Billy Sheehan and Eric Martin - Mr Big - Interview Exclusive. Print E-mail
Written by Mark Taylor   
Friday, 17 December 2010 06:00

Formed back in 1988, Mr Big forged its place in rock history by successfully combining trademark "shredding" musicianship with awesome vocal harmonies. The band's original line-up of vocalist Eric Martin, guitarist Paul Gilbert, bassist Billy Sheehan, and drummer Pat Torpey produced numerous hit songs including "To Be With You" which was a Billboard Hot 100 number one single in 15 countries for weeks, in 1991.  Mr Big however was always more than just one song, the band also enjoying hits that covered a wide array of genres be it the aforementioned ballads, heavy metal, or blues rock.

 

After Paul Gilbert left the band in 1997 the guitar maestro position was handed to Richie Kotzen before the band finally broke up in 2002 after two further studio albums that saw the band garner further worldwide success.

 

February 2009 saw the reunion of the original line initially to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the band's debut album, but here I am in 2010 in central London awaiting the arrival of two of the founding members bassist Billy Sheehan and vocalist Eric Martin to talk about the first studio album from the original line up in fourteen years and entitled 'What If...' So enough of my preamble and here's how our twenty minutes together turned out.

 

MR_BIG_by_John_Harrell_0170

 

 

Okay guys thanks for taking the time to talk with Uber Rock, now we're here in the fantastic surroundings of the Gibson Guitar Studios in London, and I guess the first thing to ask is how are you both?

 

BS; We're doing great thanks

 

EM; What was that name again? Uber Rock? 'Ello its Dick Van Dye 'ere for Mary Poppins...chim chimminy (this gag was executed in possibly the best Australian accent you will ever hear from someone born in Long Island New York...bless)

 

Right the reason we're here today is the new album 'What If'...' due out in January 2011

 

BS: Yeah some people ask us if it's 'What If' with a question mark or 'What If' dot dot dot, and I can exclusively reveal right here it is 'What If' dot dot dot (laughs)

 

EM: Why is it dot dot dot?

 

BS: That is because it is the prelude to more coming...So its like 'What If' and then a deep breath.

 

What_If_albumSo is there a specific message in that album title?

 

BS: Yes. One of unlimited possibilities. What if we could all own a little digital recorder like you have in your hand there? What If we could all own a computer in our house? You know it's about all the wonderful new ideas that come into our lives via the 'What If...'

 

The albums been produced by Kevin Shirley who's done a fantastic job on it.

 

EM: Yeah, and he's done a fantastic job on a whole bunch of other records too, from Iron Maiden and Black Country Communion, and the Black Crowes 'By Your Side' was a great record he did as well.  Talking of that Black Country album, god is Glenn Hughes a great singer.

Anyway, Kevin did the same type of thing with us as he did with Black Country Communion where he just put us in a room and after hearing stories about us for years and our influences like Humble Pie and Spooky Tooth and Free all these British Blues Rock bands.  He goes "Put your money where your mouth is guys...Do It!"

So we went to the Village Recording Studio, and without trying to make this sound all Hollywood, he did basically lock the door on us. And he told us "No second chances, no overdubs, just do what you do."

 

So was he a strong disciplinarian with the guys in Mr Big?

 

EM: No...No not really

 

BS: There was just this emphatic atmosphere of "Let's just play, and let's not be thinking too hard."  It was like trying not be figuring stuff out and just go at it, and Kevin insisted on that.  That was something we'd possibly done before to a lesser degree but here we were doing it for a whole record, all locked in a room as Eric said, and all being able to see each other playing.

 

'What If...'really is a return to form though for Mr Big, it's like 1992 again and this was the album that followed your first two albums.  It's that good.

 

BS; Why thank you. See we never now how people are going to react when we think we are doing our best. We do have our friends and fans in mind when we're making records because we want them to enjoy it but without pandering to them, but always having our own thing in mind.  So we're always pleased to hear when people enjoy it.

