Billy Sheehan Talks New Winery Dogs, Mr. Big Reunion & More
As a member of legendary Upstate New York rockers Talas, Billy Sheehan established himself early on as a force to be reckoned with.
From there, the multi-dimensional four-string maestro parlayed his talents into a supporting role with David Lee Roth before achieving world-breaking success as a member of Mr. Big. Along the way, Sheehan has found himself a key cog in several other projects, with some of the most recent exploits coming by way of Sons of Apollo and the Winery Dogs.
While news of a long-awaited Mr. Big reunion continues to swirl, Sheehan, along with the best drummer this side of Neil Peart, Mike Portnoy, and six-string virtuoso Richie Kotzen, are promoting the Winery Dogs’ latest and greatest, the aptly titled III.
If you dug the Winery Dogs’ first two records – The Winery Dogs (2013) and Hot Streak (2015) – to be sure, III is for you. Loaded with fierce tracks that are as hard rocking as they are well thought out, III presents as the veteran trio’s best effort yet.
Excited as he prepares to hit the stage one more, Billy Sheehan dialed in with MetalSucks to discuss III, his chemistry with Mike Portnoy and Richie Kotzen, the ongoing Mr. Big reunion rumors, and what he’s most excited for as he looks ahead.
Can you recount the origins of the Winery Dogs’ latest record, III?
We got delayed a bit because of the pandemic. But finally, when we were able to travel, Mike Portnoy and I flew out to Ritchie’s house in L.A. and got into a tiny little room, and started throwing ideas around and writing organically on the spot. The source being either a drumbeat, a bassline, a chord change, or whatever else came to mind in the moment.
We came up with a lot very quickly, and the actual time writing was not that long. I think it took maybe three or four days of writing, and then we took a break and came back again and then did another couple of days. By that point, we had it all squared away, did the final recording, and there you have it.
The latest single is “Mad World.” What can you tell me about it?
That’s a second single, and it’s one of my favorites. I don’t know how that little guitar riff started, but Mike and I jumped in and came up with some changes and ideas, and it came together nicely after that. I guess it came about like all of them do – we just sit around, bounce ideas back and forth, and figure out what the chorus is.
We think about things like, “Should there be a bridge?” and various things like that. There’s no real plan or methodology to it. It’s more a matter of us putting the seed in the ground, pouring some water on it, and then all of a sudden, there’s a leaf growing.
What are some of the things that contribute to the Winery Dogs’ chemistry?
With this band, it was great chemistry from the very beginning. The first time we ever got together, Mike and I went to Richie’s house to see if he wanted to maybe start a band. And after the conversation, about a half hour into it, we went into Richie’s studio – which had a drum kit and a bass – and we started playing songs that would make up the first record. We had a bunch of songs in no time that was as good as anything on the first two records, so the chemistry was very good.
How does the magic in the studio translate in the live setting?
It’s great. The real thing that I’m pleased about is our chemistry live; it’s a riot. I love playing in a three-piece band; I can keep an eye on both guys easily. It’s easy to figure out what one guy’s going to do, and it lends itself to a lot of improvisation. So, we know you know when to lead, when to follow, when to join in, when to harmonize, when the counterpoint, things of that nature.
It’s really been a wonderful thing. We enjoy hanging out, the tour bus is fun, we have a great time backstage, and there’s no insanity and no craziness. It’s an incredibly pleasant situation, and I think our chemistry is the source of that. We all get along, we all have different backgrounds, and we’re all very different people, but we just happen to make great music when we’re together playing live or when we’re writing.
Which tracks from III stand out most to you, and why?
“Mad World” I loved instantly. But I love all of them, so it’s hard to say. It’s like when you have six or seven kids, how do answer a question like, “Which one do you love the best?” It’s hard for me to say I love this one more than the other because I feel they’re all so strong. There was no filler on this record.
We really loved everything we had on here. That’s not always the case, but this time around, it’s nice to say that I love the whole record. But “Mad World” is very cool. There’s a change in it that reminds me of the old Motown stuff and all that is very close to my heart. I used to love Motown growing up, and that one particular change sounds very Motown to me.
So, I tried to approach the bass on a real James Jamerson Motown bass player level and attack it like might have if he were still around. I tried to do him justice there.
You and Mike Portnoy are a formidable duo. How do you lock in as a rhythm section?
Well, I’m all about the drums. I watch the drums constantly. When I go see a band, I watch the drummer, and if the drummer is good, I don’t see anyone else on stage. Bass and drums are so woven together and are the foundation of every band that I’ve been in, so it’s a big deal for me.
I’ve played with some great drummers throughout the years, like Dennis Chambers, Terry Bozzio, Pat Torpey in Mr. Big, and of course, Gregg Bissonnette, all these great guys. But Mike is really a phenomenon of nature. He and I have some sort of ESP together where when he does a move, I make the same exact move at the same exact time without preplanning it.
It just kind of happens. We look at each other on stage, and we just know it’s kind of spooky. So, that drummer ESP thing is one of my favorite things about performing live. And what I have with Mike is something at the highest level of that sort of thing.
How do you go about supporting Richie with no second guitarist in the band?
I pour about 18″ of foundational concrete underneath Richie when he’s going to do a solo. I do that so that he feels free to not have to mark the chord changes or whatever else. That’s important in a trio, and I have to keep that foundation strong so that he can just do his thing. I enjoy holding the bottom underneath Richie and giving him what he needs.
