The Rock Pit - Hard rock, Metal and Blues Interviews, news & reviews from Australia and around the world

The Rock Pit - Hard rock, Metal and Blues Interviews, news & reviews from Australia and around the world







It’s dark and past midnight in Western Australia and it’s been one of the coldest Aprils in the last hundred years in Detroit when I catch up with Michael on the eve of the release of one of Great White’s best albums in years ‘Elation’. Exciting times indeed, and despite the fact, as I’m sure you are all aware, that there are now two versions of Great White doing the rounds, there’s a real joyous sound to the album and it’s our job to find out why…





Mark: First of all thank you for taking the time to talk to The Rockpit Michael.



Michael: My pleasure.



Mark: The last time I saw you play was at Rock N America in 2010 with Jack, and a week or so later I caught you at the Sunset Station Casino in Vegas, then on the way home I checked out that first show with Terry at the Brixton. Quite an interesting show with just a few hours for him to learn the words!



Michael: You know that’s always been the great thing about Terry, he’s always been known in the business as the go-to guy for situations like that. He actually subbed for us first in the summer of 2009. We had a festival in Iowa and Jack was down for that one, and Terry had actually played M3 that day with XYZ and then he got on a plane and learnt the songs on the day and ended up doing an amazing job with 12 hours notice!



Mark: He’s a great guy, I saw the XYZ set at Rocklahoma a few years back. So how does it feel on the verge of releasing the new album ‘Elation?’



Michael: Well obviously the buzz word for all of us is Elation! That was the buzz for the recording of it and how we feel when we get up there and play it live. There’s a freedom, a happiness, and a vibe of real fun that is prevalent in how we do things now. You know we were shooting a video in the hot sun in California the other day, and it was amazing – we all looked at each other and smiled and said ‘when did this kind of thing suddenly get fun to do?’ because that kind of escaped us back in the day! When all those videos we had done with the famous Nigel Dick, who had done all those great videos with Guns ‘n’ Roses and Tears for Fears and loads of others, those seemed a lot more arduous back then. And it was great to see that everyone felt that sense of fun and I guess that’s how everyone is feeling in the run up to the release of the record.



Mark: Since the reformation we’ve loved the last two Great White albums: ‘Back to the Rhythm’ and especially Rising’ where the writing was largely shared by the partnership of Kendall, Russell and yourself. How do you feel this one stacks up against those two?



Michael: It’s interesting reading a couple of the reviews so far where they say this could have been an album that we could have slotted in very easily between ‘Hooked’ and ‘Psycho City’ and I had actually said that myself about a month ago in that it has the bluesiness of ‘Hooked’ and the edginess of the ‘Psycho City’ album. And I didn’t coach anyone I swear! So the fact that everyone gets that feeling too is a great compliment for us. To me it’s a great record in terms of it portraying a lot of our ‘looks’. I mean the song ‘Lowdown’ has that old ‘Rose Motel’ kind of dirty blues kind of thing going on, while ‘Just for Tonight’ or ‘Heart of a Man’ are more of how we approached a song like ‘Can’t Shake It’ or our song ‘Desert Moon’ – that kind of thing. There are ballads on there and some of them even have a slightly country-rock flavour to them, and I think a lot of that is mine and Terry and Mark’s love for different kinds of music and it feels great that we got to cover all of those areas on there.



Mark: So how was the recording process with Terry on board? What’s he like to have about the studio?



Michael: You know it was funny because we’ve always done records pretty swiftly and it’s always been our zeitgeist and our mental mindscape to lay something down, and if it feels right, then it must be good. So that’s how we’ve always tried to approach things. With Terry, not having done a record with a band for such a long time, he kind of had that mentality that well you go to the studio, you lay down half a vocal, then you go to get sushi and take half the day off, and so that didn’t really fit with (a) the way we like to record a record and also the pace at which Mark and I usually work. And I think it was enlightening to him that it was different, and with Mark and I encouraging him to bring his chops out at the appropriate moment I think that was different for him. And he said to us ‘you know I’ve never done it this way before’ and we said ‘what do you mean’ and he said ‘well normally people would just let me sing!’






