Here's an interview with Eddie Van Halen from the February 1995 issue of Guitar World.To see the complete Eddie Van Halen cover -- and all the covers from 1995 -- click here.
Edward Van Halen welcomes me to 5150, his legendary 24-track home studio, with a handshake and a slap on the back. For a split second, I am unable to return the warm greeting, as I am dumbstruck: standing in front of me, it seems, is not Edward but his evil twin.
The guitarist’s moppish hair has been lopped off. Leaving in its place an expertly styled flattop. Van Halen’s soft-featured face, once frozen into a perpetually boyish grin, has been hardened by a newly spouted goatee. When I gathered the courage to ask what prompted this drastic makeover, Edward’s response is amiable.
“I lost a golf bet with [Buffalo Bills quarterback] Jim Kelly, and ended up having to shave my head with a fucking Norelco razor,” he explains. “I just decided to leave it short, 'cause I was sick of having long hair."
The fact is, Edward is a changed man in far more significant ways than his choice of 'do. For the most part, the guitarist has abandoned the pyrotechnic guitar antics that rocketed him to prominence 17 years ago, opting instead for a more lyrical, restrained approach to his instrument. More significantly, Edward, who will turn 40 in January, is the father of a three-and-a-half-year-old son, Wolfgang, and he takes his role as a parent extremely seriously.
Unlike many celebrities whose involvement with their children extends only to child-support payments, Edward lovingly subjects himself to the unglamorous but rewarding rigors of everyday parenting. "Wolfie wakes us up at six in the morning, saying, 'Come on, you 're mine, Daddy. I want to do this. I want to do that,"' he says with a doting smile. "I take him to school every morning."
No sooner have I dispensed with the pre-interview pleasantries that Edward whisks me into the studio's control room. As he prepares to crank up the band's soon-to-be-released album Balance (Warner Bros.) on the studio's ear-annihilating monitors, Van Halen pauses, his finger poised on the CD player's "play" button.
"You know," he says with a concerned look, "you should probably listen to this in the car because it sounds much better in there. We mastered this record differently than the last one, and it sounds more ballsy -- except in here."
Tempted as I am by the offer to hang out in one of Edward's many fine automobiles, I politely decline, opting to remain in the more spacious and well-lit environment of the control room. "Well, OK," says Eddie. "Here we go! "
The album opens with an ominous Tibetan monk chant sample which gives way to the lush, heavy layers of "Seventh Seal." Suddenly the music stops. "You have to listen to this in the car," says Edward. "It really sounds better."
Moments later, the two of us are seated in what must be the Van Halens' new family car, a charcoal-gray Mercedes sedan. In spite of the vehicle's austere looks, the stereo system is brutally loud, and Balance's wave of guitar goodness swallows us alive. Edward sits quietly, his eyes closed as he basks in the glory of his own creation. Periodically, he wakes from his deep-listening trance to point out a particularly noteworthy lick or explain the origin of a song. Apparently, Van Halen's success has not lessened the mixture of excitement and apprehension that he, like most musicians, feels when unveiling a just-completed piece of work.
Consistent with Edward's new-found maturity are his most recent efforts to put an end to his well-documented drinking habit. "I think that God gave me one big bottle of alcohol and I drank it real fast," he says. "God gives everyone a bottle when they're born, and they have to make it last a lifetime. Well, I drank mine too quickly, so I just can 't drink anymore."
Surprisingly, Edward, who will consume several non-alcoholic beers during the course of the interview, is more than willing to discuss the topic of his drinking at great length.
Although it may come as a shock to some, hard rock 's perennial whiz kid has become a man.
GUITAR WORLD: Was all of the new album recorded here at 5150?
Almost everything was done here, except for five lead vocal tracks, which were recorded in Vancouver.
Why did you go there?
Because Bruce Fairbairn, our producer, lives up there. He would fly down every Monday morning and we'd work during the week. On the weekends, he'd go home. We had promised him before we began recording that we'd do some vocals up there so that he could be with his family a little more.
It seems awfully adult for Van Halen to be sticking to the kind of rigid recording schedule you're describing.
Bruce is very structured. He wouldn't let us loaf for a minute, so we completed Balance more quickly than any other album we've done in years. We wrote, recorded and mastered the whole fucking thing in five months. We started in June, and by the end of October it was mastered.
What kind of pre-production work of Balance?
We demoed about 20 songs for Bruce. Actually, we over-cut! There are like four songs that aren't even on the record. It just got too long. We had an hour's worth of music in the can, and Bruce said, "Do you want to do a double CD or what?"
How did you decide which songs should go on the record?
Well, out of, say, 20 songs, the ones that got finished first ended up on the record. Sometimes, when I focus on writing, I start blazing: I'll come up with all kinds of shit and it overwhelms Sammy for a bit. The way he works best is when he focuses on one thing and writes lyrics for it. So, since I was writing so much, a lot of lyrics weren't done. For example, for the instrumental track, "Baluchitherium," we were actually working on lyrics and we ended up going, "Fuck it, it sounds pretty good without vocals," so we left it. And Sammy was relieved-"Okay, I got one less to work on." So, yeah, there are actually four more tunes that the music is finished for. We'll finish those for the next record, or whenever.
