INTERVIEW WITH BILLY SHEEHAN OF THE WINERY DOGS
Date: September 26, 2015
Interviewer: Ruben Mosqueda
TO SAY THAT BILLY SHEEHAN IS A “GREAT” BASS PLAYER WOULD BE A GROSS UNDERSTATEMENT. SHEEHAN HAS TAKEN THE INSTRUMENT AND BROUGHT IT TO THE FOREFRONT WHILE DEVELOPING A STYLE THAT CAN SIMPLY BE DESCRIBED AS “LEAD BASS.” SHEEHAN HAS HAD A GLORIOUS CAREER PLAYING WITH SUCH GREATS AS MICHAEL SCHENKER, UFO AND DAVID LEE ROTH. HE ALSO FORMED AND FOUNDED TALAS, MR. BIG AND NIACIN. HIS MOST RECENT CREATION IS THE WINERY DOGS WITH DRUMMER MIKE PORTNOY (DREAM THEATER, ADRENALINE MOB) AND RICHIE KOTZEN (MR. BIG, POISON). THE WINERY DOGS ARE SET TO ISSUE THEIR SOPHOMORE ALBUM TITLED ‘HOT STREAK.’ THE ALBUM TAKES A FEW TWISTS AND TURNS THAT SETS IT APART FROM THE DEBUT ALBUM BUT IS NO LESS INCREDIBLE. SLEAZE ROXX CAUGHT UP WITH BILLY SHEEHAN WHO TALKED SHOP ABOUT THE CREATION OF THE ALBUM AMONGST OTHER THINGS. SOPHOMORE JINX? I HARDLY THINK SO.
Sleaze Roxx: When you guys set out to write for the debut album, you had a massive writing session. When you set out to write for ‘Hot Streak’ — was it done in similar fashion or did you each come in with ideas?
Billy Sheehan: Oh, it was similar to what we did the first time. As you go along; as a player, musician and writer — you always get new ideas. I can’t say that I documented any of the ideas but I did have them in my head. We played over 100 shows together on the last tour. We developed this instinct towards one another and how we play. So while we approached the writing for this record the same as the last time around, it was different because we had a lot of experience playing together. We experimented more. We took a lot of left turns here and there… We could have done the “smart business thing” and done the first record all over again. I think a lot of bands often do [that] but I think fans see right through that. I think we took some chances and pushed ourselves as musicians and writers.
Sleaze Roxx: It’s an eclectic record no question. When you guys are in writing mode, do you guys have the live performance in mind?
Billy Sheehan: Well, for us if we can’t pull it off live between the three of us in a writing session, we certainly couldn’t do it live in front of an audience. We don’t rely on tracks and things like that. I think the studio has become the “5th Beatle” to a lot of bands. They have all these programs and capabilities that they get caught up in building this “beast” they can’t really control anymore. Then they can’t perform live without the use of tracks that play along with the band as you perform live. We don’t use tracks. We’ve never used tracks. I’ve been in bands that have used tracks — it’s not my thing. So to answer your question, the way we write it is the way we play it and we think of it “live” because we’re going to have to perform it.
Billy Sheehan: No outside writers. It’s the three of us hammering things out in the studio. We haven’t said no to it though. I would prefer that we do it ourselves. If you bring outside writers, it becomes this “thing” with publishing and you’re open to possible lawsuits and things of that nature. I went through that with Mr. Big when we wrote “To Be With You.” We had a guy that co-wrote the song with us. He got his money but somehow he felt entitled to join us on stage to perform the song! You have to keep in mind this is a guy whom I’ve never met in my life (laughs)! He went to the press and told them how awful we were and how terrible we were — it really complicates things.
Sleaze Roxx: Since you brought up “To Be With You” — as a Mr. Big fan, I was a bit upset that people came on board based on that song when it wasn’t really an accurate representation of the band. I saw it similar to what happened with Extreme. What’s your take on that song now?
Billy Sheehan: Yeah, I hear what you’re saying but I love “To Be With You.” I love singing it and I love playing it. I think people think of Paul Gilbert and I and they think “shred, shred, shred.” It’s like “shred this, shred that, shred the other thing!” I remember Tommy Lee was at a rehearsal studio where we were rehearsing at the time and he saw us as started shouting “shred, shred, shred!” He was really fucking annoying. I remember I said “Hey Tommy how are you doing?” And he responded by yelling “shred, shred, shred!” I was like “fuck you!” I didn’t say that to him but I was thinking “fuck you dude!” So that’s why I was so glad for “To Be With You.” Here’s your “shred, shred, shred!”’ It’s number one bro — for three weeks (laughs)!
