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Interview: Billy Sheehan, Musician

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The discussion of just getting started writing, don’t wait, don’t talk, just jump in, is a perfect segue into this week’s interview.

I thought it might be interesting to talk to artists in other art forms and see how their lives, frustrations, and aspirations parallel those of authors. I’ve always been a guitar lunatic and I’m a metal-head who came of age during the glory years when the Sunset Strip reigned supreme. So for years I’ve idolized Billy Sheehan’s bass playing. I remember one day in high school, I was with a friend of mine who didn’t like hard rock or hair metal or whatever you want to call it. We were driving down the road and I had the stereo cranked as loud as it would go. My pal, who usually sneered at that music, said “that guy’s the best bass player I’ve ever heard.” Others all around the world agree. Voted “Best Rock Bass Player” five times in Guitar Player magazine, Sheehan occupies a place in their Gallery of Greats alongside Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Geddy Lee, and other luminaries. He played with David Lee Roth, he founded Mr. Big, he provides the bottom-end for Steve Vai, he records solo albums, and he plays in Niacin. Though he’s been playing his instrument for more than 35 years, in more than 4,000 concerts, on five of the seven continents, Sheehan continues to bust his ass at his craft.

Even though he’s in serious rehearsals for a 55-gig European tour with guitar wizard Steve Vai, Mr. Sheehan was kind enough to talk with us about the similarities between launching a music career and a writing career. I think you’ll see a lot of information that we, as authors, can take to heart. I also had a few specific questions about the life of a session musician for another project I’m working on and I was going to remove that part of the interview, but we’ll just leave it in so you can learn too.

Slushpile: Many aspiring authors are extremely concerned with doing something completely original and completely within they’re own “style” even when they’ve just started to write. Yet, for musicians, it’s generally understood that you go through a period of playing cover tunes until you finally find your voice. You have said in other interviews “I just started playing in a band. A bar band. All copy tunes. Just like most everyone else I know in the biz.” What do you think can be gained from “copying” the greats during that apprentice period?

Sheehan: Most art forms are a “language” in themselves because they basically communicate. Therefore, to mimic how we, as people, learn to speak or communicate from childhood, can be a valid way (certainly not the only way) to go about it. By copying we can stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and possibly evolve an art form further. Being in a copy band was one of the best things I’ve ever done, though at the time, I felt quite differently about it! Remember, the Beatles were a copy band! I don’t think there are many writers as good as they were.

Slushpile: But for most musicians, through the process of playing covers and copying the licks of their heroes, they ultimately find their own distinctive voice. While you might have initially idolized bass players like Paul Samwell Smith and Tim Bogert, how did your true voice appear from under their influences and grow into your own style?

Sheehan: Probably by my mistakes and errors in fully duplicating them! After years of night after night playing, boredom becomes a motivation too. Its hard for me to play the same thing over and over, so I start to improvise. By the end of a few months, things morph into unrecognizable variations with a life of their own. A style is born. Hopefully.

Slushpile: You play with Steve Vai, you play with Niacin, and you record your own solo records. How do you decide what to focus on at any given time?

Sheehan: Whatever is in front of me is what I focus on. Again, from performing live so much (over 4000 gigs easily), you learn to adapt to any situation. I like the challenge of it. Playing with Steve makes me do a lot I would have never done on my own. In Niacin, playing with Dennis Chambers is a supreme joy. He’s like Hendrix to me–a total inspiration.

Slushpile: Many young writers struggle with making a choice between doing something that might get them some attention (for example, writing nonfiction for magazines) and what is their true love of writing fiction. In a similar manner, musicians often make choices to take gigs that might get them some exposure even though it’s not what they truly want to do. Sheryl Crow singing on tour for Michael Jackson is probably one of the most obvious examples of this. What are your suggestions for building a name, while still working on your true craft?

Sheehan: That is the main trouble, I think. To balance between artistic integrity and any compromise. Its a tough choice. For myself, I love playing in front of people, so I usually opt to go with that which will take me there. I do try to “enlighten” an audience to things which they may never be exposed to though. The choice of which path to take is up to each one of us. I have great respect for those who have “stuck to their guns” so to speak, but I also know that making it big is as tough as anything, and have respect for commercial success as well. I try to strike a balance I can live with. So far so good.

