DAVID SWAN gets a whole lot more than he bargained for when he encounters one of rock’s great personalities, Van Halen’s David Lee Roth.
There are interviews, and there are interviews. The standard format is fairly known and accepted among journalists, and artists themselves. Chat for 15 minutes or so about the new album, the upcoming tour, a bit of band history and maybe if you’re lucky you’ll get something controversial or news breaking. This wasn’t one of those.
It’s 9am Melbourne time, which is 9pm New York time, and I get a call direct from “Diamond” David Lee Roth’s mobile ahead of Van Halen’s visit for Stone Festival, which takes place in Sydney this weekend. Five minutes in I throw away my question sheet. This wasn’t an “interview”, but a conversation, as unadulterated as they come, littered with stories, ramblings, life advice, Japanese and a bit of Van Halen, too. All up it was a two-hour chat, both exhaustive and exhausting, and even the still-virile 57-year-old frontman was well and truly spent by the end.
One day it might make a great book or screenplay, but for now here are the best bits of _FL_’s two-hour chat with David Lee Roth, one of rock and roll’s last great showmen and unequivocally one of its most genuine characters.
David Lee this is David Swan on the line. How are you going?
Going very well thanks, pleasure to meet you. What is FasterLouder? Please share with me. Is this high-performance automotives? Is it for porno? Which in my country is the same thing. Is this musically informed? What is the nature of our program today?
We don’t go into porn very much, that’s our adult sister website. It’s rock music mostly.
And in reference to which rock music? Is it era-specific, or is this all the way up to this phone call and including from the very beginning of a genre? Like I said, I’m learning here, teach me.
It covers a wide range of stuff.
Sounds superb. I’ve been spending the last year living in Tokyo. And something with a name likeFasterLouder would be very specific to Japanese style. Japanese style, well it’s wonderful, but it has virtually no connection to the rest of the world. I’m not sure what movies and TV shows they’re watching over there, and even the names of their acts are different, for example, Pay Money To My Pain. [Laughs] That’s a pretty great title for a band. And the singer just died. How do you compete with that? Dave, you can’t compete with that! I don’t care how good of a writer you are. That’s just sterling. Pay Money to My Pain … that’s not even the name of the song, that’s the name of the whole band [laughs].
Were they any good?
They were excellent. They were heavy metal with a disc jockey. And what’s curious also is Japan accesses everything without the actual social connotation. For example, there’s a tremendous number of lowrider tattoos walking around out there. They have no idea what they mean. The two catholic hands praying, with the rosary draped around them. We see this on the shoulder of every third hip-hop video in the United States. If you have an even faintly Hispanic nickname, or a name like Pitbull, or anything in between, then you have that tattoo. They have no idea what that is in Japan. There is no religious connotation to it.
I got kicked out of an onsen [Japanese hotspring] for having a tattoo when I was in Tokyo a few weeks ago. I was holding my hand over it but didn’t get away with it. Apparently tattoos are still linked to the yakuza and organized crime?
It’s a curious connection, and right now it’s being defeated. Right now if you look at the back of one of the tattoo magazines, and they’re gorgeous, they’re not just cheapy newsprint, they’re the full eggshell bond varnished paper. They look like National Geographic year-end annuals. If you look in the back, there’s over 400 tattoo shops, within the three main cities, Tokyo Osaka and Kyoto. There’s hundreds of them. But those are folks who are 35 years old and under. From that point up, it’s a lot like the baby boomer connection, in that it’s connected with bikers, it’s connected with disenfranchised people [puts voice on] “What does that mean Mr Roth? Well I’m not sure, I think it means merchant marines in Bohemian. What’s a bohemian Mr Roth? Knock it off kid.” [Laughs]
Do you feel like a local yet?
Yeah I think so, it’s immersion. I’ve been going to Japan since a million years ago. But you don’t really see anything going through the window if you’re touring. Particularly if you approach it what I consider appropriately. If you go to the Olympics and you were going to compete in a specific event, would you be out at night sampling the local cuisine the night before your event? Of course not. You might be sampling one the local natives, but then she’s still gotta go kind of early because you’ve got an event tomorrow.
And when we’re on the road, this was always of interest to us, people thought they were always strolling and whatnot. No, we were like racehorses. Sleep race win. Sleep race win. Just repeat that 100 times, and that’s how you deliver just a stellar performance, every night, or damn close to close to it. You won’t be able to discern the difference without the binoculars. A solid 10, 10, 9.8, 10, 9.9, again and again, just pulling that trigger. Steady and steady and steady. And then, if you wanna live like a pirate, and we doooo [laughs]. What about pirates Mr Roth? That’s correct, we’re getting to that. That’s my conscious speaking. Then we go back. For how long sir? Very long. And we set up camp. And I have done that. In a variety of cities, I have yet to do it in Australia. I would do it in Sydney. And I know my way around Melbourne is fairly well.
When was the last time you came to Australia?
Oh, years and years ago. A million years ago. My godfather was Australian. He was Australian government, Roger Shipton, he was the boss of the Olympic committee in the mid-’80s. He was my uncle Dave’s roommate when they were in college and he was my godfather. So I was around that accent and that family, and that whole connection to things, from before I was a teenager. That being said, I picked up and went to Tokyo about a year ago, and I had no idea where I was going, I just Stevie Wondered it. There’s an adverb that I just made up for you … I’ve travelled so much now, I’ve seen I guess 22 or 23 different countries, from the inside out. And I get lost intentionally. You do it like an Apollo moon shot, you know, where we’re not sure where we’re gonna land.
“Yes, there was accomplishment early on in the career. You want to rule the world, you want to sleep with every great looking chick who has two legs, and I’m even flexible there.”
You’d get some good stories, travelling like that.
You crash into all kinds of interesting people. You will arrive in the most ordinary of skins, so to speak. You don’t arrive with an entourage, you don’t arrive with the tour bus, it’s not like somebody wakes up and gets out of bed drowsy, rubs their eyes, opens the window shades and there’s an aircraft carrier parked in the backyard. It’s not that. That’s fun, and I’ll teach you how to do that in about a couple minutes [laughs]. No, you’re supposed to show up like the postman. Just knock at the door and say, “Excuse me, are you still open?” and I’ve learned how to do that in 20 different languages. I know how to wake-up first thing in the morning, and call a taxi in 26 different languages. That’s a whole different adventure, to the aircraft carrier thing.
I was watching your YouTube show [The Roth Show] and on the latest episode you talked about how your one responsibility as a artist is to be 100 percent honest, through the music. And I’ve always wondered if you’re an artist that is chauffeured around, and being constantly managed and minded, when you then make music it would be surely challenging to make real honest music, compared to if you’re just out there living, and being more a part of the world.
I think that’s astute, and accurate at that. If you are a lyricist, and you are doing words, well there’s a Freudian slip right there, I didn’t say writing them, I said doing them … If you do lyrics, it means you’re living them first. And you have to have a story, as a writer, whether you’re writing novels, whether you’re a journalist perhaps, whether you are fiction or non-fiction, lyrics are marvellous combination of all the above … That’s why there are no child savants in authorship. There will always be child savants who can play music instrumentally with great genius at a very very early age, before they’re even teenagers, and that’s because you don’t need a story. You don’t need the emotional content that only comes from having being hammered and beaten and polished and hammered and beaten and polished. It’s hard to tell which of those three elements, that are hammered and beaten and polished, are the most supportive and positive and which ones are negative and abusive sounding, do you follow? They all add up to the final moment of perfection, hopefully.
And you have to go out and get some living. It’s like when you buy one of those cool leather jackets now at the designer place, it’s got the tag which says, “All imperfections and damage to the hide are the result of the animal’s natural environment, the indication of its real conditions.” You’ve gotta get the scars and the stars. You’ve gotta get the scars on your heart and your face and you’ve gotta get the stars on your collar. I’m four stars now. [Laughs]
Do you feel like you’re a better writer now than when you started out?