Sleaze Roxx: As I listened to ‘Hot Streak,’ the only song that could have been lifted from the debut album is “Oblivion.” As you mentioned earlier, you could have simply recorded an album in the vein of the last one. So this was done by design, correct?
Billy Sheehan: I wouldn’t say that it was done by design. I think had we done an album that was similar to the last, we’d be looking at music as commerce rather than art. We’ve grown so much as a band since the first record — that’s what happens when you’re around each other 24/7 for months and months. We came up with the songs of the moment which is what popped into our heads.
Sleaze Roxx: Who brought the idea behind “Hot Streak” to the writing session?
Billy Sheehan: Yeah, that was a bass line that I’ve had for years that’s a variation on stuff. It’s actually based on a bass line that Stanley Clarke used to use. I used it often and used it on a lot of things. I started playing around with that, then Richie [Kotzen] popped in and we had the song. Generally, that’s how the songs happen. The guys jump in. There’s the song — next (laughs)! I like how we work. We work on a song we finish then we take a break, come back from lunch energized and work on it some more. Richie has such a great voice in my humble opinion. When he applies his voice to anything, he instantly makes it an A+. I’d love to document the process for fans to see. I wish we would have had some GoPro cameras to capture things as they happen, maybe we’ll do that next time.
Sleaze Roxx: “Captain Love” is a straightforward rock song and another great tune. Tell me about that one?
Billy Sheehan: That’s one song that I clearly recall that came together after we’d come back from a lunch break. We had such a higher level of energy. I think I probably had a couple of espressos or something. Richie hit this chord. We thought it was cool and we worked around that. It’s almost got this AC/DC quality to it. We left a lot of air between notes and a giant blast of sound — “Captain Love” was born.
Sleaze Roxx: Another great track is “War Machine.”
Billy Sheehan: Yeah, I love Richie’s choice of words. He’s a great lyricist. I love where he went with that one philosophically. I love the way he phrases things and his storytelling with that song. I don’t exactly [remember] how the music was written for that one but I have to agree with you. That’s one of my favorites on the record.
Sleaze Roxx: I also love “Oblivion” which could have been taken from the debut record and it has this kind of “Elevate” quality to it. It’s like a sister song to “Elevate.”
Billy Sheehan: We actually wrote that one while rehearsing after a tour break. We have such a loyal following that there are people in the audience that have seen us several times and we thought, “why not give them something new?” I remember we wrote that at Mike Portnoy’s house. We wrote it, rehearsed it and then played it live. People responded positively to it. We really put that song under the microscope before we recorded it. It’s helpful that we played it live and worked some of the bugs out of it.
Sleaze Roxx: You have this [Michael] Schenker/UFO connection which I find fascinating. You demoed songs which would later go on to be part of the first MSG album, right?
Billy Sheehan: That’s correct. They flew me to London to be their bass player and the drummer at the time was Denny Carmassi who you know played with Montrose. So we spent two weeks there working on the songs. We demoed them and were ready to go into the studio and the whole thing fell to pieces. Michael is a great guy and all but at that time it was a case of too much intoxication, a lot of pressure coming at him from a lot of different people. I honestly feel that at that time, he wasn’t able to cope with that kind of pressure. So Denny and I packed up and left and we never went back. There were bootlegs of the original sessions that we did later on that were on CD. Michael later released the record with the tracks that we recorded! Which I would have liked to been asked permission, which at the time I didn’t think was cool. Later on, I didn’t care so much. Michael is a really cool player. I love his work with UFO and it just kind of fell apart. UFO called me after that when they were having problems with Pete Way. They knew of me because Talas had opened up for UFO in Buffalo [New York] once. They were on tour and they were heading down to the border as Buffalo is on the border there. I recall that there were a couple of support acts and one of the bands got held up at the border so they needed another band and they had Talas open for them.
Sleaze Roxx: With UFO, Pete Way had some issues when you stepped in. Was there any talk of you joining UFO full-time?