 

EM; You know we worked hard on the songs this time, but like I said there wasn't a lot of pre production because we went in there and cut it and it sort of sounds like I'm putting it down to just me being told to "Shut up and sing!" but that is what it was. Just went in there like Billy said, you know this time around it's the first time I've ever kept a guide vocal on a track.  You know the singer he goes in and tells the rest of the band "This is where the verse is" and then sings a bit, "This is where the chorus is " and sings a bit more.  Then it's like yeah we got it Eric you go and read the paper or something.  But this time I was in there singing with the big boys.

 

BS: It was so cool.

 

EM: That's why for me on some of the tracks you have that little edge to it but by the end of the record you have this blood curdling sound, but that is how it was recorded.  I didn't go back and fix.  I wanted to trust me.  It was like out of the normal way we record, but that is a good thing when everyday you end up listening to the same things over and over trying to get it just right.

 

Billy_MR_BIG_by_John_Harrell_0010So was all this creativity exclusively captured just within that recording studio?

 

BS: Well we wrote the album before we went into the studio of course, and a lot of the basic arrangements fleshed out.  But a lot of things changed and evolved right before our eyes.  I remember on the track 'Nobody Takes The Blame' where we suddenly felt a bridge fitted so instead of a verse we did just that.

 

EM: Yeah instead of that second verse we just went straight for the bridge, no wait third verse, and I go "Man I think we need some sort of middle section here pre solo" and you know things like that definitely helped.  Whoever thought of that was brilliant (much laughter at this point)

 

BS: I can assure you I am not going to mention Eric's name at this point.

 

Something that comes across pretty much straight away is the energy that you have captured, second track American Beauty could really have been a track off David Lee Roth's 'Eat 'Em And Smile' album...

 

BS: Well 'Eat 'Em And Smile' was recorded exactly how were recorded this record all together in one room, and that is soooo important as a band.  Today you have most pop and some rock music that is basically fake, done carefully pieced together on the grid in Pro Tools all digital this and all digital that, with all this pitch correction stuff and we just wanted to sing it and play it and damn all of that other stuff.

 

And has any track been singled out as a possible first single from the album?

 

Both simultaneously;  'Undertow'

 

BS; Yeah we've shot a video for 'Undertow' already.

 

What about the radio friendly track 'All The Way Up'?

 

EM; We just did a video for that as well.

 

BS; Yeah we did two videos in two days.  You know that's a really interesting piece, a little bit sad but with the right amount of sentiment too.  I love the way the verses stagger and the timing and it instantly caught me and that's good because I'm a fan, and when I hear music even if its something I'm involved with it's got to appeal to me as a fan.  I've got a giant i-Tunes collection of something like 70,000 songs and 400 Gbs in my i-Pod and its all over the place too from Deep Purple to Deep Forest and everything in between.

 

Eric_Mr._Big_William_HamesDSC_0673So thinking about 'What if...' you were going to be touring this new album what can we expect to see from Mr Big in 2010/11?

 

BS; Gee you know however much I still love to play the fast stuff I love the ballads just as much and I just love playing and singing and I love harmony, that's why songs like 'To Be With You' and  'Green Tinted Sixties Mind' we always love to play as we are singing and playing, and to me that's what its about being in a band.  I always tell young kids when I'm doing clinics and seminars and stuff like that "Get in a band and sing", its so much fun to do this you know.

 

EM; I like the funk and swing stuff we have in our back catalogue, the song 'Colorado Bulldog' is one I love because its almost jazz (snaps fingers), and I get a little jazz part in this song surrounded by a metal body, and 'Temperamental' from the same album ('Bump Ahead') is like one of my favourite songs to do, and I'm not sure if this is going to sound cool or not but there really is a lot of great new dance stuff on our new record.  And not dance like as in "disco" you know but as in "shake your bootie" you know.

 

BS; Yeah in fact 'Undertow' is very much like that.

 

EM; Hold on I've ducked myself out on this, what I meant is a "shake your tail feather" type of vibe...you bastard...(Laughs)

 

Lets talk about who comes to see you live for a minute, you got the musos who'll come to see you as players and you'll also have the female part of your audience who'll be there for the tracks like 'To Be With You', what do you guys think of this?

