Billy Sheehan: a bassist who hasn’t gone to the dogs

Billy Sheehan is famous as a bass player for his crazy technique (some would go as far as calling him a “bass hero”), but when you get the opportunity to talk to him, you’re struck most by his enthusiasm, his simplicity and his lucidity. The man is a healthy mind in a healthy body, who likes a good song above everything else. Which is why he created a new band, The Winery Dogs, with two of his dearest friends: Richie Kotzen, whose talent and warm voice need to be put in the spotlight, and Mike Portnoy, who needs no introduction.

Catchy and efficient, with a pinch of virtuosity – those are the main characteristics of this band, not unlike Mr. Big in form and Chickenfoot or Black Country Communion in spirit. This recipe could well lead them to success; at least we hope so, for their sake, for the group has become the musicians’ main endeavor.

Let’s talk about it with Billy Sheehan.

« Sometimes musicians get lost in the technicality and the mechanics of the playing; those people are not musicians! »

Radio Metal: You played with Mike Portnoy during the tour with Tony McAlpine and Derek Sherinian. You also played with Richie in Mr. Big. I guess it was pretty simple for you three to work together in this new band The Winery Dogs…

Billy Sheehan (bass): Yeah, I knew both of those guys from many things. I worked with and played with Richie before, during and after Mr. Big. And I worked with Mike for years, on and off, here and there: we did a Who tribute together, we did a Rush Tribute record and he’s been a friend of mine for a long time. It was quite easy for us to work together. I don’t know how Richie and Mike knew each other but I know they had met before; they have a lot of friends in common. The music business is a small community, everybody knows everyone. There are no strangers, really. So, right away, we began to hang out together, enjoy each other and playing music right from the beginning. It was very cool.

You guys are very skilled musicians who enjoy playing very direct and simple music. Do you think that this is what made this collaboration so evident?

I have played a lot of different styles of music and some of it are technical and complicated, but all of us, myself, Richie and Mike, we love rock! (Laughs) We love The Who, Zeppelin, Hendrix and The Beatles… That’s all the music that we grew up on and began with. So going back to that style worked pretty well and we enjoy it very much. But we’ve still managed to bring in a little bit of the elements of some of the other music that we’ve played that’s a little bit more elaborate, or a little bit more complicated. I think that, our focus with this band were the songs, these were our main concern. So, when we started, we went into a room together and Mike had a tiny drum set: just a bass drum, four toms, a snake drum and cymbals, no rack toms at all. And this is a great way to write, because you’re concentrating on the songs and not on your playing. I had a little bass amp and Richie had a little guitar amp, so we weren’t concerned by the guitar sound or our playing. We were just concentrating on composing songs. Whatever player you are, when you get down to really concentrating on composition as opposed to playing, these are two different things. Sometimes, some musicians have a hard time separating these two aspects, but I think that myself, Richie and Mike are lucky to have the ability to do that. As a result, The Winery Dogs record is more song oriented than playing oriented, but we’ve still managed to sneak in some of our playing in here too. (Laughs)

Is it important for you to show to the listener that music isn’t just about technique?

Yes, yes, yes, good question! Absolutely, because sometimes musicians get lost in the technicality and the mechanics of the playing; those people are not musicians! In the audience they just want to watch and be entertained! And they want to hear music that they will enjoy! And I’m a fan, I don’t want to stand there in the audience and watch somebody that does solos after solos, or complicated time changes after complicated time changes. I love AC/DC’s Back In Black, in a party I put that on, not some complicated things. I put Humble Pie songs on, I put Beatles songs on, I put on something that appeals to everybody because it’s fun and enjoyable. And why can’t you have both? I think that you can really do both, but I think that the only successful way to do both is to start with a song. You have to start with a piece of music. When Van Halen did “You Really Got Me”, it’s a very simple song, but look what they do with it! It’s still fun, it’s still exciting for the non musician, but for the musicians, man, it has Eddie who’s going nuts, it’s incredible! But it’s still a simple, easy, wonderful song that everyone can enjoy. I think that’s the philosophy behind it. It’s not always exactly the case, sometimes we vary, sometimes we change it, but that’s the underlying idea. We sprinkle some playing in there, but it has to be based on a song that we like.

Can you tell us more about the writing process? Apparently Richie writes most of the music and the lyrics. What is your and Mike’s contribution to the process?

Well, we wrote together, we wrote about 75 percent of it. Richie did most of the lyrics and some songs were also Richie songs that we adapted me and Mike. I also tweaked a bunch of Richie’s lyrics, made a couple changes and rearrangements. So we all had a part in everything, some more than others. Some of the songs that Richie already had were great, like “Regret”. There were actually two songs we managed to put together. “Damaged” also was a great song. I just thought: “Man, we have to put that on the record”. We changed and rearranged things a little bit. But basically, yeah, the band wrote everything together for 60, maybe 75, percent of the record, and the rest were Richie’s songs that we adapted for the band.