I also have foot-operated bass pedals to play notes and extra chords, which fills things out nicely. I grew up mostly playing in three-piece bands, so I’m very used to doing the extra things I need to do to make up for the lack of rhythm guitar or keyboards. Richie and I also have one thing in common, in that we’re both fingerstyle players. So, a lot of our licks are kind of similar, and they fit together well.
Again, either unison, harmony, or counterpoint, they all seem to fit together, and they have a very similar feel to them. I enjoy playing with Richie very much, and again, I’ve been lucky to play with some great guitar players like Paul Gilbert and Tony MacAlpine, but Richie is special. The frosting on the cake with Richie is that amazing voice; it’s just so great to be on stage with a guy who is a true grandmaster vocalist.
Are there any limitations to playing in a power trio, or do you find it empowering?
Certainly, more empowering. My first band was an eleven-piece band with four horns, guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, and three lead singers, and there wasn’t a lot of room to move. I went from that to a three-piece, and that was a breath of fresh air. I liked the challenge of having to spell out more than just the root note to make the song recognizable.
So, even in a three-piece band, we took on some difficult arrangements by The Tubes, Kansas, and King Crimson, which were some heavily orchestrated pieces. But we managed to pull it off by implying and insinuating the nuance of what you would normally hear on the record with a little extra bass part or something. For me, it worked out well. I love three-piece groups.
What kind of gear did you bring to the party for this record?
I’m using the standard setup that I’ve used pretty much since the late ’70s. I have a Yamaha bass and my usual double amp. One does one thing; one does the other in the studio. So, it’s two channels, and it’s pretty straight ahead. One pickup is clean and distortion mixed, and the other pickup does super deep, clean, and low-end stuff. And that’s my sound. I’ve done it for a long, long time, and it’s always worked out well.
Jay Ruston mixed this record, right? How critical is he to the Winery Dogs sound?
Yes, Jay Ruston mixed the record and did a fantastic job. He mixed our other two records as well, and we have a great relationship with him. Normally, the procedure is that he sends back a couple of mixes, we make notes, and send them back, and it goes from there. This time, he sent us a couple of mixes, and we just said, “Good, we’re done. Do the rest of them like that.”
There was less back and forth because we have a lot of trust in Jay to make everything sound as it’s supposed to sound, and he does a great job on my bass. I hear every note of Mike’s drums and everything Richie did. The guitar and the vocals are beautiful and upfront, so we’re very happy.
How does your approach change from project to project, if at all?
It doesn’t really change. It’s more about each individual song. Some songs require a certain thing; some songs don’t. If I’m Mr. Big’s “To Be With You,” I’ll use a nice clean sound based on very simple Paul McCartney-type basslines. But looking at Mr. Big again, you’ve also got heavy songs and fast songs and, you know, so it’s more about the song than the band overall.
In Sons of Apollo, it’s pretty progressive, and we’ve got keyboards, also. So, I stay out of the way of the key keyboards to some degree and, again, lock in with the drums. With that band, it’s easy because most bands have a different drummer, but in Sons of Apollo, I’ve got Mike again. But each drummer has a different finesse to what they’re playing, so I lock in with that and keep an eye on them closely. So, it’s more song-to-song rather than band-to-band.
What made now the right time to fire Mr. Big’s engine up again?
Well, there’s no definite booked situation with Mr. Big yet. I think we’re gonna take a little break from the Winery Dogs and then go back again with the Winery Dogs in the fall, so we might take a small break in there to do a couple of shows with Mr. Big. We’re not sure exactly what, when, where, and how yet. We’re still putting those details together.
We want to do a proper tribute to Pat [Torpey]. We had decided after we stopped playing some years back to just let things rest for a while. But I think enough time has passed that we would like to get together again in Pat’s honor and do some shows. That won’t be an extensive tour, but it’s always enjoyable to play in Mr. Big. We’ll have to see exactly what it’s going to entail.
Are these one-off shows, or is there new music from Mr. Big in the works, too?
We don’t really know yet. It’s still so early, and we’ve only just started to chat about the beginning phases of this. We’re not ruling it out, but we haven’t decided on any of that yet. We’ll see.
How do you go about finding a drummer to replace Pat Torpey?
It’s not easy. Matt Starr did a great job, but we need a guy with a full lead singer vocal range. So, that’s what we’ve been looking for and what we’ll be going with. If we didn’t have that in our drummer, we’d honestly have to hire an extra person to stand up there and sing Pat’s parts. So, for Mr. Big, a drummer who can sing is essential.
Have you chosen the drummer yet?
We’re on the edge of it. We’re pretty close to being able to make an announcement. He has other obligations, so we’ve refrained from saying anything yet. But it’ll come pretty soon.
What are you most looking forward to?
Playing live. I live to play live shows. It’s been my whole life, and it’s what I love to do more than anything else. It’s been three years of no gigs, and man, I’m ready to go. I’m very excited. I’ve been practicing my ass off every day.
I get up every day, feed the cat, and play bass for hours. That’s all there is for me. All of that is well and good, but man, I gotta be onstage. I gotta play. I’m supremely happy that these first shows are about to happen, and like I said, we’re gonna go all year. We’re very excited about all of it.