Oh clearly, is a process of distance, and enthusiasm for the art form. Most people who write lyrics for a living approach it with disdain or they approach it with an apprehension, the kind that comes with having to do homework. And homework is the antithesis of what I’m supposed to doing for a living, nevertheless you have to sit down with a pad of paper. You will have to sit down, even at most of the high end of the sport, you will have to sit down with some machine, and transcribe what we just discussed, then you’ll have to edit it, then you’ll have to structure it, then someone like yourself may have to deal with an editor, or a video editor, and the list gets longer. The higher up the mountain, the more people live up there as it turns out. And it all just screams of homework and I understand why some people trouble with it. School and academia and blergh. There’s a lot of folks down here at Club Dave, where the debris meets the sea, where they don’t want to deal with the implications of time involved, “You mean I’ll have to put my beer down and actually write something?” Yes. You can write it on the same napkin, and there’s a certain poetry to that. And you’ve still gotta pick up the pen, kid. If you want to write carpe diem, seize the day, carpe diem. Yeah great, but in order to do that though, you have to carpe rutilla. Which means pick up the spade… [Laughs]
Anyway, so circling all the way back to your original question, what is required is a discipline to simply continue. And if you do continue to show up you will improve. Whatever improve means. It will get easier for you, that’s an improvement. Or it will get easier on your audience. They will give up trying to understand, and they’ll go, “OK, Bob Dylan, we’ve got it, we think.” The audience will acquiesce, whatever that means, they’ll do it. It’s like your family, finally they’ll just give up and go, “Oh, it’s Dave. Leave him alone.”
“As soon as there’s a bag full of cash and five different guys who are not blood related, people turn into all kinds of Spielberg-ian creatures.”
You’ll become more fluent in what you do, your language skills will improve. It’s like the first time I showed up for a kung fu lesson. I asked the teacher, innocently enough as a pre-teen, how hard is it to learn kung fu? He said it’s easy. Showing up every single day that you’re supposed to on time – that’s very hard. He said if you can do that, if you can show up at this door with your uniform, every day that you promised, he said, “You’ll learn kung fu in no time. I’ll handle that. You’re in charge of showing up.” And boy was he accurate. And I’ll sometimes ask people, I’ll usually throw this one under someone’s feet just to have some fun with them, I’ll say, “Can you describe art to me in three sentences?” Go for it!
That’s putting me on the spot … Well I’d say it’s self-expression, in the purest form. And whatever comes out of that, that’s art.
Of course it is. Of course it is. I’ll have a crack too … Keeping nice tight columns and keeping your writing in the margins, that’s an artform. Sewing drapers perfectly is an artform – you can make art out of that. But art – the really good stuff – is something that was created that compels us to think and argue and question. Like Andy Warhol’s soup can. Is that art, or is it hype? Is it dazzling concept, or dazzling bullshit? It’s like the phrase, “Pick up the shovel.” I have forced you to question, seize the day is where most people stop. If you want to seize the day then one must pick up a shovel. Seize the shovel. Now you’re being compelled to question: “Is Mr Roth just being a jerk? Is he being a joke for a good reason though? What if he’s being a jerk for a bad reason?” But now you’re thinking and you’re thinking, and that is art. Everything else is decoration.
I get the feeling you’ll be one of those guys that never retires, because you’ll never stop thinking and never stop questioning. Some of your peers retired maybe 20 years ago, but you’ll always be curious. You’ll keep going. Do you feel that?
Yes. If you’re an author, you want to leave a nice big shelf of books behind. If you are a musician, if you don’t leave behind a huge shelf of music, then I feel you would want to be able to point at the research bills. I only did 12 albums in my entire career, but look at what I spent on research. “This was when I lived in Brazil, and here’s when I was in the Army. That’s when I met your mum, well your first mum.” [Laughs] That’s a shelf, man.
Do you have half a shelf, or where are you at?
I’m on my third shelf. And you know what? It’s not even so much accomplishment. Yes, there was accomplishment early on in the career. You want to rule the world, you want to sleep with every great looking chick who has two legs, and I’m even flexible there. She doesn’t have to have both [laughs]. I’ve seen some hotties in the Paralympics, and I’m prepared to talk, Dave. I’m modern, I’m capable of a relationship, or half of one. She’s got to a have a sense of humour, at least half of one. [Laughs] That being said, you want to rule half the world, and you want to sleep with the other half. And you want to charge both heavily for the inestimable privilege. [Laughs]
And if you’re lucky, after a couple of decades of that, you will find a resource that you didn’t know was there, hopefully. There’s a whole other set of reasons why you’re going to keep showing up at the dojo door. And for myself, it’s the thrill of the unpredictable finish. That’s all adventure is, I think. It’s mystery. Mystery is absence of information. We don’t know, so consequently we are mystified. There was nothing on the page, so it’s a mystery. It’s that simple. And, the thrill of the unpredictable finish. I feel it thins the blood, keeps the skin looking good, and it encourages you to use your skills, starting with your mind, all of those mental and spiritual capacities. And then, depending on what context you just threw yourself into, test the deep water with both big toes. That sounds presumptuous, unless you’ve been training those toes. I’m not just walking into the unpredictable blind.
Moving to Tokyo completely by myself without any language skills, I’m a wanderer. I’m a professional wanderer. I have been for almost 40 years. And I know how to make friends quickly, by being around a campfire, or a downtown tabletop candle. I know how to spend long periods of time by myself without fidgeting. I’m hyperactive but I have no attention deficit syndrome…
And circling back to what we were talking about earlier: Why spend so much time in these loops of training the great intangibles, playing things like Go and chess. Why practice the martial arts? Why do these games of patience, like language school? Well, the first thing you’re going to learn in sword school is don’t blink … Men only behave when we have to. And when you start dealing in the sums of money that Van Halen does before and after a show, you know what happens to our brotherhood? As soon as there’s a bag full of cash and five different guys who are not blood related, people turn into all kinds of Spielberg-ian creatures. We turn into raptors, man.
David Lee Roth with The Beastie Boys and Sean Penn
You’ve had such a long career, you must have a few regrets.
My biggest regrets has nothing to do with the fights, the health practices, it has nothing to do with the money. I’m still getting raped and stolen from in terms of my record royalties, or whatever. I have no complaints. I’ve no real regrets in terms of deciding not to jump off that stage or whatever so my left knee would still work. No, my biggest regret is when I was growing up I didn’t have a computer. I didn’t have YouTube, I didn’t have search engines, and I didn’t have the internet … We used to have to wait till we got to New York City with two cassette playing stereos which you would have to position in the window of the hotel, so you could tape the radio station, because there’s radio stations in New York City that played music you couldn’t get anywhere else in the country. If you really wanted to dance to downtown jazz, you had to wait til you got to Manhattan, man. That was all the way up until the ’90s. If you wanted house mix, rap, that kind of thing, in the ’70s and ’80s, you had to come to New York and tape it off the radio. If you dig country and western, and I mean the stuff with the flavour, where the DJ had the same accent, you had to wait til you got to the greater Dallas Fort Worth area. You would have to get a hotel room where the windows open and you would have to set up your stereo, and tape-record it onto cassette, onto a 20-minute tape deck.
And you had to go and shop, just in the same way I learned chess, by forearm. You’d pile up all the cassette tapes onto a table with the middle of your forearm and scoop them into a garbage bag. It would take as long for the guy at the cash register to ring them up as it took you to actually select them … I would just shop until I couldn’t carry any more, and we would use special duffle bags for hockey gear, the duffle bags used by the goalies, because the goalies have the biggest kneepads and stuff like that, and those are the biggest duffle bags. And I’d carry around two of those full of hundreds of pounds of cassette tapes for years. Well, that kind of goes by the wayside these days. We have a little tablet now, a little wafer or something, my iPhone buckle pad thing.
But it’s harder for bands to break out now then isn’t it? If everyone’s putting out albums made on laptops in their bedrooms. Back then bands could be massive whereas now it seems almost impossible, don’t you think?
Good thinking, I’m going to agree with you almost all the way up to the end [laughs]. Yeah, if your presentation is primarily non-stage oriented, Van Halen is a live band, and has been called a club band, or a club act. We are an onstage, visceral entity. Our records are reclamations or souvenirs of that experience. Our best recordings sound 100 percent live, and for the most part they are. They are not representations. If you buy a record of Van Halen, our best performances are live for all intents and purposes. So in terms of the internet, well live it’s a lot easier to compete. In terms of who is better live. It’s like watching the Olympics, or a dance competition, where celebrities are dancing, it’s a lot easier to determine who’s the better dancer, who’s the better drummer or keyboardist. We were great.