Slushpile: Many aspiring authors try to build a name for themselves by writing nonfiction for magazines. But that can be difficult for people to break into the New York magazine world. You finally get one article accepted, add it to your resume, and start looking for another assignment. You keep trying to get that one byline in The New Yorker or Playboy or Harpers (or whatever) that’s going to at least carry enough weight so that your pitches get opened by editors. I would guess session musicians build a career in a similar way? How does someone like Will Lee, Hiram Bullock, or Anton Fig go about starting a career and getting gigs?

Sheehan: Exactly the same, I’m sure. All artists have a lot in common, especially when we’re trying to make a living at it. For myself, I just try to be on time, with the song or music well learned, upbeat and cooperative, make life easier by just being there, and hope people speak well of me afterwards. After a few records and sessions or shows, the word gets around. At least a writer can carry his tools in a briefcase–musicians usually need a truck! The parallels go deep though. I’m glad about that, and I feel a kinship with writers, photographers, & artists in almost any medium.

Slushpile: If I’m a young session player, running around NewYork City, do I use my own bass? Do you have to lug a Yamaha on the subway? Or does the producer/studio/band provide that?

Sheehan: Your own bass is always tweaked exactly how you like it and plays predictably. But its heavy! I’ll always lug my own. Depending on the difficulty of the piece, I could maybe use what’s there, but I’m a creature of habit when it comes to my gear.

Slushpile: How much does session work pay? If I’m a new session musician, hard-working, pretty-skilled, and dependable, how much work can I get? What is my standard of living like?

Sheehan: There are fewer and fewer session musicians these days. With sampling and cut and paste production, the pie is getting much smaller. The greats will almost always get called, but new guys have it rough. The pay is unpredictable, as far as I know. But, having said that, where there’s a will there’s a way. Be amazing at every opportunity and you very well could make a wonderful living at it. Why not?

Slushpile: Let’s say that I’m a session musician and Nathan East is sick so Eric Clapton hires me to play on his new record. Now, I’m playing the music he wrote. And although I suppose some musicians welcome input and suggestions from the session players, let’s assume that Clapton doesn’t. He wants me to play what’s on the page. Now, assuming a certain basic level of competence, how do I differentiate myself as a session musician? What I mean is, if we are all relatively talented and polished and able to play error-free, and we are all just playing the music that is given to us, how does one player stand out from his competition?

Sheehan: Good question! For the most part, some producers and artists want an “invisibility” to the music in the background—to have it be a “frame” that accentuates, but does not draw attention. This is one of the great balancing acts sometimes required for a session player. However, at any given moment, they may ask for more. Players like Nathan are supremely capable of almost anything asked of them. It’s an art in itself for sure. There are subtleties that can be discerned by the kinds of ears that produce finely tuned music. They do hear a difference, and can tell one player from another while blindfolded, in just a few notes—so be certain that your uniqueness will show through. Lets hope it’s what they are looking for.

Slushpile: You’ve said “I play by ear so I have to learn everything that way, it’s a little bit tougher for me,” since you don’t read music. Obviously, this hasn’t hurt your career but would you ever try to change your game and learn to read music or do you prefer to stick with what has worked this far?

Sheehan: I would love to learn. To learn more—that’s why I live. I hope to get a better understanding of it someday, but in the meantime, learning by ear has its advantages. It is indispensable when you need to figure something out “on the fly” or under pressure. It hasn’t failed me yet.

Slushpile: To me, there often seems to be a difference between art that affects my mind and art that affects my heart. Very, very few works of art affect both. In literature, although I love James Joyce, I can’t say that my heart warms to the idea of a night with Finnegan’s Wake. My mind respects the literary virtuosity, but my soul just doesn’t get into it. Meanwhile, a book like A Separate Peace is a really moving story that has a special place in my heart even though it’s pretty simplistic.

Likewise, in music, one musician can be technically masterful but he leaves the listener cold. While another musician might be pretty basic in technique but is able to wring tons of emotion out of every note.

How do you balance the need for playing that is challenging and intellectual but still remains visceral and emotional?

Sheehan: That’s another balancing act for sure! I had a band called Mr. Big where I tried to get things balanced out–it worked pretty well, actually. Our #1 single To Be With You was a joy to perform, even though it wasn’t challenging as a player. I loved it though. We had plenty of other places in an evening to get into some wild musical acrobatics, but I still loved bringing it back to basics several times during the show.

