Currently on tour in North America with The Winery Dogs, bassist extraordinaire Billy Sheehan took time out to chat with MetalTalk’s Robert Adams regarding the band’s incredible new album III, being back on tour, his bass playing style, the final tour with Mr. Big and loads more. Settle yourself in and enjoy the musings of a true master.
It has been just over seven years since The Winery Dogs released their Hot Streak album, which is the equivalent of 49 years in human terms, and the public reception to III has been fantastic. Sheehan, Richie Kotzen and Mike Portnoy have delivered an album with mastery that shines throughout, and our report was one of the most-read MetalTalk articles in February.
I started by telling Billy that III was album of the year material and suggested it sounds very organic in that it actually sounds like three friends jamming together in the same room.
“Thank you so much. That’s very kind of you to say,” Billy says. “How you’ve just described it sounding is exactly how it was created. We got together at Richie’s place and just jammed together. It was so good to just be in the same room with Mike and Richie and let loose. All of the songs on III came together this way, with us riffing off each other.
“One of us would come up with a riff or, in Mike’s case, a drum pattern, and we would all pitch in together. I prefer writing and recording this way as you can feed off the vibe created.
“During the lockdown, I played bass on around 600 tracks, all done remotely. I would get sent the track and me and my engineer would listen to it a few times and then try a few ideas to fit. This was all types of music, and I enjoyed myself. But there’s no better feeling than playing together in the same room.”
Sheehan is on the road with The Winery Dogs. Tomorrow they play at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, WI. It’s getting close to the US tour halfway point, after which the band hit South America for three dates before hitting Europe and the UK in June.
Billy says the tour has been fantastic. “We’re getting great crowds coming to see us, and we’ve just played four sold-out shows which is great, not just for us but for the live music industry as a whole. It’s been rough for the past few years during and directly after lockdown.
“Obviously, no one could go to a gig during lockdown, and this had a drastic effect on our industry. A lot of hard-working people lost their jobs as it just wasn’t there anymore. As I said, it’s great that we are playing sold-out shows again, but the knock-on effect could be that someone who comes to see us and has a great time could look at who is playing that venue soon and go and see that show as well.”
When he first started, Billy heavily modified a Fender P bass, which he dubbed ‘The Wife’. “I put in a humbucker pickup and put an extra jack socket in for that. That way, I could have more control over the sounds created by the humbucker and the standard pickup. I had to add more washers to the jack socket to make sure my lead wouldn’t just pop out.”
Billy spoke about how he scalloped the bass’s neck halfway across the fretboard’s last five frets with a Dremel. “I did that myself in a hotel room somewhere on tour just to see how it would sound,” he said. “Talas supported Yngwie [Malmsteen, 1985], and his Strats are famously scalloped over the entire neck. I didn’t want to do that with the P bass as I wanted to maintain the integrity of the neck as much as possible and didn’t want to remove too much wood.
“Obviously, a bass has thicker strings than a guitar, and the string tension on a bass is much more, and I didn’t want to compromise the neck too much.”
If you have always wondered why Fender never produced a Sheehan signature bass guitar, then, as Billy explains, “Fender were in a mess back then. It was the late ’70s, early ’80s. Yamaha approached me not long after that and asked me if I wanted to get involved with them. The Attitude bass was the result of that collaboration, and it was everything I ever wanted in a bass but done properly by real craftsmen.
“There are a few Facebook pages devoted to The Attitude bass, and owners get to share their tips and their thoughts. It’s become a fantastic community of which I am so proud to be a part of. A few years ago, I approached Yamaha and asked them if it was ok for me to approach Fender and ask them if they were interested in doing a custom shop version of my modified P Bass. Fender had got themselves back on track, and Yamaha said yes, but Fender said no!”
You would think Fender would have jumped at that chance. “I thought they would too,” Billy says, “but I am very happy at Yamaha.”
Sheehan’s first band of note was Talas, and then he got a call from Dave Lee Roth asking him to join his solo band. Is it safe to say that was the catalyst to the magnificent career he has had up to now? “Without a doubt,” he says.
“That Eat’ Em And Smile band were amazing. Myself, Steve Vai and Gregg Bissonette had amazing chemistry together, and we still do today. It was very similar to the situation I have with The Winery Dogs. We would all jam together in the same room, throwing ideas around, and Dave would show up and say, ‘I like that for a verse, now give me a chorus’ and leave us to it.
“Playing in that band was such an honour, and it was a crash course in entertainment for me. You’ve got to remember that Dave was the number one rock singer in the world at that time, and there’s nothing he doesn’t know about showmanship.”
Following this, he went on to form Mr. Big with Eric Martin, Paul Gilbert, and Pat Torpey. “Mr Big was and still is a huge part of my life,” Billy says.
This year Mr. Big embark on The Big Finish tour, with Nick D’Virgilio taking the role of Pat Torpey, who lost his battle with Parkinson’s disease in 2018. “We want to do Pat Torpey’s memory proud,” Billy says, “and do it well.”
I saw Mr. Big at The Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow in 1992. To Be With You was the huge hit they had at that time, and a lot of the sold-out crowd was there to hear that. Mr. Big opened the show with Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy (The Drill Song) and around a quarter of the crowd was shocked at how heavy you were.
“To Be With You hit 100 million views on Youtube recently,” Billy says, “which we’re incredibly proud of. We did write some full-on rockers in Mr. Big, but we also mixed it up with softer songs. I remember we were out supporting Rush on tour, and their audience was predominately male. Geddy Lee said to me after a few shows, ‘It’s great to see some women in the crowd’. We can hold our own in the rocking stakes, but we always have that major sense of melody which was helped by all of us being able to sing as well.”
Dates have been announced in summer 2023 for the Asia leg of The Big Finish, with America and Europe set for 2024. While the set will include tracks from across the band’s whole career, they will play the entire Platinum-selling album Lean Into It.
Billy has a distinctive bass-playing style, and his playing reminds me of John Entwistle of The Who. “Thank you so much,” Billy says. “I take that as a huge compliment. I was lucky enough to become good friends with John when he was living in LA. I remember we were out together one night, and we bumped into Chris Squire from Yes. A photographer friend of mine took a picture of the three of us together, which I still have up in my house. After the photographer left, we were joined by Lemmy. That was a great night.”
Any night involving Lemmy would always be a great night, I suggest. “It really was,” Billy says. “When you put John and Chris in that mix as well, it ended up something else.”
When you read about The Winery Dogs on Wikipedia, it states that they are a supergroup. That’s a term I hate, as most supergroups are made up by record companies thinking that if they get these major players altogether, they’ll have major hits. The sum of the parts usually doesn’t add up to the individual talents involved.
“With a few select songs, I have to agree with that,” Billy says. “The Winery Dogs were never going to be a side project for any of us. We all looked at it as a proper band, and that’s always been the case.”
For aspiring musicians, Billy says the key to success is practice. “I still practice every day,” he says. “You get to know your instrument and improve your technique. Secondly, join a band. Playing with other musicians really improves you as a player and write your own songs. Preferably songs you can sing. Those three things have always stood me in good stead.”
Billy, Richie and Mike will be in London on 18 June, and the MetalTalk team will be out in force. “We can’t wait to come over to Europe again,” Billy says. “London has always been a special place for me to play since I first came over in 1979. I look forward to seeing you all in London in June.”