Billy Sheehan of the Winery Dogs Talks ‘Hot Streak’, Funk & Seeing Hendrix (INTERVIEW)

On Friday, the Winery Dogs released their second album, appropriately titled Hot Streak. It vibrates with such a delicious mix of rock and funk, it should be considered for many best of 2015 lists. The super trio of Richie Kotzen, Billy Sheehan and Mike Portnoy has certainly done it again, proving fire can burn in the same pit twice. Having come together only a few years ago with a little inspiration from Eddie Trunk, the band continues to create music organically, in a room together, playing instruments and making up lyrics as they go along, feeding off a single spark of an idea. They make music that turns them on, gets their juices flowing, and that definitely comes across through the songs appearing on Hot Streak: “Empire,” “Oblivion,” the title track, “Think It Over,” “Spiral,” “Fire” and “How Long” are all rhythmic reminders of how good music feels when everything falls into place.

A band consisting of three extraordinary musicians is like a four leaf clover: there’s magic when you can find one. Kotzen, a cerebral guitarist who has played with the great Stanley Clarke, and Portnoy, the former sound and fury drummer of Dream Theatre, meld perfectly together with Sheehan. The New York bass lord knows a thing or two about blending his rhythms amidst spiraling guitar solos and effervescent lead singers, having held down band foundations for David Lee Roth, Mr Big, PSMS, Niacin and Talas; and with the Winery Dogs he has yet another chance to stretch his musical phalanges and explore within the roots of Jazz, funk, rock, blues and R&B.

Glide caught up with Sheehan on a “scorching hot day in LA” recently to talk about Hot Streak, his early band days in Buffalo, being the foundation and how funk got into his DNA.

Is it too early to say Hot Streak is Album Of The Year?

Wow, no, not at all (laughs). And say it often. No, I’m kidding. Wow, that is very, very kind. We were hoping that we could just get together and do much like we did on the first record, kind of just see what happens. We don’t plan things out so much, you know, and we were hoping that with over a hundred shows and our year and a half touring last year would leave it’s mark on us in a positive way, and it certainly has I believe. The response we have been getting from the record seems to reflect that so we couldn’t be more thankful.

Did you go in this time with more songs than what went on the album? Did you have an overflow?

I don’t think we had anything left. Maybe two pieces that were not finished but we began them. Everything we finished I think is on the record, except they did an extra bonus track in Japan and the reason why they do that is the Japanese retailers who sell the record get crushed when somebody imports the cheap Western version. So every band I know and every band I’ve ever been involved in, certain regions of the world get a different track only to make the record special for that region so that the local record company will have an opportunity to have good sales and make their profits instead of being crushed by the cheaper imports. People always say, “You do that for Japan but you won’t do it for us,” and it’s not the reason why at all. It’s simply you have to try to help out the Japanese domestic labels cause they do a lot for us. We go there and tour and they pick up a lot of costs so I would like to see them have success with their sales and so far they are doing great on it so we’re real pleased.

But yeah, everything we did is on the record. We didn’t have much overflow cause it’s pretty time and labor intensive to really get some of the material from idea to completion. The ideas come easy. We’ve had real good success with writing. All three of us get together in a room and it just kind of happens. It’s really wonderful and even if it doesn’t happen, somebody will kind of force an idea on somebody else and the next thing you know we got something anyway.

That’s the best way to do it

Exactly. It’s like a writer looking at a blank sheet of paper. Sometimes you got an idea and you start writing it down and then sometimes you don’t have any ideas and they say, “Well, just sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper and get to work.” And we do that version of it too but fortunately we seldom have to.

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I noticed that the funk is back. It’s really apparent again on the new record, which really sets you apart from just a normal rock & roll band. Where did your own funk roots begin?

I’ve never been asked that question before and I’m so glad to have a unique question during interview time cause people ask the same thing a lot. So this makes me very, very happy. I had the great, great fortune of working for years with a drummer by the name of Dennis Chambers. He played in P-Funk, Parliament Funkadelic, for years and he’s also on the legendary live Steely Dan record, played with John McLaughlin, he just finished playing for about six years with Santana, which was more of a commercial thing for him as he generally plays with more high-level, A-list Jazz and funk people. But Dennis really spun my head around as far as how time gets treated. My whole life I’ve played in white rock bands and we have our level of funk too but there is really a different thing. Like in a lot of Latin music there is a thing, an ethnic thing that happens in that music that you have to kind of live it to experience it. Flamenco music, you would have to kind of live it and experience it to really get it.