 

BS; I think the mix is great, and I love the fact that we've kinda broken the wall down a little bit.  The musicians there are to see us play and will sing along with 'To Be With You', and then we get the one's who'll love singing 'To Be With You' who get to enjoy seeing some of the playing you know.

 

Is it true that 'To Be With You' from way back in 1991 was written as an afterthought for inclusion on 'Lean Into It'?

 

EM: I really like the way you look at me when you say 'To Be With You' (laughs)

 

Well you wrote it (laughs)

 

EM; Yeah totally, it was not supposed to be on the record, we thought "Ah we'll tag it on the end", it wasn't even a case of lets see what happens with it, it was what we liked to call 'a little dessert after all the meat and potatoes'.

 

Lean_Into_It_AlbumBut how does such a great song end up being selected (or not) for inclusion?

 

BS; It was actually on a tape you (referring to Eric) gave us, and I don't think you were even bringing that song to us, but it was definitely on that tape, and then we heard it and it was like 'To Be With You' we have to do this.

 

EM; You know how that actually came about? I was living with Paul (Gilbert) at the time we were living in Hollywood together in a like really funky apartment coming up with songs for like the first album and it didn't really come together until the second album, and Paul always really liked the song. When we would be recording or writing in our studio we would record everything on a little Boombox and Paul would give out tapes of what we had done and he stuck 'To Be With You' at the end of each tape and everybody heard it constantly.  Then Pat (Torpey) said, "What's that song the one that's kind of Beatle-esque?" and Paul would be like "Oh that's something Eric wrote".  So then after we did the whole 'Lean Into It' album it was like "you know that little song of Eric's we got time to do that?"  That's how it was nothing planned, and you know when it became a huge hit that was a fluke too because after I think we have released like 3 or 4 singles prior to that one

 

BS; We were about to go home...

 

EM; Exactly and then some station in Nebraska of all places played it and then he thing spread like wildfire in something like fifteen countries.  It was a fluke, but it was a great time and I totally stand behind it.  It's a great vocal. I love the way we play it and WE actually sing the damn thing and how ever many years later it still sounds the same.

 

BS; Yeah I love the song. And here's a bit of trivia for you, I actually snuck a little bit of Paul McCartney's 'Sgt Pepper' bass line in there at one point.

 

I think the great thing about that song though is that people who don't even like rock music end up knowing who Mr Big are.

 

BS; Well when it was number one and we would be flying around the world the stewardesses would be like "Are you guys in a band?", "Oh what's the name of your band?"...."Mr Big...Never heard of you".  Then we'd sort of mention our then hit record (Billy sings a few bars) and suddenly they'd be like "You're kidding me...that's you guys...oh my god", and that's how we'd get upgraded to First Class...(laughs)...every time. Free drinks OK here we go.

 

Back_to_Budokan_AlbumWhat's the deal with Japan guys?  You're massive there. Haven't you released something like seven live albums in Japan?

 

EM; Every time we toured there we always did a live album that's just the way it was, but people always ask us "Why Japan?" and you know it's because they know how to throw a party man, and also they are really loyal, they love Rock 'n' Roll, and you know what I'd say they helped keep British Rock 'n' Roll alive.  Every time I go over there Ritchie Blackmore is still on the cover of a lot of magazines you know.

 

And of course the other territories like South Korea and Thailand, which a lot of other bands don't break but you guys did.

 

BS; Indonesia is massive; I actually get more contact from Indonesia than anywhere else in the world.

 

EM; They just love Billy Sheehan there, it's actually billed as Billy Sheehan and Mr Big in Indonesia (laughing).

 

So with Paul Gilbert having left the band for a few years (being replaced by Richie Kotzen) he's now back in the fold, is the chemistry right now for him and Mr Big?

 

EM; The chemistry is exactly how is should be right now for us, and that's not taking anything away from Richie. One of the albums we did with Richie called 'Get Over It' was a really great record, 'Actual Size' may have been a bit too poppy but 'Get Over It' was a great record thanks to Richie, but it wasn't the same thing.

