Billy Sheehan: Still Listening, Still Burning

Republished from our “Holy Grail Issue”

By Greg Jones

Photos by Derek Brad

The year was 1986. The FM radio dial and MTV were uncharacteristically compelling due to the decision to play a sonically startling new record called “Yankee Rose” by newly-departed Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth. As the sound of a talking guitar answered the singer’s opening dialogue with ever-increasing snarling and sneering, a relentless bass thrummed the eighth note support with a confidence and authority hitherto unheard. The second the band exploded into the first verse, as impossible as it was to escape the twin spotlights on the flamboyant vocals and rainbow-cious guitar contributions, a third instrument was punching through the maelstrom and changing forever what would be possible for rock bass. And in that instant, the whole world saw and heard the musical tornado that is Billy Sheehan.

Though we could only talk for half an hour, I was positively electrified by his enthusiasm and energy. His answers to my questions made me marvel at how completely he dives into the wide universe of musical styles, both as a player and even more as a voracious listener. The fast pace of modern technology is not quenching his passion for absorbing the records he loves, it’s facilitating it. The undeniable power of his gift is all over the new album Hot Streak by The Winery Dogs which in its first week became the number one bestseller in Hard Rock on Amazon. So if it’s been a while since you got powerfully inspired, take a swim in the deep waters with this visionary artist. You’ll be so glad you did.

Double Down World Tour PlayStation Theater New York, NY October 10, 2015 DerekBrad.com

GUITAR CONNOISSEUR: I saw NIACIN once at NEARfest and I was close enough to the stage to hear you and Dennis Chambers conversing about whether or not one of you knew the tune that was the next one you were going to play. With all of the challenging gigs you do, some of them with instrumental music, what kind of things do you do to be able to remember all of this highly involved material?

BILLY SHEEHAN: That’s a good question. Instrumental music is hard to remember, there are no lyrics. Usually the title of the song is somewhere in the lyric. And you can kind of put those together in your mind and figure out how the song goes. Whereas sometimes with instrumental things, I need some kind of, more of a clue, not always, of course. There is a lot of instrumental music I could hear and instantly know, that everyone would instantly know or recognize and be able to name. However, when it goes deep because you’re doing a whole set and have played many years where there are enough pieces that you could start to confuse one with another, I guess I’ll just hear the opening and go “what are the first couple of notes to this?” (laughs) and then I’ll finally figure out what it is. When you go over it enough, eventually you get up to a point where you can remember it. But it is true, you’re travelling, and jet lag and bus lag and hotel fatigue in and out, eventually you’re up on stage and now you have to recall everything. Once you get into that piece of music it all falls together. I only have so much RAM in my mind –

GC: (laughs)

BS: My short term memory is usually maxed out; that’s why I never know details. “What’s the name of the hotel?” I don’t know but I don’t need to know, I know they’re driving us there. Or “what’s the name of the gig?” I don’t know but I know they’re driving us there, so rather than tax my RAM with details I try to fill it up with details of how to actually play the song. So usually a little hint will work too. “How’s this song go?” “Oh it’s the one that starts with the drums.” And then I’ll remember how it goes. But we had a blast onstage together, me and Dennis; he changed my life, he’s one of my best influences ever.

GC: That’s great. I also happened to see you in the same venue a few years later, playing a bunch of UK, King Crimson and ELP stuff with Eddie Jobson’s Ultimate Zero –

BS: Great!

GC: Not only was that a great gig, but you had two monster drummers behind you and I was wondering, do you get a lot of rehearsal time for shows like this? Or is it more a case of everyone shows up having done their homework really well?

BS: In the case of that show, everyone having done their homework really well, which I’m glad about. And I generally really try to get it right before I go in so I’m not the one guy that’s slowing the whole rehearsal down –

GC: (laughs)

BS: – who doesn’t remember how the parts go. I love it when somebody else slows the rehearsal down cuz that way it gives me more time to learn it while they’re getting in trouble for it. But that was a great gig, I enjoyed it very much and we played some of my favorite songs ever. What’s it, uh –

GC: You did “Red” and “Starless” –

BS: “Starless” … was just great. John Wetton has one of my favorite bass tones ever and is one of the best players. The Red album, the King Crimson album Red – I went on a trip once, years ago, and I was going to be gone for about two weeks and I took one CD with me and that was the Red album. And I was in a place where there was no TV or radio or anything like that. It was a project I was on away from media, a far off location, and all I had, and I did this on purpose, was the Red album. I played the thing every single night. To me, it’s one of the greatest records ever made. So playing that (“Starless”), the whole thing breaks down to just the bass playing that recurring line in the middle of the song. It’s pretty scary (laughs) because any kind of, the slightest error, and the whole place, they’re all Crimson fans, they’re all going to know that you blew it. (laughs) So it was a good kind of pressure. But I really want to do it justice, too, because I just love John Wetton, his playing and his choice of notes is just great and I’ve been a huge King Crimson fan since they began. So it was a great experience.

