Outtakes from rare conversations for the new Eddie Van Halen feature in Esquire magazine. The rock legend on David Lee Roth, getting sober, coming clean, the kid, the stack, and everything else. Because too much Van Halen is never enough.
BY DAVID CURCURITO
Condensed from interviews in New York City, February 28 to March 2, 2012.
ESQUIRE: How’d you enjoy the show last night?
EDDIE VAN HALEN: I had fun. I always have fun, you know, once the nerves wear off. The funny thing is, before a show, I guess the main thing that [his son — and bass player] Wolfie and I always talk about it is, “You nervous yet? How nervous are you?” I go, “I’m not nervous at all. I’m not nervous.” And he goes, “I’m not nervous yet.” And then about ten minutes before a show: “Now I’m nervous.” I got up there, and I’m going, “Oh, it’s just another gig.” He said, “I’m nervous,” and it wouldn’t just go away, you know? It’s weird. And other people can’t tell, but it’s just an internal thing where, you know. I started thinking a little deeper, and I’m going, “How did I get into this?” You know, most people, they want to go to Hollywood. They want to be a star. They want to be a rock star. That thought never entered any of our minds, the Van Halen family.
ESQ: What did you go to school for? You went to school for a couple of years.
EVH: Went to Pasadena City College, junior college, just for music. But I never learned how to read [music]. For scoring and arranging, a Henry Mancini book was the bible. And I never read it, of course.
ESQ: You just watched your instructors’ fingers?
EVH: Yes, fingers. And thank God I had good ears, you know? And for years, my mom and dad put us in these piano contests, where you would rehearse one piece of music all year long, and they drive you down to Long Beach City College, and out of like 3,000 kids, they put you in a little room, and depending on how many years you played, they put you in a category, and then after you play, they post the top 100, or the first 1,000 that won on a billboard outside. “Hey, you’re on there.” “Ah, Dad, what’s going on?” I didn’t give a shit. And then an hour later, top 100, Alex and I both were. And we wait longer, and we’re in top 20, and then we’re in the top 10. And then we’re in the top four, I’m goin’, and I won.
ESQ: And you won.
EEVH: Three years in a row!
ESQ: How long did you think music was going to last?
EVH: Well, it was my life already, so it had to last. At what level, who knew?
ESQ: Look at all these bands that dropped out over the years. Yours didn’t. Your music has lasted.
EVH: I think it boils down to the fact that we were never a fad, really. It boiled down to the music.
ESQ: Even now, you put out a new album, and it really holds up today.
EVH: Yeah, it does hold up, but that was kind of purposefully done. Before we decided to actually make a full record, we said, “Hey, let’s do some old demos.” And we actually recorded three of them already. And I engineered “She’s the Woman,” “Out of Space,” and “Bullethead,” and it ended up turning into a whole record. But we figured: Why not give fans the era that they liked, you know? But not the whole album is that. It’s just like a third old, a third middle, and a third new. There’s a lot more that was never recorded. There’s so many songs.
ESQ: Wolfgang was picking out and sifting through the old tracks?
EVH: Pretty much all them. Not just the old stuff.
ESQ: After I left your dressing room yesterday, I said, “They’re not only doing this for the fans, but Ed is setting this kid up.” This is your legacy.
EVH: But it’s unconscious. He takes to the reins himself. It’s just like, I never really taught him how to play. You know?
ESQ: Do you remember a point where you said, “I feel great.”
EVH: There was one day, I think. Because I must have laid on the couch for a year. Just watching Law & Order. What’s funny is: When I drank and did drugs, I never watched TV. Wolfie never, never saw me watch TV growing up. I was always in the studio, making music, and now, nothing. All of the sudden I’m on the couch watching TV, going, “This is a fucking trip.”
ESQ: How was Wolfie during that whole time?
EVH: It scared the shit out of him. He’d never seen me like that.
ESQ: So you come out of it and have to try to surround yourself with positive people.
EVH: God, yeah it’s such a toughie because people like, I guess I shouldn’t mention any names, say, “You’re in the program, right?” I have no program. I just, when I stopped, I’m just done. It doesn’t bother me when people drink around me. I don’t give a shit. I don’t even remember what it feels like to be hungover.
ESQ: So did you think, coming out of this phase you had to put out another album? You had to go out on tour?
