|Posted on August 10, 2017 at 8:30 PM|
I can’t think of anyone more respected in the music industry than Billy Sheehan. He is also, in my opinion, without an equal when it comes to his craft. For close to four decades Sheehan has elevated the art of bass playing and been a fundamental cog in some of the hard rock/metal industries biggest acts. With a career so expansive it’s hard not to own a record or two with him on it: whether it’s the David Lee Roth band, The Winery Dogs, Talas, Richie Kotzen, Niacin or Mr. Big, his influence and impact is far reaching. In recent times we’ve seen him return with his rock and roll brothers in Mr. Big. Their new album “Defying Gravity” is one of the standout moments of 2017 and Sheehan is a big part of that. So with this new release came the opportunity to catch up for a chat about the music business, dodgy record companies and the new album “Defying Gravity”.
Rock Man: Firstly, thank you Billy for your time today, I appreciate it. You’ve been professionally recording music since the late 1970s. Over the course of your 38-year career have you at any stage had the opportunity to reflect on all that you have achieved, and if so, what have you made of it all?
Billy Sheehan: Well, I don’t look backwards so much as I try to look forward. But I am very grateful and I think I’ve had some incredible breaks and I’ve work for some amazing people. I’ve learned so much along the way, had hit records and number one videos and we’ve had platinum albums and all that and more importantly we’ve made friends all over the world. There’s a lot everywhere that write to me, email me and chat with me online and it really is a wonderful situation to be in.
RM: Over the course of your career you would have witnessed a number of changes to the music industry. For example, the introduction of MTV, then came the Compact Disc and few decades later the Internet, downloading, iTunes and so on. So out of these kind of technological advancements which do you think has had the biggest impact?
BS: Yeah, I’ve been around a long time. I was there for the invention of the wheel and the discovery of fire and all those things [laughs]. But when I began in the late ‘60s you played in clubs and at dances and you didn’t think about making a record yet. Finally, when we did soon after that the Compact Disc was around and digital music and the digital recording revolution happened where everyone could do a whole record in their house. But I think it would be difficult to pick one as the most impact, but I do believe that when the digital world began to play with music and audio at that point things began to change quickly. Because we now had a way to record, to deliver, to archive, to manipulate music and sound in a way we never had before. I think the digital recording revolution really was a huge innovation, and it includes the Compact Disc and nonlinear editing; in other words, the type of editing you can do anywhere, anytime, anyhow, perfectly! But there are two sides and the sword cuts both ways; it is also easier to fake just about everything, so you can make somebody who has no voice at all sound pretty good. So I think the digital recording revolution changed everything.
RM: When you look at the music industry we have today are you concerned for the future or do you think the music business is in good shape?
BS: I think the future looks bright. Anybody who has a laptop has in their hands the equivalent, more than the equivalent of the finest studios there was in 1979/80, and it will also do some things that the studio could never have done with any amount of money. So it is easy for someone to make a great record, and great records are made all the time now basically on laptops. All the records I do now are all done digitally and can all be done on a decent laptop. So this opens up the world and levels the playing field for all musicians, but interestingly enough there aren’t any more amount of greater records being made than there were when this wasn’t the case. I think, in fact, there is still the same amount of talent out there, but now your means to record it and document it and your means to get it to other people is open to everyone. You go on the internet and you’re a couple of clicks away from a billion people. So unlimited publicity and promotional possibilities exist. Also, as a result of all of that, the one thing that is really the strongest thing in music right now which can’t be downloaded, which can’t be faked, is a live performance. There is some fakery with some of the larger acts, of course, but if you’re in a regular band playing in a club you’ve got to be real, you’ve got to be able to sing and play. You can fake it digitally but people want to see the real thing live; so bands that are live and can play and sing for real are going to have the greatest advantage.
RM: There is a lot of debate amongst bands as to whether full length albums are still valid, given the lack of music industry support. What are your thoughts on that?
