1995 Guitar World Interview: Eddie Van Halen Regains His 'Balance'
Even though you made the album so quickly, the song arrangements seem more thoughtfully developed than anything you've done in the past.
Yeah, they are. Bruce just said, "Work, motherfuckers." He' s a serious guy. He walks in with his briefcase and says, "This is what we' re doing today." We would be like, "Oh fuck, I don't want to do it. Let's do that tomorrow." He always answered, "No, you're doing it now." [laughs] It was great working with him. We're doing the next record with him, too.
He's a very musical guy. He dabbles in a little bit of everything, plays a little guitar and a little piano, but his main instrument is trumpet. He's producing Chicago right now -- a big band horn thing. Bruce isn't like certain producers who spend all their time on the phone and every once in a while ask, "Got it yet?" He's a hands-on guy.
Were you at all worried that Bruce, who produced Aerosmith's last couple of albums, might make the band sound too slick?
No. A good producer brings out the best in the artist he's working with. You shouldn't be able to listen to something and say, "So-and-so produced this album." Bruce's stamp is not on our record because a good producer should not have a stamp. People who are only capable of molding a band to fit their "trademark" sound are bullshit producers. Bruce, on the other hand, just enhanced the best parts of what the band already had to offer.
Van Halen recording sessions have in the past been fuelled by large quantities of alcohol, but drunkenness and dissipation don't seem to be compatible with Bruce's disciplinarian production style. I notice that right now, at least, you're drinking a non-alcoholic beer. Are you not drinking at all anymore?
No, I'm not.
How long has it been since you stopped?
It's been off and on. This time about a month. Actually, I did really well while we made the record. I played a lot of stuff sober, which really weirded me out. It took me a while to get into it without the help of the alcohol.
What is it about drinking that facilitates your playing?
There's like this wall, and when I drink, my inhibitions are lower so I just wing stuff without getting embarrassed or nervous. But I have to get past that because drinking's no good. I've been doing it too long.
Do you have any insight into why you've had so much trouble stopping?
Because I can't stop! I'm an alcoholic. It's like, "Just a couple? Fuck you! I'll drink till I go to sleep."
Your father had a drinking problem as well, didn't he?
Yes, but I think my problem is more a product of my environment than any genetic factor. I remember my dad got me drinking and smoking when I was 12. I was nervous, so he said to me, "Here. Have a shot of vodka." Boom -- I wasn't nervous anymore. My mom used to buy me cigarettes and it just stuck, it was habit. I don't drink for the taste of it, I drink to get a fucking buzz. I like to get drunk. I really do.
Do you think that the fact that your work schedule is less rigid than most people's has resulted in your drinking more?
You know, believe it or not, I drink more when I'm playing and writing and working than when I'm not. I come up to the studio and drink and work. When I go into the house, I don't drink. If I spend a weekend at the beach, I don't drink. So it's really funny.
It's definitely uncommon.
For me, leisure time is not the problem area. My problem is that I go to the office to drink. It's completely assbackwards. And the only reason I keep doing it is because it still works, believe it or not. It just breaks down the inhibitions. And I'm too inhibited, ordinarily -- I get real nervous.
You said you recorded most of Balance sober.
Yeah, but sometimes, I would listen back to something and go, "Ooh, that's stiff. Let me redo that."
But I didn't drink too much. When we made the last record, I had at least 12 to 15 beers in me each day. This time, nobody but me drank while we were working. And if I got a little bit overboard, I'd say “I’m out of here, I'm too far gone," and call it a day.
Do you know what I've noticed that's funny? When I'm really tired, I feel the same as when I'm drunk, because it's easier for me to get through to the other side, or whatever you want to call it. It's easier for me to just let go and not judge what I'm doing. It's all about just opening up and being free. But if I'm drinking I don't even think about it. It's like, "Oh, I made a mistake, big fucking deal."
Overall, Balance seems to be a darker record than Knowledge and its immediate predecessors. What inspired you to write the music?
I don't really know what inspires me to write the music I do, but usually, the music will set the tone for the lyrics. I don't think it's really that dark. The first tune, "Seventh Seal;" is kind of that way, but "Can't Stop Loving You" is an awesome rock groove.
There are more songs written in minor keys than on the last record.
D minor. Everything's in D minor, the saddest of all keys.
While we were listening to the record a little while ago, you indicated that you recorded the strange piano piece, "Strung Out," back in the early-Eighties.
Yeah, I forget exactly what year that was, but it was before '84. Valerie [Bertinelli, Edward's wife] and I had rented [popular composer, pianist and arranger] Marvin Hamlisch's beach house for the summer. I just used to waste this beautiful piano. It was like a Baldwin or a Yamaha. It had cigarette burns all over it and I was sticking everything but the kitchen sink in it: ping-pong balls, D-cell batteries, knives, forks -- I even broke a few strings.
I don't know what prompted me to do it. I was just fucking around. Actually, it started off with me playing the strings with my fingers. I would create harmonics by hitting the key and muffling the string up and down to bring harmonics out like on a guitar. I have like 10 tapes of this stuff, and Bruce picked out this little part. He loved it.
Was Hamlisch furious when he returned to his house?
Yeah, he was. I tried to get the piano fixed before he came back, but he found out somehow. I guess they didn't repaint it as well as they could have.
You feature an acoustic guitar very prominently on "Take Me Back," one of the tracks off the new album. What finally prompted you to go "unplugged," if only for a moment?
I actually wrote that ditty a while ago. I wanted to put it on the last record, but we never really completed it. This time around I really wanted to finish the song, because I still really liked it. So we worked it up.