INTERVIEW AND LIVE PICTURES BY MARKO SYRJALA
Billy Sheehan is an American bassist, best known for Talas, David Lee Roth, Mr. Big, The Winery Dogs, and Sons of Apollo. Sheehan has won the “Best Rock Bass Player” readers’ poll from Guitar Player magazine several times. His unique bass playing repertoire includes chording, two-handed tapping, right-hand “three-finger picking” technique, and controlled feedback. The man is always busy, and when he’s not on tour with some of his numerous bands, he’s doing other music-related things, like bass clinics, which now brought Sheehan to Finland for two days in September. I met a cheerful bassist in Vantaa, and here’s the latest what the man told his ongoing projects, the state of Mr.Big, and various other things. Read on!
First of all, you’ve done bass clinics for a long time. These events are entirely different from regular band tours, but maybe that’s what makes these events so fun to do?
Oh, yeah. It’s fun to do because I get to talk with everybody, and you put your thumb on the pulse of the public and find out what people think and what they’re interested in. And we talk about a lot of things in the clinic, not just bass. Bass is the main reason, but it’s also about the music biz. How to succeed and survive in the music biz, write songs, record, make a record, be on tour, and date the waitresses at the clubs you play in.
What are the questions you get the most from the fans at these events?
So many people, it’s a great mystery, they don’t understand at all. Unless I say, “I’ll be playing tonight in Bangkok, Thailand.” “Why don’t you come to Indiana?” “We can’t. We can’t come unless Indiana books us.” The people think we sit around and, “Hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s go play Bangkok tonight.” “Yeah, great.” And we fly in and play. No, two years earlier, the gig started. And so much of it is a mystery to people, and I like to try to remove that mystery and let them understand how things work, not only with playing and bass and notes and fingers and hands and gear but also with songwriting touring and all the things.
Do you still remember when and where you did your first bass clinic?
The first one was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and it was in ’82, or ’83, I think? During the day, we did two nights of Talas. And a little boy was there– his first clinic-and his name was Paul Gilbert. He was at my very first clinic before he knew me, “Laughs.”
So, bass clinics do matter! [laughter]
Well, it’s a thing. It’s one of many things you can go to, as a player, to get some more ideas. Some guys that come to see me play — they’re not into what I do and not even into my music, but they want to see what I’m doing to get some other different ideas. Sometimes I’d listen to a player that is not my thing, but it gives me different opinions. Where, somebody that I really love, I’m watching to see how they do things. That helps also. But there are a million ways to learn your craft, learn your profession, and I’ve been doing it for so long. For over 50 years, I’ve played– almost 5,000 gigs. And so, it’s a lot of experience, and I’m sharing it with my fellow musicians because I like to help out other musicians.
You’ve always busy and working with several bands and projects all the time. However, I can guess that your main priority right now is Sons of Apollo, with whom you’re starting a new tour in January?
You put out the live album last month and…
It just came out.
And the band’s second studio album is coming out soon too?
It’s just finished now, and it’s coming out just before the tour starts.
How would you describe the upcoming album? Is it stylistically similar to the first one or something completely different this time?
No. It’s the same exact record. We just played it again. NO! “laughs” And also, you know, we were on the road, or we played a lot together as a band, and we worked through things. So now it’s a different thing; now it’s more cohesive. There’s some maturity on the second record, and the third record will be different again. So, this is a similar thing that happens to everyone.
With Sons of Apollo, the band members are busy because all members have many projects going on at the same time. How do you manage to find enough time together so that the band can work?
Well, you’ve got to think it through. We all know each other’s schedules. Jeff has a gig he does every year with his own band plus…
He’s also doing Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
That’s it. And I do a lot of things here and there, with a lot of people. So, we figure it out, though; it’s no big deal.
I would say that Sons of Apollo is the perfect example of a “supergroup,” and that’s how many people call the band. A supergroup. I think you’ve heard it a lot, but what you feel about that term?
Well, that’s what you say. It’s not what we say [laughter]. We’re just five guys that know each other and are playing together. We don’t think, “Super.” I love Ron’s guitar playing and Derek’s keyboard playing. Jeff is a dear friend of mine for years, and Mike and I play in a million things together. So, we’re playing together. We don’t think, “Oh, this is a supergroup.” We don’t think like that. For me, when I’m in a band, I want it to be a band. I don’t look at super anything. We’re just guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, vocals, or whatever. We just play. It’s a reputation. Sometimes, it’s something different than what we usually play. The Winery Dogs, too, with Richie Kotzen, is just a great band. I love playing in that band also.
