“The Sharks That Won’t Drown”

by A.J. West (1996)

Rock is dead. Or at least that’s what so many are saying. However, Jack Russell and Michael Lardie, Great White’s lead singer and guitarist, respectively, refuse to go belly-up. They’ve fared well in the past. Their 1987 Billboard breakthrough, Once Bitten…, sold over a million and the double platinum follow-up, …Twice Shy, charted at number nine with a top five hit during the pinnacle of their success. With the release of Let It Rock, their tenth release since forming in 1981, Great White attacks again.

AJ: Great White went to a lighter sound on 1994’s Sail Away. What made you come back to the hard rock sound of Let It Rock?

JACK: The relationship we had with our prior management was one that allowed a lot of control of the music to him. Since we changed management, we decided we wanted to do this record the way we wanted to do it. We wanted to go back through our own roots and do some of the stuff we liked about Great White in the past and some stuff we were never able to do before. It was definitely a drastic change. Sail Away and this album are like totally apples and oranges.

AJ: Jack writes the lyrics, right?

JACK: Yeah, I do… now (laughs). I used to years ago and then, as time went on, that was just kind of taken out of my world and put into our management’s hands. And so, now, all of this fell on my lap, which is great because it’s something I really love to do.

AJ: Where do you get your lyrical inspiration?

JACK: Usually, the stuff I see, stuff that I live through or the band goes through. Some of it’s about things that the world’s going through. Being sober four years, I have my brain back, so my lyrics are better than ever.

AJ: What part have drugs played in your music?

JACK: I wouldn’t say that drugs did anything beneficial for us. It’s hard to say. I don’t think there were many times where we all just sat around, got high and wrote songs. I think that, had we been sober earlier, had we lived through this… well, I don’t know, it might have changed the whole thing. It might not have been as cool. I think with the addiction thing there’s some character building in there. I’m the person I am today because of everything I’ve done in my life. I can’t look back and regret, I just wish I had the time that I wasted back then. Since it’s all down to us now, it’s important that we are sober so the music doesn’t suffer.

AJ: Great White emerged slightly before many other rock bands in that genre did. How’d you manage to outlast the others?

JACK: A lot of it is just dedication to what we’re doing and the fact that we’re like brothers. Because our personal lives are so different, I don’t think we’d be together without this band. Mostly it’s because we love making music and touring together. You hear a lot of these horror stories about bands: “Oh, I hate my guitar player.” I can’t relate to that because I’ve never been in the situation where I’ve been in a band with a guy for years and years and years. Everybody’s personality (in Great White) is pretty much polar opposites and I think the old saying “opposites attract” is very true. We’ve always said that nobody’s gonna tell us when this band’s over. We’ll tell everybody when we decide we wanna call it quits. So I don’t wanna be put out ’cause somebody else says rock is dead. Fuck that.

AJ: How do you plan to get Great White back on top of the music scene when you’re faced with the public’s changing musical tastes?

JACK: I don’t think the public’s musical taste has changed so much as it has been force fed. It’s almost like what the record company does as soon as one kind of music gets popular is they sign a million bands that sound like that one band. The next thing you know, everything on the radio starts sounding the same. The same thing happened at the end of the 80s. There were all these clone bands and a lot of them were just carbon copies and the same is true now. I think the problem is that a lot of people who like rock and roll are kind of lazy. Instead of taking a minute to call the station and go, “Hey, what the hell are you guys doin’, man, I wanna hear some rock,” they turn the dial. Rock and roll has never gone away. I think that this year and the next year you’re gonna start seeing more and more of that returning because people are wanting more of a mix. With the fact that a lot of 80s bands — hate to be referred to as that, but it’s guilt by association (laughs) — are going out on the road this year, I think you see media having to focus some attention on it because it’s still valid. Radios have no rock and roll because no record companies are signing it. The response we’ve gotten from radio stations about the first single is like, “Finally … thank you, we need some rock and roll here to mix this up a bit.”

AJ: Why has the bass player position been so tough to keep filled?

JACK: For some reason it’s the “Curse of the Bass Player” or something. Since I started my very first band, the bass player, for some reason, has always been this oddball. We’ve always had good bass players, it’s just something in their personalities that was like oil and water with us. We’ve always been looking for that one guy who would be like the fifth brother and I think we finally found the guy. Sean McNabb is our new bassist and, from day one, he just fit right in.

AJ: So what’s up with the tour?

MICHAEL: We hope to be starting some time in early June or late May. As far as how long it’s gonna go… Jack, what do you think? 12 months? 13 months?

