Justin’s Japan: Q&A with Billy Sheehan of Mr. Big on the band’s ‘What If…’ tour

Billy Sheehan, right: "I’m glad we got a lot of miles underneath us first before we hit America; it’s important to us. Every place is important to us, but you know, we’re Americans, we’re all patriots, and we love our country and we all really care." Credits: William Hames

By Justin Tedaldi (JETAANY) for NY Japanese Culture Examiner

One of the most respected bassists and gentlemen in the music world, Billy Sheehan is back with Mr. Big, the Los Angeles-based rock band he formed in 1988 best known for the hit ballad “To Be with You,” which shot to number one in 15 countries, including the U.S., in 1992. After splitting a decade later, in 2009 the original lineup reformed, followed by the release of What If…, the first album in 15 years from the original lineup.

Now, American fans are finally going to get a chance to see Billy, Paul Gilbert, Eric Martin and Pat Torpey together on stage since their ’90s heyday for a month-long American tour beginning Saturday (July 30) at San Diego’s 4th & B. In this exclusive interview, I spoke with Billy on Mr. Big’s current jaunt around the world, their triumphant return toJapan (where the band is revered), and the possibility of another album from the guys.

So far this year Mr. Big has played all over Europe, Asia and South America. What have your highlights been?

Japanis always amazing. The most difficult thing about touring is getting to and from the gigs…once we’re onstage, there’s no trouble at all, and in Japan, it’s just a breeze. We don’t fly in much, and take a lot of bullet trains, which are super convenient and easy and clean and safe and fast and everything. So Japanis always easy. The rest of Southeast Asiawas actually pretty cool, too. We were supposed to do two shows in China, but the Shanghaishow got cancelled because the promoters had the wrong visa for us. The shows in Korea, Taiwanand the Philippineswere unbelievable, and in Taiwanwe actually had to speed away from the venue in a van with literally crowds of people chasing after us (laughs). It was hilarious.

Then to Europe, we did a lot of festivals, like this heavy, heavy metal festival, Hellfest, inFrance. Most of the bands I didn’t even recognize—it was really hardcore heavy metal stuff…so we didn’t know what was going to happen, you know? And initially, the audience was kind of shocked, a lot of people, because, first of all, we were enjoying ourselves, laughing and having a blast. And there was a lot of singing. So we scored, especially at the heaviest of the heavy metal festivals, we had a great time…it was nice to see people enjoy something different, rather than the Balkanization of rock, which is a lot of people who only listen to one kind and hate everything else. If that, in fact, is starting to break down, I’m supremely pleased at that.

We did a bunch of headline shows in Europe, and then we went on to South America. We’d been to Brazilbefore, but we hadn’t been to Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Colombiaor Peruas Mr. Big, and we just had a great time. But to and from the gigs was just really tough—we did two shows twice with no sleep in between, so that was a rough one. But somehow, we pulled it off. It would have killed 21-year-olds, but us old experienced guys just braved through it (laughs).

I was tempted to make a Peruvian marching powder joke when you said you did two shows with no sleep.

(Laughs.) I think it was in Quito, Ecuador, that they offered us the coca leaf tea, which I didn’t have any, but a couple of guys tried it, and it’s just kind of a little mild stimulant like coffee, and it’s used primarily because you’re up so high and there’s less oxygen…it wasn’t like anybody drank a truckload of it.

Mr. Big toured Japan less than one month after the earthquake and tsunami, and even did gigs in Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures, the areas most affected by the devastation. What was that experience like?

Really touching. There was a [camera] crew meeting us at the airport and then following us around, and we didn’t know, but they went out in the crowd and interviewed a lot of people, so later on we saw that they had interviewed a guy…I think he was from Sendai. They interviewed him for television, and we didn’t see it until we saw the show. He’d lost everything, and a couple of friends and family, and he’d lost his entire Mr. Big collection, so he actually came to the show to start his collection over again. And I’m telling you, it was so touching, this poor guy, that in his life, the important thing was to come and get his music back together again, really amazing. We had raised about $100,000 for the earthquake relief, and there’s still more to be raised, too—I just saw another $22,000, and I have to see what the figures are for the downloads of the special song we did [“The World Is on the Way”], also, so there’s a bunch more, too.

In the end, we raised a bunch of money, and we got a special letter from the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. [signed by Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki] thanking us for being there. We didn’t know how it would go when we went there, was it too soon or not, but [remember] after 9/11, where after the dust cleared, all the playhouses and restaurants were going out of business because nobody was going to New York City, so what helped was that going to see a show and having dinner to help the economy rolling again, so we were hoping to get that idea happening. We heard from saké dealers that were going out of business because nobody was drinking because they were all in mourning, you know? It’s a shame that so many lives were lost, but one of the most important things after anything like that is to get back up on your feet again. So I think we helped a bit—I’m cautiously optimistic to say I think we helped a bit. And from the tone of the e-mails and speaking with people after the show, we’re very pleased. So it all ended good.

