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Swimming With Sharks: An Exclusive Interview With GREAT WHITE Guitarist Mark Kendall

By Larry Petro, News Monkey
Monday, November 12, 2012 @ 10:24 AM


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It makes me feel really old when I observe all these bands that I started listening to in high school celebrating anniversaries, especially the 25, 30, and even 35 years together. But it's also cool from tthe standpoint that as these bands age and have gone past their heyday, they are much more humble and reflective of their careers. GREAT WHITE was one of those bands that I started listening to early in their careers. And much like so many other bands of that era, the excesses tended to take a toll as time went on. Many bands fell apart due to the abuses and egos, while others managed to soldier on and continue making music. GREAT WHITE was not immune to this either. Sure, they had their lion's share of hardships, but few events could compare to the tragedy that unfolded at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island almost 10 years ago now. For most bands that would have been their epitaph, forever relegated to the infmay that unfolded that evening. But the band survived and has continued on, though not without the departure of their original vocalist Jack Russell. The band recently released a new album with singer Terry Ilous (XYZ) and, judging from my recent conversation with guitarist and founding member Mark Kendall, Elation seems to be more than just the title of the album; It's how Mark and the rest of the band feels about being able to continue to bring music to the masses. Enjoy!

KNAC.COM: First of all, congratulations on the band celebrating their 30 year anniversary. Are you amused at all that the band is still going after all these years?

KENDALL: Well, it's funny when you look back and see all the years that have flown by. You never figure to be around this long but I think's it's just a case of making new music all the time. That's what keeps the wheel going. We can always get better and we're always trying to come up with that song and I think that's what motivates us to continue. If it was a case where we're just an oldies band and we went out and played "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" or whatever I probably wouldn't have beeen able to handle it, you know, we would have been done a long time ago. It's making new albums and that's what keeps it fresh for us.

KNAC.COM: What do you see differently about the music business now as opposed to when you first started?

KENDALL: It's changed quite a bit. We don't have all the MTV's and the major airplay all over the country. Now its alot of secondary media like internet radio and the Sirius, the satellite radio. We just try to get our music to the people the best we can. Our MTV is YouTube now. It's a little harder to get the music to the people, so now it's like the 70's you know, we go out and play live for people to hear us. It's like all my heroes, if I wanted to hear Johnny Winters play I had to go and see him live, there wasn't a ton of radio airplay, so it's kind of come full circle in that regard. Now that you don't have the record stores so to speak anymore, the Warehouses, the Towers, it's all downloading, so that's a big change. I'm not interested in selling millions of records but I do like it when people can hear our music. And the recording process, before we would take like 4-6 months maybe in the studio. It took longer with the tapes and we would take lunch breaks when we were doing just one small edit and now it's like the click of a mouse. And you no longer need the huge marketing dollars now that you have the internet, especially if you know how to work it. It's like, I just did my new album on Fred's Records and it sold 8 million copies and it only cost me $20, you know (laughs)? When that started to happen we were like, holy God, we're in trouble. I imagine the labels are really cringing.

KNAC.COM: It must be satisfying to you as an artist to know that after 30 years you still have what it takes to make music that people enjoy.

KENDALL: Sure, you know, for some reason I'm really inspired to still write music, especially when we're going to make a record and I'm walking around like a space cadet, my wife doesn't know what the hell I'm doing, I've got riffs going in my head, it's like the kid energy comes out in me. I still enjoy it for that reason, being creative, that's what really keeps it going for me. After all these years it's still fun making music.

KNAC.COM: Some fans would say that in the early years Great White was more of a metal band but then you morphed your sound into a more blues-oriented hard rock act. Would that be a fair assessment to you and if so, why the change?