Are there any plans for new Van Halen recorded material?
Yes. I was just on the phone with the fellas … We are going to be getting together, not this month, at the end of June to start preparing for some new recording and some new songs, but we’re touring a little bit this year. That’s kind of a surprise. We’re in Australia, we’re doing a Japan tour for a couple of weeks, and we’re doing some American stuff. That comes as a bit of a surprise. Van Halen projects are a bit like James Bond movies. They come around about once every three-and-a-half years. Any sooner and it’s like, “Weren’t you just here?” It’s like that third Johnny Depp pirate movie [Pirates Of The Caribbean]. Weren’t you guys just here? Oh, that’s a rough one right. Leave before the sun sets, quit just before the party begins to disintegrate, don’t be the first one back in next week. We’ve been around for so long that that is a deft kind of a tactic. And there’s politics. So with that in mind I imagine we’ll be doing extensive touring and travelling outside the United States after this upcoming tour.
We plan ahead by about two-and-a-half years in advance, which sounds extravagant … [But] from the time you go, “Let’s start to write some songs”, until all of the machines of production and humanity kick in, things move achingly slow. Achingly slow. Especially if you are art-centric, if you want something to last, it’s going to take a long time to put it all together. Quick up is quick down. We know about one hit wonders and we know about fast, but it’s about three years, it takes about three years.
Can you clear up what happened when you pulled out of Soundwave Revolution back in 2011? The promoter AJ [Maddah] described Van Halen as managed by idiots, did you pull out due to that, or was it something else?
Wait, I said I’m surrounded by idiots, or someone said that about me?
AJ said Van Halen’s minders were idiots.
I don’t know that I disagree. Van Halen’s represented by one of the biggest idiots in the history of the sport, Irving Azoff. If in fact, that’s the job description, if that’s his official title. Van Halen is a cantankerous bunch. It’s the war wagon, no doubt about it. I’m not gonna try and smooth over all of the wrinkles and imperfections. It’s probably one of the things that makes these interviews so interesting. That being said, yeah, we’re surrounded by all kinds of colourful characters. Promoters included.
I think probably the biggest issue last time around was Ed’s health [he was forced to undergo emergency surgery for Diverticulitis]. We have been struggling with that since we started recording this last record, but we’re tough. A lot of artists are very fond of checking into the hospital with “exhaustion”, whatever that is, and making sure everybody knows about it – and we don’t do that. But behind the scenes, there’s a lot of fragile politics, there’s a lot of world weary bodies here. You’ve heard the expression 40 is the new 30 … Well, for me, 58 is the new 80 [laughs] So we’ve been struggling with Ed’s health, but he’s fine now, he’s doing great. But we were up and down before we even started recording that record [A Different Kind Of Truth]. It took us quite a while to get the record out of the factory, because of that. And then we cancelled a whole number of shows in the United States and Japan etc. to accommodate Ed. But he’s doing quite well now. So stay tuned.
Last question then Dave – well, it’s only the second or third of my planned questions but we’ll go with it – tell me about the dynamic of the band now, especially with a 20-year-old in the band [bassist Wolfgang Van Halen], compared to all of those years ago, onstage and off?
Back then the goals were a little bit different, but the energies were a little displaced, I think the band is more focused now, on all of the details of what we do. So things like the website, show up a little more colourfully, as opposed to hiring it out to other folks. As you’re learning and new moving along, you have to subdivide, you have to have somebody else do your video, you’re gonna have to have somebody else working on your stage design, because those are languages you don’t know. We speak those languages now. And the band is, if nothing else, a bit more thankful for the privilege of the job that we have, compared to a lot of the other jobs that we’ve had … I think the Van Halens have the same perspective.
Having someone who’s 20 years old in the band? Well you’re gonna have to keep up with us. The brothers and I are still skinny and full of victory. ‘Gonna Fly Now’ and all those great theme songs [laughs]. It’s pretty rare that somebody our age just signs up for the first stop time and can just keep up, but there’s a thrill of competition, the band ensemble competing with the world, then individually we still compete with each other, and it’s not really soured notes in the symphony. It’s volition, it’s sparks, and I think you’ll find that with any good team. And I find Wolfgang fits right in. Now that the three guys look the same, and I’m the one that’s different, I feel like Sammy Davis Jr. I’ve got a better sense of how he felt in the Rat Pack [laughs].
Van Halen will perform at Stone Festival at ANZ Stadium this Saturday, April 20, along with Aerosmith, Jimmy Barnes, The Living End and “supergroup” Kings Of Chaos.
No settling down: Roth
David Lee Roth has laughed off the suggestion that he’s in a gay relationship, and explained why he’ll never get married.
And the singer says he’s glad he split with Van Halen during the 1980s – because it made him a more interesting person.
Roth tells Buzzfeed.com: “I’ve lived alone my whole adult life. I’ve had girlfriends. I’ve had love affairs. Never longer than a year and a half.
“I’m the drunk who won the lottery – I’m going to be very difficult to convince of a lot of traditional things. I put off getting married when I found out: oh, you don’t really have to! There’s a lot of us out there.”
He returned to Van Halen in 2006 after leading a solo career, and was at the helm for last year’s album A Different Kind Of Truth. “I wonder who I might have been had I stayed in the band,” he reflects. “Not as interesting, not as involved.
“I probably would have followed the more traditional, long, slow climb to the middle. Enjoying my accomplishments, living off my residuals. I wouldn’t have half the stories to tell.”
Having said that, he still thinks of the band’s first glory days. “We lived our lives like roughnecks,” he recalls. “Roustabouts, circus carnies. I wonder if it’s still a dream to live the way we lived. I know the success part of it is. Not just the partying, but the travel, the late nights – not just with groupies, but with all kinds of colleagues in a variety of other pursuits. I wonder if I even see that in people’s eyes.”
And he believes that one of the key changes in his life was the rise of grunge music. “Two words: Kurt Cobain,” says the singer. “I went from playing to 12,000 people to 1200, from arenas to casinos and state fairs to the local House Of Blues.
“That will cause you to reflect a lot more clearly on your values. Fun wasn’t seen as fun any more.”
He’s been up, he’s been down. And in recent years he’s also been a medical technician. Now he’s back with Van Halen and has much to say about the band’s glory days. First, though, he wants to chat about, erm, sheepdogs
Van Halen in 1978 on roller skates in front of a mural of the planets. David is in the stylish red jumpsuit. Photograph: Lynn Goldsmith/CORBIS
There’s something to clarify before David Lee Roth gets down to business, talking about his life with and return to Van Halen, arguably the most important American hard rock band ever. Namely: why did I have to watch a video of him putting his sheepdog though its paces before I was allowed to speak to him?
It’s hard to tell why – because Roth’s answers are circumlocutory, filled with metaphor and grandly entertaining – but my guess is it’s to illustrate how his life has returned to its beginnings. “My background is in Indiana,” he says. “My grandparents came from Europe in 1917 and made their living working in a general store, and selling beer by the pail for four cents in the 20s in Newcastle, Indiana, which today is still bib overalls, livestock and the great outdoors. Just down the street is Indiana University where my pop went to school – he later became a doctor. But while he was just starting college when I was born we lived in a little house at the edge of a farmer’s property and I grew up chasing muskrats and collaring dogs.” Training a sheepdog, then, is coming “full circle”.
Full circle in another sense, too, for next week’s release of the new Van Halen album, A Different Kind of Truth, marks the first recordings Roth has made with the band since departing amid a cloud of bitterness in 1985, when he was replaced by his arch-enemy Sammy Hagar (as far back as the 70s, Hagar was calling Roth a “faggot”, Roth responding by saying Hagar had “a social problem”).
