It’s been just over 25 years since virtuoso guitarist Paul Gilbert and bassist Billy Sheehan formed Mr. Big with singer Eric Martin and drummer Pat Torpey.
At the time, Gilbert was just out of shred-metal act Racer X, and Sheehan was fresh off a two-album stint with David Lee Roth’s band. Mr. Big had huge success in little time with instrumentally dazzling pop-metal songs like “Addicted to That Rush” (from 1989’s Mr. Big) and the smash acoustic ballad “To Be with You” (from 1991’s Lean Into It).
Today, they’re still going strong despite a past lineup change (Gilbert left in 1997) and a hiatus from 2002 to 2009.
They’ve just released their eighth studio album, …The Stories We Could Tell, their second since reuniting, and it boasts the band’s characteristic mix of vibrant, hi-octane melodic rockers (the grinding opener “I Forget to Breathe,” the syncopated funk workout “Monster in Me”) and soaring ballads (the harmony-laden “Fragile,” the acoustic “The Man Who Has Everything”).
As always, the music is filled with Gilbert and Sheehan’s nimble and mind-boggling guitar and bass interplay.
It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and highly accomplished hard-rock record, which, like the band’s best work, manages to be instrumentally vigorous without sacrificing melody and songcraft.
But while the Mr. Big formula has remained true all these years, there were significant differences in how the band approached the making of …The Stories We Could Tell. Some had to do with the fact that, these days, the members are busy with individual musical endeavors.
Gilbert recently released a solo album, Stone Pushing Uphill Man, and teaches a web-based guitar course, Online Rock Guitar School with Paul Gilbert, among various other undertakings. “My life is a glorious tornado of musical projects!” he says with a laugh. Sheehan, meanwhile, has his hand in several ventures, most notably playing in the power trio the Winery Dogs, which also features drummer Mike Portnoy and guitarist Richie Kotzen, who spent several years in Mr. Big in the late Nineties and early 2000s when Gilbert exited the group.
Additionally, prior to making …The Stories We Could Tell the band was hit with the sobering news that Torpey had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. The symptoms, which the drummer had been battling for the past few years, were advanced enough that Gilbert and Sheehan ultimately wound up recording their parts to a click track, which was later replaced by programmed drums.
“We had to do a lot of stuff backward and inside-out,” Sheehan says. “It took extra work on our part, but we were happy to do it. And the drums really do sound a lot like Pat’s playing. He was there with the programmer, and they did a lot of moves that Pat does. So I was pleasantly surprised when I heard it. But right from the beginning of discussions with this record, when we first found out about Pat’s situation, all of us said, ‘Pat is still the drummer, and Pat is gonna be our drummer, no matter what.’ We did what we had to do, because this is the band.”
It’s a camaraderie that perhaps was not always so evident in Mr. Big. Back in the early Nineties, even as they were gaining fame in the U.S. and becoming superstars abroad—particularly in Japan where, Gilbert says, “We couldn’t walk in public. It was Japandemonium!”—the members weren’t always on the best of terms. “I remember one time we headlined three sold-out nights at Budokan [in Tokyo],” Gilbert says, “and we all had our separate backstage areas, didn’t want to talk to each other. And I just thought that was a shame. We should have been having the best time in the world.”
In 1997, Gilbert had finally had enough and left the band to pursue a solo career and reignite Racer X. A few years later, after a dust-up that resulted in Sheehan being relieved of his position, Mr. Big called it quits. Says the bassist, “That animosity happens in bands because there’s a lot of passion. Everybody wants it to be awesome. And it’s inevitable you’re gonna step on someone else’s toes with your awesome idea and their awesome idea vying for position.” However, Sheehan says that since reuniting in 2009, the group has been reinvigorated. “We’re older and wiser. Now it’s a blast.”
And judging by …The Stories We Could Tell, there are still plenty of awesome ideas to go around. The key to the band’s continued success is that, despite the abundance of instrumental acrobatics—and one only need listen to the first few bars of a song like “Monster in Me,” or the tandem guitar-and-bass lead-riffing in “Light of Day” to hear a sampling of them—the emphasis has always been on the songs.
“And that was a conscious thing,” Sheehan says. “Both Paul and I, as much as we love to do wild-a-- playing, the real people we try to play for are the non-musicians. Because I think it’s in every musicians’ best interest to have your expertise applied to something that has great appeal. We didn’t think it through philosophically like that back in the day, but we knew that’s what we were going for.”
Gilbert concurs. “The band that made me want to be a musician in the first place was the Beatles. And I think John Lennon used to say something like, ‘We’re just a singing group,’ when he talked about the band. So that’s what I say about Mr. Big—we’re a singing group! And that’s a side of us that you can hear on the new album, and that certainly isn’t overlooked by the average Mr. Big fan. They know that we have big melodies and lots of vocal harmonies, the whole thing.”
Gilbert laughs. “Of course, at the same time there are always those people that are going, ‘Yeah, yeah, melody, sure. Now, what fret is he hitting there?’ ”
The Stories We Could Tell Axology
GUITARS Ibanez Fireman FRM250MF and FRM25, Ibanez PGM401 modified with Wilkinson tremolo
AMP Marshall 2061X with THD Electronics Hot Plate power attenuator
EFFECTS TC Electronic MojoMojo and Corona Chorus, MXR Distortion+, Dunlop Cry Baby 535Q Multi-Wah and Jimi Hendrix Signature Wah, Fulltone Mini-Dejavibe, A/DA Flanger
STRINGS Ernie Ball RPS-8 and RPS-9
PICKS Dunlop Tortex T3
BASS Yamaha Attitude
PREAMPS EBS Billy Sheehan Signature Drive, Avalon VT-737sp
PEDAL MXR M87 Bass Compressor
STRINGS Rotosound Billy Sheehan Signature Set (.043–.110)
Photo: William Hames