KENDALL: That's totally fair. When we started out in the early part of our writing we were just a guitar, drums, bass, lead singer, you know. In my teenage years when I was 14 years old I was in a band and I was so into Santana that to me, it was like probably thhe greatest band ever, I mean the way Carlos Santana played and everything. I didn't consider my band a cover band but we played all Santana. As far as Great White and the way we started the music we had JUDAS PRIEST and SCORPIONS, we were young kids just starting out, writing stuff, the first stuff coming off the top of our heads and so it would lend itself to being heavier material, but you could always kinda hear the blues overtones in my playing because I was into Billy Gibbons and all these people. What happened was on our second album we added a couple of keyboard parts and then the guy that played the keyboard parts said he played rhythm guitar also and we were like, oh that would be cool, like if we had you behind a curtain you could just play the parts and we would sound just like the record live. Before we knew it Michael Lardie was like, in the band, and when we started writing for some reason it freed me up to allow my blues influences to show up a lot more and we kind of fell into that and it felt right and that's the way we developed. When we were just a trio with a singer it was just a different time and now that time's gone on my influences have just shown up. And by everyone in the band having different influences, that's what gives the band it's sound. My keyboard player is into stuff like Billy Joel you know, and my drummer's into a lot of the death stuff, the kill your parents thing you know, but when you put it all together you get a certain sound.

KNAC.COM: It's been nearly 10 years now since that tragic nightclub fire in Rhode Island that took the lives of scores of people, including one of the band members. How do you deal with the fact that, even after all this time, there will always be a certain element of people who will only ever remember GREAT WHITE as being 'that band' associated with the tragedy?

KENDALL: Yeah, well first, what a lot of people don't realize is that it was Jack's (Russell) solo band and he was out on a solo tour. The music was so much different than GREAT WHITE, it was mellow and stuff and the audience just really wasn't getting it so his manager had called me to go out so that he could play more GREAT WHITE material. They had this thing called cold sparks where you could actually just stand in it and it won't even do anything. They had that going when I went out and I asked about it because we had never done anything like that before. His tour manager had done it before I guess with other groups like WASP and some other bands he had worked for so he knew what he was doing. But this place where we played had what I thought was this rehearsal type foam except it was black, really weird looking. It reminded me of that egg crate foam that you would see if you were at a rehearsal place for soundproofing. Of course, come to find out way, way later it was not even supposed to be in there because it wasn't flame retardent stuff that should have been used. They said it was used for shipping materials, like through the mail. After that tragedy, it was a horrrible thing to witness and I didn't really know what to do. I kinda went into a funk and just started praying with my pastor on a daily basis and talking to alot of people. Then we found out that some of the families of some of the victims started this Station Family Fund and there was a way we could help. We got in touch with them and you know, they never really blamed us for what happened after the truth all came out. That was the best part of the healing process, even today we're in touch on like a daily basis almost either on Facebook or a phone call. All those people have come to shows like the M3 Festival several years in a row now. I'm in touch with and really close to Todd and Victoria, who are the founders of the Station Family Fund and we're able to create a lot of awareness with corporations and other bands. Other bands didn't get involved right away but after about 5 or 6 years went by alot of bands have gotten involved and I was really happy to see that because alot of families lost people, lost income and so they could really use the help. The best positive thing that has come out of it is being able to help and the fellowship. The fellowship, without that, it would have been very difficult. We were able to help each other get through this.

KNAC.COM: And it's certainly been a roller ccoaster ride for you guys over the years, but you appear to be on the upswing again with the release of Elation, the bands 12th sutdio record, and the first with new vocalist Terry Ilous (XYZ). How does it stack up against the classic GREAT WHITE material?

