Perhaps only sometime band mate Mike Portnoy can challenge Billy Sheehan for the title of ‘busiest man in rock’. A member of The Winery Dogs with the said drummer, he’s also found time to reconnect with his first band Talas, as well as form the new super group Sons Of Apollo recently. As if that wasn’t enough, the former David Lee Roth bassist has also released a new album with the band closest to his heart, Mr. Big. We sat down with the amiable player for a chat about all of the above. Defying gravity; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Billy, how are you today?
I’m good, I’m good. It’s a busy time. I’m on a little break here, but every day’s filled up with something, so it’s not much of a break. It will be a break to be back on tour again, because I have much more free time!
Mr. Big has recently returned with new album ‘Defying Gravity’; how does it feel to be stepping into those shoes again?
Great, really, really great. We’re having a great time live, and the band sounds really together. The new songs are going over really good. I’m glad we got out there and done a bunch of shows before the album was even out, so we really had a good feel for how people are responding to things, and it’s really gratifying. We’re enjoying touring together, hanging together, and singing and playing together, so all is good in the world.
You’ve been busy, primarily with The Winery Dogs in recent years; is it nice to be back with the ‘old’ band again?
Yeah, I love The Winery Dogs, but of course, Mr. Big will always be closest to my heart, as that was my biggest amount of success, and real launch into a different level of playing and popularity after an uncertain situation. After the David Lee Roth band, I didn’t know what was going to happen, but then putting Mr. Big together, and rolling from there was really an amazing adventure. To go from uncertainty to a No.1 single in a short amount of time was incredible.
As such a tightknit unit, was it difficult to welcome drummer Matt Starr into the fold when Pat Torpey was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease?
Not really, because of the nature of Matt’s personality. He knew from the beginning, that basically, he was there to channel Pat Torpey. He rose to the challenge, which is not easy, because Pat’s got a lot of finesse things in his drumming that are really tough to do. And he kept in the background, and he kept quiet, and he kept asking what we wanted, and then giving us that, so it made it real easy. It wasn’t like we had to deal with another person coming in with another set of opinions. But, we do love to let Matt do his thing when it’s time to do that. It was a special situation.
Pat however, is still touring and working with Mr. Big.
Pat has had great courage and a lot of strength to decide to fight back. The ability for him to tour and get on stage is instrumental in that fight; he’s got to be doing something, he’s got to get up there, he’s got to work at it. It’s not easy, but doing this is the best therapy you could possibly conceive of, and Matt is behind him 100%. We’re all dear friends with Matt, and he’s such a wonderful support player. On his own, he’s amazing; I’ve jammed with him here in L.A. many, many times, and he’s just a great drummer. But he really gave it that kind of selflessness, when you come in and say: “All right, one of my drumming brothers is in trouble, I’m going to do what I can to make it right”, and he did it, and I can’t express the depth of character that it takes to do that, really, it was quite touching.
The band, and Pat has been quite open about events, choosing not attempt to hide anythng.
It’s the only way to be. Nowadays, with the internet, you can only be open. No matter what it is, somebody’s going to find out about it. Trying to fake your way through it, for Mr. Big has never been an option. We’ve always really sang and played – there was no shenanigans going on! So now, we just felt; why not just be honest about it? Here’s the situation; Pat’s got an affliction.
So how did you approach the practicalities?
At first we thought we might have to run tracks and have Pat up behind the kit, but that’s not real. That was suggested to us by a couple of people, and we kind of rolled our eyes and went; “Well, I don’t know – all we need is for somebody to hit the wrong button one night and we’re going to look like idiots”. Plus, it’s got no feel to it; there’s a life to it all, in my humble opinion, so the idea of getting another drummer right away kind of popped up. As far as who it would be, my first, and only suggestion was Matt, because I knew him, and he is rock solid.
So that backing track approach was never an option?
I don’t like the trickery and fakery of running tracks. If you’re paying your money to come see a band, you should know what’s going on. We were rehearsing one time years ago, just myself, Pat and Paul [Gilbert, Mr. Big guitarist] just playing and singing all the background vocals, and we take a break and this guy says; “What kind of sample are you guys using for the vocals; what are you triggering?”, and I’m like; “We’re singing them!” And they were surprised. We’ve had soundmen work for us, and on the first day they say; “Okay, how many channels are we going to need for tracks?” – None! We need vocal mics!. So, from the beginning, the trickery aspect has never been part of our thing.
With ‘Defying Gravity’, you’ve brought original M. Big producer Kevin Elson back; what led to his return?
We had tried to get him back since we reunited in 2005. Unfortunately, the schedules didn’t work. We tried for the ‘What If…’ record, ‘…The Stories We Could Tell’ record, and finally on this record, he was available. Well, all right! He was in demand because he’s one of the best live mixers in the world, so he’s out with these 5* A-lister bands who are paying him a fortune to mix their live shows. So, it’s pretty tough to have him take a break and have him go in the studio, especially with our meagre little budget. But he was kind enough to do it, and what a blast working with him.
How important was it having Kevin back?
Kevin was really instrumental in the formation, and the sound of the records that we did, and he also went out with us mixing us live, so he was a very, very big component of our success. Not only was it good musically, but we only had three days to record, and we started telling stories about the old days, and started laughing, joking and remembering; “We’ve got to shut up and get some work done!” So we had the team back together again, and we would abuse our time slot there and talk about all the shenanigans that we’d be through, back in the early days.
Judging from the video for ‘Everybody Needs A Little Trouble’, it looks like you really were having a lot of fun.
