1995 Guitar World Interview: Eddie Van Halen Regains His 'Balance'
Eddie Van Halen discusses Balance in this 1995 Guitar World interview.
What does "Baluchitherium" mean?
Actually, Valerie tipped me to it. When she heard the song for the first time, she said, "That sounds like a dinosaur song," because it sounds so big. She started looking through a book and said, "How about 'baluchitherium?"' And I'm going, "What the fuck is that?" I started reading, and it turns out that the baluchitherium was the biggest mammal that lived in the prehistoric age. Valerie always titles songs. She titled "1984."
It's surprising you don't really solo over the track, since there are no vocals in the way.
I just wanted a simple melodic feel. Even if there were to be a solo, it would only diverge from the melody a little bit. A lot of times, if there's a melody there, I prefer to stick to it, or maybe play with it a little, as opposed to indulging in gymnastics.
It comes back to the same old question people are always asking me: "When are you going to do a solo record?" Well, if I did, it would probably be similar to "Baluchitherium," meaning it would be Van Halen music -- which I write anyway -- but without singing. I wouldn't do all the loony gymnastic shit. What's the point? That stuff goes in one ear and out the other.
It appeals to a select group of people.
Yeah, I mean, who can play the fastest, who can do this, who can do that. Fuck, who cares? I stopped doing that years ago. On this album, I focused on fitting the song. For example, on "Take Me Back" I did a little slide ditty that just fit the song, instead of playing an actual solo. "Seventh Seal" has no solo at all. Instead, I added a musical interlude that worked for the song.
On Van Halen, I was a young punk, and everything revolved around the fastest kid in town, gunslinger attitude. But I'd say that at the time of Fair Warning, I started concentrating more on songwriting. But I guess in most people's minds I'm just a gunslinger. The thing is, I do so much more than just blow fucking solos. Actually, that's the least of what I do.
To what extent do you think the success of Van Halen still rests upon your skills as a guitar player?
I have no idea. I don't analyze it. I try to concentrate on writing good songs and, hopefully, people will like them.
Have you ever considered leaving your unaccompanied solo out of your live shows?
I've thought about it many times. Actually, back when Sammy joined the band, I said, "I'm tired of doing fucking guitar solos," but everyone insisted that I had to keep doing them.
Isn't it still a thrill for you to have people focusing on you alone and to hear them scream your name?
Yeah, but it's such masturbation. A lot of it is just screaming, "Look at me!" Some parts of the solo, like "Cathedral" or "Eruption," are little compositions, and I don't mind doing those. But, still, what's the point? I get bored doing it.
In one of your previous Guitar World interviews, you said that sometimes you're a little embarrassed that you popularized the two-handed tapping technique, because it became such an overused gimmick.
I did feel that way, but I don't anymore, because nobody's tapping these days.
Even you don't tap as much as you once did.
I do it as much as I always have. It's part of my playing. I used it all over the record; you just can't tell. I probably tap a little bit in every song. In "Aftershock," I did it too. To me it's a part of my playing, it's not, "Oh, I'm going to do my trick now."
You recently lost your manager and dear friend, Ed Leffler, to cancer. How has his passing affected the band?
I hadn't really thought about it. We've got a new manager, Ray Daniels, who also manages Rush, King's X and Extreme. We all miss Ed, but life goes on. I guess it brought us closer. Ed was never involved with any of the music, so when we're in the studio, actually making music, we don't think about him that much. It's just, you know, around his birthday and holidays and everything -- that's when you think about him.
Did you take more control of your business affairs in the period of transition between managers?
We had to -- and, boy, it’s a ridiculous job. I would never want to be a manager. You get at least 50 phone calls a day about totally stupid, ridiculous shit.
Were you criticized for "selling out" when you let Pepsi use "Right Now" for their ill-fated Crystal Pepsi advertising campaign?
Probably, but the only reason we gave them the music was because they were going to use the song anyway. They would just have recut the song with studio musicians, like they do for some TV movies when they redo an old hit because they can't use the original. If they use the original, they've got to pay, but if they don't, all they do is give credit to the artist and then pay the studio cats. Pepsi told us that they were going to do that, so we said, "Hey wait a minute, we might as well get the money." I ain’t that proud, you know. I'm not going to say -- "No, go ahead, rip us off. And keep the money too!"
What's a day in the life of Edward Van Halen like?
I spend time with my son, Wolfie, and play a bit of golf. Actually, I started to take some lessons last week, because I'm still a hack at it. I don't get out there enough. It's a cool game for life, because when I'm fucking 90, I could still be doing it, so I might as well learn how to play now.
Our whole road crew plays, so on the road, you get to hang with the guys -- which is an awful lot of fun. Golf isn't really about hitting the ball, it's more about male bonding. Letting it hang.
Does your son, whom you seem to spend much of your time with, play an instrument yet?
He likes to beat on Al's drums and he loves piano. The other day, actually, Valerie and I were up above the garage where I keep all of my guitars, looking for something, and Wolfie saw all the guitars and said -- he was so decisive -- "You know, when I get bigger, I'm going to play the guitar." [laughs] It's like, "Okay, take your pick." He said it with such conviction!
