This is a must-read! Van Halen producer John Shanks was interviewed by Alison Richter for both GuitarWorld.com and Examiner.com. We have all of the Van Halen content from the interview below.
We recommend clicking on the links and reading both parts of John Shanks’ interview in their entirety. His background is truly remarkable, and he offers a lot of insight about songwriting and recording outside of his work with Van Halen.
…Most recently, Shanks produced Van Halen’s A Different Kind Of Truth. As a lifelong fan of their work, he describes the experience as “a privilege.”
Let’s talk about your work with Van Halen on A Different Kind Of Truth. Were you involved in pre-production?
They had a lot of the tracks already. I went to Eddie’s house and there was some pre-production, but they were ready. The discipline of the way they play — it’s not like they had to get up to speed in the studio. They’d been working toward this for a while, so the band was smoking! And it was comforting. I walked in and it was, “Let’s go!” Their work ethic is phenomenal on a daily basis. When you think you’ve done this, trust me, they’ve already been up for three hours and rehearsed. They rehearsed every day. They were always practicing and always working. Another thing I’m really happy about with this record is that the lyrics are printed, because the lyrics are deep.
As a musician, producer and songwriter, can you share some observations about their writing and recording processes?
I’ll use “Hot For Teacher” as an example of why Dave is great, because until people really get to know the new album, it’s hard to explain his magic. Think about “Hot For Teacher.” You have the big hammer-on intro, then you have the guitar part, then down to the John Lee Hooker kind of guitar part. Now, I’m guessing here that when Eddie came up with that, he probably assumed that’s where the verse would start. Most singers, when they hear that, would have started singing right there. Not Dave. What Dave does is, “What do you think the teacher’s going to look like this year,” and then it goes into another section and he starts the vocal. Again, most writers would have written that as the B section. Dave sees that as the verse. Dave goes over barre lines and looks at things completely originally, more than most songwriters.
The way I correlate Dave — there’s a similarity almost to the way Stevie Nicks writes. Stevie writes over barre lines and her verses continue over where you think they would go to this section, but they don’t. She’s like a poet. Stevie writes poems, and Dave writes in a very similar way, where he’s going over sections of songs so it’s not cookie-cutter. Analytically, when you break it down as a songwriter, the way Dave writes sometimes is outside the box, or as he says, it’s “off book.” He has these parameters, and he bends and morphs them to accommodate his ideas, not only melodically but lyrically as well. That’s hard to do, especially in a context of the material he’s working off of. It’s more beat poetry or jazz; it’s more that kind of thing. It’s more R&B.
Dave thinks outside of the box. To see that process was to see what he goes through to create that. He goes through his process trying to find melodies and counterpoints. What I came away with was the brilliance of Dave, which is like the brilliance of Eddie, but in a completely different way, but they complement each other, and then the brilliance of Alex and Wolf. You’ve got to give Wolf credit to walk in there and be the new guy in the band. I’m really proud of Wolf. He’s a badass and he’s a great player. He’s a musicologist and he’s a historian in regards to the band, too, suggesting, “We should play this song,” We should play that song,” “The fans want to hear that.” He’s really amazing. And Alex is an unbelievable drummer.
There were times when we were tracking when I would watch — Eddie and Wolf play in the control room, so I’m sitting between the two of them, and through the glass we’re all watching Alex. They’re so locked in, there’s synchronicity, and you have Wolf now, so there’s this blood connection. There were definitely a couple of times when they were playing and they’re so in the zone and listening to each other so intensely that you get emotional because it’s so real. It was truly a thing to watch, to be a witness to, and to be part of. I’m grateful for that. And then adding Dave, it’s like the pieces of a puzzle that just fit together.
Dave is an artist. He’s like any great artist in the sense that when the motor is running and he’s in his zone, it’s pretty wild. He’s not the same person he was on 1984 or on his solo records. He walks in with these journals of writing. He has a plethora of lyrics that he filters down into their essence in order to put them on the song. This record showcases Eddie, Wolf and Alex, but it really showcases Dave in a different way than when he was younger. He’s in a different place in his life, so it’s a collective of what works for the way he sings now and the way he writes now. He’s bringing his life experiences to this. It’s a different time in his life, and his sarcasm and double entendres and wry sense of humor really come across on this record. It did in the past, but [for example] that “1-800 tell me, baby” [“The Trouble With Never”] was an ad-lib in the moment. It’s like an actor doing the same scene over and over, and every time, a great actor will tweak it and take it to the next level. Dave, when he’s in that place, will do that. It was wild to watch. Even in “Tattoo,” there’s that cool little ad lib before the last chorus, and the way he hits it was definitely in the moment and spontaneous. It wasn’t pre-planned. It was someone who’s on his game, present and working off the moment, and boom, that happens. He’s feeling the music. Some of those ad-libs and lyrical hooks he might have in his bag of tricks, but the way he applies them is what makes Dave “Diamond Dave.” It’s wild to see when he’s in his zone.