KENDALL: Well, it's very strong. We just had this guy, George Tutko, who was basically like the engineer and producer for Rod Stewart's entire career and he's done BOSTON, JOURNEY records and John Cougar Mellencamp and CHEAP TRICK. We had him remix one song and now he's remixing the whole album so that's very exciting. The mixes are sounding amazing. Working with Terry has just been a blessing. He had already done almost 90 shows with us when Jack couldn't return so we were really getting used to him and we just love the guy. He vibrates like a Zen master, he just makes you feel good when you're around him. He's such a great musician and his energy is something I'm not totally used to and I love it. I'm at soundchheck just kind of noodling around and he comes jumping around just kind of singing things and I'm like, I'm just tuning bro, chill (laughs). He just has that kid energy and it's totally contagious. When we went into the studio we had all these songs written, ready to go and he's sitting around with an acoustic and I grab an acoustic and we come up with a song on the fly. We just let ourselves be free and just went with it and we started writing songs on the fly in the studio and literally putting them on tape and just running with it and we ended up eclipsing the 10 songs that we had prearranged and only used 2 that we had planned. We just allowed that to happen and it was just great. There's something to say about when ideas are really fresh and you record them right then. There's a certain amount of energy that goes onto the tape. I learned that years ago when we went in and did a demo released on the radio of a song called "Streeet Killer", which was on our first album. When we went to record it for real for the major labels, it never had the same energy as when the riff was new. It's not even explainable because we played it exactly the same. I noticed it on this record, you can really feeel the energy, it's got a very positive vibe to it and I'm really pleased with it.

KNAC.COM: When it came time to deicde to do this new album with Terry, was it an automatic decision or did you need to give it some serious thought? It was somewhat of a risky move, don't you think?

KENDALL: Not at all, you know, what I didn't want was for him to have to go out and sing cover songs, I wanted him to be involved with the new material and I couldn't wait. His voice with my guitar and the way he sounds is just amazing and the feedback we've gotten pretty much worldwide, people are just wigging out. I love the blues and he has such a wide range and he's such a blues singer. I researched him, I didn't really know alot about XYZ except for a couple of songs. I'd been out of it for so many years, we're always on tour and you kind of get in your own little world so it's hard for you to keep up on everything. But I did remember "Inside Out" and a couple other ones but what I noticed was on the songs that were just heavy metal changes it was almost like oil and water with his voice, but if you do anything bluesy at all or a ballad that's where he shines. Almost like Glen Hughes, he sounds really good with those big rock riffs.

KNAC.COM: Now, was he the only choice you considered when you first brought him in?

KENDALL: Well, we had Janie Lane come in and sing for us on a few shows and even Paul Shortino did one show but yeah, at the end of the day, he was our choice. He can do anything, there's nothing we can't play, he hits every note with full power. He doesn't smoke, he doesn't drink, he doesn't cuss, he's like a humantarian. He's an "I wanna save the whales kinda guy", you know? He's like, dude, we gotta do this thing for the hurricane Sandy victims, we gotta put this together, I'll call Eddie Money and we gotta do this and we gotta do that and I'm like, go boy, you go boy, you know I'm in. He always wants to do things to help. I like having someone like that in may life. Plus, with all his talent it's just a joy.

KNAC.COM: Did you find it easier working with him or Jack?

KENDALL: This is nothing against Jack but it's easier to work with Terry just in the sense of I could just give him music and he comes back with a song and that's not the way it worked in the past. We just had a format where if I came up with music or Michael (Lardie) and I came up with music I would show Jack the melodies, he would insert words, we'd rehearse it and it got to where it was almost like going through the motions because we knew everything that was going to happen before it did. When you're in a band and you know each other's strengths and weaknesses you work around that, you put your ego aside and you do what's best for the music. The atmosphere is a little bit more at ease. The creative energy is just really super electric. It's alot of fun, we're really enjoying it.

KNAC.COM: And I think that some of it comes down to the fact that you're older and wiser now. When everyone's younger they're more brash and there's maybe a little clash of egos, but as you get older you realize that some of that stuff isn't all that important anymore.

KENDALL: You are absolutely correct! My ego weighs zero pounds right now (laughs)! Now, all I think about is what's best for this song right here and I don't care if your grandma wrote it or it was all her idea. And that's the way the band is now, the egos lose alot of energy over the years. You just try to do what's best for the music. What can we do for the band today that will be really good or what can we do for the live show that would be really good, no matter who's idea it is. But you're right, when you're young you're like, I know i'm the greatest ever so I must be right (laughs)!