Double Down World Tour PlayStation Theater New York, NY October 10, 2015 DerekBrad.com

GC: On the same subject, when I see the stuff on the Portnoy Sheehan MacAlpine Sherinian Live in Tokyo set you’ve got out there on DVD, some of those tunes are even more intricate. Is it the same thing of people showing up having learned the material really well out of mutual respect?

BS: Yeah, pretty much. A lot of those gigs, as you probably know, music these days is: how do you make a small fortune in music? Start out with a big fortune.

GC: (laughing)

BS: The financial situation is tighter than it used to be, so to be able to have the luxury of going in to do a week of rehearsals and suss everything out, it just doesn’t, maybe you have a day or two, or sound check, day of show, to make sure you know what you’re doing.

GC: Wow.

BS: Now it’s not unlike it used to be in the old days, where guys would just come in and play and everything would be right, back in the early 60s with a lot of jazz bands, big bands and stuff, you were supposed to come in and know your stuff and go on stage and then you played. So there wasn’t really a lot of heavy rehearsals going on, where they became the norm for a long time and went away again. So now you need to do your homework and know what’s going on. The problem is sometimes you want to get creative and do some rearranging, sometimes it’s harder to unlearn the way you learned it to get the new way, than it is to just learn it in the first place. You have to remove what you’ve already learned from your mind to do the new version of it. That’s why I’m always making sure “which version are we doing exactly?” So I can know exactly what I’m talking about. Or if there are going to be changes, let me know where they’re going to be up front so I’ll kind of leave a blank space there so we can recreate what the newer version of it is.

But generally, I’ve never really thought so much, that’s why I thought it’s a good question, of how I memorize or how I remember those things. I just happened to. I know in my mind I could play full records, like the Red album, or there must be ten Frank Zappa records I know by heart, the whole thing, I could sit and go over the whole record with you. I can’t play it, because I don’t recall where it is on the neck but I know the arrangements. So if I had to play it, it’d be easier for me because I know it in my mind. I do remember a lot of music, which is surprising to me how I do it; I don’t really know how that happens but I’m sure glad it does.

Double Down World Tour PlayStation Theater New York, NY October 10, 2015 DerekBrad.com

GC: Something I’ve noticed in your music with The Winery Dogs, even in songs where you might be holding down a repetitive bass line, usually by verse two you’re sticking in subtle little fills, as in “Elevate Me”, or you’re just bringing some extra notes in someplace, where it reminds me of the John Paul Jones style of playing a little bit. You knew he was going to kind of play the same thing but it was always flavored up a little bit. I wonder if that’s something you consciously do or just a restless creative thing inside you?

BS: I think it’s a combination of the two. It is a conscious effort to keep it interesting. I listen to a lot of classical music and there’s a lot of repetitive themes that go on. And each time a theme repeats, there’s something about it that’s a little more elaborate or less elaborate, or a left turn or a right turn. So you’ll always hear that repeated theme alter, in a way that makes musical sense, a way that moves it ahead, that evolves into something different but still keeps it’s essence. And I think that’s a lot of where that comes from.

Of course I also listen to so much music that was jam-oriented or improvisation-oriented; when you hear Hendrix live, that’s one of the first records where I really got into it as a kid, then I hear the record and then hear it live and see how it’s different and see how things change; verse to verse, there’s a couple extra things and it always came to – there’s pure cut and paste repetition which some people like to have, that’s cool – but for me, it loses me; as the listener, I want to hear it evolve. I don’t want to hear it so evolved that it’s not repeating the same thing anymore and I don’t know what you’re doing. I need to have that repeating musical thing throughout the time, not only in popular music but across the music as well. But I like it when things evolve, someone’s actually interested in someone doing something, and to me it makes more sense. I wasn’t aware, though I’ve listened to Zeppelin records very intently and for many years, I didn’t really realize until you mentioned it that that’s what John Paul Jones does, it seems very natural that he would do that. But I never really sat back and said oh yeah, it’s true, he always puts a little change each time the thing comes up. Maybe microscopically subtle. But I have known situations where people want me to play exactly the same thing and to play it exactly over and over again because they’re going to be the thing that changes.

