Van Halen returns to rock the world
Van Halen has been filling venues across the United States recently. We're talking about the Sammy Hagar (vocals), Eddie Van Halen (guitar), Michael Anthony (bass) and Alex Van Halen (drums) lineup. For the uninitiated, here's a brief rundown of VH's singers:
David Lee Roth 1974-1985
Sammy Hagar 1985-1996 and 2004-
Gary Cherone 1996-1999
For a tad more background, Van Halen won a Grammy for "Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocal" in 1991 for "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge." They have sold more than 75 million albums worldwide, with 12 albums certified as multi-Platinum. VH's 1978 effort, "Van Halen," and their release "1984" achieved Diamond status with more than 10 million units each. They also hold the Guinness Book of World Records for most Number One rock tracks (11) at album radio. In July, they released "The Very Best of Van Halen" on Warner Bros. Records and the recent tour was their first in more than nine years.
I had the opportunity to interview them, but there was a
catch -- I would only get to speak with Sammy and Alex and it
was to be a round-robin interview. This meant that there would
be journalists from all over on one big conference call, where
we would probably only get one question each and then have to
hope everyone else would give us enough fodder for a good
story. Rather, than weaving a tale, I have opted to give it to
you straight -- enjoy!
Q: Why does it work now?
ALEX: The simple answer is it felt right. We got together and it was like we hadn't left the music, we picked up right where we left off. Making music is the center of this band, so it was a no brainer.
SAMMY: It just like it was the right time once we were together talking. We all felt like, "wow, the time is right." It could have blown up or anything or maybe two years from now it would be too late. Who knows? It just feels right and sometimes just by accident it's the right time and everything works out for you. We've all been pretty lucky our whole careers.
Q: Give us a rundown of how your reunion occurred.
ALEX: I think with an old friendship and an old relationship there really is no definitive space and time. We're buddies and we make music together.
SAMMY: I made the call to Alex. I was in Southern California vacationing with my family and someone asked if I ever spoke to him any more. I decided to give him a call. First I called Michael Anthony and got his number. I decided to call and when I did, we talked for so long it was, I could have driven down here by now. (Sammy was still a little apprehensive about meeting in person, but) When we met head-on, it was a complete love fest. I really miss this friendship. And by the time we started playing music, it was all over.
Q: Alex, did Michael's working with Sammy influence you?
When Mike and Sammy went on tour, Alex didn't mind.
ALEX: They're musicians, that's what they do.
Alex and Eddie were working together on something different any way.
SAMMY: It had nothing to do with us getting back together because when we were doing that I didn't have any indication or even a hint that we would be getting back together.
Q: How was Sammy's first meeting with Eddie?
Alex mentioned to Eddie that he had spoken with Sammy. The next time Sammy talked with Alex, he asked how Ed was doing because they hadn't even gotten to that, they were too busy catching up. Alex told Sammy to call Eddie and gave him his number.
SAMMY: The whole point of being older is time going by, water under the bridge. You kind of forget what happened or why you were mad. All that stuff goes out the window and when you see a person that you truly do have a deep relationship with, and we were together a long time, 11 years. We spent a lot of those 11 years together out on the road, rehearsing, more than I did with my wife. (laughs) When you have a deep friendship, all of a sudden you realize after time forget it. We decided rather than go to therapy like some of these other bands, we said, "No here's what we're going to do, we're going to pretend it never happened. We're going to rise above it." And that's really what we did.
Q: Alex, after Gary Cherone, did you and Ed still play together regularly?
ALEX: Well, first of all, there never really was a hiatus.We were very fortunate to have the luxury of having our own studio, so we're in there everyday making some kind of music. Your creativity, it doesn't stop.
Q: How is Eddie's health?
ALEX: He's healthy and he's ready to go and I would like to add that I, personally, would like to thank all the fans for the get well wishes they sent in all the cards and e-mails.
Q: Your vibe sound positive, how did your reunion affect your new material?
SAMMY: Nothing really affected anything, except for the music itself.
