In a new interview with Ultimate Classic Rock, legendary bassist Billy Sheehan (The Winery Dogs, Talas, Mr. Big, David Lee Roth) talked about his moments sharing the stage with Van Halen, a dream which would eventually lead to a full-time gig with Roth’s solo band in the decadent Eat ‘Em And Smile lineup that also featured guitarist Steve Vai and drummer Gregg Bissonette.
Sheehan’s first full-time band was Talas, a power trio with Dave Constantino on guitar and Paul Varga on drums. The band played a mixture of cover songs and original material, and all three instrumentalists alternated on lead vocals. Talas was the opening band for thirty shows during Van Halen’s “1980 Invasion” tour. Here’s the Van Halen portion from Billy’s new interview:
With Talas, you got the chance to tour with Van Halen a couple of times. What was the scene like at that time?
Van Halen was the greatest band in the world. At their worst, they were only spectacular. It was just an amazing experience. It was Showbiz 101 to see that band in action and behind the scenes and [to see] how incredibly precise and awesome [they were] and [with] almost military precision [how] they could get up on stage and make it look like it’s a big-ass party.
You know, to do a party, you just have a room with beer in it and have people in there. But if you do it right, it’s a riot and they always would do it right. And it would never seem like there was any effort put into it at all, but behind the scenes, there was great effort. The lighting, the sound and the cues and everything was all worked out, but when you watched it — even though we watched it every night and it was the same every night, we’d still laugh at every joke. It was all worked out and scripted to a large degree, but boy, it was just done magically and perfectly.
A lot of that was Dave, of course — he’s just a grandmaster of showbiz and the greatest frontman in my humble opinion that there ever was — and still is. It was an incredible lesson to learn and they were very, very nice to us. They let us do some encores and they chose us personally to be on that tour, because they got a tape from Premier Talent, the booking agency. We had no idea we were even up for it until we finally found out, “Hey, you guys got the Van Halen tour” and we were like, “We got the what?” We didn’t even have a record out, really — so we were very surprised. We made friends with everybody and I’m friends with all of them to this day, thankfully.
That was a band that was knocking a lot of people for a loop at the time. Particularly the bands that were touring with that band, it seems like if you’re in that position, that would cause you to take at least a second look at all areas of your process to make sure you had everything dialed in.
Yeah, when you’re up on that stage and it’s Van Halen’s stage, you’re under a microscope and there’s a whole lotta people watching. We got lucky. We scored and we got a bunch of encores and we did real well and they were real pleased with us. I created a relationship there that, of course, led to the Dave thing later.
It was a little spooky though, getting up on a stage like that in front of all of those people and telling them that we’ve never played there before and we had no record out and we just gotta go up there and do it. There again, we get back to the power trio thing and with everybody singing and playing, we got up there and did our thing and they responded positively. Sometimes you roll the dice and the sun comes up.
One of our readers wanted to ask about how you were asked to join Van Halen quite a few times. It’s surprising that never panned out or went that way.
Yeah, in the end I’m not really sure what the purpose of any talks with me to join the band was. But it happened a couple of times. I love Michael Anthony and I felt totally torn, because I love the band too — I didn’t want to see the band change and [have them] bring some new guy in, even if it was me. I’m a real believer in the original lineup — I love that concept as a fan. Whenever anybody changes, even if it’s some peripheral person, it’s kind of not the same to me — once in a while, it works. So I was torn a little bit, but it never really panned out.
In a way, nature took its course. When Dave left, he called me and we started that band and that was close enough. I always said when I was in Buffalo, the only band I’d ever leave Talas for was Van Halen and when Dave called, I said, “Okay, close enough, I’m gone.” That was it!
Check out UCR’s complete interview if you want to see what Billy Sheehan said about the recording of Eat Em And Smile and Skyscraper.