Great White headlines the Friday night lineup at the Reynoldsburg Tomato Fest. Black Coffee plays at 6:30 followed by Great White at 8:30. The show is free.
It’s hard to believe that Jack Russell and Mark Kendall started Great White in 1977 – at the time, they were called Dante Fox (read below to find out where the name Great White came from). The core group – Russel on vocals, Kendall on guitars, Michael Lardie on keyboards and Audie Desbrow on drums – had a successful run from the mid-80s to the late ’90s, much longer than some of their peers who broke up in the wake of the grunge movement. That had a lot to do with Great White sticking to the bluesy hard rock that was the foundation of the band’s sound from the early days. There is no embarrassing grunge album from Great White like some of their peers. As with any long marriage, there were bumps along the way, members leaving and then coming back and then leaving again for good. The core group got back together in 2006 and managed to keep it together until 2010 when Russell departed due to some medical issues. He’s since re-emerged with his own version of the band called Jack Russell’s Great White.
This version of Great White was injected with new energy when former XYZ frontman Terry Ilous joined the band and appeared on two great albums – 2012’s Elation and 2017’s Full Circle. After determining things weren’t working out with Ilous in 2018, Great White recruited solo artist (and one time David Lee Roth replacement consideration in Van Halen) Mitch Malloy to handle lead vocals. It’s this version of the lineup, with bassist Scott Snyder (who has been in Great White since 2008) that will rock the Tomato Fest stage.
I met Mark Kendall in 1987 at a record store meet-and-greet in Cleveland when we both had a whole lot more hair! While the encounter was brief, I got a photo and memory out of it. So, it was great to have a chance, 32 years later, to be able to have a lengthy chat with the founding member.
You’re playing the Reynoldsburg Tomato Festival on Friday. On paper, that looks to be a far cry from some of the venues you’ve played in the past but I’ve attended things like Picktown Palooza and the Obetz Zucchini Fest and they draw tons of people.
We’ve done things like the Asparagus Festival up north, Night Ranger’s played it, lots of big bands have played it and there’s always tons of people at the show.
It probably doesn’t matter the name so much as long as people are there to see you.
It’s all good. I don’t really like tomatoes that much … ha ha … but it’s all good.
I saw Lou Gramm at the Zucchini Festival a few years ago and it just had a really good suburban fair type vibe.
I have a funny story about Lou Gramm. We played with him a couple years back and the monitor man wasn’t his monitor man, it was just a random guy. And Lou was making all these random hand signs to the monitor guy. I was standing next to the guy and he goes, “I have no idea what he’s asking for.” It’s probably something Lou’s monitor guy would have known but this guy had no clue.
Is that one of the hit-or-miss things with playing these types of festivals? You never know what you’re going to get in terms of sound support?
We bring somebody. And Michael (Lardie) is technically inclined, he’s an engineer so he kind of sets our monitors. A couple guys in the band use in-ears and then if there is one or two moves during the show, I’ll just signal the guy at the board but it’s usually set pretty good.
Your tour schedule looks like a lot of weekend dates, are you guys doing fly-in dates or getting a bus?
We pretty much do fly-in dates unless we’re playing in Europe and we’ll get a bus and maybe play for 6 weeks or something. It really doesn’t make sense for us to get a bus when nobody buys records. Back in the day, we would just do a little better than breaking even as far as the tour itself but what made it where we could get in the black was selling millions of records and tons of t-shirts because we were playing arenas every day. When nobody is buying music, we do pretty well with the t-shirts, but not great, so it just makes sense to keep the costs down.
This summer, looks like you’re doing a lot of dates with Slaughter. This particular show, Slaughter is not playing but a local, soon-to-be-national, band, Black Coffee is opening. If you get to the gig early enough and have time, I highly recommend checking them out. They are kids who grew up with parents who loved classic rock and they are part of that new crop of bands like Greta Van Fleet and Rival Sons who have the look and the sound of ’70s rock stars.
Absolutely. You know, we played with Greta Van Fleet a few months back and I love to see band like that that are just playing together and not an assembled thing where they are put together and given songs. It just reminds me of when we started out in the garage, all crappy and then got better. Greta Van Fleet kind of reminds me of that. It’s the real deal, they are literally playing their own instruments, they aren’t using tapes and auto correct.
