Interview: Bassist Billy Sheehan Talks Jimi Hendrix, Steve Vai and New NIACIN Album, 'Krush'
From his early days with Talas and David Lee Roth to his time spent with Mr. Big and Steve Vai, bassist Billy Sheehan has performed and recorded with some gigantic names in rock.
But no other outlet allows Sheehan to flex his bass muscle quite like NIACIN. After a seven-year hiatus, the band — which features Sheehan on bass with keyboardist John Novello (Chick Corea, Ritchie Cole) and drummer Dennis Chambers (Santana, Parliament) — is back with a new album, Krush, a true tour de force of sonic blues goodness.
The album, which combines exceptional musicianship with the rich vocabulary of a Hammond B3 organ, represents a fusion of sound that delves into jazz and rock without being limited by the boundaries of either.
I recently spoke to Sheehan about Krush and his days with Roth. He also reminisced about his first concert experience: seeing Jimi Hendrix. For more about the band, follow them on Facebook. For more about Sheehan, check out his official website. Krush will be released Tuesday, April 2.
GUITAR WORLD: How did the Krush project come together?
All of us have been busy working on other projects, but our schedules finally allowed us to get together and do some writing. Our writing process is casual and allows us to dig deep into our past. John and I went to his house, sat around and told stories, played and came up with ideas that, over time, morphed and evolved into songs. We then made a demo of the songs with simple drums, just to keep time, and then sent it off to Dennis and asked him to wave his magic wand on them. Dennis is the greatest musician I know, on any instrument.
How would you describe the sound of NIACIN?
We refer to it as “bluesion.” It's like fusion, only blues-based. Whereas normal fusion is either a combination of jazz and rock or funk, this is more blues-based fusion with elements of jazz. The B3 is what takes it down that blues road automatically, just because it’s such an essential instrument. I remember there was a time when I was younger where having a B3 in the band was even more important than having a guitar player.
Do you have plans to tour?
Yes. We’ve done a lot of touring in the past in the US as well as Southeast Asia and Japan. This time, we’d like to also get to Europe a little more.
You mentioned performing in Japan, where Mr. Big has a huge following. What do you find are the differences between US and overseas audiences?
When you’re onstage with an audience in front of you, people are there to listen and have a great time, so it’s pretty much the same. But the world owes Japan a huge debt, because they’ve kept a lot of bands alive that would have otherwise gone away. Music isn’t as trend-driven in Japan or in Europe as it is in other areas of the world. In Europe, I’ll see posters for bands who haven’t played for decades in America but who do great business there and tour regularly. It’s not as trendy, whereas the US has kind of become the “flavor of the month."
Let’s discuss your David Lee Roth days. What’s your best memory of that first album, Eat 'Em And Smile?
It was an amazing time. I was in Talas at the time, and I remember saying the only band I’d ever leave them for would be Van Halen. So when Dave called me to start a band, I said, “Close enough!” [laughs]. The original guitar player was supposed to be Steve Stevens, but it didn’t quite work out, so I told Dave I knew another “Steve." I had been in touch with Steve Vai prior to that, and we brought him in, and he was just perfect.
We put a bunch of songs together in Dave’s basement, hung out and told stories. It was the most wonderful, raucous time. The tour was amazing and a coming-of-age for me personally. I had struggled for decades and finally achieved the success I had hoped for. I remember we played Buffalo in the same auditorium where I saw Jimi Hendrix play. That same day, the mayor declared it “Billy Sheehan Day" in Buffalo, New York [laughs].
Did you notice any controversy or hostility toward the new band after Dave’s acrimonious departure from Van Halen?
There were some people who showed a bias for one band or the other, but I tried to discourage that as much as possible. Our crowd was so enthusiastic and happy. I was sad about the fact that there was a fight. I love Van Halen.
Tell me about your experience seeing Hendrix.
Incredible. It was the very first concert I ever went to and it was his original band with Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding. After Jimi Hendrix, everything changed.
You’ve played with a lot of great guitar players, including Michael Schenker, Steve Vai and Paul Gilbert. How do they all differ?
They’re all unique players and extremely talented. It’s always a great source of inspiration to work with such great players. I remember back in the day when there was the Big Three — Beck, Page and Clapton. There’s a world of difference between them, and from an early age I realized there were a lot nuances between players. Everyone has their own personality tonally.
What’s the latest with Mr. Big?
We’re not touring this year but probably will go out again next year. We recently did a reunion tour and an album, What If, which was the best-reviewed record I'd ever played on in my life. We made it under the idea of doing it exactly like our first two records. We all got together in a room, wrote some songs and ended up with a record that did very well and one that I was really pleased with.
The way you approach making an album, from the way it’s done in the studio to the demeanor of everyone involved, affects the end product. With NIACIN and Krush, that’s certainly the case. Emotion bleeds through.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.