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.
What kind of acoustic did you use?
It's a South American guitar called a Musser. I bought it at [L.A. vintage shop] Norm's Rare Guitars.
Other than using an acoustic, did you do anything else out of the ordinary for the album?
Nope. As usual, I have two Shure SM-57's miking one cabinet. Pretty much everything was recorded with the 5150 amp, but I did use the old Marshall Super Lead head on about three tunes. The stuff that's real clean-sounding, like "Aftershock," was done with the Marshall.
Why did you decide to use the Marshall again?
Just to get a different sound.
A few years ago, you were convinced that the amp had faded beyond the point of usefulness.
I think I just got tired of it. Just recently, this Dutch guy named Peter cleaned the amp for me and restored it to its totally original state. Even though I never had the amp modified, a bunch of parts had been replaced over the years.
I've also got a Peavey 5150 combo unit coming out in January. It's 60 watts and has two 12-inch speakers and a sealed back. It's a bad-ass little amp. It just shits all over every other combo on the market -- at least in my opinion. I've been working on the amp for the last year because I wanted it to have a really good clean channel, 'cause most people who want a combo amp need it to be versatile.
Of course, I wanted the main sound to be happening, as well. That also took a lot of work, because the amp's electronics had to be packed into a smaller box, with the controls on top. When you start changing wire lengths around like we had to, it usually affects the sound, so it took Peavey's tech, James Brown, a while to perfect it.
Even though this record has a drier sound than For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, the guitars still have that chorus-y shimmer that's become a staple of your sound lately. Do you double most of your rhythm tracks?
No, not at all. But everything has the Eventide harmonizer on it. The dry guitar signal is on the left, and the duplicate sound that the Eventide generates is on the right. I barely use the harmonizer as an effect; it's just to split my guitar to both sides of the stereo spectrum. I have it set to detune to 98, so it harmonizes just a little.
When did you start splitting your signal like this?
I think Fair Warning, or the album after. Maybe 5150.. I forget. But that's been my thing ever since. In the old days, Donn Landee [engineer on every Van Halen album from Van Halen (Warner Bros, 1978) through OU812 (Warner Bros, 1988)] would have my dry signal on the left and a little echo or reverb on the right. And I'm going, "Well, why don' t we use the harmonizer and get the whole fucking guitar over there instead of just [makes breathy noise to imitate the decay of a reverb or Echoplex unit] -- the tail-end of everything I play. I hated that sound.
Really? I always thought of it as a really cool trademark of your sound.
I can't stand it. I guess it worked for the first record. But after that it got old really fast. If you have a car and the left speaker's blown, the guitar is gone. If you're sitting on the right in the back seat, you don 't hear the guitar even if both front speakers work. What kind of shit is that?
It sounds like you have your guitar plugged into a Leslie on "Not Enough."
We plugged the Marshall into the Leslie via this preamp box that my tech, Matt Bruck, brought over. He had used it on the demo tape for his band, Zen Boy. He hooked me up and I just played it.
What inspired the solo on that song?
I was hearing a Beatles-ish feel, so I went for a "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" kind of thing.
The songs on Balance seem to have more key changes than your previous work.
It 's called "better songwriting." [laughs]
Has your piano training given you an increased understanding of harmony, which in turn helps your songwriting?
You play some barrelhouse piano on "Big Fat Money," but besides that, there aren't very many keyboards on Balance. Is there a reason for that?
Yeah, I haven't really spent that much time playing piano lately. I think that old synth sound didn't feel right for this record. I might use it in the future, though. Who knows.
"Big Fat Money" has an unusual solo that's almost humorous. What prompted that radical departure from your usual style?
That was Bruce's idea. He's going, "Hey, let's go for a jazz sound." And I'm going, "Okay." So I pulled out an old 335, ran it through my Marshall set really low and just did it. It's funny.
At the end of the instrumental track "Baluchitherium," there's an entire menagerie of guitar sounds.
That's exactly what it is. It sounds like a bunch of animals -- like a zoo. There's a bunch of birds and chirps and dinosaur calls and the elephant sounds I've always made. It just felt like a fun thing to do. You can even hear my dog Sherman howling on there.
What mic did you use on the dog?
Uhhh, a Sennheiser. [laughs] We have pictures of it too; it's so funny. We had to tape a hot dog to the microphone. Swear to God. The dog was afraid of the mic. We kept pushing him up there and he'd back off. So we taped the hot dog to it, and then started making a bunch of noise. We actually bought a tape of a fire engine. We'd play the tape, and Sherman would get up to the mic, sniff the hot dog, and bark.
In addition to the dog and the other animals, it also sounded like there was some six-string bass on that song.
Actually, no. You know what I used? It was a Music Man Albert Lee model guitar that I strung with heavier strings and tuned down to low A.
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!"