It’s no secret how much I love THE WINERY DOGS. One of the best and most refreshing bands to come out in a looooong time, they released their sophomore effort Hot Streak last month and it’s fantastic. Mike Portnoy (drums/vocals), Richie Kotzen (vocals/guitars), and Billy Sheehan (bass/vocals) delivered a monster home run, and the live show here in PA recently was nothing short of spectacular. So when I had the opportunity to call Mr. Sheehan for a chat I almost broke my fingers dialing. Check it:
Billy: Pretty much that. We didn’t worry about it, not much we could do about it. It was just, “Do your best and hopefully it comes out the way you want it to be” you know? So that’s what we did. And so we just sat down and did what we did the first time instead of changing anything. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. We just did the same procedure that we did the first time. But we had over a hundred shows under our belts so that helped a real lot, that experience together. It helps in a million ways not only creatively and artistically, but also the idea that we know each other better as people as well. The main difference was that road experience. I think it really paid off, and it still does. We’re just into this tour now, we had our first show last night, and usually the first night of a tour there’s a lot of loose ends, but we were pleasantly surprised with how well it went.
Amps: When I saw you in Dallas last year my head practically exploded. All three of you had such grins on your faces all night long. It’s so clear that you guys love playing together and that translates into what’s on the records.
Billy: Well, you always hope so. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. We got lucky and it does, so we’re glad about that. We really enjoy doing this, you know? You just can’t fake that. I love to play live and that’s what it’s all about all the time for me. It’s my thing, it’s an essential part of my life to have the opportunity to play and perform. And I think Mike and Richie feel that same way, too.
Amps: I know this will be a hard one for you, but do you have any favorites off of Hot Streak? For me it’s definitely “Ghost Town” with that killer arrangement and “Think It Over” because of how soulful it is.
Billy: “Ghost Town”, definitely. I also love “Think It Over”. The opening track “Oblivion” we actually wrote mid-tour last year. We’ve cleaned it up a bit for the recorded version. When we performed it live we just kind of jammed our way through it. It’s tighter than it was live (laughs). But there’s nothing on the record that I don’t believe in, and it’s pretty rare to make a record like that. The first one was the same for me. A lot of records I’ve played on there may be a couple clunkers and really what can you do? But so far with all THE WINERY DOGS recorded stuff in my mind there are no clunkers, and I enjoy them all. But yeah, “Ghost Town” is definitely one of my favorites. And if you’re coming to see us on this tour I’m happy to say we’re doing both of your favorites, Damian (Amps roars in approval and Billy cracks up laughing!).
Amps: We definitely see a different side of THE WINERY DOGS on this album. How many more layers are there to peel back?
Billy: Well, all of us have such an extensive history with different kinds of music. When I started playing in Clubs it was all old BEATLES and ROLLING STONES and JIMI HENDRIX, standards like that. Then I was in a horn band playing CHICAGO, and BLOOD, SWEAT, AND TEARS stuff. Then TALAS, my old band from Buffalo, we went through all the genre changes. And I’m into all kinds of music as well. I love a lot of stuff people wouldn’t imagine that I would like.
There’s probably a lot more that we can do. Mike and Richie have also played different genres through their lives. Mike got known for being kind of a prog guy and from what he says to me it was kind of inadvertent. That’s why he was always doing such different side projects because he was into more than just that, which is always a good thing.
Amps: You mentioned being into all kinds of music. What are you listening to these days?
Billy: There’s an Indian violinist named L. Shankar who is just brilliant. Frank Zappa said he was the greatest musician he’d ever seen. I listen to a lot of lounge, bachelor pad music (laughs). Some of it is hilarious and so bad it’s good. Of course the great singers like Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra. My mother taught me to appreciate all the greats from an early age. Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, people like that. Most of my collection is from the 60’s and 70’s. Just about anything from back then is my thing.
Amps: I would love to be a fly on the wall during your writing sessions. What happens there?
