Gregg Bissonette tells Rolling Stone his Van Halen and David Lee Roth stories:
I know your earliest professional gigs were with Gino Vannelli and Maynard Ferguson, but tell me how you wound up in the David Lee Roth Band.
I was doing an audition for Vinnie Vincent of Kiss. He was starting the Vinnie Vincent Invasion. I went down with Myron Grombacher from Pat Benatar’s band. He’s one of my best friends. I went to the audition, but little did I know that Vinnie already had a drummer picked out. It was this guy from Texas named Bobby Rock. But he didn’t want to tell the few drummers that were there, “Hey, don’t bother showing up.”
We played and had a great time. Afterwards he said to me, “I already have a drummer, but I really enjoyed jamming with you. You’d be great for Dave Roth.” I go, “Dave Roth? Isn’t he in Van Halen?” He goes, “Not anymore. He left Van Halen. He got Billy Sheehan from Talas [on bass] and Steve Vai on guitar. They are looking for a drummer. I think you’d be great. Call Steve Vai.”
They were advertising it like the Steve Vai band was looking for a drummer. And so I called Steve and went down and jammed with him and Billy. We had a blast. The next thing was playing for Dave and [producer] Ted Templeman. It all just clicked.
Let’s talk about making Eat ‘Em and Smile. He had made the Crazy From the Heat EP by this point. The record was pretty successful, but it’s pretty weird. There’s a 1920s lounge song and a Beach Boys cover on it. What was the idea going into the album? He was clearly veering away from the Van Halen sound.
The first thing we did when we got the gig was go into Dave’s cool car and we drove to get some Mexican food. He put on a cassette of Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” and he said, “You played with Maynard Ferguson’s band. I’m sure you can handle this.” I went, “Wow, Sinatra’s ‘That’s Life’!” It was big band with horns, and he said we were going to record it on the album.
When you say it’s eclectic, yeah. We did Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” with a full-on horn section. We did another horn tune called “I’m Easy.” Then songs like “Shyboy” or “Yankee Rose” or “Goin’ Crazy!” are very much in that hard-rock, big-rock sound. And “Big Trouble” and “Bump and Grind.” It was so much fun. We rehearsed a lot for that album and we knew what we were going to do. It wasn’t like, “Hey, let’s go in there and work out a song.” We knew the parts. We had played these songs over and over. We went in the studio and jammed and captured it live.
This is the same exact time that Van Halen is doing 5150. Did you feel like you were in competition with them?
I can only speak for me personally. I was always a huge fan of old Van Halen, songs like “Dance the Night Away” and “Panama” and “Hot for Teacher.” I’m a jazz nut and a rock nut, and when [“Hot for Teacher”] came out, I remember reading an interview in Modern Drummer with Alex saying that he got a lot of that from Billy Cobham. And I was a huge Billy Cobham fan.
I played “Hot for Teacher” all the time. And when I played songs like “The Bottom Line,” that had that same Billy Cobham double-bass shuffle … It wasn’t so much a competition to me as I was a fan of Alex and the whole band. I was like, “This is my chance to do this.” It was exciting more than anything else. It was a crazy time.
Tell me about the tour. There was probably a lot of talk about how much Van Halen to play versus the new solo stuff.
It was a blast putting that together. We’d sit around and be like, “What songs do you want to play?” We started the set off with “Shyboy” and then did our single, “Yankee Rose,” along with “Goin’ Crazy!” We ended with “Jump” and “California Girls.” We did “Just a Gigolo” because [keyboardist] Brett Tuggle had the Emulator sampling synth, so he could sample Edgar Winter’s sax and the horns.
From the early days in Van Halen, we did “Everybody Wants Some!!” and “Unchained,” which is one of my favorites. We did “Panama” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” where Dave would go out to the middle of the arena in a boxing ring and go through the whole audience.
How was the experience of making the second record, Skyscraper, different?
Ted Templeman wasn’t there. Dave and Steve pretty much did that. We did it at Capitol Records down in Hollywood, one of my favorite studios. We had already gone over the songs and rehearsed them, but Brett Tuggle was a new addition. He had the single with “Just Like Paradise.” We all took portable studios on the road. He had that song and “Perfect Timing” and “Stand Up.”
“Just Like Paradise” was the first single off Skyscraper, and it was really cool because it had the “Jump”-y keyboard stuff. It was a little bit of a different way of going about it since we were bringing in songs that now involved Brett. That was one of the coolest things about that band. All through the seven years I was with Dave, we really worked together. We wrote songs together and everyone could bring in stuff. It was a super, super wide range of musicianship and musical taste, from R&B to rock & roll and Latin music, swing.
Why did much of the band leave after the second tour?
I don’t know why they left. Billy was the first to leave and then Steve left after Skyscraper. We then got this guitarist Jason Becker. I don’t know how much you know about the tragedy of Jason, but he is the most unbelievable player. He was the perfect guy to come in after Steve was no longer in the band. He was a San Francisco–based guy. He had this band Cacophony with Marty Friedman from Megadeth. Jason could do these sweeps and all this incredible stuff.
Right after that album, he found out he had ALS. He was only 19. He’s still alive and still going. He’s only able to move his eye, but he still creates music. He has this telephone system like “A, B, C, D, E, F …” and he’ll look at his dad to decipher it. He’s still writing music. It’s amazing. I think of Jason every day.
How was the third tour, in 1991? It was a different musical era and ticket sales weren’t very strong.
Jason couldn’t do the tour, so we had another guy, named Joe Holmes. A great guitar player. He was more like the old Van Halen [self-titled] album. He had that sound. I was helping out finding a guy to go on that tour and he had that feel and that sound. I think that that tour, I’m pretty sure we had Extreme and they were super fun to play before us. That was a great band. All the tours were a blast. My memories are playing things like Monsters of Rock over in Europe, in front of 107,000 people. This kid from Detroit was like, “I cannot believe this.” To this day I’m like, “I cannot believe that I make a living doing what I would do for a hobby anyway. Playing drums is all I have ever done.”
Read the entire interview at Rolling Stone.