Covering all the bas(s)es
Say the name Billy Sheehan to any bass player and you'll get a smile and a nod. Billy's name was made a long time ago when he first started reaching the public with the band Talas. Success for that band was always just out of reach. They toured constantly with a lot of name bands but never quite broke through to the mainstream. Billy was busy making his mark with a frenetic bass style that was a little bit jazz and more than a little bit metal.
Billy was beckoned by Diamond Dave to join Mr. Roth's new solo band, following his departure from Van Halen. Billy joined Steve Vai and Greg Bisonnette to form a deadly unit and stayed for two awesome albums. Eventually the fleet-fingered bassist stuck out on his own and formed Mr. Big with three other well known musicians. Mr. Big was an instant success with the song "Addicted to that Rush" and the band continued on for some time. Along the way he also formed the fusion band Niacin and the trio has worked off an on for over a decade.
Last year Billy released Cosmic Troubadour, his latest solo excursion, a disc rife with his trademark humming-bird bass lines as well as some surprisingly tasty and nimble guitar. He also joined his old friend Steve Vai's tour last year where besides bass, he contributed a host of his many stories of life on the road. I had the gleeful opportunity to speak via e-mail to the amicable bassist recently and here's what he had to say:
antiMUSIC: One of the biggest surprises to me in listening to Cosmic Troubadour was the amazing guitar runs in addition to your usual phenomenal bass lines. How long have you played guitar and considering your unique style, is it very different to play guitar?
Billy: Wow--thanks! It's very unexpected to hear things about my guitar playing. I've actually played for as long as I've played bass (about a million years), but I never really pursued much "lead" stuff. Mostly chordal, songwriting type things. In my mind there is a very definite difference and a bold line separating the two instruments. Most of what I do on one does not translate to the other. I use a stone pick on guitar (http://www.realrock.us/) & love playing mostly 12 stringed baritones. Bass is fingers only. There are similarities, but viva la difference!
antiMUSIC: How long was Cosmic Troubadour in the works? Did you have the songs collecting bit by bit, or considering your lack of free time, did you just book studio time and go in and do most of the songs on the fly?
Billy: I wrote for about two or three months & included a few parts from long ago, but it generally came about fast & furious. I like the spontaneous approach. When Ray Luzier did the drums, I was glad to let him have his head on most everything---be creative. It gave things a real band feel.
antiMUSIC: My favourite on the record is "Toss it on the Flames" (although "Something She Said" is up there because of the great melody lines as well as that mind-blowing middle bass solo…OK hell "Dreams of Discontent" is awesome too…and also "The Lift"…let's just say the whole record!!!). Is/are there any cut(s) that hold more of a special place in your heart? Why?
Billy: Ha! Its hard to pick---that's a good thing! Thanks. Hard for me too. It changes day to day, but I usually stop listening after the record is done for a month or so, then go back & see how it strikes me. I usually find ALL KINDS OF THINGS WRONG, but oddly this time, I liked it a lot. I was very surprised at that!
antiMUSIC: You were a legend early on in the industry because of your extraordinary bass lines. At what point in your development did you decide to not take a back seat to guitarists and make the bass more of a lead instrument than a rhythmic one? And was there an influence (player) that drove you in this direction?
Billy: At no point did I consciously try to take the spotlight or "lead" role. In a way it just happened. I was and still am always into the band as a unit---a lot of interplay, improv, and listening to what the others are doing. I interpreted things differently for sure, but I love working WITH other players the most. That's my favorite thing. Lots of bass players in the early days played a LOT of notes & were often the most melodically active instrument in the band. Most Motown stuff had Jamie Jamerson's wild bass all over it. McCartney's bass on "A little Help From My Friends" is all over the place. The concept of bass player as root note holder for the entire song is relatively new, I think.
antiMUSIC: Have you ever used a pick and what made you start finger picking?
Billy: Tim Bogert of the Vanilla Fudge was my inspiration. They were a pioneering 60's psychedelic band. Tim was (is) awesome & what hew did couldn't be done with a pick, so I went that route. I have picks now, but they are just for giveaways or for throwing!
antiMUSIC: Talas was a band that teetered on the edge of success for a number of years. Looking back, is it frustrating to you that the band never broke through or do you feel that the band just wasn't meant to be and was just a necessary stepping stone for you?
Billy: We were SO CLOSE so many times! Amazing. Have I got some stories! I don't know if it would have worked or not, but after seeing "behind the scenes" of a lot of huge bands, I can say we did in fact have it pretty together. Too bad about it, but life goes on.
antiMUSIC: I thought you were a huge part of David Lee Roth's early solo career and those two records were excellent. Now that you're removed from it a bit, do you look back fondly on those years and have you had any contact with Dave since then?
Billy: Very fondly! I've hung with Dave a bunch of times since. He's still my hero. He was the biggest rock star in the world in 1985 when we started all that. I went from driving my rusty Ford Pinto with the factory spare tire back in Buffalo, to Paparazzi following me down Sunset Blvd. in a week. Quite a transition! I learned a lot. Dave was a blast---we had some of the most amazing times.
antiMUSIC: The DLR Band was fortuitous for you in one respect; you first started working with your fellow Boner Brother Steve Vai. Was this the first you had come into contact with Steve and what is it that keeps you friends and work partners to this day?
