Billy Sheenan has spent the past several decades establishing himself as an undeniable force in the music world. His rise to cult status began in the 80’s with his Buffalo, NY based band Talas. He was soon recruited by the legendary David Lee Roth his departure from Van Halen in ’85. Sheehan recorded two platinum selling albums with the former Van Halen front man before setting out on his own. Forming Mr. Big in 1989, the band achieved a Billboard #1 single in the US and 14 other countries with “To Be With You” from their 2nd Atlantic Records album release “Lean Into It”. While developing his trademark style of playing he has performed over 4000 live gigs on every continent except Africa and Antarctica. Not only did he make a name for himself and make undeniable contributions to the rock ‘n’ roll but he also changed the way bass was played. Never one to rest on his laurels, he continues he quest for technical and creative excellence to this day.
The hot streak will continue this fall with The Winery Dogs (Richie Kotzen-lead vocals/guitar, Mike Portnoy-drums, Billy Sheehan-bass). Their second appropriately titled, self-produced studio album, “Hot Streak,” is set for release October 2 on Loud & Proud Records via RED (a division of Sony Music Entertainment) and the rest of the world via earMUSIC. It will be preceded by the first single, “Oblivion,” set for release August 25 on radio. A double vinyl edition of the new album is also in the works and is due out in early November.
The trio first exploded onto the rock scene with their self-titled, self-produced and critically acclaimed debut album that was released July 23, 2013, on Loud & Proud Records and a sold-out worldwide tour. The Winery Dogs debuted on Billboard’s Top Alternative Albums chart at #3, Top Independent Albums chart at #4, Top Rock Albums chart at #5, Top Internet Albums at #8 and Top 200 Albums chart at #27.
After playing more than 100 shows in support of their self-titled debut album, The Winery Dogs are eager to head back out on the road to get behind “Hot Streak.” Their first round of U.S. headlining tour dates will kick off October 3, in Ridgefield, CT at the Ridgefield Playhouse. Shows around the globe are already being planned for 2016. “Hot Streak” shows the pedigreed trio’s initial burst of chemistry was no accident, from the strum and headbang of “Captain Love” to the propulsive uplifting vibe of “The Bridge” to the introspective acoustic harmony of “Fire.” If these three dogs thought they captured lightning in a supper dish the first time around, “Hot Streak” ups the ante into exciting new territory.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Billy Sheehan to discuss his legendary career, his evolution as a player, the unexpected success of The Winery Dogs, the creation of their sophomore album, “Hot Streak,” and what the future holds for the band!
You have seen a lot in your days and influenced a lot of people along the way. I want to go back to the start. How did music enter your life and lead you down the path it has?
My mom was a fan of some great music. That was a good fortune for me. She was into Sinatra, Ella FItzgerald and all the great singers from her generation. We had music playing around the house a lot, records and such. Fortunately for me, it was always good quality stuff. I had an older brother and sisters who were very into what was going on for people their age. Through them I got exposed to a lot of stuff I might not have if I had been an only child or the oldest of the bunch. Those two factors really gave me a jump ahead and access to what was happening with music. When I was young enough to listen and start to understand what was going on, it was a great era for music. The ‘60s are responsible for a lot of the things we see today. It started there. I saw The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and Jimi Hendrix was the first concert I ever attended. They certainly left their mark on me. I am still a fan of a lot of music. My iTunes library is 1.7 terabytes now, so it’s quite a collection. It’s all over the place. All kinds of music from almost every era.
When I was growing up, music was everything to everybody. It wasn’t whether they were into music or not but what kind of music they were into. Everybody was into it. Every kid who was my age and every kid older and younger. Every neighborhood had a band or two or maybe even more. We had a band around the corner from us that rehearsed in the basement. They were older and friends with my brother and sisters. One guy in the band, a bass player, is still a friend of mine to this day. He was a cool guy and I kinda wanted to be like him. That pushed me in the direction of bass. You know, it was a time where you could walk down the street on a summer night and on one block you would hear a band and as you walked you would hear it fade out into the next one rehearsing. I remember driving down the street and you could see drum kits set in people’s houses. Furnitures stores would clear out a corner of the store and put a section for guitars and amps. It was becoming so popular and everybody wanted to play and be in a band. It was really a unique time.
Here we are decades later and you have a tremendous body of work behind you in a very challenging business. To what do you attribute your longevity?
