Billy Sheehan is one of the great bass players in the history of music. His history began over 40 years ago in Buffalo, NY with the band Talas. That band broke up before achieving true success, but they have reformed for the new record 1985 to be released on September 23. Billy recently took some time to talk about this record and his amazing career.
Please press the PLAY icon below for the MsiplacedStraws Conversation with Billy Sheehan –
On the Talas lineup for this record – That’s the last version of Tales before I left to go to LA and play with David Lee Roth. That was Version 8 or 9, I believe. We started out with a guy named Mike Piccolo on drums back in the early 70s, 71-72. Then he got replaced briefly with a guy in Brian Rothman, who was our crew guy when Mike left, then Rocco Oliverio came in from down near the Salamanca area. Then his brother Danny came and we had double drums. Now, we went back to a lineup that we had in a band called The Tweeds, which I was in briefly before Talas, drummer Paul Varga. I left the band years later, and they went on without me with two guys from Rochester for the band called Wale, a great band. Dale Croston and Mike Marconi, bass and guitar respectively. Then they invited me back to the band again, and then those two guys quit, and I had to find a drummer, a guitar player, and a singer very quickly because the crew were out of a gig, and the truck payments, and all the necessities that need to be covered. So I got Phil Naro and Mark Miller, and a guitarist named Mitch Perry out from LA, and we went for a while, change guitarist, about a year or so later. Johnny Angel came in, and then I got to call to leave and go to LA. So that last lineup was really great, we all had a really great time, we’re all of the same mind. We toured with Yngwie (Malmsteen), and on that tour, we get signed by the William Morris Agency, we also got a record deal on that tour. Just prior to it starting, I was in LA, because the tour started in LA, and I did the meeting with Dave and I couldn’t tell anybody, but I was going to leave and move to LA and started a band with him. So that was when I left, it was 1985, I was writing the peak of everything and was a million bands and a million people, and Sunset Boulevard was six deep every night of people just walking around and every place we went, the whole scene was just exploding with bands and players and music, and so it was quite a great time, hence the name 1985. :56
On the origin of the songs on 1985 – We were performing them live every single night, and that’s a great thing for a song. A lot of bands, and it happened to me many times, you put out a record and then you go on tour, and at the end of the tour, you think, “Could we go back and re-record the record again?” Because from playing it live so much it grows and things work to get together and it just gets more depth to it, and you think of more things that you didn’t think of when you first laid it down. So these things were played live every single night, we hadn’t necessarily planned a record so much as these would have been the songs that would have been on any record that we would have done if we would have done another record and we were in a position to try to find some way. We did get signed by Gold Mountain Records, Danny Goldberg, I believe I was the gentleman who signed us. He went on later to manage Nirvana, he’s quite a significant person in the music business. So it would have happened eventually, but it didn’t at that time. So we had two choices, we could modernize all these things from back when dinosaurs roamed, back in 1985, and modernize them and slick them up and make them modern, or we could go get into the time machine and just go right back to where we were at. We chose that, to go back and treat it just like we did back in the day, and I’m glad we did that because it was really a wonderful time and it brings all of us back, all of our memories back to that time, just sweating it out, hitting it hard every night, driving in a van, getting to cities all the place that’s showing up, the crew set up the gear, try to find something to eat, get on stage for two hours of hot sweaty and then repeat over and over and over again. So it was pretty nostalgic for all of us. 4:06
On if Talas planned to continue prior to losing Phil Naro – Yes, we started to do shows, I don’t know when that first show was, but several years ago, tthree, four, maybe five years ago, we started. Did the first show with this lineup, we had done a reunion with the other line up back in Buffalo, and then I kind of just stopped hearing from those guys. We’d get offers to do shows and they wouldn’t want to play. This line up we’d always say, “Hey, we could do some shows with this lineup”, I’m like, “Oh yeah, let’s do it”. So we did a free outdoor benefit for a fire department in Rochester at Barnard, the fire department of Barnard, outside of Rochester. It was great, it was a jam-packed and great to see so many friends that I hadn’t seen in a long, long time, and we had a wonderful time. We stopped in at House of Guitars is a famous place in Rochester, it’s part of the ritual, and we had a blast, “Let’s play some more”. So we did a show in New York City, Albany, and Buffalo, around various places, and had a blast. We just said, “Hey, as long as we’re doing these, let’s record what we’re doing”, and that’s kind of how it was born. 6:44