Billy Sheehan: Yeah, that was the plan. It was to do the tour and then remain with the band. I like to have a glass of wine once in awhile [but] other than that I haven’t even had an aspirin since like 1974 and I don’t use drugs. It’s just not my thing. I don’t get so drunk to the point that I just don’t know where I am. I like to drink, I like the feeling but never to the degree where I don’t know where I am or what my name is. I just can’t be around stuff like that and there’s a work ethic involved too. I learned the whole UFO setlist front and back and I’m ready to rehearse with the band and at 4:00 pm, everyone shows up, we play for about 45 minutes and we take a “break.” They head to the pub and don’t return until about 8:00 pm. They’re too drunk to do anything but they manage to fumble their way the rest of the rehearsal. So we had two days of rehearsal and we hadn’t gone through a single song! It was incredible! Finally, I urged them to get it together because we had a set to rehearse. It’s sad because I really love those guys. Phil Mogg is a great singer and fantastic guy but sometimes the stuff that happens behind the scenes can be really sad. I was so prepared to be a part of that band but I just couldn’t do it.
Sleaze Roxx: We know the story of Talas opening up for Van Halen which is how you popped up on [David Lee] Roth’s radar when it came time for him to form the band that would record “Eat ‘Em & Smile.” It was in fact a band was it not?
Billy Sheehan: We were a band. Our pictures were on the album liners. We were in the interviews. We were in the videos. He was very generous. We were like “The Dave Gang” — we hung out together, we went out to clubs. I still keep in touch with Steve [Vai] and Gregg [Bissonette]. In fact Steve, Gregg and I had dinner a couple weeks ago just to reminisce about our time together. I jammed with Steve recently. People heard that we were going to jam at this club and all these people crammed into this club to watch us. It was a blast! I love the time with David Lee Roth.
Sleaze Roxx: Was there or has there ever been discussion of you, Steve and Gregg working together on something?
Billy Sheehan: Not really — not that there’s been no discussion. I haven’t really thought about it — maybe some day, we’ll be able to play together.
Sleaze Roxx: When did things begin to unravel with the Roth situation. I know you played a part in the follow-up ‘Skyscraper’ — that was a really slick album. It was departure from we had heard on ‘Eat ‘Em.’ I think shortly thereafter the completion of the album, you left.
Billy Sheehan: I felt that the tone of the relationship within the band changed. It was no longer a band. There was a dividing line between band and management. I think stylistically, it was a different record. I give Dave credit for giving it a try to mesh dance music with rock music. Unfortunately, the wall between dance music and rock music makes The Berlin Wall look like a picket fence. I’ll give you an example. We play Europe and we finish playing the gig at a club and they flip the room and turn it into a dance club. There are times that our fans are hanging around after the show because they’ve had too much to drink or maybe they want to catch the band — one sure fire way to clear a room is to play dance music (laughs)! You should see how quickly all the rock people run out of the venue (laughs)! Again, I have to give Dave credit. He tried — had he succeeded, he would have been called a genius. That bass line pulse type stuff just isn’t my thing. Dave predicted that dance music would be huge and damn is it ever (laughs)!
Sleaze Roxx: Who was involved in the formation of Mr. Big? Did someone pair a couple of you guys together?
Billy Sheehan: That was just me. I founded the band and hand picked the guys. I was familiar with Paul [Gilbert]. He had come to see me play when I was in Talas and I had seen him several times when he played with Racer X around L.A. Pat [Torpey], I had also seen play with a couple different people. I met Eric [Martin] through a friend that I have in San Francisco. I finally got all the guys in a room together. We started to jam and that’s how Mr. Big started. Pat didn’t know this but at the time, one of my first bass solos in Talas incorporated parts of the song “Mr. Big.” So Pat says, “Hey I have a great name for the band — Mr. Big!” I said “That’s hilarious, because I used to play that song in Talas!” (laughs) So that was the band’s name from there forward.
Sleaze Roxx: By the way the cover of “30 Days in the Hole” is awesome.
Billy Sheehan: Well thank you. You know, it’s funny we started doing interviews for the album and we were saying stuff like “We’re into Humble Pie, Free, Spooky Tooth and bands like that — from the 70s.” I remember other bands started imitating us and now they’d be saying “We’re into bands like Humble Pie, Free and Spooky Tooth!” (laughs) I won’t say the band or the person’s name but I said to the guy “Oh, you’re a fan of Spooky Tooth? What’s your favorite song?” He said “All of them.” I said “Okay, then name one!” He couldn’t do it (laughs)!
Sleaze Roxx: Last thing, I remember the first time I heard Niacin was on a compilation that Guitar World had released titled “Guitars That Rule The World.” What is the status of Niacin at this point in time?
Billy Sheehan: We still play when we can but we have a pretty tight schedule. I love playing in that band because it’s such a different thing. It’s such a different level of playing. We’ll be playing again together at some point soon.