The mighty Billy Sheehan returns with a new Mr Big album. Mike Brooks asks the big questions...
If you keep up with Billy Sheehan on social media, you’ll be aware that this is a man who rarely stands still. At 64, he puts a lot of younger musicians to shame - a seasoned globetrotter, bass-playing virtuoso, and a musician par excellence. No surprise, then, that he was only just able to fit us in for a catch-up prior to the launch of the new Mr Big album, Defying Gravity.
“We’ve just finished shooting videos for two songs, which was gruelling but a necessary evil,” he tells us.
“We gave ourselves six days in the studio to write and record the material: we worked a lot of it out on the spot which is cool. Pressure is a good motivator sometimes. Necessity is the mother of invention, so when you have six days and six flights booked for people to leave - so you can’t do anything more - you turn the heat up and make it happen.”
Defying Gravity is the band’s ninth studio album and sees the original line-up reunited with Kevin Elson, the man behind the desk on the first four Mr Big albums. As well as sounding strong and melodically reminiscent of their 1991 album Lean Into It, the band sound like they had a lot of fun recording this current offering, a point Billy is quick to confirm.
“I believe so: having Kevin was how the dam broke. He did all of the Journey stuff, he grew up with Lynyrd Skynyrd, and he was with them on the plane that crashed. He has incredible stories and a wonderful sense of music, and his mixes are as good as it gets. We really did have a riot, but we dug in deep and found a way to overcome obstacles by being creative.”
He continues, “I’ve seen it many times. You have 30 days to make a record and $300,000, and I’ll guarantee you that on day 29, it’ll be just barely done but the whole budget will have been blown. On the other hand, if you give yourself two days to make a record and $600, you’ll come home with the same thing. So why waste money and time?”
With only six days to pull everything together, and all hands to the pump, having four vocalists in the band was a big plus.
“Eric [Martin, vocalist] stepped up to the plate and did his very best. We all sing and write lyrics, so we already have an idea of what is likely to fit - but when a singer sings, some lyrics don’t fit.
“Just as when a composer writes for the viola, he needs to have a knowledge of what notes the viola has in terms of what works and what doesn’t. We always have to rewrite to make things work, but with a singer like Eric, he automatically knows what will work or not - plus he can sing just about anything anyway. He’s very clever in the way he phrases things.”
Despite the technical aspects of his playing, Billy isn’t afraid to put that side of things to one side, as he explains.
“Solos and technical playing have their place. We’ve certainly utilised those, and will continue to do so - but most of the time you’ve got to put it away, because there’s no need for histrionics or blazing technical wizardry.
“Sometimes it’s just about us laying a groove down. It’s sad that so many musicians get fixated on technical stuff. Hundreds of times, I’ve sent emails to people suggesting they learn some songs and play them out with a band in front of people. That’ll teach you more than any YouTube videos you could ever imagine.”
So let’s cut to the quick. How did the young Billy Sheehan become the bass legend he now is?
“In Talas we just got on stage and played and sang songs,” he tells us. “We had no idea if we were doing it correctly, but we managed to blub our way through solos and technical parts - if there were any in those songs - and we managed to get by.
“We did 21 nights in a row, three complete shows in one day on one occasion, playing cover songs all over the place. It really is supremely important. Having whizzy chops turns people off, because it’s musicians playing for musicians - and usually musicians get into the show for free. They usually stand there with their arms crossed saying ‘I can do that’.
“I love my fellow musicians, but I think all musicians should band together and support each other, instead of trying to outdo each other. It’s really about entertainment: the more people we can get into the rooms that we play in, the better everyone does.
“As a fan, I’ve listened to music that has lifted me, inspired me and educated me on music that was simply on a higher level of playing and art. Let’s help each other out once in a while and move things forward: we’re all in this together!”
Billy’s gear rarely goes without a few tweaks and changes between our interviews. We’ve noticed that his amplification currently consists purely of 15” cabinets, for example. Why the change from 10” speakers? There are reasons, as Billy describes.
“I went for the 15s from the very beginning, I had a Fender Bassman with two 15s and then I went to four 15s before switching to Ampeg with 8x10s. Then Ampeg went out of business - we’re talking the mid-70s here - so I switched over to JBL enclosures.
“I love the purity of a single voice coil that you get with a single 15” speaker, and a wide speaker cone for smooth dispersal. The 15s seem to have a more classic sound. In fact, someone recently wrote to me and told me that they’ve found four of my old JBL cabinets, so I’m picking them up soon.”
The second iteration of Billy’s EBS distortion pedal has gone from strength to strength, something that he’s suitably proud of.
“I get email almost every day from someone who has bought the pedal and they’re raving about it. It seems to work really well for a lot of people, I had a message today from a guy in Brazil who has scrapped a lot of gear and is able to just take that pedal with him to gigs - and he loves it. The real payoff for me is when it works for someone and helps to move them along in their musical endeavours: I’m always pleased to hear that.”
The remainder of 2017 looks immensely busy for the lord of the low-end. Tell us all, Billy...
“Writing for the next Winery Dogs album starts at the end of this year. I’m always writing, so I’ve got a couple of things set aside for the next album. I would still love to work with the guys from the David Lee Roth band, I’m open to anything with Dave. He’s still my hero: even just one gig would be a great thing. I get messages about it every day!”