INTERVIEW - Billy Sheehan of The Winery Dogs

Billy Sheehan is one of the greatest bassists of all time. When you combine his talent with one of the best rock drummers of all time as well as an underrated singer/guitarist you've got the best new band out there today, The Winery Dogs. I got to chat with Billy when The Dogs made a stop at Rascal Live in Moline, IL. We talked about how The Winery Dogs came into existence, their incredible year, the state of rock music in America and what it takes to be a member of the Black Label Society.

You can listen to the unedited recording right here:


Billy Sheehan (BS): Are you a member of the Black Label Society or do you just have the shirt?

Bob Zerull (Z!): If being a fan makes me a member then I guess I’m a member.

BS: How do you become a member of the Black Label Society, is there an initiation process, does some farm animal need to be slaughtered?

Z!: That’s a good question, I’ll have to ask Zakk (Wylde) next time I see him.

BS: I jammed with him one time, we went for about half an hour it was great, he was awesome.

Z!: Thank you for making the trip to Moline, most bands skip this town…

BS: Actually most bands don’t choose where they play. One of the most frustrating things about the internet, ‘why aren’t you playing in Boise?’ because nobody in Boise booked us. Keith, the guy that owns this club, I ran into in St. Charles and had a drink with him after the show. By chance we had a couple days off, our management pushed the promoter to get it booked and we got a gig here. It really is never the bands fault that they don’t play, it’s almost always that the promoters don’t put them somewhere. I just got an email from a kid today asking why we don’t come to Brazil. We can’t, we need a visa, we need a work permit, we need tax documents. You need to have a guy there already to fly you in. It’s a long answer to a very simple question but I’m glad to be here.

Z!: It’s going to be very cool to see a living legend in such an intimate room like this. You’ve played the biggest stages across the world is it fun to kind of start over and play these little sweat boxes again and get to meet the fans up close.

BS: I would expect everyone to lie about that and say yeah when they really mean no, but actually it is. I enjoy it. This is how I started playing, clubs like this and smaller. Having people right in front of you…There’s this club in LA called the Baked Potato, it’s a jazz club but rock bands play there too. But literally as i’m on stage my drink is on a customers table. I have to ask them if I can put my beer on their table. They’re literally as close as you are to me now. There’s a high tension playing a gig like that, because every little thing you do is under a microscope. I remember Richie and I opened for the Stones in Japan a few years back and I could not see a single human face. People were so far away their faces weren’t recognizable. The front row was literally more than 50 yards away. You could hear the roar in the distance, but things like this are a lot of fun.



Z!: You came to the Chicago area like three times in the last year, I was at one of those shows and the stage was about three times the stage as the one you’re playing tonight. This stage is about the size of some of Portnoy’s drum kits. Is it tough to put on show when the stage is really small?

BS: There are certain considerations you need to watch or you’ll mash into something. Sometimes there’s a low beam or something, they always have orange tape on them so we don’t smash into them, we do anyway. There are things you have to consider, stages are easy to fall off of, it’s easy to get hurt. The stairs are usually precarious at best. I fell off…I didn’t fall off but I came off a small stage in England once, I slipped and caught myself with my bass and the neck snapped right off the bass. Fortunately I had a spare with me. But having people right up close and hanging out…we’re not an elite band. We’re just like everybody, we’re like the people that come see us play. We really feel connected to people. We don’t put a wall between us and the fans, I’ve always been that way, but this band especially.

Z!: I know you and Mike were playing with Derek Sherinian and Tony MacAlpine, were you trying to start another band out of that or did this just happen naturally?

BS: That was just kind of a jam thing, we had done a trade show and Mike needed a band so we called Derek. Tony and I were around. We thought let’s put some songs together for the trade show. It was so easy and so fun so we decided to continue on for a little tour and it was fun, it was a project not a band. I worked with Mike on a bunch of things. I remember even before the PSMS (that’s the name of that project) Mike had said to me there was a couple of things on the horizon that might be coming up. That was what we have now as The Winery Dogs. Apparently when he left his band he had a lot of projects, but he wanted to find one that was the main one. He contacted me, we talked about it, did some reconfiguration finally got in touch with Richie. The moment we sat down together it kind of all fell together organically, real natural. There wasn’t any managers, lawyers or record company people trying to hook us up. Richie is my buddy, Mike’s my friend. We all know each other from various things, we naturally gravitated together and here we are in Moline.

Z!: What role did Eddie Trunk play?