EVH: I wanted to. We gotta do a tour and give people some new music, you know? I’m the one in the band that said I’m not going on tour unless we do a record. Even though there are career tunes like “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” “Jump,” we’ll play ’til we die, you know? Sometimes it’s fun to play new music, too. And I think we owe it to our fans.
ESQ: So, then you call David Lee Roth.
EVH: We’d already thought about the tour in 2007, 2008. We were already in contact.
ESQ: Before that, you’ve got a 16-year-old kid, you’re like, “You’re our bass player. You ready, kid?”
EVH: He was fifteen when he joined the band.
ESQ: Did you ever expect it would come to this point the kid comes backstage and starts belting out, “We’re going to do this, and we’re going to do that. And how about we start with this. And what about this, too?”
EVH: I really haven’t given it much thought. It’s like yesterday when you’re backstage and you watch us do sound check and you said, “Ah, I see, who’s in charge here?” And I’m going, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” He blows my fuckin’ mind, man.
ESQ: Not for nothing, Wolfgang is going to be the leader of this band.
EVH: If he isn’t already. I trip on it all. I’m just kind of watching it. When you asked yesterday, “You know, how does it feel?” You know obviously, I can’t think of anyone more blessed than me. For one, you know all the bullshit I’ve been through in my life. To have a brother that I’ve been playing with since day one, and now my son. I don’t think anyone else in music can actually say that. I don’t know anyone who has a son and brother that they play together. That brings me to hey mom, dad, why don’t you have another kid? No! [Laughs.] I could use a good accountant, tour manager, you know, whatever —
ESQ: Where would you be without your brother?
EVH: I have no idea. We were always two peas in a pod. I was the only younger kid who was allowed to hang out with the older guys. You know, thanks to my brother. It’s like all the seniors, and I was in like in ninth or tenth grade, and, you know, he always took me under his wing and watched over me.
ESQ: A lot of people start business with their siblings and families, two guys open a pizza joint and it fails. Why haven’t you failed?
EVH: Well maybe their pizza’s no good. I just think it’s in our blood. Same with Wolfie, it’s just in his blood. Funny thing is, all I have — I have from my left side, I have Wolfie on my left, and I have Al on drums in front of me, and that’s it. I need drums, I need Al, otherwise I can’t play. And I’ve jammed with other drummers just doesn’t feel right. You know — Al and I used to even back in Holland would take pots and pans and slam ‘em together and dance around the dinner table to marches.
ESQ: Your brother has obviously been there for you through the hard times, too. How did he try to help you?
EVH: I remember him just being in the room with me and staying with me. Making sure, making sure I didn’t walk off. He himself had some rough times, too, you know. And I guess, I was going to say, that runs in the family, too, but Wolfie, he just blows my mind. He doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, no drugs. Nothin’. I am just, I’m like in awe of him. I think a lot of people in this situation, you know, you’ve got two ways to go: Either follow what you lived, or you take the other route. He took the right route, instead of followin’ my footsteps in that respect. And I’ll tell you, we had the last leg of the tour to do after I got sober in 2008, and what gave me strength was lookin’ over at my son, ’cause I was so nervous, and I’d never in my life, you know, done a tour sober. So here, all of a sudden I am in front of 15, 18, 20 thousand people, and “What are they all lookin’ at?” Yeah, I used to be in my own little world. Nothing really mattered. I just played, had fun — boom, boom, done. And all of a sudden they were starin’ at me and I’m aware of everything. I’m talkin’ what, you know, 35, 40 years of doin’ it one way, and I’d just look over at Wolfie and go, “Oh, okay, there’s a 16 year-old over there who’s kickin’ ass. He’s sober. Okay, I got to strap on the trousers here and get it together.” So between [his wife] Janie and that, you know, through example, I guess, — ’cause you can’t tell anyone, “Oh, this is going to sound wrong.” But no matter how much my brother would tell me that what I was doing was wrong, words don’t do it. It’s like people ask me, “Well, how did you stop?” I don’t really know. People say with that 12-step program you will succeed. I disagree.
ESQ: Why did you record outside of 5150?
EVH: Uh, that wasn’t quite my decision. I got out-voted. Well, you know, bottom line, Dave. He wanted to work at Hanson. The history of my studio. But in hindsight, we ended up going back to my place to mix it and fix stuff that was recorded improperly. I’m just not used to working with who they work in these commercial studios, you know? Of course it could have been done for free at my house.
