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Wolfgang Van Halen: "Dad would rather people not try and sound like him but sound like themselves. I’m being myself – I’m not sitting there doing covers of Panama"

Wolfgang Van Halen
(Image credit: Patrick Bertinelli)

The buzz for Wolfgang Van Halen’s solo debut began in 2015 when Eddie Van Halen told Guitar World, “It’s like AC/DC meets Van Halen meets aggressive pop... It’s so powerful that I’m jealous.” 

The project had to wait, as Wolf fulfilled his commitments as bassist in Van Halen and Tremonti, as well as drummer for Sevendust’s Clint Lowery. But following the devastating loss of Eddie on October 6, 2020, Wolf released the tribute single Distance. A moving video featuring childhood footage of Wolfgang with Eddie quickly racked up four million views, and the song debuted at #1 on the Billboard Rock chart. 

With the album completed, Wolf has told Twitter “It’s important I forge my own path,” but that doesn’t mean distancing himself from his father.

His band name and album title, Mammoth WVH, is a nod to Van Halen’s original moniker, and album opener Mr Ed features a tapping lick to make any EVH fan grin. But on the preview singles, Wolf shows his own identity, whether it’s the bruising slow groove of You’re To Blame or the stomping shuffle on Don’t Back Down.

Speaking to TG from his home in California, Wolf explains how he put the album together, and reflects on how his father’s influence has shaped him as a musician...

Congratulations on the album. How do you feel about the reaction to Mammoth WVH so far?

”We’ve got four songs out and people are really stoked about it. I really didn’t see it winning this many people over so soon, or at all, really. I just made the record for me. For it to resonate with a bunch of people has been really awesome.”

It must be hard performing Distance on TV when it’s such an emotional tribute to your dad.

”Yeah, performing it is a whole different thing. That was very difficult. In terms of releasing it, it just seemed like the right thing to do. I’d been working on my music for so long, and with somebody as important as that in my life not being around anymore, it just seemed right.

It seemed right thing to get Distance out there as a tribute for Pop and have it all go to his favourite charity, Mr Holland’s Opus

”It certainly wasn’t the first song I was planning on releasing. It’s a bit to the left of the core sound of the album, but I think it fits still. It seemed right thing to get that out there as a tribute for Pop and have it all go to his favourite [music education] charity, Mr Holland’s Opus. There was no ill intent behind it, that’s for sure. I know there are some people who are like, 'he’s just using this,' but I love my dad and I just wanted to show everybody.

”A bunch of Van Halen fans were like, 'This was the closure I needed.' You can relate the song to any type of loss anyone has ever experienced, so the comments on the video are beautiful and heartbreaking, like 'I just lost my dad and I heard the song on the radio and it really touched me. I didn’t expect it to resonate with so many people.”

Wolfgang Van Halen

(Image credit: Patrick Bertinelli)

The album has quite a few Easter Eggs for fans. Is the ending to Don’t Back Down a quote from Van Halen’s So This is Love?

“Yeah, except Dad does the little kink with the pick on the on the strings, and I do a little phaser pick slide. That’s definitely the vibe I was going for. I’m surprised at how quickly people caught that. It’s the same thing with the back cover of the album, people were like, 'Oh my god it’s arranged like the first Van Halen album!' I didn’t think people would notice that the second they saw it. They’re kind of winks and nods. There’s nothing bigger behind it.“

You’re not hiding from the Van Halen connection.

“I’m just not milking off the legacy. I’m sure that’s up for debate for some people that hate me, but I’m being myself. I’m not sitting there doing covers of Panama and going, ‘If you want Van Halen, come to me!’ If you want Van Halen, go over there.“

I never wanted to plaster the whole album with solos. It was only if it feels right for certain songs

How do you deal with the haters?

“It’s an up and down thing. Sometimes it’s too much, and sometimes you’re ready to take it on the chin and tell them to fuck off. You kind of go through ups and downs because it’s always a constant thing. Sometimes you just need to take a little break and ignore it for a while, but every now and then and some asshole lobs you a really big softball that you could just fuckin’ knock out of the park, and it’s really fun.“

I was surprised to hear you tapping straight out of the gate on Mr Ed.