Double Down World Tour PlayStation Theater New York, NY October 10, 2015 DerekBrad.com

GC: Gotcha.

BS: Of course, the bass, that’s a hard thing in and of itself, to maintain something absolutely the same, through a long period of time and repeat it exactly. It takes, I know when I do my bass seminars I mention to a lot of players to be able to repeat something exactly is a very important skill.

GC: Sometimes, even if I am hearing you play the same pattern, I think I’m hearing a slight tone change, or maybe you’re plucking it with your fingers just a little differently, and I don’t know how conscious that is but it’s always interesting to me as a listener.

BS: Yeah, same here. As a listener, I like to hear, I know that the first verse, I know how it goes; I know that the second verse is pretty similar with different words but the same kind of rhyming scheme and pattern, but different lyrics; underneath it is the same music but now there’s a little move that happens, and it just – that’s why listening to a record sometimes you need to listen three or four times and each time you hear something you didn’t hear previously. Which I think is kinda cool. To sit back and listen. I’m sure it’s happened to you. You listen to a record and, especially if maybe you get a great new set of speakers or a better version of the music, you know, maybe a higher bit rate version of it or something, and listen down that way, you start to hear things in it you didn’t hear before, which is always exciting to me.

GC: I was looking at the back of the Eat ‘Em And Smile record this morning and it blew my mind to see that next year it will be thirty years old. Most of it still sounds pretty amazing to this day. That was the first time I heard you. Some of my favorite parts are the places where you get a chance to play a little slowly and melodically, like that little half time bridge in “Yankee Rose” or the spot with your wild harmonics in “Goin’ Crazy”, after the solo, just before Dave starts singing again –

BS: Yeah I know exactly where you mean.

GC: I think one of the things that makes your playing so distinctive is you seem to have a strong melodic sense. Even if you take something speedy like your Elephant Gun solo or Addicted To That Rush by Mr. Big, if I slow the really up tempo bass triplet things down they’re always pretty little melodic arpeggios. or there’s a top line, a melody going across.

BS: Even from the very early days I’ve always learned to play melodies on the bass. I remember when the first Santana record came out, I just had it on continuously and played along, played along, played along. I definitely had the bass parts and certain licks, and I learned the keyboard parts, then I learned the guitar parts and I just learned the thing inside and out, what each instrument did, so I knew every note of what every instrument did on the record. I loved that record so much, learning it like that was really cool. Two other records were Jethro Tull’s Stand Up record was a big record for me, where I learned every part of it that I could, and then when Deep Purple came out, the Fireball record –

GC: Oh! That’s my favorite of their albums.

BS: Oh man, it’s so great. And I got In Rock, which came out before that, and memorized that whole thing. I was just a huge Deep Purple fan. But I learned every part, not only the bass parts, but the other parts too. And I even kept in mind the vocal melody. And I began singing background vocals from the start, from my very first band. So a sense of singing is always good for bass players to understand, because the melodic sense, if you can bring that in with the bass like Paul McCartney does, or like a lot of great players do, it really can enhance a song well.

Note choice is a big thing for me. I see a lot of jazz guys playing, coming up with notes and I go, man! I would have never thought of that note, and it makes sense though. It works. But I would’ve never gone there. They’re singing a different melody in their head than I’m thinking of, cuz I’m not necessarily a jazz guy. I like some of it. But that’s not necessarily my thing. Whereas a vocalist singing a part of a song, those notes make sense to me and I try to make the bass similar in that the notes I’m choosing make sense to the body and melody of the song. So yeah, it’s not just the flying off the handle.

GC: Yeah, for me as a listener, it makes things stick with me a little more. I might not be able to yodel like the guy in Focus does on Hocus Pocus but I can hear that top note melody, it sticks with me.

BS: Exactly. I think generally, listeners are pretty sophisticated, even if they’re not musicians, you know, they get it. Sometimes they don’t know why they get it or how they get it, but they do get it. And it’s an important thing. And I’m pleased that they do, because if we had to rely on just musicians to understand it, it would be a very small amount of people in the audience. But if it appeals to people that aren’t musicians, to do something that will resonate with them, that they’ll respond to, it’s an important thing and it’s all based on time and melody, time and pitch, two elements.