Sammy's goal when he first went to visit Eddie was just to visit, not to go into the studio, but it proved inspiring.
SAMMY recalls the first time playing together: We jammed for five or six hours, my voice was completely worn out. The four of us getting together inspires everything. The chemistry between the four of us is very very special. Coming back together, was like they never parted.
Q: Sammy, when you toured with David Lee Roth, did you hang out together?
They didn't, as the two had their differences.
SAMMY of the tour with Roth: It wasn't a good idea, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Sammy explains that he would have never done it if he knew that Van Halen would get back together.
SAMMY: It wasn't an enjoyable thing because he wasn't an enjoyable guy. I'm not sorry I did it, but I certainly wouldn't do it again. I don't mean to bash, he just wasn't a friendly guy. Two different people, two different planets.
Q: How are you dealing with the pressure of the reunion?
ALEX: No pressure.
SAMMY: This is less of a reunion and more of a continuation.
Alex agrees adding that it is like going on and affirming again that there's no pressure.
SAMMY: The set we're playing in the live show is better than any set we've played before. It's so right, the set list will kill ya.
Q: What's the set going to be like?
SAMMY: It's over the top. We have a little expression: Van Halen-- the line between the band ends and where the audience starts is kind of vague, it becomes one element, one big party. Everybody gets into the experience. The important thing is that where it begins and ends is with the four guys on stage and the music that we play and the connection with the audience that we've had over the years.
Q: Why do you think some classic rock bands fill arenas, while others don't?
ALEX: I really believe that in part our attitude toward music has always been to be organic, it comes from the heart and that this is the real thing. The ones that last are true to themselves.
Q: You have three songs on "Best Of," do you have more?
SAMMY: There's so much that it's almost mind boggling.
Sammy would work out while listening to the songs and get ideas for lyrics and music. This process also helped define which songs would make the album now and which could be used later.
Q: Will there be another album?
SAMMY: The whole idea of how this happened, it happened so fast and so freaky. We started playing and it just snowballed and we're still running at full speed to catch up. I think it can last, I hope it can and we're certainly creative enough. But with four personalities anything could happen, I could come in with the wrong color shirt one day and the whole thing could blow up. (Sammy bursts into laughter and Alex chuckles too.) If you're wondering why we're laughing, it's an inside joke. The reason Alex is laughing is we have the same sense of humor.
Q: Sammy, your voice seems to have gotten stronger, what's your secret?
SAMMY: I am probably the luckiest singer on the planet. The only secret I can say is I've never smoke cigarettes and, I'm not trying to make a cigarette commercial out of this, but lots of the singers I know who do smoke cigarettes can't sing any more or as good. Maybe that's it.
Sammy admits to having fun and drinking, but says: Maybe my heart's just really into it.
Q: Do you foresee the end of Van Halen?
ALEX: We don't focus on what doesn't happen or what might have happened, but we're here now and that is what's happening.
Q; Sammy, did you give Mike your Cabo bass?
SAMMY: It's in my closet locked up. Mike doesn't know where it is and he'll never see it again.
Q: Are you filming your tour?
Sammy states that they are documenting it as they go.
ALEX: We are very particular about how we want our music presented. We do have control and we want to make sure everything is right.
Alex explains that it's hard to transfer into film the live feel of being right there watching the band.
Q: Your last greatest hits release was music with Roth, does this new "Best Of" album with Sammy make things right?
SAMMY says that he doesn't feel slighted, as: Control comes from a higher place.
But Sammy is happy and feels it is good karmicly. He didn't want to do a greatest hits album at the time when the first one was done, but now the timing is OK.
Q: What do you think of the scene today, do you see your influence?
ALEX: Yes in a number of different areas. There were a number of people who grew up listening to Van Halen. It seems to be that we were part of the timeline of music history. We were part of the fabric of how music evolved.
SAMMY: Works for me.
ALEX: It's hard to put your finger on because it's bigger than us, Sam...
SAMMY: I haven't even got it figured out myself. We're living it, man.
Q: Do you have plans to release previously unreleased material?
