Wolfgang Van Halen: 'My father's pride in my work is my main motivator'
Guitar virtuoso Eddie Van Halen’s son, Wolfgang Van Halen gets candid about his tribute to the rock legend, upcoming debut album, childhood and more.
THE YEAR 2020 had been a tough one. Among the stars and icons we have lost last year is one of the world’s most beloved and influential guitarists of all time — Eddie Van Halen. The rock guitar virtuoso, also the co-founder of popular rock act Van Halen, lost his long and arduous battle with lung cancer earlier in October. And fans, much like his family, are still reeling from the void the 65-year-old (whose last-ever performance with VH was at the Hollywood Bowl in October, 2015) has left in their lives. Sharing the news of his father’s passing, Wolfgang, Eddie’s only child (with Valerie Bertinelli) had taken to his social handles and wrote, “He was the best father I could ever ask for. Every moment I’ve shared with him on and off stage was a gift. My heart is broken and I don’t think I’ll ever fully recover from this loss. I love you so much, Pop.” The 29-year-old has now released his debut single, Distance, which is a tribute to his father. “While the song is incredibly personal, I think anyone can relate to the idea of having a profound loss in their life. I never intended Distance to be the very first piece of music people would hear from me, but I also thought my father would be here to celebrate its release. This is for him,” reads his note that accompanies the music video.
In the name of the father
Replete with impassioned lyrics, the song, with a strong modern rock tune, was released along with a highly personal video — a compilation of home video clips. It features footage in chronological order, from the moment Eddie and then-wife Valerie took the newborn home from the hospital to clips of Eddie and Wolfgang jamming on-stage as bandmates in Van Halen. In this solo, the first to come out from his upcoming album — Wolfgang not only sings the lead track but also plays all instruments under the moniker Mammoth WVH (Mammoth being a reference to one of his dad’s pre-Van Halen bands.) About the music video, he shares, “That was an idea that came later in the game, to use all this old footage. I thought that was a really great way of getting the song’s message across. I was really happy with how it all came together. It was tough to go through all of it. But my editor, Chuck, did a really great job of putting it all together.”
Wolf wrote the song while Eddie was still battling cancer (2018), “imagining what my life would be without him, and how terribly I’d miss him,” as he had explained in a statement. The song is said to be one of Eddie’s favourites from the recording sessions, which led to its selection as the lead single. “I knew I wanted to put out a tribute. I have always wanted to do something... and this is the closest thing I can ever do for him. But it came together very quickly because obviously, we weren’t expecting everything to happen. But I’m really happy with how it all turned out.”
Released in November, the song, with over three million views on YouTube, has been received very well by fans and critics alike. Although the track, which Wolf calls a ‘ballady’, is unlike any Van Halen song, he adds that to sound like them was never his intention. In fact, he had earlier stated that he expected a wave of hate for his work because ‘it’s not going to be what people think it’s going to be.’ He tells us, “I think I’m always expecting negative reactions. That’s just my nature. So I was quite surprised because it was normal and positive.” About the outpouring of love he’s been receiving since the release, Wolf further adds, “I was not expecting this at all. My intention was just to release a tribute to my dad and have the proceeds go to his favourite charity (The Mr Holland’s Opus Foundation, which helps underfunded music programs in schools). So I did what I set out to do. I wasn’t expecting such an overwhelmingly positive response. It’s pretty crazy.”
The guitar pick
Before launching his solo career, Wolf was his father’s bandmate. In 2007, at the age of 16, he replaced Michael Anthony Sobolewski as Van Halen’s bassist and made his official debut during the band’s 2007–08 tour. However, he did not feel out of place or intimidated Wolf shares. “Surprisingly, it wasn’t hard to fit in. We had been rehearsing for such a long time that it felt natural at that point. I think the only unnatural part was being on stage, in front of all those people. And a way to make myself comfortable was to imagine they weren’t there and we are playing. Because you know, it’s just my family.” Wolf’s addition to Van Halen had added a significant boost in the band’s music style and power. Soon after his debut, he took the reins on their 2012 album A Different Kind of Truth, where he selected material from past demos and helped write new songs. With him joining, the bass started to become more prominent in VH’s music and Eddie used to call him a ‘rhythm bassist’ because he thought Wolf’s style was that of a rhythm guitarist and a bassist put together. He recalls, “You know, whenever we were playing with Van Halen, I was kind of filling that void of bass and a rhythm guitar because my bass had a bit of distortion to it. So with Van Halen, I was kind of doing both, so he (Eddie) would call me rhythm bass (laughs).”
Born to a rockstar father and an actress mother, one might think that Wolfgang would have had an extraordinary childhood. But he says it wasn’t anything like it. Growing up, young Wolfgang never realised that his father wasn’t just an ordinary dad until he started picking up CDs and saw his picture on them. “My mom was really grounding, growing up. It never felt like, (I was living in) a world better than everyone else’s. I had a regular childhood. It didn’t seem out of the ordinary. And my father never really pushed music on me. It just kind of naturally came to be. I guess, when he saw that interest, he helped a little bit. But he was never like, ‘You have to do this.’”
