Billy Sheehan of Mr. Big

by Greg Prato

Back in the 1980s, guitar publications deemed Billy Sheehan "The Eddie Van Halen of the bass," due to his highly technical style that featured the popular two-handed tapping style that EVH popularized. One small thing though: Billy had been using this technique for just as long as Eddie, but Eddie received all the credit, as Van Halen's self-titled debut beat the self-titled release by Billy's band at the time, Talas, by one year.

Regardless, Billy was lauded for his talents, and in 1985, got his big career break when David Lee Roth enlisted the bassist to form the ex-Van Halen singer's outstanding solo band, which also featured guitarists Steve Vai and drummer Gregg Bissonette. Billy left the band after their first two albums, the million-sellers Eat 'Em and Smile (1986) and Skyscraper (1988), to form Mr. Big, which scored a #1 hit with the acoustic ballad, "To Be With You," off their 1991 album Lean Into It. Further American success proved elusive, but Mr. Big found a huge audience in Japan, and as Billy explains, many other countries as well.

The band split in 2002, but re-formed in 2009. The members have all taken on various side projects: Billy's include the Winery Dogs alongside Richie Kotzen and Mike Portnoy, and an instrumental trio called Niacin. On July 21, 2017, Mr. Big released their ninth studio album, Defying Gravity.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How is the new album similar or different to previous Mr. Big albums?

Billy Sheehan: It's similar to the very early stuff, because we went back to our original producer, Kevin Elson - he did all the Journey stuff, he worked with Lynyrd Skynyrd. He's a legendary guy in the biz. He was the guy who did our first four records. We were trying to get him in 2009 when we got back together, but our schedules never worked out. And this time, it did.

Kevin just has a way - the way he does it and the way he works - that makes everyone comfortable and feel good, feel right. And his mixes are second to none. So it really helped bring us back to the spirit of those early records. But, with 25 years of life experience built into everyone's playing and singing abilities, it helped keep it fresh, as well. So we like to think it touches on the past, but it's here and now.

Songfacts: What do you attribute Mr. Big's widespread popularity in Japan to?

Sheehan: A lot of bands go to Japan and think, "It's automatic. We just show up, we can fool around, and they're going to love everything we do." And it's not true at all. Some bands went to Japan once, and never went back again. And some very big bands went to Japan and never got asked back again. So it's important that you treat them like you would treat anyone else.

It's not just a Spinal Tap trope: For decades, Japan has shown a deep fondness for Western rock and roll. Aerosmith, Kiss, and Cheap Trick all launched successful tours there in the late '70s (as heard on Cheap Trick's classic At Budokan album), and earlier in the '70s, several British rock acts played before large Japanese audiences, including Led Zeppelin, Queen and Deep Purple (resulting in their Made in Japan album).
We went there knowing that this is an audience with a challenge, and hit it as hard as we hit it anywhere else. But we even went further: We shook every hand, signed every autograph, answered every fan letter. Of course, they would drop a fan letter off at the soundboard, and in the envelope was another envelope addressed and stamped, stationary, and a pen for you to respond! They had everything covered. It's an incredible culture.

But sometimes the myth of the Japan success is a little misrepresented. In fact, I get more email from Indonesia than any other country in the world. Italy had five Mr. Big copy bands at one point, and South America is out of control for us. People tend to fixate on that Japan thing, but in fact, we're very lucky to have success equally or better in a lot of other places, including Korea, which is a whole other world and a whole other culture.

As a matter of fact, we needed a live record after our first album, so we did a board recording on the Rush tour onto a DAT tape - a seven-dollar digital audio tape. No mix, no fix, because you couldn't, and that became the first Raw Like Sushi album. It sold 350,000 copies in Korea, which was unbelievable. The cost of making that record was seven dollars! [Mr. Big opened for Rush on their Presto tour in the summer of 1990. Soundboard audio from three of these shows (Hampton, Virginia; Mountain View, California; Omaha, Nebraska) formed the six tracks on the Raw Like Sushi live album, released later that year.]

So we've done well in a lot of places and we're supremely grateful for it. Japan is very special to us, because they were one of the first to really jump on the Mr. Big bandwagon, so to speak. But we've also done well elsewhere.

Songfacts: What were your initial impressions of "To Be With You"?

