Sheehan enjoying his time with The Winery Dogs, Looks Back at the Roth years

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Billy-Solo-640x960It was serendipitous timing that our conversation with rock bassist extraordinaire Billy Sheehan was taking place the day after the 30th anniversary of the landmark debut full-length solo album by David Lee Roth, Eat ‘Em and Smile.

For it was that album and the subsequent four years of touring with the flamboyant former (and once again) lead vocalist of Van Halen that propelled a supremely talented, virtuosic, road-tested musician from Buffalo, New York, from the realm of moderate music industry success to the point where he is now world renowned and an integral part of two bands with impressive musical pedigrees – Mr. Big and more recently the super-group triumvirate known as The Winery Dogs.

Comprised of Sheehan, long-time Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy and former Poison axe-slinger and respected solo artist Richie Kotzen, The Winery Dogs released their second critically-acclaimed album Hot Streak earlier this year and recently wrapped up a tour the United States, including a number of dates sharing a bill with Seether and the legendary Bad Company.

With such a unique agglomeration of talent – three band members all having storied and celebrated careers – the music crafted by The Winery Dogs is consistently inventive, displays superior musicianship and songwriting skills, and yet is also straight-ahead, kick-ass melodic rock and roll, with an appeal to a broad range of fans.

“We’re excited with the way the audiences have really taken to the new songs. They’re excited to hear them live. It’s a pretty consistent and broad mix of people at our shows, which is great. We get a mix of very young people up to older folks. We get people with Richie Kotzen shirts, Mr. Big shirts, Dream Theater shirts and even Slayer shirts, you name it. And I am glad it’s a good mix. I have really been fortunate to have been in a couple of bands where we have a good mix of people: it wasn’t balkanized into one mindset, and that makes for a great evening for everyone,” Sheehan said from a tour stop in Houston, Texas.

“Our music is really just hard rock with soulful vocals. It’s like Bad Company or Humble Pie. But we do try to do things in a modern way, looking to the future. But based on our backgrounds we certainly have a grasp on the kind of music that was created by bands like the two I just mentioned.”

Sheehan, Portnoy and Kotzen are all considered to be masters of their instrument, and are considered to be as technically sound as any musicians in the business, able to whip off riffs, runs and solos that can both dazzle and boggle the mind. But rather than simply showing of their skills, Sheehan and his bandmates are more focussed on creating memorable songs.

“I am always looking more towards the overall ‘songishness’ of everything. I do know through my years that playing at a high level or with great articulation is nice, but if there’s no song to put it in, it’s still good, but you would probably end up playing in small jazz clubs and just not reaching a lot of people. I do like the idea of reaching a lot of people, not to pander to them, not looking to simply cash in, but it’s so much more wonderful to have a crowd of a few thousand people who are of the same mind then it is to have 40 people – although I have played in from of 40 and it can be fun too,” Sheehan said.

“But the real excitement that’s generated when there is a big bunch of people that are all on the same page is an incredible thing. So I really believe we’re happy to make music that appeals to a lot of people, without pandering.”

The music on Hot Streak, as with The Winery Dogs’ 2013 self-titled debut, is equal parts melodic 1970s singer/songwriter rock,Color3JamelToppin mixed in with the a dash of prog-rock and enough crunching metal riffs to satisfy even the most ardent of headbangers.

Sheehan believes the incendiary, infectious energy, consistent groove and broad appeal of The Winery Dogs music comes, in large part, because unlike a lot of music these days, the band crafted the songs, jammed them out, honed them and recorded them together.

“We’re always in the same room writing and that is definitely different than how a lot of other bands are operating and that’s why I think it’s working because it’s honest, it’s organic, it’s real. Admittedly when it comes down to vocals and lyrics sometimes Richie kind of takes the reins because he’s singing the songs, so in that respect we kind of let him do his thing,” Sheehan explained.

“We lay down the basic structure and bed tracks together and it’s enjoyable to do that. And I think we all come up with stuff that we all like as well. Sometimes if there’s only one writer in a band and the other guys don’t like what’s being created it’s tough to be up there playing a song night after night that you’re not crazy about. Whereas in the case of The Winery Dogs we all have a part in every song. We’re all in there pitching from the very beginning and each song contains all of our DNA.”

