Crossroads: Billy Sheehan & John Novello of Niacin

Pivotal moments propelling musicians from obscurity to infamy
by Mark E. Waterbury

It must be fun sometimes to do something different. You hear the terms “project” or “solo album” or “super group” often in the music business, usually wrapped around a successful musician or musicians who decide to go out and do something...well...different. Maybe it will sound like music from their base band. Maybe it won’t, but often times you can get a more true glimpse of the talents and passions of players when they break fr om the confines of their respective bands. Billy Sheehan has always been one of the most respected bassists in rock. From his days with David Lee Roth to Mr. Big to his recent works with Steve Vai, Billy is one of the more entertaining and talented players around. John Novello also has a great amount of respect and admiration. The keyboardist has carved a name for himself performing with Chick Corea and Andy Summers. So when Mr. Sheehan and Mr. Novello get together and add in another well-regarded musician drummer Dennis Chambers, the result is...a vitamin?!

“The appeal of music is an emotional draw,” Billy muses. “I do have to admit that watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and seeing the girls go crazy, as stupid as it sounds, that was a big inspiration to me. I was very young, but even at that age I was cognizant that if all these girls were going nuts over these guys, that’s the job that I wanted.” Getting his hormones under control, Billy dove into the ascetics of music and strove to become a serious musician. His first interest was jazz, and before his teens a friend who lived nearby was a bass player who was a minor legend in the neighborhood. When his band jammed, the sound of his bass reverberated through everything in the area, and somehow that put the hook into Billy. “It was a great revelation for me to figure out what the bass line to a song was. I could hear that solid sound coming out of the music and it just appealed to me right away for some abstract reasons at first, but then I began to study the instrument. What its role was and what its capabilities are.” Billy learned mostly by performing cover tunes with various local bands live. One of the bands he performed in was Talas from Buffalo, New York. They were a cover band, but they also performed some original music on occasion. “We did what every other band tried to do, playing covers until we could get a big crowd drawn, and then sneaking in some original material, hoping the crowd would then come to see you do the originals. And Talas was at that point and by default we were the biggest band in Buffalo.” A local promoter wanted to be their manager, and since he was the “biggest” music biz guy in Buffalo, they signed up with him. The manager Harvey had a friend named Brad in New York City help them out and as a result Talas landed a showcase for Premier Talent, one of the larger agencies in town. You never know who you may meet in your formative years in music, and it turned out well that they went with Harvey as their manager. Harvey’s last name is Weinstein and his friend is Brad Grey, two of the biggest names in TV and film. “We got lucky right away that we hooked up with people who were going to be two of the most powerful forces in Hollywood. They were working music at the time, and without even having a record deal, they managed to land a slot for us opening for Van Halen on their 1982 tour.” Other than the obvious exposure with that opening slot, Billy’s talents were recognized by David Lee Roth, and several years later when he left Van Halen, he asked Billy to join his solo project along with guitarist Steve Vai and drummer Greg Bissonette. Of course Billy jumped at the chance, and his days with Dave helped him solidify himself as a top bass player in rock, as well as garnering fans of his own. Then in 1988, Billy wanted to form his own band. “With David, I was more of an employee, which was great because I had all the freedom I wanted to without having to make any decisions, whereas with Talas I was more the leader with the weight of the world on my shoulders. I thought the truth lies somewhere in the middle so I decided to start a band where everyone else would be a part of it.” That band became Mr. Big who enjoyed solid success well into the nineties.

John Novello also was initially bitten by the music bug while watching TV...after seeing an accordion player on a show! He was actually interested in the keyboard fingering of the instrument, so his mother mistakenly bought him one, and he quickly decided he didn’t like it. But he did take to the piano and then the organ. "I studied locally with a guy who had been a jazz pianist in the army,” John recalls. "He was quite talented and he taught me some cool things where I learned how to read and write music. So even though I have a good ear for listening I did get formal training.” John later continued his musical tutelage when he attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston. He had developed strong roots in blues and funk, especially on the classic Hammond B-3 organ. After Berklee, he headed west to California and managed to get a gig with an R&B disco outfit called Taste of Honey. “When I came out here, I was broke, I had used all of my money to travel and get my apartment. I managed to get lucky and get that gig. I thought, "Geez, here I am with a musical degree and I’m so overqualified for this'. But I needed the bucks so I took the gig and went on tour with them.” This was the height of the disco era, and Taste of Honey produced the number one hit “Get Down, Boogie-Oogie-Oogie.” In spite of the hit, the band basically were one hit wonders but John’s work with them would eventually help him secure other gigs. “Not that Taste of Honey was A-list, but once you get into a top-of-the-heap band with a chart-topping song, you end up networking at a higher level. That opened so many other doors and I took advantage of that.” John’s next gig was with the much more popular and successful Donna summer, doing a couple of tours with her. After those gigs, John began to burn out on doing disco, so he began to work more with his passions, starting with solo jazz sessions. This led working with people like Manhattan Transfer, Chick Corea and Andy Summers, solidifying himself as one of the top session keyboardists in jazz-funk-R&B fusion. Another connection came via John’s wife, whom he tragically lost to breast cancer two years ago. She was a vocal teacher who worked with a number of top rock performers, and somehow she connected with Billy Sheehan. Billy came to their house one day, and when he met John and found out that he was a Hammond B-3 player, he told John that they should start a band someday because he had always wanted a B-3 player in his band.