BS: Well, you don’t need industry support because you don’t really need any money to do it. You can do a record supercheap these days. Again, the cost of a laptop and the software is relatively cheap and you can do your own marketing campaign. The good thing about that is its going to combat a record deal, everybody is like “Record deal! record deal!”, there aren’t really any record deals any more to speak of. Maybe huge giant acts like Christina Aguilera or Beyoncé have some sort of record deal going on but for regular bands, forget about the record companies and do it yourself because then you own it all. In the past so many great bands got signed to contracts that were terrible and they never made any money and they got ripped off and ignored and abused and lied to and these were common practises in the music industry. If they were done in any other industry people would’ve done time, they would’ve been in jail, but in the music industry, due to the legalities of it somehow they made all that stuff okay. It’s an amazing amount of income those musicians never got.
RM: You sound like a man speaking from first-hand experience.
BS: Well, we (Mr. Big) had the President of Atlantic Records bragging to us that he sold seven million units overseas and he brought back $12 million. We’re looking at each other going “We didn’t get any of that money… what the heck!”. You know, we weren’t even close to that. You know, who’s getting that money?... because it ain’t us, but I think that bands are getting smart with business.
RM: Congratulations on the release of the new Mr. Big album Defying Gravity. I would imagine the entire band is very proud of this record?
BS: Very much, mainly because we see the response it gets. A lot of times when you put out a record you can think it’s great and then nothing happens, or you think it’s okay and then it blows up and does really well. It’s hard to judge how the public is going to respond and this one in particular, we all loved it and we were happy with it and thought it was cool, but again, we never knew how everyone was going to respond to it and we’re all pleasantly surprised to see all the comments posted and all the emails we’ve gotten regarding it. It’s just over the top and we are very pleased to see that. We’re always happy to see what we do pleasing people, we don’t do it in order to please people but we do keep them in mind. You know, we don’t want to pander to pleasing people and create products just for people like that, we want to create stuff that we love and hope that other people do too. That seems to have happened with Defying Gravity from the responses we’ve gotten and the reviews I’ve seen, so we’re very pleased about that.
RM: This is the band’s ninth studio record. Does it get easier over time getting together to do one of these Mr. Big albums or are there still challenges along the way?
BS: Absolutely it gets easier because all the things you didn’t do the last time, all the many things you have to do which each record, we know about them and we know that they are coming and we know how to deal with them all. The only thing that you are dealing with differently is the esteemed personalities of wisdom through time… hopefully [laughs]. And a new set of sensibilities because as you live your life as the years go by you’re into more things and you’re not into that stuff anymore, you’re more about this and not about that. So it is an interesting thing to see the evolution and the growth of the band and what we are into and what we like, we had a very enjoyable time making this record, just hanging out and that’s a good sign.
RM: If I can, I’d love to get your thoughts on some of the material on the new album. I’ll start with the track 1992. Here you reflect on the band’s most commercially successful period. How much fun was it to relive those days and try and convey that into a five-minute song?
BS: Well, we just gave the bullet points, the important things and gave some reference points to some of the things we went through. I think it resonates with people because we started playing that live and it’s one of the first new ones we performed live; that and Everybody Needs A Little Trouble and people responded to that very well. It’s funny because when we’re playing it live people are singing along: “The good people listened and they pulled us through/I was number one in 1992”, and I always point to the audience and people cheer because they know that they were the ones that made this band. The record company fought us, they fought To Be With You, they didn’t like us, they didn’t like our band, they didn’t like our album Lean Into It … they hated it. They didn’t want to release it and the only reason they did was because our manager forced the issue, so then they said they wouldn’t promote it or support it, you know, I was talking before about labels and bands, here we had poured our hearts and souls into something and they hated it. They wanted us to go back into the studio and start all over again, but we said “No, we believe in this record”, finally our manager got radio DJs to play To Be With You because he was a real powerful manager and it started to get played and it started to get a response and the record company didn’t believe it! They actually flew people out to Lincoln, Nebraska where the song was blowing up on radio and people were calling up and request it, they felt we were paying our friends to do it and then we thought “Is it even possible to pay our friends to do it?” because if we had of know that we would have done it (laughs). So they flew people out to Nebraska to make sure it wasn’t a lie and they still didn’t believe it and then our record would get added to the list of radio stations and the record company would call us up angry because they had the new Phil Collins record or the new this record that they wanted to get out but radio only had one song by Atlantic Records every week and they chose Mr. Big instead of their other acts. They got real upset with us and there was heated phone calls, then it was in the Top 40, then the Top 20 and then bang!... it was number 1. Then they changed their tune completely, “The first time we heard it we knew it was a hit”, swear to God, true story.
