By Thomas S. Orwat Jr.
Legendary bass guitar pioneer, Billy Sheehan has achieved countless accomplishments during his illustrious, four decade plus long career. From being voted “Best Bass player” in several prestigious music periodicals numerous times, to playing on multi-platinum releases from David Lee Roth and Mr. Big, Sheehan has pretty much accomplished everything and anything that a musician could dream of accomplishing.
Although, Sheehan is proud of his past achievements, he is currently more motivated now, than ever before. He is currently working on a few, new and exciting projects, and his band Mr. Big (now on hiatus) will be releasing an amazing live CD entitled, “Live from your Living Room’ later this month.
What follows is an exclusive interview with the Buffalo, NY born, raised and praised, Billy Sheehan. During this interview, Sheehan discusses many topics from Mr. Big, to David Lee Roth, to his time in Buffalo, NY performing with Talas, and much more. I hope that you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it.
RockMusicStar: On Feb 28th, Mr. Big is releasing a live CD, “Live from the Living Room.” This is a stripped down concert that you did in Japan, with a Japanese string orchestra backing the band. This CD really showcases the beauty of the songs. How difficult was it to choose the setlist for this release, and was it at all challenging playing in this environment?
Billy Sheehan: It was really interesting to hear the orchestra come in and perform the string arrangements for the songs. I never worked with strings before, and I’m a huge classical music fan, so it was really cool to work with these great musicians. As far as the setlist, that wasn’t too difficult. We enjoy pleasing our audience, so we played things that they want to hear. But sometimes, what is pleasing to an audience, is to hear a new take on something that they have already heard. So we went through what we had, and chose what we did and let the chips fall where they may. Also, we sing a lot. While we were rehearsing, before we go to play, we are singing a lot of difficult songs when we are warming up. We purposely challenge ourselves to sing songs that are difficult to sing. Things like CSN, Three Dog Nights, stuff like that. So we were pretty prepared for the performance.
But whenever you record anything live, there is always that risk of catastrophe or major screw up. It’s a pressure situation, but it’s a good pressure, it makes it so you have to have it together, or you can fall right on your face. So, we worked very hard to be prepared for this. We sang a lot and we know the songs pretty well. So we let them organically re-shape themselves according to the new template in which we were playing. And then we just let it fly and there it was.
RMS: So, I’m assuming the recording that we hear is the true representation of the concert? I can’t imagine that you had many, if any, overdubs, right?
BS: No fixes, right. When you have a band in a room, mic-ed up, it’s difficult to fix anything because you going to get bleed (from the other instruments and room sound) through the microphones. You can’t just mute all of that change a bass note. It would be very obvious if you did that. We had to hit it (the performance) pretty hard. But, I’m sure that I had a couple blunders in there. I doubt that I ever played a song without a few mistakes, let alone an entire concert. I’ll live with that, I’ll let mistakes go as long as there not too blatant.
RMS: Mr. Big’s last studio release, “What if…” was greatly praised by both music critics and fans. I don’t ever remember seeing a release receiving so much positive press. Where you at all surprised at how well received it was?
BS: Yes, I know. I think it was the best reviewed record that I’ve ever been on, or been involved with. It was pretty amazing. We didn’t make the record thinking, “Wow, this is going to be great.” We just made it like we normally do, and that was it. We wrote a bunch of songs, we played them, and here you go. We had no idea that it would be received in the matter that it was. But we were very pleased about it.
RMS: Yeah, that’s great. But how do you follow that up on your next studio album?
BS: (laughs} That’s a good one. But at this point, we really don’t have plans to do another record or not do another record. When we did this reunion, we agreed to make it, so we wouldn’t be pressured into doing the album, tour, album tour cycle. We wanted to just enjoy touring, and that was really the main thing. Doing the record was cool and fun. And I don’t know if we need to do another one. We made our statement; we have a lot of songs to play. For a live show, we could do three different setlists of songs, without repeating any. But, who knows, we may do another record. We also have quite an archive of unreleased (material). All of which is pretty interesting, in my humble opinion, anyways. It’s some stuff we did when we first got together. It was just us in a room with a cassette recorder. So, there’s no fix, no mix, no tricks, no nothing. It’s just us, and some of it is very cool. It’s hard to be objective, but after the years pass, a little bit of objectivity oozes in, and there’s some pretty promising moments. But, who knows, maybe we will put a collection of those out. But, we have no idea what we are going to do next. And I’m very happy that it’s like that.
RMS: You worked very hard for many years during your career, following the rigorous schedule set by your record companies and managers. It must be very gratifying to be able to do anything you want now.
