Bass Legend Billy Sheehan on Mr. Big’s New Album, Touring & The Secret to a Long Career

Billy Sheehan and Mr. Big
Mr. Big — Billy Sheehan to the far right. Photo Credit: William Hames

Billy Sheehan has had a career that would take the length of this entire article to properly discuss. He has played in bands both big and small, and has travelled the world showcasing his signature “lead bass” playing style. Having played with names like Talas, Steve Vai, David Lee Roth, Niacin, The Winery Dogs, and Mr. Big, Billy is no stranger to rock and roll. Billy was nice enough to do an interview, which took place after I had seen the Mr. Big show in Newton, NJ (click here for review). We talked Mr. Big’s new album Defying Gravity, being on the road, and staying motivated throughout a long and successful career.

You have had such a long career, and played with guys like Steve Vai, David Lee Roth, and now back with Mr. Big. How has the music industry, for you, changed over the years?

Well, for me it’s been fairly consistent. I practice all the time, I always try and write. I learn a ton of different styles, approaches as well. I learn things from country artists, pop artists, metal artists, and everything in between. Jazz fusion too, so I’m just at it all the time, my greatest gift is that I just love to play, I love music. I don’t know if I have talent or not, but I just love it so much that eventually I connect, I start playing it closer to how it’s supposed to be, I guess. It drives me, it’s a relentless, driving force to play, to perform, to dig deeper, to learn more.

All that stuff really pays off in the end, and as the music business changes around me, and as the world changes around me, I still have this one consistent thing. I always see that mountain off in the distance, and I’m slashing through the jungle to reach it, and I finally get to the top only to realize that there is a higher mountain. That helps me whether any kind of a storm, or anything that happens in the music biz, there is always music.

“Relentless” is a good way to describe your bass playing, it’s a very unique and recognizable style. How did you get to that point from picking up a bass and starting to learn?

It was very fortuitous that I was born and grew up in the place and time that I did, in Buffalo, NY. There was the bar scene, there were hundreds of bands and hundreds of places to play every night, plus seven, eight, ten different clubs about an hour drive, so we played constantly, on stage performing every single night. Three, four, five sets a night, seven days a week. We did 21 days in a row once, we did three complete shows in one day. So that constant performance, constantly under the spotlight, always having people there watching what you were doing, not being in a studio where you could go back and do a second take or fix something.

You were live, as David Lee Roth would say, “in front of naked, steaming eyes.” SO that was a good kind of pressure. And because it was a small town you’d have the same people on Tuesday that were there on Monday, so you’d have to innovate and come up with stuff. Think of different ways to the same thing without losing that important “sameness”, but still keeping it alive. So those early years of getting out and playing live, and those other factors, kind of unintentionally helped me create a style that I never intentionally created. I never sat down and planned anything out, in my life or in my playing or in anything else. And here we are in 2017 and that’s what it sounds like.

How you approach writing music?

Well, there are a lot of styles of songwriting just like there are a lot of styles of playing. Some people methodically map things out with a slide rule and protractor, and that’s one way. Other people by the seat of their pants; they hear a phrase somebody says that sounds like a lyric and they sing the phrase, and say, “Okay what key does this sound like? What chords could go behind this?” I’m usually the seat of the pants kind of guy. I might pick up the guitar and play a chords and say “Okay, what words match the notes I’m singing?”

I have my iPhone with my all the time so if I need to record something I take the camera, put it in selfie mode, and start playing. And you explain to yourself “ok, this is the chorus, this is the verse, then for the second verse its going to change like this.” And I have hundreds of videos like that with little song ideas, they may go nowhere. And I go over them every few months, years, and sometimes one or two will jump out at me, but that’s how I do it.

On Defying Gravity, you played two new songs in Newton, both were phenomenal, they really blend well with the older stuff, and they really have this hard rocking feel that is very cool.

Oh thanks man, we really appreciate that. You know, we really love writing music, we don’t write stuff to pander to anyone, and we write it for ourselves mostly. We can’t necessarily pick out what our own hits will be, even though you can listen to ten songs from another band and go “yep, here are the two that are gonna blow up.” When we keep hearing that fans want new music, that they like the new music, that’s what really does it for us, that’s what we love to hear.

Does your approach play into the way you guys wrote Defying Gravity? A lot of bands have digital collaboration before they hit the studio.

Well, we all have a lot of different projects, so when we come back as Mr. Big we all have a whole new set of influences, and a whole new chapter of adventures, and a whole lot more living that we’ve done, which inspires us to write about it, and write from those experiences. We came in with about three or four songs that were actually complete, even though we had never performed them or demoed them. There wasn’t much digital sharing going on. For this record, we went into a studio and wrote it in 6 days, if you can believe it. You just bounce ideas off of each other, things you worked on or things you came up with. Then you just work on that.

Billy Sheehan performing with Mr. Big at the Newton Theatre in Newton, NJ. Photo Credit: Eric Nuber/The Pop Break

You know, when I have an idea, or Paul has an idea, you bring it out and you see if it works. So we write and have all of our ideas and demos, we then send it to Eric [Martin], and he does his thing with the tracks and send them back and you keep working. The drums are so important. Pat [Torpey] came in and added his flair on the drums, we made sure he wasn’t overworked, due to his medical condition. We are so thrilled that he is with us on tour, it really wouldn’t be the same without him. Every instrument and band member adds a layer and flavor that builds to complete the song. We just love getting together and writing music together, it feels good

Is that what drives you? How long do you think you’ll think Mr. Big will keep playing for?

Oh absolutely, like I said, we write music that we want to hear, that we think is good, and when we hear from the fans that they like it to, it fuels us, gives us confidence to keep moving forward. As for how long…I don’t know, until we don’t want to I guess. We’ve got the second leg of the tour, then we go to South America, Europe, UK, Japan, and back to the US. And I gotta tell you, life on the road is fun. Its not this big “oh life on the road is so hard man.” It’s really not, we have a great bus lounges, plenty of space, a great driver. We stay in decent hotels. You know, we aren’t out here getting rich, but that’s not the point. We are out here doing this, paying the bills, having fun. And it really is fun, we have so much fun being on tour. As long as we can do that, and something unforeseen doesn’t happen, we’ll keep doing this for as long as we can.

If you could give some advice to young musicians looking to break into this genre of music, what would that be? 

Practice, play, every single day. But don’t just run through scales, don’t learn other people’s music. You won’t get better by learning some other guy’s riffs and solos. But my biggest piece of advice to get out there and play. Form a band, find a venue, and get up on stage. That fear of failing will push you so much harder to be better, it’ll push you farther than just sitting around in your room. At first you might be playing mostly covers, but you can sprinkle one or two originals in there. Soon enough, you’ll be playing more originals, until people show up to listen to your music. Never stop practicing, never stop writing music, never stop striving to be better, even it seems like it’s not working right away.

Catch Billy Sheehan on tour with Mr. Big in a town near you — click here to see where they’ll be playing next!