Billy Sheehan är mästerbasisten som numera åker världen runt med The Winery Dogs. På Sweden Rock Festival fick vi möjlighet att sitta ned en stund med den pratglade amerikanen och stämma av läget lite. Han berättade bl a om Mr Bigs planer, hans lycka över att spela bas, om att bli tillfrågad om att gå med i Van Halen och hur det var att turnera med nyss nämnda band 1980:
“They let us do a couple of encores in some big cities and it was really an incredible experience. It was like getting a PHD in show business. They were the grandmasters, it was like a military operation. On the worst night they had on that tour, they were only spectacular. They were so great and just wonderful people too. Really a life changing event.”
I wrote a review for The Winery Dogs´ gig at Sweden Rock festival and I said that it made me realize how fun music can be.
It is a lot of fun and I´m glad you think that. I´ve been playing for almost 50 years now and I still love it. I still have a great time. Every day I discover some new thing on my bass and when I´m driving in Los Angeles, I get excited to get home because I´ve got some idea on bass. It´s an internal youth machine, music is. I encourage people all the time and people write to me and e-mail me and I always respond on social medias as best I can and I always encourage people “Start playing music!” It´s a riot. It´s the greatest thing.
I´ve read that to be really good at something, you have to put down 10.000 hours. Do you think that´s true?
Yeah, I´m certain it´s true, yeah. I´m probably at 30.000, but it´s true. You really need to put the time in, but the great thing about bass is that bass is a great entrance point. It´s the easiest instrument to start out with, because as much as the bass player from AC/DC is awesome and incredible, the stuff he plays, for someone to copy it is not difficult. To initiate it and do it in a studio, that´s quite a task and very difficult. But if you just kinda learn AC/DC songs on bass, it´s not that hard and already you´re playing in a band and you´re playing great songs by an amazing band, so it´s a great entrance point. To get good on it is as hard as any other instrument, to really get up to a high level, but I always encourage people. Bass is a great entry, a great doorway to walk through and from there, who knows what´s gonna happen?
What drives you and do you sit around practising?
Yeah. I remember when I was young, people would knock on my door at my apartment when I lived in Buffalo, New York and I´d answer the door and have the bass on and they´d go “Don´t you ever put that thing down?” My cousin tells a story. I finished a show at 2 am, got done and we were gonna go fishing, so he was gonna pick me up in two hours. I just finished playing for four hours in a hot, sweaty club. I got home, he knocked on my door and I opened the door with the bass on, two hours later. For him that was a big inspiration. If you´re gonna do something, do it. So yeah, I sit around and I practise more than I did at any time of my and the practising now has a pattern and a purpose and a formula that really improve what I´m doing. I´m really still improving as much as I can and why the hell not? I love playing and I wanna be better and some people think that´s like a balls modesty thing, but it´s not. Only I know the things I´m not sure about. If I play in front of you, trust me, you´re not gonna see my mistakes, but I know they´re there, so for me there´s always a determination to try and improve and be better.
Have you always played without a pick? Your fingers must be like…
Yeah, you see the discoloration at the end, it´s all callous (shows his fingers). I have picks, but they´re just to give away. Once in a while I´ll play like a couple of notes and throw them out in the audience, but bass is an extension of what was originally up right bass, which no one ever played to a pick on. Probably somebody did, but I don´t know about them. I think the finger style enables you to really have a unique tonality, because the texture of your skin and how hard your callous is, affects the tone. It really becomes personalized too, when your fingers are actually touching it. Basses are really organic and the bass gets very connected to you as you play and another great reason to why I think bass is really great.
Do you have like special insurance for your fingers?
No. If anything happens I gotta switch to drums or song writing. (laughs)
I read that you started out with a Hagström bass?
Yeah, I had a Hagström bass and I stripped it and removed the frets and had a fretless bass for a while, but I don´t know what happened to it. Years later somebody found out that I had and he found one on eBay and I bought it for like $200, so I got the exact same model again. Kind of a plastic top, four switches, one knob and a very small bass too, ¾ size, so I have one in my rehearsal room. Sweden left this mark on me.
