Jul 28

Justin’s Japan: Interview with Billy Sheehan of Mr. Big on Touring Tohoku

Billy Sheehan, right, with Mr. Big: "We had raised about $100,000 for the earthquake relief, and there’s still more to be raised, too. In the end, we raised a bunch of money, and we got a special letter from the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. thanking us for being there." (William Hames)


By JQ magazine editor Justin Tedaldi (CIR Kobe-shi, 2001-02) for Examiner.com. Visit his page here for related stories.

One of the most respected bassists and gentlemen in the music world, Billy Sheehan is back with Mr. Big, the Los Angeles-based rock band he formed in 1988 best known for the hit ballad “To Be with You,” which shot to number one in 15 countries, including the U.S., in 1992. After splitting a decade later, in 2009 the original lineup reformed, followed by the release of What If…, the first album in 15 years from the original lineup.

Now, American fans are finally going to get a chance to see Billy, Paul Gilbert, Eric Martin and Pat Torpey together on stage since their ’90s heyday for a month-long American tour beginning Saturday (July 30) at San Diego’s 4th & B. In this exclusive interview, I spoke with Billy on Mr. Big’s current jaunt around the world, their triumphant return to Japan (where the band is revered), and the possibility of another album from the guys.

So far this year Mr. Big has played all over Europe, Asia and South America. What have your highlights been?

Japan is always amazing. The most difficult thing about touring is getting to and from the gigs…once we’re onstage, there’s no trouble at all, and in Japan, it’s just a breeze. We don’t fly in much, and take a lot of bullet trains, which are super convenient and easy and clean and safe and fast and everything. So Japan is always easy. The rest of Southeast Asia was actually pretty cool, too. We were supposed to do two shows in China, but the Shanghai show got cancelled because the promoters had the wrong visa for us. The shows in Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines were unbelievable, and in Taiwan we actually had to speed away from the venue in a van with literally crowds of people chasing after us (laughs). It was hilarious.

Mr. Big toured Japan less than one month after the earthquake and tsunami, and even did gigs in Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures, the areas most affected by the devastation. What was that experience like?

Really touching. There was a [camera] crew meeting us at the airport and then following us around, and we didn’t know, but they went out in the crowd and interviewed a lot of people, so later on we saw that they had interviewed a guy…I think he was from Sendai. They interviewed him for television, and we didn’t see it until we saw the show. He’d lost everything, and a couple of friends and family, and he’d lost his entire Mr. Big collection, so he actually came to the show to start his collection over again. And I’m telling you, it was so touching, this poor guy, that in his life, the important thing was to come and get his music back together again, really amazing. We had raised about $100,000 for the earthquake relief, and there’s still more to be raised, too—I just saw another $22,000, and I have to see what the figures are for the downloads of the special song we did [“The World Is on the Way”], also, so there’s a bunch more, too.

In the end, we raised a bunch of money, and we got a special letter from the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. [signed by Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki] thanking us for being there. We didn’t know how it would go when we went there, was it too soon or not, but [remember] after 9/11, where after the dust cleared, all the playhouses and restaurants were going out of business because nobody was going to New York City, so what helped was that going to see a show and having dinner to help the economy rolling again, so we were hoping to get that idea happening. We heard from saké dealers that were going out of business because nobody was drinking because they were all in mourning, you know? It’s a shame that so many lives were lost, but one of the most important things after anything like that is to get back up on your feet again. So I think we helped a bit—I’m cautiously optimistic to say I think we helped a bit. And from the tone of the e-mails and speaking with people after the show, we’re very pleased. So it all ended good.

Was there any hesitation at all about playing those gigs because of the radiation?

For me, no. A couple of the guys in the band were a little concerned about it. I fly transoceanic all the time [across] the Pacific, and you get a dose of radiation every time you do that. I think it’s equivalent to—I forget the figure—one, two or three chest X-rays just by flying over the ocean. And I do know that radiation, to incite fear in people, is almost second to none, you know? It’s invisible, and you don’t know it’s there and the next thing you know, you’ve got a problem. So I knew that there was probably some elevated degree of danger, but I also know that most things of that nature are over-exaggerated, in my experience with my own personal catastrophes of earthquakes and whatever else. They really do overblow it.

So I wasn’t worried personally, but we were more concerned for the fans, and I know that the Japanese government is very conscientious with their safety and rules. I remember I was in Tokyo one time, and there was a typhoon warning for everyone to stay inside. This was years ago, and I was out with a friend of mine, we were walking around, and the streets were deserted; there was nobody anywhere…the people in Japan are really in tune with the warnings and such. And I found out the government wouldn’t have allowed [us] to go on if we were to put a crowd of people in danger, so there was that factor, as well. So a couple of the guys in the band were a little worried about it, but I was okay with it, and in the end, all of us are glad we did it.

For the complete interview, click here.

For Justin’s February 2011 interview with Billy, click here.

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