King of the Low: A Conversation With Billy Sheehan

If Billy Sheehan needs an introduction, you haven’t been paying attention.

The nimble-fingered Sheehan is considered by many to be the greatest hard rock bassist of his era, a claim that is nearly impossible to refute, especially for those who have seen him perform in the live arena where his abilities are front, center and without argument, legendary.

Sheehan has toured the world for decades and put his talents on display for millions of concert goers and album buyers with his New York-based band Talas, Mr. Big, The Winery Dogs, or his latest project, Sons of Apollo, which will see the light of day in the upcoming months.

Whether it’s the recent release of Mr. Big’s fantastic “Defying Gravity” (see this website for a review); promoting The Winery Dogs’ new upcoming DVD, “Dog Years: Live in Santiago and Beyond, 2013-1016;” or talking about his newest supergroup with former Dream Theater bandmates Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian, along with Jeff Scott Soto and Ron Thal, Sheehan is not only is the greatest living bass player walking planet Earth, he’s also one of the hardest working.

Sheehan sat down for a conversation with ListenIowa recently to talk about all of his projects, a possible book somewhere down the line, and his hopes for getting together with his David Lee Roth “Eat ‘Em and Smile”-era bandmates at least one more time.

First up is the Sons of Apollo supergroup, which was just announced. You’ve got a lot of heavy hitters in this band. Tell me how this came to be.
Myself, Mike Portnoy, Derek Sherinian and Tony MacAlpine went out and did a bunch of instrumentals from the bands we were in. We played some of Tony’s solo albums, one of mine, some older Dream Theater stuff. It was a blast. Then Mike had the idea that he wanted to do something more with Derek, so he contacted me and asked if I would be into playing some bass. I’m always into playing bass, so he got in touch with Ron Thal. Ron and I have jammed together at a couple of events, and he knows every Talas song there is, which is crazy. We had just toured South America with The Winery Dogs, and Jeff Scott Soto was opening up, just singing his ass off. Mike wanted to use him on vocals, so he and Derek put the thing together. I’m playing a blusier thing with Winery Dogs and a more rock thing with Mr. Big, so I thought something a bit more progressive might be cool. We went in and recorded the record, and there’s some really tough stuff on it. Some of the parts were a bit of a challenge, but I managed to slug my way through it. (laughs) The record sounds good. It’s heavy.

Sons of Apollo. From left: Billy Sheehan, Derek Sherinian, Jeff Scott Soto, Mike Portnoy and Ron Thal. Photo by Hristo Shindov.

Is this a touring project, too, or album only?
I know they’re putting things together this year for some shows. We’ll have to see what happens. I would like to, though.

Whether, it’s Portnoy or Paul Gilbert or Steve Vai, you surround yourself with the same world-class musicians as yourself. And that’s not blowing smoke up your arse — it is what it is.
Well thank you very much. I appreciate it.

So when you jump into these projects, is there any thought of, “This is going to be good. I know these guys are really going to push me.”
I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to tune the guitar player’s guitar for him (laughs), so it’s good to play with guys who know their craft. We can push each other forward. I’ve put bands together, and I’ve put guys in as sidemen or background musicians, but I prefer to be surrounded by people who would be as good on their own as they would be anywhere else. I did that with Mr. Big. Anyone could have gone off and been in his own band. Together, I thought we’d be better having four great components rather than three OK components. I really want the best around. I just think it’s a better band. I’ve never had troubles with egos and what have you, because guys who are accomplished players know the type of self-discipline it requires.

Let’s talk about the new Mr. Big album, “Defying Graity.” Another solid effort from you guys, especially considering the small window you had to create it.
There were only six days that were all going to be in the same city at the same time, including our producer, Kevin Elson. We had to hustle. The hardest part was, we’d get together and start telling stories of the old days. (laughs) We’d eventually look up at the clock and realize, “We gotta knock it off and get to work!” (laughs) It’s a good kind of pressure to put yourself in a situation like that, though. If you have to get there early, hey, fire it up, and get the stuff done.

How much pre-preparation was done for this album?
We went in with three or four songs actually completed. It was kinda cool and like how the great bands used to do it. I’m not comparing us to the Beatles, but I’ve heard a lot of bootlegs and recordings of them in the studio, working parts out. To do a record like that, it’s exciting. You need to think on the fly, dig deep and come up with something. “We need a chorus here, what key should we go to? Uh, let’s go to A-flat minor.” It forces you figure things out instantly. I think you get an urgency and a sense of enthusiasm as a result.

Rather than swapping files via the Internet.
Exactly. But sometimes it’s necessary. I’ve done that. But we were all together in a room. We were in a studio that has a giant room for drums and the big, giant control room. There aren’t a lot of them left anymore. I actually finished the Sons of Apollo stuff, left my gear in there, and went back the next day and started Mr. Big in the same exact studio. They didn’t even tear my bass rig down. A new crew came in with the Mr. Big stuff, and we launched that day. Having a big room like that gives you the capability to get together and really have an exchange. There’s nothing wrong with the file sharing version, and sometimes it’s a necessity due to the economic situation. But we’re lucky. We can all be in the same city, all be together, and do records the way they were done back in the day, which I think gave us a lot of good records.

