BILLY SHEEHAN – Since those loud, bright and colorful Arena Rock days of the late 1980’s, I equate Billy Sheehan to bass playing excellence. From his early 80’s days with Talas, to stalking the stage alongside Steve Vai for David Lee Roth’s momentous tours, in some of the world’s most prolific venues, Billy Sheehan has wowed his fans and peers. After decades of honing his signature bass sound, Billy has earned the respect and accolades that so very often are spilled upon him in the press and behind closed doors.
The standouts are stacked high within the legendary music career of Billy Sheehan and Mr. Big is a huge exclamation point in what Billy has achieved as a musician. Mr. Big defines what great Hard Rock can sound like, when Pop song structures are played heavy, resulting in a unique accessibility that stretches from mainstream to Metal. Billy Sheehan and his band are old school, yet Mr. Big and their comeback album “What If…” (released on Frontiers Records this past winter of 2011), have ignited a new-found fire within their original lineup, which also boasts: Eric Martin (vocals), Paul Gilbert (guitar) and Pat Torpey (drums).
Make no mistake, “What If…” may very likely be the best Mr. Big album ever and Billy Sheehan couldn’t be happier. Honestly, a feel-good story like this couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy like Billy Sheehan and exemplary Hard Rock band like Mr. Big. Ten years have passed since the last Mr. Big studio album and after one thorough listen to “What If…” I never could tell. Billy Sheehan took the time from his busy touring schedule recently, to talk to Hard Rock Hideout about Mr. Big’s reunion, their comeback album, their fans and of course, David Lee Roth. Here is what Billy Sheehan had to say:
HRH: How amazing the new album sounds! Eric, Paul, Pat and yourself sound like you’re all at the top of your game on “What If…”. How close were you guys during the off years?
BILLY: Pat, Paul and I live in L.A., so we saw each other a lot and we all rehearse at the same place. Eric is in San Francisco and we always send messages to each other. We never thought the band would be together again.
HRH: What moment sparked the band into creating a new studio album?
BILLY: We were always asked by everybody when is Mr. Big gonna play again? So really it’s the fans that are responsible for Mr. Big getting back together, making a new album and touring. We had done a reunion tour back in 2009. It was a great time and run for us. We had a conference call with our manager and he posed the question, do you want to do a record? We all agreed to do a new record, only like our early records where everybody contributes. While making this record, we were all hanging out and enjoying our time with each other. We got lucky! Honestly, this is the best reviewed record I’ve ever played on! You never know what is going to happen when you make a new record.
HRH: I’ll agree with being a best reviewed record! Hard Rock Hideout considers “What If…” to be one of the best Hard Rock albums of 2011.
BILLY: Well thank you! I appreciate that! We were pleasantly surprised!
HRH: Were you ever concerned about how the new album would be received by the media and the fans?
BILLY: It was not so much concern, we just didn’t know! With all the rehearsing, recording, mixing, mastering and other work that goes into making the album… we do the best we can. We are all Hard Rock fans ourselves, so we know what we expect from our favorite bands. We try to incorporate what we do as fans, we know what we like, we know what we think sounds cool and try to put it into our music. There is a disconnect between what the artist likes and what the fans accept and expect as well. That can’t be denied.
HRH: How big of an asset is Kevin Shirley in the studio?
BILLY: Kevin was a big asset! He insisted on a certain way we would play it and sing it “live”. Kevin told us in a nice way but a stern way, he said c’mon, let’s see it! Bring it! This was pressure we didn’t expect! Our song “All Around The World, we played it like hundreds of times! We arrived at the studio super early in the morning. It wasn’t easy being under that kind of pressure. This was pressure we didn’t expect! We had to kick ass and hit it hard! Still, it is a good thing to be under pressure. There’s no room for a blunder doing it live! Kevin had us make a record like The Beatles did in the old days, a bunch of takes being played live. We do a bunch of takes and just get it right.
HRH: While “What If…” was being written, how democratic was the band?