KNAC.COM: Speaking of Jack, most folks know by now the story of what happened with his departure from the band but having been a close frined to him for so long, it had to be tough on you.

KENDALL: Very tough, very tough. You know, I work with alot of people that struggle with alcohol and drugs and stuff and I even have this sober team I like to call it, I send people daily meditation and prayers and make myself available . I 've even reached out on the internet, I said, if anyone out there's struggling I'm available, maybe not to be a sponsor but I will be your sober friend. I never wanted to use the band as self-serving but if I can use it and somebody wants to think that I'm in the greatest band on Earth and that's gonna help 'em get sober, then so be it. At least I can show them all the tools that helped me and if they want it really bad they're usually successful. So, I make myself available, and that includes to Jack. I tried with my heart and soul to help him and I don't think he was quite ready to make that plunge into surrendering and when you keep trying and nothing's working it's really frustrating. I talk to people that have like 30 years of recovery and they're always like, Mark you can only do so much. I'm trying to be his pain medication guy you know, going over there 3 times a day going okay, here's your 2 pills. To watch somebody self-destruct with their body of course it's not easy and we have been friends for so long. This guy was a great performer, great singer and to watch somebody self-destruct with such abuse, I can't believe he's alive, for one thing. I'm certainly glad he is, but at one point I pretty much just had to back off and I just said, you know, I'm just gonna pray for him because this is affecting me.

KNAC.COM: And you know, some people in Jack's situation, they don't want help. They go through a period of denial that they even have a problem and until they reach a point where they actually realize that there is a problem there, like you said, you can do anything in the world to want to help them and it's not going to do any good if they don't weant the help.

KENDALL: Yeah, and you know, I've learned this alot too, that everybody has a different bottom. One guy might get a DUI and he'll be sober for 40 years and for another guy it might take losing his family, losing his job and going to jail for a year or something to get sober. Some people will never hit it. I hope he's not one of those people but alot has happened to him, he's had alot of loss and I still don't see the surrender, you know? I've seen a couple of the performances on YouTube and I know he knows deep down that he's not even 30% maybe, and I'm telling you, I know he knows that. I actuallly believe this: I believe that's it's not too late for him. I think if he just flushed his body and went into some facility for like a year he would get back at least to 80%, maybe even more. But if he's gonna keep wailing on opiates and going down the road he is, he's not gonna make it.

KNAC.COM: Do you still speak to him or has all the litigation pretty much ended that?

KENDALL: The litigation is still going on so of course that's still difficult but he was in touch with my wife for a long time, but he was using and I told her, I don't even want to hear about your conversations with him unless he soounds focused, and one day she came up and she goes, Mark, I talked to Jack today and he sounded so good, I haven't heard him sound this good in i-don't-know-when. And I'm like, you're serious? He sounded clear? He sounded really good? She said yep, so I go, okay, I'll call him. I called him and I heard his voice and I'm goin, dude, is this the new Jack? Is this the one I can expect? And he says, yeah, I'm doing good. I go, here's the deal buddy, call me every day at 9:30 am, every single day, let's do this together, one day at a time. He called me for 3 days straight, 9:30 on the nose and I was starting to get a little hope there and then day 4, no call. I didn't call him, I just kind of waited. Then he called me in the evening and didn't sound so good. So, here I go, throwing my heart on the table and smash, you know what I mean? What I tell newcomers and people that really want to get well is that they really have to want it for themselves. I quit smoking, today is like day 14 or whatever, and I wanted my wife to know right out of the gate that I am not quitting smoking because your mom doesn't like the smell. I am not quitting because you hate cigarettes. I am quitting because I want to be healthier and I want to quit. I'm doing it for me. And I really believe that if somebody wants to get sober they have to want it for themselves. They can't do it because their wife can't take it anymore or any other reason. That's the way to be successful, you have to want it more then anything. One of the things I've found is the one-day-at-a-time thing, and if you don't get anything else, at least just go for that. Wake up in the morning, pray for your sobriety that day and before you go to sleep, thank him for your sobriety for that day.

