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Interview: MR BIG

Rock Stars...

Mr Big

Mr Big are a super group renowned for their musicianship, and formed in California in the late 80s. Featuring bassist Billy Sheehan (Niacin, Dave Lee Roth, G3, Steve Vai, Talas), guitarist Paul Gilbert (Racer X, G3, solo), vocalist Eric Martin and drummer Pat Topey (Dave Lee Roth), the band also briefly featured guitarist Ritchie Kotzen before they split in 2002.

During that time they toured heavily, especially in Japan, and in other parts of south east Asia that few other Western rock bands visited. With hits like "To Be With You" and "Green Tinted Sixties Mind" and albums that include "Mr Big", "Lean Into It", "Hey Man" and "Get Over It", Mr Big were, well, Big. Especially in Japan where the band released several live albums, almost with every tour.

In 2009 the original line-up reformed for a series of shows in Japan to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their debut album, which became a full tour. The band release an excellent new album, "What If...." in January 2011, followed by a tour.

As part of the promotion, Billy Sheehan and Eric Martin were in London to showcase the album with some acoustic tracks (an intimate performance at Ronnie Scott's) that included "Electrify" (from Get Over It), "Where Do I Fit In", "Stranger In My Life" (single from the new album), "To Be With You" and "30 Days In The Whole".

The event, interspersed with chat and banter, was hosted by Planet Rock and Yamaha and was filmed too.

The day before, Billy and Eric were able to spare me some time that overran somewhat, and this is how it went...

Joe Good afternoon

Eric
Hi. It's nice to be here, although I got back from Japan 4 days ago and had the worst jetlag. A few pints of Guinness helped (laughs).

Joe How did the reformation come about?

Eric
Reformation? That's a big word for me at this time of day.

Billy
Yeah (laughs), sounds kinda religious. But the reunion, we didn't think about it like that, it was just to play.

Eric
And the promoters were asking about a new record and we were like "No no no"

Billy
Yeah we didn't want to talk about it, just play. It wasn't until after the tour was done we thought, shall we make a record and yeah let's do it. So we did.

Joe How did you go about writing the album?

Eric
In the past we've taken like a couple of months to write songs, real detail, pick them apart, sometimes over think things, but on this one we, Billy, Pat, Paul, spent a couple of weeks writing songs.

I was in San Francisco Bay Area doing this other project and writing for Mr Big at the same time. Billy, Pat and Paul sent me a couple of songs which is usually just a couple of songs but actually was more like 120, 130 songs...

Billy
124 pieces of music

Eric
It was a LOT and I came up with lyrics in a short period of time. And there wasn't any real pre-production we just wrote some songs, and it wasn't like "Let's write a hit, let's write To Be With You again", it didn't work out that way at all.

We didn't spend a lot of time miscroscoping, that's not even a word (laughs), detailing the songs, we just got them to the studio and our pre-production was just sitting on the floor playing them, someone saying "Check out this demo", let's work on this, we jammed some of them, for 2 or 3 hours, then we started cutting. There were no overdubs that we could do.

Kevin Shirley (producer) asked us to play it and "That's OK". He put the "No" on overdubs, he said "Let's do this one live like you guys have always talked about. In the past Billy, Pat and Paul have done their bits and I've come in 2 weeks later and overdubbed the lead vocals, but this time all four of us got in the same room, wood flying around, blood splattering, fingers, you know, pressed up on the glass, it was pure live rock'n'roll.

We really didn't have any time to, rehearse, you know, Kevin said "You don't know it?" and Pat goes "here's the lyrics".

Eric
Yeah, I didn't know this song, I didn't know how it goes and Pat's singing it to me. And when I thought I got it in my head we went out there and cut it. We did it maybe 15 or 20 times, shooting all over the place. That was it, and it all became a bit of a blur. It was done it was over.

Billy
We had it done in no time. The only time before we recorded like this is when we did the first two albums. Doing it like this was fresh, it was like the band was new again. So now we were doing all these things like we did before but with all these experiences under our belt. We'd been apart for so long, we all had these new things to bring in, we'd all evolved as players and as people.

Mr Big

Joe How were the shows in Japan?

Billy
Spectacular, just spectacular. Lots of tears of joy, a sea of smiling faces.

Eric
The Japanese had been so loyal for so long, I just want to interject, the fans there had stuck together for longer than we did.

Joe What was it like playing Estonia?

Billy
Oh, it was great.

Eric
That WAS great. We'd never been there before. I went down to the money exchange, got tonnes of Estonian money and couldn't cash it. It was at the beginning of our European tour, our adventure.

Billy
Yeah that was a lot of fun.

Eric
Yeah the fans were coming up to us telling us we were great.

Billy
It got a bit out of control, but over there it was really cool. But we did all this gigs in Indonesia and they don't get Western bands there. We were driving round in these cars and they were looking at us like we just landed from the moon. We never had friends there like we do now.

Joe How did you get to work with producer Kevin Shirley?

