Billy Sheehan Interview:
"Change Is Good And I'm Not Afraid Of It!"
May 4, 2018
Billy Sheehan has been in the business of rock and roll for many years and has seen it all. The world famous bassist gained his first bit of national exposure when he became a part of David Lee Roth’s Eat ‘Em and Smile band along with Steve Vai and Gregg Bissonette.
After two albums with Diamond Dave, Sheehan went on to form Mr. Big and had the number one smash “To Be With You” with that band. He then went on to tour and record with a number of other artists including Terry Bozzio, Richie Kotzen, The Winery Dogs and even Akron’s own Tim “Ripper” Owens.
Today, Billy has a new band called Sons Of Apollo. This band features Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal (Guns ‘N Roses), Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian (Dream Theater), and Jeff Scott Soto (Malmsteen, Journey). They will be playing the House of Blues on May 15th.
We had a chance to chat with Billy to talk about his new band, his career and their upcoming appearance in Cleveland.
Greg Drugan: Hey Billy, thanks for taking some time out today. How’s the tour been going so far?
Billy Sheehan: Spectacular! Really great! Surprisingly, for a new band and a new record, we’re all quite pleased with it.
GD: I got the chance to hear your new record and I think it’s fantastic. How did Sons Of Apollo get together? It’s like a super-group.
BS: It’s not a super-group, we all just got together and played. We didn’t pick each other other than that we are all friends and we know that we can all play and we wanted to play. There’s no super-group! That moniker comes from outside of the band, it never comes from within. (laughs) I’ve known Mike, we played together in the Winery Dogs. Mike wanted to do a project with his buddy Derek who he played with in Dream Theater. I also know Derek and played on one of his records. I knew Jeff Scott Soto from the first tour Talas did with Yngwie in the summer of ‘85. Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, we jammed together a couple of times in New York City. I’m amazed the amount of songs he knows, we have a lot of common ground. He’s an amazing player and a great guy.
Mike called me and said, “What do you think?” So I said let’s make a record and enjoy ourselves and that’s exactly what we’re doing.
GD: I think this record is exactly what we need to bring rock back. A lot of people have been saying that rock is dead. What do you think has happened to rock music in the last decade or so?
BS: Well, every couple of years there’s been a change in genre. It happened with Rudy Vallee and Frank Sinatra came along and that went away. Then Elvis came along and knocked Frank Sinatra away. Then the Beatles came along and Elvis went away. Then there was hard rock and heavy metal, then southern rock became popular. Then progressive and fusion and pop then Van Halen came along. It changes all the time. It’s always gonna change!
I think they extended the life of a lot of classic rock bands beyond the way they would normally go. It’s such a bump in the demographic of the baby boomers that they still listen to the same stuff as they did when they were sixteen. You turn on a classic rock station and you’ll get “Rock and Roll” by Led Zepplin every twenty minutes and “Sweet Home Alabama” every fifteen minutes. I think it’s a good idea that things go away. Like the old country and western song goes, “How can I miss you if you never went away?” (laughs) Things change and it’s different. Change is good and I’m not afraid of it!
GD: Along those lines, with your new record, it sounds so fresh and invigorating that hopefully people hear it and go: Man, this is something we want to listen to!
BS: This is a different style than what I usually play. I’m more of Mr. Big or Winery Dogs-style of bands. But I have played a lot of fusion and a lot of stuff that isn’t like that. This is quite a heavy record in my estimation, anyway. It focuses on a grouping of notes that I don’t do in other bands. There’s a big, long instrumental piece on here that I don’t think I’ve done on anything but my solo record. But the response has been fantastic so this is all good.
GD: What is your favorite song from the album? I love “Lost In Oblivion.”
BS: That’s a blast to play! “Labyrinth” is another one that’s really tough to play and “Opus Maximus” or “Maximus Opus,” the instrumental track! It’s always hard to remember the instrumental songs because they never say the name of the song! But that one is a real challenge to play live.
GD: I wanted to look back on your career. What first attracted you to playing the bass?
BS: Around the corner from my house lived Joe Hessy and he was friends with my older brother and sister. He had a band and he was a bass player. He was the coolest guy I knew. He had the cool hair and a Triumph motorcycle, and a beautiful blonde girlfriend and he played bass. I wanted to be just like him. To this day, Joe is one of my dearest friends in the world. The bass is cool! It’s big and heavy and has these giant strings, the amps are massive. The guitar players have these thin little wires on their guitar and these little amps that you could carry with one hand. Little did I know that it was a guitar world and all the glory goes to guitar players! (laughs) I have a low voice and I’m tall and skinny so I’m kinda built for the bass. I do love it and it’s an adventure that I continue every day! I discover something new every single day that I never knew before. I’m happy to be a bass player even though there’s not as much glory as a guitar player, it’s perfectly alright.
GD: Well, you’ve made quite a name for yourself being a bass player.
BS: You’re very kind.
GD: Who were some of your musical influences growing up?
BS: Anything and everything! A lot of classical music, a lot of jazz and a lot of British Invasion. Dave Clark Five and Yardbirds and million other less celebrated bands along with the Beatles and the Stones. I grew up through that era coming right out of the Everly Brothers and Jerry Lee Lewis era. From there, every new genre that came along, I adopted and began to learn. From bebop, to rock to King Crimson. There were very few bands we didn’t cover.
GD: Do you remember the first record you bought with your own money?
BS: Yes, the single “Eight Miles High” by The Byrds. The flip side was a song called “Why.” But it was a single version, so years later when I was getting all the CD versions of songs, it took me quite a long time to track down that version of “Why” because it was a special mix. It took me a while to find a special version of Fifth Dimension that had extra bonus tracks to find that version of the song as I knew it.
