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Perspective of Longevity: Kerby’s Exclusive Interview With Great White's Jack Russell

By Jeff Kerby, Contributor
Monday, July 7, 2008 @ 11:17 PM

When I was six years old, and I first heard the Beatles Help! album, I was like, “I want to be a rock star.”

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For a moment, try to forget everything else--simply contemplate the fact that Jack Russell possesses one of the best voices to come out of the 80’s hair metal era.

That is saying a lot when one considers how vocalist rich that time was and how fortunate the people were who had the chance to grow up with that as the soundtrack to their lives. Albums like Shot in the Dark and Once Bitten…have made Great White one of the legends of the LA scene. The legacy of the band should have ended there--then, of course, the unimaginable happened and 100 people in Rhode Island lost their lives in a raging fire at one of the bands shows. By now, everyone has an opinion about the culpability of the band, and for some, the responsibility for the deaths lies square on the shoulders of Russell regardless of how unfair that assessment may be. Think about it: it’s one thing for an aging rocker to have to deal with a follicle reduction or an expanding waistline, but try walking around or even trying to function at all when a significant amount of people hold you responsible for the deaths of so many innocent rockers. It would be daunting to say the least.

How people deal with a catastrophe of that magnitude tells much about them—after all, there simply is no manual to deal with how one is supposed to cope with this type of tragedy. The simple fact is that Jack is a perceptive individual who lives every day knowing the reality of what happened that night while also being forced to temper that understanding with the realization that no one wants to hear him complain about fate’s cruel hand when so many related to this event have had it so much worse--at least he’s alive. Years later, Russell and the rest of Great White has begun the task of trying to pick up the remnants of what used to be their life in music. Part of this process of moving into the future for Jack Russell and Great White has included touring and raising money for The Station Family Fund as well as recording the band’s latest offering, last year’s Back To The Rhythm, a record that sounds like it could have been released in 1987 with its melodic song structures and searing harmonies. It is perfect summer listening for anyone who has ever been a fan of that era.

That this could have happened to an individual who I always considered to be one of the most well adjusted figures to come out of 80’s metal just goes to show how tenuous life is and how on any given day an event can happen that will not only alter everything that is to come, but also cast a dim shadow on what has come before it as well.

KNAC.COM: Did it ever seem strange to you that Great White could have a song like “On Your Knees” which unabashedly celebrated the prowess of the male, and then turn around have another tune, “Save Your Love” which was about your undying passion for a woman? It‘s like, “Wait a minute? Are these guys hopeless romantics or do they really just want to get their dicks sucked?”

RUSSELL: (Laughs)

KNAC.COM: No, really. In a lot of power ballads of the era, the woman actually has the upper hand. “She left me, I feel like shit.” That kind of thing.

RUSSELL: You mean like, “Nobody’s Fool”? Yeah, exactly.

KNAC.COM: So shifting gears and going from writing about a woman going down on you and then in the next song writing about how you could never live without some other lady never seemed strange to you?

RUSSELL: I never thought about it that way before, but it sure is funny though. I mean, but that was just kind of where things were sort of at during that point in time. Things never change--that’s kinda rock and roll. You have that sex spree where it’s good and fun and you fall in love and you’re saving it up for that one person, and she dumps all over you. Well…you know…that hurt. (laughs)

KNAC.COM: It’s like a case where you have the girl who is devoted to you and all that, but instead you want the girl who treats you like crap….

RUSSELL: Of course. We always want what we can’t have.

KNAC.COM: That’s good though. It makes for more heartbreak, which, in turn, makes for better songs, right?

RUSSELL: It certainly builds character. That’s one thing I can say about the crap I’ve been through in my life. At the time I’m going through it, I think, “this really sucks” but then later, I get a great song out of it.

KNAC.COM: I guess you’d have to say the best painting; art or anything is primarily borne out of tribulation, not trips to Costco and hours of video games.

RUSSELL: Of course, and the more honest I am with my lyrics, the more real it becomes and the more people relate to the lyrics. Each record I try to be a little more introspective. I just try to get a little more deep--maybe it’s more of a maturity thing. Maybe it’s a case of the more you do something, the better you get at it--hopefully. I think with lyrics sometimes people try to get a little too eloquent with what they are trying to say, and one plus one still equals two, bro.

