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INTERVIEW: BILLY SHEEHAN of MR. BIG – May 2017

According to a recent press release: “The call went out. Time for a new MR. BIG album. They convened in a Los Angeles studio and in a matter of six days, the boundless result of all that musical talent is DEFYING GRAVITY, with the release of their ninth original studio album and start of a new worldwide tour. Set for release July 7 on Frontiers Music Srl, DEFYING GRAVITY will be available at traditional retail and all digital service providers, as will a deluxe edition version with CD and bonus DVD that features music videos and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the new album. The album will also be made available on vinyl in the coming months. An official trailer for DEFYING GRAVITY can be seen here. DEFYING GRAVITY deftly showcases that patented MR. BIG blend of crunch and melody, from the freight-train ride of opening cut “Open Your Eyes” to the harmony-laden wonderment of “Damn I’m in Love Again” to the grateful/wistful nostalgia of “1992” (recalling the days when the band was flying high atop the singles charts with their international #1 smash “To Be With You”) to the barnburning slide-blues closer, “Be Kind.” Overall, DEFYING GRAVITY is prime evidence that the only thing MR. BIG remains tethered to is their ongoing pursuit of achieving creative excellence.”  With the bands North American tour ramping up leading to the July 7 release of the new disc, we were able to get Bassist extraordinaire Billy Sheehan on the phone to discuss the latest disc, the tour, and much more…

Toddstar: Thank you so much Billy for taking time out for us. This is quite the honor.

Billy: My pleasure. My pleasure.

Toddstar: Well let’s jump right into it, man. Mr. Big has Defying Gravity coming out July 7th.

Billy: Right on.

Toddstar: What can you tell us about this slice of plastic with 11 killer tracks on it that a Mr. Big fan might not grab first time through, Billy?

Billy: Well this is a special record for us in many respects. It’s always enjoyable for us to get back together again as friends and as musicians and songwriters and singers but this time we had a little extra. Our original producer from the first four Mr. Big records, Kevin Elson, he was the producer for this. We’ve been trying to get him since we got back together in 2009 but the schedules didn’t correspond so this time he happened to be free at the same time we were so we had him along. It was really like the old gang back together again, complete. We had a wonderful time doing it and all of us have lived a lot of life and experienced a lot of things and grown as musicians, writers, singers, philosophers. Anything we might happen to be. A new record is kind of a reflection of that, of all the things that we’ve all been through and new vocabulary to speak about things in a new way but still retaining what we originally started with. We’re very excited about it. So far the response has been overwhelming.

Toddstar: I can’t stop listening to it. What I really can’t wrap my head around is that you guys did this in six days.

Billy: Yes sir. You know, we’ve made a lot of records. Amongst the four or five of us we’ve made a lot of records so it’s actually… I remember I had a long talk with Robert Fripp one time and he told me about all the early days in King Crimson and he said that the first King Crimson record, In the Court of the Crimson King, they did in seven days in somebody’s living room. So a lot of great records were done quick because you didn’t really have a lot of time or a lot of money and later on as the music business turned into the music industry people were taking 30, 60, 90 days to do a record and unlimited cash. I don’t think the records are as good. There’s some good records, of course, that came from that but when there’s that urgency, “Come on we got six days we gotta go!” That really brings the best out. I mean, on any project, whether you’re building a deck on the back of your house or doing something to your car, whatever your project is, if you give yourself unlimited time you’re gonna take unlimited time whereas, it’s like, “God I got a day to get this done. I got to do it right.” You really hustle. So it’s a good kind of positive urgency and push that happens and I believe that’s how a lot of great records were made so we, in fact, really did only have six days. It wasn’t an artificial schedule that we put on ourselves. We could all only be in the same place for six days so we did that and we got everything done, man. We didn’t go in with the songs completed either. We had one or two things that were kinda completed but we had to do a lot of stuff on the fly, which, again, led to a lot of quick ideas and on-the-fly thinking, which I prefer. As a musician when you’re on the stage and you’re jamming you’re not playing anything that you already worked out. You’ve gotta make it up as you go a long and think on your feet and all of us do that in the band and so when you’re in the studio and you have the opportunity to think on your feet, so to speak, I just believe you come up with something that has a little bit more depth to it, a little bit more of the bands spirit infused into it. Just one man’s opinion but I do believe that’s the case.

