Interview: Mike Brooks

Billy Sheehan is one of the busiest bassists on the planet, showing no signs of letting up even though he’s in several active bands – the Winery Dogs, currently preparing for a very active 2019; the embers of Mr Big are still aglow following the untimely passing of their drummer Pat Torpey; and of course Sons Of Apollo, at whose London gig we met him recently.

“I love to play, it’s my favorite thing in life,” says Sheehan. “People send me their Youtube clips and I tell them they have to play with people on stage, in front of an audience. You don’t need to be all that ready to play live, but get in a band and get to work! To play live is really the greatest joy there is, and any musician in the world worth their salt will tell you the same thing. Working in the studio is one thing, but capturing that live in front of an audience is another level of difficulty.”

Although he’s now 65 and has been a professional musician for 40 years and more, Sheehan still sees room for improvement in his own playing. “I work hard at getting better, although that doesn’t mean playing faster or using more notes. I’m working at it all the time; even when I get home and I get ideas, I record selfie videos and explain into the video what I’m playing and how I’m playing it.”

Sons Of Apollo boasts a stellar line-up, including drummer Mike Portnoy and keyboardist Derek Sherinian, both formerly of Dream Theater. What does SOA offer to the prog genre in Billy’s eyes? “There are funk and blues elements to this band, but inevitably, there are time changes and some free-form stuff in it too. I’m definitely old-school prog. I saw The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway with Peter Gabriel which was pretty amazing; when the first King Crimson album came out, that changed everybody. But when progressive music came out, it was a way to get beyond the basic chordal thing that we were stuck in. We got into a lot more improvisational stuff; Cream obviously caught a lot of people’s attention. They were brilliant, and they came up with a lot of great stuff. I’m a big fan of classical music too, the second largest genre of music that I have in my two-terabyte library of music is classical. The complete collections of Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mozart are in there, and they’re a huge influence on me in terms of changes, counterpoint and how I think about music.”

In typical prog tradition, Billy has opted for a double-neck Yamaha Attitude for the live shows, although for the recording of the SOA album, Psychotic Symphony, a standard black Attitude tuned BEAD was used. Was it problematic adapting to the double-neck instrument? “I used the black Attitude that I’ve used on a zillion records, so I recorded the whole record with that. They asked me to do a solo in the live set, but that bass doesn’t have the range that I’m used to. I didn’t know I’d need the double neck, but it actually works well, because the low neck is a little too low and the high neck is a little too high – but somehow between the two, I manage to function. It forces you to move away from your strong points and to focus on something else.”

Sons Of Apollo’s live set is particularly demanding, and even a player of Sheehan’s standing has to put in the preparation. “Before this European tour, I hit it pretty hard and did my homework. I have to commit everything to memory, so I go over and over songs, especially if they’re complex. I really want to own them and be able to play them without thinking. Once in a while, I’ve needed to use a cheat sheet; there was a Steve Vai song where every pass was different, nothing was repeated. I wrote it out, put it on the drum riser, and as we got to the song, they exploded confetti everywhere. It rained down onto my sheet and I couldn’t see a thing. So rather than have that happen, I take the time to prep so I don’t create a catastrophe for myself. This particular show took a lot of work – but I like to work!”

As well as requiring a different type of performance, Billy’s tone has also undergone a change for this project, which has been aided by his Line 6 Helix unit. “It makes things a lot easier and a lot less precarious when travelling around; with analogue gear, and I did travel around with the Pearce preamps a lot, at one point the power supply transformer broke loose inside and smashed around. I was an early adopter of digital equipment, and Line 6 have done a great job of replicating the Pearce preamp. They modeled it component by component off the board, which is pretty amazing. I tried the Kemper and the Fractal, which are both great pieces of gear, but the Helix is a little easier and more hands-on for me.”

Keep your eyes peeled for a new Attitude, he tells us. “There’s a new bass coming! Cosmetically, the new bass is much different, and it will be paying tribute to my past,” he says, accompanying this with a nudge, a wink and some raucous laughter. “It will feature some artificial ageing to the neck, which should be awesome tonality-wise. It’s essentially a LTD3 but the visuals will be striking and I’m very impressed with it. EBS are also talking about the next iteration of my signature overdrive pedal.”

Mr Big fans will be heartened to know that the classic band, now comprising Sheehan with guitarist Paul Gilbert and singer Eric Martin, hasn’t performed its last show yet, as their summer 2018 performances showed. “We honored the bookings we had. We might go out and do something in 2019, we’re talking about it,” says Sheehan. “It’s a cliché, I know, but when we play, people fly in from all over the world to see us. It’s an amazing family of people, and they would love to see us play again. We may go out and say a proper goodbye and hold ourselves to it. Mr Big was the four of us but Paul, Eric and I are closer now than we’ve ever been, having weathered the storm that happened with Pat.” Watch this space.