Now when you mentioned the Winery Dogs, what’s the state of the band? The band did a couple of shows last spring?
Yeah, we played the whole month of May. Almost every show sold out. It was a riot. We had a great time, and the band sounded so good.
The band had a long break before those shows?
Yeah. The break was maybe two years.
Do Winery Dogs have plans to record some new music at some point?
We’re going to write new music probably next year, right after the Sons of Apollo tour. We already talked about it. And put it together because you put a band together a lot of times– do a record, do a tour, do a record, do a tour, do a record, do a tour. And that’s why a lot of the band’s second record is not any good. You spend years working, and they do a tour. And then they make another record four months later where they had years to work on the development. So, it’s nice to get away and work on some songwriting and get a different point of view and come together again when everybody’s got a lot of new ideas rather than just, “Quick, we’ve got to put another record out.” Nobody wants to do that.
Yeah, I agree. But things were different in the 70s, when bands like Deep Purple, AC/DC, and Kiss, put out two or three albums almost every year. And those were great albums!
Oh, not necessarily. You’ve got to look at the dates on those three albums a year. I don’t know if anybody actually did three albums a year [laughter]. I think you might have that wrong. No, but they would do a cycle. Everybody does a cycle: They put out a record, do a tour, come home, and maybe go in the studio right away or maybe not. But I think it’s a– I could do ten records a year with every band, but who’s your favorite movie star? Do you want to see twenty of his movies? No, I want to see one, and six months later, maybe a year, two years later, see another one. See how he develops as an actor, and the script and the storyline are different things now. It’s exciting. And if you went every day to a new movie– so it isn’t the amount of output, it’s the quality of output. Some bands do their best when they do it quickly. Some bands, they need time to– some meals you cook quick, and some you’ve got to let it simmer.
I thought that there’s at least one guy who’s still releasing multiple albums in a year. He’s Joe Bonamassa. He releases new records all the time.
Yep. But are they all of the original material?
I don’t think so?
No, see, there you go. So, either the live record or compilation of cover tunes– a lot of ways you can do that. Sometimes, people want to keep generating interest, and that’s a good thing to do, I guess, business-wise. But most bands I’m in, we do the cycle: record, tour, and take some time off.
THE STAGE OF MR.BIG?
You have done many different things in your career, but here in Finland, you are probably known best for your career with Mr.Big. Everyone who follows the music world knows what happened in 2017 (the sad passing of drummer Pat Torpey), so my question goes, what’s the state of Mr.Big now? Is the band entirely over?
No. But we don’t know what we’re going to do?
When was the last time you played together?
I don’t remember. It was a little while ago, maybe in the summer of 2018?
Anyway, when Pat Torpey is here anymore, the band will never be the same again. Matt Starr did a great job on the last Mr.Big album, DEFYING GRAVITY, and also toured several times with the group, but do you think that Pat could be replaced permanently by someone in the future?
Well, to me it’s very difficult– all of us just we had a– it was John, Paul, George, and Ringo, I mean, you can’t change a guy. And Pat, he’s a difficult drummer to replace. He’s a great player, and he sang great. So, it’s tough to do it because he had a finesse with his drums built into the songs, and he’s just the personality. Plus, a lot of bands say, “Quick, replace a guy and keep on going.” For us, you know, just give it some time, maybe we’ll play, do another tour, I’m not sure. We haven’t really discussed it. But we’re all still friends, and we all love playing together. It’s all a good thing. We all support each other in our individual things, so.
What kind of memories you have from the last tour you did with Pat? He wasn’t able to play much anymore but still traveling with the band, and he always appeared on a couple of tracks. He probably did the best he could?
Yeah. It seems fair to go downhill a little bit, deteriorate a little bit. He was having a hard time. And it hard for him to sleep because Parkinson’s keeps you awake, and it was difficult for him. We go on and off of the stage, and I would always be right behind him in case it was dark and the stairs, you know, had to watch him closely. And see him getting thinner and frailer, it was sad to see. But Pat, his spirit was always there, and he would laugh about it, and we’d make jokes about it. He said as an encore he wanted to do “Shakin’ All Over” by The Who. So, he had a sense of humor about it. And I saw his wife recently and his son. I saw the photo for his first prom in high school, and they’re both doing well, so we’re glad about that. But he was my closest musical friend. Pat and I were very close friends on top of our music together, so.
When did you originally become friends with Pat?