And like any good album from any era, Hot Streak has a dynamism and coherent ebb and flow from track to track. Rockers will love the passionate, unbridled energy of the title track and a song like Captain Love, while there is also the deep, introspective acoustic tune, Fire and songs like The Bridge which can’t help but lift even the most flagging of spirits.

Hot Streak is indicative of a band that is truly a band – one that is firing on all creative cylinders both on stage, in the studio and off stage. It’s a collaboration of like-minded friends, who simply love the creation of music together.

“We get along well. Richie has a real talent for improving a song. If you take a B- song and have Richie sing on it, it will become an A+ song. He is great in the studio and has a million ideas. He is well versed in the studio too because he has his own place where he makes his own great records all the time. He has great experience behind the desk and he really knows how the whole process works, and not all singers and players have that understanding, but Richie does,” Sheehan said.

“Mike has also made a ton of records and he is the detail man, he really keeps track of stuff and will remember every little thing we’ve talked about, every little idea. I don’t even try to argue with him anymore because he’s always right. He is a fabulous drummer and a good idea man because from what I understand with a lot of the Dream Theater stuff, although it’s not my cup of tea, there was a real creative element there and I believe a lot of that was due to Mike.

“And then I bring my thing in which is kind of an endless array of musical ideas from playing so long and practicing so much and working on it every single day. There is always a big cache of ideas and lines and chord changes, so whenever we’re stuck I will usually be the one who says ‘well, how about this?’ So it’s become a very good team.”

And it’s a team that began when Portnoy left Dream Theater seeking a new creative outlet. He had already known Sheehan for years and contacted the bassist with the germ of a new musical idea.

TWD-JamelToppin-640x886“Mike came to me and wanted to start something and I said, ‘sure, what have you got?’ And we poked around a little bit with some ideas. [Noted music journalist] Eddie Trunk had recommended Richie Kotzen and I had known him for years and even played with him recently so I kind of slapped myself on the forehead for not thinking of him first. So I already had some playing history with both of these guys and I already knew what they were capable of, but I was glad to see Mike and Richie connect musically really well and that put the icing on the cake,” Sheehan said.

“The first time we ever played together at all we wrote pretty much four or five songs that ended up on the first record. It went fast, it was easy and enjoyable – those are three words we like when dealing with making a record for sure.”

Sheehan grew up in a home surrounded by the best music of the era. From his mom’s Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett albums to the best of early rock and roll. But it was while watching TV on a cold Sunday evening that changed everything for a precocious young Billy. The date was Feb. 9, 1964, the show was the Ed Sullivan Show and the musical guests was a popular young British band making its American debut – The Beatles.

“That was my ‘aha’ moment. When I saw them on the Ed Sullivan show I was hooked instantly and knew that’s what I wanted to do. And I know I wasn’t alone because that first television appearance must have launched hundreds of thousands of music careers all over the world. It caught the imagination of youth everywhere and it had that effect on me for sure,” Sheehan said, who said he chose bass because he thought it was the coolest of the instruments.

“I had a neighbour who played bass who lived around the corner from me. His name was Joe and he was a cool, great guy and a wonderful friend and was a guy that I just looked up to. So I wanted to play bass like him. He is still a friend of mine to this day and I see him often and he is still playing and is still awesome. I just kind of wanted to be like Joe.

“And at the time the bass amps were big, giant things compared to guitar amps and the bass itself was big and fat and had giant strings, which I thought was amazing. Little did I know that the guitar was the glory instrument. I should have picked that, but instead I went with what I call the working man’s instrument. It’s like the catcher on a baseball team: you’re working every day with the pitcher and he’s the won that wins the game and gets the glory, but you catch everything he throws.”

Early influences for Sheehan included a who’s who of bass playing greats from the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Jack Bruce of Cream, Paul Samwell Smith from The Yardbirds, The Who’s John Entwistle, Paul McCartney, Jack Casady from Jefferson Airplane and Jethro Tull’s Glenn Cornick.

“But I listened to a lot of other things besides the bass guitar and rock and roll songs. I am a big classical music fan and love [Canada’s] Oscar Peterson and I also appreciated pop songs and songwriting. I used to just play along to the AM radio when I was a kid. I would sit on my bed with the bass and try to figure out every song as it came on and try to play along with it,” he said.

After playing in a number of local bands, he came to form Buffalo-based rock band Talas, which was originally a cover act but soon began writing and recording original albums. The band was generating a significant following in the northeastern United States and was getting a tiny taste of press from bigger rock media outlets when they were tabbed to open for Van Halen on part of their 1980 tour of North America.