Another surprising fact is that the guitar legend’s son’s choice of instrument was the drums and not the guitar. In fact, he has even confessed that he feels most comfortable playing the drums than anything else. “My father taught me how to play AC/DC’s Highway To Hell using magazines. Once he realised that I had the separation and that I could do it, he got me a drum kit for my birthday. And I took it from there.” Was he ever disappointed that his son didn’t pick the guitar first, we prod, and Wolf responds with a resounding ‘No’! He adds, “He also played the drums first. So I think he probably thought I was following (his footsteps).”
And what was it like to learn the guitar from the guitar legend himself? With a laugh, Wolf reveals that Eddie, in fact, was a bad teacher. “Learning to play the guitar from him was difficult. He rarely taught me because he was a bad teacher (laughs). It’s kind of like you are too smart for your own good kind of thing. So it was like — he would do something crazy and he would say, ‘Do that!’ and I would be clueless. And it would just be a fun time.”
Of strings & sentiments
As Wolfgang’s long-in-the-works debut album is all set to come out, a certain section of VH fans continues to demand that he sings only his father’s music. To which he responds, “I think that’s stupid. I just ask everyone to think about it. Think about, if you are in my position. These huge fans obviously want to hear that music, but I think it’s a bit selfish to ask that of me to satisfy their wishes without thinking of the position that I’m in and what that does to me.” There were also rumours that Wolf was going to replace his father at Van Halen, which also he shuns saying, ‘You can’t have Van Halen without Eddie Van Halen.’
Talking of his vision for Mammoth (the project), he adds, “I’m just thankful that I’m able to have this be my job. This is my passion and my dad was so excited about it. I just want to get out there and do everything I can with it. He has seen my work and he couldn’t have been happier. With everything that’s going on in my life, it’s hard to want to keep going and do anything but with how proud he was...his pride is kind of my main motivator. It is what keeps me going when I can’t.”
We ask Wolf what we can expect in his forthcoming record and he shares, “I think you can call it a rock record. But I think there’s a bunch of different sounds. For fans of Distance, there are songs that are softer like that but there are also songs that are heavier, more rock-based, for sure. I actually had worked on this music for so long that, I think I have reached that point where I think I’m done. It feels good. I think it’s ready. And I’m still happy with it. So I guess I did something right.”
All the tracks in the album are written, and performed by Wolf himself. We ask him why that was important and he says, “I just figured, since I could play everything, I wanted to see if I could do it (laughs). Basically, I just wanted to challenge myself. I think I could and so I did it. Now it’s up to everyone to decide. I had such a fun time at the studio. I’m just looking forward to getting back in there and doing it.” But is it hard to focus when you are doing it all? “Not really, overall when you come up with an idea, you just build on it, piece by piece. And in the recording process, you are not recording everything at once. You do the drums, then you do the bass — all of it is done step by step. You never get bored.”
Signing off, Wolf tells us, that although there is no fixed date just as yet, the album is expected to be out in Spring this year. “It’s not so much a concept album. Each song has its own message. I think people would love to find out once it’s out.”
What do you plan to do with all the unreleased Van Halen music?
We will be doing something eventually but for the foreseeable future. It’s a very big endeavour to digitise and back up everything. It’s going to take a lot of time. I would say, don’t hold your breath.
There were rumours about a Van Halen reunion. Was that ever true?
Yes! It was actually my idea. I have been convincing my dad over the years. I thought it would be really cool. And then slowly it all started to come to be. But by that point, we weren’t able to.
Fans say you have a second album in the works...
Kind of, in a way. Because I had so many ideas that I recorded for the first album and there is so much leftover from that. I guess if I want to throw in something really quick, I could. But I would want to put more work into it. It certainly won’t take as long as the first album.
What would you have done if you hadn’t ventured into the music scene?
Maybe acting. Because I had fun doing it in the school theatre. But other than that, music has always been on my mind.
What are your favourite Van Halen albums?
From the Roth era, Fair Warning and 1984 are big ones for me. And for the Hagar era, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and Balance are the favourites.
Who are your musical influences?
Foo Fighters and Nine Inch Nails are big influences for me. I think what Dave Grohl and Trent Reznor built, starting with themselves, is a huge inspiration for me as a person and for Mammoth as a project.
Considered one of the best guitarists of all time, Eddie Van Halen is known for his blinding speed and control of the instrument. He formed Van Halen in Pasadena in 1972 with his brother, Alex (on drums), Michael Anthony (on bass) and David Lee Roth (on vocals). The band’s self-titled debut album (1978)—in which Eddie served as the main songwriter— launched the group into superstardom in the ‘80s. They soon went on to pump out hit after hit including Runnin’ with the Devil, Unchained, Hot for Teacher, Panama and Jump and continued their success with Sammy Hagar (on lead vocals) after the departure of Roth in ‘85. While the band had already achieved immense fame, Eddie became a pop culture icon with Michael Jackson’s Beat It (‘83) — one of the most famous cameos in rock history—which featured Eddie’s iconic guitar solo. His show-stopping solo piece from Eruption, showcased his finger-tapping technique, which set a new standard for guitar pyrotechnics. Much revered by his peers for perfecting the technique (of two-handed tapping on the guitar neck) the approach is said to have allowed him to add new textures, and percussive possibilities, to the guitar while also making its strings sound as expressive as a piano’s keys or as flexible as a synthesizer. Van Halen was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. The band had released four albums between 1979 and 1982 all of which went multi-platinum and Eddie, also the owner of patents for three guitar devices he had created, soon became elevated to the status of Rock God.