Welcome Back: Mr. Big

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In July this year it was announced that Mr. Big drummer Pat Torpey has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. But Torpey, aged 54, has still managed to play a part in the making of the band’s new album, ...The Stories We Could Tell.

And there are plans for him to join them on stage during their forthcoming tour – not playing drums, but singing backing vocals. Bassist Billy Sheehan explains how Torpey, and the band – completed by shred-king guitarist Paul Gilbert (who also has a solo record out) and vocalist Eric Martin – are dealing with the situation.

When did Pat tell you all that he has Parkinson’s?

We had started to see symptoms early on, although we didn’t know what it was. But in January 2014 things took a turn for the worse. We had a discussion, a conference call, with everybody on board. That was when Pat explained what it was, and that he couldn’t play. Initially it was pretty rough. But all we could do is support the guy one hundred per cent.

Which included making a new Mr. Big album with him. How did you do it?

We programmed the drums. Pat was sitting with the programmer, directing him. And after hearing the record, so many of the moves sound like Pat Torpey, it’s actually kind of funny. We joked about it: we shouldn’t have said anything, because people wouldn’t have known. Some people still think it’s Pat on the record.

Is Pat the kind of guy who would make jokes about all of this?

Yeah, a little bit now. I can’t imagine someone telling me: “Hey, you can’t play any more, man.” I don’t know what I would do. But Pat’s got a great attitude, a lot of courage.

Was it difficult to find a drummer to replace him for the tour?

Well, after Pat got ill a lot of vultures were all over me. I said: “Everyone, please go away. This is not a career opportunity – this is a catastrophe.” But I’ve known this drummer, Matt Starr, a long time. He’s a local LA guy, really sweet, and a great player. And when we rehearsed with Matt we had Pat there too. They talked drums, Pat explained what to do, and it was very touching for him to do that.

Also, his health permitting, Pat will be appearing on stage with the band on tour?

He’s expressed interest in coming out and doing some singing. He can sing while Matt plays, and we do an acoustic set too. He can’t do it in Europe – we’ll be on a tour bus, and he has a real rough time sleeping. But in Southeast Asia we have a hotel every night, so he’s going to meet us in Manila.

The new album is classic Mr. Big, in the style of your 80s and 90s records.

Very much so. I don’t know that we could do a record that was that much different. We are what we are. The DNA in the band is unchangeable.

You also play in the Winery Dogs, with drummer Mike Portnoy and guitarist Richie Kotzen. How do you manage to juggle the two bands?

Mr. Big can’t tour like we used to, even if Pat was in full health, because Paul has a baby. So I knew I’d be going back to the Winery Dogs as soon as possible. I’m pretty sure we’ll have a new Winery Dogs record out in early 2015.

…The Stories We Could Tell is out now on Frontiers Records. Mr. Big play London KOKO on October 17.