I also read that when you played with Talas, you opened up for Van Halen in 1980 on the “Party till we die tour”.
“Women and children first”. WDFA – We Don´t Fuck Around
What was that like? Was it your first major tour?
Yeah, it was our first tour in arenas. We had done a lot of opening slots, one offs, but to actually go out on tour opening, it was our first time. We had sent our demo cassette into Premiere Talent, which was the booking agency that booked Van Halen. Our manager was a guy named Harvey and he was the local promotor in Buffalo and he brought in all the big bands like The Who, Van Halen, everybody and he was the guy that did it. Our band was big in Buffalo and he was the biggest music guy in Buffalo and we were the biggest band so eventually we came together. Harvey was our manager and since he dealt with Premiere Talent and booking all these bands, he sent a woman named Barbara Skydell, he sent her the demo tape and she sent it to Ed Van Halen. He heard it and said “Put them on the tour.” We had no idea what was going on and we had no idea we were even up for the tour. We had a couple of things in the air. We had just showcased for Arista Records´Clive Davies, Aerosmith was coming to town and we wanted to open up for them, so my guitar player pulls up and with a bottle of champagne and I go “What´s this for? Did we get the Arista Records deal? and he goes “No.” I say “Are we opening for Aerosmith?” and he goes “No, we´re fucking on the Van Halen tour!” and I go “What?” We went out and did about 20 or 30 shows with them and it was amazing. For me it was an incredible moment on the first night on the tour. We hadn´t met them and we were in a dressing room and it was shaped oddly. Where I was sitting I could see the door, but everyone else couldn´t in this L-shaped room, so I´m sitting there and the door opens up and it´s Ed Van Halen. The guys were watching my face and go “Man, you have this weirdest look on your face.” Ed walks in and I swear to God the first thing, he goes “Which one of you guys is Billy Sheehan?” (laughs) “It´s me, it´s me!” I guess he had heard about me and they were wonderful to us. They let us do a couple of encores in some big cities and it was really an incredible experience. It was like getting a PHD in show business. They were the grandmasters, it was like a military operation. On the worst night they had on that tour, they were only spectacular. They were so great and just wonderful people too. Really a life changing event.
Did you keep in touch with Dave after that?
I kept in touch with Ed. Valerie Bertinelli was his girlfriend and she had given him some card like “Honey, I love you.” and he actually ripped a piece of the card off and wrote his phone number on it. I still got it. He ripped a part of Valerie´s card and wrote his phone number down and said to me “Don´t tell Michael!” I love Michael Anthony and Van Halen is Van Halen, but the idea that he might´ve been interested in me playing… so later on I got asked to join the band two or three times over the years. Never happened. I´m kinda glad it didn´t because Michael´s the man and he should be the bass player and who knows what their motivations were, I don´t know. But it was a great honor to have any association with Van Halen in any way, shape or form, so I´m very honoured that they even know who I am.
You recently did that thing where you were supposed to play in LA, the “Eat ém and smile” gig and the fire department closed it down?
Yeah, they showed up. Steve (Vai) and I had our guitars on and we were ready to go. The curtain was down and were were like “Ok, are you ready?” and there was a commotion off to the side and the fire department came through the front door. The place holds about 500 people and the Lucky Strike Jam at the time, it´s different now, it´s changed, but you just go up and play. There´s no rehearsal, no soundcheck, no pedals allowed, plug in, go and do your thing. That´s why it´s such an exciting jam because there´s no time between bands. One band ends, next band up, one band ends, next band up. It´s really great. “Let´s do it like men. No soundcheck, no rehearsal, let´s just go up there and fucking play the songs like we know them.”, so we were ready to go. The place holds 500 people and the fire department usually lets in 6 or 700 and it was swarming with people there and the line all the down the block and all the way down Hollywood Boulevard on top of the 1200, so the fire department, they keep their eye for safety and this is right in the heart of Hollywood. They showed up and “That´s it. Shut it down!” We said “Can we just pay the fine?” and they said “No!”. They were right. The club made a mistake by letting so many people in and it´s dangerous, so in the end I think they did the right thing. It was just too dangerous. We had no control of what the club did. We were just coming in to jam, it wasn´t our show. But the best part about it after we got shut down, me and Steve, Greg (Bissonette) and Dave and Brett (Tuggle) our keyboard player, we went backstage and hung out and we had a fucking riot. It was like the old days. Telling stories and fucking around and telling shit. There was an office in the back and we closed the door. Dave was amazing and it was so great to see him again and hang out. The original gang from the “Eat ém and smile” tour. So if we never do it again, at least we had that moment. I hope at some point we get a chance to do it again. I know Steve wants to, I want to, Greg wants to and Dave said he wants to. Hopefully it will happen. Just to enjoy it. I´m not looking to get rich. I wanna play.