KNAC.COM: That stays true regardless of what stage a musician may be in their career.

RUSSELL: Yeah, if there is one really cool line in a song, I’m happy. Every line doesn’t have to be that. Not everything has to be this great, poetic thing.

KNAC.COM: Is there one line in particular than you are proud of?

RUSSELL: In a song called “Hand on the Trigger” from the album Let It Rock, and the opening line was, “when the light calls back the shadows” in other words, the sun comes up and the new day begins. I always loved that. When you look back, there is just so much. It’s like just the other day, Mark (Kendall, guitarist) and I looked at each other and said, “25 years ago, we started a band. Where does the time go?”

KNAC.COM: That is an emotion everyone can identify with….when you’re 24--

RUSSELL: And you blink your eyes and you’re 46.

KNAC.COM: I’m sure on one hand you can think back on all your experiences, but time wise, it probably doesn’t feel like that many years have passed.

RUSSELL: No, it doesn’t. I swear to God it seems like it was just the other day that Mark and I got together and started a band--around ‘78. It’s like you said, there are all these experiences packed into 25 years, but I still can’t believe we’ve been at this for a quarter century. It’s scary that when you get in the twilight of your career, and you’re like, “this thing is kind of getting away from me here.” On the other hand, how fortunate am I to even be doing this 25 years later? How lucky am I? Especially after all this band has been through.

KNAC.COM: Did you guys discuss the fact that Back To The Rhythm sounds like Great White. It doesn’t sound like Great White in 2008...it just sounds like classic Great White, period.

RUSSELL: I think it has a lot to do with longevity. The band is what it is. We’ve never tried to come out of our box and start playing grunge or something because that is what was cool. We write songs for ourselves. If I like them, the band likes them, and it can go on the record. If the public likes them, then that is just a bonus. First and foremost, I don’t care what happens with the record because you never know how many copies it’s gonna sell or not sell--I just want to put out a record that I would want to listen to and be proud of….I’ve always been very selfish in that aspect. I have always written for myself. That works because I’m pretty much John Q. Public. If I like something, I like it. If I don’t, I don’t. It makes it easy for us that way.

KNAC.COM: When you go to take the music out on the road, do you compartmentalize certain eras in your head, or is it all just music?

RUSSELL: The music is one part of my life, and when I’m doing that, that’s the focus. Making a set list is harder now because we have more albums out, and no one wants to sit through a five-hour set list. I wouldn’t, anyway. I wouldn’t want to sit through five hours of even Zeppelin or Aerosmith. Anything beyond two hours is two much for me…it’s like, “I’ve had enough now.” There are certain songs that have a history that you have to play...then, you have to figure out what new songs to play without boring people to death, and still playing some songs that you want to play. That is the hard part. The rest of being on the road is a cakewalk since we’ve been doing it so long. It’s like breathing, you know.

KNAC.COM: Well, it’s no mystery that you will play “Save Your Love” every night.

RUSSELL: Oh yeah.

KNAC.COM: Can you give me an example of a song that might not be in the fans’ top three but that you just really love playing?

RUSSELL: It could be a song like “Can’t Shake It” or “On Your Knees”. For some, those songs are new because many fans haven’t heard anything we did before “Rock Me”.

KNAC.COM: I’ve talked to plenty of musicians who say they just can’t play certain songs because they “aren’t there anymore.” Do you ever have any problem playing certain songs?

RUSSELL: Yeah, you know, some people are like, “why don’t you play ‘Stick It‘?” I’m like, I just can’t. I mean, “On Your Knees” is a stretch with the lyrics and stuff like that. It’s a pummeling thing, and we kinda do this “Achilles Last Stand” thing and then we go into that which is really cool. If it wasn’t for that part of it, I probably wouldn’t do it in the show. I was just talking to Geoff (Tate, Queensryche) about this the other day, and we both kinda had the same perspective. Some songs you just may not be into anymore.

KNAC.COM: I could really see that happening with as long as you have been in the business.

