By Mark Guarino
Van Halen is one of rock’s greatest soap operas. With a contentious circle of lead singers — David Lee Roth in the early days, Sammy Hagar bringing commercial success, a one-off clunker with Extreme singer Gary Cherone — the band parked themselves on the charts for almost 20 years, from the late ‘70s through the mid-‘90s.
The backbone to the band remained brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen, both considered guitar and drum innovators for the speed, technique and aggression in their playing. Soon after the band’s first album, Eddie Van Halen became elevated to guitar god status and, because of his imaginative fret technique, is probably one of the most imitated guitarists of all time.
After the failed Cherone album in 1998 and news of Eddie Van Halen’s throat cancer scare, it looked like the band had finally flared out. But last winter, a quick reunion between Hagar and the Van Halen brothers (bassist Michael Anthony had played on Hagar solo projects) led to its current arena tour, promising hits and a few newly recorded songs.
Hagar, 56, and Alex Van Halen, 51, talked recently about the past and present. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Q: In the last eight years there were hints of a reunion between the band and Sammy Hagar. Why did it happen now?
Alex: I can start off by saying something philosophical but the simple answer is this: it just felt right. Sammy and I got together and … we picked off right were we left off. The moment we hit the studio and started making music, which for us was where it always began, that’s what solidified it. Making music is what was the center of this band … so it was a no-brainer.
Q: Sammy, was it difficult at first to gets things right with Eddie who you insisted fired you back in 1996?
Sammy: No … I just called him and it was great. The whole point of being older is time going by and water going under bridge is that you kind of forget even what happened or why you were mad to begin with. All that stuff goes out of window. And when you see a person who you truly have deep relationship — we were together for 11 years and we spent a lot of those 11 years together, more than I did with my wife. So when you spend that time with somebody who you do have deep friendship, and all the sudden you realize after time is hey, forget it. We decided rather than go to therapy like some of these other bands and dig up the dirt, we said “no, no, here’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to pretend like it never happened, we’re going to rise above it.” And that’s really what we did.
Q: Alex, after the Gary Cherone album, what were you and Eddie doing during the hiatus?
Alex: There was never really any hiatus. We were very fortunate with the luxury of Ed having his own studio. We were in there every day. Some of (what we recorded) was usable, some of it not. But the idea of creativity is that it doesn’t stop. I think it really was a test for Ed and I to see when we were out of the loop with his health situation, if whether or not we really were creative types or it was the bells and whistles and the explosions that drew us to what we do. Being in the studio and having no other purpose than creativity itself was actually kind of a profound experience if you ask me.
Q: Sammy, looking back now, was the tour you did two years ago with David Lee Roth a good idea?
Sammy: No, not at all. It seemed like a good idea at the time. At that time there was no indication there was ever a Van Halen getting back together with me. I wasn’t thinking of that at the time. If I had known we were going to have what we have now, I wouldn’t have done it. It wasn’t an enjoyable thing because he wasn’t an enjoyable guy. I’m not sorry (I did it), but I wouldn’t do it again. It’s a hard one. I’m not here to bash him or nothing but he’s not a friendly guy. We didn’t get along. We’re two different people, two different planets.
Q: So will you be doing non-Sammy songs on this tour?
Alex: We’re going to play everything. There are no rules. We may even play some Led Zeppelin stuff, who knows.
Sammy: I think one of the advantages to having me as the singer as opposed to other singers is I can sing everything and anything. And a lot of people can’t sing the stuff that I sing. Not because I’m greater but because of my vocal range. I can sing in a very high register, I can sing in a very low register. The idea of going out and being able to do whole catalog is a great things for fans.
Alex: The songs take on a life of their own once we start playing them. The songs are bigger than the individual playing them. That’s the essence. We can try to figure out why when we can play these songs we get reactions that we do. We can credit ourselves for that and say we’re phenomenal at what we do. But the reality is the songs are bigger than us put together. And we’re going to play them all.
Sammy: For me, my favorite old song I didn’t write to sing is (The Kinks’) “You Really Got Me” and I realize Van Halen didn’t write that song either. That is a great song to sing. I enjoy singing that as much as I enjoy singing “Dreams” or “Poundcake.” And I’m tellin’ ya, I’m really digging “Jump” right now. It’s a funny thing. In the old days, I never got off singing that song. I used to pull a guy up from the audience to sing it because I didn’t like singing it. I have whole different attitude. Now I’m going, “no, I want to sing this song better than it’s ever been sung.” Not to try to compete with anybody, but that’s where my head and heart’s at. And I’m tearin’ it up!