You and Steve did a solo together on that tour. Was that something you sat down and worked out or was it like a spontaneous thing?
You gotta give credit where credit is due, it was Dave´s idea. When we initially started the tour, I did my solo and Steve did his solo and Dave is a show biz wizard and he said “You know what? It´s good, but it could be better.” He used the word tractor pull, which in English creates many things in your mind. At a county fair where you´re judging the pigs and the horses and they have a tractor pull and it´s kinda like a little battle. The fact that he would refer to it as a tractor pull, puts it into this strata of society that´s not highbrow, not sophisticated. We put it together and Dave gave us the stamp of approval and we never looked back. It was just an example of… Dave is a grandmaster at the art. Have you read “Van Halen rising”. I did a long interview with him and that book to me, is one of the greatest rock and roll band story books and it´s great because he stops right at the spot where… no gossip, no bullshit and you see in the book, the part that Dave really played. He was an integral part and Steve, myself and Greg, we knew that from the beginning. The first time I went to see Van Halen, of course I went to see Eddie, but the whole time I watched Dave, “Holy fuck! This guy´s amazing!” I mean, I love Eddie, I love Michael and I love Alex and Wolfgang is great too, I love them all, but Dave is the grandmaster.
He´s the king of one-liners. He´s said “I used to jog but the ice cubes kept falling out of my glass.”
Perfect. Genius. We had such a great time. When we first started the “Eat ém and smile” band, I was first in. I flew out to LA and started the band with Dave and we went looking for guitar players. I recommended Steve Vai and Steve got the gig and rightfully so, he´s the perfect man. Dave told Steve and I that we had to go find a drummer and we went out and found Greg Bissonette, so that was put together really organically. We would hang in the basement and he (Dave) had all this leftover US Festival (1983) beer. It was skunk because the beer only lasted about a year, but we didn´t care. It was kept in Dave´s garage in Pasadena and it´s a 110 degrees in the summer, so the beer was skunk. We´d get the skunk beer and sit around and tell stories about girls, band stories, music stories… It was the greatest fucking hang and bonding experience. It was amazing. To this day that´s some of the finest moments of my life. So great.
Have you thought about writing a book?
I´ve thought about it. Most of the time my stories are performance art. You gotta be there, at the table with a couple of glasses of wine and then the story comes and it´s fucking hilarious. To write it down… that´s why they give an Oscar to screen play writers, because if you can take a book and make it into a movie, that´s quite a job. For me, my stories, to get them into a book would be like reversed screen writing. I´ve thought about it a couple of times and Greg Renoff would be one of the first people I would call. I thought he was just great with the Van Halen book and there are so many stories. We did the Metal Masters show in New York. Me and Phil Anselmo, Kerry King from Slayer, Slayer´s drummer, Anthrax drummer. The night before we were all at a restaurant and they didn´t know me at all, I don´t run in that circle, but I love that they let me play with them. I was up there playing Slayer songs. We were telling stories and I got into some of the crazy ass shit I did. I didn´t realize it, but the whole restaurant was listening. Someday I´ll tell my stories.
Do you ever get nostalgic? Do you look back on those days, the 80´s and the 70´s, because it was so different compared to today.