RUSSELL: There are just songs you kind of outgrow, and its like you can play that or instead, maybe you can play a song that’s a little more cool and hip. I won’t even rehearse “Once Bitten, Twice Shy”--every night though, it’s great because you’re playing it for a different audience. People always want to know how you can play the same songs over and over without getting bored, but what they don’t understand is that every night it’s a different audience. In that way, it’s kinda like the first time you play it. If you were playing to the same audience every night, it would be as boring for them as it would be for us. The crowd energy definitely provides gratification…

KNAC.COM: I know the audience the fans all have provided a lot of strength for you. Everyone can relate to tragedy.

RUSSELL: Yeah, I mean, if you haven’t, it’s coming.

KNAC.COM: Exactly. No one is immune to that just like no one is immune to heartbreak or any of the other universal themes involved in sadness.

RUSSELL: Hopefully, God-willing, you live long enough to have something bad happen in your life. If not, you’ve lived a very short life. Like I’ve said before--there’s no free lunch.

KNAC.COM: Isn’t the most important part of living, how one deals with adversity when it comes their way?

RUSSELL: If it wasn’t for the music and the gift of my voice--which I thank God for every single day because I know he can take it back whenever he wants--there wouldn’t be a point. I know this music impacts people in a positive way. It has been the core of my being since I can remember. Thank God for the benefit tour because I thought, “here is a reason outside my being to go out and do this and feel good about it again.” I knew I could help people in a more direct way than just donating a song or some money. When I was six years old, and I first heard the Beatles Help! album, I was like, “I want to be a rock star.” I remember that day like it was yesterday. I remember that instant when I decided I was going to be a rock star. Music has changed my life in profound ways. Thankfully, I’ve been able to have a somewhat normal lifestyle along with some of the glitz and glam of the experiences of being in a rock band. It’s been amazing, you know.

KNAC.COM: Obviously, Great White has had more than it’s share of turmoil, and I think it’s important to note that when you went back on the road, you knew there was going to be opposition and people contending that you had no business on a stage after the tragedy.

RUSSELL: Of course, absolutely. There were people who didn’t like the band before, so they aren’t going to like us now either. No matter what we do or where we go or what information comes out in the press about that night, there are always going to be people wanting to point the finger at us. At this point in my life, it is what it is. There’s nothing I can do about it, and I’m not going to go around the rest of my life trying to explain it to people what my perspective is.

KNAC.COM: How would the world be a better place if Great White didn’t make music? Would that be enough for some people if you stayed locked up somewhere? I guess I just don’t see how it helps at all.

RUSSELL: Nor do I, but people are going to grieve in their own ways. If someone needs to point their finger and blame me to help themselves feel better or help their situation, then so be it--I’ve got strong shoulders. I can handle it. Don’t get me wrong--it’s not an easy thing to do. I’m the kind of person that wants people to like me, and when I hear someone saying something about me or writing something about me that’s hurtful, it bums me out. I can’t even go onto the KNAC.COM website and read the reader comments because I read this one comment one time that just bummed me out for weeks. I thought later, “Why should I even care? Who is this person anyway? It doesn’t seem like anyone has anything good to say about anything, so why should I let this upset me?” I am, I’m a very emotional person, and I’ve decided just not to read that stuff anymore. That goes for reviews too. My old manager once told me not to read them because you know if you’ve done a good show that night or not. It’s hard not to let something like that affect you though. You want to say sometimes, “Look, I’m not that kind of person. If you knew me, you wouldn’t be saying this kind of stuff about me.” I understand though. Not everyone is going to like me, and I’ve got to be ok with that.

KNAC.COM: Funny you should mention that about the rants--I stopped reading about the time one of them said that I “ate shit out of my mother’s ass.” Figured it was gonna be kinda hard to top that.

RUSSELL: They got you eating shit out of your mom’s ass? There’s got to be something better to do with your spare time. (laughs)

KNAC.COM: That being said though, if you are of a certain kind of mentality that obsesses over comments like that, then it’s not an easy thing to do. Sure, you can rationalize it and say that, “They don’t know me. That wasn’t the situation.” but the fact is that once you’ve thought all of that, you have already wasted too much time on it.