BS: I forgot about Richie Kotzen and I don’t know why. He’s a buddy of mine, he lives close to me, I hang with him I go down and jam with him when he plays. We were looking for a guitar player that can sing his ass off and it must have been some weird mental block or too much coffee or something, but Eddie Trunk said what about Richie Kotzen? I did a head slap heard around the world. Mike called me and said, ‘you worked with him before right?’ I said, ‘yeah it’s breeze, he’s fun, got a great voice, amazing player.’ A lot of people forget he played with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White in like a jazz band. Those are some heavy hitter musicians and you have to know your shit to hang with them and he killed it. I prefer to remember him from that than any of other bands he may have played with (cough cough). Even though they were wonderful people it just was not my thing. We got together and it was automatic.

Z!: Was the plan to always be a trio?

BS: We like the trio idea. Initially we thought about what if we add a keyboard and I said wait I’ve got this thing I play with my feet which is basically a keyboard thingy. We can save a hotel room, a flight, some money. There will be more room on the bus for more shenanigans. Seriously though, the three piece for me has always been a really solid way to do a band. My original band back in Buffalo, Talas was a three piece. Everybody sings, everybody plays. It’s so much easier to watch two other guys than it is three. When you start to run the numbers you think would a three piece band be that much easier than a four piece band? Maybe by 25%? In fact it’s more like 75%. I don’t know how the math works out, but it’s way easier to deal with. There’s only three guys. It’s easier to communicate. When you’re hanging out with three people everybody’s cool and fun, but when the fourth person gets in there the conversation gets fragmented. Two guys are talking and the other two are talking. They’re not talking together any more. The three piece really is a great way for people to interact.

Z!: One of the cool things I noticed when I saw you live, if one of you are playing a solo, the other two guys are playing something incredible as well and you can’t help but focus on all three of you rather than just one of you.

BS: It’s like the Cirque du Soleill of rock n roll bands. For me as a fan I really want to be entertained. I hate to see dead wood, a guy just standing there and playing…it’s ok, sometimes that’s what you need to do. I don’t want to take away from anyone I just want to enhance them. I want to put a really great frame on the picture. Sometimes you’ll see these pictures that have these amazing elaborate frames. You’re almost drawn more to the picture because of the frame. When Richie is soloing I get back with Mike and we keep time, but we move around so his soloing becomes dynamic. It’s an enjoyable thing. The improvs surprise us every night and we have no idea what’s going to happen.

Z!: I’m bringing two guys who have no idea who you are, they’re more into I guess punk like music, real simple stuff. But I remember seeing you and thinking I don’t get how anybody can’t enjoy this or at the very least appreciate it.

BS: I like a lot of punk rock, a lot of simple rock. Fear, an LA based punk band was one of my favorite bands for a long time. The thing I like about it is we don’t think technical music. I can’t read music and I don’t know any theory, I’m just playing. I don’t think Mike and Richie read, maybe they do, I’m not sure. There’s never any technical thing around. We figure it out, play it and then we’ve got to learn it and memorize it and that’s it. There’s no slide rules. It’s a real basic organic thing from the heart, more from the heart than from the mind. I think that’s where punk rock really blossomed because so many people were not only of the mind but of the wallet where punk rock was really from the heart.

Z!: That’s what I think they’ll like about, there’s something to the live performance that makes it easier to understand better than just listening to a record.

BS: I grew up playing live. I think before I even I played live for maybe a decade, hundreds and hundreds of shows before I ever recorded. I think when recording bands started you can only hit so many places at a time touring, so if you record something they’ll put it on the radio ahead of you or beyond your scope so more people can enjoy your music. The recording was actually of the band playing. What a novel idea. Now recording is it’s own separate monster so much so that band is dwarfed by the recording. When we recorded we kept it live and very very honest. That’s why reproducing it live is a breeze because we just do what we did in the studio. It’s actually a little bit more exciting because now we can improvise and move in and out.

Z!: You said that Mike was looking for his one main project. He’s been in several bands since leaving Dream Theater that seem like his one main project then he leaves or it ends up just being a part time band…is this definitely going to be an ongoing band?

BS: Yes, absolutely. we end at the end of August on this tour…maybe, it might be longer which would be great. We’re pushing them to make it go as long as they can. There are still a lot of places we want to play, but it’s a battle with promoters, they’re not sure they should book us at a place, it sells out. Now are you sure? Yeah but what about that next place we’re not sure about that one, then we go there and it sells out. They’re still not sure. We have to keep on convincing them, but we’ll do it, we don’t care. It’s a new band. We’ll probably start working on the new record ASAP. For us doing a record is relatively simple because we’re just playing. Our first record I think the whole thing probably took us three weeks.

Z!: Like from the beginning of the writing process? Wow, so you just write as a band jamming it out?

