Billy Sheehan: Mr. Bass talks new Mr. Big!

By A. Lee Graham

Billy Sheehan has ridden four strings to success.

Whether tasting platinum glory with David Lee Roth, churning out meat-and-potatoes rock with Mr. Big and Winery Dogs or collaborating with countless musicians — including himself — the bass player is a legend among legends.

“I just keep playing,” says Sheehan, still modest after more than four decades of turning heads with dazzling bass technique.

More fans continue to discover the tireless musician as he and his Mr. Big colleagues tour in support of Defying Gravity. The ninth effort from Sheehan, guitarist Paul Gilbert, drummer Pat Torpey and vocalist Eric Martin pulls double duty: wowing musos with stellar chops while focusing on the song.

It’s a balance that’s earning Mr. Big loyal fans since debuting in 1989, just before so-called “hair metal” would surrender to grunge.

That didn’t stop Mr. Big from achieving platinum success, notably with “To Be With You.” As “More Than Words” did for Extreme, “To Be With You” did for Sheehan’s band. Both acts became household names — albeit briefly — despite their otherwise hard-rocking sound.

But a hit’s a hit, and the Big boys have recorded and toured consistently since then, despite briefly replacing Gilbert with Richie Kotzen. Torpey’s subsequent Parkinson’s disease diagnosis presented even greater challenges.

Yet the musicians have soldiered on. Though Sheehan enjoys collaborating with other musicians, releasing metal, jazz and hard rock with Devil’s Slingshot, Niacin, Portnoy Sheehan MacAlpine Sherinian (PSMS) and David Lee Roth, among countless others, he always returns to Mr. Big.

So do Gilbert and Martin, successful solo artists in their own right.

As Defying Gravity streams its way to listeners, Sheehan took some time to chat with Classic Rock Revisited.

Lee: If “1992” is indicative of Defying Gravity, I think we’re in for a killer album. Love the new song.

Billy: Thank you

Lee: Does the song refer to a specific memory or your overall chart success that year?

Billy: That year, we had a number-one single [“To Be With You”]. 1992 was a very special time for us. A hit record really changes your life. I wish everyone could have a hit record. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. It still affects us to this day.

Lee: When you say a hit changes your life, was it immediately noticeable or did it take a while to sink in?

Billy: Some things didn’t change right away, but other things did. We were still playing clubs when we heard we were closing in on on the Billboard top 30, then top 20, then 10, and eventually, 8 or 9 and got up close to the number one position, but two records we were competing with were Prince and Michael Jackson.

Those are tough competition. Then the thing really started to take off. We already had toured a lot on the record. It just wasn’t catching fire at all. Then “To Be With You” really started catching fire. The video was Number 1 on MTV and No. 1 in 14 or 16 countries. There was this worldwide demand, so we went on tour opening for Rush and would have two two days off, fly back to Berlin for TV and fly back for Rush.

We’d fly to Singapore for press, not even to perform, and they [the record label] would fly us all over the world and get us on TV or radio before we even played there. The travel became quite tough, but in a good way. That’s what we had all worked all of lives for.

Lee: You guys were all road warriors at that point.

Billy: No, not really. I was the only one in a band that had been out on a tour. Racer X [Gilbert’s shred-heavy metal act] was an LA band, never toured, Eric Martin had been on tour as an opening act for five shows with Tina Turner; Pat had toured a bit, played with Belinda Carlisle for a little while.

But I did the Eat ‘Em And Smile tour [with David Lee Roth] and Talas [Sheehan’s first professional band] and opened for Van Halen for 30 shows. It was new to them [his Mr. Big bandmates], not me so much. It’s a mythology that Mr. Big was a super group, though. I was the only guy who had actually been in a major band, but I felt the other guys deserved success more because they were so good. It turned out, in retrospect, to be a good choice to create Mr. Big out of these three guys because of the success we’ve had.

Lee: You guys really sound in the pocket on the new stuff. Did you record in the same room, or was this a file-trading process?

Sheehan: We were in the same room for six days and did all the basics. We spent more time of in the mix and some lead vocals.

The lion’s share, 90 percent, was done in six days in Ocean Studio in Burbank. I had just done another record a week prior and did Mr. Big there without even moving my gear. Paul and I were in a separate control booth, both Matt [Starr, pitching in on drums for the current tour] and Pat were in there doing drums.

Lee: What was that other project you mentioned, the unnamed one?

Billy: It was another project, which is yet unnamed [this writer suspects the project could be Mike Portnoy’s prog-metal band with Derek Sherinian]. So in the week prior, I got used to the neighborhood and all the nearby restaurants.

We had no time for that with Mr. Big. We had to hustle to get it done in six days. We were doing two or three songs a day. We needed one more some toward the end. We wanted to get at least 11 songs on the record and we managed to hit that.

Lee: What does Kevin Elson add as a producer? What qualities make him a good fit for the capturing the sound of Mr. Big?

