Sir Millard Mulch
Billy Sheehan is a very unique-sounding and amazing bassist who has played with David Lee Roth and Mr. Big. We talked for nearly an hour about everything from Ayn Rand (he claims that she inspires people to live in gated communities) to aspirin (which he hasn’t taken since the ’70s.) He told me a lot about Ampeg cabinets that I didn’t know (a cluster of smaller speakers will act as one big speaker, but will require less power to get them moving). He also told me that he likes to reach out to his fellow man and help people. Overall, Billy was a pretty nice guy to chat with. Unfortunately, my tape recorder died somewhere near halfway through the interview. I was able to save the following…
Where are you right now?
I’m in Houston, Texas.
Did you see any flooding damage there?
Not yet, actually. I just got in and got off the tour bus and into the hotel, so I haven’t had a chance to look around too much yet. Hopefully it’s not so bad.
I got that new album that you did (Compression on Favored Nations Records). What was your overall concept with that album?
Even within the title, Compression, in audio, makes loud sounds quiet and quiet sounds loud. And in a way, inverts the dynamics of audio. I thought it would be an interesting thing to do to emphasize the things that are usually not emphasized and de-emphasize the things you usually hear too much of. And to come up with music along those lines, lyrics along those lines, and take a little bit of an experimental journey all on my own for the first time ever — my first solo record. And that’s what happened.
I read on your Web site a while back that you were doing stuff with Macs, recording on what, a G3?
My studio is both Mac and PC.
What kind of Mac do you have it running on right now?
I’ve got a 9500 upgraded to a G3. A very popular computer for ProTools applications because it has 6 PCI slots. It’s one of the rare computers that even since I bought it, its price hasn’t gone down too much.
So are you doing a lot of the actual recording in ProTools?
Yeah, I use ProTools hardware but I use Cubase as the sequencing and recording program. Sometimes I use ProTools as well. Some of it is also transferred to Otari Radar, a hard disk recording system.
How many days did you spend with Terry Bozzio and Steve Vai?
Terry was basically one day. He came in and we ran through a few things, laid down the opening track, “Bleed Along the Way,” and then “Oblivion.” Then Steve came in, I’m not sure if it was before or after that. Actually, we had to go to another studio to do Terry cuz his drumkit was too big to record at my house. Then we imported the tracks at my house. Then Steve just came over to my place and whipped out the solo on “Chameleon.” Like I said, I’m not sure if it was before or after, but it was real quick, maybe a few hours.
So you didn’t work much with Steve other than him just contributing a solo?
No, it’s truly a solo record. I did most everything myself. Other than the two tracks that Terry plays on, I programmed all the other stuff. Anything else on there, it’s me. A lot of times people do a solo record and they have a zillion guests on it and you’re never sure where the guy is who’s doing the solo record, and I tried to avoid that. I had very few guests and if I was going to have ANY guests, I’d have the best I could find, and that would certainly be Steve Vai and Terry Bozzio.
Can you tell me anything about what type of guitar it was you were using?
Yeah, a Baritone 12-string guitar. When I mention it to people, people think I’m referring to a bass but it’s actually a guitar. It’s pitched quite a bit lower than a normal 12-string guitar. An electric 12-string baritone electric guitar is a pretty rare instrument. Custom made by Yamaha. I also played a regular six-string baritone, as well as bass. The bass I tuned lower than its normal pitch, and tuned the strings starting with low B, then E, A, D, rather than an E, A, D, G, which is a normally-pitched bass. Everything was lower and heavier as a result, but it fit my voice in that range. The 12-string baritone is an amazing instrument, like a whole orchestra — very cool.
Does that work out to where it has octave strings next to each other?
Yes. The B, E, and A are octave strings, and the D I believe is a unison. It’s got kind of a sitar-ish whine to it. It sounds very much like a Rickenbacher 12, but much, much heavier because it’s tuned down a fourth.
I caught one of your clinics in Tampa, at Thoroughbred Music, I believe. You were talking about the music business and you mentioned something about how a record deal is the easiest thing to get in the music business.
No, I think what I said was a record deal, in relation to making a career, is relatively easy. Once you get a record deal, now the hard part starts. Even now, without a record deal, it’s not difficult to make and put out a CD. You can do it relatively cheaply now, too, with home recording equipment, and burn your own CDs. That being said, that’s the easy part. The difficult part is to get it on the radio, get it in the press, get people to hear it, get some exposure, and make it a successful record.
Do you involve yourself as much in the business of music as much as the creative?
Not too much in the details in the minutia of contracts, percentages, etc. But I usually hire a lawyer or manager, or whatever to deal with those. Because those are things I’m not an expert at. I’d rather hire someone who really knows about that stuff. Other than that, businesswise, I’ve always been a hands-on person, and always been involved in all the decision-making that is required in any endeavor in music that I’ve ever partaken upon. It’s very important for any musician to really be hands-on. There’s as much creativity there as there is as writing a song or playing an instrument — as far as being able to create and move forward, and adapt yourself to future situations and move yourself in the direction you want to go.
So this album is being put out by Favored Nations (Steve Vai’s label)•
The one that I got had a lot of Japanese writing on it.
Yeah, that’s the Japanese version, because the American one is in production now. So we don’t have any physical copies of the American version as of yet. They’re being shrink-wrapped as we speak. It had already been manufactured in Japan, so we had some shipped over from there to send out in advance.
So this one is something that you put out on your own and licensed out to labels?
No, this is a Japanese label in Japan who actually financed the entire project. And I have it for the rest of the world. And I did a deal with Favored Nations for the rest of the world. In Japan, I actually got a deal from a Japanese label without them even hearing a demo, which is very nice. They said, “Do your record, do your thing, call us when it’s done.” That was very cool to have that type of freedom as a player and as an artist. Not to have to conform to anyone’s ideas of what my solo record should sound like. “Do it, and we’ll put it out.”
You mentioned starting to go in more of an experimental direction. Do you listen to many of the more experimental artists, any avant garde type players?
I’m not sure, I like a lot of different things. From Air and Fatboy Slim, to King’s X, old Humble Pie, Spooky Tooth. You name it, and in one point of my life as far as styles go, I’ve been into it. I listen to a very broad spectrum of music. I grew up at a time when FM radio still played everything. Stations didn’t play just one type of music. It was a very cool time in music when everybody played everything. You’d hear a classical piece, and then a Hendrix piece, then who knows what. Mixed in with spoken word and comedy.