Toddstar: Well, I recently heard something from Eric [Martin] where he mentioned he would have something in his head and he’d say, “Well this is what I want to hear.” And you guys would say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Is this what you meant?” And between you and Paul you would hash out what Eric almost had in his mind. Is that something because of the dynamic between the core of you guys that you kind of know where you’re headed?

Billy: To some degree. Eric’s a really good guitar player, but he can’t always articulate exactly what he needs to communicate to us. Between myself and Paul we can kinda figure out if we can’t figure it out we can at least give him 10 options so one of them might be the right one. When you’re working with someone that’s a writer they have a nebulous idea and you gotta figure out how to make that happen. Like the famous, “Oh it’s gotta sound more brown.” Well, how does it sounds more brown? I don’t know. Brown is a color, not a sound. You figure out a way to do it though and it’s a cool challenge. Yeah he’d come to us with an idea like, I forgot what song it was, but he laid this idea down on us and I go, “I get where you’re going with this but what about this?” And I had asked Paul to expand on it a little bit, in a way that only Paul can, and sure enough it was the right formula for the right thing. You are correct. The fact that we know each other well, and known each other for decades, we kinda get an idea where the other guys are at. Who would go for what or not and so that helps a bit. That understanding of where the other guys are at and what they’re into and what they think helps a lot.

Toddstar: Well building on that, Billy, this album to me sounds sonically just like the bands debut or Lean Into It yet it doesn’t sound rehashed. It still sounds fresh. Sounds like something that could have been recorded then, could be recorded now. Do you also put that back to, it is the core group of guys or the fact that you guys have just created this sound that will always be Mr. Big?

Billy: Well if we did create a sound that’ll always be Mr. Big, it was inadvertent. We didn’t plan to do that, it kinda just happened. Similarly, with a musician. A musician’s got a tone in his hand. That’s why he can tell the difference between Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. When you hear it, “Oh that’s Page. Oh that’s Beck.” You kind of tell right away. There’s a thing, a sound. So I guess when you get four guys together there’s a sound but I don’t think any of those guys, I know myself and most musicians I know, we didn’t necessarily try to get that sound. It’s just kind of what happened. I believe something has happened within the ranks of Mr. Big that what we do now constitutes a sound and it constitutes an identifiable thing and we’re glad that the record kinda sounds like late 80’s Mr. Big to some degree because that was honestly what we sounded like when we first walked into a room together so we didn’t want to necessarily start adding sub bass and ultra-highs when we used to record on tape and there was no sub bass and ultra-highs. It was a different thing so, no, we wanted it to be a representative of where we were but also not be so slogged down in that that it wouldn’t have some room to move and grow and evolve to 2017.

Toddstar: That said, I’m already grabbing my favorites in this and I’m not even gonna be ridiculous enough to say, “What’s your favorite Billy?” But I do want to know, in your opinion, because you guys didn’t absorb this for millions of days in the studio and you guys are now flushing this out going out on tour, what songs from this album do you see in your head as lining up perfectly with those Mr. Big classics for years to come?

Billy: I think the song “Be Kind”, last song on the record. When we first started… (there is a lot of background noise on the call) there’s a plane going overhead here, we are in North Hollywood rehearsing near the Burbank airport. I apologize. There was always kind of a quirkiness. “Green-Tinted 60’s Mind” and “Daddy Brother” with the drills, that was known as comedy and stuff like that so “Be Kind”, it’s not quirky in a comedy way but it’s a sweet kind of a sentiment that I think is very welcome in our chaotic, crazy days we’re all living in right now. Just the idea to be kind to someone because you don’t know what they’ve been through and it came out as this kind of old Blues shuffle kind of idea and it just fell together perfectly. We put the background vocals on there and suddenly it grew into this thing and it really represents a lot of what Mr. Big is about. A nice message. Something positive. A lot of singing and a tribute to what was and what might be in the future. That type of thing so that’s one of them for me, certainly. You’re right. It’s tough to pick out a favorite because it’s like, you know, you’ve got 11 kids, which one is your favorite? It’s hard to pick and that changes from day to day too. I mean, “1992” has been released on the internet as kind of a beginning of this campaign the label’s doing for us and I put it up and within a couple hours I had 350 comments on my Facebook page, almost universally positive so it was a really good sign and people, especially a lot of our fans that I know that have come to our shows that I recognize and I say hi to them when I’m in England or Japan or Brazil or whatever else. They’ve been really responsive to it so it’s gonna be hard to pick an absolute favorite but my current one is “Be Kind”.