Though Indiana-born, Roth was hardly your typical farmboy. His Uncle Manny ran the New York bohemian hangout Cafe Wha? until 1988, putting on the likes of Bob Dylan and Lenny Bruce, and Roth would hang out there as kid visiting in the early 1960s. He was never much of a student, bouncing around schools – for disciplinary reasons; he’s evidently ferociously bright, even if he often chooses not to show the world – until he moved to Pasadena, California, as a teenager, where he enrolled at Pasadena City College and met the man with whom his life would become entwined, a young guitarist called Eddie Van Halen.
For seven years – from the 1978 release of their debut album, until Roth’s departure as frontman in 1985 – Van Halen were a living, breathing cartoon of the rock’n’roll lifestyle. They were mocked for the supposed excess of demanding a jar of M&Ms in their dressing room at each show, with all the brown ones removed (though the reason for that was to check the promoter’s attention to detail: if he couldn’t get such a simple task right, what else might he have missed?). They celebrated sex and drugs and drink. Then they celebrated them some more. If Sunset Strip in the 1960s had been the party, Van Halen, a decade later, were the after-party. And the world lapped it up: the Roth-era Van Halen sold 35m albums, despite their sometimes variable quality. There were masterpieces – their debut, a shock as seismic as punk, and Roth’s final album with the group, 1984 (the one that gave us Jump and the marvellously goofy Hot For Teacher with its apocalyptic drum intro) – and there was the tossed-off, 31-minute long Diver Down, from 1982, heavy on covers and instrumentals.
“Van Halen was an island unto ourselves,” Roth says. “If you stop at that island – we recommend you do, but abandon all hope – do not back up! It was like Port Royal in the 1700s. It didn’t belong to anybody, which was why it was great.”
But was it ever hard work appearing to be having that much fun all the time? “I was a surgical tech right out of high school, I sold clothes; I shovelled shit at a horse stable for years. I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor,” he says. “Rich is better. Totally better.” He laughs, a great wheezy crackle. “The job we have is a privilege. The Van Halens [Eddie and his brother Alex, the drummer] and I have had steady jobs since we were 12 years old. Mine was working before and after school at a horse stable. For them it was paper routes. Mr Van Halen was classic European: you’re making your money for the rent. I was lucky I didn’t have to do that … Even at your worst moments, there’s a whole lot of Shakespeare going on. How can you not appreciate it? At your lonesomest, most catastrophic, it’s still pretty cinematic. I think the smiles were genuine. Don’t mistake them for simplistic grins – there’s a lot of pirate smiling.” Piratical sounds about right, for Van Halen were adept at picking fights, too. When they headlined the 1983 US festival in California, in front of 375,000 people, and millions more watching on MTV – for a reported $1.5m fee – a bombed-out-of-his-mind Roth took on the Clash, who were also appearing: “I wanna take this time to say that this is real whiskey here … the only people who put iced tea in Jack Daniel’s bottles is the Clash, baby!” That came moments after addressing a member of the crowd at whom Roth had taken umbrage: “Hey, man, don’t be squirting water at me! I’m gonna fuck your girlfriend, pal!”
Van Halen were there first, though, and they were the best. They sounded like the future (it’s no coincidence that Eddie Van Halen’s alien guitar caterwauling was used in a scene in Back to the Future, to convince George McFly he was being visited by a being from another dimension). Eruption, the famous guitar solo from the first Van Halen album – and the Back to the Future wake-up call – showed a new generation of players how to bring the flash: you didn’t need 10 minutes for your solo to make the point – 100 seconds would do.
If you look closely, Roth says, it’s easy to see where Van Halen took their inspirations from. “I can point for you and go: right there we’re imitating Eric Clapton; right there I’m imitating vocally David Bowie; right there is Bruce Springsteen” – he puts on a gruff voice, aping the Boss – “‘Diamond Dave, you’re a big man!'” – and he guffaws – “but this is how you create a signature sound. If you’re lucky to have it, there’s no way around it. I actively imitated everything from the Nicholas Brothers tap dancing to Mick Jagger going ‘Oooh yeah!’ But because of whatever it never sounds like anything to you but David Lee. And when Edward plays you might never have heard the material before but you instantly recognise it as fast as, say, Jimi’s guitar.”
Crucially, though, Roth says they were never just a metal band, even though they revolutionised the genre. “Metal is a bit specific,” Roth says. “The neighbourhoods we grew up, learning, acquiring musical knowledge, were very separate neighbourhoods, unlike, for example, New York City where Mr Chin lives next to Mr Steinberg who owes rent to Mr Patel and they all speak Serbo-Croatian. It’s just the school system. Here [in California], the Venice Beach surf neighbourhood is very different than San Bernadino Hell’s Angels. Below south of the harbour freeway: ‘Que pasa? What are you looking at?’ And that all works into Van Halen. You can hear it – it’s loudly diverse but you can’t feel the seams. It’s like if you go to a car show and you Stevie Wonder it: you can’t feel where the Chevy turned into a Mercedes door frame which turned into – that’s a De Soto grill! –” and suddenly he’s no longer the blind man at the car show, he’s an aggrieved Mexican kid wondering why the blind man’s hands are all over his girl – “‘That’s my girlfriend loco! What are you doing?'” He guffaws. “All those different neighbourhoods add up into the sound, and to say it’s one kind of sound – no! It’s so much of a hybrid that you have to give it its own name.” He concludes his spiel, bafflingly, with the tale of Yip Harburg. “He was a millionaire industrialist who lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929 and when his kids and his wife said: ‘You can earn it back honey,” he said: ‘No, I’ve always dreamed of being a lyric writer on Broadway.’ And he did. He started from absolutely nothing, with no background, and he wrote Brother Can You Spare a Dime, arguably the most famous American song of the Depression, and he wrote the lyrics and the melody for Over the Rainbow. How’s Yip doing so far? I confine the theatre of my fame to what would Yip think?”
Those different neighbourhoods, plus the steals from Springsteen and Bowie and Yip Harburg, were what made the band unique. Even on the demos they recorded with Gene Simmons of Kiss in 1976, they already sound like a band who are only themselves, sui generis. “It’s not magic,” Roth says by way of explanation. “It’s science. And the beautful thing about science is it’s true whether you believe it or not.” And then we’re off. “For example, the busing programme in America started in 1966 and my sister and I were sent off to schools an hour and a half away that were 95% black and Spanish speaking. Today I only listen to R&B – only listen to R&B – from any time period, doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter at all, whether it’s big band swing all the way up to anything that’s onBeatport. The Van Halens went to Ridgemont High. Ever see the movie? That was their high school – 98% Jeff Spiccoli and home of the monster riff and every ending to every song should sound like world war nine or just the end of the world. Who does endings better than Van Halen live? I’ll send you a ticket. I’m ready to argue this. Unarguably the best endings ever, right? They sound like the end of everything. Biblical. And the guitar solo? It is a religious icon, certainly on a par with some of our more popular professional sports, which I maintain are religions. Put the football down – I’m ready to argue.” He laughs. “That’s how we do the solo.” And laughs again. “And you’ll know when the solo’s coming because there’s a scream. There are moments. Combine the two and what you have is hard rock from the 70s. We enjoyed our fame in the 80s but we had nothing musically to do with it. And you can interpret that four different ways, depending on how I just said it.”
And does knowing you need each other make the tensions between you all the worse? And we’re off on one of those long, rambling, glorious answers. “Jesus, let’s go back to the 1600s again. People didn’t understand psychology, right? You showed them emotional content and made somebody cry and they thought it was demons. One of the best reviews you can get in my estimation is from the villagers if they killed all the actors and buried them at the cross so their ghosts couldn’t haunt the village – because everyone left the play crying and laughing and they couldn’t understand why. Today we give them an Oscar for that kind of emotional ride. Being human has caused so much of that. Let’s really back into some theory here. What is art? Simple, I think – something that forces and compels you to think, and that can be a mint condition copy of Raging Bull or it can be the Kardashians. The same questions will be asked and you will be forced to confront yourself, and you will be forced to triangulate where you stand on everything from racist politics to haircuts. And are they really different? Do you follow? You’re going to ask the same questions and that … shit … is … art. And it has caused you to question more than that goddam soup can Warhol sold us. Or tried to. Bring that one up. You follow? You are compelled into argument. Consequently, arguing about our band and our rock’n’roll – you can do that certainly for longer than actually listening to it.” Then he laughs long and loud, and offers the perspective that comes with being 56, happy, and aware that there’s more to life than telling the world that it might as well jump. “Van Halen music is whisky in a paper cup! Short doses and not every night, PLEASE!”
