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American Masters In London: An Exclusive Interview With Billy Sheehan Of WINERY DOGS

By Shelly Harris, Chicago Contributor
Saturday, July 19, 2014 @ 8:38 AM

"It's like playing a clothesline."

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Live Photos Marcia Pefley

Immediately after the conclusion of Sonisphere UK, various rock clubs in the UK were beneficiaries of some of the best acts from the festival who were carrying on with English and/or European tours in surrounding cities or towns.

But, even with many choices, first on our list was to catch WINERY DOGS (with apt openers VOODOO SIX) at The Underworld in Camden Town, in north London. How many chances would there ever be again to catch this American “supergroup” (Billy Sheehan, bass; Mike Portnoy, drums; Richie Kotzen, guitar) in such an intimate setting?

Indeed, upon arriving early at the Tube station, right across the street from the gig, it was clear that everything about the show promised to be memorable. (Not coincidentally, Portnoy himself would later state, in mid-set, “Let this be a show that we’ll all remember!”) It all began with the atmosphere in and around the venue, which had a storybook nostalgic rock n’ roll in feel: Camden Town, it turned out, has an authentic hip, multi-ethnic, artsy decadence – like Greenwich Village in NYC or Wicker Park in Chicago once did.

Then, there was the actual venue: The Underworld is literally under The World – itself a huge, rough-around-the-edges British Pub. The line circled around the pub even at 5 PM for entrance to the 7:50 show time. Some of the faces were Sonisphere faces and a faint aroma of weed and stale beer emanated from the entrance. A side section of the pub led down to a staircase to the basement and a tiny elevated area with two closet sized bar areas and a small pit with A 3 - 4 foot elevated stage. The surrounding walls were a deep merlot, with dark walnut wood everywhere. Members of British heavy rockers VOODOO SIX and Portnoy and Kotzen of WINERY DOGS relaxed around the edges (the venue does not have any seating in the stage area; it is SRO). But certainly it was the calm before the killer show by all of the above.

Soon enough, we’re led to the small side dressing rooms where bassist extraordinaire Billy Sheehan sits in the damp, dim light, on the ready for an interview. He’s certainly earned the right to primadonna treatment, after many years of being one of the most respected bass players in all of rock, but he seems comfortable and serene, and American uber cool in the austere confines.

We work through a number of topics, but start with the small club gigs WINERY DOGS were playing including the first post-Sonisphere gig the night before:

KNAC.COM: How was the kick-off gig last night?

SHEEHAN: Wolverhampton was a tough gig; it was very, very hot – I almost didn’t make it. It was just a steady stream of water on my E string. [Bass at hand, he demonstrates how it sounded.] You gotta try getting music out of that, and it’s like playing a clothesline.

KNAC.COM: Was that venue the size of this one?

SHEEHAN: It is about the same and about the same sold-out.

KNAC.COM: So, you might be in for more of the same here…

SHEEHAN: Well, I prepared myself tonight – I have towels.

KNAC.COM: We saw some fans in boxes sitting on the steps too. But, it’s exciting that you’re playing this small venue.

SHEEHAN: I LOVE being close to people. Richie and I did shows a few years ago - after MR. BIG we did shows opening up for the ROLLING STONES in Japan – and the closest person was so far away that you couldn’t see their face. And I’ve got pretty good eyes – and it was 50 yards out. It was like we were playing alone, it was unbelievable. So, at clubs, a lot of times there’s a barricade. It’s like, No, no, no, you’ve got to move the barricade closer. Get it at least arm’s length to the stage, because I hate it when people are so far away. So playing a club like this, and like last night – I love that. The only hard part about it is the heat. It’s hard on the people, as well, because they’re crushed up against the front.

KNAC.COM: On the other hand, this has been sold out for a good while, and there’s been a buzz about it too. You definitely could have done a larger venue, but you did do Sonisphere, and that stage was very large there.

SHEEHAN: It rained there, so my bass was pretty slippery there too. And, yea, we probably could have played a larger place but it’s a show business thing. It’s better to sell out a 500 seat place, than to do a 9,999 people in a 10 thousand seater, because, in the end people see “Sell Out” and that’s all you need to see. But, in fact, I think it would have been more comfortable for people, and better sound, and easier on us if we’d played a bigger place, so next time back, that’s what we’ll do.

KNAC.COM: And this is not the end of the tour here, you’re going other places, correct?

SHEEHAN: Yeah we’re off on the continent, then we go back and do a lot of shows on the East Coast, and then we end in Toronto, Canada on August 3.

KNAC.COM: And the Winery Dogs Camp occurs during that time?

SHEEHAN: Yes. And we’ve all done fantasy camps, in Vegas and LA, and it’s a lot of fun, you meet a lot of people. There’s always someone at the shows who were at the camp, and I’m still friends with all of them, and they email me and everything like that. So, it’s always a cool thing sitting down with people who haven’t quite acquired the expertise yet, and letting them learn as much as you possibly can. And this time we are doing it as a band rather than individuals. It’s kind of cool because a whole different dynamic happens when you put a band together and make that work. You couldn’t really put it into a book or explain it, how much work goes into that. You kind of have to be there, and that’s where we’re at now. It’s going to be educational – I hate to say the word “educational” (laughs) – that sounds like “educational TV” – boring! (laughs) But it will help you to increase your experience by getting it second hand.

