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Rock Stars

Bassist Billy Sheehan, perhaps famed for forming the mega band Mr Big and playing on Dave Lee Rothís first two post VH albums, is currently promoting his latest Niacin album as well as touring with Steve Vai.

Billy started playing with Talas, from Buffalo, New York, which included many covers in the early days, before joining DLR and forming Mr Big.

Several solo and Niacin albums later and a number guest appearances along the way, Mr Sheehan kindly spared my half an hour and proved an extremely friendly and thoroughly decent chap.

Whatís the vibe with the new Niacin album?

Well, itís our 5th, and weíve evolved with each record. The first album was a bit mild, and Niacin are getting wilder. Most people start wild and get milder (laughs).

The opening track is overwhelming, a chance to go nuts. I like that, not a mess, but an articulate mess.

How did Niacin come together as a project?

I love to play, thereís no grand vision, itís like letís go, interplay, see how we go. Thereís no formula. Thereís a Van Halen remake, a blues track, it covers a lot of ground.

Billy Sheehan

Photo: ©

Howís the tour with Steve Vai going?

Fantastic, a real challenge. Itís ripping my fingers up (shows shredding and blisters on hands). Steve never takes the easy way out, makes us all work, makes us all add power.

Going back a bit, any fond memories of Talas? What covers did you play?

Lots, weíve done a couple of reunions. Like in 1997, lots of fun. Back in Buffalo, I grew up in that band. Learnt by trial and error live.

As for covers Ė you name it. We once had a contract for a gig that said 3 hours of Beatles songs. But weíve done King Crimson, as a three piece band.

Whenever we get together we jam and it all comes back. Give us 20 minutes and weíd have a full set for you.

Were you ever a Van Halen fan? How did it feel to get the call from Dave (Lee Roth, former VH frontman)?

Oh completely, my favourite band. It was a dream. If I couldnít join Van Halen joining Dave Lee Roth was as good as. Dave called me just as Talas were about to go on tour, invited me up. Told me his plan and off we went.

EatíEm & Smile is a real classic, how do you feel about it?

I consider it a classic too, and Iím proud to consider it that way. It was great for all of us. And all the PR stories, we actually did. Most bands make them up, or copy ours, but we actually did them.

Is it true that Dave asked you to tone down your playing for his second album, Skyscraper?

Pretty much yes. Not in those words. He wanted a controlled, dense album. It was his vision, and credit to him for taking the chance, but it didnít work. I left on the completion of the album, we didnít write or play as a band, it didnít have the same vibe. Sounded a bit trite. Compare it to Yankee Rose, which was explosive.

How did Mr Big come together?

I was friends with (producer) Ted Templeman from the Dave Lee Roth days, and he recommended the band. He didnít sign us, Herbie Herbert signed us, he was a real key to our success. Got us a great deal and some great tours.

Mr Big believed the Spinal Tap clichť. We went to Japan and signed every autograph, did interviews, incredible work ethic over there, we worked hard. On non show days we worked to 11pm every night. When Pearl Jam were at their height, we outsold them 40 to 1 in Japan.

Youíve played with many greats, including Cozy Powell, Glenn Tipton and Glenn Hughes. Any memories?

Cozy was a wonderful sweet guy. Great shame, great player too.

Glenn Tipton; Iím a great Judas Priest fan, another wonderful guy. Iím quite excited about the new Priest stuff with Rob back in the band.

Glenn Hughes, what a guy! Great voice. Good bassist too. Done a song with Niacin. Medusa (Trapeze) Ė great record.

What are the highlights of your career?

Appearing on the Tonight show, in the USA. It started in the 60s, and Kings, Queens and presidents have been on. Mr Big were on and I sat in the No.1 chair.

And ďTo Be With YouĒ being a hit. Incredible time.

Who would you most like to work with?

A flamenco guitarist called Pilode Lucio. And Rammstein, as an anonymous bassist on tour, wearing a mask. That would be a riot.

Future plans?

I get off tour in mid December. Next year a solo tour, some Niacin shows, so busy ,a wild time. But my cat, Spooky, misses me.

Any message to your fans?

I do my best for them. Iíll get out and play. I always check my email from my website and I try to reply, even if only a few lines.

Iíve answered 25,000 emails in 4 years.

Youíve been on the cover of Burrrrn (Japanese rock mag) a lot of times.

It helps keep music alive, the Japanese are not just fair weather fans.

How does it feel to be voted top bassist so often?

Itís a great honour, and very important. I try to reach people, and if they vote Iím thankful, I can say Iíve done that. Iím humbled.

It makes me work harder, no slacking, people expect it.

Who are your bassist heroes?

Jaco, Tim BogartÖ. (pauses to think) Ė maybe I should make a list for my website.

What can we expect in the Steve Vai show?

Precise, hard hitting music interspersed with fun and comedy. Pieces from Steveís solo career.

Thereís been a great response, itís selling out.

Interview © 2005 Joe Geesin

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