Eddie Van Halen was interviewed this Wednesday by CNN for a segment on Michael Jackson’s masterpiece album, Thriller. Watch their video below and read a transcription of their entire interview with Eddie. This video is scheduled to air on CNN today, Saturday and Sunday, (Nov. 30 – Dec 2). The air times are unknown.
(CNN) – Eddie Van Halen sits on a sofa in his home studio, smoking an electronic cigarette and reminiscing about the 30th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s masterpiece album, “Thriller.”
“It seems like yesterday, doesn’t it,” he says softly. “It would have been fun to work with him again.”
Van Halen was a surprise guest on “Beat It,” the album’s third single. His blazing guitar solo lasted all of 20 seconds and took half an hour to record. He did it for free, as a favor to producer Quincy Jones, while the rest of his Van Halen bandmates were out of town.
“I said to myself, ‘Who is going to know that I played on this kid’s record, right? Nobody’s going to find out.’ Wrong!” he laughs. “Big-time wrong. It ended up being Record of the Year.”
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer recently revealed to CNN what went on behind-the-scenes of his iconic collaboration with the King of Pop.
CNN: When Quincy rang you up, you thought it was a crank call.
Eddie Van Halen: I went off on him. I went, “What do you want, you f-ing so-and-so!” And he goes, “Is this Eddie?” I said, “Yeah, what the hell do you want?” “This is Quincy.” I’m thinking to myself, “I don’t know anyone named Quincy.” He goes, “Quincy Jones, man.” I went, “Ohhh, sorry!” (Laughs)
I asked, “What can I do for you?” And he said, “How would you like to come down and play on Michael Jackson’s new record?” And I’m thinking to myself, “OK, ‘ABC, 1, 2, 3′ and me. How’s that going to work?”
I still wasn’t 100% sure it was him. I said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll meet you at your studio tomorrow.” And lo and behold, when I get there, there’s Quincy, there’s Michael Jackson and there’s engineers. They’re makin’ records!
CNN: Did Quincy give you any direction about what he wanted you to do?
Van Halen: Michael left to go across the hall to do some children’s speaking record. I think it was “E.T.” or something. So I asked Quincy, “What do you want me to do?” And he goes, “Whatever you want to do.” And I go, “Be careful when you say that. If you know anything about me, be careful when you say, “Do anything you want!”
I listened to the song, and I immediately go, “Can I change some parts?” I turned to the engineer and I go, “OK, from the breakdown, chop in this part, go to this piece, pre-chorus, to the chorus, out.” Took him maybe 10 minutes to put it together. And I proceeded to improvise two solos over it.
I was just finishing the second solo when Michael walked in. And you know artists are kind of crazy people. We’re all a little bit strange. I didn’t know how he would react to what I was doing. So I warned him before he listened. I said, “Look, I changed the middle section of your song.”
Now in my mind, he’s either going to have his bodyguards kick me out for butchering his song, or he’s going to like it. And so he gave it a listen, and he turned to me and went, “Wow, thank you so much for having the passion to not just come in and blaze a solo, but to actually care about the song, and make it better.”
He was this musical genius with this childlike innocence. He was such a professional, and such a sweetheart.
CNN: That collaboration surprised a lot of people.
Van Halen: I’ll never forget when Tower Records was still open over here in Sherman Oaks. I was buying something, and “Beat It” was playing over the store sound system. The solo comes on, and I hear these kids in front of me going, “Listen to this guy trying to sound like Eddie Van Halen.” I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “That IS me!” That was hilarious.
CNN: How did you explain to the guys in Van Halen what had happened?
Van Halen: I just said, “You know. (Shrugs) Busted!” “Dave, you were out of the country!” “Al, you weren’t around!” I couldn’t call anyone and ask for permission.
Unfortunately, “Thriller” kept our album, “1984,” from going to No. 1. Our album was just about ready to go No. 1 when he burned his hair in that Pepsi commercial, if you remember that. And boom, he went straight to No. 1 again!
CNN: Is there an album since then that has shaken things up in the same way?
Van Halen: Wow, I don’t know.
CNN: Some people cite Nirvana’s “Nevermind” has one that caused a musical shift.
Van Halen: But still not like that. Not that crossed over to such a mass audience. Nirvana was huge, but it didn’t appeal to everyone.
I have a lot of respect for Michael. He’s going to be sorely missed. I’d be curious as to what he’d be doing right now.
CNN: I believe Quincy has said he paid you in two six packs of beer.
Van Halen: Yeah, something like that. Actually, I brought my own, if I remember right.
I don’t even think I’m credited on the record. It just says, “Guitar solo: Question Mark” or “Guitar solo: Frankenstein” (the name of his guitar).
CNN: Did you ever hear from Quincy again?
Van Halen: At the very end, Quincy wrote me a letter thanking me. It was signed, “The F-ing Blah Blah Blah,” which I still have. It’s very funny.
- · A Different Kind of Truth · Interviews and Messages from the Band · Van Halen Interviews or Messages · Van Halen News
King Edward talks A Different Kind of Truth and the rejuvenation of Van Halen.
On the first leg of Van Halen’s A Different Kind of Truth tour, toward the end of the band’s set, there was a moment during the middle of Eddie Van Halen’s solo spot in the show where the world seemed to stop spinning.
Even the techs, security staff and backstage production personnel would stop what they were doing to focus on the celestial sounds emanating from the stage, with huge smiles on their faces that mirrored Ed’s beatific grin as he unleashed a staggering cascade of notes. At that particular point in Ed’s solo, it was clear that there was no place in the world that they’d rather be.
These moments were all the more remarkable because, not too long ago, it seemed like they might not happen again.
The last time Guitar World spoke with Ed, in October 2009 for a co-interview with Tony Iommi, he said, “We might not record something new.” That blunt but honest statement hit fans like a ton of bricks, because it seemed like that scenario could be a likely possibility, considering that it had been five years since Van Halen released any new material and more than a decade since the band had released a full-length album.
However, as we all know now, that was not to be the case, as in February Van Halen released A Different Kind of Truth, the band’s 12th studio album and its seventh with David Lee Roth on vocals. The most devoted old-school Van Halen fans quickly recognized several of the songs, like “Beats Workin’,” “Big River,” “Bullethead,” “Outta Space” and “She’s the Woman,” which dated back to demos recorded before Van Halen’s debut album.
But the album also offered several new songs, like “As Is,” “China Town,” “Honeybabysweetiedoll,” “Stay Frosty” and “The Trouble with Never” that kick ass as hard as anything else in Van Halen’s catalog. The album delivered an ideal balance of truly classic and genuinely new material, acknowledging the band’s past but also paving an exciting new direction for the future.
The band was eventually forced to cancel some of the numerous dates that had been packed into the Different Kind of Truth tour—as David Lee Roth explained in a video posted on YouTube, the “schedule has been sidelined for unnecessary roughness.” Fortunately, though, we had a chance to spend several days on the road with the group, especially with Ed.
Talking with him, he seems no different from the Ed we’ve always known, but his attitude is much more hopeful and optimistic. He’s certainly experienced his fair share of dark days over the past decade, from his struggles with alcohol to a recently recurring battle with cancer. But it seems like now he’s conquered those problems for good and is truly enjoying life, thanks to the dedicated support of his family and friends.
What’s truly amazing about Ed today is how he’s managed to overcome the negative elements in his life that once controlled him while at the same time relinquishing much of the control he once held over the band. Instead of sitting alone in the driver’s seat, Ed is now allowing Wolfgang—his son, and Van Halen’s bassist—to crack the whip in the studio and during rehearsals. Without all those burdens, Ed is now free to concentrate on playing guitar, writing songs, and making new gear developments.
At long last, Eddie Van Halen is back, and he’s better than ever.
GUITAR WORLD: The last time we talked, you said you weren’t sure if you wanted to make a new Van Halen album. What changed your mind?