Billy: He was the original guy, our first producer and he is legendary. He produced all that Journey stuff. He was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s sound man, was on their plane when it crashed and he survived. Journey’s manager, Herbie Herbert, said if you ever need a job, we just love the way you mix. Kevin shows up six months later, and he’s on crutches. He turned out to be one of best live mixers, for everyone from Michael Jackson and Christina Aguilera to Aerosmith. He went out on the road with us and mixed us. We also worked in the studio with him. It was just a breeze.

It led to everything we did on the four records. It was just a nice chunk of work that we’re all very proud of. Kevin was very much a part of hat. Getting Kevin back was very much like bringing that home again.

Lee: Why the need to stick to such a tight schedule? Did Kevin need to have everything wrapped up in six days?

Billy: We all did. It was a matter of all six of us needing to get together in six days of time because every one of us had a different schedule. Somehow we managed to get it all together. We worked well into the night on that day and got everything done that we needed to do. Most everyone else [in addition to Elson] had something else they had to do.

Lee: Touring this album would seem to present more challenges than in the past. For one thing, Pat’s coping with Parkinson’s disease, though he continues to perform, with Matt also handling drum duties. How is Pat doing?

Billy: He’s doing great. Parkinson’s is a difficult affliction. It hits people differently in various stages. Pat’s doing great. He’s on stage all night and sings his ass off, too.  And he was a very, very, very, very, very big part of the decision-making that went into the record. Even with drumming, he’s up and talking with Matt about how the drums were tuned, how the snare sounded, etc.

Matt’s a sweet guy and could take direction so well. Pat and Matt are good friends. As a result, there was no way we would go out without Pat. He’d jump up  between takes and explain details to Matt. There’s no way we were going to play without Pat.

I knew Matt from LA. I had been to his house a couple of times. When the situation confronted us, I recommended him to the band, and he worked out perfectly.

Lee: So both Pat and Matt are playing on this tour?Billy: Yeah, they’re both on tour with us. There was no way we were gonna tour without Pat. He can’t do the heavy lifting on the double-bass drums, but he can play as good as ever. He can play and his finesse is as good as ever. He just can’t play a whole night.

Lee: How many songs does Pat perform?

Billy: Two or three. He’s on stage with us all night long, also playing along with Matt. Matt has a great voice, too. He sings his ass off. His tone and his natural voice are super, another reason I chose him for Mr. Big. It wouldn’t be the same without him.

Lee: How do the drums style of Pat and Matt differ?

Billy: Pat is directing Matt on a lot on what he does. When we first toured with Matt on our last tour, we went over every nuance of drums and bass. When we got together in full rehearsal, it went even further.

In recording this record, it was Pat and Matt for four and five days, just bass and drums with them. No guitar and no lead vocals just to make sure we got everything exactly right.

We wanted to make sure we had everything down, all the nuanced things drummers understand. Pat had a real finesse about him. He was there to instruct Matt. Matt’s a great player on his own. The lion’s share of Matt’s job is to reproduce the songs exactly as they are and he’ s doing a fantastic job.

Lee: How are you guys getting along these days? I know there was some friction in the past.

Billy: The friction that Mr. Big had compared to other bands is the slightest, most tiniest inconsequential thing: a glance here and there, maybe. The fistfights, drunkenness, drugs, cheating on wives — the crazy shit you hear about with some other bands — that never happens with us. With us, the worst thing might be if someone gives someone a dirty look one night. We’re all good friends and have a lot of respect for each other.  

When you hear about what some bands go through, it’s amazing they last even a day. When we got back together like we did in 2009, it’s just a joy.

Lee: So there’s no risk of you guys traveling on separate buses in the near future?

Billy: No, no, no, no, no. It’s never happened. The worst we did was got into some argument or took issue with something someone said. That was it. We’re all on the bus, hanging out with each other. It’s all good.

Lee: Is it ever frustrating to release albums as strong as Defying Gravity to manic acclaim in Japan yet nary a blip in the states? Or tour much smaller venues stateside?

Billy: It’s actually fun. Most of my life, I’ve played clubs. I like that because the audience is very close. I love that. I’ve done shows in huge auditoriums and stadiums where the closest person is 60 feet away. It’s fun, but you can feel isolated. I’ve done shows where you can’t recognize faces in the front row when you’re separated by a big security area with cameras.

I’ve done Japanese shows in soccer stadiums, where they’re sold out every night. We’re talking 75-80,000 people a night.

Mr. Big isn’t the kind of band where people will rush the stage, anyway. But we see packed houses. It’s never my motivation to be a huge rock star and play for hundreds of thousands. I play the Baked Potato [nightclub in Los Angeles] that holds 200 people. I put my beer on the table up front because there’s nowhere else to put it. It’s intimate, so intimate that [the audience] can hear what we’re talking about onstage.

Lee: Many stadiums and similarly huge venues aren’t built for good sound, anyway.