Billy: It’s pretty casual. We just sit around in a room and next thing you know, say on “Ghost Town” that whole opening riff thing is kind of a variation of something I’ve played before and I like that kind of beat, that E with a G on it so I just started playing around a bit and Mike started playing with me. Next thing I know we’re all playing this riff together. Where do we go from there? So I said, “D” and I moved it up to an F# to hold it up there. Would this work for a verse? And Richie started pulling chords out doing a progression. Then he started mumbling some non-lyrical melody lines on top of it and that was the seed we planted that grew and did what it did. It’s a pretty simple thing. Sometimes Mike will start a beat and I’ll start playing a bass line to it. If it appeals to Richie he’ll jump in, if it doesn’t we’ll move onto something else.
We’ve always got a million ideas, so in the course of a couple hours we could have five or six basic songs pretty easily. I enjoy writing as a group, too. A lot of bands want to run home, make demos and bring them back and then have the band learn that. I think when you’re writing as a band there’s a greater depth to it. It’s incredible to hear the process of some of the bands like THE BEATLES and how they put stuff together. As I said, I really enjoy writing as a band. It really gives the band an identity as opposed to three individuals running off with their individual friends and coming back with demos.
Billy: Well I make NON-incredible bass noises (laughs). No, I’m kidding. I play bass a lot and when I’m practicing that’s when I’m trying stuff that I can’t do yet and I don’t know and I’m figuring it out, mistaking through it and all that nonsense. And other than that I devote most of my time to my iTunes collection. I’m under two terabytes now. I just did a big purge looking for doubles and duplicates of albums. Plus I’m adding all the album art to everything. I should be done by Christmas.
Amps: How much fun was the last tour and how long do you expect to be out this time?
Billy: I know we’re gonna be out way into next year. We have shows lined up in October of 2016. I love that. I’ll play forever if I can. We had a blast last tour, too. We played some horrible little clubs because promoters and people in the biz weren’t convinced this was real, or thought it was a side project, a one-off. We told everybody from the beginning we’re in this for the long haul. As a fan, which I think my devotion to my iTunes gives testimony to how big a fan I am of music, I get so brokenhearted when a band I like breaks up or changes a member. Because you get an emotional investment in these records. So for us we wanted to make sure that anyone who DID make that emotional investment in us by buying a record and coming out to a show that we weren’t letting them down. Right from the beginning the shows were enjoyable and we knew we could continue on for a long, long time.
Amps: We all know about your Yamaha Attitude bass, but what other tools of the trade are you working with now, like strings, straps, effects, and cables?
Billy: Well I’ve used Rotosound strings forever. They’re the ones that when you hear the opening bass on “Money” by PINK FLOYD that’s what they are. They’re such an iconic brand and they’re hand-made by the guy who built the machines in England. I did a photo shoot, me, Steve Harris, and John Entwhistle some years back and I gave my camera to someone and I was like, “Get some candid shots of us together!” I also did a signature pedal with EBS, a great distortion pedal that has really cool features. Every time after the show I meet someone who has it, and they love it. It’s been a real success, and I use it live myself. DiMarzio pickups and Hartke amps now, so I’m all good.
Billy: No time right now, unfortunately. I might do a couple of things when we take a break, so we’ll see. I really enjoy doing them. They’re quite a bit of fun and it gives me a chance to put my thumb on the pulse of what’s really going on out there, hanging out with people, and seeing what they’re into. And I love showing people what I’ve come up with, how I got there, and hopefully inspire them to move their playing ahead if they can, you know?
Amps: What would you like to say to all your fans out there?
Billy: Just a big, giant, massive, nebula-sized thank you! Without the fans being into what you do, you’re nothing. We appreciate that so much and have such gratitude towards those that have come out to see us play, bought our record, bought t-shirts. I always tell people that everything I own in life: my house, my car, everything I have comes from somebody buying a ticket, T-shirt, or a record. And I never forget that. All of us are the same, myself, Mike and Richie, we all have similar lives. We have them to thank for this, and we will continue to do our absolute best for them any chance we get.
Billy Sheehan is beyond humble. He is one of the world’s greatest bassists, yet at the end of the day, he’s simply a fan like you and me. How cool is that? THE WINERY DOGS are on a Hot Streak, and there’s no signs of it flaming out any time soon. If any of you have your doubts, go pick up the record and see what you’re missing.