Billy Sheehan started his musicial career in his own band, Talas out of a garage in Buffalo, New York (who recorded three albums). David Lee Roth recruited Sheehan and they recorded two platinum-selling albums before setting out on his own. Forming Mr. Big in 1989, Sheehan has seen this band sell upwards of five million albums worldwide. Sheehan's 1994 book, The Ultimate Billy Sheehan, was published by Rittor Music in Japan. His latest endeavor is an adventurous instrumental project called Niacin, featuring John Novello on the Hammond B3 organ and Dennis Chambers on drums. They recorded the album in Los Angeles at the Mad Hatter studios with Sheehan producing. His domination of the "Best Rock Bassist" award has elevated him to Guitar Player Magazine's Gallery Of Greats.
Q&A with Sheehan
Sheila Rene': Long time no see or hear for that matter.
Billy Sheehan: Hello, how are you?
SR: What an interesting project we have here.
BS: Yeah, pretty neat.
SR: The first on-line music clinic. You have to be first these days.
BS: A friend of mine who built my webpage is very inventive and full of ideas. He knew that I loved to do bass clinics and seminars to help out the new musicians coming up the ranks. I enjoy answering questions from those folks who make up the better part of the music business in my opinion...the people who buy the records and attend the concerts. I had no idea that we could do this right from my house. I had no idea the technology was available. He's going to bring a camera in and run an ISDN line into my house and we'll work from my home studio. I'll answer questions from around the world.
SR: Will you actually be doing some demonstrations?
BS: Absolutely, I'll have my bass on and plugged in so anything I can show anyone or any questions I'll do it. I'm hiring a really fast typist to log in the questions. I'm really a slow typist and I know I couldn't handle the calls fast enough.
SR: Fast bassist and slow typist.
BS: Actually I took typing in high school to help my playing. To get my hand to eye coordination. I was pretty good at it, but a little sloppy now.
SR: You've always got some great sponsors up on this project don't you?
BS: Yeah, some of the companies I deal with heard of my plans and are picking up some of the costs. All the companies I have endorsements from, I actually use for real many, many years. I'm pretty loyal. I don't change equipment too much.
SR: Is there any new equipment out there that you're dying to buy?
BS: There is a thing called the Squeeze Box by Retrospect out of New York. It's a new compressor and would normally cost a lot of money. This one has a low price and works great. I used it last night to record. It's pretty awesome. It's for any instrument.
SR: How does it work?
BS: It uses tubes but rather than using all the old tubes, they've hydrolyzed it with a brand new solid state technology to do some of the things that the old components, old transformers used to do. They still get the tonality and usage of the tube without the extra problems of the other components that are used with tubes. It's pretty cool.
SR: This clinic will take place at http://www.billysheehan.com.
BS: That's my website. Have you checked it out yet?
SR: No, not yet.
BS: My guy did a great job. There are soundbites in RealAudio for almost everything I've recorded. It's still under construction and will no doubt always be undergoing changes forever. I know that he's got a couple of cutting edge things on there that the folks from RealAudio and another company that handles video clips have given him the first rights to use on this project. All the software will be available to download to see and hear everything.
SR: I guess everyone should go in early and download the software so
they'll not miss anything.
BS: I think so because it's being promoted all over the world. It has been in Bass Player Magazine that goes all over the world. It should be crowded.
SR: You've won so many awards for your bass playing over the years. Has
there been one award that's still special to you?
BS: I've been very lucky. The first time I won the "Best Rock Bass" in Guitar Player Magazine was pretty surprising for me. I didn't know I was in the running and no only did I win it, but they put me on the cover. It was sensory overload for me because I had only dreamed of having my name in print...even in a want ad in the back. It was overwhelming. It took a long time for that to sink in.
SR: Then you won five or six times after that.
BS: Yeah, then I won four more times and they put me in the Gallery of Greats, which I had not even considered that when I started dreaming the dream to be in Guitar Player Magazine. It's pretty humbling and it makes me work even harder on my bass because there are folks out there who expect a certain thing from me. I don't want to let them down and it's important for me to keep the standard of playing up above that which is comfortable or easy to do?
SR: What's Mr. Big up to these days?
BS: We just finished a Greatest Hits record. We recorded three new songs for the Atlantic release. We have an option with them for two more records. We're actually making Atlantic Records a lot of money because we sell so much overseas.
SR: Talk to me a little bit about your side project, Niacin?
