Billy Sheehan of the Winery Dogs: Priority # 1

By: Justin Beckner

Allow me to introduce the Winery Dogs, a power trio consisting of guitarist Richie Kotzen (Poison, Mr. Big), Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Avenged Sevenfold) on drums, and bass legend Billy Sheehan (Mr. Big, David Lee Roth, Talas). One might be tempted to call this new band a supergroup, and you wouldn’t be wrong but this band revolts from the often overly polished sound of modern rock and retreats back to a day of good honest rock and roll, complete with all the imperfections it brings. In the following exclusive interview with Billy Sheehan, we discuss the band’s debut album, first tour together and future plans.

Justin:  How did Winery Dogs come together? Every time a new band comes together it’s exciting, especially one consisting of three musicians with such sterling reputations already.

Billy:  Yeah, it’s been an overwhelming response and I think every show we’ve done has been sold out. The record has debuted at number 27 on the Billboard chart which for a new band is ridiculous. If it would have made it into the Top 100 at all I would have been happy but coming in at 27 was amazing. But yeah, Mike [Portnoy] contacted me a while ago about starting a band. As we were putting plans in place and pieces together, Eddie Trunk (That Metal Show) suggested Richie Kotzen as a guitar player and singer. I slapped myself in the head for not thinking of it first because Richie is a good friend of mine and I’ve worked with him a lot. So that’s how the three players came into the picture.

Justin:  Run us through the recording of the album. You decided to produce this album yourselves, what contributed to that decision?

Billy:  We basically did it all in a studio we built ourselves in Richie’s garage. It was a pretty nice studio. You know, we’ve all made a million records and we can generally feel if a song is working or not so we just took a chance and left it up to ourselves. We did, however, send it out to be mixed by a guy named Jay Ruston who has mixed a lot of modern rock records. So the album does have a bit of his influence as far as the mix goes. But the song choices, the order of songs, how the songs were put together, and all the artistic choices we did all by ourselves.

Justin:  Was there any rigid writing process to this record? It seems like the grooves on the record might be something that would come out of a jam sort of situation.

Billy:  Yeah, we just jammed together in a room. That was our writing process. Mike played a tiny drum kit, just one tom and one floor tom – very basic. Richie had a minimal setup, with a little PA, I had a little bass amp. It’s good in that sense because you don’t get caught up in all this technology. It’s basic and raw. No makeup, no lights, no smoke, just you and your instrument. Playing like that gives you that rawness and it creates a great foundation for a song. I think that’s why this album has done as well as it has is because there’s a real honesty to it. We also came in with some things that Richie had worked on himself and I brought some stuff in Mike brought in some lyrics he had been working on. So we had a combination of a couple things which is always good in writing, if you write one way all the time, you’ll work yourself into a corner. We had influence pushing from three different directions and the primary writing force that we all drew from was just being in a room and playing together.

Justin:  I think it’s great that someone’s still holding the flag for honesty and integrity of music these days. You had a quote that I really liked in a recent interview, something like “We’re holding down the fort against the onslaught of the artificial.”

Billy:  Yeah absolutely, that sort of where the name comes from. The winery dogs used to guard the vineyards and I guess that’s what we feel we’re doing for music that is honest and real. We certainly aren’t the only band doing that. But we do encourage it to as many people as possible, for players to play and singers to sing. Everyone has limitations but by learning to work within those limitations you can rise above them and create something special. Johnny Cash, for example, was never a great singer but when he passed away he was one of the most popular and loved entertainers in American History. He learned to work within his limitations and made it work and it was incredible. I think that all musicians and artists in general have limitations. With technology you can get your pitch all corrected and your timing straight. I would rather bathe in the glorious mistakes and things that don’t quite fit together. There are a lot of great records that contain mistakes and things that were not meant to be in there and the artists would probably go back and fix them if they could but those are the parts I love.

Justin:  Are there any moments during the writing or recording of the record that are particularly memorable for you?

Billy:  There were a couple of moments where songs came together kind of magically and we all knew we had something cool.  “I’m No Angel” is one of my favorite tracks on the record and Richie had this guitar motif thing that he played at the beginning and Mike and I came in with our parts and they all fit together really well. Right away we knew that this was a song that works. That feeling was really cool. Another song that was fun to see come together was “Regret”. Richie had two songs that were similar but not the same and we were trying to decide which one to put on the record. We didn’t want to put two piano ballads on the record. So I said lets tag the first part of the first song and the second half of the second song. We rolled the dice and you never know how it’s going to turn out until you do it and we were all really pleased with how this one came out. Those were really memorable moment and just hanging together was great. Mike, Richie and I, we’ve all been in a million bands and just the hanging out and telling stories, that stuff is priceless, amazing stuff.

Justin:  Mike [Portnoy] recently said on his website that he feels that he’s “found [his] new home” with this band. Is that feeling mutual among all three of you guys?