Similarly, I think, with funk, it is little bit of an ethnic thing. I don’t believe any one ethnicity is exclusive to it, everybody can do it, but you really need to be exposed to it and my time with Dennis Chambers not only gave me that better handle on that element of music, and about 20,000 more advantages, but it really just solidified what I knew about rock also because sometimes when you find out about another type of music it helps you understand what you’re already doing. As you jump out of your comfort zone, you do another thing and you learn another thing, and when you come back to rock you’ve got kind of a different set of rules to deal with. You’ve got a little greater vocabulary.

When we played together, Dennis and I, sometimes at a little Jazz club here in LA called the Baked Potato, I could put my drink on people’s tables that are sitting in front of me, they are so close (laughs). And I remember a bunch of guys who used to come and see me play in rock bands, and other musicians I worked with coming up, and they couldn’t believe how funkified everything was cause they never look at me like that, never thought of me in that way. I was really pleased and I’d say, “I owe it all to Dennis.” And it’s true, I do. He really guided me down that road.

So yeah, there are some funkified things, like on “Hot Streak,” the title track. It came from a bassline that I originally got from Stanley Clarke, who is just an iconic bass player, mostly Jazz but he also runs in many, many circles. And it was a variation on a theme he did and when I did it first, Mike started picking up a beat on it and Richie started playing along and they went, “Where did you get this?” “Oh, it’s just kind of a Stanley Clarke move,” which is funny because Richie played with Stanley a few years back. It’s funny, people bring up, “Richie played with Poison. He replaced the guitar player.” Yeah, but he also replaced Allan Holdsworth and played with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White. So that’s a little different end of the spectrum of musical genres there that I wish he would get more credit for, cause I see where playing with Stanley left his mark on Richie; his playing made a turn. I knew Richie before that and after that, and his playing made a turn after that experience, a turn for the better. It was pretty awesome.

On the new record, which one of the songs changed the most from it’s original composition to the final recorded version?

That’s a good question. I think “Spiral.” Many changes happened with that and a song called “Ghost Town.” “Ghost Town,” when we did it, just had some cool chord changes and cool beats and turnarounds and we weren’t sure where we were going with it. A song becomes a song when lyrics and melodies get inserted. It’s easy to sit down and write chords out. I can sit down with somebody, guitar player and drummer, and look at chord changes and make it sound like the basis of a song all day long, no problem. But until somebody sings the lyric and there’s a chorus, it’s really not a song. They’re musical pieces. Like a lot of instrumental music, I’m not really sure if all of them are songs so much as they’re instrumental pieces of music. They make sense and they have rules like everything else but to me a song is sung, hence the words song and sung, very similar words (laughs).

So we can anticipate what is going to happen with the singing, get an idea in our heads, and that always helps. And as soon as you do blah-blah lyrics, where you’re just singing noises or sounds or la-la in order to get an idea of what is going to be sung there melodically and then later on you put words in, like the famous example of Paul McCartney doing “Yesterday” and singing “scrambled eggs.” When he first sat down, (singing) “Scrambled eggs, da da da da” and then later on filling in the blanks. I have a great bootleg of Genesis with Peter Gabriel doing The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway rehearsals and demos and a lot of the songs were filled with that. He just blah-blahed through them when they were first rehearsing the songs. Later on, he crafted the lyrics. It’s very, very common.

So when we sit down with something in the Winery Dogs, a similar thing happens. Richie will yell out a few things so we see kind of where he’s going but we don’t see the end result. For example, “Ghost Town,” he just came up with this spooky, storytelling, cool lyrics that added a whole other dimension to it and then all the harmony situations on top of it that really, really make it come alive. Those two songs I mentioned, “Spiral” and “Ghost Town,” they were real cool pieces of music that hadn’t gone anywhere yet. They had not quite packed their bags yet and gone on their trip. So when Richie got down to it and we finally got down to doing the vocals, then things really came alive, which is generally how most things went down on the record.

guitar player 1986You’re known for playing with incredibly technical guitar players – like Richie and Paul Gilbert and Steve Vai. Some people would find that insanely challenging trying to find their path within that.

