Global Bass Online October 2001
~The Complete Package~
The real and actual 'Mister Big' shows he truly can do it all!
It is the policy of Global Bass to tell the artist that if there is something we cover that might slip through, that the artist doesn't want to become public knowledge, they only have to mention it. I presented this policy to Billy Sheehan and he responded by saying, "There's nothing I'm avoiding, in all of life".
So we might as well start by touching on something that would with some people be a bit of a sore point. Mr. Big. The word is that they actually let the guy who formed the band in the first place, go.
Billy Sheehan: "Yeah, they called me up and fired me! I think they
thought they were just gonna hijack the band and go off on their merry way. Then
they heard from their promoter in Japan who'd cancelled their tour. He said he
wouldn't do the tour without me in the band.
Global Bass: It was always the common consensus that Mr. Big was first and foremost a vehicle for Billy Sheehan anyway.
Billy: I always tried to be equitable and make everyone a part of the band. Then don't go stealing it away from me, then cut up the pie with bigger pieces for themselves. That's just not cool, that's not fair. Then to want to go out and call yourselves 'Mr. Big'.
GB: It's difficult to not run a band one of two ways. Either as a democracy or a dictatorship.
Billy: Right and I believe that if people have a little bit of mutual respect, anything can happen. They can run it as a monarchy, a dictatorship or a democracy. All those work if people have respect for each other. But when that falls apart, none of those things work no matter how much you try to force the issue.
GB: It also pays off at the beginning of a project if they lay things out so it is clear how the project is being run. Fewer "I didn't knows" down the line. So they are clear on what they can expect and ask for. But being let go by the people you hired is like finding your best friend in bed with your wife.
Billy: That's an example I have used many times. That's why I couldn't go back to the band again. It may end on good terms but there is no way I am going to go back to it.
GB: Well, it's good to hear you set things straight. From what I have read of you, you appear to have distinct rules of behavior, a discipline.
Billy: Yes I do. I am not always successful, but I try.
GB: No human being is always successful,
that's the nature of the beast, I think!
GB: Regarding Niacin, Dennis and John are heavily involved in other things at this time...
Billy: Niacin is the sort of project we all get together on at various times. It's not any of our main project, with Dennis always in demand, always playing with a million different people, and John always doing a lot of stuff on his own. I'm always busy too, but when we do get a chance to get together, it's a riot!
GB: Like a bit of a vacation?
GB: It's long been a wish of yours to work with that classic Hammond B3 sound.
Billy: I've been a big fan of the B3 from the very early days. From bands like The Young Rascals and Vanilla Fudge and other early bands.
GB: Its still a right pain hauling that 'moose' of an instrument around though!
Billy: Well, now these days, the technology exists where there is the option of the B4, which is a software version of the B3, which is amazing. All you need is a laptop and a keyboard.
GB: Are you still a speaker for Narcanon?
Billy: Yeah, I do seminars all over the world. I'm a heavy anti-drug guy. I haven't even had an aspirin since `71. So many people fail dismally because of the drug scene and the whole situation. I don't want to preach to people but I just know from observation that it's just not the way to go. If I can ever turn somebody in the other direction, I am happy to.
GB: These people have the right to destroy their bodies. It's that free will thing again, it just screws so much up!
Billy: Yeah, that's true. You do have the right to be an idiot and screw up everything.
GB: You've spoken of some players that you've taught, where they may have played for a number of years, they may have great areas of accomplishment, but in other areas of their skill, there are holes. Particularly if it is very important to them to appear like a hot player in a mere two or three years.
Billy: I think that being a hot player should never be your purpose. It should be more broad based and more in line with the connection to the audience, rather than just being the fastest kid on the block. It's kinda pointless.
I guess it's okay if you want that to be the only thing you are into, but don't make the mistake of calling that 'music' necessarily.
GB: When you first started out, did
you ever have to wrestle with that urge to fly in one direction?
GB: It has to be about the song to an extent.