“So I got to know the guys in Van Halen and they knew me. And we communicated a little bit here and there, mostly with Dave [David Lee Roth]. We talked about the possibility of playing together and things of that nature, so when Dave left he called me and said, ‘let’s start a band.’ He needed a guitar player and I suggested Steve Vai, because Steve and I were almost going to do something together at that time anyways. Then Dave gave Steve and I the task of finding a drummer and we went to see Greg Bissonette and that was it. We started on the record almost immediately and that turned out to be Eat ‘Em and Smile, which came out 30 years ago yesterday,” Sheehan said, adding that he loved his time in the David Lee Roth Band.

“Dave was great. He gave all of us our space and allowed us to do our thing. He always wanted more stuff, more parts, ‘give me more wild and crazy stuff’ he would always say. He was awesome. We sat around Dave’s basement and hung out a lot, which I learned is a big factor in any band – can you hang? Some members of a band can’t just hang out, which is the beginning of the end. But we hung out and Dave would tell stories of the early years of Van Halen and all his adventures and we would tell our stories and we just had a riot together. He was generous to us and gave us big showcase moments onstage.”

Already noted for his exemplary talent within the close confines of the music industry, the coverage, the videos on MTV and the massive success of Eat ‘Em and Smile truly launched Sheehan’s profile into the stratosphere.Hot-Streak-Cover-640x640

“And Steve’s too: for Steve and I, Dave really did launch us into a whole new level of popularity and recognition and for that I am forever grateful to him. I don’t think it’s overly dramatic to say it changed my life, because it certainly did. I have pondered several times what would have happened if I didn’t go out to L.A. and start a band with Dave? I don’t know what would have happened. I guess I might have ended up back in Buffalo working at the car wash or something,” he said, with a chuckle.

“I know to a certain extent you make your own luck, but there is now way I could have predicted how things would have turned out for me. I had worked hard and opened as many doors as I possibly could hoping that someone would walk through one of them, and Dave did and came to me to start his band. I consider that to be quite a life changed. Steve and Greg do as well.”

Sheehan went from success to success. With no ill will at all, he left Roth in 1990 looking for a new challenge and immediately found himself in another new project that became a significant success – Mr. Big.

“I just wanted to have a regular old band again. I knew Paul Gilbert and Paul Torpey already so we got together and started looking for a singer. A friend of mine turned me on to Eric Martin and we got together with him. Fortunately, the band had incredible management led by Herbie Herbert who basically built Journey and them managed them to massive success. His management and his influence helped Mr. Big get a number one single {the ballad To Be with You] on our second record, that went all over the world. It was number one in like 14 countries or something like that. Again, it was another incredible experience,” he said.

“And we’re still together and having fun. We’re going to do another record and tour at the end of this year or the beginning of 2017. And although we don’t have the profile in North America that we did back in the 1990s we’re still having amazing experiences and success all over Southeast Asia and Europe. I mean we sold out the Budokan in Japan a couple nights in a row. We are very lucky and Mr. Big has friends all over the world and we hang out with them after the shows. It’s an incredible atmosphere of international friendships.”

Between the long-lasting success of Mr. Big, the legacy of his time with Diamond Dave and his burgeoning success with his musical confreres in The Winery Dogs, Sheehan is justifiably content with the life he now leads.

 

“I am grateful any time someone comes out to see us play. Everything I have in this world comes from somebody buying a ticket, or a t-shirt or a CD and I do not ever need to be reminded of that – it is branded into my consciousness. So when it’s time to do a show, me and my bandmates do our absolute best and we push it as hard in front of 400 people as we do 4,000 or 40,000. And that attitude really leads to a payoff in our lives. I have friends all over the place. I’m not rich, but I am doing okay and I am doing the thing that I love best,” he said.

“I took a lot of risks to get here and made a lot of sacrifices. I didn’t really have any family life – I was on the road all the time. I didn’t have any back-up jobs I could jump to in case this music thing fell through. There were a lot of hard times but in the end I was dedicated, I rolled the dice and my number came up and I am very, very thankful.”

For more information on The Winery Dogs, visit http://www.thewinerydogs.com.

For more information on Sheehan, visit http://www.billysheehan.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 jimbarberwritingservices@gmail.com

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