onto that thing with the triplet blues numbers like “Old Rose Motel.”
Throughout the years, we’ve always had that kind of feel to some of our tunes, so I thought, “Why not take that one step further and make it really, really heavy and dark?”
William: I’ve been able to listen to the new George Tutko remixes of ‘Elation,’ and I have to say he did a rather impressive job. Were you supportive of this decision to have George head back and go right over the album you originally mixed with Mark Kendall?
Michael: Well you know, there was a double-edged sword there. I mean, George is a great mixer and I certainly respect all of his accomplishments in this business, but at the same time I only got six days to mix the entire record. So had I had three weeks like George did, you know, my mixes probably would have been fine enough that we wouldn’t have had to have gone there. That was a decision in a democracy that was made, and the results speak for themselves.
William: In the past couple of years, Great White also released a new live album, ’30 Years: Live From the Sunset Strip,’ which just as the title implies celebrates the three decades of music since the band’s formation. Were you somewhat disappointed that none of the songs from ‘Elation’ appeared on the effort?
Michael: I don’t know that I was disappointed, you know? It was actually performed right at the time [we were] in the middle of recording ‘Elation,’ so we weren’t prepared to perform any of those tunes at that point.
William: When it comes down to Great White’s live shows, you’re a master of many trades, often switching between rhythm guitar, backup vocals, tambourine and keyboards. Some musicians would consider this too large of a challenge to pull off onstage. What’s your technique when it comes to switching so frequently between instruments?
Michael: To me, it’s just looking at each song and making that a separate entity each time, knowing what the most appropriate instrument that I could bring to the table in this song would be, knowing what guitars would be right for this one, or keyboards would be right for that one, or whatever it calls for. You know, I’ve always kind of looked at that as my role in the band. I don’t think about it as being entirely complex, it’s just that I think of the tunes and hope that I’m contributing the best that I can to make the song ultimately better.
William: Speaking of live performances, is it somewhat frustrating that there’s a second version of Great White also out there on the touring circuit?
Michael: Well you know, off mic we could probably go through a whole laundry list of things. I’m not going to bag on our former singer, in the sense that he has the right to go out and make a living, and that’s pretty much where that’s at. I mean, we are our own entity. We are lucky enough to be playing festivals to 25,000 people in Florida six weeks ago, and they’re playing theaters and casinos. We’re playing real gigs, so that’s what we focus on. I mean, we don’t think about what’s going on out there, other than what’s going on with us.
William: So I take it you aren’t still in contact with Jack Russell?
Michael: No, there is no contact there.
William: That’s what I assumed. Moving forward, do you have any projects outside of Great White that are currently in the works?
Michael: Well, I’ve got a record that I’m doing on my own, and it’s material that’s not appropriate for Great White, per say, but it’s certainly music that I’ve written over the years. It’s going to eventually be released as a solo record, and I guess in the sense that it’s a solo record in every aspect, meaning I wrote, sang, performed all the instruments, engineered it. In the most true sense, it’s going to truly be a solo record.
William: Once that album comes out, are you planning on doing some solo dates in support of it?
Michael: You know, it’s really hard to say. I think that putting it out there is going to be interesting to see what people think about it, because it won’t sound like Great White but it’s part of who I am. So we’ll see if there’s a market for it. For me it’s a labor of love, and it’s something that I always wanted to do. Any time I come up with something, I don’t block it because, “Oh, Great White wouldn’t want to do something like that.” I just demo the song up and see if I like it and go forward with it, because hopefully at the end of the day a good song is a good song.
William: I agree. As Great White continues touring on the road and releasing new music with Terry at the helm, would you like to see the set list become less comprised of the ‘Greatest Hits’ and have more emphasis placed on newer material?
Michael: You know, that’s always a difficult to choice to make, too, because you have to understand, and I’m sure you do, that our fan base is such that we wouldn’t have a career if it wasn’t for our fans. For those fans who are going there to hear our classic hits, I couldn’t imagine not playing “Rock Me” or “House of Broken Love” or “Can’t Shake It.” Those are staples of our live shows that have always been there. Obviously we are hoping to do longer sets and have more ability to put in what we’ve been doing since 2012. It’s the journey and we’re on it, and that’s the intention, so we’ll see how that goes.
William: Also, I believe Terry will be heading out on a European Tour alongside Jeff Scott Soto in a few months. Do you feel that would be an ideal opportunity for you to release your new solo album?
Michael: No, I think the time is after this summer season with Great White. Probably the fall would be a little bit better for that, and I don’t really intend it to be anything like we’re trying to switch horses to be immersed in that whole style, it’s just something that I’d love to get out there. Like I said, a labor of love. But probably in the fall, I would think.