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© Sayre Berman/Corbis
It might come as a surprise to many to learn that when Billy Sheehan, one of the world's foremost bassists, kicks back, the last thing he wants to listen to is the music of fellow bass virtuosos. "From legends like Stanley Clarke to newer guys like Victor Wooten, I've heard them all, and they're all great," says Sheehan. "But when I'm home or on a tour bus, I'd rather listen to garage bands from the '60s or something else that's way-out. It's important to take yourself away from what's close to you."
Growing up in Buffalo, New York, in the '60s and early '70s, Sheehan devoured the big band records from his mother's collection, and he was also a huge AM radio fan. "I heard everything on the dial," he says. "Radio played such a variety of styles, and it made you very uninhibited in what you liked. Nobody was ever afraid to say, ‘Hey, I got the new Carole King record.’ There wasn't the balkanization of music that we have today."
Sheehan's eclectic tastes expanded in the mid-'70s when he roomed with a Buffalo-based painter named Ted Gasceiwicz. A realist on the canvas, Gasceiwicz was quite fanciful in the music he favored. "He was a great finder of the obscure," says Sheehan. "He turned me on to people like Alberto Ginastera, a Spanish pianist with the most incredible approach to pounding on the keyboards. He’d play me records that I never heard of before, but it was great because they’d be in my vocabulary after that. You need people like Ted in your life."
It was also in Buffalo where Sheehan encountered what he remembers as being the first forceful resistance to music that he loved. The bassist had arrived at an area club for a soundcheck and was eager to test out his cassette player through the PA system. "I just wanted to hear what it sounded like, 'cause it was new at the time," says Sheehan. “The tape in the player was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I put it on, and one of the bartenders started yelling and screaming at me, really going crazy. The idea of me playing classical music in a rock club was a total affront to his sensibilities. That surprised me, especially since I thought the Ninth Symphony was so heavy and awesome."
Today, Sheehan finds that not limiting the choices on his "digital dungeon," i.e. his iPod, pays off enormously in his own work. "I remember playing a big gig in front of a rock audience," he says, "and I went into some oddball stuff on the bass that was based on Bach. Afterwards, people came up to me – ‘Wow, how did you come up with that? What was that thing you were doing?’ They didn’t know it was hundreds of years old."
On the following pages, Sheehan runs down his not-so-guilty pleasures, five incredibly dissimilar albums that are all common in one regard: not one of them features a blazing bass-note run. "Keep your mind and your ears open, and like what you like," says Sheehan. "Take a left turn in your listening habits. It'll pay off somewhere down the road."