BS: It is fantastic and I’m really lucky. I worked hard, a lot of it was done right there in Buffalo. Then as I went on, I went to L.A. and then I started playing around the world and doing a lot of touring, a lot of writing, and a lot of recording. Then after a while, as the years go by, it’s nice to sit on top of all of that, and say I’ve made a mark. Now, I have the luxury of floating on it. So, personally I have forced myself into situation where I have to play. I insisted on getting better and working constantly on my bass playing. Just yesterday, I rented some rehearsal space and set my gear up, went through it all and played for about three hours. I then came home and then reconfigured my home studio, and was there for hours. So, I haven’t become complacent in any way, shape or form. Matter of fact, I’m more motivated as a player than ever before, or ever was. That’s because I do have time and I’m not under pressure. And that’s a great spot to be in.
RMS: That’s interesting. I remember interviewing you about ten years ago. You told me that you weren’t happy with your bass playing and you wanted to tear everything apart and reinvent yourself. I was really surprised by that statement, because you were the undisputed best bass player in rock, and won every single bass guitar award on the face of the earth.
BS: That’s nice of you to say. I’ll try to live up to that. But, yeah, once you become complacent in anything, you’re dead. You might as well hold a service and send flowers. You really have to continue moving and light a fire under yourself. My iTunes collection is huge. I have about 130,000 songs. I listen to tons of great music. I’ll sit down and listen to Oscar Peterson play piano, and I think to myself, who am I to think that I have anything? There’s a guy, who really knows what he’s doing. Let me shoot for that, even though that chances of hitting it are one in a billion. But at least let me try. When you hear real genius players, it puts everything into perspective. I also have a bunch of Haydn, he has about a million string quartets that he had written, and I’ve written a bunch of songs, but not that many. So, when you see true greatness, it becomes really inspiring, and makes me want to push myself harder, and I do that a lot. But there is always another mountain to climb.
RMS: I remember you telling me once that you have played on so many songs, and that some of them you have never even listened to.
BS: It’s interesting sometimes when we are on tour, I get asked to sign records that I don’t even recognize. I’ll say, “Why do you want me to sign this?” And they will say, “Because you played on it.” And sure enough, they will show me the credits and I’m on it. So, yeah, that’s a funny thing. But, I do try to archive anything that I play on in my ITunes, but there are some pieces missing.
RMS: You’ve mentioned your love for Classical music a few times during this interview. Do you have any desire to record a classical CD of your own? Maybe even something similar to what Yngwie Malmsteen did with the Prague, and then Japanese orchestras? You could perhaps perform with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
BS: Yeah, I do a lot of the Bach-Brandenburg concertos. I’m a huge Debussy fan. So who knows, maybe someday? But if that’s on the line, I need to get off the phone and get some practice in. Some of those musicians in those orchestra’s, like I said earlier, are so amazing. They can play these complicated 15 minute long pieces flawlessly. I really look up to players like that, and that’s what I’m shooting for, to be able to do that someday. To be able to perform at that level, and do it correctly for a huge span of time, in front of people. So that would be great, I would love it.
RMS: I think your fans, especially the ones here in Buffalo, would love to see you do that.
BS: I will keep that in mind, it’s a good idea.
RMS: Thanks. I also heard that you are working on a new project with Mike Portnoy and Richie Kotzen. Can you give us an update on that one?
BS: Well, there really is no news at this point. Mike is a dear friend of mine, and we’ve worked together a lot at, and same with Richie, he’s a dear friend of mine and with everyone in Mr. Big. And we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. There’s some demos floating around and we have talked, but nothing has been set in stone yet. I love to play, and this year we are not doing much with Mr. Big. We just spent a whole year together, so this year we are just going to go off and do our own thing. I just spoke with Paul and Pat recently, and they’re doing well. I heard that Eric is out doing some shows, and he’s doing great. So, I’m glad that everyone’s doing well. I’m sure that we will get together again and play. But, in the meantime, I’m going to do a new Niacin record. But, any opportunity to go out and play with Mike Portnoy and Richie Kotzen, I would love to do.
Recently, at NAMM (the musicians trade show in L.A.) I got up and played with Mike Portnoy, Derek Sherinian and Tony MacAlpine. We played a couple of shows and it was a lot of fun, we had a real blast. I love playing live with Mike Portnoy; he is a great, great drummer. He is a great rock drummer and a master of the new progressive music, but I love when he hits just straight rock. But hopefully this project will come off.
RMS: That will be cool. Also, since I’m from Buffalo, NY, I need to ask if there is any chance for a Talas gig in the near future.
