PHOTO CREDIT: MB PHOTOGRAPHY SCOTLAND (MICHAEL BRUCE)
With over 40 years in the music industry, an extensive discography and with no signs of slowing down just yet, Down The Front Media caught up with bass player extraordinaire Billy Sheehan in Los Angeles prior to his rehearsals with Sons of Apollo
DTFM: Hi Billy. Where are you right now?
BS: I’m in Los Angeles! Good to speak to you.
DTFM: Thank you so much for speaking to us. I would love to rewind back to the beginning of the journey you’re on and ask how it all started for you?
BS: Well, when I was young the music scene was exploding. The Beatles had come around, Elvis, the British invasion, the Californian scene and everyone wanted to be in a band. Everyone wanted to play.
School was split up into people into various types of music. Music was everything to everybody. On a summer’s night, as you walked down the street, you’d hear a band rehearsing in a garage. As you walked to another block, that band would fade away and you’d hear another one. As you walked down the street you’d see drum sets set up in people’s homes. It was an amazing time.
I wanted to be a part of it. I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show as Americans did. I wanted to be a part of it. Round the corner from our home – there was a band. They were friends of my big brother and the bass player, Joe, was a great guy and he pointed me in the right direction on bass. I went off and started to get in bands at high school and I wasn’t old enough, so I got fake ID to start performing. That continued on for years and years and I played high school dances, all kind of shows and finally, as you do in any art form, you begin to find your own voice, and I did. Eventually I got into bands that were bigger and bigger and here we are today talking on the phone!
DTFM: So you learnt the ropes whilst you were on stage rather than in a rehearsal studio?
BS: Well, live performance for me is the ultimate of everything. Live recording – it’s okay, you’ve gotta do it but it can be tedious. There’s no party going on – we’ve got work to do. It’s nothing like being on a stage playing. For me, the end justifies the means. A record – the end of that would be to go out live. I think I’m closing in on 5000 shows. I’ve played over 50 years. We played 21 nights in a row – that was our record. We did 3 complete shows in a day one time. I have a lot of live mileage under my feet as a performer goes and I believe that helps me in everything I do from song writing to public relations.
DTFM: Sounds very similar to the Beatles who you mentioned earlier when they were in Germany, in how you mature as an artist?
BS: Exactly. They were a copy band. That’s what I did. That’s what Van Halen did. That’s what ACDC did. That’s the formula – you learn by imitating then you find your own voice. Just like how a child learns to speak. They imitate their mom and dad, brothers and sisters – eventually he’s speaking on his own. As a musician that’s what I did.
DTFM: Did you always see yourself pursuing the rock n roll side of music?
BS: Well I played all kinds of music. My first band was an 11 piece horn band playing Chicago blood, sweat and tears. Actually – before that I had a 3 piece playing Miles Davis and Frank Zappa in our high school. Then we had a blind B3 Hammond Organ player and we played Young Rascals songs and a lot of soul and motown. Then a four piece playing Three Dog Night, CSN, Grand Funk Railroad, Led Zeppelin – all that and then I started writing. Sneaking originals into the set and eventually it all panned out.
DTFM: That’s such a diverse range of styles and genres. That must have shaped you to the player you are today?
BS: That’s exactly right. We would play as a copy band, we would mostly do singing records – Three Dog Night, CSN – lot of vocals, lot of harmonies but we would also do adventurous stuff like The Tubes ‘White Punks On Dope’, King Crimson ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ and were mostly a three piece band so we had to play more as there wasn’t two guitars, a keyboard and a horn section! We had to be bright and come up with ideas how to mimic the sound with only guitar, bass and drums. We did okay in our home town of Buffalo, New York. Biggest band around.
DTFM: Your style of bass playing is unique and you fill a lot of gaps, and you work your bass in a way that must come from that three piece experience I guess?
