Acclaimed bassist Billy Sheehan (Talas, David Lee Roth, Mr. Big, and Devil’s Slingshot, among others), always a man of many words and interesting stories, was kind enough to take a break from his decidedly hectic schedule to speak with us regarding, among many other things, the release of his latest solo opus Holy Cow…
Here’s the Van Halen-related section:
Todd: Looking back, are you surprised that Talas didn’t eventually achieve mainstream commercial success?
Billy: “No. We progressed along the lines that everybody else did. We got to a point where we got looked at by a lot of labels, we got promised deals, those promises were broken, we got promised more deals and those promises were broken. But we were still expanding and doing well. We were getting better and expanding our reach. We knew it wasn’t going to be a quick overnight thing…it was far from an overnight thing. …I had to replace two of the original guys with other guys. The band was still good, but it just wasn’t the same, so when David Lee Roth called, asking me to join him, I said ‘Well, the only band I’d ever think of leaving Talas for is Van Halen, so if David Lee Roth calls, I guess that’s close enough’ (laughs). So that was it. I was done.”
Todd: Did you initially find it difficult to make the transition from the relative obscurity of Talas to truly high-profile exposure of playing with David Lee Roth at what was arguably the peak of his career as a solo artist?
Billy: “Well, it was quite a transition. …I had a ’77 (Ford) Pinto. You know those fake tires that come with new cars that you’re supposed to use in case you get a flat? It’s not a real tire and you’re only supposed to use it to drive like ten miles to get to the gas station to get in fixed? Well, I had that on my car for two years because I couldn’t afford to buy an actual tire. So I did my time with poverty. But we had fun, but boy were we poor. So I went to L.A. Dave flew me in. I was the first guy he called and we started planning a band. Within two nights, we were playin’ in a club and there were Paparazzi waiting there, so I went from driving my three wheeled Pinto to having my picture taken by Paparazzi comin’ out of a club (laughs). That’s quite a steep little curve there. …It was an interesting time. We had a blast.
The original guitarist was Steve Stevens (Billy Idol). That’s who Dave had in mind. It didn’t work out, so I told Dave ‘Hey, I know another Steve that would be just perfect’ and sure enough, he called Steve Vai and he came down. I love Steve Stevens. He’s great, but I think Steve Vai was the perfect fit for Eat ‘Em And Smile. He’s a wonderful guy. They’re all just fantastic. I just had dinner with him and all of the Eat ‘Em And Smile guys the other night. Of course it was minus Dave because we couldn’t find him, but it was still myself, Steve (drummer) Greg Bissonette and the keyboardist Brett Tuggle…all of the guys that we did the tour with. We’ve done it a couple of times where we have an Eat ‘Em And Smile reunion. We all sit down, have dinner somewhere and tell stories. It’s always a laugh riot…”
Todd: What ultimately led you to your decision to no longer work with David following the release of (1988’s) Skyscraper? Was there the proverbial ‘…creative differences…’, or was it something on a more personal level?
Billy: “Dave took a chance. He decided to try a new direction with the music. In a way he was right because he wanted to mix dance beats into the music. He was like ‘We need to be more Dance-orientated’. And I was like ‘That’s great, but…’ …It just wasn’t me. I just couldn’t get up there and do that kind of thing. So I was gone, but in a way he was right because Dance music did become the next giant thing and now that’s pretty much all there is. I call it Karaoke Aerobics. It’s basically people doing Karaoke because they’re singers who don’t really sing on their records and just get pitch-corrected. And then they get eight to twelve people to do Aerobics next to them and that’s ninety percent of the music that you see on TV now. So in a way, he was right, but the problem with doin’ a switch like that when you’re a Rocker guy is that the Rockers are going to hate you because you’ve turned on them and the Dance guys are going to hate you because you were once a Rock guy. …So unfortunately, he fell between the cracks, but in a way he was right. He accurately predicted that Dance music was going to come in. It did, but at the same time, we had a lot of other great music by a lot of other great bands. I just think he threw the dice and they just didn’t come up with the number he needed.”
Todd: Any truth to the rumors that you were approached regarding replacing Michael Anthony in Van Halen? In hindsight, it’s a seemingly logical move considering your connection to David Lee Roth as a solo artist…
Billy: “Yeah, I was. For a long time, I denied it because (former Van Halen bassist) Michael (Anthony) is a dear friend of mine. I love him so much. I was kinda caught in the middle. …It’s happened several times. Once right after we (Talas) toured with them in 1980, it happened again in ’82 after the Diver Down record, it happened again just before Dave called me…and then, when I was out of Mr. Big before the Gary Cherone thing (i.e. 1998’s abysmal Van Halen III) happened, I spoke with them and then I spoke with them again after that as well. So it’s happened a bunch of times. We’ve always been toying with it (laughs). I went over to Ed’s a couple of times and we jammed and talked about stuff. He’s such a wonderful guy. I would love to go out with just Ed and a drummer, ya know?
But as much as I would have liked to be in the band, I didn’t want the band to change, because I’m a fan of Van Halen. If Michael ain’t up there, it ain’t the same band, even if it’s me, ya know? But I’m sure if the opportunity would have gone further, I would have taken it. We talked about it seriously a couple of different times as several different points, but it never actually materialized.
When they got back together with Dave and went out without Michael, I was kinda sad about it. So I’m very honored and I love all of those guys. …Alex, Eddie, Dave and Michael, I love them all completely and I wish they were all together again. At least Dave and Eddie are back together again. I’m happy about that, ya know? That’s how it goes. …Who knows what tomorrow will bring. I’m just glad they’re back together and hope they’re happy. I love Van Halen. I love all four of the Van Halens and they’ve all been a great, great influence on me.”
Todd: Commercially and musically, what do you feel has been your single greatest musical accomplishment?
Billy: “Basically, it was Talas, David Lee Roth and Mr. Big. There were a few other things in between, but I never really joined any other bands. I toured with UFO, I did a brief stint with Max Webster, (guitarist) Kim Mitchell’s great band and a few other little thing, but the only bands that I was really in were Talas, a brief stint in a band called Light Years, David Lee Roth and Mr. Big. …Mr. Big, of course, was my biggest success. It was more nine, of course, than David Lee Roth. David Lee Roth is Dave’s band, but that was my first taste of it, so that was incredible. It’s hard to pick one or the other. And the early years with Talas…most everything that I know now I learned back then (laughs), so they all hold a significant place. I’m glad to say that I’m still friends with everybody now after the smoke has cleared from Talas, David Lee Roth, Mr. Big and all points in between now. I’m really lucky to have those people as friends because they are some truly wonderful people.”