I think I was pissed off at the time. I didn’t want to do something new because I felt that even if we did, the fans wouldn’t like it anyway. We just snapped back and realized that, hey, we’re doing this for us, too. This is what we do. We make music for a living. Like I’ve always said, if you like what you’re doing, you’re halfway there; if someone else likes it, that’s even better. If they don’t like it, at least you like it. Not to be selfish, but you kind of have to be.
What got the ball rolling on this album?
Wolfgang’s enthusiasm. He was going, “Come on, come on!” We went up to 5150 and started jamming. It felt like a comfortable old pair of shoes. Working with Dave again was like we had never left each other. It was that comfortable. We’ve known each other since high school. When you have old friends, five or six years can go by when you don’t see each other, but you just pick up where you left off.
We started recording at the studio at my house with just Alex, Wolfgang and me. Basically it’s the same way we start any record. We went through our archives of stuff we had already written. Wolfgang picked out a bunch of tunes. “She’s the Woman” was the first one. We started jamming on songs like “She’s the Woman” and “Bullethead” and reworked them. Dave was onboard from the beginning. I was already recording and engineering demos of “She’s the Woman,” “Bullethead” and “Let’s Get Rockin’,” which is now “Outta Space.” I sent Pro Tools files of recordings over to Dave, who was working over at Henson Studios, where he likes to record, which got him totally excited. He said, “Let’s get going!”
How did you choose John Shanks [Bon Jovi, Fleetwood Mac] to produce the album?
The most difficult part of the process was deciding whether or not we should use a producer and who we should use. We had a big list of producers. Ever since we did that interview together with Tony Iommi [for GW’s Anniversary 2010 issue], I’ve been in contact with Tony a lot. Sabbath is doing their reunion also, and they’re working with Rick Rubin. I don’t think Rick is the right producer for the kind of band that Van Halen is, but his name was in the hat. So was Pat Leonard [Pink Floyd, Roger Waters, Madonna]. Dave doesn’t have a home studio, so he goes down to Henson to record, write and keep his voice in shape. One day he told me that he ran into this guy named John Shanks. I thought he was an odd choice, but we were open to anything. John asked what we had. I played him our three demos, and he loved them.
It was actually Wolf’s idea for the album to be a collection of our B-sides along with three reworked songs, which would be new to our audience. Instead of the “Best Of” it would be the “B’s Of”—you know, songs like “Drop Dead Legs,” “Girl Gone Bad”… It would be a record of our more hardcore songs and none of the pop stuff. That was the initial plan for this album, but the deeper we dug, the more we found. At the same time I was writing new songs. Dave got very excited about that. We all did. We ended up recording demos for 35 songs. All of those songs were ready to go, and we were able to play them all.
We called John again and asked, “Are you busy? Do you want to come up and take a listen?” He was like, “Whoa! You’ve got a shitload of songs here!” We pretty much left it to John and Wolfgang to pick the songs, and it all went from there.
For the new album, Wolfgang pulled out some songs from the band’s past, which is something the group had done for previous records. For example, on Fair Warning, the band was still drawing on material like “Mean Street”/“Voodoo Queen,” which were from the demos you recorded before the first album came out.
We were doing things like that even later. “Seventh Seal” [from Balance/em>] is a song that I wrote before Van Halen was even a band. “Hang ’Em High” [from Diver Down] was written long before we put it on an album. Same with “House of Pain” [from 1984/em>], which was also on the demos we recorded in 1976 with Gene Simmons.
We approached this record no different than any other. The internet has changed everything. Now everyone knows where things came from. Before the internet nobody would have known that these were songs that we had already written but never released. When the album first came out, some people were saying that we purposely did old songs to get the public to relate to our old sound. But this record wasn’t planned that way. Whenever we make a record the first thing we do is go over what we already have in the bag that we can pick from, and then we focus on writing new material.
When we were digging around, I was amazed how fresh some of the songs sounded. I was going, “Did I really write that way back then?” The biggest trip is that I wrote some of those songs when I was still in high school and even junior high. A good idea is a good idea no matter when you do it.
5150 has been like a second home to you for decades now. How did it feel to work in a different studio?
It was a pleasant experience, but I missed working at home. I’m used to the monitors at 5150. After we worked at Henson we had to redo all of the guitars and all of the bass at 5150 because I couldn’t hear them at Henson the way I’m used to. It was the same thing when Ross Hogarth did the mixing. He tried to do it at Henson, but he couldn’t hear things properly either, so we mixed at 5150 also. The process of making the record was very simple. It took us maybe three weeks to lay down all the instrumental tracks. We played live and we were super rehearsed. We made a few nips and tucks here and there, but everything was pretty much there. Part of the problem at Henson was that they were running everything through this CLASP tape system in addition to Pro Tools. With CLASP, the tape machine just keeps going and rewinding to give you that analog sound, but I don’t ever remember seeing anyone align or clean the heads on the tape machine once. Everything ended up sounding like it had a sock over it. When I took it home to listen to it, I went, “There is something very wrong here.” Al, Dave and Wolfgang came up to 5150 and agreed that we had a problem.
How did Wolfgang adapt to working in a different studio?
It was great to watch him work in an actual professional recording studio, with a producer, actually making a record, which was different than watching him work at 5150. He took the bull by the horns. He had a lot to say. I was shocked by all the great ideas he had, and he was very opinionated. He came up with the arrangement for “Stay Frosty.” When Dave wrote it, it was just an acoustic thing like it is on the intro. Wolf turned it into what it is. It was interesting to watch, especially John’s take on it. I think he was actually a bit intimidated by a 20-year-old kid telling him how things should go. We already knew about song structure, so basically all we needed was an outside opinion or an outside ear. I think he’s used to making records where he has to do pretty much everything for the young artists he produces, which is why I initially thought he was an oddball choice. Wolf threw John a major knuckle curveball. It shocked him, so I think he tried to lean toward working with me, but I said, “He’s a member of the band. You’ve got to deal with him too.” When I played my solos, I’d walk out of the room and let Wolf and John pick the best take. Sometimes I’d hear him arguing with John, which was funny. It was neat to watch Wolfgang stand up for what he believed in and thought was right. He’d tell John which part he thought was better, and John would sit there and go, “Okay.”
John is a great guy. We weren’t there the whole time he was working with Dave, because Dave prefers to work at night and we like to start working at noon. These days I wake up at six in the morning. If we start working at night, I’m ready to go to sleep. We weren’t there when a lot of the lead vocals were being recorded, but I think Dave and John did a great job.
It must be a relief for you to be able to relinquish some of the control over the band to Wolfgang. In the past you were almost entirely responsible for that role.
It was a relief in a lot of ways, especially since this was the first record that I’ve ever made being sober, and I was nervous. I was glad Wolfgang wanted to do that. I said, “Go ahead!” I was as nervous as a motherfucker. Why? God only knows. I still get nervous every night before I go out onstage. It keeps you on your toes.
On this tour you’ve changed things up quite a bit by bringing out some deep cuts that you haven’t played for a while and changing the set list around.
That’s Wolf too. He’s in charge of the set list every night.
You haven’t played some of those songs for 28 years or more. Did you have trouble remembering them?
That’s why we do soundcheck every night. The next couple of songs that we’re trying to work in are “Light Up the Sky” and “As Is.” We’ll figure out the right time to do them. It’s fun. We played “Hang ’Em High” for the first time during soundcheck. That song is wicked. It has so many changes, there is so much shit going on, and it’s fast. If you slip up once the whole song is fucked. After we did it, we were all looking at each other and going, “What do you think guys? Should we take a chance?” And it was Dave of all people who said, “Fuck yeah! Let’s go out there and do it.” I thought he was going to say no. He said, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” We played it great.
Your playing is as good as, if not better than, it has ever been. Did the hand surgery and arthritis treatment you had back in 2009 help with that?
Definitely, but what I think helped more is that my head is clearer. I’m aware of what I’m doing now. It’s amazing that I ever did it any other way, to tell you the truth. Looking back now, I don’t see how I did it for all those years. I could not imagine going back. At the same time, I’m up there playing so I can only go by what Matt [Bruck, Ed’s guitar tech, road manager and jack-of-all-trades] tells me. When I’m up there playing I can’t tell. I know that my playing is a lot more consistent. It’s like all the little neurons are more connected.
