In performing concerts, many various challenges can face a musician, both mental, emotional, and physical. As Hit The Lights' subjects could reveal all too explicitly, audiences never fully know what occurs behind the scenes, or what difficulties happen whilst a musician is onstage performing. To battle through such strife, many skills come into play, one particularly being experience. Amassing a hefty array of concert appearances, all as part of a variety of noted outfits, one bassist boasts the tools to weather such storms more than most. Three decades as part of the music industry will additionally hone several other talents, bringing wisdom over the course of time. However, Billy Sheehan's greatest claim to fame is performing bass as part of hard rock outfit Mr. Big.
Billy Sheehan issued inaugural solo album "Compression" during 2001, and sophomore effort "Cosmic Troubadour" during 2005. During 2008, Sheehan inked a solo record contract with Japanese label Victor Entertainment. ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons donates a guest solo to "A Lit'l Bit'l Do It To Ya Ev'ry Time", King's X's Doug Pinnick lends guest vocals upon "Turning Point", and Mr. Big group mate Paul Gilbert guests upon "Dynamic Exhilator". Whilst cutting the album, Sheehan informed a friend that Gibbons guests, to which the friend replied "Holy cow!", hence the full length's title. Throughout "Holy Cow", Ray Luzier (Korn / ex-Army of Anyone) drums. Pat Regan, meanwhile, mixed. On October 22nd, 2008, "Holy Cow" was issued in Japan.
During his career, Sheehan has performed at over four thousand gigs, whether it be with the likes of Mr. Big, David Lee Roth, or Talas. On five occasions, Sheehan was voted "Best Rock Bass Player" in a Guitar Player magazine's Readers Poll. Sooner or later, a Sheehan solo tour seems imminent.
On April 28th at 21:00 GMT, Billy Sheehan telephoned Hit The Lights' Robert Gray from his Los Angeles home to discuss "Holy Cow", and related topics.
Billy Sheehan: Yeah. There's no zero.
Ok. Anyway, how are you Billy?
I'm ok. How are you?
Yeah, I'm ok. Would it be ok if I began the interview?
That's why I'm calling.
(Laughs) Could you provide some background information regarding 'Holy Cow'?
'Holy Cow' is my third solo album. A drummer named Ray Luzier drums upon 'Holy Cow', who also drummed upon my second solo album 'Cosmic Troubadour' (2005). The album boasts new tracks, and a somewhat different approach. I used some guest musicians, and wrote the album's tracks in a short period of time. 'Holy Cow' is quick and to the point - I'm very pleased.
What do you feel Ray Luzier contributes to 'Holy Cow'?
A real lot. A drummer is the most important musician within a group, and for a bassist, the drummer is the musician you watch most. For me, the drummer and bassist connection is one of the most important aspects of bass playing. Performing with a musician who really has it together, is sharp and smart, has good time, has some new, fresh ideas, and has some new approaches to playing, is refreshing, exciting and challenging.
How does 'Holy Cow' take things one step further than your previous two solo albums?
I'm always evolving as a musician; I'm always learning, am always attempting something new, and am always attempting to improve upon what I have. 'Holy Cow', being my third solo record, was the culmination of everything I learnt from all the albums that I've recorded as a part of groups, but also as a solo artist. I was really able to make 'Holy Cow' sound much like a group record, in that the album sounds much like a bunch of musicians in a room actually playing. For me, that's the best way to make an album. Since I was the only musician, I had to think of a way to make 'Holy Cow' feel like that, and hope that if the album felt like that, then the album also sounded like that. We became lucky, I dare say - a group vibe was felt whilst recording 'Holy Cow'. Without coaching, many listeners have originated and offered to me that 'Holy Cow' sounds like a group, so I think we've accomplished our goal, our goal being to really make the album's sound resemble a group, and to have much interplay between the instruments, where one musician is listening to the other and responding musically, as opposed to one musician with one idea having everyone follow him. I think we've managed to accomplish that, and I'm very pleased.
In cutting your solo albums, do you feel that it's important to achieve more of a group sound as opposed to a solo type sound?