I feel for younger musicians. They don´t have the kinda scene we had. For me, starting in the very early 70´s, late 60´s, we could play seven nights a week. Talas did 21 nights in a row one time, four sets a night 21 nights. Everybody would sing their ass off all night long and nobody lost their voice. You can´t do it today. You can´t go out and do 21 club shows and that´s a sad thing. I feel bad for bands now. There´s other ways to maybe make up for that, but I was lucky to be born when I was and could just play so much live music. We played all the time in every condition you could imagine. From weddings to high school dances to clubs. In front of different audiences and in front of wild and crazy audiences. That´s great training and I look back on those days as a great time in music and a lot of great players came out of those.
The future then? Do you look at The Winery Dogs as your main band now and what´s going on with Mr Big?
Yeah. Mr Big is there and we will always play. We´re not gonna break up. We have a situation with Pat (Torpey). He´s developed Parkinson´s disease, but he´s doing good. He can´t do the kind of touring and playing he used to do. I´m not gonna replace Pat. He´s fucking Mr big guy, so we´ll do whatever we can do and as much as Pat can do. We brought in another drummer to do the heavy lifting, there´s some of the double bass drum thing he just can´t do, but he´s up on stage with us and playing and part of the band. I don´t wanna be that type of thing where we start replacing people just so we can go out and make money. We´ll probably go out next year and we´ll do it right. We´ll do the best record we can, go out and do it in an enjoyable fun fashion, not a money grab. We were just talking earlier, some friends of mine, remembering some of the great artists who got old and were weak and they were still up there on stage and playing in a chair. Sad. I don´t wanna do that. It´ll be enjoyable, it´ll be cool and it´ll be easy for Pat, so we won´t make so much money because we need more days off, but I don´t care. I´ve never been money motivated. We love Pat and we want him there. I saw Eric (Martin) yesterday and I speak with Paul (Gilbert) often, so we´re ready to go. I gotta play live, because I came from a time where I played so much. If I don´t play a lot of shows, my hands start to suffer, so I need to play live. Thank God for The Winery Dogs and Mike (Portnoy) and his work ethic. Mike will play three shows a day from here to eternity and be good, so that´s great.
Are you thinking about the next album even though it´s not been a year yet?
Not yet. We´re still rolling on this and when we get done… Richie is a great writer buddy and I like the way he looks at it. You don´t wanna write until you really got something, trying to force it. Let´s take our time and do a great record. That´s why so many songs from the second record has done so well. We´ll take our time to do a great record and in the meantime I´ll do a Mr Big thing, like to do a solo record with my buddy Ray Luzier from Korn and we play together a lot. The Mr Big thing will be a short run and then we go back and do The Winery Dogs record when we´re ready and we got some great stuff and then go out and play as much as humanly possible.
A final thing. We´ve lost a lot of talents and legends the last couple of months like Lemmy, Bowie and Prince. A guy like Prince, was he someone you…
Huge. A big, big influence on Richie (Kotzen). I remember when I was out touring with Steve (Vai), in the back of the bus and somebody managed to get this video of Prince playing guitar. Just guitar, bass and drums like an hour and a half and I never heard a bad note. He fucking killed on that thing. I don´t know if there will ever be anyone like him? He could dance, sing, play, write, act. Like Sinatra, but Frank didn´t dance. He was kinda like a Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Tony Bennett… iconic guys who will live on forever and he will live on forever. Thank God for recorded music, because we have Prince every single day. Pretty tough situation, sad to see and I don´t blame him at all. That opiate, Oxycontin, Percocet… People take it because they´ve got pain and once you´re on it, it´s almost impossible to get off. I´ve got a lot of personal friends, you know a broken leg… a friend of mine got shot and he got stuck on it and the only way off is fucking tough. You can be on it and not even realize you´re stuck. I don´t blame… I´ve seen some comments from people… bullshit. It´s such a powerful, insidious, terrible drug so I don´t put any blame on him. Just sad.
Text: Niclas Müller-Hansen