The beauty of doing my solo now is that I get to sit down. I was just talking with [Ed’s wife] Janie the other day about how the reviews mention that I sit down to do my solo like I’m sitting on my front porch or couch playing for people. Believe it or not, I can sit there and play like that all night long. It’s harder for me to play when I’m standing up. When I sit down I can really play. It’s a gas! I’m having fun. Sometimes a solo goes by so quickly and the next thing I know it’s over. I don’t mix it up too much. I used to noodle so much, but now it’s more mapped out. I know that people want to hear certain things, so I do the beginning and end of “Eruption,” a bit of “Cathedral” and “Spanish Fly” in the middle, and a few transition parts to piece everything together. I don’t remember what I did at the last gig, but Dave walked up to me afterward and said, “Whatever you did in your solo tonight was different. It was great!” But it happened so fast with me that I don’t know what I did that was different. Sometimes Matt will say the same thing, and I’ll think that I played the same thing I always do.
Your tone is so clear. That’s probably because your fingers are like clamps on the strings.
I dig in with both hands. That’s why my thumb is like this [holds up right hand to show thumb, which is bent back toward his wrist]. About 20 minutes before this one show, I was backstage and I walked past a tapestry that was covering the door frame. I whacked my hand against the doorjamb, and it swelled up really badly. I was able to make it through the show, but the next day I went to have an X-ray taken of my hand to make sure there were no hairline fractures or anything. The radiologist went, “Man! What’s wrong with your thumb!” I said, “Nothing. It’s this part of my hand that I hit.” He said, “Your thumb is all fucked up. It’s not supposed to bend back that far.” It’s from years of digging in with the pick. [laughs] It’s an occupational hazard. My thumb won’t bend the other way.
Before the operation on my left hand I wasn’t able to stretch my fingers open all the way. I’ve never had very big hands, but I could do the splits with them. Eventually I couldn’t any more. I had a twisted tendon in my little finger that prevented me from being able to stretch. It would fucking hurt when I was playing. You can still feel the twist. When I flex the tendon it feels like it’s snapping, but now I can stretch all the way again. If it hurts I just take a couple Advil instead of a couple shots of vodka.
Was the EVH Wolfgang Stealth that you’re playing onstage also your main guitar on the album?
I used it for everything except “As Is,” where I used a D2H “Drop 2 Hell” guitar. The solo and some overdubs on “You and Your Blues” were a Strat. It just happened to be lying there and John went, “Here, try this!” The rest was the Stealth. I even played the whole record on the same set of strings with the exception of two strings that broke and were replaced. I’ll always leave the same set of strings on my guitars when I’m recording. If I break one I’ll just replace it instead of putting on a whole new set of strings.
After all of these years of playing maple fretboards you now prefer a guitar with an ebony fretboard. How did that develop?
I’m constantly changing and evolving. I thought that the Stealth, with its flat-black finish, wasn’t going to look good with a maple fretboard. I just threw out the suggestion to use an ebony fingerboard. When the guitar arrived, I started playing it, and I really liked it.
Did you use the 50-watt EVH 5150 III on any songs?
All of the guitars on “Tattoo” were played through the 50-watt. I used a 2×12 cabinet too. It’s really whomping. I also used it on the solo on “Blood and Fire.” It has a slightly different tone.
You’re using a lot more wah on your solos on this record.
Yeah, I noticed that too when we were done. I said, “I’m using an awful lot of wah on this record.” “The Trouble with Never” was designed to be kind of Hendrix-ish, so using wah on that was a given. On other spots I just stomped on it and went, “Oh great. That works.” There wasn’t a whole lot of thought given to that. You know me. I’m the kind of guy who likes to wing it. I don’t plan out my solos.
The one solo that I had to plan out was on “She’s the Woman.” The original breakdown of “She’s the Woman” ended up being the breakdown in “Mean Street.” Wolfgang came up with a new breakdown that had these crazy chord changes. The chord changes were so fuckin’ weird, but I didn’t even think about them until I had to solo over it. I couldn’t just go…[plays random notes in a pentatonic scale]. It wouldn’t be in key. Instead I had to go like this…[plays melodic line from solo]. I never really worked out a solo like that before. It took me a couple of days to figure out what notes worked against those chords. If I don’t hit these particular notes [plays solo] it wouldn’t work. It flipped me out. When we did the demo, Matt punched me in, and I just sat there going, “Goddamn. This doesn’t work!” [laughs] You can’t just noodle your way through those chord changes. You have to hit the right notes. The only thing I ever really planned before was the solo in “Runnin’ with the Devil.” Other than that, nothing else was planned or written out in advance.
“Blood and Fire” used to be “Ripley,” which you originally recorded with a Ripley stereo guitar. Did you break out the Ripley guitar again to record the new version?
Oh yeah, but I had to send it back to Steve Ripley to have him fix a couple of the panning pots, since I hadn’t used it in quite a few years.
Even before the first note is played, you can feel this huge presence at the beginning of the song, where it seems like you’re sitting in the room with a very loud amp.
It’s actually two big, loud amps, since I was playing in stereo. The single-coil pickups—there are two of them because it’s in stereo—had something to do with that. It’s a hell of a sound. In the room it was really loud. The Ripley guitar sounds different than a Strat. It has Bartolini pickups and a proprietary circuit, so you have a lot of unique things going on there. Put that all together and you’re not going to sound like a Strat.
You used a Whammy Pedal on several songs.
It’s on “China Town.” A lot of people thought that I used a harmonizer or octave box on the intro to that song, but that is just Wolfgang and me. The Whammy is just for little parts here and there during the chorus. I don’t use it live. I just hit a harmonic instead. On “Honeybabysweetiedoll” I used a Whammy, a Boss OC-3 octave box, a Sustainer and a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler. That’s only on the intro, where all those weird noises are happening.
The legato lines you play with the Sustainer have a very Middle Eastern sound.
That was the point. I love that song. We have some other versions of that song that are really twisted. The main riff on the intro is all Wolf; it’s all bass. I’m just making noises. Up at 5150 when Wolf unplugged his bass, it picked up all these radio frequencies. You hear this whooshing sound until he plugs it in. I’m doing the high, cascading whistling shit; he’s tapping the main riff. The end of the song is him unplugging his bass. If you give that a good listen you can hear all kinds of weird shit going on. I also used the Sustainer on the end of “As Is.”
You brought out the Phase 90 for the solos on “Outta Space” and “Stay Frosty.” Was that to replicate the classic early Van Halen sound?
It’s very straight ahead. I wanted to stay true to the original version.
Dave’s guitar playing often gets overlooked. He’s really good at fingerpicked, country-style blues like he plays on the intro to “Stay Frosty.”
Yes! He is great. He played guitar on that song up until the band came in, and then I took over on acoustic. He played that on a nylon-string flamenco guitar. It’s an interesting sound. But he can really fingerpick! Even on our first album, a lot of people thought that I played the intro to “Ice Cream Man” but that was Dave.
His lyrics on the album are full of wit and personality with a lot of street wisdom.
Some of his lyrics are hilarious. Dave’s good. He’s a very well-read person, and it shows in his lyrics. I don’t know of anybody else who can write lyrics that are so out there, yet in. Some of the stuff is blatant, but a lot of it makes you think. It’s tripped-out and deep, but not so deep that you can’t relate to it. I think he’s brilliant.
Considering the reception to the album and the tour, and the fact that you recorded so many songs, it seems like there’s good motivation to continue moving forward for a while.
Oh yeah. As far as I know, when we’re done with this cycle we’ll take a little break and make another record. That’s what I hope to do. I’m pretty sure that’s what our intention is. We truly are a band; it’s not just a one-off thing. I don’t want to say it’s a rebuilding process. If anything it’s a continuation. It feels more like a band and a family than it ever has, and not just because three quarters of it is family. Working with Dave has been very productive. We’re all very opinionated about things, but it’s all for the benefit of the music. We’re working together better than ever. I see us doing this for a long, long time. When things feel right, why the hell not keep doing it?