On the Hugh Syme cover art – I had a conversation with him and he mentioned a few ideas, but an artist as great as Hugh is, just give the ball and let him run with it, and he came up with just (a) brilliant (cover). We are supremely grateful to him, not only for his incredible job on this, but he was a very close friend with Phil as well, so he did this in a lot of ways in his honor, which was very, very nice, and he did just a great job and everybody loves the cover. I get comments on it all the time now. So we’re indebted to him for an amazing artistic statement there, and it really does capture the whole thing, the DeLorean was “Back to the Future”, which was 1985 also, and there’s a little time machine we got in to go back to our days in 1985. So it works out perfectly. 8:25
On playing with David Lee Roth after struggling with Talas – Well, it was, in a lot of ways, a huge relief because there is a lot of pressure on us. Financial pressure and career pressure, because you never know, even if you do get a record deal and make a record, it doesn’t guarantee anything. A lot of great bands put out great records that never went anywhere, and as your life is continuing on, you wanna have some form of success. We were creeping away at it, we were inching away, but suddenly the situation with Dave was just incredible. He was the number one rock star in the world at the time, and we would go out and hang out in LA and go to bars and clubs, and everything was just amazing, and he was very kind of very generous to all of us. Myself, Steve (Vai), and Gregg (Bissonette), Brett Tuggle later, as well. So it was a really great, great, great relief for me personally because now I didn’t have to worry if I was gonna starve to death or live on the streets. So that was a wonderful relief to me. Back in the struggling days, we loved it, and I think it was good to struggle that hard and struggle with no known chance of anything ever coming because that’s where you’re at when you’re in a band and you’re trying to make it, but there’s no guarantee of anything. You’re out there to fight for it, you might get a little bit, you might get none at all, or it could happen. Who knows? And I learned so much about the music biz, how it all works, and making records and producing, and live performance that it has helped me in so many ways. I did learn a lot from the struggle as well, and I think those things combined really helped me get to a spot in my life where I was beginning to get a little satisfied, which was nice. 9:50
On the David Lee Roth Band and the proposed reunion – It was a jam night at Lucky Strike. We were gonna play me, Steve, Gregg, and get somebody to sing. Initially was Ralph (Saenz) from Steel Panther, and I just go up and do a couple of songs. It’s just a jam, no planning, no rehearsal, no sound check, you just jump out stage and go. That’s a cool thing I like about that jam, there are some people out there twiddling around for hours before they start to play, “Okay, next” bang, they’re off the stage, “Next”, bang. Separates the men from the boys in that case. So I forgot who suggested it, but they said, “Why don’t we give Dave call and see if he’s around and maybe I’ll wanna come up too?”. And somebody did. And he said, “Yes”. Wow. So I had to call Ralph, “I’m really sorry, but if you could keep it a secret, Dave wants to do it”. He goes, “Oh, that’s amazing”. He was very kind about understanding about that. So eventually no one was supposed to know, and somehow it leaked out and a lot of people showed up and the club blew it because they just started letting everybody in, it was free admission too. So there was no rehearsal, no sound check, no nothing. We’re just gonna meet there for the first time in I don’t know how many years get up and play, I think “Shy Boy”, maybe “Yankee Rose” and that was that. The club let so many people in that my friends that were there said even if you had a drink, you couldn’t drink it because you couldn’t get your arms up, and it was dangerous, quite frankly. So I was on the stage, the next to the stage is the hallway to walk into the club, the club was jam-packed, there was a curtain out. I’m on the stage just a quick plug in, and I saw the flash lights of the fire marshal coming in, and they just said, “No way”. The place holds maybe 600, they’ll allow 700, they’ll allow that maybe, but there was about 12 or 1500 people, and it was way, way out (of hand) and it was dangerous, quite frankly, They just shut it down and so we couldn’t play. Butt there was no planning, no meetings, no nothing. We just showed up, we’re gonna play. So the good thing about that night though, was we all went in the backstage area, me, Steve Gregg, Dave, Brett Tuggle, our keyboard player who sadly we lost recently as well, and we had a blast just talking about the old days. I posted a photo of all of us together, because we had a great time in that band that was amazing. So that to us, was almost worth it, just the hang and the hang was a big part of that band, hanging out. We would go, when we rehearse all the Eat ’em and Smile stuff down in Dave’s basement, we would hang out, we had Us Festival beer in Dave’s garage, which had long gone skunk, and the crew guys come out and we drink skunk beer and tell stories. Dave would tell us about his adventures, Gregg would talk about his time with the bands he was in, Steve’s adventures with Zappa, my Talas days, and we had a blast. The hang was a very, very essential link to that, and we made it a point to hang out as friends and buddies and band mates. I think that’s what led to the character of that record, it shows, very much so. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. We talked about doing it a couple other times here and there, but it just never came together. I don’t know why. I know Steve, Gregg, and myself, would be happy to do it any time, but we haven’t heard from Dave about it. It would be nice to do. 12:30
On first hearing “To Be With You” from Mr. Big – I didn’t know it was gonna be something, but we loved it. Usually, if you like a song right away, why wouldn’t other people like it? If a song has an appeal to you by your own judgment, I would imagine it might appeal to others. We didn’t think it through at that point, we just thought, “Man, we love the song”. Eric (Martin) was really kind of reluctant about doing it, we had to kind of had to talk them into it, and we did, and we had it as the last song on the record. If we knew it was gonna be a hit, we would have put it up as the first song on the record, that would have certainly sped things up a lot. We went out and toured and toured and toured, and released three other singles. Nothing happened. It was a very crowded field at that time, there was a bunch of bands coming out, mostly of the same kind of format, one guy from a famous band and three or four others. I left Dave and had wonderful success with that, so starting this band, I knew Paul (Gilbert), I knew Pat (Torpey), and I just recently met Eric. But yeah, we love the song right away. The first song we wrote in Mr. Big was “Anything For You”, which is a ballad. So right away, I think it was quite obvious that we just wanted to play songs, we wanted to play music. We can all play and do our thing, there’s a time and a place for everything, but really, that’s where all of us we’re at. We wanted to play some music, we’re all fans of great bands with great songs, the first jams we did were all the Beatles and Robin Trower, and Hendrix, and I think The Outfield, what was that song, “I don’t wanna lose your love tonight”, all kinds of things. We just wanted to play songs that we love to sing, sing, sing. I tell young players now if they ask me for advice on got three things: Get in a band, Get in a band with songs, Get in a band with songs that you sing, and that’s the form we have looked across the whole spectrum of rock, that’s the biggest source of success for so many bands. So that’s where we were at, and it was a great time again too, we did a lot of good hanging with that as well. Pat Torpey, God rest his soul, what a wonderful guy. Paul Gilbert, a great guy, a brilliant player, lots of ideas. A really great time with them, and we had as a manager, Mr. Herbie Herbert, who was instrumental in making the band a success, quite an awesome story. 16:54
On The Winery Dogs – New record is done, I even saw the cover art for it. It’s moving along, it takes a while to get mixed and mastered, all the cover art is coming in. We don’t have a release date yet, but it’s coming. I had dinner with Richie (Kotzen) last night, he’s here in Nashville today, I’m gonna go out and see him play tonight, and just a wonderful talent and wonderful guy. We hung a lot together as well, me, Richie and Pat Torpey jammed together a lot. Pat and I played on a couple of songs of his over the years, and I played with him on some of the solo stuff, we went to Japan one time and opened for The Stones for five shows, me and Richie and another drummer. That was quite an adventure a few years ago, and he played briefly Mr. Big as well, when Paul left the band, we brought him in, did an amazing job too, it was really great. Mike Portnoy, again, there’s the guy was just an incredible history, a track record, and I really enjoy playing with him very, very much, bass and drums that’s where it’s at. Playing with Mike is a riot. So we’re looking forward, they’re booking all the shows for next year now, usually, they do that around a year in advance, if not more. So that’s been an ongoing thing for our manager putting all that together, so we’ll be out planned like crazy next year, which I’m very, very pleased about, and with a new record, and we’re all very excited about it. 20:12Watch Billy Strings live from The Renewal Festival, September 23-24 on nugs.net. Livestream purchases include 48 hours of on-demand viewing after pressing play. Don’t miss it.
On the future of Sons of Apollo – I just don’t know. I hope so, and I love planning the band, it’s a riot, and again, Jeff Scott Soto does amazing job as a front man, Bumblefoot is mind-blowing on guitar, Derek (Sherinian) is a keyboard wizard, really great. He’s a funny guy, and of course with Mike as well. So yeah, I love that bad, I love playing in that band, I love the music very much, I just don’t know when we’re gonna be able to do anything together again, hopefully ASAP. 22:34