Billy: Yeah, I do think though sometimes that there is more than just the song. There's the whole package, a whole list of things. There's the personality of the guy, the spirit of the guy, it's the way he approaches it, it is the song, but it's also his playing ability. I think that isolating it either to the player or the song is wrong.
I think Hendrix wrote some songs that maybe if they were done by someone else, we would have considered them mediocre or oddball. But because it was Jimmy playing the way he plays, singing the way he sings, being the personality that he is, looking the way he looked...When you hear LITTLE WING, you go, 'that's amazing!. Whereas if someone would have written that, it could very well be that it might have not worked.
GB: A lot of people have tangled with that song and never once owned it the way he did.
Billy: Van Halen, if it had been done by someone else, I don't know if it would have worked at all. The whole package, the whole spirited personality of the band and the playability, that whole thing, even the audiences were ready.
GB: You council people to just turn
off the TV, to get a life!
GB: With the media's spotlight on the September 11th events, a lot of people I know who watch TV are wound up into a complete state of distress. Do you think the media is working that nerve.
Billy: The media is trying to work as hard as they can to get people as worked up as they can. It's a funny thing about mass media, you can bring any clown off the street that knows nothing and put him on television and have him give his opinion. Polls for example, you don't know who they are polling.
GB: For example: How educated, how
socially aware, how evolved in their thinking are they?
He says that in the Greek civilization where the concept of democracy was born, they were very concerned that democracy would turn into exactly what it did turn into. These are writings from thousands of years ago where in they were in fear of exactly what is happening now. That elections would be come popularity contests, people who were unqualified to have an opinion now had an opinion that counts! I don't mean to shut anyone up, but if you are talking about getting something done or doing something, everyone is entitled to an opinion. Just don't parlay that opinion into a fact.
GB: Try as you might to keep TV out of your life you are still going to be affected by the outside world .
Billy: Of course! That's on purpose too, I want to find out what every side has to say. But I am also not blindly following someone's opinion, someone who I don't fully understand as to where they are coming from. The nightly news, the three major networks, I don't think that they are very close to the truth at any given point.
GB: On a lighter note and back to music...the world of endorsing...do you find that after those years you are still being 'romanced' by these people?
Billy: No, because I have stuck with the same people over many many years so all the other companies know that I am with this company or that company. They know I am a loyalist and I don't just jump ship, just to be a 'gear whore'. I know musicians like that, that will jump from one company to another and then to another. To see how much gear they can get in their garage and then they hold a garage sale every three or four years. I have stuck with Yamaha now for over 14 years.
GB: Which is remarkable in that there are 5, 10 and 20 thousand dollar boutique basses out there that almost have a car bar in them. But you are still playing a four string 'simple' bass.
Billy: Yeah, a simple bass, because I think that once a bass starts to get complex with a lot of knobs, I think the player should look within and start to ask, "What musically is gonna change, if I change the phase on half of one of my pickups and put it through a midrange boost, what is gonna change with me musically?" I can understand you wanting to get the tone that you hear in your head, but it is more in your hands than in any electronics.
Now, that's just me. For some people, it's part of their art to have a bass with a zillion tones and buttons and knobs...that's their art. So I am fully supportive of that. For myself, I don't like to get distracted by so many knobs.
GB: For you then, the Yamaha works...
Billy: It's a workhorse. Sometimes simplicity works, it lets you to concentrate on other things.
GB: The bass 'voice' that you use, you didn't take the route that a lot of bassists do, with tons of top end, flat mid's and loads of bottom. It seems you opted more for a flat top end, slightly enhanced mid's and bass. You have lived there for a long time.
Billy: For me that's where I hear the notes. I like to allow other frequency ranges to be dedicated to other instruments. Cymbals, guitar and voice. I like it when the bass sounds like what it sounds like when the bass is not plugged in. One of my biggest problems is when I plug a bass into something, it sounds completely different than the way it sounds when I am just sitting there playing it on my lap.