‘You mean no one ever really produced you vocals’ and he said 'well not really!' So we went ‘OK’…






But I think he really enjoyed the process and had a great time, and I think that had a lot to do with him trusting in himself as a song-writer and a singer as well. I mean he told me that he had never really written a lot of lyrics for the XYZ stuff, I mean he’d contributed but not really written himself and I said ‘Terry you can do it because you’ve gotta own these songs, they have to be yours and when you sing those lyrics they have to come from your soul.’ And I think that was a learning experience for us all, but I think that in terms of a singer and a song-writer it took him to another level on this record and so I’m so grateful that happened for him.



Mark: With the situation the way it is at the moment with two versions of Great White going around and the issues with Jack it’s surely bound to impact the band. You sort or alluded to that earlier in saying that you wanted to get this album there as quickly as possible. Did the pressure tell or is it just a case of getting out there and doing what you do best and leaving it all aside?



Michael: Well I think it wasn’t so much about the issues between the two camps; it was more about Frontiers (Great White’s label) having a window for us in May and if we hadn’t hit that it would have meant that the album wouldn’t have been released till Fall so I think we really pushed to get it ready for this May 18th release.



Mark: I must admit I do love the album, I’ve given it a spin quite a few times over the last few days and the more I listen, the better it gets. You seem to have captured so much of what makes Great White a great band in there. You listen to something like the opening track on Elation ‘(I’ve Got) Something For You’ which has that real bluesy Great White feel like  AC/DC meets The Angels with Terry coming across like a cross between Jack, Doc Neeson and Bon Scott. And I know you have a great affinity with that great Aussie rock band The Angels.



Michael: Yes we do; I mean I love AC/DC and whilst they are the iconic Aussie band, in my opinion, bands like the Angels and also Rose Tattoo were the underground kind of thing that was just hipper and cooler. And the Angels songs that we’ve covered ‘Can’t Take it ‘and ’Face the Day’ have been great staples for us. I think you are a product of your influences and yes for me it does come across in that track.



Mark: I didn’t know if you knew that there was a similarity between the Angels and Great White today in that there are currently two versions of The Angels going around at the moment: Doc has his own band and the rest of the guys also have a version.



Michael: No I wasn’t aware of that. I got to spend some time with Doc about twenty years ago when we were over in England playing the old Marquee (an iconic English rock venue, since closed) and he was staying with us at our flat. And then we got to hang out with Rick and he even played some slide guitar on one of our albums ‘Psycho City’.



Mark: That must be the old Waldorf Street Marquee where the water used to run down the walls when there were too many people in there?



Michael: (pauses) you know that sounds exactly right!






Mark: There are so many great tracks on the new album it’s hard to know where to start but some of the ones we loved were ‘Feeling So Much Better’ which has the down and dirty bluesy class that you feel that even Jack would be nodding along to. ‘Love Train ’as well was great, in fact the whole album sounds like a rebirth to me. And coming from someone who has loved the band for years it’s great to be able to say that. I think the first time I saw you guys was back at Donington in 1988?



Michael: Yeah the Monsters of Rock thing with David lee Roth and Kiss and Ratt! That was cool.



Mark: There’s also another side to the album too where you have those more melodic tracks like ‘Heart of a Man’ and the ‘Hard to Say Goodbye. I think my favourite though at the moment is ‘Shotgun Willie’s’. Is there a story behind that song: is it a real place?



Michael: It’s actually a real place in Denver in the upper-class Cherry Creek area, it’s one of the premier, dare I say, ‘breast-lounges’ in America. Terry and I, when we were working on that song, wanted to capture that feeling of recapturing your youth, if only for a moment, and capturing that time when you had that feeling the first time you walked in there, you know when we were in our twenties thinking ‘wow we’re kings of the world, isn’t this amazing’ and that was what we were kind of going for on that record. I think a lot of that generation that are fans are older now, but they still like to rock and be reminded of those times.



Mark: You mentioned that you were recording a video recently, what will the first single from the album be?



Michael: Actually that will be the lead off track ‘(I’ve Got) Something For You’.