Right away, when we started working together, because we all had a very similar upbringing, in two different cities. We didn’t know each other, but we both did the same thing– a lot of bands grew up the same way. Van Halen’s setlist in the clubs is almost the same as Talas, and the Talas setlist is the same as Pat Torpey’s band, and Pat Torpey’s band setlist was the same as– you know, everybody had a very similar thing. So, we had a lot in common from the beginning. But going back to your original question about Mr.Big, I’d love to play together again, someday.
One thing which almost happened In November of 2015 was the reunion of the original David Lee Roth band. But it got canceled because there was a fire on the venue, or how the story went?
In fact, there was no fire, but it was dangerous to have that many people in a room, so the fire department shut it down.
The reunion didn’t happen then, but do you think it’s still possible. In any form?
Now, I don’t think it ever will. I don’t think Dave’s into it.
He’s doing a couple of shows in January in Las Vegas.
But you’re not going to be a part of that?
No, and I want to– I fucking hate the fucking rumors that I have anything to do it. It’s bullshit, and anybody who fucking started they can go fucking– I fucking hate that shit. It’s bullshit. People sit around on the Internet and make up rumors. Fuck you!
So, at least now, it’s officially denied! “laughs.”
Yeah. I’m not playing with Dave. I love Dave. Good luck, Dave. It will be a great show. But I’m not playing with him. Steve isn’t playing with him. Gregg isn’t playing with him. People start these rumors. It’s bullshit. But I wish him well. I wish him well. I love David. He’s still my hero.
How about Steve Vai? Do you any plans to work with him in the future?
No definite plans, but we always talk about it. We always talk about it. He is like a brother to me, and we’re very close. We’ve had some amazing shows together, tours together, and a lot of great life together, so. Steve does his own thing now, Generation Axe, which is pretty cool. I didn’t play in it. I’ve seen some videos.
A couple of years ago, you worked with a young female artist known as Madame Mayhem. You produced her album, co-wrote some songs, and also played on it. Tell me something more about that exciting project?
Madame Mayhem? She’s a great singer, and a lot of people have done work with and records with her, and they charged her a real amount of money, and I didn’t think it was fair at all. So, I said, look at it, “Let’s get together. We’ll write a bunch of songs, and we’ll do an album that’s way under budget and proper.” So, Ray Luzier, one of my best buddies and a great drummer, recorded the drum tracks. I played bass and some guitar. Another guy, Corey Lowery, wrote two of my favorite songs on that record, and I played bass on a couple of things, but she has a great voice. And she’s a great performer and a wonderful person. Dear friend. She’s out there touring her ass off and playing, opening for all these bands. So, she’s doing it right. She’s not waiting for a record company hit. She’s getting out there and plays every chance, and she just had dinner with us at our home in Nashville last week, and she’s a dear friend. Great voice. Great performer.
OTHER PROJECTS AND MOVING TO NASHVILLE
Speaking about active bands, you mentioned Sons of Apollo and the Winery Dogs. Do you have more projects going on at the moment?
No. There was a band I did some recordings with. It was a formal little studio project, but it never really went anywhere, but I’m doing a record with Ray Luzier this year, bass and drums.
Will it be an instrumental album?
Well, there might be some singing. But it’s going to be a wild, crazy-ass record. We don’t care if you’re going to play all our crazy shit. Ray is so great! And I went to see Korn recently, and he just killed. It was so great! Fantastic. He also played on Jonathan David’s solo tour, the lead singer of Korn, it was great. Yeah, he lives close to me now. I moved to Nashville, and he’s very close to me.
Now when you mentioned Nashville, it seems that many musicians have settled there recently?
It’s the new LA. And now they just pass along LA where you can’t just pay your band money. You got to have accountants and tax documents and all kinds. So basically, the music business in LA is over. You can’t play. You can’t put a band together and play. You got to have employee records and tax, and you can’t just say, “Hey, come on out in rehearse. I’ll give you $100”.
Yeah, it’s funny that in the ’80s and ’90s, many musicians moved from New York to Los Angeles, but now things are changing again.
Well, it happens. Things move. I was in New York City for a certain time while in the late 60s. Memphis was a huge music city for a long time. We saw it was in Seattle, the Seattle sound. Then there was LA and the West Coast, one from the Bay Area of San Francisco to LA, two different scenes back in the 60s and the 70s. But because most of the entertainment business was in LA, that was the longest, the strongest, but now they’re wiping out the music business. And even the movie business is leaving a lot from LA because it’s just the taxes, and it’s just going crazy. So, it’s very sad. I mean, the homeless in crime, the traffic gets out of control, pollution everywhere. Very sad to see. I love LA, and I love California. When I went there in 1985, it was paradise. Not so much anymore, sadly. Even before this law just got passed, the music scene in LA right now was not really healthy. There are only a couple of places left to play, and House of Blues on Sunset got shut down. That was a great venue. There are always great musicians and bands, but the city’s making it challenging for everybody. The way the government is doing things is wrong there. It makes it difficult for anybody to live there.