I like to have it feel more like the bass sounds when I just have it on my lap in a quiet room where I can hear every little note without it being plugged in. I try with my set up, the way my bass is set up and my amp is set up, so that it feels like I am sitting in a quiet rooming playing.
Like I can hear all the things I can normally hear at that point with that setup. So that when I am playing up loud I can hear all the little nuances and harmonic things. Compression and midrange are very important to me. When you plug a bass in, what you are hearing now is the pickup. You are getting a completely different dynamic range than what you normally get. Loud sounds are way too loud and quiet sounds are way too quiet. I just notice that sometimes when I just plug a regular bass into a regular amp suddenly it feels like the strings are another 3 inches off the neck. It becomes way harder to play than it normally is.
GB: Have you noticed that when you go into a music store the first thing they try to do is plug you into an amp?
Billy: Yeah, let me see what this bass is about first! The amp is a whole different story.
GB: Did you ever find yourself, in pursuit of that 'natural sound', looking at semi-acoustic electric basses?
Billy: Not necessarily. I have a couple. I have the Taylor bass, a nice instrument. Then again, that's a whole other animal. An acoustic bass is much different than a solid body bass when listening to it without an amp. Any change on a bass changes everything. All these things do add up, they factor in.
GB: Are your Yamaha's hotrodded at
all, especially for you?
GB: That's quite unusual.
Billy: That was one of the criteria with Yamaha when we made this bass. I want to be able to walk into a store, pull one off the shelf and it be exactly like the one I am playing. I just thought it would be dishonest to get a fancy-schmancy birds-eye maple, with custom electronics, custom everything, version. Then the kid goes off, spends his hard earned money and he gets the 'cardboard version'. I really wanted it to be exactly what I play.
GB: Is it a light-weight bass?
GB: Also with this in mind, and sometimes this happens, you're on the road and someone decides to snag your bass.
Billy: That's another reason why I wanted these basses to be standard. If I ever lost one I want to be able to replace it.
GB: Without having to get grief counseling! Do you take a lot of them with you on the road?
Billy: Just three.
GB: That's interesting, I know people with 30 basses...
Billy: Why? And also when people are changing instruments in the middle of the set, why?
GB: I know! And have you noticed that you never hear any difference?!
Billy: I never hear any difference either! (laughs) So why change it? I have grooved in on one bass, why should I suddenly throw myself a curve and change it? My bass never really goes out of tune. When I tune it up, I pull the strings really tight and hard, stretch them out really good, so I have had people come up to me after a show and they couldn't believe that I didn't tune my bass.
GB: Considering what you do to the strings and the bass, that is incredible!
Billy: Bending the neck, throwing it around, flipping it up into the air, bending strings, going up on top of the nut and bending strings upwards between the tuning peg and the nut, all this stuff! If you stretch the strings properly and you set the bass up right, it shouldn't go out of tune.
I think people wimp out a lot on their basses. They baby them, they get a little afraid of them. You should be able to knock the thing around, make it work, make it talk! You're the master! Be the master! The bass is the tool.
GB: Now 'COMPRESSION' is bring referred to as your first solo album. Considering the fact that you have always played bass on your terms, your way, wouldn't that tend to make every album you've made somewhat of a solo album. Particularly the ones where you weren't working as a sideman. (David Lee Roth et al).
Billy: True, but I always played with everyone else in terms of the group working as a group. COMPRESSION was pretty much all on my own. I did the lyrics, the singing, the guitar playing.
GB: Much more of the playing that I thought at first. I found from the liner notes that though Steve Vai and Terry Bozzio were guests, they weren't settled into the album like I thought they might be. This was a lot about you.
Billy: Yeah, I wanted to use them minimally because I wanted it to be my record. I was really happy to get Terry and Steve to play on it. They were just such an incredible addition, but I didn't want to bring a lot of guests on. I didn't want to lose my own identity by having a zillion people on the record. So I thought that if I brought a couple of people in for a couple of things, if I am gonna do that, I am gonna pick two extremely unique, extremely special people, as Steve Vai and Terry Bozzio are, to join me on this. I kept it down to just that.