Mark: Just a little bit about you now Michael, if that’s OK. You started off in Great White in 1985 touring with the band then went on a full member and also then become the band’s producer and engineer. But you are also first and foremost a musician; I read somewhere that keyboards were you first love but had always assumed it was guitar?



Michael: Actually I first started off on guitar. A funny story about the keyboard thing though: my father had won a competition at work in a sales contest and my mother had always wanted a piano so he got that in the house. And I sat there and thought ‘I can learn this I really can’ and so sat down with my guitar and played the chords then worked out the notes on the piano and thought OK that’s a ‘C’ chord; and as I have an ear to be able to listen to music and just work it out rather than be able to read it I just sat planted on that piano for a couple of years and found my way around it.



I always had that feeling that one day knowing multiple instruments would be to my advantage, and because I played both, it was one of the reasons that in the studio when I engineered the first Great White record under Michael Wagener; when the band found out I could engineer, play keys, guitar and sing by the time the ‘Shot in the Dark’ album came because I was there doing that with them already, in Jamuary 1985 Audie (Desbrow) and I played our first shows with Great White.







 Mark: I read somewhere you also play bass, mandolin, harmonica and flute too?



 Michael: (Laughs). Well we didn’t manage to get any flute on this one but if you noticed we did have mandolin on ‘Promise Land’! And harmonica on ‘Love Train’ and I got a little Dobro on ‘Resolution’ in the breakdown. I mean to me it’s always fun, and if I want to learn a new instrument I hope to get my head around the sax so maybe on the next record I can put that on. My nephew actually is quite a great little sax player and he did consent to teach me so I’m hoping to get a crash course in the sax!



Mark: I hear it’s helluva hard instrument to learn to play, but it always sounds so great on a rock record.



Michael: Yeah I love it and you can’t believe how cool it was to have Clarence Clemons play it on a couple of our records!



Mark: Who would you say has been the biggest influence on you as a musician and also as a producer? Was there anyone in particular you looked upon when you were starting out?



Michael:  You know as far as inspiration is concerned I have to go back to the Beatles. I remember watching them on Ed Sullivan when I was five years old and having such an epiphany that I turned around to my parents and said ‘I’m gonna do that’! And then they pat you on the head and say OK, well most five year olds want to be a fireman or a doctor and you want to be a rock star – isn’t that cute! But it’s just one of those things – I never really gave myself an option to fall back on anything. But if there was one smart thing I did do I guess it was to go to engineering school and learn how to record and do all those things. But if there was one single person ironically enough I guess it was a guy called Jim Messina from the band ‘Loggins and Messina’, and he was a guitar player in the band, and song-writer but also a producer and an engineer. He did all the Loggins and Messina albums and because no one said you can’t do all those things I just decided that I was gonna try.



Mark: How do you find that new technology is helping bands like Great White? I guess that back in the day it was all analogue when you started producing but things have changed so much in the last few years?



Michael: Oh they absolutely have! I remember analogue fondly and I so miss it at times: but one thing we try to do is always go after things with an analogue mentality but use the digital technology. 



Michael: I try to make Audie always do a complete take on the drums and if we have to drop in a B-section, its like ‘OK’ he performed it, we’re not borrowing sections from this sample or that and putting that in. That’s one of the things in which I guess I’m kind of an old dog in that I want to stick to the mentality of the analogue world in which you get a complete performance down. That’s why we had to try and get Terry to sing the song down a number of times…



Mark: And then pick the best of those performances…



Michael: Exactly! Staying very much in that analogue mentality. I remember my first introduction to pro tools was back in 2000 when I was up at Jack Blades ranch and working on a ‘Damn Yankees’ album that has still never seen the light of day, but hopefully one day it will, and it was all done on pro-tools. I had a crash course to say the least and the very next time I used pro-tools was with Jack (Blades), and we did a lot of demos, we did Night Ranger things, so it was all just learning, learning, learning. I mean I can imagine going back going back to old school as I did it for 25 years before pro-tools came but you know there are certain advantages to the speed with which you can do things. But I’ll tell you I do miss being able to hit two buttons instead of being glued into a computer screen and going ‘Click, click, click, click, click’ or however many times that happens! But I’m hoping on the next record that we can record on analogue and then dump it into pro-tools for any kind of editing that is necessary. 