Yes, I think so. For the listener, I wanted 'Holy Cow' to be an enjoyable experience. For me, my most enjoyable experiences are as a fan. I'm a fan of a lot of music, and am a huge fan of hearing musicians play together. When I used to listen to some of my favourite artists' solo outings even, those artists still managed to incorporate some great musicians who play their stylings. One of David Bowie's first solo records following 'Ziggy Stardust' (formally titled 'The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars', 1972) was 'Pin Ups' (1973), and for that album, Bowie used drummer Aynsley Dunbar. He let Aynsley play, and it was really cool. Also, when David Lee Roth recorded 'Eat 'Em and Smile' (1986), he let me, Steve Vai and Greg Bisonette play our stylings, and as a result of that, 'Eat 'Em and Smile' became a good album. With those two lessons, and many, many more, leading the way as well as blazing a trail, that's pretty much the approach I took.
So 'Holy Cow' was a very collaborative album?
Yes, and in many, many ways. I wrote 'Holy Cow''s tracks, played bass, played most of the album's guitar parts, sung, and wrote the lyrics to all of 'Holy Cow''s tracks. I was involved in production and engineering, though at every step, some other people were around that I could speak with. Those people offered their opinions, and contributed their input. All those factors help, I believe, and create a better final piece of art.
As a musician, how do you feel you've personally evolved since recording your second solo album 'Cosmic Troubadour'?
Nowadays, I work harder on bass than I ever have, and enjoy playing bass more than I ever have as well. I'm very, very lucky, and thankful, that I still draw a great joy from sitting down, picking up my bass, and playing. After having played for over forty years, it's still one of the greatest joys in my life. I say working harder, though playing bass isn't actually work. Though playing bass is physically hard, it's very enjoyable (laughs). I've been practising bass more than ever, and have rediscovered many skills that I threw away, skills I knew back in the seventies, eighties and nineties. I've rediscovered these skills, re-instituted these skills, refined these skills, brushed up these skills, and brought these skills up to date. In the last four to five months, I've likely discovered four to five definite different things that I play on bass, things that I've never played before.
It's really helped in adding to my vocabulary as a musician, and helped me in just playing rock solid, in time, rock to the bass drum bass, which was the thing I did when I first began bass. I just always try to enhance my bass playing, and make it stronger, more in time, greater, more in sync, and in sync in different ways - sometimes behind the beat, sometimes right upon the beat, sometimes a little ahead, and sometimes variations. Learning bass is the equivalent of reading an entire, huge, gigantic thick book, and I feel as though I've only read the first few pages. It's an enjoyable book though, and I can't put it down.
"I'm always evolving as a musician; I'm always learning, am always attempting something new."
All the time, all the time. Every time I pick up a bass, I feel as though I discover some new thing which I never knew before - what I discover might be a little thing, but sometimes, I discover three to four big things. I discover something new every single time I pick up a bass, and that's no exaggeration.
In writing 'Holy Cow', what new lessons did you learn?
Playing bass alongside Ray is a great experience - I jam with him a lot in Los Angeles. After having worked with him live, I feel as though I know his playing so much better now. In writing and recording 'Holy Cow', we locked together much better than we ever have, and whilst we've performed live, a few things have happened which are unexplainable. Without having figured a routine out beforehand, we've automatically performed the same thing. That was really good.
Also, I really discovered a very strong, powerful and definitive line between my guitar playing, and bass playing. That line has become more and more apparent, and I'm very happy about that line. My guitar playing isn't like my bass playing at all, so when I hear my guitar playing, and I'm playing bass to my guitar playing as part of a recording, it feels as though I'm listening to a guitarist who isn't me. When I'm playing guitar against my bass playing, it feels as though I'm hearing a bassist that musically isn't anything like the guitarist. When I hear guitarists play bass upon their albums, I can tell that the album in question features a guitarist playing bass (laughs), and doesn't feature a bassist playing bass - a guitarist plays parts that a bassist wouldn't play. When a musician who isn't a drummer programs a drum machine, he programs drum parts that a drummer would never program. It's very interesting. For me, there's a very very powerful, strong defined line between those two instruments, and I'm very happy about that. Again, this gives 'Holy Cow' a group feel, in that the guitarist doesn't musically resemble the bassist, and the bassist doesn't musically resemble the guitarist, even though I'm playing most of the other guitars.
