On the heels of releasing “What If...” their first album in 10 years, supergroup Mr. Big is reinvigorated and ready to bring the rock to our backyard this week.
The group — known for hits like “To Be With You” and “Green Tinted Sixties Mind” as well as 20-plus years of touring — will make a tour stop at the House of Blues in North Myrtle Beach on Friday (tickets & show details here).
ListenUp caught up with Mr. Big member and bass guitar virtuoso Billy Sheehan recently to talk about touring, his inspirations and his career as one of the most-talented bassists of his generation. Here’s what he had to say:
So how are things going on the tour?
Spectacular. Things are going well. Almost no hitches anywhere, it’s been smooth as silk, and we’re enjoying it. I think a lot of people are happy were out here, from what I can tell from going out after the show and saying hi to folks and shaking hands, it’s awesome. They seemed to be very pleased about it, and that makes me just as happy I think.
How would you describe the new album?
Well, it’s the real thing. It’s us really playing in a room really together and Eric’s really singing along with us, as opposed to our record that is, pieced together digitally one note at a time, like many records are these days.
A real band in an actual room playing is a magical thing that happens that really can’t be duplicated in any other way. So the record represents that, it also represents a musical evolution that we’ve all gone through over the past decade, where we’d all gone through a lot in our lives, musically, personally, and grown, and we try to bring all that into the mix as well, so that we can just to get some life and excitement happening out of those speakers when you go back in to listen.
And I think we did okay, judging by some of the reviews, it’s the best reviewed record I think I’ve ever done with anyone, so I’m supremely thankful for that and pleased about it. And we never knew when we did it how it was going to come out at all. You roll the dice and you go in and fortunately for us, we rolled a couple of 7’s and we did okay and so we’re happy about it.
That’s really good to hear. What would you say is your favorite Mr. Big song to play live?
It’s tough to say. It’d be like, ya know, asking a parent which one of your kids is the favorite, it’s hard.
Ya know, if I had to pick one — oddly enough — in some people’s minds maybe, it would be “To Be with You”, because it was a huge hit all over the place and when we play it, I look out and there’s a sea, an ocean of smiling faces singing along. And people are so pleased to hear it.
I get emails from people of how it meant so much to people in their lives personally and adverted personal tragedy by being inspired by it, and it’s meant a lot to a lot of people, and to be a part of a piece of music that has that kind of an impact on people’s lives is an incredible honor.
So I would have to say “To Be with You” is probably the most pleasing thing to play live. But I love them all: “Green Tinted”, “Daddy, Brother [Lover, Little Boy],” we’re having a good time with all of it.
Myrtle Beach Music: Billy Sheehan, left, performs live with Mr. Big.
The band has always had a loyal and huge following over in Japan. How would you compare Mr. Big’s American fan base to the one overseas?
Well, we’ve actually sold way more records here and played in Japan for a smaller market, but we do well there of course. But people sometimes forget also that there are so many other markets in Asia.
Taiwan is a whole separate market, aside from everyone else. Hong Kong is a whole separate thing. Malaysia, completely different. Indonesia completely different. Thailand different. Korea different. They’re all completely different.
We’ve done … almost as well in Japan as all those other areas, so it’s a pretty amazing phenomenon that I couldn’t be more happy about. But in the USA we were super big here, we’re Americans and to play in your home country and have people come up after the shows and enjoy it, it’s just awesome.
In other countries, be it Germany, France, Italy, or Malaysia, even though they’re not native English speakers, there’s always a great communication because of music.
But after the show, sometimes it can be a little more difficult. Though English is pretty universal all over the world, but after the show, meeting people, hanging out with people who grew up watching the same TV shows and listening to the same bands, speak exactly the same language. We feel very close to them.
We’re lucky to have a lot of fans all over the place. There are people that used to come up and see us in the early days and I’ve see a whole lot of old buddies of mine that come on out to the shows, so it’s been fantastic.
Are you looking forward to anything after the tour?
When we finish this, we have off for about a week and a half and go headline Europe for over a month, then we go to Indonesia, then I think a just few more things, then we leave from Indonesia.
The band goes home and I leave from Indonesia to go to London to start a couple of shows with some bass player friends of mine — Jeff Berlin and Stu Hamm — and we’re gonna do like a three bass player show. We’ve done it before a couple of times. So we’re gonna do that right up until Christmas, and then I have Christmas in Italy, and who knows what happens.
When was the last time you came to Myrtle Beach and did you have a good experience?
Oh, it’s great. I know I’ve played there in a couple of different bands over the years. I know we did it in Mr. Big in the old days, I know I did it I think on one of the Steve Vai tours or something, so it’s a blast.
I know Myrtle Beach, but I’m originally from Buffalo, and Myrtle Beach was everyone’s Spring break destination in the old days. I imagine it still is, it’s quite a beautiful little spot.
Yeah, it definitely is. There are always tourists here in the summer and during Spring Break. They’re everywhere.
Yeah, it’s a beautiful place, I just remember from the old days playing Buffalo. We’d play a couple shows in the spring time and not too many people would show up and we’d say, ‘where is everybody?’ (and they would say) ‘everybody went to Myrtle Beach!’ Pretty funny.