Sammy states that if it wasn't released, it probably wasn't the better material, although some hard-core fans might want it.
ALEX: If it was worth listening to, it was released. Not all of it's great.
ALEX adds that: nobody sets out the write a band song, but there are clunkers.
Q: Sammy, what is the extent of your commitment? Alex, how did you see Gary Cherone fitting in the band?
ALEX: Creativity is about taking chances and it's allowing yourself to make mistakes. It's nobody's fault, it just wasn't right.
Sammy said that he's not worried about planning ahead, he's concentrating on the present.
ALEX: When you make music you try to be true to what's in your heart. Once it's been put forth, it's anybody's guess what happens to it.
Q: Were the rumors in 2001 to 2002 of Roth returning to Van Halen true?
ALEX: The rumors tend to be exaggerated. There was an attempt to put something together, but it was ill-fated and didn't materialize and went away.
Q: You are on a four-legged tour, how long will you be on the road?
ALEX: That's some kind of a farm animal you're talking about. (laughs)The Stones play wherever they're welcome and wherever they're wanted and that's how we look at it, we'll go wherever people want to hear us play our music.
SAMMY clarifies that they'll do a series of shows and take a break and then go out some more: It's a really really strenuous show. It's not like we go out on some tiny stage and look at our shoes and play. not only do we perform physically, the music itself is extremely difficult to play.
Q: Gary Cherone may be at the show in Boston, how will you react?
Sammy says he's hoping Gary will come out and hang out. There may be many special guest musician friends coming out to shows.
Q: What do you think of Eddie's rank in Rolling Stones' 100 Greatest Guitarist of All Time?
ALEX: It's something you have no control over.
Sammy teases Alex, didn't Eddie get ranked below Courtney Love?
ALEX: No, no, Joni Mitchell.
SAMMY: That's a little better.
ALEX: From a personal standpoint, I am honored to be in the same band with somebody with the caliber of Ed. He pushes everybody to a higher standard.
Alex adds that he feels that the rating takes away from the music and what music is about.
SAMMY laughing: Wait till you see the singers' poll.
Q: Are you obliged to play Roth songs on the upcoming tour?
ALEX: I think what's important to recognize is that musically it's seamless. From beginning to end it was how Ed wrote the music and the recordings. And the spirit of the band remains intact. We're going to play everything, there are no rules.
SAMMY: One of the advantages to having Sammy Hagar as a singer as opposed to any other singer is that I can sing anything and everything.
Sammy claims that his has a wide vocal range and won't cheat fans by not playing complete catalog. At first he didn't like singing someone else's lyrics, but now he looks at it like a song and has fun with it.
Q: You have a huge catalog, will you play other songs that are popular, not just hits?
ALEX: There's some surprises in there. To us, they're all hits.
Q: Sammy, how long had it been since you last spoke with Eddie?
SAMMY says 6-7 years: I was a little nervous, but it was good. It was a little uncomfortable. It actually got heavy fast, it got deep fast. A lot of curiosity.
Q: Are you surprised that Van Halen is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
ALEX: It's hard to say. It would certainly be an honor to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I think the last time around we were eligible for it, I'm not quite sure how that works. But I think getting together first and making music was hopefully the most important thing. I think the band has made its mark historically and having people come to hear what we're doing now is the proof in the pudding.
Q; Alex, can you describe the conversation you had with Ed about Sammy and how hard it was to get Mike back?
ALEX says he doesn't really remember what he said to Ed: It just happened. When you get into a difference of opinion and a difference of how you see life in general, it becomes very intense and that's what happens to people. There comes a point in time where you've just got to drop it. Things change and people change and ultimately, the things that brought us together in the first place were the things that pulled us together this time. That was the music and we have more similarity than we do differences.
SAMMY points out that the chemistry still remains and it's very apparent: It's so apparent it's wacky.
Q: Which non-Hagar songs do you look most forward to playing?
ALEX: Which song do I like the best? I'm going to play them all real loud and everyone just follow me.