“That’s actually why I called it Mr Ed. That was the demo title because at the beginning of the riff I do a little harmonic tap. Then I just liked that name so much that I kept it.“ 

The lyrics don’t sound like they’re about him.

“That’s the one mistake I think, people are really going to be like 'is this about his dad?' Lyrically, it has nothing to do with that.“

There’s another standout solo in You’re To Blame.

“I think that’s a really good kind of core sound of the album. I never wanted to plaster the whole album with solos. It was only if it feels right for certain songs and that song just seemed to really fit. I just kind of went for it.“

There’s a video online where Paul Gilbert had commented “world- class vibrato, just like your dad”. On this album your vibrato is nothing like Eddie’s. What were your influences on that?

“Nothing in particular. I kind of just do it. I don’t really have anything in mind while I’m doing it. I’m sure there’s plenty of things that influenced me into doing it, but nothing actively in my mind. I never sat there and went, ‘I’m not going to sound like Van Halen.’ I’m going to make music I want to hear.“

Where was the album recorded?

“Some vocals were recorded in here [Wolf’s home studio]. I recorded the vocals for Distance and Resolve in this room, but most of it was at [Van Halen’s studio] 5150. We tracked almost everything to tape so it just sounds extra crispy. I think Elvis [producer Michael ‘Elvis’ Baskette] did a phenomenal job mixing it.“

What were the main guitars that you played on the album? There’s a Fender Starcaster in the Don’t Back Down video.

“Yeah, I never tracked with a Starcaster, I just thought it just would be fun to have. I recorded a lot with the Gibson ES-335 that I play in the video. I have a black [EVH] Wolfgang Custom that was kind of all over it. It was such a free-for-all really that it’s kind of hard to remember everything, but mostly it was that 335 and the black Wolfgang.“

Did you play any of your dad’s gear?

“Yeah a handful of it. I played the original Frankenstein on the solo on Mammoth and on Feel.“

What was that like?

“You feel the history. It’s kind of terrifying holding it, just because arguably it is the most famous guitar in musical history. It’s definitely quite the thing to hold it. When we were pulling it out of its safe, Dad picked it up and he was just noodling with it for a second. He’s like, 'Yeah, feels about the same' and he tossed it onto the couch. Everyone just gasped when he did that. To Dad it’s just a little piece of junk that he built himself, but to us it’s the most famous thing in the world.“

What amps did you use?

“That was probably the one area that we made a collective effort to not replicate Pop. We did use a bunch of 5150s mostly, but there were also Marshalls – a red early '70s 100 watt Superlead, and a ’72 Superlead metal panel 1959 model. All the Marshall heads were modified with extra gain stages. We used a lot of cabinet variations, with Celestion G12H-30s, G12M-25s, and G12-EVHs just to contrast the sound.“

All the Marshall heads were modified with extra gain stages. We used a lot of cabinet variations, with Celestion G12H-30s, G12M-25s, and G12-EVHs just to contrast the sound

How about pedals?

“If we ever used a pedal it was for an overdub or we plugged in for a certain moment. On Don’t Back Down we did use a Foxx Tone Machine fuzz, but I can’t think of any others.“

What about the famous Plexi amp – a 100 watt Marshall 1959 model – that your dad used on the classic Van Halen albums? Do you know where it is now?

“Yeah. I’m not gonna tell people where it is, but it’s in our hands and it’s being kept safe.“

I’d heard it was damaged.

“I’m sure it was at some point. Dad definitely fixed it up over the years, but he kind of just evolved past the sound. When were on the 2012 tour, [Pearl Jam’s] Mike McCready and Eddie Vedder came backstage. Mike was talking to Dad. He said, 'Oh man, the first Van Halen album sounded so good.' My dad growls, 'It sounded like sh*t!' Mike was just like, 'Oh, okay. Well... I liked it.'“

There are entire guitar forums dedicated to reproducing that sound. If they heard that, they’d be crushed! 