When you strike a musical relationship with a specific musician, is it important to maintain that relationship over several albums, and build on that relationship?
I think so. Prior to recording 'Holy Cow', me and Ray practised all of the album's tracks through bass and drums, including beats, parts, changes, and transitions. We played through all of these parts to really get an idea of how 'Holy Cow' would work, and to fine tune those parts. For me, recording was just a way to document what you already had. You played as part of a group, wrote songs, performed those songs, and subsequently entered a studio to record those songs that you performed. Nowadays, it seems as though musicians enter the studio to write tracks, make music, and following that, musicians finish recording those tracks. Afterwards however, they have to figure out how to play the tracks they've recorded. I've seen that happen many many times, and with many many groups. Many of them worry "Gee, I don't know if we can play this live", and have to incorporate extra tracks, samplers, and tracks playing behind them. Also, they have to hire extra musicians. In fact, what those musicians recorded in a studio wasn't a document of what they had. They created something new, and that's perfectly alright, though I like to stick with the original plan so to speak, and use a studio to document what I already have. Since I'm playing solo however, and can't really perform all the parts live, I try to mimic that as much as possible, and really make those parts sound like a group.
So you prefer a much more natural approach to recording?
A very natural approach, and not much thinking, as well as not much insistence upon following the rules. We set up a microphone for 'Holy Cow''s vocals, and had to surround these vocals with acoustic barriers, making sure the microphone was the right distance from the ceiling and the wall. When some of the greatest vocals ever recorded were initially recorded, they never went by the book since no book had been written - the book was written after they recorded such songs (laughs). There are no really strict recording rules, techniques and technological requirements which need to be followed. However, I don't always follow the rules, though you can still achieve an interesting tone, and an interesting sound, as well as something new and something different. I don't want to follow rules which everyone else laid down.
You place the microphone in front of the recording equipment, and pull up the fader. If the sound is good, then we've finished tinkering with the sound. You don't have to make sure that it's exactly the right microphone used by so and so during whatever recording. Experiment, and fool around with sound. When Doug Pinnick sang lead vocals for "Turning Point", I sat right next to him. We were very close within a very small studio, and bleed from the speakers into the mike occurred a little bit. Things weren't perfect, though I love "Turning Point"'s vocal performance. Doug sang his ass off, and the sound of the track is great. Since that time, engineers have called, and asked us about the recording techniques. We've said "Really, there wasn't much of a technique. We just pressed the record button, and took things from there". That's important too, I think.
How did Doug Pinnick come to guest upon "Turning Point"?
I love Doug Pinnick, and King's X. I mean no disrespect to U2, though I feel that King's X should be more successful than U2. In my humble opinion, King's X are that great. I just love Doug's voice. "Turning Point" was an important track to me, so for that reason, I thought it'd be really cool if Doug sang the song's lead vocal parts. Doug is just amazing, and I'm so pleased that he was able to sing upon 'Holy Cow', and perform the amazing job that he did. It means a lot to me. It's fantastic. Doug has been a good friend for many years; we've been a part of the same label, Magna Carta Records, for years, and I've jammed with King's X. We're friends, and he is awesome.
Whilst recording 'Holy Cow', what type of mindset were you in? The mood, and so on?
Pretty good, actually. I wrote a lot of parts whilst sitting around with my MacBook Pro, which is my little laptop. The MacBook Pro's camera is built-in, so I was able to record myself looking into the camera. I sat there with one of my baritone guitar, and possibly a glass of red wine, and constantly fooled around. When I came up with a part I liked, I pressed the record button, and spoke to the camera. I would say "Ok, here's the song", and would then play the tune in question, explaining the song to myself into the camera. I would hold the guitar neck up to the camera, so that I could see which chord I was playing, as well as the chord voicing. I felt as though I was speaking to someone else, but when I watched the movie back to myself, it was me telling myself how to play each track. It was a lot of fun, actually.
