I recently had the honor and the privilege of speaking with one of the most talented bassists of all time, a member of The Winery Dogs and Mr. Big, Billy Sheehan!
Alex Obert: Going back in history, what was it like filming those music videos of the MTV era? They just have that certain charm about them.
Billy Sheehan: It was usually quite a production. Fifteen, twenty, thirty people outside of the band involved in the shoot. Those were for the small ones. Some of them even more. Sometimes forty. It was quite an undertaking to put all those things together, it’s no different from shooting scenes for TV or movies. A lot is involved in it. That was then and this is now, the technical costs of doing a video now are a fraction of what they were at one point, so it’s a lot easier to do stuff. But I’ve seen videos shot on iPhones that are pretty darn good too.
Alex Obert: With The Winery Dogs, how do Mike Portnoy and Richie Kotzen influence and inspire you?
Billy Sheehan: I don’t look it in that way, we’re collaborating. Every musician is different and you deal with every musician in a different way. Mike plays drums differently than any drummer I’ve ever worked with, Richie plays guitar and singers differently than anyone I’ve ever worked with. With that, you can build on it, it can be a greater foundation for more. It’s like mixing different colors. You get a lot more opportunity for more creative points of view with different people. It’s quite a bit different to work with three guys than four, oddly enough. I grew up playing mostly in a trio and so playing with three other guys is a remarkably different dynamic.
Alex Obert: The Winery Dogs began through Eddie Trunk, but how did you develop a relationship with him?
Billy Sheehan: Well I knew Eddie for many, many years as a DJ, as a guy in the music business. Mike has known him as well. I think I played bass on segues of That Metal Show twice before we even went on as a band actually. He’s a great, great guy. A real supporter, not only of us, but of a lot of bands and a lot of music. He really helps everyone.
Alex Obert: When did you take notice that Richie Kotzen had the chops to sing?
Billy Sheehan: I always knew that. Since the late eighties. The first time Richie came to my house many, many years ago, there’s a piano there, he sat down and just some total great, awesome singing/playing. I’ve known about him and his singing ability for many, many years. I’m glad to see the rest of the world finally catching up to it.
Alex Obert: Recently you were at the Golden Gods and you had quite the story on stage.
Billy Sheehan: They gave me the envelope to announce the winner and no one told me that the award was in honor of Paul Gray. It was named after Paul Gray. So I opened up the envelope and the name Paul Gray is there and I thought, “Did they just award him the best bass player posthumously?” And so I said, “Paul Gray.”, and down at the bottom, they had the actual winner’s name. It actually took me some time to find it.
Alex Obert: What was the crowd reaction like when you said Paul Gray?
Billy Sheehan: They responded well because there’s a lot of fans of his there. He passed away and he probably should get the award posthumously. Why not?
Alex Obert: With the band’s name being The Winery Dogs, what are your favorite wines?
Billy Sheehan: I like Malbec and almost anything Italian.
Alex Obert: Do you guys ever drink wine together?
Billy Sheehan: Mike doesn’t drink, but Richie and I have a sip once in a while.
Alex Obert: What are your favorite bars across the country throughout all the touring you’ve done?
Billy Sheehan: Very rarely get a chance to do much of anything, especially get to a bar. I do most of my wine consuming at home. We cook a lot at home or on the tour bus or after the show at the venue. But there’s very, very little time to ever go out. If there was time to go out, it would be just for a meal. I doubt I would spend a rare evening off at a bar. Bars really don’t have good wine anyway.
Alex Obert: You’ve been in Japan many times throughout your career, what do you love about Japan that you wish would be brought over to the states?
Billy Sheehan: I would just say the general pride that the people have in their country. There’s no litter, graffiti, you rarely see homeless people, it’s safe, kids can walk around the streets at eleven o’clock and never have to worry about anything, and I believe it’s how the United States was in the fifties and sixties. People didn’t just scrawl graffiti over everything, every square inch of space. American cities are covered with filth and litter and graffiti. Nothing is broken in Japan. In the guardrails, there’s no screws missing. Everything is fixed and right. Kids don’t take the potted plants from houses, kick them down or smash them. You can leave your home without a lock and everything’s there when you return. It’s an incredible, safe, wonderful experience. But of course, we have freedoms in America that I don’t believe they have. But we also have the freedom to be idiots and litter everything.
Alex Obert: With Winery Dogs, you recently did the cruise show. What was that like?
Billy Sheehan: It was a lot of fun with a lot of great fans. It’s a chance to hang out with a lot of the fans in between shows too, which is pretty rare. We usually are traveling in between shows, so we don’t get a chance to hang out much. Everybody had a great time. It was completely sold out and we may do the next one too. It was a really cool experience.
Alex Obert: So you didn’t get seasick?
Billy Sheehan: No. (laughs)
Alex Obert: Aside from a cruise, what other unique places have you played?
