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INTERVIEW-The Winery Dogs bassist Billy Sheehan talks about the band, the new album and tour.

Posted by FERG on May 9, 2014 at 5:45 PM

INTERVIEW-The Winery Dogs bassist Billy Sheehan talks about the band, the new album and tour.

  (Photos Courtesy of The Winery Dogs)


Billy Sheehan has not only revolutionized the way that bass players look at their instrument, he changed the way that the world looks at bass players. Now he has now joined up with two other legends in guitarist and vocalist Ritchie Kotzen (Poison, Mr. Big) and drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Adrenaline Mob) to create Winery Dogs, a spellbinding super group that has taken the rock world by storm. They bring a new modern sound that's permeated with classic raw tones that skillfully highlight the amazing musicianship of each of the members. Winery Dogs is hard and new, yet classic and timeless. They released their self titled album to rave reviews as it climbed the charts in the U.S., Japan and around the world.


Billy Sheehan is not only a legendary bassist and musician but has worked with such great bands and artists as Mr. Big, David Lee Roth, Talas, UFO, Niacin and many others as well as putting out several solo albums. His face as well as his bass, has been on the cover of virtually every magazine dedicated to rock, metal, jazz, guitars, basses and music. He has created niche music, stadium rock, eclectic jazz jams to very progressive rock, and there are no discussions in the world dealing with great bassists that Billy Sheehan is not mentioned. He was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to Ferg and SRO Magazine.


SRO Ferg -  So, Winery Dogs, and they call it a super group and I agree with them, it's you, Richie Kotzen and Mike Portnoy. I mean you’ve all worked together in the past in different projects, so how did the idea of Winery Dogs first come about?


Billy Sheehan >> Well, looking around to try to do a band rather than a project and we thought if we do a band, we’re gonna get some great people that are just in it for the long haul. And I had forgotten about Richie, I don’t know why or what’s wrong with me, but Eddie Trunk suggested to us, “Man you guys should give Richie Kotzen a call.”  I slapped myself in the head and thought, “why didn’t I think of that?” Because, Richie and I had been buddies for forever, since, uh, had played briefly together in Mr. Big, and before that and after that we had worked a lot together. Actually, Richie and I opened up for The (Rolling) Stones in Japan a few years back and we’d, uh, we’ve played a lot together. So, we got in touch with Richie right away and Richie’s a cool hang, we all hung out and talked a little bit, but mostly we got right in the room right away. There was a drum kit set up and there was drum kit somewhere and Mike has a pair of sticks. It’s hard to keep him off ‘em. So he got right on the kit and I grabbed a bass and we started playing right away and singing right away and came up with, from that first day, together, we came up with about four or five things that ended up on the record. So, we were right, right from the get-go, just playing music that we like. We didn’t talk it out or plan it out. We just sat there and, literally, let the music do the talking. I know that might sound cliché, but in fact, that’s what happened. Just sat down and without even explaining it, I’d play a lick and Mike would add a part to it and Richie would do his thing and we’d move to another part and it was very, very easy and automatic, which, to me is always a good sign. You’re a musician yourself, you know when they start to fall together, easily, something’s right, you know. And, that’s exactly how it went down. And, here we are.


SRO Ferg - Well Richie called the writing process ‘organic’ and I took that to mean it was, you know, free-flowing from the ground up. You know what I’m saying?


Billy Sheehan >> -   Exactly.


SRO Ferg -. You and Richie and Mike, you all come from kind of different backgrounds, I mean, different, divergent music styles, but I was watching an interview with you and Richie and, where you’re different, your music converges and makes it into one. And, you’ve been a part of a lot of projects. How do you mix those divergent styles? How do you bring them all together?


