Regarded as one of the premier bass players in the world for more than 35 years, Billy Sheehan first made his mark in the late '70s with Talas. But it was his venture into David Lee Roth's solo band in the mid-'80s after Roth and Van Halen split apart where Sheehan became better known on the hard rock and metal scene in large part thanks to MTV. Sheehan then started his own band Mr. Big, which achieved success in the States with the songs "Addicted to that Rush" and "To Be With You" but virtual cult status overseas, particularly in Japan.
While Mr. Big has been on again, off again and is still together today, it's Sheehan's inclusion with the new power trio The Winery Dogs that has his talents taking flight again. Along with singer/guitarist Richie Kotzen (Poison, Mr. Big) and drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Avenged Sevenfold, Adrenaline Mob), The Winery Dogs released their self-titled debut CD last summer to rave reviews -- including the SAMME's.
The Winery Dogs recently released a deluxe version of the CD that includes a live bonus disc from Japan, but it's their forthcoming live debut in San Antonio on Thu. May 22 at Backstage Live (details, ticket link at bottom) that has South Texas rock fans on high alert.
I phoned Sheehan, 61, last week during a tour stop in Londonderry, N.H.
SAMME: Hi Billy, thanks for taking the time to talk today. I reviewed the record last summer (click here), and I don't usually hand out five stars to just anybody, but I did for that one. And I believe you were the only member of the band to share my review on social media, so thank you for that. It's well-deserved on your end.
BILLY: Well, thank you very much.
SAMME: The three of you have musical backgrounds well-known to many fans for a long time. But The Winery Dogs is still a new band and has achieved the kind of status most new bands can only dream about. What do you attribute that to?
BILLY: Well, it is true, it is a new band, people forget. A lot of people still have not heard of the band. Usually, it takes a long, long time for a record to sink in. It's not like it was back 10, 15 years ago when pretty much everyone knew when a record was coming out and everybody knew about it right away. I think I attribute the success to not only from reviews like yours, which we're very appreciative of, but we have some great management as well. And we've got a great label, and they've been really working hard. Most people that are at the label are a lot of old-school guys that have been in the record business forever, and they really love music, and they love the record business. As opposed to, for a long time with musical acts, a lot of people were directors. They've really gone the extra mile in booking us for as many shows as they can get us in as many places as possible, making a lot of sacrifices for us. And then ourselves, too, we've been willing and able to play anywhere and everywhere that will book us. That's important too. We're anxious to get out there as much as we possibly can, along with the label and management. As a team, we've seen some success as a result of our efforts, which I'm very pleased about.
SAMME: You had worked with Mike and Richie previously, separately, so was the formation of The Winery Dogs kind of like the three of you getting on a bike again together musically, or did it feel like starting over?
BILLY: No, it felt new. It felt exciting. But it also had a familiarity that I had before with Mike and Richie. It moved things along really quickly before we were faced with what we got. I think my experience with both of them prior to this band, for me, it helped move things along quickly. I knew Mike well and his playing well. I knew Richie and his playing well. Bass players are usually the guys . . . bass reviews pitch through new elements of music. Pitch and time. Bass is the one that takes the time with the drums and gives it its actual pitch. So I'm glad I was involved with that and knew pretty much how to tie it back together as a bass player. Or, I hope I did anyway.
SAMME: How easy or difficult did the songwriting process come for this album, and which tune on it is the most meaningful to you?
BILLY: Well, it's hard to pick one. I love "I'm No Angel," I love "We Are One." I love a lot of the record. With this one here, I was excited enough about it to say, "You gotta hear this. Check it out!" But the songwriting itself, it happened real naturally, without any effort at all. We didn't plan anything as far as what sound we should have or what style we should go for. We were just kind of like, "what happens happens." And I like that. I don't like the planning and analyzing and figuring -- just get some marketing people in front of the product. I really want to see it kind of take on a life of its own, the discovery of a melody and a song, and watch it develop. Nobody has to figure out whether it's a good idea to put it on the record or not, or whether it's marketable, or whether it sounds like a hit. We did none of that. We just played the stuff we felt at the moment, together in the room, and that's what we got. The two most successful records I've played on prior to this one -- (Roth's) Eat 'em and Smile and Lean Into It by Mr. Big -- were made in the exact same way. We didn't think much about 'em. We just sat down and played. For me personally, that's the best way.