Are younger musicians missing out by not having the actual studio experience, but instead, for economic reasons or otherwise, choose to record out of their homes?
I believe the younger musicians will adapt and make do with whatever is there. It’s similar to the early days when nobody knew where to put a mic in front of a guitar amp. Somebody just said, “Well, let’s just put it here,” and that became the standard. Then people were getting tools and tape measures so it could be placed just exactly there every time. Well, do you know why they were placed there in the first place? Because we guessed. (laughs) Similarly now, it’s “We’ve got a garage, a couple of mics.” There’s ingenuity and creativity involved. After the first Mr. Big record came out, we were doing an in-store promotion, and Pat Torpey (drummer) walked over to the CD bin and held ours up and goes, “Look, this was an idea!” (laughs) Which is what it was — an idea, wrapped up, in the store and ready to go. I have a lot of faith in this generation’s ability to adapt and evolve and make great music under any condition. Yeah, we don’t have the big console and thousands of mics and pre-amps now, but we do have something that you couldn’t possibly have created. On everyone’s laptop, you have the ability to do something we could never have done then.

Any particular tracks stand out for you on the new album?
I absolutely love the melodies in “Nothing Bad About Feeling Good.” I think it’s an incredibly beautiful piece of music. I also love “Be Kind,” which is just a great message for today, especially with the chaos we have going on everywhere it seems. I love the sentiment behind it. It’s deeply blues based, but not just the typical I-IV-V blues. “Mean to Me” was a pretty wild ride. I had to strap myself down in the studio to lay that down. A lot of speed things going by, but it’s still a great song. Definitely some singing going on there, too.

Another one of your projects is The Winery Dogs. You guys have a DVD coming out soon, “Dog Years: Live in Santiago, 2013-2016 and Beyond.”
We had a great night. You never know when you shoot video. We had one shot and one time, and either it was going to happen or it wasn’t. People in Santiago made it special. It was just a great crowd, great set, and we’ll rolled the dice and it came right out.

Interesting choice in Santiago.
We didn’t choose Santiago over any city, but the fact was that, logistically, it was easy to get a crew in, sound and video in, a good stage and sight line for video.

What is the status of The Winery Dogs as we speak?
We just jammed at a memorial for David Z. (Adrenaline Mob) who tragically passed away in an accident. He was the bass player for Jeff Scott Soto when Winery Dogs were touring South America. Myself, Mike and Ritchie (Kotzen, The Winery Dogs) went down there, and we had just finished working on some video stuff for Sons of Apollo, so everyone was there, and we got up and did a Winery Dogs song and the place went berserk. (laughs). It was a joy to play with them. It’s my favorite band to play with live, I gotta say. Mr. Big is my heart and soul. That’s my baby. Sons of Apollo is great, and we have a blast, but playing with The Winery Dogs live ­— there’s nothing like it. It’s just a riot, and I love it. We’re just taking a break right now. So many bands do the album, tour, album, tour thing that they just burn out and you don’t hear from them again. The second record did well, it was well received, playing it live was a blast, so we just thought, “Let’s not burn it out and just jump into the studio.” We’re not money motivated, and we don’t really need it. I’m not a rich man, but I don’t need to work to that degree if I don’t want to. I love to play, and I want to, but I don’t want to force it. I don’t think it’s fair. You’re not playing it from the heart, you’re playing it from the wallet. So we just thought we should take some time off, live our lives, and by the time we get together again, we’ll have some new stories and it will be like getting together for the first time. For many bands, the first record is the best record they do, because they’ve lived life for 15, 20, 30 years prior to making the record, and the record reflects that. Then the next record has to be six months later, and it’s not as good because you haven’t lived enough life.

Any timeline whatsoever for The Winery Dogs, then?
We’re probably going to get together and start writing at the end of this year, take our time and do a great album. We’ve had two great albums, and we want to keep that going and make the next one spectacular. Rushing it out to meet a label deadline would have been an error. I just posted a picture of us together on Facebook, and people went crazy. I’m so grateful that people have accepted the band. We all are. So when we an opportunity to go back and play, we do not want to let them down.

Speaking of status, you were this close to getting the David Lee Roth Band back together for one gig before got the plug pulled on it by the fire marshal for having too many people in the venue, of all things. Has there been any talk of getting that unit back together to give it another shot.
Unfortunately not. Myself, Steve (Vai, guitar), Greg (Bissonette, drums) and Brett (Tuggle, keyboards), we’re all ready. It’s up to Dave, man. He’s still my hero. I’d love to do one show or 30 shows. The best part about the show that got shut down is that we got to hang out afterward. That was one of the best things about the “Eat ‘Em and Smile” band, hanging in Dave’s basement and telling the stories of the old days. Those stories are without compare. We had a riot. I hope at some point Dave decides to do some shows. However many he cares to, I would be honored and happy to do it, and I think it would make a lot of people happy.

Are there any good DLR stories that you can share with us, Billy?
I get asked that a lot, actually, and, for the most part, I’m a pretty good storyteller. My dad was a recitationist. He had the gift of gab. He would go around to bars and pubs and tells stories as entertainment. When we were kids, my dad would be the storyteller, and he would tell these amazing, hilarious stories. We’d heard the story 20 times already, but we’d laugh all over again. It’s like watching the same comedy movie — it’s funny each time. All I can say to you, and to whoever of the readers of yours I run into is, at some point, if we’re out and about and there’s a couple of glasses and a bottle of red, I’ll be able to lay the stories on as they should be. (laughs) Telling them over the phone, they lose quite a bit of translation. Not only of that, but of the Talas days, the Mr. Big days, and right up to today. There’s always an adventure.

It sounds like you have a book in you someday.
I’ve been hit up a lot to do one lately. I’m a voracious reader, and I’m always seeing examples of what could be put on the printed page. At some point, I’m going to do a little outline and see what I can done.