Billy Sheehan >>  Yeah, it uh, you never know. Sometimes you can, on paper, look really good and if you do it in real life, it doesn’t quite work at all. I’m sure you’ve seen that yourself. And it’s like, uh, it’s funny, it’s an odd dynamic, but it’s funny that being in a band is not too much different than a young man and a young woman when they’re getting to know each other a little bit. Sometimes she can be gorgeous and everybody can like her, but she just aint for you, you know. And, likewise, sometimes you can see someone that’s just not quite what people would expect you to be into, and she’s perfect, you know. So, it’s a funny, it’s an odd dynamic, to make a comparison to, but in fact it’s true. So, sometimes on paper you can say, “Wow, this guy’s the greatest of everything! Let’s put him together with another great guy and another great guy!” and it doesn’t work at all. So, you have to allow nature to take its course. And, in this case, we sat back, planted the seeds and just let them, wanted see what happened. And, sure enough, things were, uh, things were coming up roses and it worked very, very well for us. But, it could, you know, we acknowledge that uh, it is an unknown that makes it all work together so well. I don’t really know what it is that makes the chemistry become chemistry. You can do everything, you can to open up as many doors as possible to allow it to walk in, but if it doesn’t walk in, it doesn’t. And, in this case, it came roaring in and we, uh, right away, noticed, especially playing songs for our fans, the response people had to the sound of the band and the vibe of the band. And, that for me is often a true test, sitting around with a bunch of friends, “Hey, check out what I’m working on. Me and Mike Portnoy and Richie Kotzen did something. Give it a listen.” And, people instantly were very excited about it. So, it was a good sign.


SRO Ferg -. When you’re putting together the music and the lyrics and the melody line, is it a group process or do you guys just sit down and say, “This sounds good. What about this?”


Billy Sheehan >>   Sometimes you all work on one thing, you get a great canvas, you know. Everybody had their color to put in and you mix them all together. If you’ve ever mixed a bunch of paint colors together, the outcome isn’t always so good. It ends up being kind of a mess. So, we as individuals, we have our contributions. Lyrics and singing, the guy that does the singing, has a lot to do with the lyrics because he’s got to sing them. I get emails from people sometimes that, “I write lyrics and I write words.” And, I say, “You know, you may, but unless you sing them, writing lyrics for somebody who sings and doesn’t know them and you don’t know how to sing lyrics is almost impossible.” That’s why you won’t see many lyricists around because there’s almost no such thing. I can think of either one or two stellar examples and almost no others. So, for Richie to sing his parts, generally he does come up with lyrics or melody lines and then we tweak lyrics afterwards. I do it, Mike does it, but in this particular record, Richie did most of the melody lines. Mike and I tweaked maybe about thirty-forty percent of the lyrics and that was about how it went down.


  SRO Ferg - It has a very classic, raw sound, but it’s very modern in its appeal and some of it seems like those classic icons of, you know, that Deep Purple, (Led) Zepplin inspired modern rock. Is that kind of the vibe you were going for?


Billy Sheehan >>   No, but it did happen that way. Again, we really, people often think, and I find this when I do interviews, that we know what we’re doing. But, in fact, we just kind of get in a room, and ooh, look what happened. Often when you’re writing a song and when you’re recording a song, what you end up with is much different than how it even started out. So, we see situations like that. But we didn’t necessarily go for a particular sound or pick a particular vibe, and we certainly didn’t talk it out or plan it. But, I think that’s why it’s working, because we didn’t really do a lot of scheming, planning and figuring, you know, marketing talk. We just did our thing without, you know: Mike you play drums, Richie plays guitar and sings and I play bass and we all sing and let’s just do some playin’ and it turned out to sound, I think, a little classic rock-ish. I think, primarily, because we’re all in the same room together and that’s how great, great albums were made. Some of the greatest records that I ever listened to when I was young and coming up were made by guys just sittin’ in a room. That’s just how you had to do it. You had no choice. There was the recording and the mics and you didn’t have studios with separate booths and, uh, digital, uh, editing and overdubbing. You just sat in a room and you played and that’s how classic, a lot of classical records were made. Not all, but certainly a lot. So I think that’s why it came out that way. We sat in a room and played and that’s what we got.


SRO Ferg - Now, you’ve been in the studio and you’ve recorded 30+ albums with different people in your solo work and with bands. What process do you like better? Do you like just gettin’ in there and just hashing it out or does it just depend on what you’re trying to accomplish?