I really attribute it to a deep-seeded love of music and an unquenchable thirst to improve and expand myself musically. I still practice a lot. I workout everyday. I am going on the road here soon with The Winery Dogs, so I have all day long to play my bass. That is one great thing about being on the road, there isn’t much to do other than email. So, I spend many, many hours with my bass. I love having the day off at a hotel and having my bass with me. I am still trying to fine tune, discover more stuff and tweak my playing where it needs tweaking. Those are the things. I have a deep love of music, I love to perform and have a thirst for improvement.
I couldn’t be more excited for the The Winery Dogs’ new album, “Hot Streak.” When you released the first album, it took a lot of people by surprise. Did you have any idea this would resonate with people the way it did?
No. I was pleasantly surprised! Many times you will do a record and, when you get finished with it, you think, “This is it! People are going to love this!” But they ignore it completely! [laughs] Or you do a record and think, “Oh. It is what it is.” But people are excited about it. With the first album from The Winery Dogs, I was really excited about the record, so much so that I would have people over and I was excited to play it for them. I would say, “Hey, you have to hear this one! Check out this new band I’ve got.” I really was excited to play it for people and the response I got was immediate and deep. Richie’s voice and guitar playing, along with Mike’s drumming were just spectacular performances. The songwriting was great, as well. It garnered an instant affinity by people who heard it through me. As a matter of fact, a lot of people who had known me from the old days thought this was the best band I had ever been in. I am glad we had that type of reaction and we are very grateful!
Yourself, Mike and Richie are a tight unit. What are your recollections of meeting them both back in the day?
I had done a RUSH tribute record with Mike Portnoy years and years ago up in San Francisco. I didn’t know it but he used to come see me play when I played in Talas at the famous club L’Amour’s. He relayed to me later that Talas was something all the Dream Theater guys could agree on and they would play our songs in their first rehearsals. Talas had a couple of songs that were a little bit challenging. A couple of the guys in the band were Talas fans, according to Mike. Richie knew of me because in the early ‘80s, when he was coming up, I started to get some press. I was in “Guitar Player” magazine and did the David Lee Roth thing. Richie was an East Coaster so, when he first came out to LA, he was friends of friends. We also were friends with the same guy who introduced me to Mike Portnoy, a guy named Mike Varney, who also introduced me to Paul Gilbert. He was responsible for putting a lot of musicians together. Richie was in LA and he came over to my house with some friends of mine. I had a piano at the time. I remember he sat down at the piano and started playing. Everybody got chills! He sang great and played great. That was before you even heard him pick up a guitar! [laughs] Those were my first connections with both of them. We remained friends through the years, so when The Winery Dogs came to be I was fortunate to already know them. Having known them, I didn’t see any personality trouble at all.
“Hot Streak” is the sophomore album from the band. What goals or expectations did you have for the album?
We approached it like we did the first one. We didn’t discuss anything, have a grand plan or a master scheme to do anything. The one thing we did have going for us was that we had played over 100 shows and had months and months of touring experience together. You are on a tour bus all day and night, at airports, checking in and out of hotels and around each other a lot. That really helps you get to know each other better. You learn each other’s musical instincts and likes and dislikes come to the surface. Our chemistry on stage was improving with every show that we did, so it was going to be really interesting to see what we came up with once we sat down in a room. Sure enough, we did just what we did last time. Richie had knocked out a wall in his studio, so we had a little more room to work together. We sat down and started writing and coming up with ideas. It was very much like the first record. In a very short time, we had a whole bunch of songs and developed it from there.
Some songs come easier than others. Which songs came easy to you and which put up more of a fight?
I will start with “Captain Love.” That was a song that just popped in out of nowhere. It was a little bit tongue and cheek too, the way we put it together. It was a very simple piece but we wanted to add something to it to give it some air and open it up for vocals. With the title track, “Hot Streak,” I started playing that opening bass line riff and Richie picked up on it and Mike started playing a beat. Then, bang! There it was! That came along easy, along with “Ghost Town.” That is another favorite of not only myself but a lot of people on the record. We just started playing that riff and it just kind of happened. Jamming is a funny thing. If you really know the people you are jamming with, you get a certain sense or ESP between you. It is an unspoken thing where you just kind of know where the other guys are going. I know from playing in so many projects over the years and putting songs together in many different ways that having it happen organically through that ESP is a real joy. You just see things falling together right in front of you without any real figuring or scheming it out. You are just watching it form on its own. There were also some songs that are difficult to play. For example, there is a song called “Spiral.” I just started playing this thing I had been working with for quite awhile. I had been learning this flamenco style picking with my right hand, which is really hard on bass but I am working at it! I am starting to gain some ground on it! I started playing that riff and both guys jumped in and I realized they are making a song out of a part that is really tough for me to play! [laughs] I knew I better get on it! I have been really practicing that style and that particular part of the song like crazy! It is coming together for me and I have a pretty good handle on it now, certainly more so than when I first began using the technique. I like to play a lot rather than just play a little section, stop and then punch in for the next section and so on. I like to play through as much as I can in one take, so it can be physically grueling. I really have to plant myself on the chair, get my feet on the ground and rip into it. Physically, it is challenging but it is a challenge I truly enjoy. I really push myself to do my very best when I am recording because that lives forever. Not to say I don’t push myself live but that is a different kind of push. I was very, very careful to get everything right, correct, in time and in tune. That was definitely a tough one.
