Back in the Eighties, Jack Russell helped lead Great White to multiplatinum success with bluesy hard rock songs like “Rock Me,” “Save Your Love” and the band’s cover of Ian Hunter’s “Once Bitten, Twice Shy.” More recently, however, Russell has endured a myriad of health issues, overcome a long and intense battle with drugs and alcohol and gone through a messy split with his former band mates.
But now the singer is back with He Saw It Comin’, the debut album from his current band, Jack Russell’s Great White (Note: There is another outfit, known as Great White, that continues to record and tour with a new singer).
The album shows Russell in fine form, with the singer supported by former Fight guitarist Robby Lochner and co-guitarist Tony Montana, who also played bass in Great White from 1987 to 1992. Russell and Montana recently took some time in between live dates to bring Guitar World up to speed on the band and the new album.
He Saw It Comin’ sounds great. The production is modern, but your voice sounds almost exactly the same as it always has. It sounds like a Great White record.
RUSSELL: Well, you can’t escape your roots. I write the way I write. It’s just the ingredients have been changed. But one of the main ingredients is still the same. I always make this analogy, and every time I do my wife cringes, but it’s like baking a cake. In Great White you had me and Mark [Kendall] and Michael [Lardie] who were the prime writers.
So now we have one ingredient—we have Jack Russell. But now we also have Robby Lochner, and on a couple of songs maybe a little sprig of Tony [Montana]. And whatever comes out of that mixture is the song. It’s just a recipe and it’s all about how each of us blend together to make the taste that either you’ll like or you don’t like.
And with my influences, of course it’s gonna sound like Great White a bit. But now I have these incredible musicians, the best I’ve ever played with. And it’s real easy. When I’m with Robby it’s like riding a bicycle. It’s so simple. Our minds are so attuned to one another. I mean, we kept the first song we ever wrote on the album.
What song was that?
RUSSELL: “Don’t Let Me Go.” That’s a song we wrote just sitting around on my boat to see if we could write together. And it worked. So it’s great to have a collaborator like that to write with. Because Robby just has ideas I never would have thought of.
You also have Tony Montana, your old Great White bass player, with you now. How did he wind up in your band?
RUSSELL: Well, I drugged him and he woke up at rehearsal. [laughs] Actually, he’d been calling me for a while, just kinda like, “Hey Jack, how’s it going?” And I’d go, “What, do you wanna join the band?” He’d say, “Ah, I dunno…” So it was, “Okay. Talk to you later.” And this became more and more frequent. So finally I thought, I’m not even going to ask anymore. I’ll wait. Then I ended up firing the bass player I had at the time and Tony heard about it. So he called me up. “Hey Jack, I’ve been thinking…I think it’s time for me to go out there and play some of those songs again I helped write.” And I said, “I’ve been telling you that!” And he said, “I’m in.” So I went, “Okay. But are you all in?” He said yeah, so I said, “You got the job.”
MONTANA: At that point I was ready to do it. I was really concerned about the legacy of the band, and my legacy with the band. I thought it was being misrepresented. So I went out and decided to take the reins again. I watched people play my music, and music I’d helped make popular and worked hard back in those days to promote. I watched a lot of years where a lot of other guys made a pretty good living doing it to. So I thought maybe it’s time to get out there and take advantage of my own stuff.
You came in as the bass player, but now you’re playing guitar.
MONTANA: Truth be told, when I joined Great White back in the day I was teaching guitar and bass in a store in Los Angeles. And I was a music student. I studied composition, classical music in college. I wanted to master both. That’s kind of where my head’s always been. Playing bass was pretty natural for me anyway. So that’s how I started with them. And when I came back to play with Jack, that’s what I was doing as well.
But when it came time to let the other guy go I thought, Maybe I’ll go out in for this… And Jack had forgotten that I played both bass and guitar, so I showed him a couple YouTube videos I had done for Ed Roman Guitars out in Las Vegas. There’s some shredding kind of stuff on there, and Jack was real surprised. He said, “Shit, yeah, of course. Go ahead and play guitar.” So it was nice to finally just come full circle. And then I ended up playing some keys, and some harmonica as well. So now I’m kind of a utility guy, in a way.