Was there any hesitation at all about playing those gigs because of the radiation?

For me, no. A couple of the guys in the band were a little concerned about it. I fly transoceanic all the time [across] the Pacific, and you get a dose of radiation every time you do that. I think it’s equivalent to—I forget the figure—one, two or three chest X-rays just by flying over the ocean. And I do know that radiation, to incite fear in people, is almost second to none, you know? It’s invisible, and you don’t know it’s there and the next thing you know, you’ve got a problem. So I knew that there was probably some elevated degree of danger, but I also know that most things of that nature are over-exaggerated, in my experience with my own personal catastrophes of earthquakes and whatever else. They really do overblow it.

So I wasn’t worried personally, but we were more concerned for the fans, and I know that the Japanese government is very conscientious with their safety and rules. I remember I was in Tokyoone time, and there was a typhoon warning for everyone to stay inside. This was years ago, and I was out with a friend of mine, we were walking around, and the streets were deserted; there was nobody anywhere…the people inJapan are really in tune with the warnings and such. And I found out the government wouldn’t have allowed [us] to go on if we were to put a crowd of people in danger, so there was that factor, as well. So a couple of the guys in the band were a little worried about it, but I was okay with it, and in the end, all of us are glad we did it.

What are your expectations for the U.S. tour?

I only have e-mails to go by. I know there’s people that have just been spending years and years and years waiting and urging and cajoling and…

Begging and pleading?

(Laughs.) Yeah, that too. So I think we’re going to see a lot of old friends that we’re really looking forward to seeing , and I’m glad we’re doing it now, too, because we’ve just toured so much that we’re in great shape, you know? We’ve got our set together and our hands are like steel, our voices are in great shape. So we’re going to hit it just where everything is together. Sometimes going on a tour for the first couple of weeks, you’re still kind of feeling it out, you know? Figuring out what goes away or how things sort of fall together.

But I’m glad we got a lot of miles underneath us first before we hitAmerica; it’s important to us. Every place is important to us, but you know, we’re Americans, we’re all patriots, and we love our country and we all really care, so that’s very important to us to do a great job, so we’re in good shape for it, and I’m thinking real positively about it. The House of Blues show we did in L.A. before we left [in April] was so psychotically sold out—I mean, there wasn’t a guest list or a photo pass or a working pass or a load-the-gear pass we could have gotten for anybody—completely jammed. So I think that was a good omen.

Do you have plans to change up the setlist a little for America? Mr. Big is more known here for its first two albums compared with the rest of the world.

[It’ll be] pretty similar. May not be as long a show, so we might have to do something to tighten up. But we want to do a bunch of new stuff, because it’s been going over really well. Even in places where access to music is much more difficult likeBuenos AiresorSantiago,Chile, we had the whole place singing along to all of our brand new songs. So in the Internet age now, it’s not difficult for real fans to find the music and get into it, so we’re not going to hold back, and just do the set we would do anywhere else, you know?

Like I said, we’ll have to tighten up a little because it’s a shorter show. Generally, we go long (laughs)—our tour manager’s always on the side of the stage going, “C’mon, c’mon, stop the show, we gotta get out, it’s got to load up and union rules and all that” (laughs). So generally we go long, but we’ll go as long as we can.

If you’re planning to switch instruments at B.B. King’s in New York, you’re going to blow the crowd’s mind—it’s such a small stage.

(Laughs.) InJapan we did “Brown Sugar,” and it requires a sax solo. I had never played sax before, but I know where to put my fingers on a sax, and I know how to blow air through it and make a sound. So luckily, I had a friend of a friend here inL.A. who’s a tenor player, and he coached me through how to make a couple of notes work on the sax and kind of get around the key signature of the song. And I ended up doing the sax solo in the show. It was pretty horrific for the most part, and mostly comedy, but a couple times I actually fooled a couple people to think that I knew how to play sax. It was a blast.

I was surprised to learn that Canada turned down Mr. Big to play there. Any reason for this?

I don’t know—if the promoters feel they can’t make money on the show, they don’t book the show. I know inTorontowe toured with Rush a lot; we played a lot inCanada, plus a lot of the cities where a lot of bands don’t play, likeCalgary, up in the central sections ofCanadaand the west.Torontowas a second home to me for a long time when I was in Talas back in the day—I played with Kim Mitchell’s band Max Webster, a native Canadian band, inToronto. So I was kind of surprised and disappointed, but there’s nothing we can do about it; we can just offer the shows and hope the promoters take them. And when they do, we show up and do our best, you know?

