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DATE OF INTERVIEW: 8th July 2018
METAL DISCOVERY: Progressive music , for me, always falls into two categories. You’ve got generic prog… prog as a genre… which is a paradox to have a genre called progressive, if you think about those two terms…
BILLY: [Laughs]
(Billy Sheehan on his incessant self-criticism)
"The shittiest, meanest, most horrible YouTube comments about me… and there are some pretty awesome ones… pretty horrifying ones… none of them are as critical as I am to me!"
Billy Sheehan in his dressing room at the Resuce Rooms, Nottingham, 8th July 2018
Photograph copyright © 2018 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview & Photography by Mark Holmes
Official Billy Sheehan Website:
Thanks to Freddy Palmer for offering and arranging the interview
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MD: And then you’ve got genuine prog, which is actually progressing something… like progressive music did originally, when it was about breaking the rules and whatever. Do you regard it in that way and do you see Sons of Apollo as sitting somewhere within that distinction?
BILLY: I think there’s an element of what you would refer to as progressive, but you’re right, as a title of a genre…
MD: It’s become a style, which is what it shouldn’t be.
BILLY: Yeah. And remember, the first records that began that movement, I got the very first King Crimson record in high school and we blew our minds. It was unbelievable how incredible and fantastic this was. And, then, a lot of other bands… early Genesis… I’m a huge fan of very early Genesis… so, therefore, I love Mellotrons. I actually owned an Orchestron, which was the optical disc version. I loved it so much, I didn’t even play it, but I bought one just so I could have one, because it sounded so amazing! And, eventually, I got in a band where there was a keyboard player and he used it and bought it off me. But I was so excited about that sound that I just bought one!
MD: Were you a Moog guy… did you ever have a Moog?
BILLY: Yeah, I had one of the original… it might’ve been called a Satellite, but it was meant for instructional purposes. I think it folded open. I had a guy build me pedals because I had Taurus pedals and they were really good, but it was only an octave and it was keyboard. So, I had him build me a, basically, fretboard laying on the ground, with a button for every place there was a note. So, it was basically a grid of four rows, a row for each string, of buttons, with the other grid being the frets. And, for years and years and years and years, I tried to get this… unfortunately, it was controlled voltage and the switch we had inside there, that ran it, was not the correct switch. So, every time you stepped on it, it would be a little bit more out of tune… so, after about half an hour, you were way out and you had to stop and put it back in.
So, years and years went by and I had three or four people make me prototypes of a way to build that thing. Finally, Keith McMillen came out with a little step thing, in order to change your MIDI channels. And I called him and said, “Can you reconfigure those buttons into the shape of a keyboard?”… and he goes, “No, because the button is over the circuit board and, on a circuit board, it has to be in that position.” I explained to him why, because I wanted to get Taurus pedals, only a smaller version and have it send out MIDI information… and, also there’s got to be a way to send it out so you can program chords into it, so you can play whole chords and, therefore, replace the keyboard player with a flip pedal… sorry keyboard players! We have enough bass players replaced by keyboards, so now we’re even!
MD: [Laughs]
BILLY: So, I explained and talked and we had a great conversation. Months went by and he calls me up and says, “Hey, I did it.” And that’s the Keith McMillen 12 Step, which is a great little device, and works for keyboard players, too. In fact, I was gonna try and get Derek one. Just like the pedals on the original B-3… Jimmy Smith was a grandmaster of that, the bass pedals underneath. So, we finally got around to creating a pedal that did that and it’s now on the market.
MD: Wow, interesting!
BILLY: Yeah! So I guess it’s not so bad that I can answer the keyboard questions!
MD: You’re the man, obviously!
BILLY: [Laughs]
MD: You have a couple of old DT songs in your live set from the 'Falling Into Infinity' album... so is that Mike and Derek on a bit of a nostalgic kick?
BILLY: I guess so.
MD: Where does that end? Do you put some Talisman and Mr. Big tracks in the set, too?
BILLY: No, it’s more that they were the two that were together in that band and, rather than picking something from everybody’s thing… Dream Theater’s an amazing band, they’ve got millions of fans - rightfully so. Unfortunately, I was never into them. For no reason. There’s, sometimes, just not enough hours in the day to listen to every band there is.
MD: Exactly.
BILLY: Of course, I was an old school prog guy so newer prog doesn’t float my boat like King Crimson, Genesis did… Yes… Emerson, Lake & Palmer… I remember when an Emerson, Lake & Palmer record first came out… I remember going to my friend’s place and we used to listen to that thing all night long. All day, all night, as much as we possibly could. We just loved that stuff. So, the later prog, for me, doesn’t do it.
MD: If you listen to a Dream Theater record, then you can hear Rush, Yes, and all that sort of stuff, anyway. I guess if you were into those bands originally, then those are the ones you’ll return to.