Billy Sheehan >>   Well, I generally like improvisational music. I like it when we have a song and we know the song, but now it’s time to lay it down, so let’s just fly. Once we know the chord changes, we know what we’re supposed to be doing in a given point, so let’s play it. Let’s see what happens, also. You know, where we don’t necessarily, we have a template, we have an idea of where we’re supposed to go in every particular part of the song, but we’re not so much held to that template. The foundations, yes, but let’s make room to move, make way to improvise. For me, that’s my favorite thing when it’s time to, okay, let’s lay one down and hit the record button and go. And, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know as a player, I never plan out what I’m playing if I go up to do some bass solo thingy, I have no idea what I’m going to do. I start playing, the crowd responds, I turn left, they turn right, I follow them, they follow me. It could be anything, it’s truly improvisational. And, that’s what I really love. So, for me and with the band in the studio when it’s time to hit that recording button and lay down a track and I know I’ll make some moves, I’ll move around on bass in ways that I had not planned and just let the moment take me. And, listening back it’s interesting to hear how those surprises worked or sometimes they don’t work and you gotta go back and do it again. But, generally, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a couple of good ones in.


SRO Ferg - Time Machine is my favorite, I mean absolutely, off the album, but you’ve got Elevate and I’m No Angel and Desire and all of these are very, very addictive songs. So, did you guys have the freedom to say, “Man, let’s write a song and let the music take it where it goes”?


Billy Sheehan >>  Absolutely, that was pretty much the formula, if there was a formula, would be to let nature take its course, like I said earlier. And, I write a lot, I’ve written a lot of songs. When I want to do a solo record, sometimes I write forty, fifty, sixty pieces of music, break that down to another thirty, end up recording about twenty, end up mixing about fifteen, you know, so it’s, uh, you write a lot, a lot of writing going on to do a song, or to do an album. And, when you’re putting it down, there’s a million different approaches, sometimes as you’re writing, you have no idea what to do. Let’s write a song, I’ve got no ideas; well, let’s just start bangin’ some chords out and see what happens. It’s like something you’ve got to force yourself to do. From a creative point of view, it’s like when a writer sits down and sees a white sheet of paper with nothin’ on it and has to think something up, you know, out of nowhere. Geez, what do you do? So, we find ourselves in that position sometimes and we don’t have any ideas, so let’s play. That’s why it’s great when you’re in a band, writing as a band. I’ll come in and say, “I got nothin’” and Mike starts playing a beat. “Oh, cool! What’s that? What’s that?”  You know. I’ll come up with a line that works with the beat, next thing you know, Richie says, “Oh yeah”, sings something over it and bang, we got a song. So, writing as a band is always really productive and always interesting and always challenging. So, all the songs we wrote for the record, we wrote very, very much as a band.

  SRO Ferg - Well, you guys are touring and selling out shows across the nation and I’m lucky enough I get to come see you when you guys swing around here locally. Of the new stuff, what song gets the crowd going, what gets the best crowd reaction?


Billy Sheehan >>   We open the show with Elevate and the place goes really crazy. We’re very, very thankful that people have taken to that song. Later on, you just hear a surge when they recognize what song it is because people have listened to the whole record. But, I’m No Angel really, really takes things off with the crowd. They, uh, everybody sings along with that. It’s probably one of my first favorite songs that we had put together. Even when it was in those beginning stages, I just loved the way that song went. And, one part of the show, with the song Regret, and that’s another crowd favorite because it’s just so soulful. But, We Are One, Desire, is another one that gets the crowd crazy. They, everybody, jumps and sings along with that. It’s really great. It’s hard to pick one, but I’m No Angel is a big one, the opener, Elevate is a big one as well, so we’re so thankful that people are responding at all, and that they are responding so positively. We couldn’t be more pleased.


SRO Ferg - You guys have always been known as really strong, really good live musicians. You put on great shows individually in the projects you’ve been in. How is it coming in having a previous relationship with both Richie and Mike (sic), to come in and to put together the live show and put together the new band? I mean, looking across to each other and getting those knowing glances, knowing you’re gonna be there and knowing where they’re gonna be. How much easier does that make it?


