I started out in Buffalo, NY in a band called Talas way back in the early '70s and played in bars and clubs for thousands of gigs, literally. We did 21 nights in a row once. We did three complete shows in one day one time. Three setups and teardowns and shows in one day.
In the same city?
Yeah, we used to play constantly. Eventually we went through some changes with that here and there. Then eventually in 1980, when we began to play more original stuff, we got a little management addition. They got us on the Premier Talent roster and then we opened up for Van Halen in 1980 for about 40 shows. I was introduced to the Van Halen guys and then in 1985 when Dave left the band, he called me to start a new band. David Lee Roth and myself. Then we went looking for guitar players and I recommended Steve Vai. We got a drummer. We went off and became a small band. Did the album and tour. It was a blast. Came back to Skyscraper. I left right after that album. Started Mr. Big. Mr. Big just finished our sixth studio album just recently. We've sold about two, maybe seven to nine million records worldwide with Mr. Big. In the interim I also started a side project called Niacin which is a funkified version of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Fusion blues kind of a thing. Dennis Chambers on drums. Then it came up to present time where I had an opportunity to do a solo record and I jumped on it. I did it. It's called Compression and here we sit today on the telephone.
Yes we do. Why did you decide on the bass as your instrument of choice?
Well, the first guy that I knew in my life that was a musician, was a neighbor of mine. His name was Joe. He lived around the corner. He was the coolest guy in the neighborhood. Had the coolest car. Had the coolest motorcycle. Best looking girlfriend. Joe was a bass player. So I wanted to be like Joe. When I saw him practicing, he had this giant amp. It was his bass amp and of course the guitar player had a little guitar amp. The bass was cool and long and big and had these giant strings on it. The guitar was thin and small and tiny and little. I thought bass must be the most important instrument. It's the biggest one and Joe plays it so it must be the coolest one. So I wanted to be able to play bass.
Did you take lessons or are you self-taught?
Pretty much self-taught. A couple of people showed me things here and there along the way as they still do to this day because I'm still learning. Mostly just picked up the bass, put the record on, and figured it out.
Who were your main musical influences?
So many. From the early, early days of Paul Samuel Smith and the Yardbirds to John Entwhistle and Jack Bruce, Tim Bogart from Vanilla Fudge. A band you might not have ever heard of but they were amazing for their day. Groundbreaking psychedelic band. Then all the way up to present day to Victor Wooden, O'toole Birkbridge, Doug Pennick, Jeff Berlin, Dave Larouse. I steal from everybody.
That's a good thing.
I steal from everybody but I always give credit.
Is there any particular brand of bass that you endorse?
I've endorsed the Yamaha bass since 1984 actually. Many years. Actually the one model that I play most, The Attitude, first came out a little over 10 years ago. We just came out with the anniversary version of that bass and I think they're all sold out already.
Wow. You've worked with David Lee Roth on a couple of albums. Did you enjoy working with him and what was it like to work with him?
Oh yeah. Well he was my hero when he was in Van Halen, of course. I love Van Halen. The band, everybody in the band, and all of their music. During the time about 1979 or '78 when Haircut 100, Heaven 17, A Flock Of Seagulls were the reigning bands, Van Halen appeared on the scene like a giant bulldozer. Crushed them all into the earth mercilessly. So we love Van Halen and Dave was my hero. So working with him was a great honor.
I can imagine it was. The band that I'm familiar with is Mr. Big. Can you give more background on Mr. Big?
When I left the rock band, I wanted to start a new band and I found a singer and a guitar player and drummer. Put a new band together. We named it after a song by Free. It's called "Mr. Big", a song off of their Fire And Water record, because we were going to pattern the band after the Humble Pies, Free, Bad Company kind of bands like that, that had a kind of soulful singer and a good band behind them. We did one record, we toured a lot. We toured with Rush, Scorpions, Bryan Adams, Aerosmith. Lot of bands we've played with all over the world. Our second album, we had a #1 single. "To Be With You" was #1 for three weeks. We had another Top 20 single right after that which was "Take My Heart". Next record we had another hit with "Wild World". We played all over the world. South America, Russia, all over Europe, Japan, all over Southeast Asia, Thailand, Malaysia, you name it. We played everywhere. Sold lots of records and made some great music.
You guys always get to tour around the world and go to all these wild, exotic places. Do you enjoy travelling and do you do a lot of sightseeing?
Well we usually don't have time over there. We usually get there, go from the airport to the hotel, get ready, go do the show, get done, get back to the hotel and the airport and we're gone. So unfortunately I've been to some wild, exotic places where I've seen nothing but the hotel, vehicles of the airport, and the venue. Once in a while we get a chance. When we were in Singapore once to do interviews, somebody had the bright idea to take the band in a van, drive all around Singapore, and they had a TV crew with us to get our reaction to the city. So we got to see some amazing spots. Singapore's just an incredibly beautiful place. Sample all the incredible food and meet lots of people. It was very cool.
The food aspect is always my favorite part of travelling.
We were in Thailand and room service at the hotel was like a Thai restaurant. It was incredible. We had a great time there. We walked around a lot of Thailand too. Fed the elephants on the street and everything. It was really cool.