I'd sit around all night, hang out, drink a couple of glasses of wine, play, and come up with parts. I'd complete fifteen to twenty things in a night, and do the same thing again the next night. Following that, I'd take a day's rest to review all of what I had recorded, and would then write some more parts. Roughly, I wrote thirty pieces of music. Everything was fun, and enjoyable. The writing process was completed in a pretty quick time, which, for me, is a good sign. When you labour over a song through many many hours, where it's difficult to figure out parts, and where it's difficult to make things happen which aren't happening, then that's a bad sign for me. All these parts transpired pretty fast, pretty automatic and pretty easy without much effort, and I like that very much.
What are your feelings towards playing guitar as opposed to playing bass?
In playing guitar, I use a stone pick which is made from a polished stone. I buy stone picks from several sources, including a company named Real Rock, situated in Arkansas - they make stone jewellery and so on. I like to use great stone picks, which are just fantastic. A stone pick flips off the string in a special way, and when that stone pick touches the string, there's a little extra harmonic to it. In light of that, using a stone pick has a whole different type of unique sound. A stone pick is something I've used since the seventies, and this lends my playing a somewhat different approach. Most of my guitar playing is more Neil Young'ish, and those are the types of guitarists I most like. Neil Young's style isn't a really refined technique, though it's a way in which you can achieve the chords which you need for the song. When I was young, I played a lot of Neil Young material, so I picked up a lot of Neil's technique, not to mention his chord voicings and so on. I play a lot of open chord voicings, though I move them up and down the neck. I don't know what a lot of the chords are called, though I know what they are. I couldn't tell you what a lot of the chords I play are, but would have to show you what those chords are since I just don't know.
I perform many unusual chord voicings, and additionally, I play a lot of baritone twelve-string. I've always been a fan of the twelve-string, whether it be normal tuning or baritone. When you have the baritone twelve-string itself in your hand, that instrument is the equivalent of a whole orchestra. The baritone twelve-string is just a beautiful giant which produces a great sound. I own three electric baritone twelve-strings, and one acoustic baritone twelve-string. They're just great instruments, and really lend themselves to a different tone, and a different feel. A twelve-string will always somewhat move you in a different direction, since a twelve-string has all those extra strings, meaning you can perform chord voicings, and different, unusual things. It works really well, and also, I just purchased a graphite baritone twelve-string from an Italian based company named XOX Audio called the Handle. The Handle is a really nice addition to my baritone instruments, though playing a baritone produces a different tone register. Playing a twelve-string gives me different chord voicings, whilst using a stone pick really gives everything a different tone, so the sound becomes somewhat unique.
Do you have to motivate yourself more in order to play guitar, as opposed to bass?
No. Usually, a small gathering of friends are at my home, and we both sing and play. Usually, I prefer to opt towards guitar since it's easier to play a song and sing along on guitar than it is on bass. Bass is an instrument I play more when I play with a drummer, though if I want to play "Ziggy Stardust" and sing along, I'll play the song on guitar as opposed to bass given the fact that everyone can sing along better. When I have a party, and a gathering of people are people are over, and we're singing old numbers and having a blast, then I'll usually grab a guitar.
'Holy Cow' was issued during October 2008 in Japan.
Yeah. 'Holy Cow' was initially released in Japan, since the Japanese label Victor Entertainment was the label I signed a deal with. For that reason, they had the first rights to the album. As a consolation for the amount of time it took to sign a record deal for 'Holy Cow''s issue throughout the rest of the world, we included some extra tracks which aren't included upon the album's Japanese release. 'Holy Cow''s non-Japanese issue features some cool new material, including a one-string bass song called "Sweat On An E String", which is just bass and drums, as well as some Hammond B-3 with a couple of extra notes, though the song is all performed on one string.
For 'Holy Cow''s issue outside of Japan, did you sign a one album deal, or a multi-album deal?
I think the album deal I signed was a lone album deal, though I'm not sure. Several more records might be involved, though I don't involve myself too much in the music business - my partner Mike handles such things. I'll write and record more albums, that's for sure (laughs).