I’m happy to hear you say that. I get a little frustrated when I interview bands and they are like, “Yeah, I don’t listen to anything new. I just listen to the same stuff I grew up on.”
No doubt. If it’s a band and I feel like they are the type of band that, when they started out, their parents told them to turn it down because it’s so irritating and they get better from going out and playing, I’m all about it. I love that.
Obviously things have changed over the last 20, 30, 40 years. I know Led Zeppelin was an influence on Great White’s sound, even to the point where you did an album of Zeppelin covers, but I don’t remember Great White taking the same sort of crap that Greta Van Fleet does. Maybe it’s because everybody has access to the internet and their voices can be heard. Or did I miss out? Did music writers take shots at you for being a Zeppelin copycat band?
The main guy in the band that was super influenced by Led Zeppelin was Jack Russell, the singer. The people I grew up on, I was more into guys like Carlos Santana, then I moved to Johnny Winter, then Alvin Lee, and then when I was about 16 I got into Billy Gibbons and ZZ Top. So I come from more of the blues side.
The only reason we did that tribute record was because I got a call the night before we played on MTV’s Unplugged and my manager told me to learn “Babe I’m Going to Leave You” and that we were going to play it on MTV the following day. I was like, “Dude, this isn’t like ‘Tush’ (ZZ Top), there’s all this picking” and he goes, “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine, we’ll just go over it in the dressing room and do it at soundcheck.” I go, “Okay” and I learned it and we did it and that’s the song they put on MTV. I couldn’t believe it and people went crazy. We were just tortured to play Zeppelin by the fans after that happened.
So, we got some time off one year around Christmas time and we go, “Okay, they want Zeppelin? Let’s give them Zeppelin.” We learned a bunch of songs, we rehearsed for six days, and did songs that we didn’t play in the backyards when we were teenagers. We actually learned more difficult Zeppelin songs and just did 3 shows like that and rolled tape. And the recordings sat for a few years and then we got some time off again and we go “Let’s just throw it out there for the fans, they love Zeppelin.” That’s how all that happened. Because of the singer, I think that’s why the fans attached us to Zeppelin.
If you listen to our music, you’re going to hear more of a blues overtone from me, Michael Lardie comes from the softer side of music, like Elton John and Billy Joel, our drummer is more of the heavy metal, kill your parents every song guy. It’s just when we play together it makes that sound. When you listen to it you go, “Well, I kind of hear the blues in there but there’s keyboards.”
We’ve never been too tortured about being a Zeppelin cover band. People do identify it with the singer but I remember when Rush first came out, I heard an interview in the way early days, before Neil Peart, and they were calling them a Zeppelin copy. I think any band that has a singer who sings high is in danger of being identified with Zeppelin. It is an influence, I love Led Zeppelin. I remember buying Physical Graffiti when I was a teenager. Me and my friend set up the speakers in the window for the patio and we sat there and listened to that album. I remember really loving it, it was so bad ass. As far as my guitar, I was more influenced by more of the guys I told you about.
I think time has been kind to Rush because I never associated Rush with Led Zeppelin until people started saying Greta Van Fleet was a mix of Zeppelin and Rush and then I started understanding why people were saying Geddy Lee sounded like Robert Plant.
They have a singer who sings way up there. My dad was a jazz trumpet player, he played with a lot of really schooled musicians and he always told me you are only as good as your drummer. If you listen to early Rush, before Neil Peart, it’s a different band. That first drummer was just chopping wood and then they got this guy that was a maniac on the drums. There’s not a drummer out there – or at least not too many – that don’t name him as an influence. That changed their whole thing, that really helped widen their scope with their songwriting.
I remember the first time I ever heard Great White. I saw in ad in Hit Parader and there was a full page ad for Shot in the Dark that said “Featuring the single ‘Face the Day'”. So I called the Z-Rock request line and asking them to play it. And that’s when I became a Great White fan. You’ve always had that blues-based sound, you’re not chasing trends or trying different styles or decide to do a pop album in the ’90s.