GB: So that left the bulk of the album in the percussion end of things being done as programming. You've always had a leaning, an interest in drums?
Billy: I am a drum groupie from way back!
GB: So this would help you a great
deal with the programming itself, choosing the right parts, the right voicings,
the right arrangements.
GB: Approaches that he might not normally take as a drummer.
Billy: Exactly! Just on my own I have come up with a few 'stump the drummer' beats that I just play with my hands and feet. "Here, try this!". Nine out of ten drummers can't do it! With drum programming, I try to program it like a drummer. It was the most tedious part of the record, it took the most time. I really wanted to make it sound like a real drummer. In some cases it was necessary to add a lot more than a normal drummer would actually do to get that sensation of standing next to a drum kit while its being played.
There's been many a time I'd go into a control room, after listening to a set of drums in a studio and it would sound completely sterile to what I was hearing out there. I wanted to make it sound like it sounds when I am impressed by a drum kit as I am standing on stage. When that drummer is just pushing himself over the edge. It did require a few extra snares, a few extra hits and beats and loops along with other things. To give the impression of more going on.
GB: Would you say that you're are a fairly prolific person, is music always in your mind?
Billy: It's pretty much all I do. I'm almost always playing. I am in my room now and there's a prototype of a new Yamaha bass I'm designing, there's a Yamaha 12 string and upstairs in my roof top patio there's a bass that I play outside and stuff. There's a bunch of instruments in my living room and there's a bunch down in my studio, so they're always all over my house. I'm always at it!
GB: Were you ever drawn to 5, 6 and seven string?
Billy: I just did a string of clinics in Japan and China. It was really cool. The kids were amazed when I said that I had more to learn about my bass. They said, "Well, don't you know everything there is!?" I responded with a horse laugh, "Are you kidding?" There's so much more than can be done. I still have got a lot to learn on the four string, by my estimation, so therefore I don't gravitate towards a lot of other changes in instruments. I've still got a lot to learn on that thing.
GB: Often when an artist tangles with their first solo album, all hell can break loose. Songs that are nothing more than platforms for bass solos are often the case. You however, approached it as a series of songs. Granted the bass has your usual prominence, but it is not your typical approach.
Billy: I wanted to do two records, one like this one and then a bass record, where I just go wild. I was anxious to do a 'regular' record, where I sang and played songs and play 'normally' as I would in a band, but the follow-up album is going to being just psychotic bass.
GB: That's not the one with just you and Terry (Bozzio)
Billy: No, that's another one.
GB: Do you ever just sit down and relax!!!!
Billy: Well, I'll tell you, after I finish these next projects, I am going to just concentrate on one or two things. (laughs)
GB: I have a friend in Switzerland that is in 4 separate bands all at the same time. I have asked her why she doesn't just find one really good working band. One of the benefits of being in all these projects is she knows a lot of songs, all in different styles.
Billy: Yeah, that's great! It's so good for a player to know a lot of songs. That's the best thing. Don't forget, the Beatles started out as a copy band.
GB: Have you ever entertained doing a duet with another bassist? If so, who would it be?
Billy: Oh yeah, I would love to do something with another bass player. All my heroes, Tim Bogert, John Entwistle, Jack Bruce, Oteil Burbidge, Steve Bailey's incredible, the list goes on and on. Stanley Clarke, I would love to do something with Stanley someday, that would be great.
GB: This is the part where it's a shame that as humankind we live at best a hundred years and more often than not, 70 or so.
Billy: Yeah, no kidding, it's too short of a run.
GB: Not enough time to do all those albums you would like to do. Here's an odd question and from out of left field...on the ballad "Caroline" on this new album, is there an intentional guitar reference to the Santana song "Black Magic Woman"?