My role primarily is to lock in with the drummer. When you first see a cake, you see the frosting. You don’t see the cake underneath. The real butter and eggs and flour, the bones of the cake, are underneath it, and you don’t see that when you look at the cake – you see the frosting. So a lot of times people see the frosting, they see the lines and stuff like that played between me and guitar players but in fact the cake, the most amount of that cake, is between me and the drums, and when the drums and bass are locked together, I can move around melodically underneath the guitar player while he’s soloing.

It’s like the right hand is doing something different than the left hand. For me, I’m the left hand, I’m the bass player, the lower frequency, and I’m locked in with the drums. So that allows that right hand to move all over the place but in some kind of synchronization melodically. It’s very much a tradition that goes back far, far in time to have that counterpoint of low and high. In the case of rock and popular music, the low is locked in with the drums to really give it a more solid beat than a floating time you might have in Classical music. So I rarely focus as much on guitar as I do on drums. I am always about locking into what the drummer is doing.

Then, there are certain times that we do things together, the guitarist and I, and it’s kind of an interesting thing cause, well, I hope it’s interesting (laughs), the attention of people kind of shifts. There’s the guitar player and he’s playing this thing and suddenly he pulls back and you hear the time between the bass and the drums. So the bass player steps up for a second and moves your attention elsewhere and then suddenly you come back to the whole place where it’s really like a dynamic, like cinema where the director will do a close-up and then pull back and next thing you know there’s a dialogue scene and then there’s a car chase. You really try to make it so there’s enough things that can happen differently within the interplay of the band and how we work with each other. That’s the best way of putting it.

So we all try to be multi-functional within the band but for the most part I’m generally about the drums. That’s the most successful way of doing it, holding down the foundation and the foundation melodically and pitch-wise too. Bass gives drums a pitch. Time and melody are the two elements of music so when it’s just your drums playing alone, “Hey cool, that’s a good beat. What key are we in?” “I don’t know.” And the bass comes in and it’s, “Oh, I know what key we’re in. Now we can open up to vocals and guitar.” And I love being the supportive player but it’s also fun to step out and do some crazy stuff once in a while too.

Which one of your songs takes the most finger maneuverability to play?

On this record, one of the tough ones is a song called “How Long.” After my interviews today, I’m working for a couple of hours on my hands to make sure my hands are up to speed to play it live because it’s a tough one. I’m playing a lot of these little notes sewn together to sound like one thing, not a lot of notes all over the place. It’s more kind of like what a bass player named Rocco Prestia, who plays with Tower Of Power, it’s kind of a line based on his approach and it’s really tough to play so it’s going to be a challenge for me live. I remember last tour “You Saved Me” was a tough one cause I had to do two things at the same time and do them for a long period of time without blowing it (laughs). As soon as I mess up, the whole audience was going to turn to me and look because it would be painfully obvious (laughs). Fortunately, I didn’t blow it at all on the last tour cause every night I’d go, “Here we go again, let’s get through this and not blow it,” and I would force my way through it. I managed to but I was a little worried but we were okay. So “How Long” is a tough one due to that bassline.

Tell me about the very first time you picked up a bass. What happened?

I picked up a bass at my buddy Joe’s house, who lived around the corner from me, he’s a friend of my older brother’s and he was the bass player on the block, and I started plucking with my little index finger and instantly I got a blister on the end. So I picked up the bass and it bit back right away (laughs). So I knew we were destined for great things together.

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Have you always been outgoing onstage?

No, I started slowly, just by learning songs and putting things together and singing background vocals and eventually we played so much back in the day in Buffalo, New York – I remember we did twenty-one shows in a row once, we did three complete shows in one day one time – so after a while you get so well grooved-in to how you play that song that you’ve played sixteen times in one week that you start to look for ways to make it more interesting. Then the next thing you know you’re moving around a little bit more. I also played in a three piece band eventually in Buffalo which required extra instrumentation usually. Any song we copied, like Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son” or King Crimson’s “Schizoid Man” or “White Punks On Dope” by The Tubes, those were bands that had a lot of instrumentation so we had to do something to make up for the lack of people. So I would learn the extra little keyboard part or the double-guitar thing or the solo here or a little sax trill or something to add in on bass to make up for the lack of a keyboard player or rhythm guitar player or a horn section or whatever. So that helped bring it out a lot. Then I actually just kind of turned into this crazy ass thing (laughs).

Who was the first real rock star you ever met?