 

BS; If it ain't the original band as a fan as I said I am before, when a new line up comes out I start to worry a bit about what I'm getting, you know when Joe Perry left Aerosmith it just wasn't the same, and now Van Halen's almost back together for me as a fan it's got to be the original line up and if it is I'm very pleased.

 

Mr_Big_Sky_by_William_HamesDSC_0032copy

 

Wasn't it Billy your solo album 'Holy Cow' that Paul played on that cemented his return to the Mr Big fold?

 

BS; It planted the seed (laughs) that grew into this line up returning

 

EM; It could have been Gibbons. Billy Gibbons played on it too.

 

BS; Yeah we just asked Paul if he'd play on the album and he did this great solo on a song called 'Dynamic Exhilarator', and then we started to communicate a little bit more and he did a show and invited me out, Pat Torpey was there we all got together and got up and played a song and the audience just went nuts.  So we just started to think man if only Eric would have been here, so we had dinner together, all four of us, and we said "Let's Play!"

 

So when you did the original reunion shows across Europe and Japan was it simply going to be a one off or did you have your sights set on another studio album etc etc?

 

BS; We didn't have a new album in mind at all, we just knew we wanted to play, so let's just go out and see how it rolls you know, and we did and obviously it was really cool. So we were like thinking we'll probably play some more but we weren't thinking of an album until we got finished completely had a little time off, then a conference call and it was like "Hey you know what wouldn't it be cool to do a record now?"  And one of the guidelines for the new record or 'What if...' as it turned into was lets make it like we used to make records, where we are together, come up with songs and work with each other like we used to do, and so I'm really pleased we took that course of action and with the way it was produced by Kevin in the studio added to that.  It was like an evolutionary moment if you will without losing the heritage of what Mr Big is about.

 

Mr_Big_from_ARTW_photo_by_William_HamesWhen you first got back together what sort of tracks were you banging out to get the feel back?

 

BS; We just went right into playing our stuff, because we were just excited about playing our stuff together again as this band you know. So we just went right at it because there's a lot of songs we have that we've never performed live or that we don't normally play live.  So we were into playing the more obscure Mr Big things.

 

EM; One thing that was cool though was Kevin Shirley was asking about our harmonies and if I did all the harmonies.  I don't think he knew that aspect of Mr Big existed, and I was like "Check this out" and we just did a straight acapella version of 'Green Tinted Sixties Mind' and midway through I'm starting to worry this could go fucking haywire.  But it was on the money and Kevin was like "Well that's that then you guys can do your own harmonies" (laughs)

 

BS; He started referring to us as The Glee Club, because we just love to sing and we love our music.  Its like the fifth man of Mr Big its an integral part of what makes us who we are.

 

So what are the Mr Big plans for 2011?

 

EM; Well once the album comes out in January we have a few gigs lined up and one of those is a blow the cobwebs off type of show at the House Of Blues, its not like a secret show because everyone knows about it now and then we have something going on in Asia and lets not forget the fact that it would be a complete waste if we didn't come back to England.

 

BS; Yeah we like playing here...a lot...

 

EM; It kind of bums me out that around the corner the Astoria is torn down, it doesn't take a lot lets get a carpenter we'll make a stage and get some curtains and who knows?

 

I must admit though I thought your performance at Shepherds Bush Empire last year was quite possibly one of the best I've ever seen.

 

EM; It was quite intimate if I remember correctly and had a "real" feel about it.

 

BS; Yeah it was a cool venue for sure.

 

Well Mr Big, Mr Martin, Mr Sheehan its been fantastic talking with you, just want to wish you all the best for 2011 and holding a copy of 'What If...' in my hands, been great talking with you.

 

EM; Thanks man.

 

BS; Yeah it's been a pleasure

 

'What If...' is out on January 21st 2011, but if you can't wait till then check out the band's rather splendid 'Undertow' video below, and don't forget to shake your tail feather now....

 

 

Photo Kudos John Harrell and William Hames. Band illustration courtesy of Paul Gilbert

 

MR_Big_Illustration_drawn_by_Paul_Gilbert