Sheehan: Instantly loved it. And insisted it had to be on the record. It's funny, because [lead singer] Eric Martin wasn't quite sure. I'm like, "Bro, come on. We've got to do this!" We didn't think of it as a hit - we just loved the song. So when we did it, we put it last on the record, thinking, "The record's over, the credits are running, this will be the final goodbye by the campfire at the end of the record. Everybody roast your marshmallows and sing along."

We never thought of it as a hit. If we would have known it was a hit, we would have released it first. I think it was the fourth release from that record. But I instantly loved it and it instantly had an appeal to me right away. I'm forever grateful that that song did what it did.

Songfacts: Are there any updates about the possibility of a David Lee Roth Eat 'Em and Smile-era band reunion?

Sheehan: Unfortunately, no. We haven't heard from Dave in a while. I hope he's doing well. If he changes his mind and decides to do some shows, I'm ready to go, and I think Steve and Gregg feel exactly the same way.

We have a great respect and love for Dave and what he did for us. And if he wants us to play, I'm ready to go. But I haven't heard anything at all, so we'll see what happens with that. There's no secret undercurrent thing going on that I'm not talking about. The fact of the matter is it's Dave's call. If he chooses to do so, I couldn't be happier.

In 2015, word got out that several members of the Eat 'Em and Smile-era David Lee Roth Band (Sheehan, guitarist Steve Vai, keyboardist Brett Tuggle, drummer Gregg Bissonette) were to reunite for a one-off performance at Lucky Strike Live in Hollywood with Steel Panther singer Michael Starr filling in for Mr. Roth. On the day of the show, word got out that Roth himself was going to handle the vocal duties that evening! It didn't go as planned.
Songfacts: How much rehearsal did you, Steve, Gregg, and Brett do for the aborted show at Lucky Strike Live in Hollywood back in 2015?

Sheehan: No rehearsal, no soundcheck, no nothing. That was the whole idea: We were just going to walk up and play without anything. So we didn't rehearse.

That particular jam was no pedals allowed, no nothing. That's why the jam is so great: You walk in, you get up on stage, you play, you get off, and the next band is up. There's no dicking around with pedals or adjusting the drum kit or setting stuff up, so the audience actually hears band after band after band, and it's fun and exciting.

We thought that was a proper challenge for the Eat 'Em and Smile band - to just step up on stage and play it like men, and do the real thing without having to fool around with gear and soundcheck. Unfortunately, the fire department shut us down. Me and Steve were on stage, behind the curtain, ready to go when the fire department came in. No rehearsal, no practice, no nothing.

Songfacts: Did you know beforehand that Dave was going to show up?

Sheehan: Originally, we asked and we didn't hear from him, but about three days before the thing, Dave called back and said, "Yeah, let's do it!"

We had to keep it a secret, but people started to put two and two together and figured it out. The club holds about... legally it's 600, but they'll allow 700-725 and the fire department will look the other way. But there were about 1,200 people in there and a line all the way down the street and around the corner on Hollywood Boulevard. So probably a total of about 3,000 people had showed up, and 1,200 got in the club.

Somebody got wise to it, because it was dangerous. People were jammed in there, so the fire department came in and said, "Nope. Shut the whole thing down and everybody out." In retrospect, they probably did the right thing. If something would have happened, it could have been one of the worst catastrophes in the history of show business.

The club I don't believe did the right thing by allowing so many people in. Everybody had a friend of a friend and they all wanted to get in. I know people that were there, and they said they couldn't even put their arms out - they were jammed in like sardines. It was dangerous. So in the end, it was probably - sad as it is - wise to shut it down.

Songfacts: Looking back throughout your career, which material was the most difficult to play?

Sheehan: "To Be With You," a song like that is challenging because it's sparse and you're under the microscope. Every note counts. It's a challenging piece of music to play right and do it consistently. Other than that, there's been a lot of stuff that is tough to play and took me time to work it out.

Some of the stuff I did with Steve Vai on his Real Illusions record, there are some tough lines. And Steve insisted that I do that same fingering with my left hand that he did, so I had to go back and re-adjust. Some of the Niacin stuff was tough because there were keyboard lines I had to do on bass. I had to jump through some hoops of fire to figure out fingerings and finger patterns to get those lines to land and pop in the right place.

July 20, 2017
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Photos 2,4: William Hames

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