JACK: Well, let’s hope. If the record does well, I’d like to get a year and a half or two years out of it, speaking of the overseas markets as well. We toured last year for 16 months on a record that didn’t have too much radio interest because it was a little soft for stations that usually play Great White.

AJ: How is the market for Great White overseas?

JACK: It’s sketchy. Some places are really good, some aren’t so good. We haven’t focused on that for a long time and that’s why we’re definitely making plans this year to start going back over there and doing tours to promote the band. Our prior management just kind of let that lapse, focusing more on the United States — which is cool — but there’s a lot more to the world than just the U.S. Of course, we’re gonna spend 98 percent of our time here because the US is still the best place in the world for rock and roll.

AJ: I heard you guys are a really slammin’ bar band…

JACK: When we go in to play anywhere, we don’t say, “Okay, we’re at a club, let’s do a club show.” We come out and try to do an arena show. Doing a 10,000 seat arena is just a big, big backyard party with a lot of beer. I’ve always looked at Great White as being “If you want to go somewhere and have a good time, come see us.” If you want to listen to serious music with heavy topics and generally be depressed when you leave, go see somebody else. Rock and roll was meant to be fun. It was meant to be an escape, not some dreary, dirgy-type thing where you say, “Oh, my God, I feel like slittin’ my wrists after hearing this.” It’s supposed to be fun and uplifting. That’s the whole point of music to me, to make you feel good. If you wanna have a good time, come see our show. That’s the bottom line.

AJ: Great White’s #5 charting version of Mott The Hoople’s “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” was your biggest hit. Does it matter your most commercially popular song was a cover?

JACK: It was a good thing the song did well. It helped the record sell almost three million in the States. It was a vehicle. I think the problem that comes from that is that people recognize the band from that song. People think that is the quintessential Great White song, which it’s not. I think “Rock Me” would be as close as you can get to summing up what Great White is about in one tune.

AJ: You’re releasing a solo album sometime in the future…

JACK: Yeah, we finished that a few months ago. It sits on the shelf right now until the Great White album runs its course. There are some elements of Great White, but there are also some different elements. I’m not saying it’s grunge, ’cause it’s not, but I think it’s maybe a little more contemporary sounding.

AJ: And Michael, you played on the album…

MICHAEL: I think Jack reasoned that if I was working on the record, he didn’t feel like he was cheating (laughs).

JACK: When we do take the solo band out touring, which we will eventually, it’ll be nice to have him (Michael) out on the road, too… that sense of familiarity.

AJ: If you had to start with Great White from the beginning again, is there anything you’d change?

JACK: Yeah, I think I would’ve started in ’71 (laughs). It wasn’t such a bureaucracy then. Look at the concert lineups they used to have, man. They had Hendrix, Santana, Yes, Black Sabbath. Nowadays everything’s so sectioned off. “Let’s label it and put it on a shelf so we know where it’s at.” It’s fuckin’ music, man. Heavy rock or soft rock, it’s all supposed to be rock and roll. It was just more relaxed back then. Record companies weren’t so hot to go ahead and sign everything you record. They were like, “Well, do we like this? Yeah, we like it. Then let’s go with it.” Nowadays nobody trusts their own judgment. If they like something, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re gonna sign it.

AJ: What separates Great White from the rest of the pack?

MICHAEL: I think right off the bat for me, personally, it’s Jack’s voice. He’s definitely in the company of a Lou Gramm and a Geoff Tate in that he is very, very talented in terms of his vocal ability and that he’s very recognizable. Also, Mark’s guitar playing.

JACK: Thanks, Mikey. The fact that we’re here after 10 albums separates us from a lot of bands. When times got tough, we didn’t just say, “Let’s take the easy way and we’ll fold and do something else.” We said, “No, fuck this. Okay, times are tough, but this is something we want to do and nobody’s gonna tell us we can’t do what we wanna do.” That’s what this life’s all about. If you knock on the door long enough, somebody’s gonna open it and when they do, you stick your fuckin’ foot in. We’ve had ups and downs, but that’s just all part of the game. You can’t be a crybaby and say, “We didn’t sell as many records as we did last year, let’s break up.” What are you gonna do? Sell fuckin’ cars or something?

AJ: Is there anything you want to tell the readers?

JACK: Thanks for all the people who’ve supported us over the years and get ready for this one ’cause it’s really gonna kick your ass.

MICHAEL: Well I know very clearly that Pittsburgh, in my experience, has a big, strong beating heart for rock and roll, so we’ll be there and we won’t disappoint you, so don’t disappoint us, Pittsburgh.