When Billy Sheehan began gathering the players for a new creative outlet back in 1988, he had no idea they would still be hard at work almost three decades later. In 2017, MR. BIG is not only thrilling audiences around the world but creating some of the best music of their career. Their latest record, “Defying Gravity,” is the band’s ninth original studio album and a testament to the boundless talent of the group. Set for release on July 21st (with a Deluxe Collector’s Edition Box Set due on August 18th) via Frontiers Music Srl, the powerful new album features original members Eric Martin (lead vocals), Paul Gilbert (guitars), Billy Sheehan (bass) and Pat Torpey (drums). The album also reunites the band with producer Kevin Elson (who was behind the boards for the band’s 1989 self-titled debut, 1991’s “Lean Into It” and 1993’s “Bump Ahead”) for an intensive six-day recording session at Ocean Studios in Burbank, California. “Defying Gravity” showcases that patented MR. BIG blend of crunch and melody, from the freight-train ride of opening cut “Open Your Eyes” to the harmony-laden wonderment of “Damn I’m in Love Again” to the grateful/wistful nostalgia of “1992” (recalling the days when the band was flying high atop the singles charts with their international #1 smash “To Be With You”) to the barn-burning slide-blues closer, “Be Kind.” “Defying Gravity” is evidence the only thing MR. BIG remains tethered to is their ongoing pursuit of achieving creative excellence. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with the legendary Billy Sheehan to discuss the process of finding his creative voice as a young artist, the formation of MR. BIG, the keys to the band’s longevity and what the future may hold for the band.
What can you tell us about your early years in music and finding your creative voice as an artist?
Good question! I started early on by learning songs by ear off the records so I could play along with the records. Then I went right into a band and started playing songs with other musicians. There was no theorizing, no lessons or study. Basically, I walked up to the airplane, got in the cockpit, taxied down the runway and took off! Even though I didn’t know how to land, I took off! I like to try to encourage people to consider something like that. I know that was then and this is now, so things are a little different in that respect, of course. I do like the idea of taking the bull by the horns and just starting. If you want to learn another language, fly to the country and immerse yourself in the culture. You will end up with a much more organic feel to the language than if you learn it out of a book. Music being a language, to get the sound of your voice, your voice is dependent on all of the influences you soak up. It’s the distillation of all those things together with your personality and life added into which makes someone have a voice, I believe. I do believe everyone has a voice, even from the first time they pick the instrument up. It’s just really difficult to tell what that voice is until you have been playing for about 10 years. Another thing I like to stress is to give it time. Have patience! Some people call it “The 10,000 Hour Rule” but I’m not necessarily sure that is applicable in all cases. You have to give it five or six years until you are up and running properly. During those five or six years, you will learn so many important things that you will carry on with you for the next 50 years. It’s important to just start to roll! Dive into the deep! You will take a couple mouthfuls of water but it is really a great way to begin. A lot of people are hesitant about that and say, “I’m not ready to play a song.” Sure you are! The first thing I ever did was pick up a guitar and play “Gloria” by Shadows of Night. It’s three chords and I think every guitarist in the world played that as their first song or at least 90% of them! [laughs] You learned an E chord, a D chord and A chord, played it in sequence and there you were playing the song. It gives you great satisfaction to know you can play a song! That’s pretty much what I did and I try to encourage people to take some part of that or all of it and mix it in with a little bit of study or a good teacher. Whenever you are taught by a teacher, you have the liability of finding a great teacher who is really going to move you forward or you will find a horrible teacher and end up hating doing it and you’ll quit. You can take the reigns by yourself, start to learn and start to launch. You can find 10 songs you love and figure out how to play them. That’s worth its weight in platinum shavings!
I’m sure you learned lessons along the way as a part of the music industry. Which of those lessons had the biggest impact on you?