Sammy's fave old song he didn't write is "You Really Got Me," but he's really digging "Jump" right now. Sammy used to pull someone out of the audience to stand in as vocalist because he didn't like to sing it, but now he's looking forward to singing "Jump."
Q: Do you have a video archive?
Alex explains that unfortunately not a lot of early years footage is available, most of it (all of it probably) has been released.
SAMMY says that they made two DVDs, but didn't think about documenting backstage and behind the scenes. It makes it more special that the only way to experience VH is by going to the concert: and sit in the front row and get your face bashed in with music.
Q: How did you get in shape and motivated for the tour?
ALEX: The best way to get in shape and get tough is to eat nails. I read that somewhere. When you put your mind to it you can do it. This is our life and touring is our lifeblood.
SAMMY: We all have our own physical things.
SAMMY runs and during rehearsals, he wears 10 pound weights on his arms: The motivation is amazing. When you're our age and have been doing this as long as we have doing and on the level we've been doing it on, you either love to do this or you don't and you're motivated by something you love to do. We're motivated by doing it. It's an awesome feeling you can't get anywhere else.
Q: Sammy, do you have greater appreciation for the band this time around than last time?
SAMMY: Not really because the first time I had great appreciation. The energy and the spontaneity that we had the first time was something that can never happen again. It's pretty humbling this time around. Last time I thought I was a pretty big rock star.
Q: How does Van Halen fit in the music scene?
ALEX: We don't. Intentionally. No, I think there's music for everybody.
SAMMY: We're the only ones who do what we do. If you want this, there's only one place you can get this. If you want what we do, this is where you get it.
Q: What's the "shirt story"?
ALEX won't divulge it, but: It's more of a metaphor for I want it my way, you want it your way and now don't wear that shirt, wear this shirt. When we have music that is complete and ready for others to listen to, our hearts and souls are into that music and we hope that there can be some kind of connection with the people that listen to it.
Q: Your lineup has stayed the same for so long, what will happen if Alex or Eddie retire?
ALEX: I don't think Ed and I will ever stop making music. It's one of those magical things that we can make music and it's a quest for finding the perfect song, I don't think it's ever been written. It's one of the driving factors.
Sammy has to leave at this point, but Alex remains to field a few more questions.
Q: How has your writing evolved over the years?
ALEX: Since I'm the only one here, I can take credit for everything. (laughs) Ed is just constantly coming up with pieces of music and it's like the chemistry is what really what makes the songs come into fruition. I can't describe it other than it's this seamless fluid kind of exchange. Ed will play a piece of music and Sammy will instantly come up with something without even thinking. I think some of the greatest pieces of music have come up that way. The moment you start thinking, you get yourself in the way and then it becomes a labored process. That's why usually we have tape machines running round the clock in the studio so whenever somebody's in there, meaning me or Ed or Mike or Sam, we usually have that on tape. But the thing that we keep referring to as chemistry, it goes beyond just a relationship with four guys who have traveled together and make music together and go on tour. It's the creative process. And that is really something that's very special between, I won't even count myself even though I'm in there, when Ed and Sam get in there and they start conversing in the music realm. Some really spectacular stuff comes out of it.
Q: Are you concerned about people downloading your songs?
ALEX: No concern at all. I think the music is there and if the people figure out a way to get to it, more power to them. The ultimate goal with our music is that once you've made it, as many people as possible hear it. That's our feeling about it.
Q: What are you most looking forward to on the tour?
ALEX: That's a tough question. I haven't really thought about it, we haven't had time to think about it. We've got this stage production, we've got all these things we want to do, we're in heavy duty rehearsal, I guess I could say I'm looking forward to the brown M&Ms, but... I think really for any artist, the ultimate really is to go out and play and be in the moment and see what happens, that's really where it's all at. We've done our homework, we've done our practicing, we've done the writing, we're physically ready to do this, we've got everything rolling, now we're going to get up on stage and we're going to play for you. And that's it. That's what we're looking forward to.
Want to find out more about Van Halen? Visit www.van-halen.com
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