Right now, Indonesiahasn’t gotten a show on this tour, so there’s a Facebook Indonesia page. I just saw it, and I tell them, “Hit the promoters and tell them to get a Mr. Big show,” so they’re bombarding the promoters to try to get us in there, so hopefully it’ll work. That’s actually how the show happens sometimes, with local fans who want it to happen that badly hitting the promoter up, and sure enough, one thing led to another—it’s pretty cool. But aboutCanada, I’d love to play there; it was so close and near and dear to me inBuffalo,New York.

That was my next question. You’ll be returning to your hometown of Buffalo next month with Mr. Big. Excited?

Very, very, very, yeah. I think the guest list is already filled, so that’s going to be a blowout night. I think Dave Constantino from Talas, his band’s going to open up for us, so I’m excited about that, and we’re all excited to see Dave. It should be great and it should be a blast, I’m sure.

I like how you have all these local bands opening for you on this tour.

A lot of those are not necessarily our choices, but we’re happy to help out a local band when we can. I remember back in the old days with Talas, we were doing really well career-wise, but we were still playing in clubs for three sets a night. So we decided to make it two sets, and get another local act to play, so they could develop more bands in town so there’s more of a scene. And that was our doing, too—we ended up trying to groom and help out a bunch of smaller acts and opening acts to play with us on our show. Normally they had to play on their own in front of not too many people, so they played with us to get good exposure. We’ve always been about that, and we do what we can.

Mr. Big heads back to Europe this fall. What’s next for you once you’re off the road?

I don’t know. I’ve just been trying to get over my jetlag and all that, so I float around. I’m archiving all the live recordings of all the [Mr. Big] shows that were recorded, most of them just stereo board mixes, multitrack things, but I add them to my iTunes archive and all that stuff. I’ve been playing so much on the road, even during the day when it’s over, I’ll go for two or three hours in a day and come up with all kinds of this new stuff and want to put it in something, so we’ll see.

I’ll probably start reading a whole lot of stuff, and I may do a BX3 tour at the end of this year with Jeff Berlin and Stu Hamm again. It hasn’t been confirmed, but I think there’s a couple shows in the works. I don’t actually get done until about December 18th, so when Mr. Big finishes, then I’ll do the bass thing and we’ll see what happens after that. You know, I don’t really plan too much in advance; I kind of let nature take its course.

Finally, will there be another album from Mr. Big?

I do not know, my friend (laughs). I’m not sure. I don’t see why not, but also, I don’t think it’s always necessary to get on that treadmill of “put out a record and tour/put out a record and tour”—that’s kind of what got us in trouble in the first place, is that constant pressure [of] “look ahead and now I’ve gotta write,” you know? So I think we’ve got to break that chain just a little bit. As far as I know, I’m just talking out of thin air here, I don’t know what the plans are; I don’t know what anyone else’s plans are. But I know we have an incredible archive of stuff that’s never been heard, and I’d love to put that out. I don’t know how we’re going to put it out—cheap, easy and/or free, if possible, but there’s a lot of stuff in the Mr. Big archives folder that I’d love to get out, so we’ll see how we can do that…some of that stuff, we recorded while we were with Atlantic [Records], so I’m not sure what the legal ramifications of that are, but we’ll find out.

I’m happy to do another record if that’s the case, but I don’t want to be jammed or pressured into doing it. I’d like to do it like when we did What If…­: it would have to be an enjoyable, easy, creative, cooperative thing, you know? That’s the most important thing. How it looks now, we’ve been in some rough spots, where we’re under a lot of pressure and you’ve got to get the airport and you’ve got to get off and nobody has any sleep and there’s no food and the conditions backstage are crazy, and there’s loss in communicating and all kinds of crazy stuff. And normally, that affects the band adversely, and the next thing you know, the band’s at each other’s throats. Well, in this case I’m happy to say that [now] we’re all experienced enough to understand that if we’re in hell right now, then everybody chill out and cool it and let’s not get into what we know we can get into, because (laughs) we’re dealing with unforeseen circumstances here. So that’s a good thing.

We don’t respond negatively to pressure like that anymore, but I wouldn’t want to push it any further than what we can do, and remove the pressure and do what we really love to do when we feel it’s best to do it. So we’ll see about that. If we do another record, I might like to do something very different, too, take a chance, because we can, you know? Finance, to me, at this point is unnecessary. We’re not about selling records, we’re about what we can do, as people and musicians, and maybe take a chance. What that might be is anybody’s guess, but anyway, that’s my two cents.

What If… is in stores now. Mr. Big’s American tour runs from July 30-Aug. 31. Go to www.mrbigsite.com for more information, and visit Billy online at http://billysheehan.com.