BS: Exactly. Now when I play in a band that has more instrumentation, I pull way back, but when I’m in a three piece – often times, there are giant holes or things that need to be represented musically so the tone of my bass was always broader and bigger to make up for the lack of a guitar or keyboard. It seems to work well. Most bands that I play with – they insist that I play with the sound I’m known for as it covers a lot of sonic ground. You are correct – that early work in a three piece band playing rock, pop and progressive....and also performing for people, keeping the dance floor full so people would come back to see us the next week. That was a very important component too. We were very close with our audience which helped me understand the basics of public relations early on. Simply stated – just a great relationship with the people in the audience as your friends. In the old days, we didn’t have a dressing room. We would step off the front of the stage into the crowd and sit with our friends at their table. Then look up at the clock and time for set number two. So we were closely woven into the people who came to see us play which later on led to an understanding of the importance of being in touch with people who come and see you play. What they like, what they want, what they don’t and putting your finger on the pulse of what’s going on. That’s worth its weight in platinum shavings right there I believe.
DTFM: I get a real impression from your online presence that you embrace that fan base and you open yourself up where many artists would be afraid to?
BS: People are different and some just want to do their music and they’re not really concerned with connecting up – it’s not their thing and that’s perfectly fine. When you do an album, the people who come to a show or buy a record – we’re even.
DTFM: You can get good feedback from people online but it can work the other way too. Do you have to be thick-skinned at times?
BS: Yeah, but I choose to do that, but if someone buys a record they maybe think I owe them an autograph or to take them for lunch (laughs) but I do go above and beyond and take care of people where I can.
DTFM: So you’ve been at NAMM over the last few days (National Association of Music Merchants 2018). Have you been promoting new products?
BS: Well Yamaha has the Attitude 3 bass out now and that’s a hot seller. I’m there to support Yamaha in their efforts to make a great bass available to as many people as possible. Line 6 makes some electronic gear called a Helix. They have computer modelled some gear that I grew up with. Also Dimarzio make my pick-ups, Rotosound make my strings and Hartke makes my amps. I only endorse things that I really love. I’m not paid for it but I’m interested in the music community and when I find a great product I like to promote it to my fellow musicians to assist them in their goal for a great tone or gear.
It’s always an enjoyable time but it’s also a gruelling time and almost everybody gets sick at NAMM. You get people flying in from all over the world with whatever flu, cold or malady they have. Everybody shakes hands all over the place. They call it NAMM-thrax (laughs).
DTFM: So in 2017, you were on the road. What were the highlights?
BS: Oh man, there are too many to list. We got to travel all over the world, we had a record come out with Mr Big and we started recording the Sons of Apollo record. It’s been a great time and a great year. 2018 is shaping up to be busy – similarly and exciting and fun with more adventure. I’m very pleased.
DTFM: And you were inducted into the Hall of Heavy Metal History. That’s a huge accolade?
BS: It was very kind of them. I didn’t know it was coming until I got an email but I’m very glad they did. During NAMM show there’s often a lot of awards and a lot of recognition which is another good thing about it. Any time I get recognised for anything I’ve done I’m supremely grateful of course. I was also part of a ceremony to award Abraham Laboriel and John Patitucci to a jazz bass lifetime achievement award also.
DTFM: And 2018...I’ve listened to Sons of Apollo ‘Psychotic Symphony’. What a massive piece of work – It’s fantastic. Will you be going on the road?
BS: Yeah, we’re in rehearsal right now. That’s why we’re in LA. As soon as I’m finished this, I’ll be heading to rehearse. Today, we’re going through the set lists for the upcoming tour – it’s sounding great. It’s gonna be a great show and as we go through the stuff, we’re adding to the songs from the record. It’s really going to be wonderful. I think people will be really pleased.
DTFM: What other material are you going to add to the Sons of Apollo tracks in the set?
BS: It’s a secret (laughs)!
DTFM: ‘Psychotic Symphony’ has a heavy edge with some dark material, that’s intriguing.
BS: Yeah, it gets pretty dark and heavy. I play all kinds of genres of music and I love Mr Big and To Be With You – I love those songs but it’s nice once in a while to get dark and heavy. There are a lot of heavy songs with a lot of really difficult playing but it’s fine-tuned to the point it goes very smoothly. Even the uninitiated listener I believe will find themselves enjoying it.
DTFM: I think the name of the group is fantastic – the ancient Greek god of music – it says it all!
BS: That’s what I heard!
DTFM: Many thanks for taking the time to speak with me and I will see you on the tour. It has been a genuine pleasure. Thank you.
*UK fans can catch Sons of Apollo at Ramblin’ Man Fair on July 1st, 2018*
For more tour information go to https://www.facebook.com/SonsOfApollo1/