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The Billy Sheehan Interview
Music as Artistry Instead of a Business
By Steve Zuckerman
(more articles from this author)
2001-12-21
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Billy Sheehan is hungry. Sitting across from me at makeshift diner in his publicists office in New York City, he's talking about his inspirations and aspirations eating the meat off a chef salad. Interestingly enough, the musicianship Sheehan has always exemplified has more meat and muscle than a good percentage of the music that's come out the past ten years. But why is he still recording? What makes him create? And what drives him to do what he does. In this exclusive interview, Publisher Steve Zuckerman asks Sheehan the type of questions that, according to the long haired blond bassist, "no one ever asks me. And these are the types of questions and answers that really matter."

[Steve Zuckerman] What changes have you seen in the music business since you started? And what do you think will have to change to make it better for the sincere artists?

Billy Sheehan I don't know if the labels can change because they are so caught up in this profit/loss time trap and they have gotten so big. Change will come from artists who find their audience and do their thing with their audience and their audience gets happy and comes back. The Internet is great for access but a band has to get out their and play live. Sometimes the artists really has to take it upon their shoulders to adapt to the situation. For myself to do an arena tour these days is quite expensive and I have to sell a huge amount of records to sell a huge amount of tickets. There's nothing wrong with getting your instrument on and strapping it around your neck and getting into a room and playing in front of people. Whether it's scaling things down or whatever---one needs to find their market. Just go out and begin.

A lot of musicians are waiting for a deal or "this or that" to happen before they start. And I say, just Start. Get your instrument on, get out there and play and do it.

[Steve Zuckerman] Lets talk about the beginning stages for you. People respect you as a musician and artist. You have been able to balance artistic credibility and commercial success. How do you do that?

Billy Sheehan By playing in clubs. I made my living by getting people into cubs. That was my only income. We had no record deal. We had a crew, sounds, lights….office space for our booking agent. And we did all of this knowing and being in communication with and being friendly with our audience in a club. We did what they liked. And we fine tuned it until we got it right. And we were still doing what we loved to do. We were playing music. And we were doing the kind of music we wanted to do. When we started to play we did copy tunes. And of course, the dance floor was filled, the audience knew the songs. And we'd play our own original, and people would leave the dance floor. But after four times of hearing that song, it became familiar to the audience. And then we'd sneak another original. And we'd do the same thing. The audience was starting to request the new songs. It was the formula just about every band did. They went out as a cover band and then they'd sneak in an original, and keep sneaking in originals, until most of the set or all of the set was all originals. So there came a time when we were doing our art our way.

[Steve Zuckerman] But then came a time when you were doing your art your way, but the difference was you were performing in front of tens of thousands of people.

How did you stay balanced and focused as an artist with the transition?

Billy Sheehan I continue to do the things I did when I had nothing. Continue to try and improve on my instrument and take nothing for granted. This is just today. What about tomorrow or the next day? As a musician, I was lucky to win a few polls for the best this or best that. Thank you! I must learn more! It is easy for an artist to get blinded by his own success. It just happens to too many people. You just have to back up and do what you do. I see it happen with comedians a lot. A comedian starts in the small clubs and he's blowing people's minds. He gets a sitcom, and then he does a movie. And the next thing you know, he goes back to doing stand up. Get in front of a different audience and get them laughing. In a similar way, musicians need to go back to doing the things they did that got them to where they are at. I remember when I first moved out to L.A. and joined the David Lee Roth Band, I had a big paycheck and a beautiful apartment and I put the "Who's Next" album on and learned the bass parts to everything, just like I would in the old days. Just don't change the things you did just because you are in a different place. It is a working and operating system that got you to that place.

[Steve Zuckerman] Where were you when that lightbulb clicked and you realized you wanted to be a musician?

Billy Sheehan I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. And I saw the band going nuts and the girls screaming. Do you know how many musicians were launched by that show!!!! Everybody watched that show said ‘I want to do that!' It was the pivotal point.

[Steve Zuckerman] So lets talk about your new record on Steve Vai's record.

Billy Sheehan I played all the instruments and Terry Bozzio played drums on two tracks and Steve Vai did a guitar solo on of the tracks.

[Steve Zuckerman] How excited are you now about a new record as compared to the way it used to feel when this was a newer experience?

Billy Sheehan It hasn't changed. I'm very thankful for that. I still enjoy sitting down and playing my bass. I still enjoy putting out a record that I love and listening to it. I was speaking with a friend who asked me if I thought I achieved success and I said Yes, because I still love doing the things I do, and that's more important than the compensation part of it. I have a nice life and I am fortunate to be able to do what I do.

And when I finished this record, I left it alone and got away from it for a couple of weeks. And I listened to everything else—but nothing of my music. And then when I put it back on again, it did it for me. I knew it was a great record. There was very little 20/20 hindsight where I wished I did something differently. At that point I felt like I did what I set out to do.

[Steve Zuckerman] What do you listen to?

Billy Sheehan There is no Balkanisation in my record collection. I listen to a lot of everything. I've been doing it that way since the early days of FM radio when you'd here Miles Davis then Jimi Hendrix and then Joni Mitchell. All these different things on the same station. And now everything is so hyper-specialized and niche-marketed---we want to hit the people who buy Burger King, Diet Pepsi and Nike. And then we go onto McDonalds, Diet Coke and Adidas. So it's a little cut and dry where the music business is now the music industry. And they are more concerned with product than they are with art.

[Steve Zuckerman] Over lunch you were telling me about Steve Vai's label---that his contracts are different that the standard record contract.

Billy Sheehan It's a favored nations deal, the licensing and the profit sharing deal. Steve gets involved with artists who he believes in and supports and he allows them to put our a record with the full support of his company. He allows you to put our a record the way you want to put it out, the way you want to make it. And it's a wonderful profit-sharing situation. I own the rights to everything. It's wonderful.

[Steve Zuckerman] So what led Steve to do it this way?

Billy Sheehan He's a musician. And he's been through record deals. And he's been in close proximity of Frank Zappa who was a pioneer starting to speak out about many things in the music business. Zappa was not THE first, but certainly one of the LOUDEST!

To be continued.....


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