Billy Sheehan >>   Yeah, we have kind of an ESP thing going on. Bass and drums, of course, the relationship is supremely important, and I don’t know how it works or why it works, but I can look over at Mike and he looks at me and for some reason we do the same thing. It’s hilarious because we didn’t plan it, we don’t know how it happened, but suddenly he’ll do one lick that he’s never done before and I’ll do something exactly like it and it’s just kind of happens. It’s kind of spooky in a way that we managed to do that Vulcan mind meld together somehow. It works well with Richie as well. We, Richie and I, we have a really good chemistry together and we play together a lot, so we communicate really well on stage. That’s why a three piece band is really cool for that because it’s just easier to connect up to two other people than it is to three other people. And, a three piece band has always been one of my favorite formats. So, we keep an eye on each other really closely on stage. With a three piece band, when you turn to look at the band, you can see the two other guys real easy. When it’s four or five or six people, somebody is out of your line of vision at some point or another. Which they have their advantages as well, but more guys like that in a band. Three piece is really cool. It’s really urgent and fast and real good communications between everyone, so it’s exciting to play live like that because we do get that improvisational feedback. I know right away where Richie’s gonna go. A couple of times when we’ve been playing, the band just suddenly breaks down and goes into a quiet jam out of nowhere. We didn’t plan it, we didn’t talk about it backstage or anything, it just happened. And then, people comment on it later, “Wow, you broke down on that part, we never heard that before.” We didn’t either, we didn’t know it was gonna happen. It’s just, I love that things happen automatically like that because I’m not a planning guy, I was never a school guy. I quit high school my senior year. I like to let things happen on their own, to let nature take its course, to use that cliché again and with this band, it certainly does.


SRO Ferg - Talkin’ about three-piece-band, you recorded how many albums with Niacin?

Billy Sheehan >> Oh, a bunch.


SRO Ferg -. Yeah, yeah, and I was watchin’ your Live in Tokyo concert the other day, it was on youtube and was just blown away by the musicianship of everyone, you, Dennis Chambrige and John Novello. The music from that seems to flow easy as well. Is it because of that three man format that you were just talkin’ about? That it just makes it easier in that progressive kind of fusion style music?


Billy Sheehan >>-   Yeah it does. Trio is quite an often used format. Trios are, uh, it’s a great way to go. You’ll see also a trio with a lead singer and in a way it’s like that to some degree, where that, like Zeppelin or The Who or some bands like that. They were, in my mind anyway, they were essentially a trio with a singer. That idea works as well. But yeah you're right, that trio format, it’s just easy to keep your eye on everyone and see what the heck’s going on. It’s pretty cool.

  SRO Ferg - Now go back to your Talas days. When I was doing my research for this, I watched a live gig in 1981 in Stage One Club in Williamsville, New York, and you guys were doing the song Tell Me True and, honestly, it’s a great song. But, do you still get the same enjoyment or the same rush as you did playing at the Stage One Club or at Kleinhans (Music Hall) in Buffalo?


Billy Sheehan >> Uhhh,  I have more. I play now and practice and work on bass more than I ever did. I spend more time sitting down with my bass than I ever did. And, I always did a lot. People would always laugh when they’d come to my house in Buffalo and they’d knock at the door and I’d answer the door with my bass on, you know, because I’d always be playing. But, I even do it more now and as the years go by I’m just re-inspired and I’ve re-upped my enthusiasm for it. And, it’s so great. Playing is just the greatest, coolest thing there is. I have my iPhone next to me when I’m practicing or warming up or playing in my little home studio and I’ll come up with an idea and I’ll pop it up and hit the selfie video and take a video of myself and explain to the iPhone what it is I’m playing and how to play it so I won’t forget it. I must have 300 video clips of me explaining some new lick or some idea or some new way to approach bass into my iPhone video. So, uh, when it comes to live gigs, that’s when you put all that into practice. That’s where all that comes, that’s where all that lives, lives or dies, many new ideas. If it works live, it works. So, I am more enthused than ever to play. We leave tomorrow morning. Richie and I fly to the east coast to meet Mike and start these shows and, man, we’re excited about going, about getting up there. You know, putting the gear together, all that, you know it’s exciting. It’s getting ready for the show and all that is really, really, uh, the enthusiasm level is as high or higher than it ever was. I don’t know really what the cause of that is, but whatever it is, I’m awful thankful for it. I know I lot of people that get to where I am and go, “Eh, I’m tired of that now.” Where, I am just, I’m not. I’ve played over, well over 40 years and I’m just as excited as I was when I was 16.


SRO Ferg - I do appreciate your time, and thank you so much for talking with me today, I will see you at the Ft. Smith, Arkansas show (May 20, 2014) and I'll let you know I'm there and hopefully be get a picture and a handshake, and that would be awesome.


Billy Sheehan >>  My pleasure bro, you take care and thank you for your time as well.


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