Q: This year you released three new songs on your current hits collection. Did you work on any other new songs?
Sammy: There’s so much more. It almost boggled my mind. Ed and Alex have been jamming in the studio for years, just putting ideas down and when I walked into it, it was intimidating. It was neverending. There was so much material finished, it became a heavy workload on me as soon as we started getting into it because everything was great. We had to pick and choose. And so I took about two hours of stuff home with me and I just used to work out to it every day. And as I was working out, with some songs I started singing to them if I had a lyric idea. There were ten other songs we could have worked on. If we had the time we would have loved to do a whole record. But the idea was, do you want to go on tour this year or next year? Let’s go out now! That’s what we love to do. This was the way it had to be if you wanted to see Van Halen this year.
Q: So does that mean there will be another album in the future?
Sammy: It happened so fast and so freaky, it wasn’t planned. It snowballed we’re still running at full speed to catch up. Here we are with this huge production, 150 people putting this whole thing together. It’s like “holy crap,” Al and I just talked to each other few months ago! It really happened so fast, so to sit here and say we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that, man, we can only do one at a time. And I think it can last and hope it can and it’s certainly great enough. But with four personalities, anything can happen. I may come in with the wrong colored shirt one day and the whole thing can blow up!
Q: Wasn’t the last greatest hits — the one that featured new songs with David Lee Roth — the matter of contention that made you leave the band in the first place?
Sammy: We’re in the unique situation that there were unique singers in the band, one of them did a couple of new songs on the last one, one of them did a couple of new songs on this one. It’s kind of cool karmatically. The last time, I didn’t want to do it. This time in my life it’s the only way we could have done a new tour this year. It had to happen. This is great, joyful thing for us to get together and get to go out there at this scale. It’s awesome. We only had time to do three songs to make this happen and I think these three songs are well worth the wait and they say much more about where we are now.
Q: What did Van Halen, as a band, gain or lose when it tried an album with Gary Cherone?
Alex: Creativity is about taking chances. It allows you to make mistakes. Sometimes you make mistakes and it’s nobody’s fault, it just is. It wasn’t right. We’re human, we just make mistakes. That’s all we can say. When you make music, you try to be true what comes from your heart and once it has been recorded and leaves your hands, it’s anybody’s guess what comes from it.
Q: Around 2001 and 2002, there were a lot of rumors that David Lee Roth was working with the band again and that you recorded a bunch of new material. Is that true and will that material ever surface?
Alex: Rumors tend to be exaggerated. You drive in someone’s neighborhood and pretty soon you’re seen visiting their house and you’re buddies. There was an attempt to put something together but it was ill fated. It never materialized and just went away. I don’t mean to trivialize it, but there’s an old expression: an idiot does same thing over and over expects a different outcome? We’re in a very strange place. As artists, you hope there is guidance somewhere up above. You look for inspiration in the larger picture of one’s life and hope what ends up being is what is supposed to be. Maybe that sounds a little arrogant or pompous or is too much Deepak Chopra, but things are right now what they’re supposed to be.
Q: It’s been 26 years since your first album. Where does Van Halen fit today?
Alex: “There’s music for everybody” is the old expression. Whether it was the days when we first started and disco was the most popular style of music or when punk rock came along, you know, styles change and musical tastes change and programming changes. But I think bands like Van Halen, like so many other bands through the history of rock and roll, they transcend that. It’s not about a fad. It’s not about the latest hit single. It’s something bigger than that. I wish I knew what it was so I could share that with other people. It’s just something intangible and it’s almost like we’re along for the ride. We’re there in it but also we’re observing it. It’s almost like being pulled along by something that kind of puts you where you are. No one could have predicted it happening … but it did. So no, we’re not on “American Idol.”
Sammy: People always ask, “do you think you’re the best at what you do?”
Alex: We’re the only ones who do what we do.
Sammy: We have decided we’re the only ones (laughs) If you want this, this is the only place you can get this. Britney Spears certainly puts on an unbelievable show ,the production’s fantastic. But that’s not Van Halen. We have put ourselves in an isolation booth and become separate from everything. We’re never followed trends, we’ve skated around them, went around them, over them, ducked all of them and came out still whole. And I’m impressed.