It’s hard for “players” to admit their love of simplistic, emotional, or even “trite” music, but I think its good once in a while. I can intellectualize and dissect (even if by ear) a Chopin Etude, or a track from Bitches Brew, but the Ramones or Bobby Darin will do it for me too. Some stuff is too obviously designed for commerce, and is just big business and industrial pandering, but I’ll always be a sucker for a good pop tune.

Slushpile: On a similar note, Gene Simmons once said “you don’t play rock music with your mind, you play with your dick.” He talked about how they had to beat the virtuosity out of Bruce Kulick when he joined Kiss. Do you think it’s possible for art to hit both the mind and the, uh, groin area?

Sheehan: Hendrix, Sinatra, even Van Halen managed to hit both–in my humble opinion. But Gene does have a point. I don’t think any of the aforementioned “thought it out” first. It just happened that way. To me, letting nature take its uncalculated course is always best. I prefer neither intentional sexualization or intellectualizing. Let the spirit of the endeavor make its own way. Sometimes it goes south!

Slushpile: Your song “Back in the Day” is a lamentation about the current state of music and how things used to be more pure, before people worried about record deals and economics. Aspiring authors are often told they should not chase the market, they shouldn’t worry about what will be published, they should just write what they want to write. And I assume this holds true in the music business as well. What is your suggestion for focusing on your own art and ignoring what the prevailing styles might be?

Sheehan: Courage! That’s my suggestion. By my observation, the most personally successful artists stayed true to what they first envisioned. It ain’t easy! I, of course, have some limitations as a player/singer/writer, so I try to work within them and squeeze out what works best. I know inside if I’m putting out what I mean and what I feel. It may not be commercially successful, but I am happy with it. I’ve been fortunate to have been successful with other music (most of which I loved), allowing me to fly free on my own solo work—I understand not everyone has that luxury. But, (trust me on this one) if by chance somebody had a huge hit for a record they hated, life would be a hell of performing it 2 or 3 times a night for the rest of your life! An author, similarly would hate to be known for a work of his own he wasn’t happy with. I often thought, in the early days: “so what! At least I’ll have tons of money to do what I want!” I don’t think it ever actually works out that way. So it takes a little courage and trust in your self.

Slushpile: Your first main band was called Talas and some early records were released independently. In the literary world, self-publishing or print-on-demand publishing and other ways of going around publishing companies can carry a tremendous stigma for the author. It is viewed in such a way that it can really hurt their career down the road. I don’t believe there is any such negative opinion in the music business is there?

Sheehan: No, just the opposite. Bands and artists that can prove themselves on their own are actually more valuable to a label—saving them from any initial failure or “development” costs. It’s also often better for the band in a negotiation. They can do it on their own without a label, so the label must offer more. The band learns a lot about costs of production and distribution that helps them manage their assets in the future too. Everybody wins. Too bad it isn’t like that in the literary world. It should be.

Slushpile: For writers, the road to getting a major publication can be long and difficult. Generally, you start getting some small publications, hopefully somewhere along the way you can get an agent, and then you finally work up to getting a publisher to release your book. What are the steps for a musician?

Sheehan: Either start a band and do every gig in sight, or write and record constantly–sending out CD’s to everyone & anyone. Or both! It’s very similar. You have to keep going till you get a “yes” from someone. In the meantime, don’t let all the “no’s” stop you. Playing in front of people gives you an instant review of your direction. I guess an author could have a select group of people read and critique, but I don’t know if the results would be the same.

Slushpile: What your most frustrating moment as a musician? What was the time where you just thought your career was never going to amount to anything?

Sheehan: Back in Buffalo in 1984, they raised the drinking age to 21 from 18, so the bar, and therefore, “bar band” business took a hit. The band was unstable at best, gigs were getting tougher, pay was getting less, I was getting older. I had nothing to fall back on–I quit high school in my senior year. I had no money, no savings, no health care, not much of anything. I was pretty stressed out to say the least. I stuck with it. I knew I had something that had to have worth. When I performed, people responded. I stayed the course until one day the phone started ringing. Finally! I had no back-up plan or alternate ending. To some, I “lucked out,” but I worked my ass off non-stop. I did nothing but eat, sleep, drink, and breathe bass playing and music. I was a tireless self promoter/ workaholic/ practicing and playing my ass off maniac. Those were the good ‘ole days!

Slushpile: In music, you go from writing songs to recording demos to recording full-studio versions. How do you know when a song is finished? In writing, authors are always told to revise, revise, revise. How do you get to a point where you are confident that the song/story can stand on its own?