BS: I'm pretty excited about this band. It's my side project that keeps me busy while I'm waiting around for whatever else happens. I don't like to have any idle time. My hands through the nature of the instrument, you need to keep the calluses in good shape. A friend of mine, John Novello, who plays a great Hammond B3 (which has always been one of my favorite instruments), came on board. I've never had an opportunity to play in a band that had a B3 before. We threw some songs together and brought in Dennis Chambers on drums who's the baddest cat in the land. Sure enough I paid for it all myself. I got the studio time booked and we just made the record. We had no idea that anyone would pick it up. I just loved the project so much and had faith in it. Sure enough we got a deal right away in Asia and now we have one for the rest of the world. For now it's only available in Japan. Our deal in the U.S. is with Chick Corea's label, Stretch Records. We'll be one of his first releases in January ‘97.
SR: Will you be performing behind this project?
BS: We're leaving the 19th of October to go to Japan to do a week at the Blue Note, a week at the Bottom Line and a week at another Blue Note. From there we go to Jakarta, Indonesia where we'll do a week of shows. I go off on my own to Australia after that to do three clinics. I'll
SR: You've got 14 new songs on the Niacin album.
BS: John and I did sketches of material on the bass and B3. We brought in Dennis who cut 14 songs with us in two days with no notes and no music. It was incredible and a lot of fun.
SR: These are all new songs..no covers.
BS: We wrote them all. Just hanging out we'd come up with ideas, take it home work on it and then get back together to finish them off. We worked really casually, but with a real sense of fun and no interest in the pressure that we'd have to sell records.
SR: It was a labor of love then.
BS: Several people have described it as a 'Black Emerson, Lake and Palmer" record which I take as a compliment. It's funky. Dennis is definitely the funk-fusion master. John is a little more jazzy and blues based. Myself, I've played rock bass all my life but I have touched on the jazz, funk and blues a little bit.
SR: The name is clever. Niacin is the vitamin B3.
BS: Since we had a Hammond B3 it only made sense. Get your daily dose of niacin.
SR: How are the other Mr. Big guys doing?
BS: Very good. Our drummer Pat and I are supposed to play a benefit for Jason Brecker in Chicago on November 16 or 17. Steve Lukather and Eddie Van Halen will also play with us.
SR: What's your take on the Van Halen/David Lee Roth thing? You've worked
with David Lee before.
BS: I sure did. I was out with them last Saturday at the Rainbow Bar & Grill in Los Angeles. I'm friends of theirs. Dave was really happy to have done the tracks with them. He loves those guys very much. I think he's disappointed that it didn't work.
SR: I hear they're going for Gary Cherone from Extreme.
BS: That's what I've heard. I haven't seen it confirmed yet. It's tough when you have to make decisions on where you want to go and what you want to do. I feel badly for the Van Halen boys and for Dave. I loved the original band so much. I learned so much from them and I'm disappointed that it's not happening, but they both have their points of view.
SR: Is there anyone out there...new on the scene that you're particularly
BS: No, only because I sometimes purposely remove myself from the communication line of bands performing, playing and recording. I like to go into one small area and influence myself for a while. Then I do the opposite and got out and listen to everything. I'm in the non-listening mode right now. I'm concentrating on what I've done, my playing, my hands and my writing.
SR: Bottom line, what's the most exciting aspect of your bass clinics?
BS: To be able to speak directly with people in the far corners of the world. On this last tour I did, I played Japan, Korea, Thailand, Malasia, Indonesia and China. We get fan mail from Turkey, UAE, Israel, South Africa, Scandinavia and all over South America. I get e-mail from all the world. I will be answering them all eventually as soon as time allows. It'll be interesting to sit down in real time and talk with everyone. I think this thing is so young and so wet behind the ears, ultimately maybe ten or fifteen years, it will have an influence on people artistically. It is already to some degree. People in large amounts will have access to me right here in Sherman Oaks, California or somebody in Bangkok. The interchange between people is the most important thing in the world. Communication is the universal solvent. Initially, attention will be turned outside the arts to other issues. The artist needs to be the point of the sword in civilization moving forward. As we connect enough dots, if I may be so grandiose and starry eyed, as to say eventually what this could lead to is greater communications between all peoples and all nations. Therefore, there will less likelihood for problems.
SR: There's no doubt that music is the common thread.
BS: Mr. Big played Surabaya, Indonesia in a baseball stadium with 35,000 people and I'd never even heard of the place. It was unbelievable. We've made friends all over the world.
SR: Thanks for spending some time with me. I wish you great success in all
BS: Your support is always important to me. Stay in touch with me on the Internet.