Yesterday we featured an excerpt from Guitar World’s recent interview with Wolfgang Van Halen (August 2012 issue) where he describes the birth of the new Van Halen album, “A Different Kind Of Truth.” The following is another excerpt where Wolfgang talks bass, influences, and more. Interview by Chris Gill.
The current version of Van Halen is to music what a street rod is to the automobile. With David Lee Roth back as the band’s frontman, Van Halen has restored its classic appeal, but at the same time the addition of 21-year-old Wolfgang Van Halen on bass has modified the band with a significant boost in power and style.
Wolfgang made an impressive if slightly understated debut with Van Halen during the band’s 2007–08 tour, but since then he’s become a force to be reckoned with. He took the reins on A Different Kind of Truth, selecting material from past demos, helping write new songs and inspiring everyone to perform their best. Bass also now plays a much more prominent role in Van Halen’s music than it has in the past, whether it’s the distinctive distorted growl of “Honeybabysweetiedoll,” his mammoth grooves on “The Trouble with Never” or his fleet-fingered fills throughout the entire album. Hearing the tapped unison guitar and bass lines on “China Town” leaves no doubt that Wolfgang is a Van Halen, as the parts are locked together in a way that can only be linked by DNA.
Any doubts about Wolfgang’s talents and contributions were quickly erased by his performance on the album as well as during Van Halen’s intimate pre-tour gig in January at Manhattan’s tiny Café Wha? where both his playing and singing chops were on full display up close and personal. On the Different Kind of Truth tour, Wolfgang seemed much more confident and comfortable with his role in the band. This was particularly evident during soundcheck the evening we interviewed Wolfgang and Ed in Atlanta, when Wolf had the band repeat the ending of “Women in Love” several times until they finally nailed the ascending chord progression perfectly.
When you were growing up was there a particular moment when you realized that your dad was not just an ordinary dad but Eddie Van Halen?
Not really. I didn’t notice until I started picking up CDs and saw his picture on them. I remember once when we got home from a trip and we were at LAX. I was probably only six, and I was half passed out and my mom was holding me. I just remember a bunch of flashing lights because paparazzi were following us. That’s the only memory I have that was unusual.
How did your interest in playing music develop?
It just happened. Most people would think that my dad pushed me, but he didn’t. It just fell into place. Whenever dad would rehearse, I would just sit on the floor and watch the band play. Whenever I had the chance I would always try to sit on my uncle Al’s drum kit and bang away. We have some pictures of me up at the studio where I’m only five years old and I’m attempting to play this ginormous kit.
I started playing drums when I was nine or 10. My dad gave me my first set of drums for my 10th birthday. I started getting really into it, and then I moved on to guitar and then to bass. I can also play a few songs on keyboards and figure things out by ear, but I’m actually most comfortable playing drums.
When did you pick up the bass?
I went over to bass right before we started rehearsing together. My dad started asking if I wanted to jam with him. I always viewed bass as an easier version of guitar, but as soon as I started playing it I realized how wrong that was. It’s completely different, but I felt like I could handle it since I had been playing guitar for so long.
Was it intimidating to play with your dad and uncle at first?
A little bit, but it quickly fell into place and felt right. We’d get together every week to rehearse, and it was a lot of fun. I didn’t even realize what was happening until a couple weeks later. That was when we knew something concrete was happening and that we might be able to make something out of it.
Going on a major world tour when you were only 16 must have been quite an experience.
It was crazy to be part of something that big right from the start. I felt really lucky to be there, but I felt confident in my singing and playing because we had rehearsed for two full years before the tour.
Your bass tone is very aggressive.
I feel that might have a lot to do with the fact that I also play through a 5150 III head for dirt. It adds that mean tone. Dad likes to call me a rhythm bassist, like I’m a rhythm guitarist and a bassist put together. I’ll follow him on certain riffs, or on songs like “She’s the Woman” I’ll lay down the bottom end. I haven’t tried to change how the band sounds. I just play what I feel sounds cool.
Who are some of your bass influences?
When I started out I was really into Les Claypool and Justin Chancellor from Tool. I also like Chris [Wolstenholme] from Muse, John Entwistle, Jack Bruce and all of the classic players.
You play a lot of cool fills. On “She’s the Woman” you added parts that weren’t there before.
Some of that stems from boredom. We played a lot of that material over and over for a year and a half before we recorded it. Every single day it was “She’s the Woman” and “The Trouble with Never.” I would come up with these cool fills out of boredom. Dad and I would go, “That was a cool thing. Let’s keep that.” For the longest time the intro to “China Town” was just my dad doing that tapping part. There was this capo just sitting there in the studio, and I thought it would be funny if I grabbed the capo and did it with him. We recorded it and it sounded really awesome, so we ended up doing that on the record. A lot of things just happened like that. We never planned it.
There’s an incredible tightness on many of the parts. Sometimes you and your dad blend together so seamlessly that it sounds like one big instrument instead of two separate players.
I think that’s because we’re blood. It’s almost like we don’t even need to think about it. When Al stops we all stop. If dad messes up, we fix it in a second before anyone else can realize that anything is wrong. It just happens. The dirt of the bass also blends better with the guitar and makes it all whole.
You seem to be a lot more comfortable onstage this time around, both with your playing and also your attitude.
I’m older now. I’m 21. I’m coming into my own. I really feel like I’m supposed to be doing this and that I have something to prove. I really want to show people that I can do it. There are always these haters who say that my dad played everything on the record and that I’m not singing. That used to hurt me a lot, especially on the first tour, but now I’m content knowing that I really am doing everything. If people can’t accept that, then they’re the ones with the problem. In a way it’s a big compliment because I really am playing bass and singing up there onstage and on the album. All that matters is that I’m confident in myself.
For the rest of this interview, check out the August 2012 issue of Guitar World. The issue also includes an up-close-and-personal look at Ed and Wolfgang Van Halen’s stage rigs and an exclusive interview with Edward! The issue is available now at Van Halen Store.