Billy
We had a few producers in mind, I don't recall exactly who, but we spoke with one or two on the phone, then when Kevin came around, I don't know the final reason we went with him but a factor was that he wanted to work with us. Which is good.

Eric
He grew up in South Africa and didn't get much rock'n'roll, but when he moved to Australia, he heard us and everybody else. He was doing Journey at the time, they had wanted to take a break, and he was knee deep in the Journey experience.

So when they took the break, but he had a plan where he wanted the band to get in and get out, let's not waste a bunch of time and money, doing a lot of preproduction, running off to the Bahamas, he just wanted to get it all lean and mean and get in and get out and rock'n'roll.

And he had a great time with us and I think just bagged the Journey project. He had recorded it and they were fishing around and Kevin was "Right" and stayed with us. It caused a bit of controversy, and it's ironic with my situation with the Journey guys, and it was just awesome, he knew we were a great live rock'n'roll band.

He had heard us talk about how much our influences were Free, Humble Pie, Spooky Tooth, British blues rock'n'roll. We'd hinted at it on other albums and he wanted to have that feel.

Billy
We were all on the same page there, so he threw us into a room and we cut this record.

Eric
To me it's way different from the other records , I mean the other records are great, and at the time they didn't feel over produced. But with this one, compared to that, they feel over produced. Don't get me wrong, I love Lean In To It and one of my favourite albums is Hey Man, but this record definitely has a raw rock'n'blues vibe to it. I don't know if you've heard it?

Joe Yeah I had a listen this morning. I love some of the bass work, very fluid.

Mr Big

Billy Thank you very much. I think I over dubbed about 45 seconds of bass on the whole album, so what I played was with the guys sitting there.

Joe A very live vibe, almost like you did with the first Dave Lee Roth album.

Billy
And that's how we did that record too, we played together, doing takes.

Eric
You mean Eat 'Em And Smile you did like that?

Billy
Yes. Take 1, lay it down, OK do another one. It's like George Martin on the Beatles bootlegs, "Take 103 please" (laughs), but it's what we did.

And with each take had a different feel, and as it progressed, you could end up doing too many takes and the best one is the first or second, but others didn't come together until Take 14.

But either way it's a real natural alive process that I wish more bands would go back to, because, I'd love to hear more bands do that.

Eric
You can hear, when I say slick, like on Lean In To It, we play it live, but I think the reverb made it sound a little less rock'n'roll. But on Lean In To It my vocal is just so perfect. It's like a diamond and this one's like a rough cut diamond.

It's like there's this one track, it's the new single, and you can tell, it's maybe take 4, because it sounds right about when I'm getting edgy. But there's another track on there that's all crunchy, and I can say it's about Take 20. And that's good. Not being so meticulous and perfect, and "My voice hurts this week can we do it next week".

Billy
We weren't careful, we just threw at it. And I believe it shows.

Joe What can fans expect from the coming tour?

Billy
Well, err, I have been working hard on my bass playing, and I want to play the best I've ever played, that's my personal goal, but as a band, we've all matured and evolved, everybody's kind of at the top of their game.

Eric's vocals on this record are some of the best I've ever heard him do. I think everyone's in a really good spot to go out and do a really good show.

And like I said, we really don't plan anything. We'll fall into what the show's going to be, it'll happen, someone will have an idea, those special moments in the show, someone will come up with something, I don't know what it's going to be.

It's all part of the great spirit, we've got a great record, and there's a lot of people really excited about seeing us play live. There's a lot of really good components to go into a gig with.

Joe Is there going to be another album?

Billy
You're asking already? I have no idea.

Eric
This record we didn't plan, every time we do an album, I know there's going to be a tour so that's what you're going to be looking forward to.

Joe The remastered CDs that came out in Japan, will they be coming out over here?

Billy
I have no idea. I don't know how it works business wise. Atlantic Records, it's up to them, over here. In Japan, labels are much more together and communicate more so they work with the new label back and forth, to coordinate that kind of thing.

Unfortunately it's out of our hands to do the business, it's under the umbrella of Atlantic, Warner, so we don't always have the call to get them to do things, but we did in Japan. We always try to encourage them to put that stuff out but, you know...

Joe Fans here may not realise there's quite a few live albums released in Japan.

Billy
Yeah, every time we did a tour there the label would call us up and say while we're touring we should put a live record out, until your next record, remind the fans we're still there.

The first time we toured there we didn't have time to do a live record, our very first tour, so we took a DAT tape and recorded the show from the console, live, and that was it.

Eric
Yeah, something like 5 or 6, maybe 7 songs, and no overdubs or anything.

Billy
That was it, so the record, the cost to make that record, was $7.95, the cost of the DAT tape. And it ended up selling 100s of thousands of units, I think 300,000 copies it sold.

So every time we play in Japan we record it, we film it, so we have a record of it, but it was always the record company's decision to do that.

So we don't plan too much out. It was just a coincidence that it turned out that way. But it's all documented now which is great. There's a lot of stuff out there, it's like tracks from the new album, there's a lot of stuff people won't get to hear.