Billy: Actually it was from 10CC's, "I'm Not In Love". It is also "Black Magic Woman". There are probably three or four other songs that do that line too. One of the things on this record is that I purposely didn't avoid was paying tribute to the songs that I love. I'm not ripping them off, just using a hint. Everyone does that. Most people deny it, but I thought, 'You know, I'm gonna celebrate it!'.
GB: I recall the time that someone showed me that the lead solo from Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" is also the melodic line from 'Blue Moon'.
Billy: Oh, that's brilliant!! (Laughs) You got me on that one, I thought I knew `em all! That's a good one. I know the solo by heart. I hadn't listened to 'Disraeli Gears for about 15 years, but when I listened to it again in `88 I remembered every note of every song, `cos I used to sit there and listen to that record over and over! I must have listened to that record 500 times.
GB: Here's another question from
left field, 'So, why aren't you self absorbed'? Many people succumb to that
after constantly hearing just how great they are.
I laugh and say, "All the time, it's a string of mistakes. You just learn how to recover from that, or play `em twice or do whatever you have to do to recover from your own mistakes. That's probably more important than the rest of learning how to play.
GB: There's that old saying, " Never forget that you're never more than one semi-tone away from the right note".
Billy: That's true. I don't really put much into the delusions of grandeur on what I am or what I do. I am regular schmuck that plays bass. I got lucky. I worked hard at it. I never had any natural talent.
GB: You weren't a natural?
Billy: No, I don't think so. I was just a good trouble shooter. I could figure out how to make it work. It didn't happen naturally for me at all. It didn't automatically come popping out.
GB: I would like to move into an
area that involves your beliefs now. As I said before, answer these only if you
feel you want to. Am I right in saying that you are involved in the Church of
GB: Why is it that no one seems to refer to the fact that you are a Scientologist? A lot of high profile performer folk who are members go through a lot of media hassles because of this affiliation and their beliefs.
Billy: I am not a proselytizer. If I was a Christian (I have great respect for their religion), or a Buddhist (again, great respect for that philosophy too), I wouldn't necessarily be out there talking about it. I believe in trying to be the best example you can be. Again, if someone is interested in what I am into, I'd be glad to tell them a little bit about it. But it's very important for people to find out on their own.
GB: Have your years as a Scientologist helped your playing, by opening up your creativity and your clarity of thought?
Billy: Very much! It's helped my life. If my life wasn't in order it would be difficult to go out and perform and play. It's helped keep things working. It's kept me enthused and encouraged and interested in life. Also interested in helping other people. I do clinics all over the world and I am glad to help young musicians. To help them get ahead and do well, to be successful and enjoy what they do and achieve their dreams.
That has a lot to do with my experiences in Scientology.
GB: I am asking some artists their
opinion with regards to this difficult time we are going though in the world,
with September 11th and all the other ramifications. Do you feel this is a time
of great change?
There has been a terrible tragedy. I am a patriotic American, generally a Conservative in my politics. I am not necessarily interested in pounding people with cruise missiles either. I think it is a good idea to get to the root of the problem. I do believe there are criminals that have done this and they should be brought to justice.
I think the Islamic world must help, they must take some responsibility for their own people. Just as a white man, if I knew someone who was in the Ku Klux Klan, I would do whatever I could to stop him. To prevent him from inflicting damage. He is hurting me. If a couple black guys are coming down the street, how do they know if I am in the KKK or not? So maybe they're gonna take it out on me. So he is hurting me.
So as a white guy, I have to police my own race and make sure we do not do anything racist. That we do not allow racism to occur bwith any of our brothers, other white people. We have to stop it, stamp it out every place we can. Just as Christians should not tolerate hateful Christians who are misusing the Bible, using their faith in a hateful way. Islamic people must do the same. They must go amongst their own and stop the extreme wrongful twisting of their faith by those that will harm others with it.
Within any group, you have to police your own, otherwise your group will be painted with that broad brush. It goes two ways...as the onlooker, we don't paint people with a broad brush, as the people that are being looked at, to make sure that you prevent people within your group from doing things that will tend to have you painted with that broad brush.
It's a two way street. It's all about responsibility.
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