Billy: Yeah. And the bass player gets the worst of it because the bass is the hardest instrument to get in a mix in a large, echoey place. I do prefer doing clubs and smaller venues.

Lee: On a different note, when can we expect another Billy Sheehan solo album? We haven’t heard anything since Cosmic Troubadour in 2005.

Billy: No, Holy Cow! was the last one.

Lee: Oh yeah! Love that one. I thought that one came out before Compression and Cosmic Troubadour for some reason. I stand corrected.

Billy: Dug [Pinnick, King’s X bassist] came in, Paul [Gilbert] did a great solo and Billy Gibbons came over. The great Rev. Billy Gibbons came and played on my record, and Ray Luzier with Korn played on it. I didn’t get to see him face to face, as he was in Nashville.

Lee: I’d love to see Billy & Billy, a collaboration with you and Billy Gibbons.

Billy: Oh man, I’m such a fan of Billy Gibbons. I got my hammer-ons from him, I got pinch harmonics from him. In 1974, I saw ZZ Top open for Alice Cooper. I went home and, sure enough, I tried it. In 1978, Eddie Van Halen because famous for it. I initially got it from Billy Gibbons.

Lee: Some of my favorite Billy Sheehan material some from Niacin and Portnoy Sheehan MacAlpine Sherinian. Can we expect to see new material in the future?

Billy: The PSMS thing, there might be some stuff in the future. With Niacin, I think we’ll just have to wait until everyone’s schedules align. Dennis [Chambers, drummer] is a very busy guy, very much in demand, and I’m on tour all the time. Any chance I can get get to be in the same city [as Chambers], let alone the same building, is a gift in my mind. I just love that man so much. He’s such a professional and the best musician I know on any instrument.

Lee: You are revered as a bass legend, but does even Billy Sheehan feel intimidated by any musician: Dennis or someone else?

Billy: Not so much intimidated, but challenged. Dennis is a breeze to lock with. It grabs you by the throat. You can’t not be in the groove. Whether you can do it or not, he’ll make it happen!

Lee: Does your approach to the instrument change from playing with Mr. Big and Winery Dogs compared to something like Niacin?

Billy: With Niacin, I sit down when I play. I have to really concentrate. It’s such a joy to play with a genius drummer. I’m lucky to play with so many fantastic drummers: Mike Portnoy, Steve Smith, Terry Bozzio ,Vinnie Colaiuta, Gregg Bissonette, Pat Torpey and the amazing Matt Star. Even the drummers in Talas, Paul Varga and Mark Miller. I’ve had great opportunities to play with some awesome players. All have left their mark; all have made me a greater player.

Lee: What can fans expect when Mr. Big hits their town?

Billy: We’ll play all the hits and semi-hits, a couple new songs. It’s a hot, sweaty night of everyone singing along. We have a riot and see a sea of smiling faces of people enjoying a night of music. You can’t download when you’re in front of people. We sing for real and play for real. Sometimes we have a new production person ask what changes do you want the [pre-recorded] track on. We use no tracks, sorry! Everything is live.

Lee: That’s encouraging. Groups like Styx and Def Leppard continue singing the live harmonies. What can Mr. Big fans expect in the coming year?

Billy: We’re already booking the rest of the world now. UK in October, we may hit Australia or New Zealand on this run, too, and hopefully come back at the end and do more U.S. dates.

Lee: Can we ever expect a reunion of the Eat ‘Em and Smile band? I know that you guys came seconds from performing at an LA bowling alley, only to be halted by fire code issues.

Billy: It’s up to Dave. Me, Steve and Greg are ready to go. If Dave wants to do it, he’s got our number. We love and respect  him and love and respect his d decision on what he feels is best. The good thing about that night was to hand out a  bit. He was my hero and is my hero and will continue to be my hero.

Lee: Here’s something I’ve always wanted to know. When you opened for Yngwie back in the ‘80s…

Billy: 1985.

Lee: Wow, yeah! What a memory. Anyway,  yeah, it was the Marching Out tour and you had a champagne bottle onstage.

Billy: Was it Yngwie’s birthday?

Lee: (pause) I’m not sure, but it was the Dallas show at the Arcadia Theater, and you extended the bottle to my friend, who chipped his tooth on it when someone in back of him pushed forward. I just wondered if you remember that.

Billy: (laughs) Did we him [Yngwie] afterward with pies?

Lee: I don’t remember.

Billy: I’ve seen the video. The plan was I was going to go out on stage and at the end of Yngwie’s set, I’d put my arm around him ostensibly to congratulate him, but I planned to hold him tight while the crew pelted him with pies.

It was a hilarious night. He’s a wonderful guy, still a good friend of mine. He’s one of the best, coolest guitarists to ever grace a stage. It’s an honor to be associated with that guy. He’s so great.

Lee: The same could be said of you, too, Billy. Thanks for taking the time to chat.