BS: Yeah (Billy plays some examples...listen to the recording above it's pretty cool). I start playing Richie comes in and starts playing and singing, bam we got another song. The way it came out on the record is almost exactly how the jam went down, but it’s not a magical secretive thing. We don’t have any inhuman ability its just that we’ve all played for so long on so many records that it becomes kind of natural. We know after sixteen measures something is going to change. It naturally comes out. It’s like giving a speech in front of people and you go up unprepared, you know what you want to say and you know in your heart what you’re trying to convey so you just start and you go. At the end of the speech you sum it up with your message. With us we know what we’re going for. When we first started to record we didn’t discuss music at all. We came into Richie’s house, there is a great little Mexican restaurant down the street so we had some Mexican food and talked about all kinds of things other than bands and music. Then we decided let’s go play. We went into the other room with a little drum kit and a little bass amp. We never discussed vision or genre or anything like that we just played. That’s what I love about the band, it’s naturally Mike’s thing, naturally Richie’s thing and naturally my thing. All of our things accommodate each other. I’ve made a lot of records, but you’re always rolling the dice. We think its good, you think it’s good but what will everybody else think? This is one of the best reviewed albums I’ve ever done ever. It’s been the most widely received album I’ve done in a while. Eat ‘Em and Smile (David Lee Roth) was pretty darn good, Mr. Big “Lean into it” with “To Be With You” was really good. This one has been similarly received and we’re very thankful for that.

Z!: Today what makes a success, is it that? Is it units sold, is it radio play?

BS: The units sold is going to be a fraction of what it would have been in 1989 or 1990, that’s fine because that’s the way of the business. I think we really felt successful our first show we did in Brazil. Our record had been out for two days, we did a song and the audience was singing louder than the band. They were singing Richie’s solos. It instantly caught on with them and if it can happen one place it can happen anywhere else. We played a show in Paris, France and I had friends from America who happened to be in France and wanted to come to the show, so I took care of them, got them tickets. I never saw them all night because it was so crowded and out of control. We had to hustle ourselves onto the bus just to survive, it was pandemonium in Paris. People were smiling and enjoying it. I thought this could translate into a lot of record sales or not, but let’s just take a snap shot of this moment. Here we are in Paris, the albums been out a month and a half and you couldn’t fit another person in there if you would have chopped them up in pieces, it was unbelievable. At this point I think we can judge that this band as a successful one and this album is doing well.

Z!: I was at a show near Chicago and I was standing next to a guy I didn’t know who was with a girl and she didn’t know who you were. She turned around and told her boyfriend or husband these guys are amazing why aren’t they playing the United Center and he’s like they’re brand new give them time.

BS: We’re a new band and we’ve got to play places that the three of us in our past wouldn’t have to necessarily play, but I don’t mind playing the little places. Back in the old days with Talas I played some place in Baltimore in the early 80’s and it was built out on a pier and there was literally four people there. We did the show anyway. I think I’ve run into all four of those people. I’ll be walking down Sunset Blvd and somebody will come up to me and say I was at a show you did in Baltimore on the water front. Yeah it was your table right. I ran into all four of them through the years and they always say it was one of the best shows they’ve ever seen in their lives, it was a personal show just for them. Things like this in five to ten years from now people be like remember Rascals, we had a riot. Memories are made from this.

Z!: When I talked to Mike when this first came out he kind of referred to the genre of this band as classic rock, probably for lack of a better word. Has that made it hard to get radio play, because the stations that would play music like this generally just play old songs that were hits.

BS: A lot of classic rock stations won’t play anything new. By accident people started referring to us as classic rock. There’s a reason why classic rock is classic. It’s put together really well, so I’ll take it as a compliment. There’s choruses you can sing and lyrics that make sense. There’s a reason why they still play that shit and people still love it. I’m grateful people lump us in, but who knows what radios gonna do. In five years it may be gone completely, it could have a resurgence and we don’t bother with the internet anymore, who knows. Anything could happen. We have done well on radio relatively speaking. I wouldn’t mind if every radio station played us, but that was then this is now. But with You Tube people are uploading links. I get the chance to approve whether they’re on my page or not and I always say sure.

Z!: Was that ever a frustrating things? I know a lot of bands won’t play songs off the new album before it comes out for fear it’ll wind up on You Tube.

BS: We weren’t frustrated by that because there was no way to stop it. I don’t want to be the hard hand. Go ahead and take a video, take photos, but if you’re taking a really great video send it to me at least. I’d like a link to it for my archives. I’ve always been in bands that could survive being put under a microscope because we really sang and we really played. There weren’t any tracks, it’s not fake. If somebody is going to record us with their iPhone it’s going to be real. As far as pirating records it’s a different story because a lot of people put a lot into it. I would like to have the opportunity to sell a record and be compensated for it, but in a lot of ways we really don’t make that much money at all anymore. The money is all live. It doesn’t bother me so much. I’m a big music fan and I was always a purchaser of bootlegs, not pirated but bootleg. Bootleg would be if somebody brought a recorder to a Hendrix show or alternate takes of Bowie. I had a lot of that, but I also buy a lot of music straight out. I spend a lot of money on recorded music. So I support it as best I can. If a fan really wants it and really loves it and posts it and other fans really want that and download that, then thank you, I’m glad you enjoy it.