Sounds like it. You've done some instructional videos. What inspired you to undertake those projects and what all is involved in making those videos?
I do a lot of clinics and seminars to help young musicians not only to play bass and maybe do better, or help them in any way, but also give them whatever advice I can about the music business and making records and what to do if you get a record contract. How to do it and the studio. I'm lucky to have all this experience and I'm very happy to share it with others if it will help them out. So that was my original inspiration to do some instructional videos. That was a long time ago. I plan on doing some in the future too. I'm hoping to do two. One for absolute beginners and one for people that are a little bit more accustomed to the instrument. I just like to try and help out. I never had that when I was growing up. I never had a million guitar magazines or instructional videos or clinics. I just figured it all out on my own so I think if I can help other musicians to a faster route to personal satisfaction as a musician, I'm happy to do it.
I've heard Niacin mentioned a few times. You said it was a funkadelic kind of band?
Yes. Funky, bluesy, jazzy, fusiony, wild conglomeration of notes and beats and cool stuff. Live, it's a super exciting show. It's a sweatfest. We blow the roof off the place. I get to play with some amazing musicians. It's very cool.
Who's in the band?
Myself on bass, the amazing Dennis Chambers on drums, and a guy named John Novello on keyboards. There's some samples of it on my website at Billy Sheehan.com.
You were on the G3 tour. How was the tour and who was on the bill?
Yes, just got off. It was Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and John Petrucci from Dream Theater. All three guys had their own bands. I played with Steve Vai. I played with Steve in David Lee Roth. We played packed houses all over the USA. I had an amazing time. My first time playing with Steve in a long, long time. We had an incredible time together. We had several people up at the end of the night. We all went onstage for a jam. We had a couple of special guests. Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top came up in Houston, Steve Luthaker came up in L. A., Steve Morse came up in Orlando, FL. Eric Johnson came up in Austin, TX. Neil Schon from Journey came up in Detroit. People from all over the place. It was very cool.
How long did that tour last?
About a month. About 25 or 30 shows.
Tell us about your latest release, Compression. How long did it take to make the album?
It was really about a month and a half of solid work. Culminating about two months of writing and piecing things together. I wrote all new songs for this record and I had a special guest. For two tracks it was Terry Bozzio on drums. Steve Vai came and did a solo on a song as well. I sang on every track. Played bass guitar, programmed drums, and everything else. It was truly a solo record in that I did almost everything myself.
That must have been quite challenging to do all that yourself. Why did you decide to plan it out on your own?
Most of the time when people do a solo record, they have a million guests with them so you never know who they are. So I wanted to do everything myself so you'd know that it was me. Aside from the two illustrious guests I have on there, Steve Vai and Terry Bozzio, and so that you know most everything on the record comes straight from me. So it's truly a solo record.
Is there any kind of sound difference between someone who actually plays drums on a record and drum programming?
Since I'm an amateur drummer and a drummer groupie from way back, my drum programming, I try to make it sound very much like a real drummer. So I'm actually proud to say that I've played some of my tracks for drummers and they couldn't tell that it was programmed. I thought that was a good indication.
It sounds like you know how to play a lot of different instruments. Have you ever tried to learn to play drums?
I can play drums a little bit. I can fake my way through it. Like I do most of my instruments.
Terry Bozzio plays on two tracks and Steve Vai did the solo on "Chameleon". How did you hook up with them for that?
I know those guys and I've worked with both of them before quite a bit. I called Terry and sent him the songs and he flew into L. A. and did the two drum tracks. Steve came over to my house and played the solo. He lives not too far from me here in Los Angeles. It was pretty easy, very painless, and actually a lot of fun.
You've received many accolades over the years. How does that make you feel and does it get a little overwhelming at times?
It's an incredible honor and I'm very, very, very thankful that anyone would ever think of me in a positive light. I'm a lucky guy and very thankful for amazing people who have been so kind to me, especially all the people that buy my stuff and say nice things about me. I couldn't be more humbled and as a result it inspires me to try to be better. Try and do better and play better all the time.
You started the year 2000 out by playing with Mr. Big at the Tokyo Dome. How did that go?
It was great. We played with Aerosmith and Buckcherry. We had an amazing time. I don't know, there were 40,000 or 50,000 people there. It was a riot. We had a great time.
You're going to be releasing a multitude of albums. Can you tell us about the Mr. Big one coming out?
The newest Mr. Big is called Actual Size. It's a good record. It's a little lighter than I wanted. It's still a good record. Got some good songs on it. I prefer the earlier Mr. Big records but there's some good playing on. Interaction with the band. It's just a collection of songs but it's some good stuff on there. I like it. We just shot a video last night for one of the songs. Tomorrow I shoot a video for one of the songs off my record "Caroline". It's a new single that's coming out in Japan.
Are we going to be able to see that on MTV?
I'm not sure because the girl we hired, we actually went ot a modelling agency here that specializes in...I don't know how to say this. Girls that do movies that aren't normally for sale in a normal video store.