Sheehan: “The secret is in the re-write” holds true in songwriting too. I’ve re-done entire song lyrics while the singer was at the mic for the final recording. You know when you know, I guess! Being a fan of a lot of music helps. Does it stand up and compare to what moves me? Writing a lot is important too. I usually throw away 3 songs to every one that gets completed.

Slushpile: Sometimes I don’t think aspiring authors really understand how hard they have to work to succeed. And I’ll lump myself in there as well so it doesn’t sound like I’m being negative. In music, you’ve been playing bass for more than 35 years, you’ve played over 4,000 live gigs, you’ve sold 10 million records, you’ve won all these guitar awards for your talent and skill. but how much do you practice today? What is your practice routine?

Sheehan: I still work hard. Constantly! I’m still learning. The clich?? holds true—the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. No phony humility here, it’s really true. I absolutely love to play, so as tough as it is, it’s still a joy. But I’m at it all the time. As a bass player, your calluses go soft if you don’t keep at it, so its a constant struggle to keep your hands in shape. I do about an hour of “pain” a day—really tough stuff, then I play. I use a metronome all the time too. I guess you could liken it to a tireless research of grammar, sentence structure, story telling, and vocabulary. It all parallels, I believe.

Slushpile: What do you think aspiring musicians (and probably writers) need to understand about the nature of work in conjunction with their craft? Do too many people expect to make a fortune without paying their dues? Do too many people think they don’t need to practice? In short, what misconceptions about the nature of work do they have and how would you like to enlighten them?

Sheehan: You really have to love it for its own sake. If you’re in it to get rich & famous, you’re dead. Its a tough hustle. Any writer worth his salt will tell you how tough it is to stare down a blank sheet of paper (or a Word doc) when you have nothing. You have to dig deep and find it–even though it’s not there! That takes blood, sweat, and tears. It takes sleepless nights. It takes being broke and lonely. It takes watching everybody else having all the fun while you work. It takes tolerating the distinct possibility of being an utter failure. Yes, its true: some have made it easily—but that’s not you! Some people win the lottery too. Check your ticket—another dollar contributed to the State Education fund. Get busy. Now. It can be done.

Slushpile: Industry observers often complain about the poor state of the publishing business today. Sales are down, reading is down, and almost every day, we’re faced with some “death of books” article in the media. But you have an interesting spin on the troubles the music industry has faced.

If I understand your theory, you point out who profits and sales have been falling in the music industry for some time now. You have said in interviews that the music industry was invaded by people who “thought they could make a buck off it. Now that the profit has dropped out of it-not completely gone out of it-but dropped severely, in a way, it’s good. but it’s removed from it all, the element of those people that were in it just to make a buck.”

So obviously, you think this type of cleansing contraction can be good for the art, whether it’s books or music. Is that correct?

Sheehan: It was almost funny how the whole downloading thing and Napster controversy a few years back was debated, regarding whether or not it was doing any harm. Fact is—It destroyed the biz as we knew it! Totally. No debate about it! The movie biz is next, folks. Just watch. It destroyed the biz “as we knew it” though—and we knew it was awful! It used to be the music biz, but became an Industry—with all the attendant pollution and commercialization. Now its getting back into the hands of the music makers and lovers. There aren’t as many millions to be made, so people are in it because they love it—thank God! There will always be music, and all forms of art. I think the future looks good for writers of music, as well as books and stories. Their value is being finally realized.

Yes—I think the people involved now are here because they love it. I’ve observed this for myself in many situations. Not all of course, but its cleaning up nicely. I’m happy about it.

Slushpile: As much as I obviously love books, I do have to admit that I think music is probably the most immediate of art forms. A single note of a song can affect the listener in so many ways, immediately. Whereas books, maybe painting, maybe other arts, take a while to sink in. What do you think in mankind causes the immediacy of music?

Sheehan: Schopenhauer: “Music is by no means like the other arts, the copy of the Ideas” or essences of things, but “the copy of the will itself” —from The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. Music is the only art form that doesn’t deal in pictures or bodies. It is co-created by the listener in present time. It is a unique artistic endeavor. I guess I’m a bit prejudiced, eh?

Slushpile: When you sit down to write a song, what is the catalyst? Are you trying to capture a certain mood, or is there a specific lick you stumbled upon in practice one day, or are you saying “I want to write a ballad” or what?

