A little time with Mr. Big, Billy Sheehan
By Dave Schwartz
Photos by Sally Schwartz and Courtesy of www.billysheehan.com
If you have ever been to a convention you understand the need to plan an agenda-- one that hopefully will cover all the booths and all the people that you deem necessary. But all too often a shiny new toy or unexpected guest will cause the agenda, which you painstakingly planned out, to go by the wayside. So it was clearly understandable why Naughty Mickie and I would take that hard left turn and pull along side Mr. Big himself, Billy Sheehan.
Billy is spending a couple of hours in the AMPEG booth this day signing autographs, promoting the product and graciously sharing his time with fans, and now DaBelly. In great spirits he spends a good deal of his time joking with his audience and teasing his lovely assistant. Occasionally celebrities such as noted session bassist Jeff Berlin stuck their heads in to crack a joke and share a laugh with an old friend. I was lucky enough to begin the interview.
"Billy, I saw that you had a new Mr. Big album out last year. Will there be another release this year too?"
"We are starting our new record right now," Sheehan replies.
"Excellent, what should we expect from this new record?"
Billy smiles and says, "Hard and heavy, Fast and loud."
The standard Mr. Big album, I can see this coming.
"Well we had a couple of lighter things there a few years back." He comments.
Sheehan was making reference to Mr. Big's chart topping hit, "To Be With You," an almost sickly sweet ballad that was very uncharacteristic of the brand of rock for which they are known. Nevertheless the ballad did prove that this group of all around shredders had the ability to show a softer side too. Depth and balance are often rare commodities in a rock band.
Now that we have established that a new record is in the works, it is time we get to the bottom of song writing. Mickie opens with her first question, "Billy what is your approach to writing songs?"
"I write titles and then I build a song on it," He replies.
"I would've expected that you started out with a bass riff," I chime in.
Sheehan clarifies, "Any way that you can imagine I do it. I have like a zillion different ways. Start with music, start with the drum beat, start with a lyric, start with a melody, start with a concept."
"Where do you get your inspiration for writing," Mickie continues.
"Everywhere that you can imagine, from driving down the street to having my heart broken to complete and utter victory and triumph to total abject failure. All of those things and everything in between."
About this time Jeff Berlin sticks his head back into the booth, "Hey Billy, I hope you don't mind, I signed your name."
The crowd erupts into laughter as Berlin tells of a kid who wanted to get Billy's autograph, unfortunately they had run out of 8 x 10 glossies. The kid searched around and found one in the floor, but because Billy was speaking with us he was afraid to approach him and make the request. This is where Jeff Berlin intervened. Borrowing the photo from the kid, he signed Billy's name. Proud of his effort he brought the photo over for Billy's approval and the two spent the next several minutes applying an artistic touch as they added glasses and a beard before Billy signed the photo for the young fan.
"With such a long and storied career it's appropriate to ask about some of the older tunes. Are you still playing some of the older songs like "Elephant Gun" from the Davis Lee Roth band?" I ask.
"No!" Billy replies. "We have never done that live in any band other than Dave."
"Really? I could've sworn you played one of the old DLR songs when I saw Mr. Big open for RUSH."
"That would've been 'Shy Boy' because that is my song. 'Elephant Gun' was Dave's song and if we played it, we would have to pay him. I'm sorry but Dave got enough of me!" he laughs.
Aside from his main band Mr. Big, Billy has delved into various side projects. His latest, Niacin, is an interesting mixture of musicians that doesn't include a guitarist. Billy Sheehan formed Niacin as an outlet for his jazz-fusion and prog-rock inclinations during the mid-'90s. As part of his appearance in the AMPEG booth, Niacin is also scheduled to perform during a special concert later this evening.
"So then Niacin is a side project for you now, who is in it. who are you with?" I query.
As Sheehan hands us passes to tonight's performance he answers, "Dennis Chambers on drums and John Novello on Hammond B3."
Interested in as much the personal side as the professional, Mickie probes his private life. "What are your hobbies when you're not performing?"
Billy smiles and responds, "None, it's just me and my kitty cat."
"Oh, you like cats?" She draws him out.
"I love cats." He continues, "My cat's name is Spooky. She's all black. She replaced my last cat, Monkey, who passed away last summer. So I went to the hospital where I took Monkey when she passed away and they had a pet adoption place right next door. So I went over and there she was. One look and we fell in love."
"How does she react to your bass playing?" Mickie asks. "Cats are very sensitive to music, do you find that with yours?"
"Sometimes she's a little funny with the bass. When I start to sing she goes nuts!" Billy laughs. "She hates it!"
Mickie comments that her vocal coach, David Gabriel's cat, Sassy, is an astute music critic and will let you know whether or not your lesson is going well.
"You know this is the first time that I've met you and I must admit that I was a bit surprised that your hands weren't larger," I state. "I've seen your videos and I am a bass player too, I expected that your hands were larger because of the amazing span you have."
As Mickie and Billy compare the size of their hands he replies, "No, that's it."
"Are you going back out on the road again after the studio?" Mickie asks.
"I love to play live," Billy begins. "Playing live is where I'm at. Any chance that I can get to do that I'll do it."
"What size venue do you like, large or small?" she continues.
"Sometimes the microscopic ones are great. Like we do with Niacin sometimes. There are people sitting like right there," Sheehan motions with his hands. "And I have my beer on their table. We have a lot of fun because the people are right here and they can see everything."
"Billy, you know the internet is great for passing along fictitious rumors," I say. "I saw posted somewhere that there exists an MP3 of you playing bass with the members of RUSH, sitting in for Geddy"
He smiles as he answers, "Yes, I did do that. They were probably talking about my last Web site."
"I never actually found the MP3," I admit. "I tried to find it, but didn't have any luck."
"I am going to repost it on my site," Billy teases. "I also have me doing 'Closer to Home' with Kings X and the original 'Sky Scraper' minus vocals. I have all kinds of ultra rare stuff."
"Is there a genre of music that you play alone? You know, stuff that you don't play with your band, kinda your own personal thing?" Mickie asks.
Sheehan surprises us when he replies, "I play a lot of Latin stuff and a lot of flamenco stuff."
"On a bass, that must be interesting," I respond.
"Yeah, the fingering technique is similar. I also sing a lot of old Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars. My cat freaks at that one!" he concludes.
With that Billy Sheehan's time had expired. He still had a sound check and dinner awaiting him, so his busy afternoon was only going to get busier. As for me, my only problem was dragging Mickie away from Sheehan as she mumbled, "Eyes, such beautiful blue eyes." It was fortunate that we ran across one of the premiere bass players of our time and it was equally unexpected to discover such a humble and unassuming star.
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