Even after 35 years as a top professional musician, there is still an almost child-like excitement and energy that infuses every conversation you have about music with Billy Sheehan. The virtuoso bassist has toured the world for decades, initially carving out his reputation with the Rochester, NY-based prog-metal band Talas, then during a stint with David Lee Roth’s solo band, later as a member of Mr. Big and in more recent years as co-founder alongside Ritchie Kotzen and Mike Portnoy of the power trio, The Winery Dogs.
He has also guested on hundreds of recordings and on various tours, but still gets amped up when talking about a new project, such as the forthcoming release of the new Mr. Big album, Defying Gravity. It’s the landmark band’s ninth studio album and first in three years. It’s set for release on Frontiers Music SRL on July 21 worldwide. It marks the return of Sheehan and long-time Mr. Big bandmates Eric Martin (vocals), guitarist Paul Gilbert and drummer Pat Torpey to the studio, which was no mean feat considering each member of the band has a plethora of musical projects on the go at any one time
“I think what happens is that we’re all pretty busy with all of our other things and at some point management will notice that everybody is at home during a two-week period or something insane like that, so they were probably the ones that got the ball rolling. We all do a lot and in a lot of different circumstances, but I am glad the call went out to do a new Mr. Big record and that we get the chance to get together again,” said Sheehan.
Defying Gravity also marks a pretty significant reunion for Mr. Big, as the band once again had the opportunity to work with producer Kevin Elson, who helmed the band’s first three albums: the 1989 self-titled debut, 1991s Lean Into It and Bump Ahead, which came out in 1993. All three were huge critical and commercial successes, and helped launch the band to international stardom, sparking a recording and touring career that has lasted until this day.
Lean Into It, in particular, crossed many musical boundaries with the hit ballads To Be With You and Just Take My Heart, as well as the psychedelia-inspired rocker Green-tinted Sixties Mind, while their cover of Cat Stevens’ classic Wild World was a major hit from Bump Ahead.
The onset of the ‘grunge’ phenomena put a damper on Mr. Big’s momentum in North America, but the band’s popularity in Japan and the Far East, as well as Europe and South America, has remained very buoyant, allowing for the release of albums in 1996, 1991 and 2001, before the band took a hiatus. They returned in 2009, releasing more albums, including What If…. in 2010 and …The Stories We Could Tell in 2014.
“Just after Mr. Big caught a wave, the whole grunge thing started, which was the new order of things, the changing of the guard. So anybody that looked like us or sounded like us was thrown away, similar to how Elvis was thrown away when the Beatles came around. So rather than compromising our integrity and dressing differently or trying to sound differently, we stuck to our guns and just continued to play and write what we know. Some people appreciated it, but a lot of others said, ‘well, I don’t listen to that kind of music any more, so goodbye.’ Fair enough, that’s cool, but we were not necessarily going to change to try and fit in with the current style. And it’s interesting that in Japan, Mr. Big outsold Pearl Jam 40-1 – that’s the actual statistic. They didn’t quite get grunge over there, but we had cultivated a great, loyal audience already,” Sheehan said.
“Back in the day, a lot of the bands who went to Japan believe the Spinal Tap cliché that if you’re from the West you’re just automatically going to do great, it doesn’t matter what you do. Well, it does matter. A lot of bands went to Japan once and never went back again. They are very, very observant people, they know the songs and the shows inside out. And we went there and treated them as we would treat any other audience – want to do our absolute best for them onstage and off stage. We would spend hours signing autographs, we would all answer our fan mail, back before the internet. We worked hard on that kind of stuff.
“But we did that everywhere. In South America we did really well too. In Brazil we played for like 100,000 people on a back. In Italy at one point there were five Mr. Big copy bands going. Right now there’s an Indonesian Mr. Big copy band that just sent me some of their songs. I am just glad that we can play all these places and it’s kind of cool that so many countries around the world embrace the band, because it means we can go almost everywhere: Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia. We’ve played India and I get lots of emails from people wanting us to play Afghanistan, Pakistan and Ethiopia if you can believe it. And I do think we owe a debt, not only to Japan, but a lot of European countries too for keeping the music we do alive.”