”I think Dad would rather have people not try and sound like him but sound like themselves. You know, tastes change over time. Obviously he was super-happy with all the 5150s as he kept building on them.”

You played all the instruments on the on the record. How did that affect your perspective on the guitar?

”I think it was just kind of a collective process between Elvis and I, and Matt Bruck as a liaison for the amps. It was always a conversation of like what would be good for the song. It was never some static thing we were just kind of happy with. We were always chasing that tone.”

I think Dad would rather have people not try and sound like him but sound like themselves

What are your favourite guitar parts on the album?

”I used a talk box on the on the solo for You’ll Be the One. When we were tracking all the guitar solos, Elvis was like 'I got a talk box, you want to fit it somewhere?' It was fun to do but it was really tough because my nose kept exhaling too much so you couldn’t really hear it. I had to tape my nose just for the tracking of it.”

You’ve tweeted that Think It Over is one of your favourite songs.

”It’s also Dad’s favourite. It’s definitely one of the poppier songs on the album. I thought it was important to show where the sound could go. My dad always said something I loved. He always called the solo my George Harrison solo: nothing flashy but perfect for the melody supporting the song.”

What age did you start playing guitar?

”I’ve always been a drummer first, but [guitar] wasn’t until I was about 12 because I wanted to play [Van Halen instrumental] 316 for my sixth grade talent show. That was the very first thing I learned, and then Dad taught me how to do powerchords. I just kind of  took it from there. People always comment 'Well, he had a good teacher!' But Dad wasn’t a very good teacher.”

Did you have any other guitar teachers?

”No, he just showed me how to do powerchords and I learned from listening to whatever I like and maybe you know guitar tabs here and there, just kind of figuring out how to play. That’s why I feel more like a stronger rhythm player than a lead player. 

”I mean, I can play lead but I’m more comfortable in the rhythm space. Also I really don’t want to try and be Dad. That’s not me. I’ll be the dude playing everything else, but not the shreddy guy. Sure there’s tapping and stuff like Mr Ed, but it’s because the song called for it.”

One of my biggest influences is Jimmy Eat World. I think you can really hear that in Think It Over

What were your influences for this record?

”Van Halen always will be a part of it because I can’t really shake that. It’s just in my blood. But I love everything from AC/DC to Foo Fighters to Nine Inch Nails and Tool. One of my biggest influences is Jimmy Eat World. I think you can really hear that in Think It Over

Maybe throw in some Alice In Chains and Queens Of The Stone Age and all those bands kind of represent what compelled me. I think you can really hear the Alice In Chains influence on The Big Picture, on the bridge with the harmonies. I was proud of that.”

Wolfgang Van Halen

(Image credit: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images)

What was it like learning the guitar in a house with the best guitarist on the planet?

”He’s Dad. He’s not Eddie Van Halen first. I was learning whatever and he was there to cheer me on. He was happy to see the process. It’s not like I was doing it to appease him or because I felt like I should be doing it because of my name. It’s because I genuinely wanted to involve myself in music, and I think that’s all he wanted. He never forced me. He was happy to see the honest obsession rise on its own.”

You’ve mentioned it being intimidating having Eddie Van Halen as a dad when it came to learning the guitar. How conscious were you of that?

”Growing up, not at all. Looking back on it now, obviously [it is intimidating]. People are always going to hold me to something that’s completely out of my control. I see Van Halen fans say, ‘The kid’s 30 now, and at his age his dad was up to Fair Warning!’ I think it’s really unfair to hold me at the same level as my dad.”

Dad wrote music very differently later in his life. I think some people weren’t a fan of that. Take Van Halen III for example – Dad’s melodic ideas changed over the years

It was cool to hear a shuffle on Don’t Back Down, because Van Halen was always a rock band that could swing.

