A Dog’s Life: Billy Sheehan

Billy Sheehan, London, September 2013. © Tina Korhonen, all rights reserved.We delve into the archive and pick up a chat with Billy Sheehan following the release of the Winery Dogs’ first album: With his new band the Winery Dogs, bassist extraordinaire Billy Sheehan has returned to the top of the rock scene. Mike Brooks gets the low-down

“I almost didn’t make it, I was starting to fade out. But I got through it, I’ve never passed out on stage… yet!” The words of Billy Sheehan, describing the previous night’s show in Wolverhampton, a gig that he describes as “rough” due to the heat and humidity – but here at London’s Camden Underworld, Billy looks refreshed, renewed and ready to go for the show tonight.

In little more than a year, the Winery Dogs – also featuring sometime Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy and ex-Poison guitarist/vocalist Richie Kotzen – have travelled the world, re-establishing the idea of a ‘supergroup’ and selling out shows in the process. With numerous projects on the boil on a regular basis, Billy is in the enviable position of playing with a host of great drummers, which must be a lot of fun. He concurs, “Absolutely. Mike and I have a weird, telepathic, ESP where we just do things – I don’t know how it happens. I’ve known Mike for a while, the Dream Theater guys got together because they were Talas fans. Mike is a joy, fun, exciting and entertaining, and with Dennis Chambers, drummer in my band Niacin, it’s the same thing, like some Vulcan mind-meld occurs where you just lock in with them. To me, the drummer is the band.”

With so many projects, it must be tricky to keep so much material in the brain? Billy laughs, “I only have so much RAM. One year, I did five different shows, and it was no problem, but on show four, I couldn’t have gone back and done show one. I don’t always commit stuff to memory: some I do and I will remember always, some I can figure out and if I can play it in my head, I can play it with my hands. We just did some Niacin shows and learning some of that stuff – I had no idea what I did. I was blazing away and it was going by super fast… I didn’t know where to start.”

It must be a challenge to come up with original and inspiring bass parts for each band, but Billy takes it all in his stride. “When you look at a cake, you only see the frosting. I work on a lot of stuff on my iPhone: I have hundreds of recorded video snippets with ideas, song parts and bass-lines. There’s really no limit when it comes to writing and creating. I have ways to get around creative blocks: I start listening to something completely different or pick up a 12-string guitar for example. After playing for over 40 years, I’m just scratching the surface of what the possibilities are musically. Technique-wise, I’m doing a lot of flamenco picking now on bass. It’s an unusual thing, as well as a bunch of different ways of playing that I’ve never done before.”

One point that Billy tries to communicate to bassists and musicians through his clinics and tuition videos is to challenge yourself, something he had to do when working with Steve Vai. “Playing with Steve was different, because I don’t do that, that’s not my thing. I love Steve, I think his music is amazing but it was a whole different discipline, I had to play what he wanted me to play, the way he wanted me to play it, which I don’t do. I always challenge artists to do that thing that you can’t do or don’t do, get out of your comfort zone, try making a left turn.”Billy Sheehan, London, September 2013. © Tina Korhonen, all rights reserved.

As the subject of two of the most popular tuition videos before the advent of YouTube, has Billy considered producing an updated DVD? He smiles, “I’d love to. I did the books and DVDs for Alfred Publishing not so long ago, it was important for me to show the basics too. A lot of guys did videos for years to show off their licks, because they had no record deal, no songs, no band, and it gave instructional stuff a bad name. My point in doing them was to show stuff so that you walked away from it a better player, but it wasn’t a showcase for me. There’s nothing I can do that you can’t: I’m a firm believer in that.”

The fabled Sheehan bass and equipment arsenal has stabilised recently. The racks of gear are now much reduced, with Hartke LH1000 and HA5500 amps powering AK115 and 410 cabinets and a relatively modest pedal-board featuring two EBS Billy Sheehan Signature Drive pedals, two MXR M87 Bass Compressor pedals and an EBS Octabass pedal. “I may have been the first bassist with a rack of gear,” he muses. “They looked complicated but they were simple. If something went wrong mid-show, I knew my rack like the back of my hand because I built it, I opened every case, looked at all the electronics, and did all the wiring between the units myself.”

Mr Big fans will be pleased to know that a new album is due out in the autumn, backed up by a small European tour and then followed by a trip to Asia. However, the globetrotting tours of years gone by may now be a thing of the past, as Billy explains. “Mr Big isn’t a touring thing for some of the guys any more. I understand: I still love them and they’re my brothers. We may do one-off shows now and again. It’s great that I’m in a band with Mike Portnoy, because Mike would play three shows a day, every day from now until 2040. I can do that too, and I need to play live a lot so if I relied on Mr Big, I would only play a short tour every two to three years. We may do another record, we won’t break up, but it will be a limited thing – and that’s the way life goes sometimes.”

Info: www.thewinerydogs.com

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