Double Down World Tour PlayStation Theater New York, NY October 10, 2015 DerekBrad.com

GC: Well, speaking of time, may I ask: with all these drummers that you’ve worked with – the list is just endlessly great, Dennis Chambers, Virgil Donati on that Steve Vai tour that’s on DVD, Mike Portnoy of course, Marco Minnemann and Mike Mangini, Greg Bissonette – listening to these guys squash and push and splatter the time every which way, how did you develop the ability to be rock solid against the onslaught of the polyrhythmic excursions these great drummers take?

BS: Back in Buffalo, a guy that eventually became a four piece Talas drummer named Mark Miller, and another friend of ours whose name was Chris Voors, he had his PhD in analytical philosophy, he was a smart guy, we’d play these out-there, fusion, Mahavishnu style jams and we would go so far out but always stay in time. That was our goal, always to come in on one and have the beat happening. We would just do that endlessly, for hours. That was back in, mid-Seventies, so you kind of get used to that, I got a taste of that early on. Then, through the years, I was fortunate enough to play with a drummer whose timing was not good at all. At first I didn’t know what was wrong. Any time anything went wrong in a song on stage, I immediately thought “what did I do wrong? What did I screw up?” Over and over, what’s wrong? Then I finally realized “it’s the drummer!” And you can’t tell a drummer that, it’s just like telling your girlfriend she looks fat in those jeans.

GC: (laughing)

BS: You can’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. No matter how you bring it up, how you broach the subject, you don’t want to go there, ever. I just had to figure out a way to keep telling him that he drifted off and eventually drifted back. So I would be the guy just holding that time, keeping my eye on him until he came back to where one really was.. And he eventually did and we fixed it.

And I remember, when I did that Jobson tour, Eddie is a good concert master. He snaps things into shape. You’ve got to be able to control the situation and he does. He’s good at it. Not too harsh for me at all. Maybe for some, certainly not for me. He’s generally right in his directions that he’s giving you. And when we were rehearsing or sound checking, I think it was that part in “Starless”, I took it as a moment of honor when he told the other guys in the band “watch Billy’s foot. Watch Billy’s foot on this one.” Because I’m always keeping my internal clock going, all the time, it’s always on time. My foot is always moving, something’s always moving, always keeping time within myself. So that, if anything drifts or moves, I’m always in there, the internal clock.

To have your internal clock exactly right on and to sync that clock with everyone else is… now, unfortunately, other people’s clocks may, though in sync, they might be doing it in a different language. So you somehow have to keep them away, in your mind, you keep your time and if you just have faith that you’re on time and really understand that what you’re doing is you’re keeping time correctly, even though they’re way off and they’re splitting into thirds and sevens and fives and elevens, they are still in time; you just have to have the confidence to know that your foot tapping is still correct, even though it doesn’t seem, to some people, to line up. But if you really put it under a microscope it does.

GC: That’s great. It always fascinates me to hear the breadth of styles of music that inspirational players like yourself listened to back in the day. You see someone come up in a metal band and think maybe they really hunkered down in that style then find out no, they own all the Joni Mitchell collection, and Sabbath, and James Taylor –

BS: (laughing) That’s true. My Joni Mitchell folder is gigantic. So is my Sinatra and a lot of classical. I’m just finishing up – I’ve got a little glitch with my iTunes, my iTunes is my passion, I’ve got under two terabytes of music now but it’s getting close to two terabytes. And everything’s in the right folder and the right name and everything’s cool. So I always back up everything, I have 3 or 4 different places and also in different cities, I have 9 hard drives sent to friends here and there to make sure that it never gets lost. And I did a, I have a program called Folder Sync, where it compares my main iTunes folder with the backup folder, and I hit the button to see if they were synced and all this stuff was different. All the things were missing or misnamed, in the wrong folders and I don’t know how it happened. I think that when one of the new versions of iTunes came out, it renamed a lot of the metadata. So I’ve been spending the last two weeks, by hand, fixing it all, out of, I don’t know how many songs it is, three hundred thousand or something like that, it’s a huge amount of songs. Getting into my folder, it’s nice when I’m in there, I can start clicking on things and listening to them while I’m working.

GC: (laughing) Right!

BS: I’ve got a great, I’m just so happy that all that music is at my fingertips now, it’s been collected over years and years and years, I’ve got all these great bootlegs of live rehearsal and live records, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway rehearsals, Hendrix Live at the Fillmore Band Of Gypsies rehearsals

GC: Wow!