I think being older and wiser you’re no longer concerned with all of the distractions that took your focus away from the music.
I was just thinking about that before you got here, because I had the feeling that you’d ask me what’s different now than it used to be. I think I finally put my finger on it. It wasn’t really us; it was people around us. When you’re doing drugs, drinking and partying, you start believing the shit people tell you. Those days are gone. We’ve gotten rid of people who don’t belong here. Now it’s truly just the band. We have no problems with each other at all. We’re here to do a job, and we love doing our job.
You seem to be genuinely happy now. You went through quite a dark period for a while, and we were worried about you.
So was I. But I can’t think of anyone on the planet who is more lucky and blessed. Not only do I get to play with my brother but I also get to play with my son. If my dad was still here now that would really make things amazing. I have a wonderful wife, wonderful friends, and a son who doesn’t smoke, drink or do drugs. I’m just a guitarist in a kick-ass rock and roll band. What more could I ask for?
Photo: Matt Bruck
- · A Different Kind of Truth · Interviews and Messages from the Band · Van Halen Interviews or Messages · Van Halen News
Van Halen 2012 Credit: Copyright Shawn Cooper
- BY: ALISON RICHTER
The human voice is our most widely used instrument, and one we don’t often care for properly. From public speaking to fronting a band, voices take abuse on a daily basis, and with neglect, the damage may become irreparable.Voice teacher Peter Strobl knows this, not only as an instructor, but also as a student who once damaged his voice under improper tutelage.
Strobl was fortunate to be able to rebuild what he had lost, and since then, he has dedicated himself to teaching others the proper techniques to use and protect their voices.
View slideshow: Van Halen 2012
His journey to becoming an esteemed voice teacher is a fascinating one, filled with art, culture, European influences and a lot of rock and roll. Additionally, Strobl is a musician, luthier and producer, and his talents have taken him around the world. He’s also the teacher behind those spot-on background vocals you hear on Van Halen’s A Different Kind Of Truth and onstage.
My bud Alison Richter does it again, Read more of the interview here. and let her know how you enjoy her interviews Thanks.
“Blood and Fire” was based on “Ripley” from mid-1980s soundtrack work Eddie Van Halen did for The Wild Life.Of course, A Different Kind of Truth wasn’t the first timeVan Halen had returned to unfinished earlier ideas when constructing a new album: “Hang ‘Em High” from 1982′s Diver Down, “Mean Street/Voodoo Queen” from their 1981 project Fair Warning and 1984′s “House of Pain” are among those that have had a similar creative birth. But that didn’t stop some from complaining anyway.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Check out David Lee Roth’s hand-written lyrics for “Blood and Fire.” Toward the end, there’s a doodle that enthusiastically says: “BOOM!”]
By the time sessions began for A Different Kind of Truth, Wolfgang, Eddie’s son, had long since taken over bass duties for the departed Michael Anthony — and slowly but surely was beginning to take a more central role within Van Halen.He knew just how to break the ice between his guitar-god father, drumming uncle Alex Van Halen and Roth, the rambunctious on-again, off-again lead singer of Van Halen: Remind them of their storied beginnings, not their often tempestuous recent past.Roth’s first tenure as Van Halen’s lead singer was between 1972-85.
He then returned in 1996 to front the band for a pair of new tracks to be included on a greatest-hits compilation, before things went sour again. Another brief stint followed in 2001, then another between 2007-08. That made the first tentative steps toward their new studio project last year a delicate situation to manage.
“I knew that Van Halen had this incredible catalog of music they’ve recorded and written that nobody has ever heard. Some people have heard a few of the unreleased demos, but there’s so much more that they haven’t,” Wolfgang Van Halen told Guitar World. “When you walk into the studio, there are endless shelves of recordings. I grabbed a bunch of random tapes and picked out a few songs that I had known and liked.”From there, the group began reworking the songs, adding new parts, new lyrics, and in some cases a whole new feel — ultimately combining sounds fans had heard before with something fresh.“It felt like classic Van Halen that was written today; it had the right mix of old and new,”the younger Van Halen says.
“I wanted to remind my dad of the mindset he was in when he wrote songs like ‘Running with the Devil’ and ‘Dance the Night Away.’ I thought that recording those old songs would make it easier for dad, Dave and Al to put their minds where they were back then and get back to writing how they would have then.”
Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Van Halen.
Click through the titles for more …
VAN HALEN – A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH (2012):It’s interesting that A Different Kind of Truth doesn’t always go for the easy hook (recalling Fair Warning), something that may surprise late-arriving fans of keyboard-driven pop successes like “Jump” (and certainly the subsequent period with David Lee Roth’s successor, Sammy Hagar). Some of the material requires more than one listen to completely absorb, and Anthony’s cloud-bursting tenor is missed at times. But A Different Kind of Truth has a way of burrowing in. That’s largely thanks to the presence of Roth, of course. He’s always good for spandex-splitting laugh or two. AFFABLE MICHAEL ANTHONY SAYS HE WON’T PURSUE ROYALTY CASE OVER NEW VAN HALEN ALBUM:When David Lee Roth confirmed that Van Halen returned to the band’s vaults in search of old pieces of music and existing lyrics for a much-anticipated new album, it brought up the question of royalties for original bassist Michael Anthony. Van Halen had a policy, back then, of crediting all four members equally for each song — meaning Anthony could potentially make a case for a cut of the cash when it comes to A Different Kind of Truth. That won’t happen, though. Anthony, who was ousted from Van Halen along with singer Sammy Hagar in advance of this reunion with original frontman Roth, says he won’t be lawyering up.
SOMETHING ELSE! FEATURED ARTIST: VAN HALEN:A long-waited reunion with original lead singer David Lee Roth has Van Halen back in the news … and us digging through some old albums. Here’s a look back at a few favorite moments with Roth — and yes, Sammy, too — including “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Hot for Teacher,” “Jamie’s Cryin,’” “Good Enough,” “And the Cradle will Rock” and “Ice Cream Man.” Let’s start shredding!
ON SECOND THOUGHT: VAN HALEN – A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH (2012):I stand corrected – and pleasantly surprised, too. When I went into my first listen of Van Halen’s A Different Kind of Truth, I was expecting a steaming pile of mediocrity. Instead, the album is loaded with big, crazy riffing from Eddie Van Halen. As I listen to the record, I keep coming back to one word – swagger. That could be a complete review of this album in itself. It’s something that the best work from Van Halen has always had, and something that, for me, was often missing in the post-DLR version of the band. Something Else! Reviews
- · A Different Kind of Truth · Interviews and Messages from the Band · Van Halen Interviews or Messages · Van Halen News
That’s my boy: Eddie and Wolfgang Van Halen
Wolfgang Van Halen tried to push dad Eddie back into his seventies state of mind before the band began working on recent album A Different Kind of Truth.
The young bassist believed his father, David Lee Roth and Alex Van Halen could create material as good as their early work if they could be reminded how they used to think.
Wolfgang tells Guitar World: “I wanted to remind my dad of the mindset he was in when he wrote songs like Runnin’ With The Devil and Dance The Night Away.
“I thought recording those old songs would make it easier for Dad, Dave and Al to put their minds where they were back then, and get back to writing how they would have then.”
The band’s extensive collection of demos provided plenty of inspiration, says Wolfgang. “Some people have heard a few, but there’s no much more,” he explains. “When you walk into the studio there are endless shelves of recordings.
“I grabbed a bunch of random tapes and picked out a few songs I’d known and liked. We recorded the first demo of She’s The Woman in August 2009 and it felt really awesome – it felt like classic Van Halen, written today. Everything started falling together.”
And he’s critical of fans who don’t like the fact Van Halen reworked some old material for the new album. “At first we had a bunch of haters who were mad that we recorded new versions of songs they’d already heard,” he says.
“But they don’t understand that’s what almost every single musician does. They write music and some of it gets used and some of it doesn’t. Only the diehard fans have bootlegs of those demos.
“There’s a lot of new material on the album as well. It’s like all eras of Can Halen slammed into one record. The old songs don’t sound the same as the old versions – they sound like where we are now.”