RM: You mentioned Everybody Needs A Little Trouble, I think if I was ever asked to select an example of what Mr. Big is about I would pick that song. To me this is classic Mr. Big and everything you could possible want in a Mr. Big song; is that a fair assessment?
BS: Absolutely, I think it is a good representation. It’s got some bluesy vocals, it’s got some singing alone parts and the one thing about Mr. Big I believe a lot of people miss is how much singing there is. We sing a lot; there is a lot of vocals and harmonies and I really think people love that, there’s no American Idol for bass players, drummers or guitar players but there is for singers, you know, singing is a big thing. The singing in “Trouble” is really an important factor, the beat is cool and the riff is fun and engaging and the lyrics are a little tongue-in-cheek and they’re a lot of things that Mr. Big specialises in I believe throughout the years.
RM: The band has always had a knack for writing these great acoustic driven songs. Damn I’m In Love Again is the newest addition to that style of simplistic story telling. But are these type of songs just as difficult to put together as the full blown rockers you record?
BS: Yeah, I think that applies to any song; it’s a very simple song but to fine tune it and get it right is an art. It’s quite a difficult thing, it’s just more labour for that, you know, there’s more figuring things out and playing more notes and there’s more audio going on. But sometimes a simple song can be deceivingly complex and is what is needed to make it work well.
RM: So if you look at your back catalogue of Mr. Big albums, where does Defying Gravity rank?
BS: Well I believe our three strongest albums are Lean Into It, What If… and now Defying Gravity. A lot of people have written to me and said it reminds them of the Lean Into It album, which was our breakout record. It may be similar to that for several reasons, we went back and used our original producer Kevin Elson, which we haven’t used for a long time, due to scheduling difficulties. We did it quickly like we did on Lean Into It and we did it with a great, enthused, excited and happy attitude also like we did on Lean Into It.
RM: Let’s shift our attention to a couple of the band members for a minute or two. Back in 2014 Pat Torpey was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. How is he traveling these days?
SB: He is doing great. Best therapy in the world is to be in the band and out there playing as sitting at home is not a good thing. This is engaging and it forces him to get up and push himself a little harder and he’s doing it with a smile on his face. He’s received dozens of emails from around the world from people who have Parkinson’s disease and he is taking this as a point of encouragement and help to get a better attitude about the situation. Parkinson’s is a really tough disease to deal with and it affects different people in different ways, so he is really doing quite well and we have adopted the Navy Seal’s motto: “No man left behind”. Without Pat, Paul, Eric and myself there is no Mr. Big, so we’re all there and pulling for Pat and we’re there to keep to it that he lives a good, healthy life. I think a lot of it is you need a reason to get up in the morning, you’ve got to have a mountain to climb every day and getting out on stage with us and getting through a couple of songs on drums, you know, we’re very proud of him. He seems to be responding to that therapy very well, he’s got a smile on his face and we are having a great time and he even makes jokes about his affliction, he has a great attitude about it.
RM: You’ve worked with a lot of talented guitarists over your career; where does Paul Gilbert rank?
BS: Well it is hard to rank one above the other because they are all different. Steve Vai, Richie Kotzen, Paul Gilbert, Tony McAlpine, I feel very lucky to have played with great players and it is hard to pick one over the other. But Paul has a unique and amazing style and an incredible unique personality and approach to music and enthusiasm that you rarely see in anyone. He is a constant student and constantly improving and working, he’s an inspiration to everyone around him and Paul is one of my favourite human beings on planet Earth.
RM: In addition to Mr. Big you’ve also been blessed to be a part of some other exciting projects. A brand new one which has been announced recently is Sons Of Apollo. This new band features some heavy hitters in the hard rock/metal community, can you tell me how this came together and about the album that’s coming out?