SAMME: When was the last time you played San Antonio with any of your bands? Do you have any special memories or stories?
BILLY: Oh, it's been a long, long time, a real long time. Way too long. I remember going through there a bunch of times with Mr. Big, and we had a riot. And I played there with Talas, way back in the day, on the Yngwie (Malmsteen) tour. That was '85. Probably before you were born, I don't know.
SAMME: (Laughs) No, I'm not that young, no.
BILLY: (Laughs) But it's been a long time. That's a special place in my heart, being a ZZ Top fan, and I'm glad to be coming back, that's for sure.
SAMME: I covered the Black Star Riders' debut U.S. concert five days ago and was hoping to ask Marco (Mendoza) about the Metalhead-2-head segment the two of you did on Fuse (watch here), but I never got the chance to see him. And I wanted to ask you regardless -- can you give me your take on that experience?
BILLY: Oh yeah! Marco's a good friend of mine, and it's always good to sit down with another player, you know? Especially with somebody that you respect and seems to have the mutual respect as well. It's always a wonderful thing. As musicians, we all have a lot that's different from one another but a lot that's the same. It's always fun to figure those things out. Years ago, I did a cover story for Guitar World magazine -- me and Jack Bruce, who used to play guitar in Cream. Jack and I spent the whole day talking about the same thing I talked about pretty much with Marco. Almost the same information, same ideas, same methodology, how we look at things. Most musicians I know are on the same path, besides the fact they're wildly different stylistically. So it was interesting to sit down with Marco and go over some basic ideas, what we do with one hand -- things like that. It was a wonderful time.
SAMME: I especially enjoyed the story you shared about David Lee Roth pretending to find a joint at (the start of) every show.
BILLY: Yes! True showbiz, man, brilliantly done. Dave was the grandmaster and probably still is. I haven't seen him in a long time. He was so great at re-telling that joke every night as though it had never happened before. And we laughed the same way. It was brilliant how he managed to turn it into a rock show; that just made it so much more interesting as an audience member. The first time I went to see Van Halen -- of course, everybody wants to see Eddie. But when Dave was doing his thing, he really sold the show completely, and for me, it made a huge difference. Eddie was so much greater because of Dave, and Dave because of Eddie, and watching the two intertwine together and how that band worked on stage. We did about 30 shows with them that year with Talas opening up for them in 1980, and that was Showbiz 101, PhD. And to this day, a lot of what I learned on that tour is of great advantage to me.
SAMME: Since you played in Dave's solo band, can you give me a favorite story from that era?
BILLY: Oh, there's so many! It usually requires a bottle of wine. About halfway done, too. Let me see. Well, the songwriting with Dave was a blast. Myself and Steve Vai would be down in the basement, just playing guitars. Dave would come down and say, "That's cool, let's hold the verse down and take in a chorus." We'd go upstairs. "OK, there's a chorus, now let's do a bridge" and put it all together. Dave would drive around in his car and come up with some weird ideas that were brilliant, and we had a song. It was a great, great time, some of my most memorable in this life -- going to L.A. and starting a band with Dave.
SAMME: I've gotta tell you I have about 25 VHS tapes filled with 6-8 hours of nothing but "Headbangers Ball" videos, and the first one I ever recorded was "Goin' Crazy."
BILLY: Ha-ha! Yeah, I thought the shoot for that would be . . . Dave and the Fatman, all those suits . . . and the montage before "Yankee Rose" were offshoots of the movie that we were going to do. A movie and an album. But (the picture company) was pretty uncooperative. Dave put a lot of work into the movie, really worked hard. I think it would've been perfect timing for that. I still have the script.