Billy Sheehan: I’ve done just about every gig you could imagine from hotel ballrooms to outdoor town squares to converted churches to tiny, little places to massive, huge places. Probably almost no configuration I haven’t played.
Alex Obert: Regarding you as a person, what do you feel is important about staying humble?
Billy Sheehan: Well, it’s just the truth. There’s always something greater. Always something better. Always more to learn. No matter who you are, no matter what field you’re in, no matter what you do. If you’re the greatest photographer on planet Earth, there’s probably more to learn about photography than you’ll ever know. As a musician, I can listen to a piece by Chopin or Debussy and I know there’s so much more music that I don’t know yet. It’s an important thing for people to understand. Once you think you know it all, you stop learning. That’s always a major, major problem. Once you stop learning, you basically have died, in my humble opinion.
Alex Obert: Who have your heroes been in and out of music throughout your life?
Billy Sheehan: People who have done great things, be it music or elsewhere. I was a big science buff when I was a kid so I was very interested in the scientists of the day and the scientists that came before me. The big composers, Bach and Beethoven, of course. Debussy and Ravel later on. Probably thirty or forty composers that I love very much. I have extensive collections of their works. All the bands that came before me that inspired me through music. It’s a long, long, long list.
Alex Obert: With your live shows, what goes through your head on stage? And also, how do you prepare for shows?
Billy Sheehan: Nothing goes through my head on stage, I’m a firm believer in not thinking. If you’re thinking, you’re probably stinking. That’s my thing. I’ll think when I’m in rehearsals or practicing or writing songs, and when you’re on stage, you gotta forget all that. Speak for the people and perform for the people. It’s like having a conversation with someone. While you’re speaking, you know they’re not listening, they’re thinking about what they’re gonna say next. Similarly, I don’t like to think when I’m playing music. I like to look at it as a conversation that has to come from the heart. To prepare for the show, warm up my bass, warm up my voice, maybe have a little coffee before. Then the greatest part of my day and the greatest part of my life is to perform on stage.
Alex Obert: We started the interview by talking about the MTV era music videos. With the song, To Be With You, have you ever seen that commercial that used to air on VH1 Classic for the Monster Ballads CD? That really corny commercial where they play the ballads and show clips of the music videos.
Billy Sheehan: Since I moved to LA in 1985, I’ve never gotten cable TV. So I know nothing of it. As much as I do enjoy the digital arts, I don’t watch much television. When I see children watching TV, they’re in a hypnotic state and it’s unhealthy. I enjoy a movie and I enjoy Netflix, but I’m not a big TV guy.
Alex Obert: What are your thoughts on just putting a vinyl record on and just sitting down to listen to it?
Billy Sheehan: Well it’s an interesting thing, I read something where thirty to forty percent of people who buy vinyl never play it. They just have it as a collector’s item, which is kind of interesting. I was into digital music way early on because I was at war with vinyl, it was the only thing you could listen to. It cracks and snaps and pops. I did many, many technical things to try to get past that. And so when digital came out and CDs came out, I was very excited about it and finally heard the dynamic range and no noise for the first time. And now my entire audio collection is all on my hard drive, it’s at 1.5 terabytes now. Three hundred thousand songs. There isn’t a click or a pop in any of it other than the stuff that was ripped from vinyl. I like the fact that people are going back and listening to vinyl because it’s such a huge part of what we listened to back in the day.
Alex Obert: You’re very active on Twitter, what do you enjoy about being on there and connecting with your fans?
Billy Sheehan: When I post to Twitter, it also goes to my Facebook and MySpace, if MySpace is even still around. I use that as the launch for all my posts for all the sites. It’s good because I have to keep it down to the minimal amount of letters allowed in a Twitter post, I have to get right to the point. It makes it precise and easy for people. I do enjoy everything about the internet revolution in that it’s easy to stay in touch with people and always find out what’s going on. And also for me to hear from people. I proudly give out my e-mail address and I encourage people to write to me. I read everything I get, I don’t always get a chance to respond, but everything I get, I read. I try to answer a lot of e-mails. When I’m doing a seminar or a clinic, I’ll say, “Anybody here get an e-mail from me?” About eight or ten hands go up. So it’s a good way to keep in touch with people and let people know what’s going on. The more communication we have with each other, the better.
Alex Obert: In closing, what is the social media for The Winery Dogs?
Billy Sheehan: Well there is TheWineryDogs.com website with all of our gig information, links to everyone in the band’s sites. Mike Portnoy, Richie Kotzen, and myself. And there’s a Winery Dogs Facebook page and a Twitter. So we’re active in it and it really shows because when we need to let people know what’s going on, they find out quick. If there’s a show in LA or a situation going on, we can let people know right away. And it’s a great thing.
Alex Obert: I’d like to thank you so much for your time.
Billy Sheehan: I’m glad you did it! I appreciate your time very much.
The Winery Dogs: Billy Sheehan, Richie Kotzen, and Mike Portnoy