BS: I’ve been working on that since last summer. (laughs) Hopefully, we can pull it off this year. I saw Dave Constantino last summer, he opened for Mr. Big and he played great! I also saw Paul Varga, he was there too. So, it was great to hang out with both of them. Hopefully, we can do it. Even, if it’s just to see all of our friends again. It’s not like we have to prove a point musically, we just want to have fun and enjoy ourselves. We’ll have to make sure the show ends early enough so we can hang out for hours and hours afterwards. They would be a great thing. And I know it would mean a lot, to a lot of people, all over the world too. I think that we would have a lot of people fly in for this one. When we did the first re-union show in 1997, people flew in from all over the world. Doing another one now would be just great. I’m always signing Talas records, no matter what part of the world that I’m in, from Poland to Peru.
Another thing is that, we have a huge archive of Talas material that was never released as well. I don’t know how we would put it out, maybe as a download, or put it all on a CD, or maybe a ten CD set. (Laughs) But, I would love to see that stuff come out. Nobody is going to get rich off of it, I just want to get it out and have people have it. They’re a couple facebook pages of Western New York bands from the old days, and it’s great to see photos from the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s. I’m still friends with a lot of those guys. It would be cool to have an event where we can get some of those bands to play, or at least come down, and have a re-union with everybody. Man, because back in the day, the scene in Buffalo, NY was incredible. It was one of the greatest music scenes, ever! There was so much talent within that scene. So hopefully, we can do one. Anyone in Buffalo reading this, make sure that you go out and see Dave and Paul and urge them to want to do this re-union this summer.
RMS: That would be the event of the summer here in Buffalo. My last question Billy, have you heard any of the new Van Halen CD, and if so, what do you think of it so far.
BS: No, I have not. I apologize; I have heard a little snippet of the single. Dave looks great, and I’ve always loved Dave’s voice. I think that he’s singing great. I know that he pushed himself very hard to sing well on their tours. He’s a disciplined guy, and I know that he wants to do his best. Edward is playing great, I’m glad about that. I’m happy for their success, I love those guys. I wish that Michael was still in the band, but he’s not, and that’s sad. But I still love them anyways. I hope that the new album is extremely successful. Van Halen means a lot to me, in my life, in my heart, in my career.
RMS: Yeah, Talas opened on the Van Halen tour in 1980. And five years later, you were in David Lee Roth’s solo band.
BS: Yes, Talas did open for them and I have those shows in my archive collection as well. Three or four years ago, I transferred all of those live performances, from a huge box of tapes to digital, using eight tracks and pro tools. So, I’ve got it all. I managed to save them from deterioration. But those Van Halen shows meant a lot to us. Van Halen was showbiz 101. When we played those shows, we found out how it worked, and it was incredible. At time the time, Van Halen was the greatest band ever, in our opinion. Every element that we loved in music, they had. And then I was lucky, the summer of 1985, David Lee Roth called me and asked me to work with him. It was an amazing time, an incredible life changing event for me. It was a dream come true. It was amazing, But, I love those guys and I apologize that I haven’t listen to the new Van Halen CD yet. But, I will. But for something like that, I want to wait until I actually have the entire CD, so I get a night on my own, go down to my studio, crack open a bottle of red, sit back and just really listen. So that’s what I’m going to do.
RMS: I vividly remember the 1986 David Lee Roth concert at “The Aud” in Buffalo. It was quite an emotional experience, seeing you up on that stage, performing as a headliner after all the hard work you did playing bars in Buffalo, NY.
BS: Right on. Yeah, I played in the “The Aud” before as an opener with Talas, but yeah it was something to headline. And plus I was on the Hendrix side of the stage, because I saw Hendrix there. But that whole day of the David Lee Roth Buffalo gig was just amazing. Also, that day someone slid a copy of “Guitar Player” magazine under my door of my hotel room, and I was on the cover, and I won the poll as the “best bass player.” And then later, the Mayor of Buffalo declared it “Billy Sheehan” day. Then the County executive declared it “Billy Sheehan” day for the county of Erie. So, I said, “Ok, I’m done.” (laughs) It was as good as it could possibility get. And I remember seeing so many of my friends in the audience, and god, it was the culmination of just wishing, hoping, working, blood, sweat and tears, literally. And then for it all to come together in one night…man, it was an amazing thing. I’m forever grateful to everyone that was in the audience that got me there. Grateful to my band mates, David Lee Roth, Steve Vai and Greg Bissonette, and everyone involved. It was an incredible day, a truly incredible day.
For more on Mr. Big, please visit www.mrbigsite.com
A BIG THANK YOU to Carise Yatter for setting up this interview.