Yeah. We got someone who was brand new, she's very beautiful, and it's going to be very tastefully done. You probably won't be able to see anything but there will be...because the song's about a young lady and I thought that it'd be important to have it reperesented properly by a beautiful young lady.
Indeed it should be.
It will be. But done tastefully of course.
Her boyfriend will be there the whole time.
You're also going to be releasing your fifth Niacin album.
Yeah, it's called Time Crunch and it is blazing. Everyone that's heard it so far, the reaction we've gotten has been the best yet. The distributor heard his copy at the big convention where all the record companies get together and he freaked. He went nuts on it. We're very excited about this.
You seem like a really busy guy.
Too busy. No time. Been on the road too much.
You're also releasing an instrumental bass album.
Yeah, that's coming up next. I'll be doing that instrumental bass record, kind of part two of my solo record. Then I'm also leaving for Texas to go do a bass and drum record with Terry Bozzio. We're not even sure what we're going to do yet until they hit the start button on the recorder. Then we're going to just go nuts and do some wild stuff.
Are you going to try and do something with Phil Naro?
I'm not sure. If I have time I'd love to do something on his record. Phil was one of the singers that played in one of the incarnations of Talas. Great voice and one of my favorite people in the music business.
You were also the subject of a book called The Ultimate Billy Sheehan.
Yeah, it was a little while ago. 1994. It was done all in Japan. I should probably have it all scanned and put on my website and translated too. I should find somebody to do that.
It's only available in Japanese?
Yeah, we've done so well over there, they've put out books. They have fanclubs. They mob us at the airport. We can't leave the hotel. We're very thankful for that.
That sounds absolutely great.
It's so great. I love them very much.
Are there any songs on Compression that you really like? I love the song, "Bleed Along The Way".
Yeah, thank you. I love that track. Most everything on the record. I stopped listening to it for a while. Went back about a month later, listened to it all again, and I still liked it which is a good thing. It's difficult to do your own record and then to have an opinion on it because how do you give an opinion on your own self? I do like the record and I enjoy listening to it. I'm glad that I did it. I think it represents a lot of what I'm about. I hope others feel the same way.
Is it the first solo record you've done?
My first ever. The first record I've sang on. I've sang my whole life, playing, but I've never actually sat down and done the whole record where I sing lead and harmony on everything. It's kind of a unique thing.
I'm pretty sure it will do well.
. Yes, so far so good. I'm excited to have it come out on Steve Vai's new label. Favored Nations. Great label that is a very fair label. I know Courtney Love is in the middle of a lot of lawsuits now to make other labels sit up and be fair to their artists. More so than they have ever been before. Steve's label is very much in tune with that type of an idea. It's a 50/50 profit sharing split. It's very fair and it's designed with the artist and the musician in mind rather than the label in mind. Plus you find some great, great artists of his choice which I think is very cool rather than looking to sell products. He's signing the artists that he feels that need to be out there. Wonderful, wonderful situation. I'm very thankful for Steve to have me on his label.
I had heard that for every CD that an artist sells, he only gets five cents for it. The record company gets the rest.
Yeah, it's pretty terrible.
How do they get away with ripping the artists off like that?
Because it's kind of become an institutional thing. Every label has kind of conspired with every other label to keep it that way. I'm very happy that Courtney Love has decided to challenge it because it really is a terrible thing. Things occur within the record business that occur in no other industry. That are unfair, that are of great disadvantage to the artist. I think people like herself and others that have come up through the ranks and made their own deals, I think Prince got hip to it and what's her name from Buffalo. She put out her own label, Righteous Babe Records, and put out her own songs on her own label for years. Now she's selling millions of records and she's doing great.
So basically the way the artists make any money is off of touring then.
Even then you don't really make a lot of money touring. You tour so you can sell records. That's why it amazes me that some people don't understand that artists tour when they have a new record out. They don't tour just to tour. Touring expenses are so much they usually make break even. You hope that you sell records.
How do you make any money?
Amazing and I make a pretty good living. Imagine the kind of living that Atlantic Records makes. I think they're changing though.
I can just imagine that. Must be nice. So that's why a lot of artists have their own recording studios, labels, etc. They don't have to put up with that.
Yeah, that's why you see when someone becomes successful, suddenly they start their own label and things like that because it enables them to finally recoup. Then sometimes the atmosphere as it is now, bands go out, make one great record, and you never hear from them again. What do they do? They think "yeah this is going to last forever. Let's spend all our money" and next thing you know they're broke. There's no health insurance, there's no retirement fund, there's no nothing. Here they sold 10,000,000 records and now they're basically living in somebody's apartment. Working at Burger King. There are people in there like that now. Fortunately I'm not one of them. Mr. Big has some very smart management. We had our heads. We did really well with it. I'm lucky to have some smart people around me. I don't do any drugs or spend my money on crazy things. I'm doing okay.
Yes you are. Any other thoughts or comments you'd like to add?
I just hope people enjoy my new record, Compression. I'm very pleased to put it out. I'm happy to have it out. I'll be out on tour as much as I can so hopefully I'll see everyone out there at some point.