Sheehan: It can come from any and every direction. I have no set rules of procedure. Sometimes a word, a saying, a quote—maybe a lick, a beat, the drone of a chord—anything. I usually don’t set out with any kind of plan. I get a good part or piece and build forwards, backwards, sideways, up or down. I write down titles sometimes—pages of titles. No song, just a title. They often grow into songs.

Slushpile: Writing fiction is more of a mental or intellectual exercise. Unless you get carpal tunnel or a bad back from spending hours banging away at a manuscript, there’s really no physical aspect to it. Music obviously has a huge physical aspect of building the muscles and the muscle memory to play complex patterns at such speed. You’re remarked that after a tour, you feel like you could bust open a coconut with your hands after building up such strength for so long. But how would you describe the mental process of creating music, in addition to the physical aspects?

Sheehan: A lot of it is removing yourself from the physical aspects that you just spent hours perfecting. If you stay “in” the physical, you tend to write things based on gymnastics and muscle, rather than emotion. I spend a lot of effort “forgetting” my hands, but only after hours paying strict & microscopic attention to every movement. It’s an odd way to go about it, probably, but it makes sense to me to stay away from the exercises and practice routines when its time to make music. I view them as two wholly different things.

Slushpile: You’ve commented numerous times that one of your fondest memories in the music business was being interviewed, sitting in the Number 1 Chair, on The Tonight Show. What was that experience like?

Sheehan: I went blank for the most part! To sit in the chair that Presidents, Oscar winners, champions of art, business, and cultural icons sat in was humbling. I watched The Tonight Show from its earliest incarnations–with Steve Allen, then Jack Paar, Carson, and now Jay Leno. I grew up with that show—learned a lot about life from it. What a moment.

Slushpile: There’s a passage of a previous interview with you that I think is informative and inspirational to anyone starting out a writing career or a music career. So I’m going to quote it at some length, please bear with me.

“I think if you look at the grand percentage of what there is to know on an instrument, I’m probably at .01 percent. That’s my point-of-view. Once you get up to a certain point, you can see farther. It’s like climbing up a hill. You see more of the valley, you know, you see what’s there. So the more I get, the more I realize God, it goes on forever! I get up a little higher and God, it goes up even further than that, you know? So it’s an interesting phenomenon, because the lower you are, the less you see and that’s why a lot of people that have pretty strong egos are doing it in place of ability, you know, to make up for the fact that they just don’t know. It’s a very humbling experience to start to get better at your instrument and then find out that the better you get, the farther away the end can seem.

It’s almost like a backwards process where the more you improve, the more you realize that look, you improve ten percent but you find out there’s fifty percent more to learn! You improve fifty percent, you find out there’s five hundred percent more to learn, and on and on, mathematically increasing it.”

I’ve certainly heard very similar concepts from writers. Do you think this is true of all arts?

Sheehan: Probably, but I hope it isn’t discouraging to anyone, especially a beginner. Also, great art can come from very little experience or ability, in my humble opinion. Sometimes it just happens. “Out of the mouth’s of babes…” so to speak. I do believe in pushing oneself beyond any known or expected limit, even if only for the pure adventure of it. Sometimes I’ll go in reverse too–rather than getting more technically able, I’ll concentrate on pure communication. There are many mountains to conquer!

Slushpile: So many authors use music as inspiration when they’re writing. What do you use?

Sheehan: The face of a beautiful woman, my cat, an episode of Cops, noises off, you name it. I often just pick up an instrument and go off on it in some way, loudly or quietly, then take it from there.

Slushpile: You have said that your advice to young musicians is just to start. Don’t worry if they are good enough or if they have the right equipment or if they have the right style or anything. Just find a band and start. Many editors and agents complain about the amount of people who say they are writers but hamper themselves by worrying so much about other things that they don’t actually write very much. So your suggestion is just to dive right into the deep end and get at it, huh?

Sheehan: Absolutely! You might swallow a few mouthfuls, but so what. Start! Don’t think it through too much. Your priorities and importance’s will all fall exactly in line as you move forward. Learn 10 songs; do a set at a club; learn 10 more, do a show. That’s worth about 10 years of music lessons. Learn to sing and play at the same time. Learn to look up from your instrument or the floor and into the faces of those watching. It’s awful scary at first. Years later you’ll laugh your ass off at all the ensuing comedy (which may not be funny at the time). Some of the greatest experiences of your life are there to be had.

Be sure to check out Sheehan’s website and be sure to pick up his latest solo record.

Cosmic Troubadour