It was 1996 when Guitar World magazine called Billy about contributing a song for a compilation record of guitarists. “I didn’t get a guitarist for the song," Billy remembers. "I instead got a B-3 organ player and a drummer. I had always been into the prog rockers like ELP which had heavy B-3 organ as well as people like Three Dog Night and Spencer Davis. So my tongue-in-cheek slant was to call the project Niacin, after vitamin B-3.” The other members were John Novello, and drummer Dennis Chambers, who worked with George Clinton and Stanley Clarke. “We did the track and put it on the record. It was so easy and such a blast," Billy recalls. "Since I loved the B-3 so much, I thought why don’t we expand it and put out a record?” Fronting the money for the project basically on his own, the band put out their self-titled debut. According to John, “We shopped it to Japan and got a deal right away. We were kind of amazed because it was not really a commercial project. It was more of a labor of love where we wrote our favorite retro music with roots so it was kind of a cool thing when it started to take off.” Niacin did a limited tour after their first album, and soon found themselves enjoying the work so much they went back into the studio to record a follow-up, “High Bias”. Originally, it seemed most of the fans were from the Mr. Big camp or from the band members' solo projects. But Niacin began to develop its own fan base, particularly in Japan, where they recorded material for a subsequent live album. In early 2002, the third Niacin record “Time Crunch” hit the streets, and the reaction has even further solidified the trio as a musical force. “This record’s really taking off on its own,” John comments. “Sometimes it takes a few records for things to take off. But people just love it because it’s so high energy and so amazing to watch. We have a good cult following building around the world.”

Beyond Niacin, the band members are keeping themselves quite busy. Billy just recently disbanded Mr. Big, and has been working with his own solo project as well as playing bass for Steve Vai. Dennis is always busy with a variance of acts and John has his own solo project. “I consider Niacin a progressive rock fusion project that does have jazz connotations," John explains. "My solo project is a quintet and it’s more of a jazz fusion project, and we’ve done a couple of records. I’m hoping to release another solo album shortly, and I’d love to keep alternating solo and Niacin recordings until I have arthritis or something and can’t play anymore. It’s great to be in a band where any one of us can suddenly go off into a jam session and everyone else follows seamlessly.” It’s obvious that the members of Niacin love getting together to record and perform live, and Billy has a certain perspective on the mission of the trio. “So many fans of music listen to just one thing, whether it’s hip-hop or death metal or jazz or whatever, and they hate everything else. Most people of my age group listen to everything, and especially those who play music have broad musical tastes. With all the different fans of the different things I’ve been involved in, I wanted to turn them on to something new. I really enjoy having people discover something new and have it affect their lives in a positive way. It’s my own personal crusade to help people take the blinders off and look to the right and the left, and listen to different types of music I just know they are going to love in the proper type of context. I love to play music where you have the unknown element in the equation - taking a sudden left turn in a different direction - and that’s one of the great things about recording and performing with the guys in Niacin. I do believe that the audience picks up on the spontaneity as well.” :->

Industry Profile: Jay Marshall - Assistant Director of Student Unions and Activities at Idaho State University