To Be With You was a massive hit – a ballad created by a band that had some legitimate hard rock and metal shredders, especially Gilbert and Sheehan. But the music of Mr. Big seemed to transcend rigid genres and opened up a wider audience for the band’s diverse, but still melodic and rockin’ sound.
“When To Be With You first came out, we had a lot of guys in Slayer and Metallica shirts coming out to our shows because Paul and I were shredding and heavier and a little more into the metal thing. Then we had 14-year-old girls with braces coming out because of To Be With You. And it would be a real mix of those people in the audience. And it always blew my mind in kind of a United Nations way: the girls would be pumping their fists to the heavier stuff and the guys in the Metallica and Slayer t-shirts were singing along to To Be With You. So we were actually breaking down that barricade,” Sheehan said.
“Ever since the band’s beginning, we have been able to de-Balkanize the audience where it isn’t just the heavy people versus the ballad people. And that’s kind of how all the records themselves were. It was a balance where you could like the whole record. I know for me I don’t just listen to one style of music – most people really don’t. I think if you can get a real dynamic range on a record, sometimes it’s a real bonus.”
Returning to the subject of Kevin Elson, Sheehan said he and his bandmates had been trying for years – since their reformation in 2009, actually, to work with him again.
“When we first got back together we wanted to bring him on board, but he was on tour somewhere. Then we did the ‘Stories’ record in 2014 and we wanted him then, but he was working on another project. So this time it finally all worked out and Kevin was available and what a joy it was to work with him again,” he said.
“He is so easy to work with, he has such great ears and great musical sense. He was part of producing a lot of the big hits by Journey back in the day, but he also grew up around the Lynyrd Skynyrd guys and worked with them right up until the plane crash in 1977 [that killed Ronnie Van Zant, Steve and Cassie Gaines and others] So he has a broad range of musical sensibilities which works perfect for us. He did such a wonderful job on all the Mr. Big stuff so to have him back, not only as a friend but also as a great talent as a producer, is amazing. And he’s full on all the time. He’s not sitting there in the other room reading the newspaper while the engineer is doing all the work. He is really hands on and he cares a lot about the finished product.”
That finished product is as advertised – a true-to-form Mr. Big album that features musical pyrotechnics on songs like Open Your Eyes, crunching blues on tunes like Be Kind as well as wistful, powerful nod to the heydays of the To Be With You and Green-Tinted Sixties Mind days with the track 1992.
Amazingly, the album was pulled together over an intensive period, with all the tracks laid down under Elson’s guidance in just six days. Think of that for a second. Back in the 1970s and 1980s bands would take six months to a year sometimes (of if you’re Axl Rose, 15 years!!).
“We booked six days in the studio and that was it, and at the end of those six days we had to be done. I remember on the last day, we realized we needed another song and sure enough Eric had an idea. It wasn’t complete, but he laid it on us, we did some modifications, a few changes and bang, bang, bang, the next thing you know we came in under the wire and under budget,” Sheehan explained.
“The days of unlimited budgets and unlimited time in the studio are long gone. It puts pressure on you to get it done and you’ve gotta get at it. We had a small amount of money to pay for this record and if we went over, there isn’t anyone else to get the money from. It’s kind of like making records back in the earlier days of rock and roll. I had a conversation with Robert Fripp [King Crimson] and he told me they did the first King Crimson record, In The Court of the Crimson King, in seven days in somebody’s living room, which is amazing. Although I have done records in two days, actually. It can be done.
“We had a bunch of songs and we were on a tight leash so there was still pressure, but it was good pressure, positive pressure and an urgency that makes you push a little harder – kind of like a live show. When you’re on stage you can’t really do a second take or if you sing a part flat you can’t go back and re-sing it later. Having only six days you do it right and get things done in a take or two and you don’t do a lot of fixes after. To me that’s a more honest way of doing it, and I think that energy and urgency comes through on the record.”
Mr. Big is currently playing some dates in the U.S. and has ambitious touring plans set for the remainder of 2017 and into 2018, including jaunts to Europe, South America and perhaps Australia.
“I do believe we will make it to Canada. I know I want to. I used to play Toronto a lot when I was in Talas and always enjoy playing that city and anywhere in Canada,” Sheehan said.
For more information on Mr. Big, Defying Gravity and upcoming tour dates, visit www.mrbigsite.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at email@example.com.
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