KNAC.COM: And you hit it right on the head. You have to want it yourself. I've known people who have struggled with addictions and they tried to do it for their significant other or whatever and it almost always fails because they didn't want it for themselves.

KENDALL: Exactly, it's white-knuckling, you know? And your behavior doesn't change. When I first started getting sober years ago, yeah, I quit drinking but I wasn't working any kind of program, nothing spiritual, nothing. I still told my wife I had pizza when I ate a hamburger (laughs), but I didn't drink. I wanted to change my life completely, I wanted to become a better person and that takes a little more work. You're absolutely correct, you gotta want it for yourself and the ones that are successful do that. The thing is that if you do that, everything else will take care of itself. Your relationship with your wife is gonna improve anyway whether you did it for her or whatever, it doesn't matter. Do it for yourself and things around you will change, it's a given.

KNAC.COM: So, he's gone out now and formed his own version of the band, so we've had 2 L.A. GUNS, 2 SAXONs, 2 GREAT WHITEs and even Geoff Tate recently announced his own version of QUEENSRYCHE. Doesn't having 2 versions ultimately hurt the brand name of the band in the long run?

KENDALL: Yes, it does. For one thing, he's got these totally unknown people in his band. They've never recorded or written a GREAT WHITE song, so how can they be GREAT WHITE? I just think if a singer leaves a band, I mean when Rob Halford left JUDAS PRIEST, he was Rob Halford, not Rob Halford's JUDAS PRIEST. He was just Rob Halford. When Ozzy left BLACK SABBATH, he wasn't Ozzy Osbourne's BLACK SABBATH either, he was just Ozzy. Even David Lee Roth, he wasn't David Lee Roth's VAN HALEN, he was just David Lee Roth. How can one person be a band? I mean, there's a reason why they call a band a band, it's because it's a group of people. The guys in my band have been in the band since like 1985, they've recorded every studio album we've ever done. My keyborad player has been our engineer and producer for our entire career practically, so for one person to leave a band and it be the band to me, I dont know if they could even be thinking the right way. He's a little bit more under the radar since he's playing smaller clubs and stuff like that so it's not a huge thing but it could become confusing if he's calling his band GREAT WHITE or whatever. It was Jack Russell's GREAT WHITE but the Jack Russell is so small on his print and stuff that it just looks like GREAT WHITE, even though he's got this pirate anchor, or whatever, I don't know what that's supposed to be. I'm sure this will all work out in the long run. I'm sleeping really well and everything's okay.

KNAC.COM: Do you think that there wll ever be a time when you can work with Jack again?

KENDALL: (Pause) First of all, before I can even answer that or speak about it, I wish that he would get himself well before he even thinks about singing in a band. Just put away the singing, put away my guitar, let's forget that we're even musicians, let's get well first and then do something. With the position he's put himself in I couldn't really envision it, you know, playing with somebody who's real sick. It's like if you're sober and you go over to this guy's house who's drinking a case of beer, it's kind of hard to hang out. It's like 2 different worlds, one guys like (in a drunken, slurring voice), "Yeah everything's great", and I'm like, okay, are we still going golfing? I definitely still care about him I can tell you that much. I'm not saying that's something that could never possibly happen, but it's something that I just can't answer right now.

KNAC.COM: Is the band playing alot of material from Elation on this tour?

KENDALL: Yeah, you know what we've been doing, instead of bombarding people with it like Operation Mindcrime or whatever, we've been doing just like 2 at a time, just kinda giving them a couple off the new album. In the past, it's funny you know, I've always felt like so much music is wasted that we don't ever play live, but we recorded the song. It's like, wow man, why haven't we ever played this song? So, we wanna kind of interchange a couple so that's what we've been doing. We keep it fresh, we do just a couple new ones, we have some extended jams that we do that aren't quite the same every night so that leaves some kind of excitement for us. It just eliminates the risk of us just going through the motions. I think the crowd can read if a band is just going out there for a paycheck. We enjoy playing live, it's like Jack use to say, the studio is school and playing live is recess.