RUSSELL: Exactly! That is totally my point. I’m like, “Why am I even reading this?” Then, you read something bad and then someone else comes in and says something good and you’re like, “Yeah! Defend me!” Why do I even care?

KNAC.COM: The whole time you are devoting your energies to that, you aren’t writing any music or performing. It just detracts from the ventures in your life that do truly matter.

RUSSELL: Yeah, it’s the people who sit there and hide behind the anonymity of the keyboard and have nothing better to do than comment on people who have more interesting lives than they do.

KNAC.COM: There is an allure to it though--I guess, it’s just important to keep in perspective that it’s a zero sum game with no productive outcome.

RUSSELL: That’s exactly why I’ll never read that stuff again. It’s so tabloid like and anyone can write anything about anyone, and people figure if they read it, it must be true.

KNAC.COM: A lot of bands are really Internet savvy and have used it to their advantage, but I always wondered if there wasn’t a part of you that yearned for the days of Circus or Hit Parader when and interview might not be in print for months.

RUSSELL: I really do. The Internet has its benefits, but I see more negative aspects to it than I do positives. The whole downloading thing is just another part of that. How many bands have had to go out and get jobs because they had to eat and couldn’t afford to make music because of all the people stealing music? My prediction for the music business is that there won’t be any record stores and there wont be any major labels because there won’t be any need for them.

KNAC.COM: Well, there is no Tower Records anymore…

RUSSELL: Yeah, no Tower Records…who would have thought? That’s like someone saying years ago that there wouldn’t be any television. I even heard they were going to use the land to make condos. That kinda shows you the state of the union--it’s kinda sad. I feel so blessed that we came along when we did during one of the funnest eras in music history. You can say what you want about the 80’s, but if you missed them, you missed one hell of a time. There were great vocalists, great musicians playing during that time. Sure, there was crap, but you can say that about any decade. There was more good than bad though, I think.

KNAC.COM: Without a doubt. I think the people who want to look at it and demean it were the people who weren’t getting laid.

RUSSELL: Exactly!! (laughs)

KNAC.COM: Look at what they play on VH-1---I see a lot of the 80’s “hair bands”, but I’m not seeing a lot of grunge. Not seeing a lot of trip hop, dance music or rap…basically, there hasn’t been a movement that has usurped the 80’s when it comes to cultural significance and prevalence.

RUSSELL: I totally agree with you, and I haven’t seen anything come close to it. In the 90’s the thing I missed was “where are all the great singers?” I mean, there were a couple of them like Layne, but most of them sounded like school kids trying to be rockstars. It’s like, “go back to the register--you’re better at that.” You know, there were guys getting a quarter of a million to make a record and they were singing off key, and, I mean, tune the guitar--machines will do it for you. Then, to top it all off, they would complain about being millionaires. Who can relate to that? I certainly can’t. (laughs)

KNAC.COM: Then, what do you get when you go to that show? Some half-assed politicism and a bunch of women who look like men? No thanks, man.

RUSSELL: To me, rock and roll is escapism. I don’t need to hear how screwed up the world is, I already know that. I don’t need anyone to sing to me about it…I want to forget about it. I don’t want to be reminded.

KNAC.COM: How many times can you chant, “Free Tibet”? You know? Is there anything that could compare to Sunset Strip in 1985 or 86?

RUSSELL: Those days were so magical, man. We were walking down Sunset Strip with literally hundreds of people singing and partying with others handing out flyers. We had Motley Crue coming over and going to our shows, and we would go to theirs. We had Ratt and Dokken just hanging out together, and you just knew you were on the verge of something huge. The whole LA thing just exploded---never to be repeated. I feel so blessed to have been a part of that time. Those are probably my fondest memories of my career--literally starving and eating mayonnaise sandwiches. You just knew that the suffering was worth it though because you knew something was going to be big--something was going to happen…and it did.

KNAC.COM: Any scene where scantily clad women were an essential component cant be bad either, right?

RUSSELL: C’mon. Those were great days for femininity. Women looked amazing. The stuff they were wearing. The 90’s were about combat boots and lip rings--it’s no contest. The 80’s were a magical time for sure.

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