UBER BASSIST BILLY SHEEHAN DISCUSSES MR. BIG, DAVID LEE ROTH AND THE MOST DIFFICULT MATERIAL TO PLAY
Greg Prato of Songfacts spoke with Mr. Big bassist Billy Sheehan. Portions of the interview appear below.
Greg Prato: How is the new album, Defying Gravity, similar or different to previous Mr. Big albums?
Billy Sheehan: It’s similar to the very early stuff, because we went back to our original producer, Kevin Elson – he did all the Journey stuff, he worked with Lynyrd Skynyrd. He’s a legendary guy in the biz. He was the guy who did our first four records. We were trying to get him in 2009 when we got back together, but our schedules never worked out. And this time, it did.
Kevin just has a way…that makes everyone comfortable and feel good, feel right…
Songfacts: What were your initial impressions of [your hit song] To Be With You [from 1991’s Lean Into It]?
Billy: Instantly loved it and insisted it had to be on the record. It’s funny, because [lead singer] Eric Martin wasn’t quite sure. I’m like, “Bro, come on. We’ve got to do this.” We didn’t think of it as a hit – we just loved the song. So when we did it, we put it last on the record, thinking, “The record’s over, the credits are running, this will be the final goodbye by the campfire at the end of the record. Everybody roast your marshmallows and sing along.”
We never thought of it as a hit. If we would have known it was a hit, we would have released it first. I think it was the fourth release from that record. But I instantly loved it and it instantly had an appeal to me right away. I’m forever grateful that that song did what it did.
Songfacts: Are there any updates about the possibility of a David Lee Roth Eat ‘Em and Smile-era band reunion?
Billy: Unfortunately, no. We haven’t heard from Dave in a while. I hope he’s doing well. If he changes his mind and decides to do some shows, I’m ready to go, and I think Steve and Gregg feel exactly the same way.
We have a great respect and love for Dave and what he did for us. And if he wants us to play, I’m ready to go. But I haven’t heard anything at all, so we’ll see what happens with that. There’s no secret undercurrent thing going on that I’m not talking about. The fact of the matter is it’s Dave’s call. If he chooses to do so, I couldn’t be happier.
Songfacts: How much rehearsal did you, Steve, Gregg, and Brett do for the aborted show at Lucky Strike Live in Hollywood back in 2015?
Billy: No rehearsal, no soundcheck, no nothing. That was the whole idea: We were just going to walk up and play without anything. So we didn’t rehearse.
That particular jam was no pedals allowed, no nothing. That’s why the jam is so great…There’s no dicking around with pedals or adjusting the drum kit or setting stuff up,…and it’s fun and exciting.
We thought that was a proper challenge for the Eat ‘Em and Smile band – to just step up on stage and play it like men, and do the real thing without having to fool around with gear and soundcheck. Unfortunately, the fire department shut us down. Me and Steve were on stage, behind the curtain, ready to go when the fire department came in. No rehearsal, no practice, no nothing.
Songfacts: Did you know beforehand that Dave was going to show up?
Billy: Originally, we asked and we didn’t hear from him, but about three days before the thing, Dave called back and said, “Yeah, let’s do it!”
We had to keep it a secret, but people started to put two and two together and figured it out. The club holds about… legally it’s 600, but they’ll allow 700-725 and the fire department will look the other way. But there were about 1,200 people in there and a line all the way down the street and around the corner on Hollywood Boulevard. So probably a total of about 3,000 people had showed up, and 1,200 got in the club.
Somebody got wise to it, because it was dangerous. People were jammed in there, so the fire department came in and said, “Nope. Shut the whole thing down and everybody out.” In retrospect, they probably did the right thing. If something would have happened, it could have been one of the worst catastrophes in the history of show business.
The club I don’t believe did the right thing by allowing so many people in. Everybody had a friend of a friend and they all wanted to get in. I know people that were there, and they said they couldn’t even put their arms out – they were jammed in like sardines. It was dangerous. So in the end, it was probably – sad as it is – wise to shut it down.
Songfacts: Looking back throughout your career, which material was the most difficult to play?
Billy: To Be With You, a song like that is challenging because it’s sparse and you’re under the microscope. Every note counts. It’s a challenging piece of music to play right and do it consistently. Other than that, there’s been a lot of stuff that is tough to play and took me time to work it out.
Some of the stuff I did with Steve Vai on his Real Illusions record, there are some tough lines. And Steve insisted that I do that same fingering with my left hand that he did, so I had to go back and re-adjust. Some of the Niacin stuff was tough because there were keyboard lines I had to do on bass. I had to jump through some hoops of fire to figure out fingerings and finger patterns to get those lines to land and pop in the right place.
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Billy Sheehan is a MONSTER on the bass guitar! If you listen to some the TALAS stuff, you can tell that the guy was great from the very beginning. My first exposure to him was with the DLR band, and I was blown away! So, I went back to his TALAS days, and have been a fan ever since. I am a huge fan of MR. BIG, as well.
The, Eat’Em And Smile, band was insane. DLR sure knows how to pick great musicians.
Billy Sheehan is the “Yngwie” of bass guitar. I really enjoy his technical playing on some Talas and Roth songs. I would love it if he did a “shredder fest” project with Paul Gilbert….
Note to self: get those Niacin albums. Killer stuff.
For all of DLR’s zaniness, the guy sure does know how to hang with stellar musicians. Exhibit A, Sheehan.