As you said, you were friends with Richie and Mike before forming The Winery Dogs. As a musician, what excites you about playing alongside these talented artists?
Mike is an unstoppable ball of energy! He would play two shows a day, every day of his life if he could. So would I! I love to play and I have to perform live! It is a real necessity for me to keep my hands in shape. Honestly, performing live is the purpose for me being alive. Mike loves it as well, so it is a great thing we have together. He is incessant with his desire to play, perform and do more. That is a great fire to have lit underneath the band. Richie is a unique and supreme talent. His command of his voice and instrument are unparalleled, both of which have unique qualities. His voice is rock like that of Paul Rodgers, a great classic rock vocalist, but Richie really has a soul to his voice that not a lot of rock guys have. He has a really great command of that. That brings a really beautiful element to the band because the voice is what almost everyone listens to first. Right away, it is world-class, in my humble opinion. I have always looked at Richie as the superstar and my job is to get the world to know who he is because he is that good! I think I am doing the world a favor! [laughs] I really want people to know him. It’s funny, people who knew me and Mike but not Richie would come up to us after a show and say, “I was blown away. Where did you guys find this guy? He is unbelievable.” [laughs] We’d say, “He’s been around. You have to pay closer attention!” He has really done great and recently changed his playing where he isn’t using a pick anymore. That finger style playing is just a unique, cool, dynamic thing and goes well with my playing, as I am a fingerstyle player also. We have some licks in common on our right hand playing as well as our left and in our hearts and minds. It is a great combination.
In having talked to all three of you at this point, I can really sense the love and enthusiasm for this project. Obviously, you have a brand new record but have you given thought to the future of the band at this point?
Absolutely! We all want to keep this going as a band and not a little side thing. It is the way of the world these days where it is hard for one band to sustain everybody as far as time and commerce go. There are only 12 months in a year, unfortunately, so we all have other things we do. However, The Winery Dogs has become, to all of us, our main focus. Richie has a great solo band that he does. Whenever he is playing around, I always get up and play with him. Mike has a million irons in the fire and is a very in demand drummer around the world. I have Mr. Big, which doesn’t tour much anymore, but we still exist and every two years or so we will probably do something for a couple of months. For all of us, The Winery Dogs is our main focus and we are all looking at it long term to record number 10 and maybe 1,000 or more shows with the band. That is how we are looking at it!
Looking back on your career, how have you most evolved as an artist along the way?
It was a slow burn for quite a while. I am from Buffalo, NY and I played in clubs every night. I would play three to four sets a night and we did 21 nights in a row one time. We did three complete shows in one day. That endless amount of playing onstage in front of people, constant fine tuning, learning your voice, singing and playing, learning song after song after song and getting ready to perform live really expands your playing. You don’t really notice it. A lot of guys get frustrated being in copy bands but little do they know they are really building a foundation into themselves that you can’t get any other way than performing live. It can be frustrating as it might have been to be in a copy band but actually I loved it. I love getting up and playing in any situation. You are really training yourself in the best way possible to be a musician in a band later. We played in a three-piece band and, without an extra guitar player or keyboard player to play some of these more adventurous copy tunes, I had to pick up the slack on a lot of things. It forced me to have to play an extra little thing on bass that the keyboard player or other guitar player would. I would fill in a lot of space due to the lack of other personnel. That was another thing that really helped me discover ways to make up for lack of people in the band by playing more bass or doing more things on bass. It eventually got to a point where we were playing so much it was hard for the other guys to take a break. I started doing an unaccompanied bass solo in the early, early ‘70s where the band would stop, I would go, they would do their thing and then let the music come back in and continue on. I don’t know if there were a lot of unaccompanied bass solos at the time. There were probably some I was unaware of but it was somewhat unique. It forced me to have to come up with something that was entertaining because we had people who weren’t there to hear bass solos! They were there to have some drinks, find some girls, get on the dance floor and see what they could develop from there! [laughs] That forced me to have to do stuff that was entertaining and not just self-indulgent. That was another point that helped me develop into what I have now or how I do it now. Those factors there are what I feel are the most important ones, along with a real love or musicality that made me sit down and learn things that were beyond my range because I was so fascinated by them. I would learn Oscar Peterson piano parts, Brandenburg concertos, Bach cello and viola lines. I was into jazz briefly but heavily in my really early years. From there, every instrument that came along I discovered something fascinating that I wanted to adapt to bass. Put all of those things together and I guess that is what started it all.