Z!: You’ve had a lot of success over seas in this band and in Mr. Big and a lot of bands seem to have more success over there than they do here.

BS: US is soft right now, Europe is great, Europe is awesome. We do great in Europe. South America is incredible. South East Asia is just fantastic. Japan is really good. I get more email from Indonesia than anywhere else. The people are so happy that we are there. Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, they’re just so happy when you come there. The USA, because MTV has sold it’s soul to the devil…and not a very good devil either. You think they’d have gotten more for selling their soul. They just got a game show and reality show channel. I would ask for more from Satan if I was going to sell my soul. Rock and real music has not been supported as much as trendy, fashionable things. Rap and hip hop are a trendy thing. There is probably really cool rap and hip hop that we never hear because it can never break through the trendy commercial elite hierarchy of the platinum selling whatevers that won’t give up their spot for anyone. Fortunately there are people who love this music that will always break through and come out and see it. We’ve had people drive from hundreds of miles to see our shows, people have flown in from other countries to see our show. They’re always there, but the US is kind of soft right now. It’s really obvious when you go to Europe and you see a venues poster of the bands that are coming. You’re like wow those bands are still around, then right after them is a brand new band, then another kind of music, then another band just staying alive and being awesome to this day. It’s just so varied. There’s a great array of great music coming to the same venue. Here we have venues that play a certain kind of music then other venues that play another kind of music. It’s really balkanized. Everything is cut up into little pieces and I don’t like that. When I first started listening to music and playing music there were no barriers. I listened to Donovan or Bob Dylan and then Hendrix and even Hendrix listened to Dylan. Then some heavy stuff some Three Dog Night, some Frank Zappa and Chopin and some Myles Davis. It was all over the place and everybody was cool with it. Now they slice it up really tight and nobody survives when you do that. Nobody is into a lot of stuff, I am, but it’s hard for a fan to turn on a station or anything and find an eclectic mix of anything. In Europe, South East Asia or Japan kids will go to a Metallica show and then the next night they’d go see Mariah Carey and love them both. Here it’s tighter.

Z!: Even within the rock world people crap on Metallica because they did this, but I like Hatebreed (no offense to Hatebreed fans, Hatebreed is awesome) or whatever. They break it up and then turn on each other.

BS: I know it ruins it for everybody. I did the Metal Master jams with the guys from Slayer, Pantera, Anthrax, Exodus and we had a riot. We had a fun hang afterwards. Everybody is hanging. We enjoyed playing with each other. A lot of fans are like, hey wait a minute, his band played “To Be With You” you can’t hang near him, but I was up there playing “Chemical Warfare” and digging it, it was a riot. I love that. I wish people would relax on it a little bit more. Even types of music that I don’t like, when I see it being successful I have to give it credit. To be successful at anything is tough. To be successful at music is a tough hustle. I always give credit. I’ve hung a couple of times with Corey Taylor from Slipknot, great guy. Phil Anselmo from Pantera is so funny, we have a riot. 

Z!: That guy has no ego.

BS: He came up to me on stage while we were doing sound check and he walks over to me and goes, ‘hey Billy are you a little nervous?' I laughed my ass off. What a sweet guy he is. We try to knock that barrier down as much as possible. With Mr. Big we did a festival in France called Hellfest, a pretty heavy thing. A couple of the guys thought we shouldn’t play “To Be With You.” I was like fuck that, it’s a hit lets go out there and play it. We went out there to a sea of smiling faces and the whole place sang along, in France.

Z!: Do you think our attitude towards music will head over seas or do you think theirs will come back here?

BS: I think what’s going on over there will come here. There’s just too much great music to write off because you don’t like how someone dresses. That was a cool thing about the music in the 60’s. If it was good, it was good. We didn’t care where it came from. There’s too much great stuff that I enjoy. I don’t care how the band dresses or what their name is or how tattooed or non tattooed their audience is.

 BYLINE: Bob Zerull is the Managing Editor of Zoiks! Online. He writes pop culture commentary, does interviews with bands, and reviews music and stand-up concerts. He also administers Zoiks! Online's Facebook page. Follow Bob on twitter at bzerull. Email Bob at bob@zoiksonline.com.
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