BS: Sure, it was kept under wraps very effectively, right up until it was ready. We’ve made a pretty loud record, it’s top stuff, it took a lot of work to get this exactly right, it’s complicated but enjoyable music. It took a lot out of all of us to perform it really well but we are very pleased with the record and very happy. I knew Jeff Scott Soto from when Talas opened for Yngwie J. Malmsteen in the summer of ’85 and he has been a dear friend of mine ever since and I’ve always wanted to work with him. I’ve known Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal for many years, turns out he’s a big Talas fan, he knows all the old Talas songs, and Mike Portnoy, Derek Sherinian and I have, of course, worked together on several projects. So coming together was an opportunity for all of us to play the type of music we love and for Mike and Derek to play together for the first time in a real band since Dream Theater and they’re enjoying it very much. For me, any opportunity I get to play and perform live with guys of this stature is a good thing, so we’re very excited about doing live shows next year and the album Psychotic Symphony is due in October.
RM: I can’t possibly do this interview and not ask you about your time with David Lee Roth. You were an integral part of the albums Eat’ Em And Smile and Skyscraper and a fundamental part of his sound at that time. What do you recall about making those records and being part of the band in those days?
BS: Well, it was quite an adventure. I got the call and Dave flew me out to Los Angeles under another story, he said there was a movie and do I want to be in it. So I flew out to L.A and had a meeting with Dave and he says there is a movie but that’s not why, he wants me to help him out he wants to start a band. I said “Sure, great I’m in”, so now we’ve got to find a guitar player and Steve Stevens was the original guy that Dave had in mind but it didn’t work out, Steve wanted to play with Billy Idol and I don’t blame him. He’s a great guitar player and a great friend but I told Dave “I know another Steve” and I told him about Steve Vai and we brought Steve Vai in and then Steve and I went and looked for a drummer and found Greg Bissonette and we had a blast hanging out in Dave’s basement writing songs for Eat ‘Em And Smile. We were just telling stories and hanging out and it was the greatest time ever and the tour was an amazing, great adventure and Dave was very kind and generous to us and we just had an incredible time, the best thing that ever happened to me. So I moved to L.A., this was towards the end of the Eat ‘Em And Smile tour and things changed a bit, it wasn’t so much a band as it was business. When we did the Eat ‘Em And Smile record it was all of us in one room playing live for real and having fun, not a lot of studio trickery, it was all us just playing. But when Skyscraper came along we did all our parts separately and it was all put together later, it didn’t have the vibe that Eat ‘Em And Smile had and it was not nearly as fun and so I left soon after the recording of that. But I still look back on those days as the greatest thing that happened to me and Dave is still my hero and I still love and respect him dearly and I’m forever grateful he included me in that amazing adventure.
RM: And on a final note, I assume you’ll be hitting the road in support of the new Mr. Big album; so what touring plans does the band have and will they include Australia?
BS: Well, we are pushing hard for Australia and New Zealand. We never choose where we play, we only play where we are hired and it has been hard to get someone from Australia to hire the band to come down. So we get a lot of angry letters from Australia thinking we’re leaving them out but we’re not, we need someone to hire us we can’t just fly in and play, we need work permits and Visas and hotels and venues and ground transportation and logistics, so we can’t just show up. We Just need someone to bring us there but we are hopefully optimistic at this point it might happen, so we are staying positive on it and doing everything we can on our end to make it happen. We go to South America next, then we do South east Asia, then Japan, then we do Europe and the U.K. and then we are hoping to get Australia and New Zealand in after that, maybe the beginning of 2018, who knows. But I would love to bring the band there, if there is half a chance we will jump on it.
RM: Again, congratulations on all your achievements. On behalf of everyone at Full Throttle Rock I would like to wish you all the best for the future and all the best for the new record Defying Gravity.
BS: Thank you. That is very kind of you, thank you so very much. I stay in touch with a lot of my Australian brothers and sisters on Facebook and through the internet, so I can’t wait to get down there and see them and do our absolute best for you guys. I think Australians are held in very high regard and playing there would be an honour.