When did you hear the finished album for the first time?
I was in a room and I heard part of it, and then when I got it, I just wanted to listen to it by myself. I still have it in my car and I listen to it every few days because it’s a deep record. Every song — there’s a lot work and a lot of information and it takes a little bit because everyone listens differently, so it takes a minute for it to marinate with people. When it does, you start to understand the richness. It’s like you’re on this little roller coaster ride and you notice things differently the more you listen to it, even for me. I listen to it and I relive it … and some of it, I’m reliving the work!
When “Tattoo” was released, with the wonderful and very unique black-and-white video, it immediately stirred up a reaction. Many of us absolutely loved it straight out of the box, and others … not so much. Any theories as to why there was such a split response?
I think the video was intentional. They shot it at the Roxy, they kept it lean and mean, it’s not a big budget at all. I think it was OK for it to be the first single. I think it’s fine. I think “She’s The Woman” is the next single, and that’s even more classic Van Halen and I think it will do really well. But people need to shut the f— up. It is what it is. Relax. It’s fun, it’s playful, it’s got the big backgrounds and everyone needs to not worry so much. Let it be. It’s not as light as some of their other stuff or as heavy. It’s a good calling card, and I think the follow-up is the right choice; from what I understand, it is the follow-up. Everyone should just enjoy the ride a little bit. At some point in your life you’ve got to realize that it’s a time capsule, it is what it is, it’s Van Halen, it got done, it came out, they’re back and that’s it. At the end of the day, it’s Eddie, Dave, Alex and Wolf — and it’s awesome!
Award-winning producer/songwriter/guitarist John Shanks clearly recalls the first time he heard Van Halen.
“I was 12 years old, doing my homework, and I put their first album on,” he says. “All of a sudden, ‘Eruption’ comes on and you’re like, ‘What?’ No one had ever heard that. It freaked us all out. To me, it was Hendrix, Beck, Page, Gilmour and Clapton. That was it — the big five. And of course The Beatles. And then, one day, Van Halen.”
How did you become involved with the Van Halen album?
I was working in my room, Studio C, and David Lee Roth was across the hall working on solo stuff. He stays in the studio. He’s always in there doing something. It’s like a boxer — he’s always training. He’s always writing and trying stuff and experimenting. He’s always creating. It’s just staying ready. So he comes in the studio and he’s working on a project. I don’t know what it was specifically. I introduced myself one day and we chatted a bit and became social. He’s very bright and communicative, and we would talk about his dogs, photography, songs, and the current state of pop music.
I’d met Eddie a couple of times [through a mutual colleague]. I got a call, I’m sure through Dave talking to Eddie, because I think collectively they come up with, “Let’s try this guy,” or “Let’s have a conversation with John.” I know they talked to a couple of other people too. Anyway, Eddie called. I went up to the house and met with Alex, Dave, Eddie and Wolf, and they talked about scheduling and what they wanted to do. Somehow we worked it out so we recorded at Henson.
Dave felt comfortable at Henson, I certainly knew the room, I think Eddie wanted to try it, and collectively, that’s what we ended up doing. That’s how it started. Eddie wanted to mix it at his house and work on it there [with engineer Ross Hogarth]. I’m sure they worked on it up there a bit more, but they have their process and you respect their process and doing whatever they need to do to get it there.
What was the tracking schedule?
Basically 12 to 12, five days a week. We’d work on the music during the day and Dave would come in and sing at night. They were long hours.
What can you tell us about the gear that was used to make the record?
Everything Eddie used you can buy at Guitar Center. The guitar he used predominantly on the record is the guitar he’s playing live. He used a Ripley guitar on one song [“Blood and Fire”]. On vocals I used a Neumann 49. Dave really likes that mic from when he was doing his stuff. He’s comfortable with it and felt good about it, and I tried to support anything they felt comfortable with.
Eddie’s an engineer. He understands the board and the chain and what he likes on his delay and reverb. They’re very knowledgeable and he’s very influential. Eddie is a master of the studio. He understands it. All I can say is that everyone has their process and everyone’s process is different, so I try to be respectful of their process. When you’re dealing with somebody this experienced and this far down the road as far as record-making, they know.