BS: All this great stuff, it’s so amazing to have it all at your fingertips.

GC: With the way you listen to music and key into everybody’s parts, have you ever thought about producing bands?

BS: Yeah, I produced a young lady just recently, the record comes out on I think October 18th. A lot of the stuff I worked on with Mr. Big, “line it up”, stuff like that, I’m hands on in the production, in a lot of ways. But this is the first time I actually produced a record full on, as the guy. She goes by the name of Madame Mayhem, she’s going to have the record out in mid-October, I got Ray Luzier to play drums on it, Bumblefoot came in and did some solos, awesome; Russ Parrish from Steel Panther did some solos too, great stuff; I did most of the bass and co-wrote all the songs with her; and another great player Corey Lowery also played bass and co-wrote some of the songs with her on the record. So that comes out soon. I think she’s pretty easy to find on Facebook. I’m not sure if she’s streaming a song or has a song on YouTube right now that’s from the record. We got a couple great, great pieces on there and the whole record is, she sings her ass off. It was a riot, I enjoyed producing a lot.

I’ve had a few other situations that didn’t go through all the way, where I almost produced so and so or whatever. And when the time comes or there’s something I really like, particularly since I have a big collection of all kinds of music and that’s my thing, to just get deep into all kinds of genres of music and try to make sense of it. It’s the thing I spend most time on. I’m down, I come down in the morning, the cat wakes me up at 4:30, I’m downstairs in my studio after I feed her, she comes and joins me and lays on my lap purring while I fix or add to my iTunes.

GC: Wow. When you were talking earlier about how the music landscape has changed as far as the cost of rehearsal time, how many different balls in the air do there need to be to keep a pretty good, steady revenue stream going?

BS: Well, either one great one, two good ones, three pretty good ones or four okay ones. (laughs) I know a couple friends of mine who have just amazing gigs with huge bands and they’re doing great, I’m glad for them. That’s pretty much all you need. But even in that situation, everybody kinda has a thing on the side. Cuz you can. And it’s fun. It used to be one band and that was it, nobody ever crossed the line. Well now, we’ve all really started playing a lot of different things and I think it’s good for players to do that. Because you really start to get challenged by other things.

When I played with Steve Vai, I love Steve, he’s like a brother to me; I didn’t have a lot of his solo music, I hadn’t heard much of it at all until I played with him. And some of it was stuff I wouldn’t necessarily gravitate to on a Saturday night, I’d put a Humble Pie record on maybe or something like that. But because it wasn’t something I would normally gravitate towards, it was a challenge for me to do it. And it really, I believe, improved my playing by having to force myself to accommodate someone else’s vision. And do it right. And do it so they are pleased. It was a good thing; it increases your vocabulary. So when you get in a different band, you start playing a different type of music or make a left turn, when you then go back to band one or your main situation, you’ve always got a little extra, some extra little thing now in your bag of tricks, your vocabulary, in the way you approach things that will add a little bit more spice in life.

I remember one of the first times I went backstage at a Van Halen show. I’m thinking “aw, these guys are going to be listening to some great rock music”, and I go back there and they were playing Frank Sinatra. That’s what was on! (laughing) It was great. I said “I get it now”. That’s why they do so great at what they do, because they’re getting a whole picture, y’know? That’s entertaining as well as being musical, and that was a revelation to me.

GC: And of course on Dave’s Eat ‘Em And Smile record, you guys did “That’s Life”.

BS: Yeah! Yeah, that was cool. One of my favorite records in the world is Sinatra Live At The Sands with the Count Basie Orchestra, Quincy Jones conducting.

GC: Wow.

BS: A list, A list, A list all across the top and it is just, it’s a masterpiece! It’s one of the greatest records ever made. And, no matter what you like, I bet you’ll like this. (laughing) There will be people coming over to my house, maybe a real heavy metal guy, and I’ll say “Hey I’ve got some metal for you, check this out! Only thing is, the metal’s made out of brass. Check it out!” And they end up liking it. I actually turn them on to it. I love that.

GC: Well I can’t thank you enough for this opportunity and I’m really looking forward to catching The Winery Dogs live on this upcoming tour. Thank you so much.

BS: Thanks for your time and thanks for good questions, too. A lot of these tend to be slow once in a while, it’s nice to get someone who’ll fire something off, uh, that are well thought out and aimed in the right direction. I appreciate that very much.

To Keep up with Billy Sheehan visit: billysheehan.com

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