And it’s not just the DNA. A conversation with twenty-one-year-old Wolfie — bass player, band leader, son of some other guy who apparently plays guitar (and chimes in from time to time).
By David Curcurito
(Part of the reporting for “Eddie Van Halen Alive,” from the May 2012 issue of Esquire, on sale now)
ESQUIRE: Did you actually have to decide at one moment that I’m going to be in this band? Or did you just feel like you were — I mean, there had to be a point where you’re like, Holy shit, they’re really planning this thing around me.
WOLFGANG VAN HALEN: I guess it really didn’t hit me until, like, the first night of the tour, in 2007. It just felt so normal, because we had already been rehearsing for two years. It just kind of fell into place, you know? I didn’t really have anything that I felt like I needed to do other than music. It’s the only thing I had, I think.
ESQ: So you joined when you were fifteen?
WVH: We started rehearsing when I was almost sixteen, like four months before I was sixteen. But then we rehearsed for, like, a year and a half, two years — it takes a really long time to get shit done — but by the end, we were all practiced up. It’s just so crazy. We’re playing while rehearsing. We started rehearsing and recording ourselves for the record right before I turned eighteen. So for about two and a half years, we’ve pretty much been rehearsing every single day — excluding Sundays, maybe, just the three of us, and it’s funny, it doesn’t feel like work at all. It just feels like something that we do.
EDDIE VAN HALEN: Not even close to work — we just kind of meet each other every day. “See you in the studio tomorrow!” “Okay!” “You wanna play?” “Yeah, okay, let’s play.”
WVH: We call each other at 10:30, like, “Hey, see you at 12.”
EVH: Sometimes we go, “You wanna play or not?”
WVH: Dad always goes, “Do we have to?” And I say, “Yes.”
EVH: No, but half the time it was because I was so tired of setting up mics and engineering.
ESQ: You don’t have some guy that does that for you?
EVH: No, because I know what I want. The shit I record sounds way better than the record.
WVH: The early demos of just the three of us sound fantastic. We had severe cases of demo-itis.
EVH: I’m the only one who knows how this band is supposed to sound. Drum-wise, it starts with the drums. If Al’s drum sound isn’t there, you know, forget it. I’m the only one who can get it.
WVH: The band has never sounded this good.
ESQ: So you enjoy playing sound checks? Are you really working kinks out, or do you just enjoy playing?
WVH: It’s kind of just a ritual, almost. We’ve been doing this new thing to mix it up — every single show we’ve played has been different — I want to keep it interesting. Since we’re on the second tour, I think we’ve earned the ability to play older songs, like “Hear About It Later.” Last night I was so happy we played that.
ESQ: Have you written an entire song for Van Halen?
WVH: Not yet. Just little parts. It’s a collaboration. Like, we go, “Hey, I came up with this idea,” kind of just all play. We jam it and kind of play around: “Hey, that works.” “No, no, no, this works.” “No, how about that?”
ESQ: A lot of people who are famous for something, their kids turn out to be assholes.
WV: Yeah. You kind of inherit the lifestyle without any of the skill that got them to where they were.
ESQ: Seems like you’re the new face of Van Halen. I saw this real kind of leadership quality in what you were doing, not only onstage, but when you’re backstage, you’re the guy saying, “We’re going to play this,” “Let’s rehearse this,” “Can we learn how to play this?”
WVH: I mean, I kind of come up with the set lists. When we’ve got a song that we haven’t done, it’s like, we should probably run through this before the show and figure out like the count of it. Because dad, for some reason, counts in odds. He’ll land on three instead of four.
ESQ: He’ll go “1,3,5,7” instead of “1,2,3,4”?
WVH: Yeah, I have to look at him sometimes and go —
EVH: You making fun of me?
WVH: He still, to this day, does not know the lyrics to “Beautiful Girls.” You know how we go, “top of the world, beautiful girls”? He has it written down on his pedal board. On the last tour I used to have to go [mouths lyrics]. You were at sound check yesterday when we were practicing “Full Bug” and he was like, “I don’t know when to stop!” So I had to go over there and was just like, “Now!”
ESQ: This music was written well before you were even born. And you enjoy it?
WV: Oh, yeah, I love it.
ESQ: The whole sound sounds much meaner. I mean, it is just thunderous. To hear all those old Van Halen songs with your bass, it’s like, bass-plus. It’s like turbocharged Van Halen.
EVH: The bass sounded a lot meaner at home when we recorded it ourselves.
ESQ: Well shit, man. How the heck are we going to hear that stuff?
EVH: Eh, we’ll leak it out. The demos of the demos.
ESQ: Are you writing music on the road?
WVH: Not much. I mean, we have a lot of ideas that we wrote that never made it to the record that were so awesome I wish they had made it. But we kind of held it off to another record, possibly.
ESQ: Because there’s just so much material?
WVH: Yeah, there’s so much. And there’s so much material that dad wrote such a long time ago that has never seen the light of day, either.
ESQ: But when your father is retired, okay —
WVH: That’s going to be a while.
ESQ: I know, but when his arms fall off… okay, when his arms fall off and his ears fall off, you’re going to carry on this band.
WVH: Yeah, it kind of falls on my shoulders. I thought it would be really fun if dad and I just sat down and started jamming and see if we came up with something together, instead of him writing something and me putting my spin on it.
EVH: In previous incarnations of the band, I wrote a lot of melodies, too. I just thought of something, Wolf, you’re younger than I was when we made our first record.
WVH: How old were you, 22?
ESQ: Your father says you’re a good guy — is he keeping an eye on you? Who’s keeping an eye on you on tour at this point? You’re 21 years old. You’re good on your own?
WVH: Yeah, for the most part.
EVH: Hey, hey, hey, I check up on you.
ESQ: But not like last time.
WVH: No. Last time my mom had so many spies staring at me, you know. I mean, it was just everybody on the crew.
EVH: Inspecting rooms and everything.
WVH: This time around I was like, “Okay, I know what went on last time. You guys don’t have to do that anymore.”
EVH: Yeah, but I still go, “Text me when you get there, text me when you stop.”
ESQ: I would imagine that you know when you’re leaving tomorrow, you know what time the bus is leaving tomorrow. I don’t know if your dad does.
EVH: I can take it. I can take it from him. I can take it from you.