When we first got an opportunity to make a record, it was because a guy called Alan Niven saw us at the Whiskey. We were called Dante Fox, that’s all we could come up with. He gave us his card and he told us to come down to the record company, which was called Enigma. It was an independent label that had signed Motley Crue one year prior and had just signed Berlin. Alan was looking for a rock band. I didn’t know he had seen us twice before and then this was the third time he saw us. He never approached us until after the third time. He said, and I didn’t find this out until later, that I drove by the club, and he was standing out there with a few people waiting for his car with a few of the kids standing outside the club and he said when I stuck my head out the window of the car and screamed something to the crowd, the kid next to him pointed at me and said, “There goes Great White” and it was kind of a semi-nickname that Jack used to call me when I’d play a solo in a song, “Hey Kendall, Great White”. That’s how we got the name.
On our first album, Jack and I were listening to a lot of early Judas Priest and Scorpions. So, we forced ourselves – we were just a trio – to be as Priesty as we could. We were thinking, “This band is flying under the radar and they aren’t well known. We like it so let’s try to do that.” The more we wrote, the more our influences started showing up. That was the very early stages, we were just kids writing heavy songs. We were kind of forcing that. It was enough to get Niven interested. We made an EP with Michael Wagener and then we made an album because we got airplay from the EP on a song called “On Your Knees”. That generated interest with a major label and so we got to do a full length album using two tracks off the EP. We toured with Whitesnake for a couple months in Europe and then we came back and toured with Judas Priest. When we came home, we didn’t sell enough records to make the record company do the artist development thing. Normally, if you sell 100,000 or so, they’ll go “Okay, let’s get them a song”. They just said they wanted no part of it.
The song you’re talking about is something that happened on another record we made ourselves with no label. We were just lucky enough to get “Face the Day” on the biggest station in Los Angeles, KLOS, and it was the number 2 songs of the year. They also played it in Texas and Arizona. Then an A&R guy from Capitol came down to see us play at a club and signed us that night. That song, that you happened to pick out, was our second chance.
I didn’t know for the longest time that it was a cover.
Yeah, what happened was our manage loved The Angels but they couldn’t break in America because people just sort of wrote them off as an AC/DC cover band. So, instead of getting tortured by the Zeppelin label, they got tortured by the AC/DC label. They were huge in Australia, maybe bigger than AC/DC at one time. It was a great band, it was a great band and it did us perfect. We did it a little differently than the original, especially vocally.
But it gave us our second chance and then we were able to make a record that instead of having to go make a demo and get some interest, we actually had a major label go, “Go make a record.” So we got to make an album from scratch for a major label for the first time. It was pretty sweet. It’s do or die, you might get a second chance if the stars line up but you’re not going to get a third one. That’s when we wrote all those MTV songs like “Lady Red Light”.
You really have to be lucky but you have to work hard to create that luck. We did it by playing more shows than we thought other bands played. Luckily for us somebody happened to be in the crowd one night that meant something but had we only played on Saturdays a few times a month, that wouldn’t have happened. We put ourselves in a position to be lucky.
When I first heard the 2017 release Full Circle, 35 years after your debut came out, I thought, “Wow, I’d be just as happy to hear them play this cover-to-cover live than have them run through their greatest hits.” It’s a great album. My dream would have been to see you and Warrant, who had just released their new album, co-headline a tour where you both only played new material.
I agree, that Warrant record is a good record. We decided that instead of making the records like we normally do, it might be a good idea to go into a situation that we’re not familiar with as far as the atmosphere of the studio itself. We added Michael Wagner in the mix so we’d be real excited about the recording and kind of not know what was going to happen.
We went to Nashville, we hadn’t made a record with Michael since our very first two efforts, the EP and first album. Then, he had only done Accept and, I think, a Dokken demo so now, all these years later, he has this iconic career with Ozzy and Alice Cooper and all the bands from our era selling 100 million records. That was just so fun and it leant itself to the music. We weren’t as prepared as we normally are and I think that made it more exciting. We didn’t have the lyrics done, we just had a few chorus ideas, we didn’t have all the words. He does not work like that, believe me. When he works with a band, he goes out to where they rehearse and does pre-production for a month. And then they make a demo of the songs, he works on the songs and arranges them. We go up there just totally winging it. But I just assured him it was going to all work out. What made it work is the way he records. He does the basic tracks and then he records one song at a time. In other words, when all the basic tracks are done, we go back and do all the rhythm guitars and everything I can before the vocals and then the next day, the singer does that one song and I put all the solos on and it’s done. Working that way, knowing the song we were going to work on the next day, we just crammed with the lyrics like crazy the night before. We lived in the same house for two months before we started recording so we’d hash out some lyrics and they were good. We worked hard on it. We went in the next day and handed him his first lyrics.