KNAC.COM: On a more technical note, you play bass without a pick – you pluck - and Richie also plays guitar without a pick – so, that’s a little unusual


KNAC.COM: So, the question is, does that affect the way you interact together instrumentally?

SHEEHAN: It does. Some moves lend to finger-picking, some moves lend themselves to using a regular pick. On bass, I am automatically in the finger-picking moves. Sometimes even like a bit of Flamenco [he demonstrates on his bass] So, Richie’s licks tend to be built similar to mine, as far as the plucking part. His note choice is different than mine; his note choice is different than that of any guitarist I’ve worked with, really. Once in a while he’ll throw a note in there that you’d swear was a jazzy note choice. I mean, really from Jazz. You almost hear a tenor sax. But then he pops right out. It’s really got the same phrasing as a tenor sax, imagine it’s very, very similar. I was in a couple of horn bands when I was young – and I can almost hear the valves opening and shutting. So, next record time I think we should open up the sound of the band.

KNAC.COM: Well, you just alluded to the next record – and, to paraphrase, you said that the three of you working on that first album was a very organic thing.

SHEEHAN: Very true.

KNAC.COM: So, have you already been working on other things since then?

SHEEHAN: We actually did a new song, because we’re playing in a lot of places we already did on our first one, we wanted to do something different, so we threw a new song in there. We were just at Mike’s [Portnoy} house rehearsing, and we just laid one down. It’s was like, how about this? Again, like we wrote on the initial record. People responded to it really positively, and we were really pleased with it. We got together in a room, for the purpose of writing. And we just know a lot of music between the three of us, and it wasn’t a difficult thing to come up with stuff. Since we all kind of have built in filters about what is good or bad, I daresay – not to be aggrandized – it would be along the quality of the last record, but it would also have a quality level of the first record, but it would also have a depth to it, I hope, from performing live so much, because you gain an experience when you do that that can’t be faked, can’t come from an outside source. Playing places like this, hot and sweaty, being stuck at airports for 18 hours and all kinds of crazy stuff. Then, that just builds into it, this kind of experience. It doesn’t have a price.

KNAC.COM: It creates a situation where you’re all able to just cut to the chase.

SHEEHAN: That’s a good choice of words. We can get right to where we need to be. Bridge, chorus, verse: we can get right to it. In my mind, as a songwriter, you’ve got to have those three parts. The order in which all those things happen can be different, and maybe not a bridge sometimes, but I study songwriting a lot…

KNAC.COM: Well, I noticed that, because you even have tapes of other well-known songwriters working together – from what I’ve read. Is that correct?

SHEEHAN: Absolutely.

KNAC.COM: You’ve really studied the process.

SHEEHAN: Absolutely, yeah.

KNAC.COM: And that stuff is hard to get, so that tells me that you are really a “scholar” of songwriting, so to say…

SHEEHAN: Well, I wouldn’t say a “scholar” but thank you for thinking that way. (laughs) Plus I listen to a lot of music and I listen to a lot of great songs. I’d like to think I can pick a great song. I certainly discovered this song – it was a great old Bobby Darin song – other artists had done it before – I thought, this song is unbelievable! It was around Christmas time, and this friend of mine, she happened to be the back up singer on that at that time, an A-list back up singer. She said check this out, and there’s a You Tube video of it, and this is probably why, and it is black and white and out of focus, and they go to start the song, and it doesn’t come in, and it plays the intro and says, “Do it one more time for me,” and it’s him singing “Once Upon A Time” and he’d just broken up with his wife. And that was Sandra Dee. And it was unbearable emotionally; it was incredible. That’s the song. Sinatra was usually the one who was the best at all of that, and Tony Bennett had his, but Bobby Darin was the best at that one! So it is an instinct of picking the great songs. Record company people, they usually fail miserably because they don’t have that experience of actually being a player, and they’re removed from the fans. So they usually pick a single that the band does not want, and time and time again, you talk to a band and they will say, “That wasn’t meant to be the single” and on and on, and just crazy. Atlantic Records fought the Lean Into It album by MR. BIG. They hated it so much that they weren’t going to release it. Our manager almost got into a physical altercation with the president of Atlantic Records. They were full on screaming and yelling. They said they weren’t going to do anything; we’ll put it out but you’ll be on your own. And our manager, was thankfully a powerful and incredible guy. A year after that, we had a meeting with that said Atlantic president, and he said, “I knew it would be a hit.” Lie, lie, Liar! And our manager’s expression for that was that, “Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.”

KNAC.COM: You live on the West Coast right? So how do all you guys physically get together?

SHEEHAN: Richie and I live on the West Coast, close to each other. But I was from New York. And Mike [Portnoy] is in LA a lot.

KNAC.COM: So that might explain how you came up with the name? WINERY DOGS.

SHEEHAN: Well, Mike’s not a drinker, but he was an enthusiast for the name as well. But a friend of Richie’s said, “it’s hard to come up with a band name.” Might as well put a lottery in for it! So we went with it. I Googled the winery dogs and found out in Spain that it is a pretty serious thing, the Winery Dog. They had a lineup of dogs out there, protecting the grapes. (laughs) So we thought, that’s a good name, good, grab it!

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