“I love that you say that. If you look at some of the comments on the video they’re like 'This is just a rip-off of this or that song!' It’s not even in the same key. You’re misinterpreting it sounding like another song just because it’s a shuffle. The demo title for Don’t Back Down was ‘Sabbath’. It was very Sabbath-y, and then my engineer misread it so we ended up calling it ‘Salt Bath’ for a while!“

Did your uncle Alex Van Halen [Van Halen drummer] teach you anything about groove and playing behind the beat, or was it all osmosis?

“There’s a picture somewhere of me at three or four years old just banging on his kit. Al’s sticks are big anyway but in the hand of a three-year-old they look like two feet long. It was just osmosis. We played together for a long time. Dad, Al, and I rehearsed at the studio so much, at a certain point it’s like the 10-thousand-hour rule.“

Did you get any tips from your dad about how to write songs?

“Not really, it was a thing that just happened. I wrote what I wanted to hear, you know. With Dad, I guess it’s another osmosis thing, just being around it, you see how it goes and you’re like I want to do some things this way and some things a different way.“

You must have picked some stuff up when you were the bassist on the last Van Halen album, A Different Kind of Truth.

“For sure. Dad wrote music very differently later in his life. I think some people weren’t a fan of that. Take Van Halen III for example – Dad’s melodic ideas changed over the years. I don’t think that’s generally a bad thing. 

“I think it’s great when artists expand and change, but it was important to kind of go back and look at what made the classic stuff sound the way it did. That’s why I thought it was a good idea to check out some of the older demos [recorded for A Different Kind of Truth]. I don’t think there’s a shelf life on ideas. I thought that was a good way of bringing in that classic flavour into it again, and there was definitely some newer stuff on there, too.“

It seemed like you understood classic Van Halen in a deep way. When the first reunion tour with singer David Lee Roth happened, fans were excited about the setlist because there were some deep cuts.

“Yeah, one thing I did every tour was the setlist. I was happiest with the 2015 tour because we really got to dig in. We played Dirty Movies, In A Simple Rhyme. We played Women In Love and Drop Dead Legs. It’s like, 'F*ck yeah! I’m so stoked to have played that!' It was really fun to go deep in the vaults and play all those. That was definitely me pushing everyone. We opened with Light Up The Sky on that tour, too. That was fun.“

It seems like you’re a Van Halen fan as well as a family member. 

”Oh for sure. Before I was in the band I’d listen to it all the time. Now it’s kind of... It’s a little difficult for me to listen right now, but yeah I was a fan of it all first. I think going into it I really knew what the fans wanted to hear, so I did my best to be like, 'Come on guys, let’s mix it up!'”

How did you discover that stuff? Did your parents play it to you?

”I remember when they were recording stuff up at the studio. When they were recording Me Wise Magic [a brand-new track with David Lee Roth, featured on the 1996 collection Best Of Volume 1]. I remember thinking that was a fuckin’ awesome song. Probably the album I was closest to growing up was Balance [1995] because it happened while I was alive, so I still hold that album very close.

”Diving deep into it, as time went on it was just fun to go through my dad’s history and everything that he did. There’s actually some clips in the Distance video where my dad and I are sitting at the piano together. It was from a larger 15-minute video I found of him teaching me how to play Why Can’t This Be Love. It’s a really special video.”

I got little points here and there but know it’s not like how everybody imagines it. ‘OK Wolf, you’re sixteen. Time to learn to play Eruption!’

There’s a video online of you playing Eruption. Did you figure that out by sitting there with the record like millions of other guitarists?

”Not really. I got to watch Dad play it every time we were rehearsing, so it was just like, 'Oh, so it’s that.' I figured out some of it, and Dad was like, 'No, you gotta do it that way!' Oh, OK! So I got little points here and there but know it’s not like how everybody imagines it. ‘OK Wolf, you’re 16. Time to learn to play Eruption!’ It’s never something I would plan on playing on stage. My dad already did it. Why would I do that? There are plenty of other people who can do it, too. I want to be me.”