« I’m not striving for music to have appeal in order to sell, I just find it’s a lot more fun to have three hundred friends in a room than fifty. »

Just like Mr. Big, everyone in this band is able to sing. It looks like it’s very important for you…

Yeah, I always urge players to sing. If you’re standing up there, put a microphone in front of you and sing! You have a voice, so why not use it? It’s always a very important thing. When I first started to sing, I was in a band and I never sang before. They needed an extra harmony part, so they put a microphone in front of me and said: « You sing this! » And I said (hesitant) “… OK” and I just started to sing it. (Laughs) I think that it’s a great thing for musicians to know about singing, because singing is the instrument that everyone has. Everyone has a voice, for the most part. And everyone likes to sing along. Knowing that, I think it gives your music a much greater appeal. I’m not striving for music to have appeal in order to sell, I just find it’s a lot more fun to have three hundred friends in a room than fifty. When you have a full room of people singing along, it’s an amazing thing. Last time, our show in Paris was unreal, incredible, people sang along to everything so loud, they blew us off the stage! (Laughs) It was amazing! So I encourage the musicians to sing! Why not? You’re standing up there, you have a voice, let’s use it! Especially in a three piece band, everybody has to do more: I sing, I play bass, I play bass pedals. Mike’s using every limb: both feet, both hands and his voice, all the time. Richie: guitar, piano, singing the leads and everything. So there’s no wasted people, everybody does a lot. That’s the wonderful thing about three piece bands, everybody has to do a lot to fill up for any extra keyboard, or rhythm guitars, or horns section, or backup singer, etc. We have to do it all ourselves and I kind of like that.

Was it important since the beginning of the band to work as a trio or did you think about hiring other musicians?

No, we liked to be a trio. Power trio is one of my favorite things. I grew up playing in a power trio band called Talas. Some of my favorite bands of all times, Cream, Grand Funk Railroad, Jimi Hendrix Experience, ZZ Top, were trios. Even bands that weren’t trios were a trio with a lead singer: Led Zeppelin or The Who for example. So, the three piece thing for me has always been appealing. We started it that way and we never had any plans otherwise.

What’s the status of The Winery Dogs: is it a band or a side project for you guys?

We didn’t want to do a side project. It was either we do a band or we don’t do anything, because Mike had a million of side projects. For me, a band with myself, Richie and Mike, I wouldn’t want to make it a side project because the players are just too important. So we wanted to make this a real band, designed to continue on, make many records, tour for many years and be the main focus for all of us. That was the only thing that we discussed, as far as planning. We didn’t plan any music, we didn’t plan what we were going to do. We just said that it would be great to be a real band instead of a side project. We all still do things, Mike has things he has to do, I have things that I have to do, same for Richie. But this is our main focus, for myself, Richie and Mike. We’ve all committed to that.

« If you’re standing up there, put a microphone in front of you and sing! […] I encourage the musicians to sing! Why not? You’re standing up there, you have a voice, let’s use it! »

You recently started touring. What was the response for the audience so far towards this new band?

In Japan, every show was sold out. In South America, every show was sold out. USA, every show was sold out. We started in Europe, the record wasn’t out in Germany yet, so some of those shows didn’t sell out but they were all packed. Last night in Paris was completely sold out and the audience sang along to every song. That was an amazing night last night, my best night ever in Paris. It was just a beautiful and incredible thing to be in such an incredible city filled with your new best friends all singing along.

Can you give us an update on Mr Big? Do you plan to do a new album?

No plans yet. Mr. Big is still very much a part of my heart and soul, I love that band, they‘re my friends. But now we only tour every two or three years and I want to play a lot more than that! There will come a time, probably within a year, when we’ll start another record. Right now my priority is The Winery Dogs but I’ll never forget about Mr. Big.

A lot of Mike Portnoy interviews are occasions for journalist to talk about his past with Dream Theater. Aren’t you guys bored of the fact that people use The Winery Dogs interviews to actually get information about Mike and Dream Theater?

Well, that’s Mike’s thing. He had a band, he worked with them for years, and people want to know… So, I don’t mind. I don’t mind because that’s Mike’s life and career. If a journalist wants to ask him questions, he can go ahead! It’s fine for me. We all have a history, I have Talas, UFO, Mr. Big, David Lee Roth, and Richie’s got a lot of history too. (Laughs) So there are billions of questions about it but it’s no trouble. I know that Mike is very happy with his situation in life and in the band. We had a wonderful time together as friends. And I know that it means a lot to him. We’re there for Mike as he’s here for us. So I’m totally fine with whatever happens. He’s been a dear friend of mine. Working with him in these past few months has only brought us closer to each other.

What are your plans after The Winery Dogs tour?

I take off for the holidays. I’m done. And then beginning of the year we do a progressive cruise Mike and I with Derek Sherinian and Tony MacAlpine. And then right after that we do a Monsters Of Rock cruise with The Winery Dogs. Then we start an April tour in the US with The Winery Dogs. And then next summer we’ll be doing festivals in Europe with The Winery Dogs as well. Most of next year’s already booked up with The Winery Dogs, except for one or two nights.

Interview conducted by phone on September, 16th 2013 by Metal’O Phil.
Transcription: Spaceman.
Introduction: Spaceman.

The Winery Dogs’s official website: www.thewinerydogs.com

Album The Winery Dogs, out since June, 23rd 2013 via Loud & Proud Records

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