Connection to the audience is really important. When I started, generally, clubs had no dressing rooms. There was no security barrier or anything. When you were done with your set, you would step off the front of the stage and walk out into the crowd. After three or four weeks, everyone in the crowd was your friend and you knew everybody. When you’d look at the clock and knew it was time to get back up onstage, you would say, “I’ll be back in an hour!” You’d get right back on the stage and do a set for an hour. There wasn’t a really big divide between the audience and the band, which I actually love quite a bit. I think that serves me to this day on how I deal with the audience and how I naturally want to take care of people. If someone needs an autograph, a photo or anything like that, we always go way out of our way to accommodate them anytime we can. I think that was a good lesson to learn early on. Having a great connection with your audience and considering the audience to be your friends more than your fans is a good thing. You can put your thumb on the pulse of what is going on and get instant feedback as to whether or not what you are doing has any value or worth or if the song you are playing is liked or not. That was a great, great lesson to have early on. With the internet, I’m now able to communicate with people all over the world instantly, all the time! I spend a lot of time every day just answering email, responding to people and doing what I can to communicate with them!
We are here today to talk about a brand new album from MR. BIG. Before we get to the latest chapter, let’s go back to the beginning. What can you tell us about where you were creatively at the time and what got the ball rolling on the project all those years ago?
I just stepped out of the David Lee Roth Band, which was a huge success. It was the biggest thing that had happened to me up until that point, certainly. I came to a point where I had to re-evaluate. I thought, “OK. If I’m going to start a band, how do I want to do it and how do I not want to do it?” As much as I loved Dave being in charge, I think he’s a great person to be in charge and I was happy with him being in charge of the band and doing what his requests were. I thought, “That’s good in this particular situation and if you’re David Lee Roth, that’s one thing but I’m not David Lee Roth. I’m just a little bass player, so I don’t think I could necessarily tell my other musicians what to do. I don’t have the kind of track record David Lee Roth has, so why don’t we make it more of a democracy or an idea-ocracy, where the best idea wins no matter who it comes from. Everyone would have an equal voice and we all contribute to the forward motion of the band as a unit.” I knew Paul Gilbert and I knew he was a hot guitarist but I also knew that he had more going for him than just being a hot guitarist. He had a real song-sense and a sense of real music. He was a TALAS fan. I remember him standing in front of me in the audiences at some of the early shows we did back in Pittsburgh when we played there. His band eventually ended up opening up for TALAS way back when. Then I knew our drummer, Pat Torpey. I knew he grew up very much like me, so I knew we would have great common ground. Much like me, he got his instrument and immediately got in a band and started playing live. He was based in Phoenix and doing all the clubs and cover bands that all of us from my generation went through. He was an automatic choice too! Then we needed a singer. I really wanted someone who was a little different than what I was hearing. At the time, people were judging vocalists on how high of a note they could hit. Singers would advertise, “Five octave range!” Okay! But what do you do in those five octaves! [laughs] A five octave range can be utterly useless depending on what you do with it! I wanted somebody who could really sing a la late ‘60s/early ‘70s Paul Rodgers (Free, Bad Company), Steve Marriott (Small Faces, Humble Pie) … that type of voice. Those guys actually sang and could take a C- song and turn it into an A+ with vocal quality. Sure enough, my friend Mike Varney, up in the Bay Area, played me this Eric Martin character. I said, “That’s it! That’s the voice I’m looking for!” I let Paul and Pat know. Paul loved the idea instantly and Pat absolutely fell in love with it as well. The idea was actually having a band with an actual singer, singing songs that were part of all four of us and all of us being together on it as opposed to one guy telling everybody else want to do. It worked out pretty well. We got lucky! There are many instances in life where you have to choose somebody for something, whether it be your wife or husband, an employee or an employer. If you make the right choice, you are in good shape. If you make the wrong choice, you’re in hell! [laughs] We got lucky and we got along really well. From the beginning, any troubles we ever had in MR. BIG pale markedly in comparison to any troubles any other bands had. I hear some of the troubles other bands had and I go, “Oh my God! How did you guys even live through it!?” [laughs] But we had a problem because one guy got up and was a little grumpy today! [laughs] That’s as bad as it ever got, ya know!
MR. BIG will release “Defying Gravity” on July 7, 2017. What made now the right time for an new album?
We are all busy with a lot of other things and MR. BIG is always there. It’s never gone away, since 2009 when we came back to play. We all consider it to be our main band. We give a little time between a record and a tour. We all went out and did our things outside of the band. Coming back, it was just a couple of years since the last one and it felt like the right time. It wasn’t really dependent on anything other than we all had a spot where we were free and were all looking to get out and play as MR. BIG. We knew before we did that we needed a record to pave the way for us. We got to work on that right away and while that was coming together, they were blocking out times for us to book shows and that’s where we are now. The record is done and the shows are booked for the most part, not completely. We have a great couple of months ahead of us now!