BILLY: Very, very democratic. Very much like the original records were written. It just makes more sense to listen to what each other has to offer. We all threw ideas around. We’re selfless and use the other guys idea if yours isn’t working. We wrote one hundred and twenty-eight pieces of music, while writing this new album. There was a lot of versatility and cool changes from all the pieces that were written. We had a lot to choose from.
HRH: With all the pieces of music written for “What If…”, will there be a couple more albums from Mr. Big in the future?
BILLY: Back in the day it was tour, do a record, tour and do another record. There is no MTV now, so records take longer to sink in these days. Maybe we’ll tour for another year and next Summer we’ll do festivals. It’s hard to predict what we’ll do in the future. We’re just enjoying what is happening now.
HRH: How has the current tour of the States been?
BILLY: It’s been a blast! The tour has been easy and really cool. We started in Southern California, then went north, then went back west and down to San Diego. We have packed houses everywhere we play right now. We’re hitting it hard everywhere we go to play. It’s been great business for us, especially when bands are suffering on the road at the present time. After all these years, the Mr. Big records are still being played and people want to see us. There’s a lot of people who are happy to see us. After the shows, I hang out with the fans and sign photos, shake hands and we share our time.
HRH: After all these years, how important has Japan been to the success of Mr. Big?
BILLY: Very important. We sold more records in the U.S. and Europe than we did in Japan. Many people think that it’s easy to go there (Japan) because we are Americans. I feel people are fixated on the mythological aspect of Japan due to Spinal Tap! (laughs).
BILLY: Japan is a very different marketplace, as is Taiwan and Korea where we have many fans. I get more fan mail from Indonesia than anywhere else in the world! We hit it hard in Japan. A lot of bands toured there (Japan) and never got asked back again! We love Japan and are very grateful to the fans there for their support over the years. We hit it hard in Japan like everywhere else we go. We didn’t change our method of operation the way we approached Japan. We shook hands, signed photos and took the time to meet the fans.
HRH: Is Eric Martin an underrated vocalist of Hard Rock?
BILLY: I guess he may be underrated by some and other moments very celebrated by many. The first time I heard Eric sing, I said that is exactly what I want! That is the voice I’m looking for! Eric has that smokey tonality about him, he is from the Paul Rodgers mold.
HRH: What other instrument can you play that the typical fan wouldn’t know about?
BILLY: The sax. I do know where to put my fingers and I will play the sax, even if it sounds terrible! (laughs) So I do try the sax.
HRH: Will you ever consider reissuing any of the Talas titles?
BILLY: There was a couple that Metal Blade Records reissued in the past. I have a zillion demos and unreleased tracks, plus live bootlegs. I would love to sell them on the net or as a super cheap download. I have many early demos and tracks of Mr. Big. I have David Lee Roth “Eat ‘Em And Smile” and “Skyscraper” demos, minus the vocals. Of course there would be some legal issues to sort out with Dave on these. I have tons of live videos that no one has ever seen before too. I would love to release some of those some day. These videos are all professionally done.
HRH: Can you reveal the funniest or craziest moment you experienced while touring with David Lee Roth?
BILLY: The “Dave Tour” was a string of craziest and funniest moments! That was one big and amazing time of my life. That whole part of my life is a book in itself! Dave was and still is my hero. I will always be thankful for Dave giving me that opportunity. Steve (Vai), Gregg (Bissonette) and I like to reunite for Christmas. We once reminisced about it all. We called Dave once when we were together and couldn’t find him! (laughs).
HRH: As you tour with Mr. Big in 2011, does it feel like old times or is there a new-found fire burning?
BILLY: Definitely a new-found fire burning. I believe all of us (in the band) are people enjoying our lives now. When we were younger, there was more pressure on us to succeed. I spend more time now playing and working on my bass, than any other time in my life. It’s the same with Paul and Pat, they would tell you the same thing. We absolutely love what we’re doing right now, we feel very lucky and fortunate. We rolled the dice and it came up sevens!