Toddstar: Awesome. I like the song and I think it was a ballsy move throwing a seven minute track at the end of a disc but it worked. It really worked. It helped tie it together for me. It actually prompts me to kick it back over at the beginning. The one word I keep going to, Billy, while trying to pull together my review is groove. Groove – everything seems so groove laden and a lot of that, I think, falls down to you with what you do with the bass. Is that something that, when you’re writing tracks, you see how deep you can take it or do you just move where it takes you?

Billy: Well, I wish I could. Again, I’m not really consciously doing too much and I’m not thinking about it so I don’t necessarily take credit for anything that happens because it just kinda happens, if you know what I mean, but for me I’m all about the drums. Bass, bass and drums are where it’s at. I mean I get a lot of attention for soloing, shenanigans and nonsense, which is fun and enjoyable to do, but when I do my bass clinic I start off playing solo, I finish and I go, “90% of bass playing has nothing to do with that.” And everybody laughs but it’s ’cause it’s true. Even more than 90%, probably 99%, is about the drums. When you’re hooked up with the drums and you’re hanging with the drums, that’s the essence. Bass puts a pitch to rhythm. Without the bass we don’t know what key we’re in. As soon as the bass starts, now we know what key we’re in and it’s a very essential connecting voice between chords and vocals and the drums so you’re right in there. You’re right. The bass has a lot to do with the groove so if you were pleased with it I’m very thankful. Again, I just really try to lock into what the drummers doing. I watch drummers and I read drum magazines and I play a little drums myself. I learned the drum language and I encourage other bass players to get a pair of sticks and sit with a kick hat snare and learn how to play some beats. It’s essential to bass playing to know what the drummer’s doing. Speak his language a bit. It’s always been that way with Mr. Big and for me personally I’ve been very lucky to play with great, great drummers that have always been a positive influence to me on the idea of groove.

Toddstar: I was about to say, you’ve played with some of the great ones and you’ve got two killer drummers on this album, Pat Torpey and you’ve got Matt Starr. How different do you play whether you’re locked in with Pat or Matt?

Billy: I don’t know. I’ll bet someone who knew more about my playing than I did would be able to observe it and say but for me it’s hard to do because, again, I don’t think so much. We try to be in the moment as much as possible or even a little bit ahead of the moment to anticipate what’s about to happen but I imagine there’s some differences. I play with Mike Portnoy in The Winery Dogs and he’s a different player completely and I lock into him as best I can and we have a riot playing live doing improvisations together. Dennis Chambers, I play with in Niacin. He’s the best musician I know and that takes me in a whole other world so I’m sure there are differences. I’m just not completely aware of them and I apologize for sounding so ignorant about my own self but I don’t pay attention to myself so much unfortunately.

Toddstar: I think, in all honesty Billy, I think that’s what makes you the bass player you are. It is all vibe and groove for you. It isn’t pre-planned or premeditated to what you’re gonna do.

Billy: Yeah, even when I do a solo I have no idea what I’m gonna do until it launches and it’s really made up on the spot. Maybe component parts that I’ve done before that I know but it’s never the same and even playing in the body of a song. We play any classic like “Green-Tinted 60’s Mind” or “Alive and Kickin'”, there’s always gonna be something that’s different. There’s always gonna be something that’s not the way it got played last time but I kinda like that and we’re all like that a little bit in that it stays alive that way. Rather than playing, this is exactly how it goes and exactly the note, we imply them. We hit the important notes, we’re in the right key and we get it pretty close. I remember from hearing some of the very first live records I ever heard. I heard artists playing songs I already knew them by, like Hendrix, when I heard him live at Woodstock, on the record he did the songs differently. “Wow, that’s not how he did it on the record.” So I see how he kept the original vibe but expanded on it. One of the first albums I ever bought, The Stones Got Live If You Want It! when Brian Jones was still in the band, the songs were faster and more exciting but it was still the same song but I saw how they were treating it differently live and those records had a great impression on me so it is similarly when we’re performing live, there’s life to it. I’m not gonna play it just a stereotypical exact copy of what the record was and this makes it interesting for us as performers and hopefully for the audience as well.