Mark: So you’d get valve amps and everything set up too?



Michael: Yes, I think I would enjoy that, but you know there aren’t too many studios that still have that kind of technology that allow you to do both so you record on analogue or 2” them dump it into pro-tools to mix. So pro-tools is great for vocals as it’s quick, but sonically I think it is better for drums and guitars in analogue.  So I would go for a kind of an amalgam.



Mark: I’m actually in a studio now listening to a local band Ragdoll mix their new CD and I agree, I think it’s great, especially for new bands that have never had that analogue experience, to get things down fast. Of course you can always grab a plug-in that gives you that analogue sound I guess, but I appreciate the authenticity and integrity of what you are saying and feel that the new guys just looking for a sound are missing out on that granularity. I still love the warm sound of vinyl after all!



Mark: As a producer do you find it harder or easier to critique and produce your own songs, or is it a very different process for you?



Michael: I kind of approach it all the same.  It’s like not getting outside yourself it’s more asking those big questions like: 'Is it real?' and 'Do I believe in the performance?'. If I’m asking myself those questions, whether working with Great White or other people, I feel that if I can ask those questions truthfully then I feel I am doing the right thing.



Mark: And of course the other thing you are well known for is your work with Night Ranger. How was that experience?



Michael: Oh it was amazing; I mean those guys are all such amazing musicians and as people funny as hell! So I did have to be on my game, and even though Jack (Blades) writes a great pop song, when you get into the inner workings of their music it’s very complex, and so as their keyboard player I needed to bring my A-game to perform those songs. And being such good friends with Jack just opened up such a lot of doors to work with people like Tommy Shaw. And with Kelly (Keagy of Night Ranger) I wrote a song with Jim Peterik (of Survivor), who had a hand in every hit they ever had, so that was a great thing. And that opened up a lot of opportunities for me outside of what I had. I was with them from very early 2003 to 2007 and there was a period when I was with both bands as I had an option when the reformation happened to go to Japan with Night Ranger and also play dates in the summer with Great White so there was definitely a time when I was going back and forth.    



Mark: How was that? Was it easy to work with two bands? Particularly tiring I guess with those two commitments and trying to balance everything?



Michael: Yes I didn’t sleep a lot during that spring and summer!










Mark: Great White is doing mainly playing Europe I see this northern summer?



Michael: Well we hope to do a tour this fall (in the US), but in the interim we have the ‘Rock in the Hills’ Festival in Zurich in June.



Mark: Should be interesting getting to see a few mountains and rocking out in Europe!



Mark:  Finally there's just a couple of stock questions we ask everyone to close: If you could have been involved in the creation of one piece of music in the history of rock what would it have been and why?



Michael: Any pieces of music? (Pause)



Mark: Yes, It could be a single, or an album or both.



Michael: Well I guess as a single it would have to be ‘Heart of the Matter’ by Don Henley, which has to be one of the most quintessential and well-written songs that there ever has been and I guess I would have given half a digit to have been a writer on that!



Michael: As far as an album is concerned; no doubt it has to be: ‘Sgt. Peppers’ by the Beatles.  I would have loved to have been involved in the creativity and the mania that it took to make that album happen. Just to see how it would have been to have been immersed it that at the time, where there were no rules. To me when I listen to that record it is just continual thoughts, blending into another thought, then another. It didn’t even try to be a concept album but somehow became one.



Mark: It’s a wonderful album.



Mark: And the easy one we always ask: what is the meaning of life?



Michael: A Monty Python movie?






Mark: That just shows we are of a certain age.



Michael: If I had to add anything to that the meaning of life should be ‘Living, learning, laughing, loving’ and that’s my kind of signpost for everything.



Mark: ‘Thank you so much for speaking to us tonight, and I hope to catch you over the summer.’



Michael: Well please do because we are all over the States this summer with Terry. 



Mark: A pleasure to speak to you Michael, thank you so much. All I have to do now is remind everyone out there to grab a copy of ‘Elation’ when it drops.





By Mark Diggins