What can you tell us about the recording process for “Defying Gravity’” and how the songs took shape?
This one was quick. We did all the basics of the songs in six days, which is really fast. We came in with not a lot of complete songs. I don’t think anything was really complete, so we created a sense of urgency because we really only had those six days. I forget who it was, Paul or Eric, had to be elsewhere. If we didn’t have it done in those six days we were going to be in trouble. That pressure and urgency is a good thing! When you are at a live show, you can’t do a second take. If you sing the part flat, you can’t go back to fix it. At a live show you have that kind of pressure because people are standing right there watching you, so you better get it right! That is a good kind of pressure to have because it really forces you to dig deep, play it right, push hard and make it happen. I think the quality of playing you get out of that, I think, is the best you will ever do as a player. In the old days, people didn’t have unlimited budgets and unlimited cash when they were in the studio. I had a conversation with Robert Fripp one time and he told me the first King Crimson record, “In The Court of the Crimson King,” they did in a week in someone’s living room and it was done! I’ve done records in two days, so I know it can be done. We went in there with that sense of urgency. We aimed to do it like real men — Do your homework so when you come in you know how to play the line and not do multiple takes. That was a real cool factor to enter into the equation. It made us have to hustle, get it all together and think on our feet, very much like a live show. That’s pretty much how the recording went down. Like I said, I don’t think we went in with any songs complete. Some of them were near completion and needed some changes or arranging. Some of the things we went in with were almost like the outer skeleton of what might be a song and then we created it on the fly. It came out really well! I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised because between the four of us, we have done hundreds of records, so we should know how to do it by now! [laughs] If we don’t, we’re way worse off than we thought! We are real pleased with the way it came out. Another factor that was a big help was the fact that we had our original producer Kevin Elson. He did our first four records including the “To Be With You,” “Lean Into It” stuff. He did all the Journey hits and Lynyrd Skynyrd, who he grew up with and worked with them right to the end. He’s got quite a set of ears on him and is a joy to work with. Working with Kevin was kind of like going back home again because he is a dear friend and a sweet guy. He made the whole process already more comfortable than it already was.
You worked with the other members of the band for decades. What did they bring out in you creatively?
I think it comes down to songwriting. I was always a songwriter. I wrote all the songs on the “Sink Your Teeth Into That” record and a lot since then but they had different styles of writing songs. It was really interesting to see how they approached it. Sometimes I take parts of that and sometimes I don’t but it’s good to see other songwriters in action. It’s just like sitting down with another musician to play music together. You will see how they will play this or that and it will inspire you to pick a different way, finger something a different way or think of a different way of playing something than you already do. It’s always inspiring! Similarly, with a songwriter who really knows his stuff, like Eric does and Paul has certainly come into his own as well, you start watching them work and compare it to your own methodology. Along the way, you will start picking up little pieces of it to incorporate into what you do. I think I am better equipped as a songwriter now than I was in the past having worked with the guys in MR. BIG who all have a great song sense.
When you look at the songs created for “Defying Gravity,” which resonate with you the most?
I love “Be Kind.” It’s kind of a quirky song. It’s really blues based and has a great message to it. It’s the very humane idea of “Be kind and try to understand the situation because you don’t know what the other person has been through.” We could certainly use more of that in this world today, by far! I love that kind and message but I also love the way the song works. It just falls together really well. “Forever and Back” is definitely a hard pop song. It has a lot of singing and it also has the word love in the song. I made it a thing on all my solo records never that I would never use the words “Love,” “Heart” or “Baby” or say “My spirit” or “My soul.” Those were illegal words and terms because they are so overused! [laughs] On this song, the word love shows up but it’s great. It’s a big, sing-a-long pop song and the lyrics are really cool and tell a little story. I love that song as well! It’s hard for me to pick my favorites because it’s like saying, “Which one of your kids do you like best?” [laughs]
You stay busy when it comes to your career. Is it difficult to switch gears, in the creative sense, between projects? For example, coming straight from The Winery Dogs back into MR. BIG?