Most important one to me in the early years was Having A Rave Up With The Yardbirds. It was a Yardbirds record with “I’m A Man” on it and the flip side had all live versions. Right away, at an early age I found out that the live versions had improvisations all over the place. “I’m A Man” was almost unrecognizable. The bass player, Paul Samwell-Smith, had a huge influence on me. He’s why I have a second output on my bass. It was an amazing lesson to learn how these guys took these songs live, into a club and jammed on them but still had the body of the song.
That was just the beginning of my record collection. Now my iTunes has about two terabytes of music and it’s all organized in the right folder with the right cover art.
GD: That’s impressive. Who was your first concert and how did that impact you?
BS: My first concert was Jimi Hendrix and his Experience. Soft Machine opened up. Actually I just posted on my Facebook that someone had a shot of him playing in Buffalo. I ran up to the front of the stage with my camera and took all the photos that were in my camera. When I sent my film in, I got a letter of apology (saying) that they ruined my film and they gave me a coupon for a free roll. I speculated on my post that maybe that’s my photo! That was exactly the angle that I would have been in, because I was (within) a long arms' reach of the man that was playing! It was pretty amazing and it changed everything!
GD: Man, that’s hard to top being your first concert! It doesn’t get much better than that!
BS: Yeah, when I do my bass clinics I say, “I’ve been playing bass for fifty years, which means I’m an old man. But I got to see Hendrix play live, ha ha!"
GD: I’m definitely jealous of that one. Your first band Talas, got to open for Van Halen in 1980. What was that experience like?
BS: It was a PhD in show business. It was Showbiz 101. They were a well-oiled machine; like a military operation. On their worst night, they were only spectacular. They were so, so awesome and every night we got to see how it worked, how they put it together, and how they made it happen. What a great, great lesson to learn and I’ve taken those lessons with me for every live performance that I’ve ever done.
They were very nice. They let us take some encores and it was an incredible experience.
GD: A few years later you became a part of David Lee Roth’s solo band. How did that come about and what was it like working with Dave, Steve and Gregg?
BS: Dave’s people called my office in Buffalo and they wanted to have a meeting with me when I came out to LA to start a tour with Talas. They said Dave was having a movie being made and he wanted me in the movie. I was like, “What?” Sure enough, I got to LA and went to Dave’s house in Pasadena and Dave said, “There is a movie, but that’s not why I called. I’m starting a band because I just quit Van Halen.” I said “Wow!” I always said that I would never quit my band Talas for anything unless Van Halen called. When Dave called I said “Close enough!” After the tour (with Talas), Dave flew me out and we started working on things and started writing.
A guitar player was needed and I suggested Steve Vai because I was in touch with Steve because he was on the same label that Talas was, and the label wanted us to do something together eventually. He came in and he was the perfect guy. Dave told us that we needed a drummer, so we put an add in the paper and we auditioned about forty people. As soon as Gregg walked in, we knew he was the guy. That was the band! We went on an adventure that was second to none in my life.
GD: Wow! Well it looked like you guys were having so much fun on stage.
BS: It’s because we were! We really were, it was a great, great time for everybody.
GD: I know a few years ago there was an attempt to reunite the Eat ‘Em and Smile Band but it got shut down. Is there a possibility of that happening in the future?
BS: Not to my knowledge. That’s up to Dave because that’s his band. If he decides he wants to do it, Steve and I would probably be very happy to.
GD: That would be great! After you left Dave’s band, you went on to form Mr. Big. Did you think you would have had the type of success that you had with them?
BS: No, you never expect anything. I just wanted to put a great band together. Whatever happens, happens. I didn’t expect to have a hit record. We were hoping to make a living and be able to play and do well. We were fortunate to have a number one hit record on Billboard for three weeks. It was number one in fourteen countries around the world and it was a life changer!
GD: You’ve worked with a number of artists throughout your career. Who are some of your favorites and is there anyone you would like to work with in the future who you haven’t already?
BS: Generally, I’ve had a good time with everyone I’ve ever worked with and I’ve remained friends with everyone I’ve played with, minus one or two people. I try make things easy for everybody and do what they want. I make it so I get asked back so I can do it again!
I’ve played with everybody that I’ve ever wanted to. I’m really having fun with Sons Of Apollo. Playing with Jeff Scott Soto is great! I’ve know him since the summer of ‘85. There isn’t really anyone on my list.
GD: You will be playing in Cleveland soon. Do you have any memories of playing here in the past?
BS: i’ve played Cleveland a lot back in the day, especially with Talas. Then I’ve played in Cleveland with every band I’ve been in since. Cleveland is a lot like Buffalo: A blue collar town where a million musicians have come from. It has a lot of roots and a lot of players that went on to play in a lot of big bands. It has a lot of history. I’m glad to be coming back, that’s for sure!
GD: What can fans expect from your show at The House of Blues? Is there any chance you guys break out “Shy Boy?”
BS: No! (laughs) That’s the short answer. We are playing the whole album and a couple other songs that Derick and Mike did with their old band. Maybe a couple of other surprises. I’ve played “Shy Boy” with every band, every night, since I wrote it in 1982! Once in a while, it’s good to give it a rest. So it won’t be out there.
GD: Well, that’s understandable. Billy, thanks again for your time! I’m looking forward to seeing you and the rest of the guys here in Cleveland in a couple of weeks!
BS: Wonderful! Thanks for the interview and were excited to be playing in Cleveland. Take care, man!
Be sure to check out Sons Of Apollo at The House Of Blues on Tuesday, May 15.
Click here to purchase tickets.
Interview by Greg Drugan