Billy:  We are all looking at it like a band, not just some project we’re going to do until our ego explode and we all hate eachother. We don’t want that to happen and it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t happened yet and I sleep soundly as a result. I remember when Mike had a couple comments on his site because he’s been through a lot, he left the band that he started and it was difficult for him and tough thing for everybody. Whenever any relationship like that breaks up no matter who’s right and who’s wrong it’s tough. Some of the comments after we started this project and after the BB King show was, “I think Mike’s found his new home” and I think he was really touched by that it was kind of any emotional moment for him. It’s really cool that he feels that way. I certainly do and I know Richie does as well so we feel very thankful that we all came together at the right place at the right time and were able to make this happen.

Justin:  You just completed one leg of a tour, how was that?

Billy:  It’s been great. We hung out all the time. We got a tour bus for some of the shows we did in the US and we had a wonderful time. There are situations where it gets a little touchy, a little bit tight. But anyone in any band I’ve ever been in, I believe I’m still friends with. I’m really pleased with that fact and I want to continue that tradition. I know Mike and Richie feel the same way. Hanging out is an important thing, you can learn a lot about who that person is and how they deal with things. You can tell the first rehearsal is someone is going to be a smart ass or insulting or a pain in the neck and you hope that it’s not going to affect you three years down the line but it’s going to. Right from the get go with these guys it’s been fun and enjoyable with all of us concentrating on one thing, playing, and that keeps us all together.

Justin:  I hate to sound farsighted but, is there any writing going on for a follow up album?

Billy:  Not in the works but I’m confident that we could put one together pretty quickly in the same manner we did with the first album and I think the next album will be an evolution from the first record because we’ve now gone out and toured the world together. Another thing is that we’ve played together much more, we’ve gotten tighter. When we recorded the first album we hadn’t played together much at all other than to write the songs. We’re all writers, we all write all the time. At sound check the other day Richie had this riff he showed us and I added a bass part and Mike did his thing. I popped my iPad in and hit record so that we wouldn’t forget it. That kind of stuff happens all the time.

Justin:  How long did the first album take?

Billy:  After the writing, the record took about a month. It was real quick. We did the basic tracks in just a couple days. I like doing things that way, I like the urgency and drive to get things done, Let’s make it happen rather than the alternative which is to listen down, go back in and re-cut some things and come back a few days later. I’d rather just do it. It’s a lot like live performances – there is no re-do. So I think having only a couple days to get basic tracking down, that urgency always lends itself to excitement and enthusiasm. Both things I like to hear on records.

Justin:  With each collaboration, and you’ve had plenty of them, comes new challenges which can often push your playing in new directions. What direction has Winery Dogs pushed you musically?

Billy:  It’s kind of pushed me backwards to the first band I had any success with which was called Talas back in Buffalo. It was a three piece – guitar, bass, drums, and we all sang and here, many years later, I’m doing that same arrangement again. I learned most of everything I know from playing in that band in Buffalo and now to re-apply it again with two new guys in a whole new world in 2013 is an exciting thing to do. I really love being back in a three piece because I can hold a single note and let the drums play and the guitar play and just be the glue that holds it all together. I get my spot to fly around too but I like what it does for my playing, I think it’s made it more concise and I’m locked in with Mike, who is a great drummer to lock in with. He has a lot of moves that you have to follow and anticipate and telepathically figure them out before they happen and we have a riot on stage doing that. Richie’s got a twist to his playing that I don’t hear in other players at all. I have to find my spot with him and sometimes I’m forced to dig deep into what I know as a musician in order to come up with stuff to work with him. Its exciting for me to do that and I love that challenge.

Justin:  I think the record reflects that tight band chemistry and enthusiasm. That’s pretty cool to see in a debut album.

Billy:  Absolutely, and it’s so fun to play live with these guys. We watch eachother constantly when we’re on stage. Sometimes when you’re playing you get into it, you move off to the side, close your eyes, we do the opposite. I watch Mike and Richie all the time, I’m almost always facing one of them a little bit because if I’m singing a part with Richie, I’m going to be watching him and if I’m singing a part with Mike I’m going to watch him. We really stay connected on stage and I think the shows have been really tight and they’ve gotten an overwhelming response and I think that’s why. Because we’re as excited about it as anyone could be and we’re living in the moment on stage.

Justin:  Do you think that sort of tight knit dynamic is easier to achieve with a three piece?

Billy:  Yes, I really think so. You know, it’s like when you’ve got a three legged chair, it’s always even but when you add a fourth leg, there’s always that one that’s too short or too long. So for me, I’ve always loved the three piece format. Sometimes a three piece with a singer is alright like The Who, Zeppelin, all that. But the three piece is a beautiful thing, ZZ Top, Grand Funk Railroad, it’s a beautiful thing and it lends itself to simplicity and easier decision making.

Justin:  Will you continue to do other projects?

Billy:  Yeah, as time allows. This thing is kind of catching fire so all of us have been cutting down on our other projects because there’s just no time for them. Initially we were going to tour just September, now were going into next year already. This project is gaining momentum and snowballing which is good and I’ve very glad but I love Niacin and I love Mr. Big and I’ll continue to work with them at some point in the future I’m sure. Mike has other things going on and so does Richie but I’m glad that we’re all prioritizing this band right now. This band feels right to all of us and we feel strongly about making it our number one priority.