- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2017

The band Mr. Big was at one time so popular that they managed to knock both Michael Jackson and Prince out of the No. 1 spot on the Billboard chart thanks to power ballad “To Be With You.” But while that halcyon moment is now a quarter-century in the rearview, Mr. Big has a song on their new album with the cheeky lyric: “I was No. 1 in 1992.”

“That was mostly Paul. He’s always got clever and humorous lyrics, and he came up with that idea,” Mr. Big’s bassist, Billy Sheehan, told The Washington Times of the “1992” lyrics written by bandmate Paul Gilbert. “And we were! We were No. 1 on Billboard for three weeks.”

The song “1992” and 10 others comprise the tracks on Mr. Big’s new album, “Defying Gravity,” which will bow on Friday. It’s the band’s first disc since “Stories We Could Tell” from 2014 and their third since reforming in 2009 after a seven-year hiatus.

“We were finally able to work with Kevin Elson again, the guy who produced the first four records,” Mr. Sheehan said of re-teaming with their ‘80s and ‘90s collaborator. “We only had six days where we could be together.”

Despite the passage of decades since Mr. Big formed in Los Angeles, Mr. Sheehan, now 64, maintains the band’s songwriting process is the same as it was back when the members all sported long — and darker — hair.

“Myself and [drummer] Pat [Torpey] and [guitarist] Paul [Gilbert] get together and come up with some ideas and send them up to” singer Eric Martin, who now lives in San Francisco. Mr. Martin then makes notes and sends them back south, and the band eventually records them.

“We have a pretty good idea of what the songs are supposed to be. But in the process of recording it, things alter and modify and evolve,” Mr. Sheehan said. “So we never really know what we’re going to get until the very end, when we near the actual mix.”

Much like Mr. Big’s earlier albums, “Defying Gravity” mixes power rock with power ballads, such as Mr. Martin pining for the object of his affections on “Damn I’m in Love Again.” Mr. Sheehan’s expert bass licks are evident on “Forever and Back,” a rather experimental track that traipses a bit off Mr. Big’s beaten style path.

“Music is alive. That’s why I’m a collector,” Mr. Sheehan said of his own substantial record library. “But … I live to play live. And it really is a living art that is occurring for people right before their eyes.”

Mr. Big will begin touring in support of “Defying Gravity” in Chile Aug. 26. Alas, said tour currently boasts no U.S. dates — let alone any in the capital area.

“Personally, I can be on tour forever,” Mr. Sheehan said when asked if the grind of touring ever gets to him. “I’ve never been a heavy drinker and never been a drug guy at all, so there’s none of this situation I’ve seen bands being on tour complaining about.”

In fact, Mr. Sheehan points to the comforts afforded a band of Mr. Big’s standing, what with furnished tour buses, upscale hotel rooms and the like.

However, none of that matters if you don’t get on with your bandmates.

“You go out and play for all your friends, hang out and have a few beers with your best buddies afterward and repeat,” Mr. Sheehan said of the tour life.

Mr. Sheehan says the band choose the name Mr. Big in the late-‘80s in reference to a song by Free. Mr. Sheehan used to play “Mr. Big” in many of the cover bands he joined in upstate New York before the band Mr. Big itself formed in 1988.

“When we started out there was a candy bar called Mr. Big, and I know somebody bought a couple boxes of them and was handing them out at shows,” Mr Sheehan said. “It looks like our candy bar, but we had nothing to do with it. It just happened to be called Mr. Big.”

However, Mr. Sheehan and his fellow troubadours did “borrow” something from the chocolate bar.

“We stole their little slogan too: ‘When you’re this big, they call you Mister.’”

The name Mr. Big has often been appropriated throughout various other forms of pop culture, from the Michael Jackson fantasy rock film “Moonwalker” — in which Jackson, as a space robot, battled a group of terrorists led by Joe Pesci as “Mr. Big” — and, most famously, the character played by Chris Noth on “Sex and the City” who was a longtime romantic interest of Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker).

“It was OK by us,” Mr. Sheehan said of the HBO series’ mainstay. “Every time people heard the words ‘Mr. Big,’ maybe they’d think of us.”

In addition to Mr. Big, Mr. Sheehan also plays in the trio Winery Dogs, co-comprising former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy and former Poison guitarist Richie Kotzen, the latter of whom also enjoyed a stint in Mr. Big.

“Playing with the Winery Dogs is some of the best times of my life recently,” Mr. Sheehan said, adding the songs his side project puts out are reminiscent of the music he first performed as a young man in Buffalo, New York.

“Every musician I know is in several projects,” Mr. Sheehan said. “It’s kind of cool because you go off and do a different thing with a different band. Each band is kind of fresh and new when you come back to it.

“I love the opportunity to play with Richie and Mike. We’re all friends [and] all the Mr. Big guys know them. It’s a big community.”

Mr. Sheehan, who has been able to meet and record with heroes like ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, said he tells young musicians now that their best option to pursue rock ‘n’ roll dreams is simply to get out there and do it.

“You really have to get up on stage and get the live experience. And don’t wait until you’re ready,” Mr. Sheehan said. “Whatever songs you can schlep your way through, do those. You’ll find everything [else] falls into place. You’ll become a better player, a better songwriter, a better person.”

Furthermore, he said, the biggest bands out there started off covering other musicians’ work in bars before ever writing their own material. This includes Van Halen and even The Beatles.

“It’s kind of an easy research project to [learn] what did these bands do that was successful,” he said. “They got out and started playing.”

Mr. Big’s fans continue to come out to see them perform “Just Take My Heart,” “Green-Tinted Sixties Mind,” “Wild World” and, of course, “To Be With You.”

“When we launch that song, you see a sea of faces smiling. You see some people in tears of joy,” Mr. Sheehan said of the band’s 1992 No. 1 hit.

But Mr. Sheehan stresses that while the fans undoubtedly want to hear the old songs, the bassist insists that Mr. Big is not simply looking backwards.

“I don’t look at [Mr. Big] so much as a nostalgia act but as a replaying of something that meant a lot to a lot of people, but doing it here and now,” he said. “To me it feels fresh, alive and enjoyable.”

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