So you definitely plan to issue future solo material?
Absolutely. Yeah, I like writing and recording solo albums a lot. Actually, I have several solo albums in the works as we speak. I'm currently pursuing two different solo albums; one I'll possibly write and record with just myself and Ray with solely bass and drums, and the other album will have similar instrumentation to 'Holy Cow'. Something will always be issued in the future - when one project finishes, another begins. It usually takes two to three months for a project or a group record to be released, so something is always in the works.
Regarding those two upcoming solo albums, what can you reveal?
The only information I can reveal concerns the solo album I intend to complete with solely bass and drums. I really want that album to solely feature bass and drums, with just me and Ray playing psychotic, crazy bass and drums material, and that's going to be a riot. That'll be a really cool thing, since we recorded something similar to that on an album called 'Cosmic Troubadour'. I recorded a couple of pieces that were almost solely bass and drums, and with no overdubs. Upon 'Holy Cow', the one-string bass and a couple of other things are very bass and drum oriented, so we'd like to continue that theme, and take it to a ridiculous level.
On roughly half of 'Holy Cow''s tracks, you sing. As a vocalist, do you feel extremely self-conscious?
I'm less self-conscious than I have been, and am less shy about singing than I was upon 'Compression'. My whole life, I've always sang. Back in the cover group days, I sang lead, singing David Bowie material, Judas Priest material, and songs of that nature. I leant in those directions, though I feel less self-conscious about singing, and am slightly more confident. Here in Los Angeles, I found a great vocal coach. I know I can sing a whole night's worth of material, and when we're jamming or partying, and I'm singing along, I usually lead the way, so I enjoy singing. Of course, my singing is a work in progress, and always will be, but then again, so is my bass playing (laughs).
"'Holy Cow' was the culmination of everything I learnt from all the albums that I've recorded."
I'd better not since most of the material is pretty tough to sing anyway, so it's better to wait until halfway through the set. I'll make a set list, and will plan the most difficult song to be performed halfway through the night. Once we've performed that song, you can hear a cork pop, and then we can start to enjoy ourselves. Yeah, I do enjoy having a drink onstage, but usually only after we've performed all the difficult material. For me, it's important to really keep that material right. I love playing so much, so I really don't need to have a drink to enjoy playing, though I do enjoy having a drink. I use common sense, but by the time the encore rolls around, I do manage to have a sip or two.
So you don't have much stage nerves?
No, not at all. I've probably performed over four thousand gigs during my lifetime, so I can go onstage nowadays in any condition you could imagine, and under any condition. I've performed some gigs that would make a stronger man weep (laughs). I'm so used to anything that I feel equipped to handle any situation onstage anywhere, which helps everything. Even if I might not be confident about my bass playing, or my singing, or the songs, or the show, I have enough confidence to know I've been onstage under conditions which are impossible, and have still managed to pull off a night of entertainment. That's one thing I'll always be confident of.
Do you have a different approach towards singing onstage as opposed to playing bass onstage? A vocalist, within a live setting, has to take the lead more or less, haven't they?
Yeah. Playing bass and singing is much harder than playing guitar and singing. We toured with Rush, and Geddy Lee spoke to me. Sometimes before Rush tours, Geddy has to undergo rehearsals and really work on that material to be able to sing it and play bass at the same time. It can be done. When I see musicians achieve this like Doug Pinnick, or even Sting, who's a great bassist, then it's very inspiring, especially to be able to see them sing so great and play great bass too. I know it can be achieved, though it just takes work. When I conduct my clinics, a lot of younger musicians ask me how to do this, and how to do that. I always tell them that anything can be done, though it's going to take some work - it depends upon how willing, and how self-disciplined you are, to work at it. For me, it takes some self-discipline and work to sit there, and figure out how to get this finger working while I'm singing, even though the finger is playing something in a completely different rhythm, time and groove.
Do you enjoy passing your knowledge onto the younger generation?