I appreciate you’re still doing it. There are some bands from your era that are content to go out on tour year after year and just play the greatest hits. They don’t bother writing or releasing new music.
That’s what gives us our energy, being creative. If we were just an oldies band that played “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” once a year, it would probably drive us crazy and we would have been over with 20 years ago. Because we continue to write and put out music, that’s what motivates us. I still have this dream that I’m going to write the best song of my life. That gives me this anticipation and excitement so I’m fighting to come up with that one songs that really defines me, something I never thought I could do.
Does that mean you’ve either thought about or even started writing a new song with Mitch?
Yeah, for sure. In fact, this friend of mine that I’ve known since I was a teenager, Tracy G, he has his own studio about 40 minutes from me. He was in Dio and had his own band called World War III. I put some ideas down, went to another friends house and put some ideas down and I sent one song to Mitch and he came back with lyrics, a melody. I didn’t show him any of the melody ideas I had, gave him no ideas for a hook and he came back full blown with the most amazing performance. He’s an engineer and producer himself, he has his own studio. So I can send him something and he can lay his vocals on it. I was real impressed by that and relieved. If he can come up with something that great by himself, if we get together in a room, we can really roll good.
I’m writing all the time. We’d like to have something out … if I say later this year, I think I’m overshooting it … but I think it’ll be early next year. There’s too many shows to fit recording in right now. We need to have a window to record but we are getting ahead of the game with songwriting. I just flew up to Michael Lardie’s house and recorded a couple of ideas there. I’m assembling a lot of music, I think it’s going to be good with Mitch.
I’ve never seen him perform so looking forward to it.
Oh, this dude, he’s such a good front man and he’s super excited when he goes on stage. He’s a natural front man. It’s not like he’s screaming his head off for the fans to respond, he can talk, he feels all that naturally. The crowd has really responded to him. I see women in the front row – it’s like we have girls coming to our shows again! The other day we played a show with Queensryche and we were in the van getting ready to leave. This chick comes running up, I’m in the front and she’s coming right towards me. I think she wants an autograph. I roll down the window and she goes, “Oh, where is the singer? I want to take a picture with him.”
It’s nice to be able to go to shows and be surprised by the set list but there is a site out there (Setlist.fm) where people post set list so if you really don’t want to be surprised, you can see what songs bands are playing on tour. It looks to me like, depending on the situation, you’re alternating between 9 and 12 songs sets.
It depends on if we’re allowed to play a headlining show. If so, we play about an hour and 40 minutes. If we’re in a situation where we’re opening for a band, we play one song from Full Circle and if we play the longer set, we play two.
Wrapping up, you said your dad was a musician. Were they supportive of your career choice?
They were so supportive. They were going to let me go to Pennsylvania when I was 16 with some band that saw me play in an apartment building. These two guys were looking for a guitar player in California and they saw me play and wanted to take me to Pennsylvania. Then they played for me and they played every lick imaginable – it was like potatoes falling out of the sky from the drummer, the bass player was playing like a lead guitarist, like Eddie Van Halen. I’m just thinking, “Where am I going to fit in with this band?” I acted like I was going to go, these guys were quite a bit older than me, I was kind of scared. When I went home, I told my parents to tell them, when they knock on the door, that I ain’t going.
My dad was my baseball coach from the ages of 8 to 18 and they supported my music, anything I wanted to do. I was really lucky to have great parents. My dad wanted me to be a pro baseball player but I didn’t feel like I was good enough. I was a decent player and hit home runs and pitched pretty good but I wasn’t standing above the entire league so the chances of a scout coming and going, “Where’s that one guy that plays pretty good?” I knew I had no chance, I loved music and had been playing since I was a kid. My dad goes, “Okay buddy, only one in a million make it but good luck.” It was like that line in Dumb and Dumber. “So, you’re saying there is a chance?” I had zero in a million chance to make it in baseball.