It was Overend Watts, who was the bass player from Mott The Hoople. In the first era of glam – Bowie, T-Rex, Mott The Hoople, Lou Reed, all that stuff – when it first came out our band did a lot of that stuff. We were way into the early Bowie stuff and all that and it was great. Then when Mott The Hoople came out, “All The Young Dudes,” I went to see them on tour in Buffalo and we hung out by the backstage area and Overend came out and they wanted to go see local pawn shops. So we took him around and drove him around the local pawn shops, looking for some, you know, great guitars that might be floating around in there. We didn’t find any but they were really great to us, nice and cool, and we had an enjoyable time. That was my first experience.

You saw Hendrix. You didn’t get to talk to any of those guys?

No, but back then there wasn’t much security so it probably wouldn’t have been very difficult to do so. But I was really young. It was my first concert ever. The first show I ever saw was Bobby Darrin singing “Mack The Knife.” My first concert was Jimi Hendrix. Now, looking back at it, I wish I would have hung out a little bit. Who knows, I might have got to meet him. But I managed to run up to the stage to take photos. I was ten feet away from him and it was quite an impressive event and left an indelible mark on me which is visible to this day, in my humble opinion.

How old were you?

Oh man, I was about fourteen or fifteen. I didn’t tell my mom I was going to the show cause if she found out I was going to downtown Buffalo she would have said no (laughs). So when she said, “What are you doing tonight?” I go, “Oh, I’m not sure. Going to hang out with one of my buddies.” (laughs)

What was David Lee Roth really like in the studio with you guys when you were recording? Did he give you and Steve and Gregg [Bissonette, drummer] freedom to innovate or was he pretty particular about what he wanted?

Dave was awesome. He gave us free reign to do as we pleased. He was in there more as a guidance than any kind of restriction and it was good. That Eat’Em & Smile record is pretty much his vision and it was a great experience. Skyscrapper was a different situation. It was put together differently and it wasn’t my cup of tea but Eat’Em & Smile was just awesome and he was wonderful to us, generous, and he’s still my hero to this day.

What would you say was the most important lesson you learned on your own when you became a professional musician?

I think it was a lesson that just kind of got grandfathered in from my days in the clubs. In the clubs, when we got done with the set you stepped off the front of the stage and walked out into the people, cause they were all your friends, have a beer and hang out. You wouldn’t screw off the side and go into a dressing room and hide away. So we always had that direct communication with everybody in the audience as friends. So eventually, as things kept going, I hung on to that, whether I should have or not, I don’t know. I just kind of got in the habit. So early on, even on the Eat’Em & Smile tour, we’d go out to the tour bus but we’d always stop and hang out and talk and see what’s going on.

So the lesson learned was, I never really thought it was a good thing to put up a barrier between who is coming to see you play and who you are. I’ve always been really close with audiences and answer thousands of emails, literally. One summer that’s all I did was answer emails a few years back. I’d do a seminar or clinic and there’d be three hundred people in the room and I’d ask, “How many people have got an email from me?” and about forty hands would go up (laughs). But I’ve always kept in close touch and I think that was the best thing to learn cause that way you’ve always got your thumb on the pulse of the public to find out what is going on. There may be things they’re not digging or are not as excited about and you find out right away and make a correction if you have to. And plus, it’s way more fun to do it like that, way more enjoyable to go out in front of a room full of friends than it is to go out in front of a room full of fans. I try to consider them to be my friends rather than fans and it has paid off with friendships all over the world, great communication and I can find out what people are finding enjoyable or not when they hear what I’m doing; and probably a long list of other ways as well.

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Tell us about the Winery Dogs Dog Camp?

Yeah, it was great. We had a riot. We didn’t know what was going to happen when we first went to it, you know. But we made it into a thing and hung out with everybody and they were all surprised that we’d just be sitting there at the bar or in a room when another band’s playing, accessible and would talk and hang out and sign anything and photo anything. As a result we made friends with about four or five hundred people on almost a first-name basis (laughs). It was great. So we hope we can do it again next year if scheduling will allow but it turned into a really great tradition.

And you’re going to be on tour for the rest of the year, I’m assuming.

Yes, we’re going out. We’ll break for the holidays and then set up again in January. But we will be out there and then next year we’re going to go all year if we can. Every place they send us, we’ll go.

Live photographs by Jo Anna Jackson/StardogPhotos

 

 

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