25 Years Ago: Mr. Big plays a small Vancouver club, so I get to interview bass god Billy Sheehan

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By Steve Newton

Twenty-five years ago tomorrow–on September 11, 1989–Mr. Big played Club Soda in Vancouver.

“Who the hell is Mr. Big?”, you might be thinking.

Well, at the time it was an American rock quartet that was being billed as the next supergroup. And it lived up to the hype. Two years after Mr. Big played here it had the #1 song in 15 countries with the pretty ballad “To Be With You”.

Maybe you remember Mr. Big now?

Anyway, I was psyched back then to interview Mr. Big’s bassist, Billy Sheehan, cause that dude could play. For all you nostalgia hounds out there, here’s the story that ran in the Georgia Straight‘s Sept. 8-15 issue.

Seeing a destined-to-be-huge band in a small venue can make for one of the most memorable nights in any rock fan’s existence. Kiss at the Commodore, Jeff Healey at the Yale, Living Colour at the Town Pump, Metallica at the New York Theatre–those are just a few gigs that stick out in this scribbler’s mind. The upcoming show by Mr. Big at Club Soda (September 11) is destined to be right up there as well. Forget Great White’s recent over-hyped appearance at the Homer Street club. Mr. Big is sure to blow that show away.And what’s so special about Mr. Big? Well, Billy Sheehan for one thing. He’s the guy who was voted the number-one rock bass player in the U.S. by the readers of Guitar Player–for three years running. Then there’s 22-year-old guitar whiz Paul Gilbert, whose furious playing made L.A. rock act Racer X a favourite among metal fans in the know. Add a relatively unknown singer named Eric Martin, whose powerful bluesy pipes sound like a nifty cross between Paul Rodgers and Gladys Knight. And then have everything banged together by session drummer Pat Torpey, who recently handled the kit on Robert Plant’s North American tour.

We’re talking a virtual supergroup here–although that’s not a word that goes over too well with Sheehan. He pooh-poohed the megaband idea when the Georgia Straight reached him in L.A. last week.

“We dismissed the supergroup moniker as soon as we heard it,” he says, “because none of us are real superstars by any means. People may know of us, but none of us are in People magazine.”

Maybe not, Billy. But what do you call the cover of Guitar Player and Guitar World? Chopped liver?

“Well, that’s cool,” Sheehan admits. “In the musician circles I guess people know of us. But we’re just players that want to play, and want to do it in a band. The supergroup thing…there’s a lot of excess baggage that comes with that name. Usually supergroups do one album and break up–because they have super egos. We realize that this ain’t no big thing–it’s just a rock and roll band. We’re willing to start from scratch and fight it out. We’re strugglin’, and glad to be.”

Although Sheehan and his mates may be struggling a bit right now to get the recognition a new band needs in today’s big-money music biz, it wasn’t long ago that Sheehan was enjoying the lucrative and prestigious job of handling bass in David Lee Roth’s band. He recorded alongside guitar great Steve Vai on both the Eat ‘Em and Smile and Skyscraper albums, and he played to arena-sized crowds around the world before things went sour between Roth and him. (Diamond Dave is known for being a hard guy to handle. Just ask Van Halen.)

“It was kind of a mutual thing,” explains Sheehan. “They didn’t want me and I didn’t want them, so we decided to part ways. But I was very honoured to have been in the band; it was a great, great boost for me. And I learned a lot. I mean, in his time Dave was the lord and leader of front-men–there isn’t a front-man out there that doesn’t have some David Lee Roth in him, you know. But I don’t have any contact at all with him now and probably never will again. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.”

When it came time for Sheehan to think about getting his own band together, he looked for guidance to Mike Varney, a talent scout and regular contributor to Guitar Player.

“Mike finds all these new young guitarists and helps them get in bands, and as a result he finds bass players, drummers, and singers, too–inadvertently. So I called him, lookin’ for a singer, and he played me Eric Martin over the phone. And I just said, ‘Who is that? That’s exactly what I’m lookin’ for!’

“So Eric and I got together and started looking for a really amazing guitarist who could help us out in today’s extremely competitive guitar market. And me and Steve Vai, when we were in David Lee Roth, would go out and see Racer X. We’d just go watch Paul play and leave with our heads hung in shame. So he was the first one that came to mind.”

At the urging of Van Halen producer Ted Templeman, Gilbert came into the fold, and it wasn’t long before drummer Torpey was called in to round out the quartet.

“He’s just a great rock drummer,” brags Sheehan. “He can keep up with anything but doesn’t want to solo all night long. He’s a real great time-keeper, plus he sings too, which is real handy.”

Sheehan counts among his bass heroes people like Jack Bruce, John Entwhistle, Tim Bogert, and Geddy Lee. And he’s extremely happy that people put him in the same league as those guys. He doesn’t take his “best bassist” awards lightly.

“It’s really an incredible honour,” he says, “and it means so much to me because those are my peers. A lot of fanzines have voting things that are kinda weighted–where the best hairstyles win–but the guitar magazines really judge you by what you’re doing. Those awards sit on my shelf, and that’s what I’m most proud of.”

Sheehan’s competence on the bass guitar wasn’t something that came easy, though. He’s not a strong believer in the idea that musicians are born to be great players.

“I don’t know if there is such a thing as a natural talent,” he says. “I worked for everything I got. I picked it up, and I kind of have an ear for music, but it was a struggle to get everything down. Even now I’m practicing really, really hard, every day and every night before the show just to get my hands in shape to play the live gig. It’s a lot of physically painful hard work. But what makes it worthwhile is that it is a riot to do. Once you get out there and play the pay-off is incredible.”

At 36, Sheehan is not quite ready for the Rolling Stones’ Old Folks Home–but he’s no spring chicken either. He was tackling the rudiments of the bass when guitarist Gilbert was still learning to crawl. And it shows in his playing.

“A lot of people are hiding their ages these days,” he says, “but I admit to being an old club dog from the early, early days. I’ve been through every era of rock, from the Beatles and the Stones and Hendrix and Zeppelin and Bowie and the Skynyrd era, you know, the ’70s. I’ve actually been playing now for, oh, about 22 years. It’s been a long time.”

Because he’s spent so long paying dues, one might think that Sheehan would be a mite annoyed about having to play a small venue like Club Soda after all he’s been through. but he doesn’t mind at all.

“Oh it’ll be fun!,” he says. “We’ve done a lot of real small clubs on this tour. As a matter of fact, because it was on our way, we did this one club in Phoenix, called the Mason Jar. And everybody was going, ‘Oh you’re gonna hate it, it’s little and tiny and it’s got a small stage.’ Everybody was pissin’ and moanin’, pissin’ and moanin’, and we finally said, ‘Hey, let’s just play the gig!’ And when we got on stage everything sounded great–it was the best-sounding stage we’ve been on yet. And people went bananas.”

 

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