This legendary rocker is back with Van Halen and barking mad about dogs, writes Cameron Adams.
Since we last saw you you’ve become a dog trainer.
Well on the insurance form they’re called “canine athletes”. We train dogs for cattle and sheep herding. They’re very different. Sheep are a lot like supermodels – they bunch together, they rattle very easily.
You want to keep the dog 10-15m out or they act like girls at a nightclub: “OMG, he’s looking!” Cattle are like drunks at a hockey game – two will want to fight: “Who are you and what’s with your badge?”
Two of them will be like: “Leave them alone, let’s go see the game.” Another one is lost: “Where’d you guys go?” The dog has to deal with all of that. You work them off a whistle. It’s the original video game.
Do you get recognised by people in the dog world?
If you work with livestock, if you wear jeans to work, don’t tell me you don’t know Van Halen. That’s an in for me. I’m wildly enthusiastic about dog handling, it gives me an entree to travel the world.
My dog Mike will enable me to travel to the UK and Ireland. I’ll come in dead last, make no mistake, but it’s life outside of the showbiz circle.
It’s international and noisy and a little dirt under the fingernail adds a little to the sandwich.
You’re back fronting Van Halen and have made A Different Kind of Truth, your first album with them since 1984. Was it important not to just tour and play old songs?
Nostalgia is a form of denial. I love denial. I like selective amnesia, too. Mix the two and you’ve got a hell of a weekend. However, in terms of aiming the starship there, nah, retromania is not a great destination.
Yes, Eddie Van Halen’s son Wolfgang is on bass now. What’s it like being in a band with a 20-year-old?
I’m starting to be impressed by the kid. I didn’t want to be. He can play the s— out of that thing. He’s bringing it. We never changed. We’re a ’70s hard rock band. We enjoyed our fame in the ’80s but all our roots are pre-’80s. That’s Van Halen. Old plus new. It’s like watching Dragnet on your iPad.
How are you and Eddie getting on?
If Ed and I can get along then world peace can have a chance. There’s sparks, there’s energy, there’s a team enthusiasm closer to pirates than little league. There’s still some pillaging going on there. You can hear it in the music. There’s routinely conflict but there’s a lot of laughter.
A lot of appreciation for the privilege of the job; compared to some of the other jobs we’ve all held, this is better. In one of the songs I say, ‘I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, rich is better’. It’s totally better.
How do you describe the chemistry between you and Eddie? It’s led to you leaving the band a few times.
Our form of sparks will be in the first sentence of our mutual obituaries. These are the songs and messages that have brought a smile to a thousand hips.
Maybe that’s our only responsibility as artists. You must delight. I don’t care if you’re running with a football in a screaming stadium or playing a solo violin in a concert hall, you must delight. We treasure that responsibility more than ever. You see it in the handshakes.
The smiles are genuine. We individually idle somewhere between pissed off and not too pissed off in terms of anger. When you get too happy that’s a different band. That’s a vacation.
What was it like seeing Van Halen when Sammy Hagar or Gary Cherone was frontman?
When you change the engine, you have a whole different form of transportation. Any similarity between the reality of some of the other vocalists and mine is purely coincidental.
In your most recent stint away from Van Halen you worked as an emergency medical technician in New York. Tell us about that.
I pushed an ambulance for three summers. That right there provides a whole new view of the world around me. It was crystallising. Galvanising. I was in and out of the projects.
When you hear Jay-Z rap about Marcy Projects … been there. Life loves those who love life. That’s what I ran into in the blue uniform.
When I pursued it even further into aviation and dog handling, I recognise the similarities more than the differences. But hey man, no metaphysics until happy hour!
OK, it’s Van Halen’s 40th anniversary this year.
That’s some distance in a business where three-and-a-half summers is the requisite career. We’re 40 summers at this camp. They made me a counsellor this time.
There’s not much here I don’t know how to do. I know how to make the pancakes, get the kayaks ready. I do the camp fires arguably the best.
A Different Kind of Truth (Universal) out now.