Many people have moved to Nashville, but many musicians live in Las Vegas also.
Las Vegas is okay. There’s a lot of entertainment there. Some good friends of mine musicians are living there. But it’s kind of a company town, and the company is the gambling business. That’s what it’s all about. That’s a big money generator. There are bands there too, but the big thing there is the gambling business.
“Just play at the corner and be quiet!”
Exactly! “Hsssh! We’re making money over here.” But Nashville is a music city. It’s all about playing. I’m not a country fan at all. I don’t play any country music. But there are great players, great musical instruments and shops with guitars in them. Great rehearsal facilities and as cheap and people are so friendly. Southern hospitality and easy to get along with. So, it’s wonderful. We love it. And now it’s almost two years now.
TOUR LIFE AND EXPERIENCES
So, I think our time is up now, but I have one more question. When are we going to see Billy Sheehan playing a live show in Finland next time?
Oh, a live show. We start in January with the Sons of Apollo.
I know that, but it doesn’t look that the tour would reach Finland this time?
Oh, see, again, we have just announced the US shows. We haven’t announced the European shows yet or the South American shows. So, it drives us crazy because I put, “Hey, we’re playing in America.” “Why don’t you play in Germany?” “We haven’t announced the shows yet.” And people get hateful. They’re like, “Why?” Okay then, don’t come to the show. We’ll be playing on your side of the– I hope we play right next to your house. Don’t come then. It’s difficult online. People are just so hateful, and I tried to do everything. We want to play everywhere. They say, “Why would you play?” or “Why would you play in Louisiana? Why don’t you play in New Orleans?” I’d love to play in New Orleans. Why doesn’t New Orleans book us? We don’t choose.
No band chooses where they play, and people think, as I said before, I said to Ron, “Hey, I got an idea.” “What?” “Let’s go to Munich.” “All right. I’ll see you at the airport.” It doesn’t work like that. There isn’t a place I don’t want to play, except a place where there’s a shooting war, and we even did that. Mr. Big, we were in India, and there was a tribal war, and they had to call a truce for us to do a gig. True story. So, I got the tribal guys together, decided we’ll lay off for a week. Mr. Big did a show.
The tribes kept a cease-fire because of Mr.Big’s show?
Yeah, no shooting for a week. So, we went, and we actually played at a place where there was a shooting war, so I’ll play anywhere. I love to play. There’s no place I don’t want to play. And if you think about it, why would you not want to play in a city? You go there, and you got hundreds, thousands of friends. Get up and have a show and have a ride. Afterward, have some drinks. You go out and meet people outside and have fun. Drive on to the next one, have a great time. Why wouldn’t we want to play in Louisiana or Berlin or Moscow or Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, or Ulan Bator, Mongolia?
You mentioned many exciting places, and you’ve played over 5000 gigs in your career. But what is the most exotic place you’ve been performing?
We played some shows in Indonesia where I don’t think any Western band ever played. And Mr.Big did shows in Pontianak, Medan, Surabaya, and Jakarta, of course. There were one or two other cities. We drove in, and people couldn’t believe their eyes. Wow, this is something they’ve never seen before. It was fantastic. I still get a lot of emails from Indonesia. But we played in Bangkok, Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia. All kinds of places. And in Japan also, most bands go to Tokyo and Osaka, maybe Nagoya. But we played in Sapporo, Kagoshima, Niigata, all of these. About 20 different cities in Japan. So, a lot of places where a lot of Western bands never play. There, most bands play Tokyo or Osaka. So, we’ve played all over. It’s pretty amazing to see that it’s quite different when you get into the countryside of Japan. It’s not like Tokyo, right?
Yeah. And when you travel on trains and buses, you see how the country really looks.
Yeah. I see the countryside, and it’s beautiful. Incredible. And it’s the same thing in Europe. We play in a lot of places. When I went to tour last time with Steve Vai, we did Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia. Not a lot of bands play there. It was great. Fantastic. The people were wonderful. So, I love to play everywhere.
I believe that, and I hope to see you here in Finland too!
A COUPLE OF LIVE SHOTS FROM THE BASS CLINIC IN F-MUSIIKKI, VANTAA