Let’s dispense with the supergroup rhetoric and just agree Winery Dogs are a great band who put out a worthy debut album.
The classic rock and roll influence on guitarist/vocalist Richie Kotzen, bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Mike Portnoy is in abundance on Winery Dogs, but this is not your uncle’s nostalgia band. Though replete with the warm, tube-powered sonic ambiance so often sought after in the Digital Age, Winery Dogs delivers much more than atmosphere. With a memorable hook in every song, this power trio holds back nothing, letting fly all the tasty fills and archetypical riffs in clean, concise fashion. As bassist Billy Sheehan told The Aquarian a week removed from the band’s dazzling Newton, NJ, and Manhattan, NY, shows, Winery Dogs are meant to play in front of a lot of people every night.
Fans of Kotzen, Sheehan or Portnoy’s work outside of Winery Dogs will recognize the signatures of each scrawled all over this latest album but with a little something extra. It’s that bit of creative magic that rains down on a group of powerhouse musicians who enjoy and respect one another before working together. The band formed with the same goals, and the fact that they love playing together comes across both on their album and in their live show.
Below, Billy talks about taste, the genesis of Winery Dogs, recording with David Lee Roth and how to get really good at doing what you do.
What was the objective when you guys started writing the Winery Dogs’ debut?
The overall objective for everything was that we just wanted to play. We wanted to play out and play for people. We wanted to have a huge crowd of people and smiling faces having a great time. Now, I know that doesn’t include any musical idea or opinion, but I think that’s really the underlying motivation.
As players, myself, Mike and Richie, we love to perform and play and have a lot of people there. The next step is, “What are you going to do?” It’s play the music that we love. And generally what we love is popular music. Not pop, but The Who, Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie, they were popular bands—a lot of people love them, and that’s the music we all love. We carried it through, step by step, and started writing music along the lines of the music that we enjoy the most knowing that when we get on stage to perform it, we would be performing stuff that people probably would enjoy too.
There’s no greater feeling in the world than being up on stage in front of a lot of people who are enjoying themselves and enjoying what you’re doing. It’s a beautiful thing. That was really the underlying, philosophical approach to it.
Later on we got into the nuts and bolts of which chorus goes in front of which verse and what key should a song be in.
Do you find that it’s hard to, like you said, just play? Do a lot of this get in the way?
They can. It depends on what kind of approach you take. The music that you play and who it’s going to appeal to, you kind of walk a line. For me, personally, I walk the line between what I love to do, but I also want people to enjoy it.
Some musicians and some artists say, “I don’t care what people think! I’m going to do my album—to hell with them!” And, okay, that’s fair. That’s a perfectly legitimate way to look at things, but I don’t look at it like that.
I do care what people think. I want them to enjoy it and I want to reach them. I want to reach a lot of them. So if you decide to play tuba ensemble and play Bulgarian music on the tuba, I don’t know if a lot of people are going to be there. At some point you have to make a decision of what you want to do and how you want to go about it.
It’s easy for anyone to go out and play. You can walk up anywhere and stand on a street corner, but to be in a room with 1,000 people of like mind, of similar taste, who instinctively you would hang out with if it was a Saturday night—you fine-tune the crowd into things you all agree on. Then we start playing things we both enjoy and it becomes sort of electric and magical.
It’s hard to get all those things in a row so they happen. But Mike, Richie and I got lucky in that we all were of the same point of view. That’s what we wanted. The songs all came out naturally. Things grew and evolved on their own without much coaxing.
Was this an easy album to make?
Absolutely. It was a breeze. When things fall together naturally and they work, the songs take on a life of their own. I know a lot of great artists and great writers who have asked, “How did you do that?” And I go, “I don’t know; it just kind of happened! (Laughs) We really didn’t do much of anything. We were just in a room. Those guys did that. I came up with this. Next thing you know, the song is there!” That’s how it happened.
To me that’s a good indicator that we’re on the right path, that we don’t have to belabor through it and microscopically dissect it atom by atom and figure out what goes where and how.
I know guys in different fields of the arts where they come in like a photographer. They sit there and they get the light meters and they move stuff around and they’ve got different cameras, shutter speeds and lenses and lights—all kinds of crazy shit.
Other guys walk in, they walk around the room, they look for a moment, hold the camera up, snap, unbelievable. That’s kind of the way I’d like to parallel our music. If you know your stuff enough to walk in, figure out what you’ve got, do what you can do with it and go home, it’s a done deal. That’s kind of how the record went.
You have such an extensive catalogue. Is there one album or project in particular in which you found it difficult to record or create new music?
Yeah, there have been some tough hustles. The Skyscraper record with David Lee Roth was tough. It was an emotional change in the wind. Eat ‘Em And Smile was great and fun and cool, we had a riot. Skyscraper was one where they scraped and dissected every input in a 60-input console. Every minute and every measure had to be perfect. Every bar was under scrutiny. And it sucked and squeezed the life and soul out of all the music completely. It was a really difficult record for me and I left right after that record.
There have been other situations where people make it difficult. That’s a perfectly legitimate way to make a record—there are no rules when it comes to making music—you can go through every measure and have everything orchestrated and scripted. Sometimes that works great. It’s not my thing personally. I prefer to get in there and let it fly.
The Skyscraper record was not one of those records. We went in and recorded each part individually, without the other guys there. We didn’t play together in a room or jam at all on the record. I just heard a snippet of one of the songs the other night during a radio interview. It just brought back instant memories of that drudgery and hard labor that went into creating that record. In the end, I didn’t like what we got out of it at all. But a lot of people love that record, so who am I to judge?
You mentioned wanting to reach people. Education has been a big part of how my awareness of you developed. You’ve got instructional DVDs, there’s tons of videos on YouTube of you dispensing advice, so I’m curious: Did you have teachers in the beginning?
No, I learned bass by the seat of my pants. I had a record and a bass. I heard the notes on the record and had to find them on the bass and then play them together. In a way, it’s the greatest way to learn. As much as I like giving advice and helping my fellow musicians, I always do so with the caveat of “You know, if you figured this shit out on your own, you will own it like you own nothing else.”
Any musician who figures it out on their own and discovers and takes that adventure of figuring it out—there’s a dearth of other stuff that you can’t get from having someone else show you. So I had no formal training; I can’t read music, I don’t know that much about music theory, but I can get four or five musicians in a room, squeeze a song out and get it recorded and have something really nice at the end of the day.
All my information and all my capabilities are all based on practical, actual use and application, in order to have the end result of me on a stage performing in front of people. That’s always been my main thing.
Every band I ever put together through the years, as we’re doing it, I’m always thinking the end result is on stage. On stage, is it going to work? We’ll figure it out from there. Like I said at the beginning of speaking here with you, the final goal of being on stage in front of people is what drove me to discover so much and that’s what led me to this profession.
What aspect of music challenges you most nowadays?
It’s just all a personal and internal challenge for me. I’m just trying to be better. Better doesn’t mean faster or louder. It just means more pleasing, something that’s more exciting. It could be many, many things. All those challenges for me are internal. I have to figure out those things myself.
Other than that, playing in a band and performing, there’s not much of a challenge there as much as just natural joy. The challenge is how much of it can I do, and for how long? The answers are hopefully “a lot” and “forever.”
The Winery Dogs play the Starland Ballroom on Oct. 29. Their self-titled debut album is available now via Victor Entertainment. For more information, go to thewinerydogs.com.