Toddstar: I like it only because if I wanted to hear the song as it was on ‘Lean Into It’ or ‘Bump Ahead’ I’d sit at home and listen to the CD.

Billy: You already got it.

Toddstar: Exactly. I know you’re busy, Billy. I’ve got a couple more for you if you don’t mind. Looking back over your career, and, I mean, you’ve had a lengthy storied career, man. I mean, you’re a legend. Let’s be honest. Looking back, is there anything that you consider a misstep or that you would like a do over on?

Billy: Well when the David Lee Roth band started we had to pick sides. You were either with Dave or with Van Halen and I love Van Halen and I love Dave and I loved everybody and inadvertently I was caught up in a battle and I felt bad about that because I love Van Halen – I love Michael, Ed, Al and Dave and Wolfie and Sammy’s a friend too. Getting caught up in that battle a little bit was… I don’t feel good about and I wish I would have done it differently. Just shut up and played my bass because I do, fortunately everybody’s still friends, but that was one thing that I… and back in Buffalo a couple times the band split up and you get into a fight over it. You know what, if you don’t have anything good to say don’t say anything at all. So those are things. With age hopefully there’s wisdom. I’ve learned through the years that, just shut up and it’ll all turn out fine and there’s no reason to be disparaging anyone other than your own self for your own mistakes.

Toddstar: That’s great advice for any musician. Hell, that’s great advice for anybody in any relationship actually.

Billy: Yeah the relationship in a band is very much, I believe, like the relationship a man and a woman would have. You see one of your band members on channel with another band it’s like, “Hey, what are you doing with them?” It’s almost like seeing your girl talking to another guy, you know? It’s a strange, odd dynamic that it’s like that but, in fact, it is.

Toddstar: If you could go back magically, Billy, and be part of any one album in history what album affected you enough that you’d want to be a part of it?

Billy: Wow. I don’t know if I would have been good enough to play on records like King Crimson Red. Just a masterpiece. Band of Gypsies I loved, Hendrix Band of Gypsies. Sgt. Peppers of course. I’ve been getting back into Robin Trower Twice Removed From Yesterday, just great, great record. There’s too many to list. There’s a lot of ’em but maybe if I could it would have been the first Van Halen record. I love that band. They had a just a huge influence on me or possibly AC/DC, another band that I absolutely love. It would make me a different player but, man, what great records.

Toddstar: I have no doubt you would have maybe played it different, maybe it wouldn’t be the same album it is but you definitely have the chops to do what you do. I’ve been a fan of yours through all the different incarnations. The stuff with, like you said, Roth, Steve Vai, obviously Mr. Big, even the stuff with B’z that you did.

Billy: Oh funny. Yeah, that was a trip. That was amazing. Well thank you very much. I appreciate it, man. Very, very much.

Toddstar: I appreciate it, Billy, and I cannot wait to see you return to Detroit June 3rd and do what Mr. Big does what they do best and that’s entertain a crowd with great tunes.

Billy: Excellent. Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. We’re so glad to be back out on the road playing and the response to the shows has been great and the record so far so we’re supremely grateful. Without people coming to see us play we’re nothing so we love our people very, very much and we’ll always do our best for them.

Toddstar: Awesome. Well, again, thank you so much, Billy, and we’ll see you in Detroit.

Billy: Great, man. Thanks for your time and look forward to seeing you there.

MR. BIG LINKS:

OFFICIAL SITE

FACEBOOK

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Photo Credit: Group – William Hames / Live – Unknown​​​​​​​

Todd ‘ToddStar’ Jolicoeur

Category: Interviews

About the Author ()

ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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