Myrtle Beach Music: Bassist Billy Sheehan
You have an incredible reputation for being a phenomenal bass player. How did you get started?
I started out … there was a kid around the corner from my house. I was the youngest out of the four in our family, and most everyone around us was older than I, and I was a little kid.
He was already in a band as a bass player. His name was Joey. He was the coolest guy around; I wanted to be just like Joey. He would let me pick his bass up and it was this giant thing with huge strings and bringing his amp in, it was this huge, giant amplifier.
The guitar player played with this little tiny thing with a briefcase. Joe’s amp was giant; I could hear it lying in my bed at night. I could hear him rehearsing. I could hear the bass cause it travels through the air better.
I just wanted to play bass you know, and so sure enough when I finally got up to the point where I got a bass and started playing it, I got in bands right away.
But I played in a lot of three piece bands and we didn’t have another guitar player or a keyboard player to do the extra stuff that you need to do, so I ended up doing a lot of the stuff on bass just to make up for it instead of paying an extra guy to come along with us.
You would make a hundred bucks a night. You get thirty-three dollars each, where if you had four guys in the band you would only make twenty-five dollars each, so it was incentive for me to try to do this through a keyboard and extra guitar stuff on bass, or sax parts or whatever it was that the song needed and to kind of mimic on bass.
So from that, that kind of branched out into never thinking there was any kind of limitation to the instrument and I still think there’s no limitation to any instrument, certainly the bass.
So eventually, I just started doing some wacky stuff, and it managed to fit in I think because of my initial introduction to bass as a real support solid instrument. That’s all I did with it in my first few years of my playing. So eventually later on I expanded upon it, but I started out by learning the fundamentals first and learning songs and it was a big help to me.
What advice would you give to beginners?
Learn songs. Learn some songs and get a bass. Bass is the easiest thing to begin at.
It’s easier than drums, it’s easier than guitar, easier than anything else. Basically you’re just gonna play one note, four in a chord.
Unfortunately, a lot of limited players stay limited, but there’s no reason to be. Not that I don’t love simple bass players. I love a lot of great, simple bass players — AC/DC, Judas Priest — great stuff, awesome playing too, really. Just because their having it simple doesn’t mean it’s not awesome.
But I would suggest to people if you want to start out on bass, get a bass and sit down with AC/DC’s “Back in Black”. It’s easy to learn those songs. Learn them right as a challenge playing them in a band, and work from there. And then sit down with [The Beatles] “Sgt. Pepper’s [Lonely Hearts Club]”, or if you want to get adventurous, get a Rush or an Iron Maiden record. There’s great bass and amazing playing on there too.
Sit down and learn some songs and get into a band and start playing live. That’s what it’s all about.
A lot of people send me YouTube links of them sitting in their bedroom playing in front of their video camera, and I say, ‘ya know, you gotta get out and get into a band bro. This is goin nowhere.’ You gotta get out and play in front of people, and I’ve done it — I’ve done over four thousand shows. And it’s that kind of experience over the years that really just puts you in a whole different category of expertise as far as being able to do live in front of people all those things you do alone in a room, on the instrument of course (laughs). It’s so important for people to get into a band, so that’s my recurring advice I give all the time.
Do you still hold bass clinics?
Yeah, I do them when I have time. I enjoy helping out my fellow musicians a lot, so I do a bass clinic where I sit down, play some bass, answer questions, show how I did it, why I did it, the philosophy behind it, and then answer any question I can the musician might have not only on bass, but also about song writing or the music biz, or making a record, or being tour- anything that may help them along in their quest to get where they want to go. And I love doin it because I actually learn a lot by showing other people things.
You really underline your understanding of something when you’re able to explain it to someone else. I got some challenging questions sometimes when people asked me to explain things that I didn’t really know. I was doing it but I didn’t know how I actually got there. So by me having to figure how I got there actually helped me as much as it helped them, maybe even more, I don’t know. So I do love doin the clinics and helping out my fellow players. I’m really lucky to have as my profession, to be a musician and play live and make a living at it, and I never forget how lucky I am to have that, so I like to spread that around as best as I can to other players if that’s possible.
Who are your past and current influences?
Oh, there’s a million. There’s a long, long list.
Everybody from the early guys… and like I said earlier, a lot of other instrumentation, not just bass- drummers, I’m a big drummer fan, a drummer groupie. I watched drummers first. Drummers are the guys a bass player’s gotta hook into. A drummer drives the band and that’s where I’m at, I’m listening to the drummer, so drummers are a big inspiration to me too. Singers/songwriters, all kinds of things.
Do you play any other instruments besides bass?
I play guitar, and actually on this tour we did, I actually played saxophone (laughs). I can’t actually play saxophone, but I faked it and I convinced a couple of people I could play — its pretty funny.
But I do a little bit of keyboards, I can get around on a set of drums, and I can even get a trumpet or trombone or one of those instruments, or a flute, and get a sound out of all of them. My next quest will be bagpipes.