Billy: Actually, I had contacted him prior to any of it---we (Talas) were on the same label and I was going to have Steve play on a solo record. Steve & I go WAY back! We have very common interests musically. He's one of my favorite people on Earth & elsewhere. I had a blast touring with him recently. The STORIES THAT WE TOLD!! Awesome.
antiMUSIC: Mr. Big came to life and blew up big time, particularly in Japan. To what do you attribute the success to?
Billy: We WORKED HARD! We shook every hand, signed every autograph, arrived early & stayed late. I answered by hand every fan letter I got at the shows---it was hundreds easily. The label people there were incredible too. They did every promotional idea possible. A lot of Western bands think its "automatic" when you go there, so they just go through the motions. They never got asked back. We played harder than ever & never did a show that we didn't give our all. Those fans absolutely rule. We gave our all everywhere, but there, they gave it back & more.
antiMUSIC: Can you see yourself working with Eric or any of the guys again?
Billy: I just finished recording with Richie & I'll be doing a Who Tribute with Paul, (along with Mike Portnoy & Gary Cherone) this May. I see Pat a lot here in LA. Nobody else though! Everybody in Mr. Big was (is) a stellar talent and I'm proud to have worked with all of them.
antiMUSIC: The drill is a big part of your live show at times. Does this date back to Talas days and how/why did you start including it?
Billy: Actually, its not. We used it in one song--Paul did mostly, in Mr. Big. It was a joke actually, but people took it seriously. We ended up with a Makita Power Tool endorsement! Hilarious.
antiMUSIC: With a style like yours, I guess it's only natural that you fit into the fusion genre. How did Niacin come about and can you see yourself staying in this area for awhile?
Billy: We just wanted to play, unrestricted. I grew up listening to & playing EVERYTHING. From Three Dog Night to King Crimson. I love Niacin, but I'm mainly a rock player. Niacin is a riot live---we'll be doing shows this summer.
antiMUSIC: With the critical success of Cosmic Troubadour, can we expect another solo record in the near future?
Billy: Yes! I'm working right now. I learn a lot each record---each DAY actually! Music is all I do. I'm so lucky to be able to make records, get them released & play live in front of people. I never forget that for even a microsecond. I'll try to top my last record of course, but I know I'll always gravitate towards a challenge.
antiMUSIC: Given you are in such demand to play with other musicians, how do you go about mapping out what you want to do? Making a year-plan must be a nightmare for you?
Billy: My schedule is psychotic! I try to do what's best in any given circumstance for myself as a player. A good challenge, though it may not pay too much, is always what I lean towards. I still have a lot to learn (said with no phony modesty) and I'm trying to be better always.
antiMUSIC: Your reputation is of one of the nicest guys in rock, not to mention one of the most approachable. Is this just your nature or did you receive any lessons early that taught you how to act in the public eye?
Billy: Really? Well, I was (and still am) a FAN. I'm a fan of lots of music & players, so I just try to treat people the way I'd like to be treated. I've had a bad day or 2 here & there, but if I can't be civil, I stay home! Like I've said---I'm awfully lucky to be successful, And I'm thankful to those that made it that way. In the early days, playing a gig was as much a social event as a musical one. All of our friends were there--everybody knew each other. On a break, I'd never make it to the dressing room if I had to walk through the club---I'd stop & hang with everybody. I like it that way. I still treat it the same.
antiMUSIC: Do you ever have a problem dealing with some of the other musicians and crew/club people because they're so intimidated by dealing with such a legendary bassist?
Billy: Never. Everybody is equal. I'm as big a goof as anyone else! I'm just the bass player.
antiMUSIC: Your stories are legend, according to the musicians you tour with. Can you give us a couple of anecdotes (you can leave out names to protect reputations if you like --- but it's not required ;))?
Billy: Wow. I'd absolutely LOVE to, but I type with one finger & it would take an hour. There are lots of stories that aren't slanderous, and some I can even tell in front of kids! My Dad was a storyteller as a profession--a "recitationist". He was Irish with the "gift of gab"---he traveled around & would recite stories & poems. An entertainer of sorts. I picked it up from him mostly. In person I'll tell all!
antiMUSIC: Strangest thing you've ever seen backstage?
Billy: A musician paying for a drink!
antiMUSIC: Worst record company exec schmoozing incident?
Billy: Having the lead singer tell the Board of Directors member's secretary "Why don't you bite me!"---we lost the deal because of that! True.
antiMUSIC: Worst dressing room?
Billy: Recently in Athens, Greece. Freezing, stinking, no food, no towels, no drinks, no coffee--wet floor, smoke filled dungeon.
antiMUSIC: Best stunt by a groupie to get backstage?
Billy: No stunts required! All are welcome!
antiMUSIC: Most annoying opening band?
Billy: Probably Talas! Ha! We opened for tons of bands---Aerosmith, Van Halen (40 shows), Blue Oyster Cult, UFO, & lots more---but U2 opened for us!
antiMUSIC: What's on tap for you in 2006?
Billy: A bunch of shows in various incarnations. More records if I hurry it up & get to it. A few new electronic devices I'm designing. Possibly a new Yamaha bass design. Updating my website at some point!
antiMUSIC: Thanks a lot for this Billy. Congrats on Cosmic Troubadour and we hope to hear more Billy-related product soon!
Billy: Thank YOU, Bro! My pleasure.
antiMUSIC and Morley Seaver thank Billy Sheehan for this interview. Billy is proof that good guys do finish first!