ESQ: You ever think it’d go to number-two on the charts?
EVH: I was hoping for a top ten. I mean it’s funny, playing music, how of course you want it to do well, you want them to like it, but it’s not competitive like an election, it’s the Olympics, it’s not a Formula 1 race. The Billboard charts are just to show you what people like. I just happened in watching this thing about Elton John and Leon Russell did a record together. And Elton just flat out says, “I’ve know this personally for years that you cannot — if I knew that I’d write a hit, then well, wouldn’t every song I write be a hit?” You don’t. All you can do is what comes through you. I can’t even personally claim to be responsible for what comes out of me because it comes through me from somewhere else. Once you start thinkin’ you’re responsible. Well, you know what happens to people. “Yeah, I’m the shit.” And I’m like, “Yeah, right.”
ESQ: Look at all of those people that did try in the 80s. Where are they now?
EVH: I rest my case. My point being is that I’m not better than them, I am me. You know, Eric Clapton is Eric Clapton. Nobody does Clapton better than him. Nobody does Hendrix better than Hendrix. Music is an individual form of expression and if you start second guessing or trying to be something you’re not, this gets back to why our pizza works. You know? Because it’s — it’s real. We’re not trying to be anything other than who we are. You know a lot of people look at Dave, and they trip on him. And they go, “What’s up with this guy?” You know? I mean back in ’78, we went to Europe, and there were like a bunch of gangsters, and people looked at him like they didn’t get it. You know? But eventually they did because he means it. It’s not an act. What you see is real. It’s not an act. That’s who he is.
ESQ: Who is he now?
EVH: Same guy. That’s why getting back together just felt like a glove.
ESQ: You’ve had the biggest love/hate relationship with this guy.
EVH: We never really hated each other. I think the press blew that out of proportion. He did kind of blindside us by leaving — we certainly weren’t ready for that,. But we always, if we argued — you know, now it’s always about, about the structure of a song. It’s never personal. We’ve never on a personal level not gotten along.
ESQ: I think all of your singers have acted like ex-girlfriends, you know? Scorned ex-girlfriends. They can’t live without you, can they?
EVH: But they’re not all the same, you know? That’s why I like the title of the album, Different Kind of Truth. Because there’s always their reality of what other people think, and there’s just the different kind of truth, which is the real truth. [Laughs.] We’re musicians. We make music for a living. It’s that simple. Nothing else matters.
ESQ: Tell me about your amps, though. How much would you tinker with your amps back in the day?
EVH: Always. We were tinkering until we left on tour.
ESQ: I’m talkin’ back in the old days, with your Marshall. What did you do to that thing?
EVH: That was a stock amp.
ESQ: Come on man, rumor was that you rebuilt the damn thing.
EVH: I lied in. Okay, this is a long story, actually. I think this is also my paranoia of interview, because, is because the very first — Dave and I did a promo, a radio promo, an interview promo thing before the first record came out. And here we were on live radio, and the guy’s going, “We have Van Halen, a brand-new band from L.A. here in the studio. So Dave, tell me” … And here’s Dave, “Bop, bop, yabba, dabba, doo,” you know? Then he turns to me and says, “I understand you and your brother, Alex, are from Amsterdam, Holland.” And I went, “Yeah.” Dead air. Dead air. And then the guy starts going like this, and I go, “I’m over here.” And I’m looking at him, and I start gesticulating, too, and then I say, out loud, “What the fuck does this mean?” It was a fuckin’ disaster. So afterwards, Dave goes, “Here’s what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna lie. You’re gonna make up some shit so they don’t remember it.” And, you know, I had to say something. I couldn’t just say, “Yeah.” But he asked me a stupid question. “Yeah” sufficed. You know, I wasn’t about to say “Van Gogh’s from there, you should see it during the winter,” you know? I’m not good at elaborating in that respect. So anyway, I do my first full-blown interview with Guitar Player, and that whole thing is in my head. You gotta make up shit. You gotta keep it interesting. All that Dave told me. So — oh, Joe Walsh calling me?
ESQ: Really? Joe Walsh?