How did you factor into the writing and recording?
MONTANA: To be honest, I was only really involved with the first single, “Sign of the Times.” I came to Jack with that riff and a little bit of the melody, and Jack and Robby kind of took it from there.
RUSSELL: You know, it wasn’t because we didn’t want Tony or because he was not creative enough. It just happened that the days Robby and I got together to write songs, Tony wasn’t around or he had something else going on. It’s hard enough to pin down two people, let alone three.
Jack, how would you describe your songwriting?
RUSSELL: I’ve always found that I’m one of those people that needs to express himself with music. If I don’t, I end up tripling my psychologist’s visits. [laughs] Seriously. It’s such a stress reliever. This is where I bear my life. I become very transparent. I say stuff in songs I would never tell my psychologist. I don’t why that is, but it’s very therapeutic for me. Very cathartic.
A song like “My Addiction” from the new album seems like a good example of one that came from a very honest place.
RUSSELL: Yeah, but the song itself, if you listen to it, it says nothing about drugs or alcohol. Because I think everybody is addicted to something. People are addicted to sports, to cleaning their houses, to working out, to cooking, to vacuuming, to hoarding, to everything. So it could be taken any way. But the song is about my addiction, which is drugs and alcohol. When I sing about creeping and crawling around my bedroom floor, well for anyone who’s ever smoked cocaine, that’s what you end up doing—crawling around the floor looking for rocks you might have dropped. And you end up smoking you know, Carpet Fresh. Like, “Oh man!”
As far as your addictions, what was the lowest point?
RUSSELL: The lowest point for me was when I woke up in the hospital after five days in a coma. I’d been out drinking with all night, and all day the before. And the next morning my wife couldn’t wake me up. I don’t know how she did it but she got me out of my bedroom and up the stairs and onto the main deck of my boat, and then they she got me out the door and to the emergency room. I woke up there five days later and there was a room full of people—friends, my guitarist, my manager. And my wife is holding my hand.
The doctor comes in and he goes, “I hear you’re some kind of celebrity. I don’t really care.” I go, “Okay.” He says, “I just want you to hear what I’m saying, and I’m not just saying this to scare you. If you drink again the way your wife tells me you drink, you will die. Not maybe. Not should. Not could. You will absolutely die.” So I said, “Okay, well that’s pretty much it for that run!” Right then and there I decided I was going to quit drinking. That was almost a year and a half ago—September 29, 2015.
You sound like you’re in a good place now.
RUSSELL: I’m in a great place today. I feel better. I’m happier. I have a better home life. I treat my spouse better. And I treat my band better. I try to treat everybody better. I just want to be a better person. That’s what I work on.
Tony, how would you say Jack is doing these days?
MONTANA: As far as Jack is concerned, obviously he’s had some challenges. But when I hear him singing and I compare him to the other guys from that era, from that genre, Jack is singing really well. And not all the guys from that era can say that. The proof is in the pudding. There’s times when I’m onstage listening to him and I just go, “Wow, that’s impressive, man!”
Jack, you went through a very public and acrimonious split with your former band mates a few years ago. They’re still out there playing as Great White with a different singer. How do you feel about it now?
RUSSELL: Well, I don’t want to get too much into this it’s been said a thousand times. But I have to say I’ve come to terms in my life where, you know, I’ll take the blame for it. At least some of it. Most of it. It was my fault. If somebody else in the band had cancelled as many tours as I had, I would have fired them, too. And I have. I’ve fired everybody but Kendall. But yeah, I take the blame for it. I was a horrible person at that time. I had such a hard time getting off drugs. Unfortunately, they just got sober before I did, you know? [laughs] But I wish ‘em well. I hope they do well. I just hope I do a little better. [laughs]