Very much. Yeah, I enjoy it very much. I try to inspire musicians to figure things out for themselves, which I think is always the greatest way. I don't know if pontificating the way it should be, or shouldn't be, is always in their best interests. I try to show how I came up with things, and a method for coming with things, rather than just showing them licks on a silver platter. I try to inspire younger musicians to play their own thing, and think of their own way of playing it. Sayong what I did and how I did it might be good for me, though it might not be good for someone else. If you see the method I went through to achieve my playing at least, you'll know that if you apply that same method to your own musical sensibilities, then you probably will achieve an ability too. I always try to counteract the idea that you must play things in a certain way, or that you must do it my way, or do it this way, or that your hand must be in a certain position, or that you must play in a certain manner. I try to offer a counter to that, so they can know that you can achieve things in a billion ways, and that the only right way is their way for them. I help them come up with their own way, and inspire them to do that. When I do this, I receive many emails over the course of sometimes several years, from somebody who attended a clinic during the late eighties or something. They write, and tell me that I've been a big help in helping them to find their way, and to find their own voice. I've received many emails like that, and it pleases me beyond description.
So you like to stress freedom?
Absolutely. That's how I was born, and that's how I grew up. As a musician, I didn't have a lot of restrictions. I just played music the way I felt was best, and nowadays, I'm pleased with what I do. I still enjoy what I do, and I think that's a contributing factor in why I enjoy picking up the bass. I was confined to having to perform things in a certain way against my will, then I don't know if I would enjoy playing as much as I do today. If I can instill in someone a method in which they can play, and one which they will enjoy for decades and decades and decades, and and will serve them well, then boy, nothing would be more pleasant for me to hear.
Do you feel the approach of musicians today differs a lot to the approach of musicians roughly thirty years ago?
Absolutely. In some ways, this can be good. You have to take a somewhat different look at this. I started playing by playing songs, and playing in groups. Later on, I started playing some wild bass, and began to play some bass solos. However, I also played for years in a copy group, performing material by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Free, the Who, and a long long list of other groups. I experimented with tones, and figured out how to be onstage. Nowadays, kids access the internet, and learn a bunch of licks as well as some soloing, but they can't really play ensemble. They can't play as part of a group, and don't perform live. The art is still as valid as anyone's art, though it's slightly different. To touch upon a different field of art, some of the great painters learnt from the masters, and learnt the basics initially; they learnt how to paint the canvas, stretch the canvas, how to blend the colours, and how to clean the brushes. They learnt the basics initially, and subsequently became whatever they became, which was far from art by the people they initially learnt from. An evolution occurred. Nowadays, I feel many musicians sometimes don't learn the basics. It's very important to learn these basics, as they give you a solid foundation. Again, if you haven't learnt those basic skills, and have decided to just pick up an instrument and learn, soloing, soloing and soloing, and that's your art form, then it's still a legitimate form of art. I just don't know how many people would be inclined to see such an art form.
Initially, musicians imitate, but subsequently discover their own path.
I believe that's a valid way, though it isn't the only method. If a musician follows a different method, then I support them, speak up for them, and will buy their CDs if I like their material. That's very good. For me though, the basics are very much like a language. Music is a language, and you learn. As a kid, you learn to imitate those around you until you discover your own voice. You then have your own unique voice, your own way of expressing things, and your own way of stressing things. You can find that analogy in music, I think, but it doesn't hold all the time. Sometimes, it's good when a musician violates every rule, violating the basics and opting not to learn the basics. It's good when a musician just flies off, and becomes some abstract, new, esoteric, unusual thing, which inspires us all as well. Again, I don't think it should always be that way, though if you want to perform as part of a rock group and want to play songs, then it never hurts to learn the basics. It never hurts to learn how to play with a drummer, how to follow that bass drum, and to understand what the guitarist is doing, what the vocalist is doing, and to be able to play ensemble. If that is what you want to do, then it's important to know that. If your goal is just to pursue some pure art form we've never heard of, and to create some whole brand new way of playing music, then fantastic. I'll be anxious to hear this art form, though aftering hearing it, I'll likely want to listen to a Beatles record, or an AC/DC record.
So you can't beat the classics then (laughs)?
(Laughs). Yeah, the classics always work well for me.
ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons guests upon "A Lit'l Bit'l Do It To Ya Ev'ry Time". How did that come to fruition?
To begin with, I'm a huge fan of Billy Gibbons. I've had the great pleasure of meeting him, and hanging out with him, a bunch of times. Two of my most commented on bass techniques, hammer ons and pinch harmonics, I learnt from Billy Gibbons during 1974, seeing ZZ Top open for Alice Cooper. I've said that in many interviews, since people have said "Oh, you're doing hammer ons? You must've gotten them from Eddie Van Halen". I reply "No, no, no. Many years before there was an Eddie Van Halen, I saw a guy named Billy Gibbons". I have to correct everyone regarding that, as that was the first time I saw anyone use their right hand to go up and touch the fret chord, and hit a note. Plus, I just absolutely love ZZ Top. They're the real thing; they live it, and play it. That's real. There are few greater albums ever recorded than 'Tres Hombres' (1973).
I wrote "A Lit'l Bit'l Do It To Ya Ev'ry Time", which was definitely in the theme and inspiration of a ZZ Top type vibe. I thought "Man, wouldn't it be amazing to have Billy Gibbons perform on my record". I got in touch with Billy, and said "Hey Billy. How would you like to lay a solo down on a song I wrote?". He replied "Oh sure". The day Billy visited, I knew he was coming. It was all set, and we were all ready for him. Still though, he wasn't here yet. I didn't know if he would actually visit, so when he pulled in front of my house, and exited his car, there he was. I almost had a tear in my eye. It was just one of the greatest things that has ever happened - to have Billy Gibbons visit my house, and lay a solo down upon my little song, was just fantastic. He killed upon that track, and the listener immediately knows the soloist is Billy Gibbons. What a spectacular job he performed, and what a wonderful guy he is. It's one of the greatest things that has ever happened in my music career, and I'm supremely thankful.
Is Billy Gibbons more innovative than he is given credit for?
Joe Satriani's son is named ZZ, so this may tell you something (laughs). I remember working upon the 'Eat Em' and Smile' record in the basement of David Lee Roth, with me, Steve Vai and Greg Bissonette working with Dave. Often, Dave would say "Make the song have a little bit more of a ZZ Top vibe". He would say that a lot while he was a part of Van Halen too, who would talk about making their sound more resemblant to ZZ Top's. I own bootlegs where Van Halen play "Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers" during their copy group days, and that was a standard for every bar group. You had to know a bunch of ZZ Top songs, and in doing so, you became one of the initiates of the ZZ Top vibe (laughs). That would forever colour your playing, and songwriting. That's a good thing.
"I discover something new every single time I pick up a bass, and that's no exaggeration."
Again, I just viewed recording 'Holy Cow' as though a group was playing. When it's time to sing, it's time to play bass underneath the singing and lock in with the drummer, going off a little bit. When the guitarist solos, I catch a few notes of his and weave in and out of his solo a little bit, though I back off and let him solo, just like I would play within a group. When it's then time for me to go nuts though, then I go nuts. "Cell Towers" is a song which is really designed for bass, so the guitar plays a supporting role. Somewhat deep tones occur to John Entwistle'ish bass, so a push and a pull always happens. You always know when to pull back, and when to push forward. Within the chemistry of the group, that happens naturally. When all the parts are performed by myself, I pretty much know what will happen next. I know when to let back, and when to push forward. It's an interesting dynamic. Some of my favourite old records feature a bassist pushing forward, and then pulling back. The guitarist performs his part, and then a drum fill occurs. While all the musicians pull back, the vocalist sings, and then he pulls back. Things move. Within the dynamic of the whole ensemble, everybody has their spot, and this sometimes moves in an unpredictable way between musicians. An interaction happens, as well as interplay and couterpoint, which I love very much. Hopefully, that's what we've achieved upon 'Holy Cow'. That's certainly what I went for, and in my humble opinion, we achieved this.
So you make sure that that the quality of a given track is first and foremost?