EVH: Yeah. Grab it. Tell him I’m in the middle of an interview. But, so — okay, what I did was the amp was completely stock, but I used a light dimmer.
ESQ: You used a light dimmer on what?
EVH: I bought an English version, I had my 100-volt Marshall. I bought one through the recycling or the newspaper that was from England, and it was set on 220 volts. I didn’t know. So I plugged the thing in, but I’m going, “Fucking thing doesn’t work. I got ripped off.” I just let it sit there. After about an hour, there’s sound coming out, but it’s really quiet, cause it’s running on half voltage. So I go, “Hey, wait a minute. It sounds exactly like it’s supposed to all the way up, but it’s really quiet.” So we had a light dimmer in the house, and I hooked up the two leaves from the amp to the light, so I did it backwards, blew out the fuse box. Then I went down to DOW Radio and asked, “Do you guys have any kind of super duper light dimmer?” They go, “Yeah, it’s all Variac, variable transformer, you know.” And on the dial you could crank it up to 140 volts or down to zero. So I figured, if it’s on 220 and it’s that quiet, if I take the voltage and lower it, I wonder how low I can go and it still work. Well, it enabled me to turn my amp all the way up, save the tubes, save the wear and tear on the tubes, and play at clubs at half the volume. So, my Variac, my variable transformer was my volume knob. Too loud, [makes knob turning sound] I’d lower it down to 50.
ESQ: That’s amazing. But still, that was it? That was the only modification you did?
EVH: Just out of necessity. I need an amp I could play in clubs. We wouldn’t get hired, I would play so loud, you know, I’m going, what can I do? What can I do? Okay, I turned the voltage, the wall voltage into my volume knob.
ESQ: Did you lie to Guitar Player?
EVH: Wait, wait, wait, what I was gettin’ at was when I did my first interview, I told people the complete opposite. I told them I raised it up 140 volts. I felt so bad. I felt so fucking horrible, man. They said, “Please don’t attempt what Eddie Van Halen said in the last interview, because everyone was blowing their amps.” Everyone fried their amps ’cause of me. I felt so bad. I never lied again after that.
ESQ: How much music did you have for the new record?
EVH: There were so many songs. Wolfgang wanted to do a ton, and I said, “It’s going to be a double record!” He goes, “So? Let’s do a double record! Let’s convince Dave!”
ESQ: How is convincing Dave?
EVH: It can be tough sometimes. He’s very — you know, he has his own vision, and he’s very opinionated, which is good. I mean, there’s nothing worse than having four guys who have no clue. We’re all — getting back to the way earlier question about the mudslinging this and that, the controversy in the band — it’s all been because we have four very opinionated guys. It’s always about the music, never about anything else.
ESQ: What’s your favorite song to play?
EVH: This is an honest answer. Every song is like a kid. How can you have that many kids and have a favorite? Which one do I like to hang most with? Probably the one that I haven’t hung most with recently. So my favorite ones to play right now are the ones that Wolfie throws out, like, “Outta Love” and “Women in Love.” Yeah, I like playing stuff that we haven’t played because it’s fresh.
ESQ: What are you going to do with all the material that you wrote with Sammy Hagar?
EVH: Oh, I hadn’t thought about that. That’s some great music. They’re just on vacation, maybe. They’re off to college and they’re going their own way. Who knows?
ESQ: Aren’t you glad Dave named the band after you?
EVH: Yeah, yeah. I don’t know how he feels about it today, but — no, I’m kidding. No, it’s funny. When we were rehearsing at the Forum, we were auditioning sound engineers and Dave jumped off the stage and goes, “Goddammit, turn the guitar up. Who do you think this band’s named after?” You know, compared to the last tour, we’re a lot closer. It’s like, when Dave shows up, he walks in, he says hello. The two dogs sniff each others’ butts. The last tour, I’d go over to Dave’s room and he was all the way over on the opposite side. He kind of kept to himself. We’re a lot tighter. It feels more like a band, and it is more of a band. It’s family to me, you know. Always has been. I think — was it the Hanson press gig that we did? — where Dave just came up to me, gave me the biggest hug and he just said, “Your fuckin’ son, man. He’s a motherfucker. He’s risen to the occasion and beyond.” That made me proud. You know, to hear Dave say that. For him to realize that yeah, hey, Wolfgang is the real shit. He’s not some kid, you know.