SAMME: Is it true that you wrote "Shy Boy" & "Addicted to that Rush" during the Talas days?
BILLY: I wrote the title for "Addicted to that Rush," and "Shy Boy" was in Talas, yeah. When I write, I do the dialogue or lyrical titles. With great song titles, everything else brings the whole song together once you have a title. I had "Addicted to that Rush" for years and years. Since the '70s, I think. Once I had the perfect lyric for it, the whole song came about. But it floated around for quite a few years.
SAMME: It always amazes me when you hear about a song's back story and find out it was years earlier, even if it's just the title.
BILLY: It's rather common. There's the early Van Halen demos from live shows from way before they were signed, and there was a lot of songs that were pieces of what became songs. It's a normal process because as you probably realize as a writer -- the secret is in the re-write. I write a whole song, and I go back and re-write the whole thing. Only when you've got it written does it seem like . . . I remember "Sink Your Teeth Into That" on the second Talas record. We had lyrics that we had sung live for months. And when we went in to record it, I redid all the lyrics. I stood at the mic: "Wait, wait, wait!" A whole new thing from the original.
SAMME: There's a band from Oklahoma called Anti-Mortem that released its debut album last week. The bonus song they have on there is a cover of (Mr. Big's) "A Little Too Loose." Can you even estimate how many of your bands' songs, that you know of, have been covered?
BILLY: Well, I know in Italy there's at least three Mr. Big copy bands. I've seen a bunch of people were trying to put together a Talas tribute record, and I heard some of the tracks, and they were pretty cool. So, it's a great honor. I'll try and check them out. What's the name of the band again?
SAMME: Anti-Mortem. Southern blues metal band.
BILLY: OK. That's great!
SAMME: I spoke with Phil Anselmo in late January shortly after the most recent Metal Masters, and part of what we spoke about was how nobody could see coming you playing Slayer songs that night (Billy laughs). How did that come about; how much fun did you have?
BILLY: Oh, I had a riot. I don't shy away from music styles at all, I like everything. I know some guys that their style is to their genre of music. Jazz guys. Some guys are the blues only, some guys will only play this or only play that and hate everything else. But I grew up loving everything. The heavier s---, the lighter s---. Claude Debussy pieces. Fear -- a punk band out of L.A. All kinds of stuff that I like and for all kinds of reasons, too. And I wasn't as familiar with Slayer, and a lot of bands I'm not (familiar) with anymore because there's so many bands these days that it's hard to keep track of them all. Kerry King was a joy to work with. It was a challenge to play the stuff and do it justice. I wanted to do it the right way so if you were a Slayer fan, you wouldn't think that I sucked. It was a blast. Same with the Pantera stuff, the Anthrax stuff.
SAMME: What can we expect from the second Winery Dogs record?
BILLY: Well . . . an evolution of what we have now. Not that it would become unrecognizable, but too, you have an evolution where, as you see any living entity evolve, they drop aways and are no good anymore. We love to play, and we'll be doing a lot of that. But I know our songwriting will probably evolve noticeably and be tighter and more intuitive with each other because we're out on the road. Playing live does some incredible things to a band. To a musician that is the most successful, all of them, I believe, to anyone's art, is to perform live. That's how you really get through as a band -- what you do and what others do and how to work together. So I think the next record will certainly be a step up, as well as a continuation of all the good things we've got going for us now, which we're very thankful for.
SAMME: Well, Billy, I can't thank you enough. Your playing is absolutely second to none on bass, and it has been for many years. Looking forward to you guys coming here in a couple weeks, and hopefully I can shake your hand and thank you in person. Best of luck with everything, and safe travels on the road.
BILLY: Alright! Thanks a million, and thanks for your time today, and I'll look forward to seeing you in San Antonio.
- WHO: The Winery Dogs with Charm City Devils and Bad Obsession
- WHEN: Thu. May 22 (doors 7 p.m.)
- WHERE: Backstage Live (1305 E. Houston St.)
- TICKETS: $20 in advance. Buy here.
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