Actually, he isn't exposed to that much music 'cause I really don't play in the house. You figure that he'd be doused with music from the minute he wakes up until he goes to bed at night, but no. He has a normal kid life: he watches Barney and Mickey Mouse and all that shit.
So you try and make sure that Wolfie leads a normal life?
No, it's just that I'm normal. I don't do anything that out of the ordinary. He hates loud noise so he'll come in here and go, "Daddy, too loud. Too loud!" Yeah, he makes me turn the shit way down. It's really funny.
He knows that you play music, but do you think he understands your "unique" situation?
I don't think so. I don't think he's got that yet. Sometimes, I'll say, "I'm going to work now, Wolfie," and he answers, "You mean you go to the studio?" Then he comes here to visit me when I'm trying to write, and I'll be sitting here with my thumb up my ass, smoking cigarettes and plinking around on the guitar. To him, that's what Daddy does for work. He'll put it together later, I guess, but right now he probably sees other people going to work whereas I just take the golf cart up here.
He probably tells his friends at school, "My dad drives a golf cart." Has he ever seen you play live?
Oh yeah! He loves it. He's walked out on stage before, not knowing that he really shouldn't. We'll be standing there jamming, and he just walks out. I was doing my guitar solo once, and I was playing "316," which I wrote for him. He came running out while I was playing, and the crowd just went nuts. I thought to myself, "Whoa, fuck man, I must be really putting some muscle into this or something, because normally they don't cheer that loud for this section!" It turned out they were cheering for him. He had the spotlight on him and he was grooving!
Are there aspects of your celebrity that you dislike?
Everyone feels like they own a piece of you, and it's like, "Fuck you! You bought the record, right? That's what you own; you don't own a piece of me!"
Do you get recognized as soon as you leave the house?
Well, not since I cut my hair. Nobody recognizes me. It's great. Unfortunately, as soon as the album comes out, everyone will know what I look like again. It comes with the territory. I'm not pissing and moaning about it at all, it's just that you're asking me. It bothers me a little when I'm having dinner with my wife and someone comes over to our table and says, " I really don't mean to interrupt you or bother you…" Just give me the piece of paper so I can sign it, and get the fuck out of here!
One particular episode comes to mind. I was on a plane, headed to do Jim Kelly’s "Kelly For Kids" benefit, and this lady asked me for my autograph. I asked who it was for, and she answered, "Say 'To Cindy."' So I wrote "To Cindy" and my name. She looks at me and says, "Well, I could have done that!'' I go, "Well, what the fuck do you want?" Did she want me to write her a book?
Some people seem to have more problems coping with fame than others. Do you think that the constant public scrutiny was one of the causes of Kurt Cobain's suicide?
If it was, then why was he in this business? Why didn't he just give all his money to charity and live normally? I think it's so funny how bands say, "We don't want fame and fortune." Well, what do they do this for then? If you want to be a true artist, then make your music and don't even release it. Put it this way: if fame had Cobain crazed to the point where he offed himself, then he went too far. He should have stopped.
I think the guy was just on drugs, man. I think it was drugs. I don't think he was thinking straight. He was fucked up. It was terrible, man. That's the worst karma a person could have -- to off himself. I mean, did he want to come back as an ant, or a fucking turd or something? It actually pissed me off when he did that. He wrote great tunes, and if nothing else, he deprived a lot of people of what he could be doing in the future.
Since we're on the topic of drug use, you mentioned that you weren't absolutely thrilled about Sammy' s choice of topic for the song "Amsterdam."
Well, the song is about smoking dope, and I thought the music might have warranted something more... metaphoric. I envisioned something else, but since I don't write lyrics, I'm not one to piss and moan about it.
Did you ask Sammy to try and come up with something different?
Yeah, but he liked it, so that was that. You know, he doesn't like everything I do, either. We're not going to fight about it to the point where the song doesn't get put out. It's part of being in a band. You work together, and you can't please everybody all the time.
Now that you're a father and a role model for your son, does it bother you to have songs about drugs on your records?
No, not at all. I don't support any kind of censorship. There's just a time and a place for everything.
Have you been approached to do an MTV Unplugged?
Yeah, but I'm not an unplugged kind of guy . I don’t want to sit there and try to play our music on an acoustic guitar. What's the point? I didn't write it on acoustic -- I wrote it on electric guitar, and that's the way it's meant to be delivered. If I wanted it to be acoustic, I would have done it that way originally. I'm not going to butcher my music just so I can be the flavor of the month.
What's the best thing about being Edward Van Halen?
It's a great feeling for people to like what you do. I do what I like and other people like it. It’s a great payoff. How many people get to experience that? The other day, I was playing golf on a public course in Pasadena with these two old timers, and one guy says, "Shit, man, a bad day on the course is better than any good day at work." And I started thinking, "Well, I guess for you, but I like my work." I'm really lucky, because I really enjoy making music. I don't consider it to be like clocking in and doing a job.
I'm not making light of making music either. It's hard work, but I enjoy what I do -- creating something as opposed to making a part for a fucking Impala or something. I'm just lucky to have found that. And that's half of it: me enjoying what I do. The other half is when other people dig it. That's like,"Whoo! Home run!"
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