Joe You have enough for a What If part 2 or 3?

Eric
That's the same question again, don't try to sneak in (both laugh).

Joe What's your view of the current state of the music scene?

Eric
Sometimes I get bummed out that they close a record store I used to go to, where I used to grab all my records when I was growing up. It's funny, in Japan they still have Tower (long since gone in the rest of the world)

Eric
Anyway, what do I think of it? There's nothing I can do about it. It's all download, I just want to get paid for songs that I've written, and there's some publishing issues from downloading, that kills me, I used to make, it used to be consistent but now I make, well, it's hard to make a living. And that does suck big time. Shops are closing, and no one's going out to shows that much. I think it's safe to say it's not affect us yet...

Billy
It's not affected us, but the new bands, the copyright anarchy, as I understand it, and it hurts the little guy. It hurts the guy with the idea, who comes up with something.

One thing is that Mr Big is a live band and that can never be taken. The music scene in America, it's in the middle of a big change right now.

Eric
You've said that before, it's like the changing of the guard. In a way. And so be it. And no offence to Eminem and Jay Z, but this is like full circle now, waiting for rock to come back, we're starting to hear this buzz that it's back.

Billy
There's a lot of buzz about it, people are rediscovering it, and not rock in the same way, because that would be rehashing what's already been done. But in the future it turns around, the pendulum swings. It always will do, it always has. For every genre, it swings one way, it swings the other. We play live, always have.

Eric
I hope that wave gets ridden, as long as I'm alive, you know. Until it switches back into like 50s Greaser music , because, I've said this before, radio dictates what you should be, clothing wise, people follow the radio, a little too much, but there's a lot of black t-shirts in the closet, that still say Van Halen and AC/DC, collecting dust a little bit, they're still waiting to come back.

Joe Do you have any other projects outside of Mr Big at the moment?

Eric
Yes, yes I do. I have this funny, well I thought it was funny when I first did it. You know Rod Stewart sang The American Songbook, well I was chosen by Sony to do Japanese pop songs, a rock singer to sing, and when I first heard this idea I thought it was crazy, they wanted me, rock singer guy, to sing these pop songs made popular by women.

And, basically, it's J-Pop music, it's pretty cool, it's bubblegum music like you'd hear from the 60s. But I've taken it from J-Pop into my own thing.

The first album did great, then the second album, and third, like a trilogy and I had a great time doing it and it's out in the stores in Japan right now. But now I want to focus on Mr Big, like I've been dreaming of for the last 14 years.

Billy
I've got a new Niacin project coming along, a couple of bass thingies, another bass record, and also I'm going to be redecorating my bathroom.

Joe What instrument are you playing at the moment?

Billy
Yamaha Attitude Bass, Billy Sheehan model, and the third version's just come out. Pretty cool, it's a wonderful bass. I got it from the Yamaha custom shop and I played it for about 3 hours, it's alive, they did some really amazing things with it.

They have this process where they artificially age the wood, to make it a vintage instrument. It cost them 100s of thousands of pounds to research how to do it, they can apply it to a piano, a lot of things, but I think my bass will be one of the first instruments that comes out as a rock instrument with this process applied to it.

Eric
It won't cost $100,000?

Billy
No, it'll cost a normal price, it just cost them that much to develop the process by which they artificially age the wood, for their scientific endeavour. It's great.

Eric
And I'm actually using a Line 6.... (both laugh).  But you know it's funny, I was reading one of our earlier records and it says Billy Sheehan uses Yamaha, Paul Gilbert uses Ibanez, you know, is endorsed by, Pat Torpey uses Tama drums, and Eric Martin uses everybody else's stuff (laughs).

But I've been lucky enough to use Yamaha and Ibanez guitars, I've written loads of stuff on it, specifically on this new record. You never know I might get something out of it.

Joe Any message for your fans?

Eric
Well yes, we're still here, we're still alive and kicking. But we're back and you kept the doors open for us for many many years, kept the home fires burning. Thank you for that.

Billy
We are real thankful to all the people out there, and it's such a joy to see them in the audience when we're playing.

When we tour, we meet and talk with a lot of people, we're always out by the tour bus hanging out, we got a LOT of friends all over the place, we're so pleased they're still around and enjoying it.

We have them in our hearts and minds when we make a record, we certainly did on this record. I hope they enjoy it because they're important to us.

Joe Billy, do you still answer every email you get through your website?

Billy
There's no time to do all of that, I throw myself at it as best I can. If I read a hundred emails I'll get to maybe 15 or 20.

Eric
Me too, but you read them all, and then I look at my watch and think I gotta be somewhere. And it's not like, well, I do think about it all the time, it's on my mind constantly, but now you got that Twitter thing going on and I never wanted to do that, it's like a Tamagotchi that you gotta feed every five minutes. But I want to keep the fans, they want to know exactly what I'm doing.

Joe Thank you very much.

Billy
Thank you very much, it's been a pleasure.


 


Interview November 2010 Joe Geesin

 


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