We have all seen the music industry change drastically through the past few decades. What excites you most about the industry in its current state?
It has really gone back to what I just described. It is all about playing live. I remember there was a time, when I started getting some popularity and doing well in the music biz, where people would put a band together and do a showcase to get a record deal to do an album and tour and they wouldn’t really have much experience together at all. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until the record came out and they started the tour before they even played together. That was backwards to me. I like the idea that we are playing, playing and playing and performing like crazy, suddenly we get a break, then we do a record and, when it is time for us to play, man, we have all kinds of experience under our belts. That is why, when I was in LA initially, I could tell the East Coast bands from the West Coast bands. The West Coast bands would just get together their particular configuration, do a showcase, get a deal, do a record and a tour. If they didn’t they would reconfigure with some other people and do it again until they could finally get the record deal. The East Coast bands were all copy bands and they would play constantly like I did. You would see them at a show at a club and they would kick ass! It was amazing and they were always better quality bands when they played live. I think that is coming back to a large degree. The most important thing for bands now is that live performance. It is the greatest source of income and it’s great for the fans. You can see a video online or a YouTube clip and it is nothing like seeing a band perform live. The live performance is something you can’t download and you can’t take it from anyone. Musicians will always have that so I am glad that is now becoming the most important thing by default because it is the most important thing.
You have surely seen a lot in your day, learned a lot of lessons and have a few tales to tell. Any interest in capturing those in an autobiography at some point?
My business partner and I, any time some event or crazy instance happens, we always say, “Oh, there is another one for the book!” I think we are on volume four at this point! [laughs] Ya know, we have a lot of stuff documented and have quite an archive of everything that goes on. I also have a pretty good memory. I have been fortunate to survive everything! We have been through some crazy stuff that does make an entertaining tale. However, rather than write it down, it is usually performance art. It is a bottle of wine and a couple of people and a lot of stories. I just did a dinner with Steve Vai and Gregg Bissonette from the Eat’ Em And Smile band. We get together every year or so to hang out and say hello. It is a great time with some dear friends. The stories come hot and heavy then and it is hilarious! We always get together during the middle of the week and go to a restaurant that is not too full and get a table away from everybody else. It is hilarious! Stories from every era! Then, back in Buffalo, I do a gig with the guys from Talas. We usually spend most of the days reliving the stories of all the crazy things we went through. It is always fun!
Can we help you shine a light on any charity work you might be involved with?
Yeah, I am working on trying to do a Christmas show in Buffalo for charity. It’s a few shows where all the local musicians get together. I have also done a couple of recordings recently for Wounded Warriors. I try to do that stuff whenever I get a chance. Our schedule is tight but I always like to contribute to stuff like that. I also try to contribute to young players as well. I do a lot of bass clinics and seminars where I really spend a lot of time with people with the purpose of helping them play, rather than me showing off fancy licks. I am really there to help my fellow musician as much as possible. I enjoy all of those things very much!
What is the best lesson we can take away from the story of Billy Sheehan to date?
Keep at it! Don’t stop. Dig deep. Whatever mountain you climb, you are going to see the next one from the top, so just keep climbing! The adventure is worth it! In the end, no matter what happens, whether you have monetary success, fame or whatever else, you will look back on all the struggles as the most enriching and valuable aspect of your life and career.
That is an awesome view, Billy. Thank you for all of your time today! I can’t wait to see where the journey takes you next!
Thank you, Jason! It was a pleasure to speak with you and I hope I see you out there on tour!
You definitely will!
Great! Thanks a million!
The Winery Dogs will release ‘Hot Streak’ on October 2nd, 2015 on Loud & Proud Records via RED (a division of Sony Music Entertainment) and the rest of the world via earMUSIC.