Not really. No matter what, the bands are going to be different. I think a band is really dependent on the personality of the individual members, which you can never duplicate. It’s obvious to me as a fan, anytime a band changed members, it was never the same for me. Sometimes it might have been better but if I was used to the original lineup, it was always tough for me! As much as I loved Richie Kotzen and as great as I thought he was in MR. BIG, I just didn’t want to do a different guy. We had to at the time with Richie because Paul had left the band back in the ‘90s. As much as I love them both, it just wasn’t the same band. Band to band, personality to personality, the dynamic is always quite different. Mike Portnoy is quite a different personality. He’s an up-front, caffeinated go-getter, who has his shit supremely together! He comes in and knows exactly how the chords in the songs go. I stopped arguing with him. I’d say, “Does the chorus go for 12 bars?” He’d say, “No, it’s only eight.” OK! It’s only 8! [laughs] I’m not even going to ask if he is sure because if Mike says it’s eight, I know it’s eight. That’s his thing! He knows what he’s doing. It’s a great little rock foundation of information to have at your disposal. Richie is a whole other personality. He’s a dear friend and I love him like a brother. I enjoy playing with him very much. It’s a totally different dynamic than Paul, who is one of the sweetest and most wonderful people I know. He is also like a brother to me but in a much different way. You just let nature take its course and things kind of settle out a little differently with who you are working with.
There a several bands, peers of Mr. BIG, who put out great albums in the past several years. As a guy who sees this first hand, are these releases getting the attention they deserve?
Well, it’s hard to say deserve. I think that the fans of bands are getting it. Sure, we would all like to see the whole world exposed to every band or at least get the chance to. There is no more MTV and there is really no more rock radio at all, as we know. It’s tough out there but it’s up to every band to get out there, start playing, find your fans, get to them, reach out to them and rally them. Like I said, I am on Facebook and social media every day responding to people. It’s on us now! In a way, that’s good because we can control it now. Before, MTV could make you but MTV could also break you, whereas if you make you, you aren’t going to break you. I think that is a good thing. It’s smaller in scope of course, by a lot, but it’s sincere, it’s real and it’s honest. I’ve never been money motivated. Yeah, I’d like to sell a million or 2 million records. That would be nice! If we see 10K, 50K, 75K and people are supremely happy with the record, I’m good with that! I don’t need to be a rich guy. I have a nice life that I’m very thankful for. Everybody who bought a ticket, T-shirt or a record contributed to that and I’m forever grateful, so I will do my best for them. However, I don’t necessarily think I deserve to be heard. I think it’s up to me and all bands to work to be heard and do your best to reach as many people as possible. You have to tour your ass off and do your shows as great as you possibly can so people come out to see you, they will tell their friends and maybe someone else will buy your record. I think it’s really on us now.
For someone who is just discovering your body of work, where should they begin?
“Eat ‘Em and Smile” was my first big successful record. I just did some bass clinics and music seminars down in South America and I must have signed 100 of those album covers! That record went everywhere! I was in Indonesia one time and someone walked up to me with that record for me to sign. That record went far and wide and is a good representation. Other than that, the “Lean Into It” album from MR. BIG was my most successful record and I had a lot more to do with that than I did with “Eat ‘Em and Smile,” thankfully. Then there is the first album from The Winery Dogs. Those would be the top three. The first Winery Dogs record for me was really a milestone for me in that I couldn’t wait to play that record for my friends. It was very much like the other two records I mentioned in that I couldn’t wait for someone to say, “Oh man! Wait until you hear this new record! You’re going to love it!” I was excited about it like that! Those three records are probably the three records I was most excited about in my life. They represent three different stages of my life and I think they would paint a good picture for someone new!
Where do you see the journey taking you in the near future?
This record is about to come out and we just did two videos for it. All that will be coming out in due time. Then we tour until the end of the year. Then I will be starting some writing for the next Winery Dogs record. I’m just hoping that I’m recording a bit and touring a lot for the next 50 years! [laughs] That would make me a very old man and I’m just an old man now! As much as possible I love performing live and I’m supremely grateful that I got to do it so much with great bands and great musicians who are friends of mine. I couldn’t be in a better spot as far as that goes and I’m so grateful for that!
Awesome! Thanks so much for your time today, Billy! It’s always a pleasure and I look forward to spreading the word on “Defying Gravity.”
Thank you, bro! Take care!
MR. BIG will release ‘Defying Gravity’ on July 21st via Frontiers Music Srl. Visit the official website for the band, located at www.mrbigsite.com, for all the latest news and tour dates!