BILLY: Yeah, and I haven’t listened to much and for no other reason. It’s just not necessarily my thing. Great guys, great band, great performers, all fantastic, but it’s not… it’s difficult, sometimes, to say you’re not a fan of some band. People will instantly turn that into some hateful thing, but it’s just not the case. Like recently, we played in Ireland and I posted some Rory Gallagher because I love Rory Gallager and we were in Belfast. Either Belfast or Dublin, there’s a statue of him and his guitar… I didn’t get to see it but I heard about it. I love Rory Gallagher so much. And somebody said, “What, no love for Phil Lynott?” And then, “No, that’s got nothing to do with it. This is my page, I love Rory Gallagher, and I want to post about it.” Now, I have to check and post about every Irish musician and give them equal time? No, I like Rory…
MD: That’s just the inanity of twenty first century social media where you post something and it gets twisted out of context.
BILLY: But I wish the Dream Theater guys nothing but goodwill… John Petrucci’s a dear friend of mine. Mike Mangini, I’ve played with and jammed with many times - we’re good friends. So, it’s nothing to do with that; I just don’t happen to be into it.
MD: You’re also doing a version of Queen’s ‘The Prophet's Song’, as well… whose choice was that?
BILLY: That’s Jeff’s… he wanted to do it. He does a really great job and brings the house down.
MD: You’re the second prog metal band to cover this song in recent months.
BILLY: Really?
MD: Yeah, there’s a Swiss band called Cellar Darling, and their singer plays a hurdy-gurdy…
BILLY: I love the hurdy-gurdy!
MD: Check out their version of ‘The Prophet's Song’. It’s Queen with a bit of hurdy-gurdy… it’s fantastic.
BILLY: Oh, great. I researched the hurdy-gurdy because I was trying to get a circular piece of horse hair to use to actuate the bass strings, like a motorized, spinning unit, to play bowed bass strings but, after cutting up plywood in circles and trying to glue horse hair, I decided to give up!
BILLY: There’s an electronic version coming soon from TC Electronics, the Aeon, which will do that electronically.
MD: You should check out Anna Murphy, though, and her band Cellar Darling. She’s a virtuoso on the hurdy-gurdy… and a great singer, too.
BILLY: I wanted to get a hurdy-gurdy, and I started looking ‘em up online… and they’re not very cheap!
MD: And not very easy to play, either, although she makes it look very easy!
BILLY: [Laughs] It’s kind of like an Autoharp, in some ways, because I think you’re pressing down on pre-configured notes… you’re not necessarily playing them like you are on the guitar.
MD: And lots of turning!
BILLY: Yeah, you gotta turn that thing… like a bagpipe. And I just got my practice chanter, to learn my bagpipes, so… coming to a show near you!
MD: The final thing then… your CV makes for astounding reading in what you’ve achieved and who you’ve played with over the years, but do you have any unfulfilled ambitions for people you’d like to play with?
BILLY: Sadly, Paco de Lucía passed away. He was one of my dream guys for a long time. I’ve met with, but I have not played with, Billy Cobham. He changed the world of drumming. They should have in drumming, BC - Before Cobham… [Laughs]… and after! There are others, like Elvin Jones and Buddy Rich… unbelievable… but Billy Cobham really did something that struck a lot of people. Like Eddie Van Halen… there are a lot of guitarists that are better and more versatile but there’s something about Ed, and he caught the wave. There’s a million bands from England that sang great songs but The Beatles were the one. And, for me, Billy Cobham was the drummer.
MD: Did you ever see the film ‘Whiplash’?
BILLY: Oh, yeah!
MD: What did you make of that movie?
BILLY: Don Ellis… do you know who he is?
MD: No.
BILLY: That’s his song… incredible. He would do all these incredible, odd-time pieces. I entirely recommend it. Chicago did a song called ‘Introduction’… [Billy claps and taps out the rhythms on his knees while voicing the melodies]… that’s Don Ellis… 19/8… and it’s kind of like, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2. And Don Ellis’ version, he actually starts the band like that… “1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2”, and then he comes in and plays 19/8. He was the guy that did that stuff and that’s his song. He never really surfaced in the mainstream. Like I said, I was in a horn band, early on, and we got into Don Ellis… so cool. And he really experimented a lot with far out time signatures, and then he eventually got into a lot of Indian music, also. Quite an amazing thing. So, yeah, ‘Whiplash’… as soon as I heard about the movie… Don! You’ve finally got your spot here!
MD: One English critic said about about the film, it’s like “Full Metal Hi-Hat” because it’s like this intense action movie, but just with a guy playing drums.
BILLY: I know, I know.
MD: There’s such an intensity to that film.
BILLY: The teacher - I’ve got that guy living in my head!
BILLY: I always have that self-discipline, self-criticism. The shittiest, meanest, most horrible YouTube comments about me… and there are some pretty awesome ones… pretty horrifying ones… none of them are as critical as I am to me!
MD: Fair enough! Thank you very much for your time, that was really interesting.
BILLY: Oh, thank you.