by Mark E. Waterbury

Jay Marshall’s first career choice after graduating from his hometown college of the University of North Dakota - Grand Forks was as an insurance investigator. That didn’t quite strike a chord for Jay, so he returned to school and earned a masters degree in counseling at Northern Arizona University. Jay also worked previously in residence life and when that did not turn out to be his true calling either, he began to look for work in student activities. Along with the pleasure of working with students, Jay had a lifelong love of music. “ I’ve been a music fanatic for many years. I was a huge blues fan, always into people like John Mayall and The Band. I also really got into east Texas musicians like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. Then once a friend of mine took me to a Leo Kottke concert, and I just stood there in awe of how great a guitarist he was." Jay’s first job in his new direction was as the Assistant Dean of Student Activities at the tiny University of Southern Arkansas in the town of Magnolia. Because of the school’s size, Jay wore many hats and learned for himself the numerous facets of recruiting entertainment for a learning institution. "The neat thing there is that it was such a small school I was the reservation staff and the tech guy. I set up the stage and the sound gear, and got a real generalist perspective. NACA was also helpful to me at that time especially with routing, and we did really tiny programs, but for a small school we did real well.” NACA helped coach him through his formative years in student activities, as he also became involved with software programs that replaced the original hand-tabulated process for co-op talent buying. After two years at Southern Arkansas, an opening came available at East Carolina which was a much larger university. There Jay became the Assistant Director of Student Activities and began to expand his knowledge of all avenues of entertainment for students. “I stayed there for ten years and just loved it. It was a wonderful opportunity. I got to work with some of their major programs as well as developing some new initiatives and collaborative efforts with other departments.” He tried hard the first few years there to get larger concerts at the school. The students wanted big name acts, which were often unaffordable for the school and as a result the kids went to shows in nearby towns like Raleigh or Virginia Beach. “It was kind of an uphill battle so I got the students to identify who was out there that had some name recognition and credibility in the music business that would not cost like fifty-thousand or more to bring in and do small intimate theater shows, which is what I wanted to get involved in the music business for anyway. There was one in particular that we did that didn’t make any money but was one of the most highly received shows. That was Bela Fleck. He was part of our jazz show we were working through our school of music, and we set Bela up to do a masters class through the school of music. That night we brought in about nine hundred kids who never heard of him and as they were leaving, the comments I heard over and over again were, 'When can this guy come back?'” Jay also brought in Widespread Panic before they were a big act, as well as then mostly unknown comics Carrot Top and Chris Rock. In spite of the fact that Jay loved his work at East Carolina, there was not room for him to advance. Jay set his sights on the University of Wisconsin-Platteville which was a small engineering school. They were building a state of the art student center facility and had an opening as associate director to oversee the operational and programming side of the house, which definitely appealed to Jay. “One of the other things that fueled the fire is that I wanted to help build a new student center. That seemed to be what a lot of people were doing and it also seemed that the folks who were building those centers were being hired faster for directors positions. I also knew that if I wanted to be a director I would need that operational experience that I lacked.” While in Wisconsin, Jay helped develop priorities and structuring for marketing and various other points of the programs and operation of the center as well as getting the word out about programs in the small community of Platteville. Among the ideas he developed was to get the residents of the community interested in using the facility for weddings during the summer, thus making money to use for music and other programs when the school year began. They also created an open environment at the student center to help promote interaction among students and their various organizations. “We were looking for a certain synergy where maybe even through something like a conversation over a cup of coffee several groups could work more closely together to find a way to make a better event or activity.” In spite of his rapid successes at Platteville, Jay wanted to be closer to his family. So after about a year he left and moved to Idaho, where he found a similar assistant director position but to a much larger scale at Idaho State University in Pocatello, There he worked with community service, the program board, leadership development, and student organizations/Greek life in Pocatello as well as the school’s two satellite campuses. Along with all of his responsibilities, Jay still works closely with his passion for music, bringing entertainment of various levels and types to the campus. Idaho State presents different challenges as most students tend to live off campus, with quite a few who are married, non-traditional students, and seventy percent of a student body who are Mormons. So they developed a program called Late Night Prowl of music and other forms of entertainment and activities to keep people on campus who are not old enough to drink or choose not to drink. “The program for a first year has been very successful, and we’re going to continue to do it. We want to mix it up a bit. We have a venue called the Bengal Lair Cafe which is a coffeehouse with a small stage big enough for a small band or solo artist. We also do poetry slams there, open mics and karaoke, and try to identify local and regional musicians to bring in once a month. Then our program board helps bring in a band once a month or so as well.” Jay is also trying to get some bigger events, including a possible “Spring Fling” similar to one they did at East Carolina. Although Jay loves what he is doing, he has thought of wanting to go into the music industry instead of working the college side of it. But while he is working with college programming, he has advice for indie bands trying to break into the college market. “Even though it may seem like a jaded side of the business, the bands need to put a good press kit together. Get a web-site up and running, have a demo CD with a black and white photo and a bio. All those dog and pony type things help people get to know you. The other thing is longevity with bands. Bands are a dime a dozen and if you don’t get along as players and band members, you’re going to be defunct in a month. You have to be in it for the long haul. You have to be hungry and realize to go anywhere, you have to treat everyone with respect and not demand the world.” :->

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