KNAC.COM: So what do you like to do in your down time?

KENDALL: When I'm not playing I have a lot of interests outside. I like producing bands, it's fun because, to me, it's real easy to listen to someone's music and fix it right away for some reason. When you're not inside your own work it's pretty easy to fix other people's music. I've been a pool player since I was like 9 years old so I play at a pretty high level at pool. I like to play the local heroes in tournaments and stuff, so that's kind of a nice escape for me. I do alot of stuff with the kids and the family and I play golf every once in a while, though I'm really crummy. You know, just getting outside, enjoying the day or whatever. My 22 year old daughter is about to have a baby so it's gonna be grandpa pretty soon. That's kinda trippy and exciting at the same time.

KNAC.COM: What's next in the future of GREAT WHITE?

KENDALL: Well, we're just gonna keep plugging along. We're always coming up with music though we're not recording anytime soon. We want to get over to Europe a little more than we have in the past. We just went over there and played like 8 or 9 shows and we went over to Switzerland and played a festival there. We're looking at other shows over there because the fans are super loyal and they don't follow trends as much as we do over here. Even though you haven't been there in like 5 years they show up to the shows, they love the music and there's not much that can swim by and make them change their mind about it. Just as an example, NIRVANA, they were great, they were amazing but like a NIRVANA couldn't swim by our fans in Germany and them just run off and forget about us. Even the promoters over there are alot different. We played a show with BLACK SABBATH, SLAYER and Bob Dylan, on the same stage on the same day. Literally, Bob Dylan and Buddy Guy played. You talk about a hodgepodge. I remember playing a festival with JUDAS PRIEST and the band that played before us, a band called ICED EARTH, I mean every song was called "Kill your Parents", I'm telling ya (laughs). Every song was like a trillion miles an hour and they're screaming bloody murder and people were goin crazy, right? We go out there and play "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" and they're goin just as wild, it was just nuts. The fans over there are a trip. They just enjoy the music and the big events. It doesn't matter if you're Bob Dylan or BLACK SABBATH, they just love it. There might be a little more moshing goin around with the heavier bands but apart from that, people are just enjoying the music. We're just pushing on, you know, trying to come up with that one song and riding the wave.

KNAC.COM: Last question. Do you think you can make it to a 50th anniversary like the ROLLING STONES?

KENDALL: (Laughs) Well, in 9 years according to my chart I'll have an equal chance as a non-smoker of having a stroke or heart attack, so if I can make it 9 more years, ya know? Yeah, wouldn't that be something?

Be sure to catch GREAT WHITE out on the road on one of these upcoming dates:

  • November 16, 2012 Houston, TX House of Blues
  • November 17, 2012 Dallas, TX House of Blues
  • December 14, 2012 Sebastian, FL Wounded Warrior Project @ Captain Hiram’s
  • December 15, 2012 Coconut Creek, FL Seminole Coconut Creek Casino (with Vince Neil)
  • December 21, 2012 Detroit, MI “End of the World Show” @ The Masonic Temple (with Vince Neil, Queensr˙che, Slaughter) Tickets on sale at Ticketmaster.”On sale date” to be announced soon.
  • February 1, 2013 El Cajon, CA Sycuan Casino (with Slaughter)
  • March 16-20, 2013 Monsters of Rock Cruise Fort Lauderdale / Ocho Rios, Jamaica / Cozumel, Mexico
  • March 30, 2013 Reno, NV Sierra Ballroom @ Boomtown Hotel & Casino
  • June 27, 2013 Santa Ynez, CA Chumash Casino (with Slaughter)
  • July 11, 2013 Gettysburg, PA Gettysburg Bike Week
  • July 12, 2013 Kankakee, IL “BBQ Festival” @ Kankakee Valley District


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