Absolutely. As a bassist writing a solo record, I remember when Jaco recorded his first solo album ('Jaco Pastorius', 1976). He performed some bass things, but immediately launched into a huge group track with the Isley Brothers lending vocals. As much as a soloist as Jaco was, he performed a lot of song'ish things upon his first solo album, as well as musical pieces that were meant as music, and not just bass playing. "Portrait of Tracy" is beautiful music - it happens to be bass playing, though the track is just beautiful music too. Whatever you write with any instrument, hopefully it's music (laughs), as opposed to just a lot of notes, a bunch of scales, or just a little showing off. The whole idea is music.
A pianist emailed me recently, who did a classical piano version of one of my early, early bass solos from a Talas album. The solo was called "NV4 3345", which is my name Sheehan upside down. He performed the track on classical piano, and it is a beautiful piece. When I listen to the rendition, I always forget that it's a rendition of my bass solo, since it resembles music. My goal is always to make my material resemble music, and for my music to be something you would enjoy listening to, whether you're a musician or not. That's an important point, I think. You have musicians playing for other musicians, bassists playing for other bassists, drummers playing for other drummers, guitarists playing for other guitarists, and vocalists singing for other vocalists. What happened to groups? I want to hear everybody; I want to hear a drummer and a guitarist, and not just a bassist. When I write, I attempt to make my material music for everybody.
Upon 'Holy Cow', what lyrical topics are touched upon, and how difficult was it to pen lyrics?
For me, writing lyrics is hard labour. Writing lyrics resembles building a ten storey brick building - without a ladder, it's tough. I really try to make my lyrics mean something. During the writing process, an interesting thing happens. After much blood is on the paper given how difficult writing lyrics were, I get to a point where the lyrics are finished. I throw those lyrics away, and rewrite them. Rewriting is as easy as pie, and is a somewhat cool thing. In Hollywood, where a lot of writing occurs, whether it be writing for TV, movies or musical writing, songwriters, screenwriters and scriptwriters constantly and very importantly say that the secret is in the rewrite. Now, I've seen why they say that. I work, work and work, write a piece of lyrics which fit in, crafting them and fine tuning them. The lyrics have all these meanings. I throw the lyrics out, rewrite them, and at that actual point, I think the lyrics are a piece of art.
The original write, which is difficult with blood, sweat and tears, basically sets up a foundation. The lyrics upon these records are actually based on things which actually mean something, refraining from cliches. I avoided the obvious, never using the word "heart", "love" or "baby". I'm very proud of that. I never say "you broke my heart", or "I love you", and the word "baby" isn't anywhere (laughs). However, 'Holy Cow' features things which mean all that, but I just didn't say these things outright. For me, opting towards words which aren't obvious, aren't the easy way out, and aren't cliched, mundane or common, is the direction I favour. This meant that 'Holy Cow''s lyrics meant something, and had some worth and value, as opposed to just dashing off "Hey baby. I love you. You broke my heart, and now we're back together".
So 'Holy Cow' features many personal lyrical topics?
Yeah. Also, many of 'Holy Cow''s lyrical topics are ambiguous. "In A Week Or Two (I'll Give It Back To You)". What? what will be given back? You have to figure that out (laughs). When you see a movie or listen to a song, you can be challenged, or you can be seduced. A movie which seduces you is one where you just sit there, and all the car crashes, chase scenes and computer animation dazzles you. Or, you can watch a challenging movie where you wonder what certain things mean, and have to figure out what's going on. You're actually challenged by it, so I've always preferred such music. I love seduction too though, and love a love song, a cliche, and am a sucker for a pop song. I love all types of music, and don't dislike songs with the words "heart", "love" or "baby". In writing 'Holy Cow', I wanted things to be different, and wanted the album to be more of a challenge than a seduction.
Will you embark upon a solo tour?
I hope so. Ray will tour with Korn for several months, I think, and in June, I'll be playing as part of Mr. Big. I then may have some time this fall where I can perform some shows, which'll be cool. I have three solo records to draw upon for material, plus all my old Talas material, David Lee Roth material, and Mr. Big material. Possibly, we'll also perform a UFO song, and who knows what else? I have a lot of tracks to incorporate into a set list to make it a very entertaining evening, and that would be very cool.
Interview by Robert Gray Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2009