Well, it’s because we were! Yeah, it was enjoyable. I don’t want to do it if it’s not fun. If you can’t enjoy it, and enjoy the people around you, then what’s the point? I’m not a rich man, but I’m at a point in my life where I don’t have to hustle my ass off to pay bills. I’ve never been money motivated - I’m enjoyment motivated, by the band, and also by the audience. Those are more important to me than anything, so if we were together in a room and it was constantly miserable, I just wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t be into it, and actually, we did have a blast doing those videos, we had a blast making the record, and on tour. It’s been great, it’s been a ride!
Elsewhere, you recently reunited with Talas for a one-off show; there were two versions of the band weren’t there?
There were two Talas’s; one was the original version that we toured with Van Halen; myself and two other guys, and then we did Talas version two. We hit it pretty well; we toured all over the USA, opening for Yngwie Malmsteen all around the country, and we actually ended up being more popular than the original Talas, because we played outside of Buffalo a lot. The drummer Mark Miller was a particularly amazing drummer, and as a matter of fact, Mike Portnoy often cites Mark as one of his inspirations. Dream Theater would get together and play a couple of the Talas songs in an early formation, because they were all fans of the band – which is pretty cool!
So how did this reunion of that version of the band come about?
Mark Miller, I hadn’t seen him in a long, long time, and he came out to see a Winery Dogs show, and it was just great to see him and his daughter, and his wife. And I realised right there that his kids had never seen him play! His daughter’s in her twenties, and he’s got a son and a granddaughter too, and I thought; “Hey, why don’t we put together a little thing, where we get the original band together, and do a benefit show?”. So we did a benefit for a fire department in Rochester, New York, and we had so much fun. The audience roared so loudly, for so long.
Did you record the show for any future release?
We did record it audio and video, so hopefully those recordings will represent actually what happened. It was just great to hang for the first time in thirty-three years. We did a couple of reunions with the original Talas, but now those guys are kind of out of the biz, and they don’t want to play anymore, so it was wonderful to go out and do a show with these guys. Mark Miller built his own drum kit; he bent the metal bars that he’s mounting the toms on a tree! When we first got together, we found out that we had to do an acoustic show the next day, and he went home and built his own cajón. We just had a marvellous time, so at some point we’ll try to put that CD / DVD out, and maybe we can make it so that the proceeds go to the fire department, or some such thing so it will serve a worthy cause.
Speaking of reunions, you must have been gutted that the original David Lee Roth band’s reunion was scuppered at the last minute.
We were on stage, instruments on, ready to go, and I noticed a big commotion to my right, and the fire department came roaring in, with helmets on, and said; “Shut it down – everybody out”. The place holds about five hundred people, legally, and they let in - I estimate there was twelve hundred in there, and another three thousand were standing in a line down the street down by Hollywood Boulevard. So sure enough the fire department got wind of that right away, and in a way, they did the right thing, because it was too crowded. They screwed up; they should not have let so many people in. They did the right thing, but it broke our hearts completely. We even offered to pay the fine, or do whatever. I played one note on my bass and the guy said; “Nobody play – one more note comes out and you’re all going to jail”!
Did you get to spend any time together, even with the show shut down?
The good thing about it was we hung out afterwards. It was me, Steve [Vai], Greg [Bissonette], our keyboard player Brett [Tuggle], and of course, Dave. We all hung and told stories and had a few drinks, and it was like the old days. It was so great. So, sadly, it didn’t happen, but maybe someday it will. It’s up to Dave, but I’m ready, Steve’s ready, Greg’s ready - we’re all ready. So if Dave decides to do it, we’re ready to go. But as we all know, life is not always that predictable.
What songs were you planning to perform?
We were going to do ‘Shy Boy’ and ‘Yankee Rose’.
Hadn’t you originally planned to use Ralph Saenz [Michael Star] from Steel Panther as well?
We were going to use Ralph because we didn’t know if Dave was available or even into it. We thought; “Nah, he’s probably not even in town”, but sure enough, a couple of nights before everything happened, Dave called, and, holy cow, this is going to be big - don’t tell anybody! We knew it would blow up, so we kept the whole thing quiet. I didn’t even tell Ralph, and I felt bad about it. I thought; “I’ll apologies to him later - I think he’ll understand”, and of course he did; Ralph’s a wonderful guy. So he didn’t know that he wasn’t going to be performing that night.
Finally, what does the future hold for The Winery Dogs?
I’m glad we’re taking a little time off rather than just tour / album / tour / album and burn out. We all do our own things for a little while, but one of my favourite things in the world at this time of my life, is to play with The Winery Dogs. I absolutely love playing with Richie [Kotzen] and Mike, and it’s amazing that it just clicked so well. So many people have been so into it. I love those guys, and we want to play some more as soon as we are able, but it’s kind of good to get away from each other for a little while, so you’re not doing this constant grind. When you come back together again, it’s fun to hang out because you haven’t seen each other for a little while. So, I’m looking forward to our next adventure. I’m not sure exactly when it’s going to be, but I’m hoping to get writing towards the end of this year when the Mr. Big thing finishes. I’m very excited about it. I can’t wait to play with Richie and Mike again.
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Mr Big’s ‘Defying Gravity’ is out now, via Frontiers Records.
Mr. Big 2017 UK Dates:
16th Nov - Rock City, Nottingham
17th Nov - Academy, Newcastle
19th Nov - Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London
21st Nov - Academy, Manchester
22nd Nov - ABC, Glasgow
23rd Nov - Wulfrun Hall, Wolverhampton