Van Halen accomplished a lot during the seven and a half years between the release of the band’s debut album in 1978 and David Lee Roth’s departure from the band in 1985.
However, one thing Van Halen never did during that period was release an official live album, even though almost every other rock band that was around during the late Seventies and early Eighties released one, and some bands even released several.
It has now been about seven and a half years since Van Halen played its first shows in 2007 with David Lee Roth back as the band’s frontman once again, and finally the band has fulfilled the wishes of fans who have longed for years to hear a live album with Roth singing the group’s classic material.
On March 31, Van Halen released Tokyo Dome Live in Concert, a two-disc package containing all 25 songs that the band performed during their concert at Japan’s Tokyo Dome on June 21, 2013. Featuring nearly two hours of material, the album includes songs from all of Van Halen’s first six albums as well as three songs from their 2012 studio effort, A Different Kind of Truth.
Unlike many live albums, which are compiled from several shows and liberally edited to correct mistakes, Tokyo Dome Live in Concert captures Van Halen’s Tokyo performance in its entirety as it actually happened, mistakes and all. The band hired award-winning engineer/producer Bob Clearmountain to mix the album and present the recordings in their best audio quality, and as a result the nuances of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solos, Alex Van Halen’s drumming, and Wolfgang Van Halen’s bass lines come through loud and clear without diminishing the power and energy of their performances.
Hearing Roth speak to the audience in Japanese is also a rare treat, but for readers of this magazine the best gift is Eddie’s eight-minute guitar solo—the longest track on the album—which combines “Eruption” and “Cathedral” with some of his most dazzling fretwork ever captured for posterity.
Although Van Halen doesn’t crank out studio albums at the furious pace they did when Roth was first with the band (even today’s most prolific bands don’t release six studio albums in six years anymore), they have remained surprisingly productive since their last tour ended in the summer of 2013.
The band is currently rehearsing for a new tour scheduled to start in July, and in January Wolfgang started work on his own project, which consists of himself and Eric “Erock” Friedman and is being produced by Michael “Elvis” Baskette.
Ed also took time to travel to Washington, D.C., in February to be honored by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, donate two guitars and an amp to the museum, and participate in Zocalo Public Square’s “What It Means to be American” interview forum.
Ed also remains very busy with his EVH brand guitars and amps. He’s developed and introduced a steady stream of new models over the last couple of years, including a new affordable Wolfgang Standard model, a redesigned Wolfgang Special model, a 5150III 1x12 50-watt combo and the limited edition 5150III“S” touring head.
In addition, EVH recently introduced the “Stripe Series” guitars based on iconic instruments from Ed’s past. Even in the midst of releasing a live album and rehearsing for a tour, Ed is working on several exciting new products with EVH and MXR/Dunlop that will be introduced later this year or early next year.
Ed may have celebrated his 60th birthday on January 26 but, unlike most other people who reach this milestone, retirement is the very last thought on his mind. With the release of a long-awaited live album featuring David Lee Roth singing classic Van Halen songs behind the band and the release of Wolfgang’s project coming up, a new chapter in the Van Halen story is being written as the focus turns from the past to the future.
While the lack of official news from the Van Halen camp between the last 2013 tour dates and the announcement of the live album caused many fans to speculate the worst, in reality the band has never been more functional, agreeable and drama-free, which is the best news any true fan could want. What the band’s next step will be remains unknown, but what is certain is that it will be a hell of a ride once it arrives.
Guitar World recently sat with Eddie Van Halen to discuss the making of Tokyo Dome Live in Concert, Wolfgang’s upcoming album and the secrets of staying youthful at 60.
GUITAR WORLD: What was the motivation for releasing a live album at this point in Van Halen’s career?
We realized that we have never made a live album with Dave. Since we had already released a studio album with Wolfgang playing on it, it also made sense for us to do a live album with both Wolf and Dave. Another reason why we put out a live record was to give people the experience of hearing us play our classic songs live.
Did you record any other shows or just the Tokyo show?
We have a Pro Tools rig out by the front of the house and have recorded every show since the beginning of the 2007 tour when Dave first got back in the band. But we never originally intended to put out a live record. We just recorded our shows to archive them.
We have so much material that it was too overwhelming to listen to about 150 shows and pick the best one. I didn’t even bother listening to any of the past shows, outside of a few jams here and there. We played pretty much the same set every night, although we changed a few songs here and there. We played the classics. That’s what people want to hear.
Because the performances by Alex, Wolfgang and myself were pretty consistent from one night to the next, we decided to leave it up to Dave to pick, and he happened to pick Tokyo. Performing live is a lot harder on a singer. Wolfgang and I sing backup vocals on the choruses, so we know how much the vocals can vary from one night to the next. When your voice is your instrument, you can be affected by a lot of different things. If you sleep with the air conditioner on or the bus ride is too long, you can wake up the next day with a fucked up voice. That’s the main reason we decided to let Dave pick.
The sound quality is excellent considering that the recordings were originally just archives of your shows.
Bob Clearmountain wasn’t at the Tokyo show, and we didn’t have any special engineers recording at our shows. That’s also why there is no video of the Tokyo show—we didn’t originally plan to release a live recording of that show. Making a video of a live concert is a whole other production. The way we did it was more impromptu and unexpected.
Bob did a great job mixing it. Alex and I listened at first to make sure that the basic instrument sounds were down, and then we let him go. Bob kept sending us mixes and we just said, “It sounds good to us!” As long as we could hear all the instruments it was good! [laughs]
If you recorded video of the show, you’d probably feel a lot more pressure to get everything right.
I already feel that pressure. Every time I get onstage I want to give the people the best performance possible. Since we record every night that doesn’t make things any different from one night to the next. To film it would have been much more time consuming. Then we would have had to look at all of the footage and figured out what to use. The fact that we weren’t planning it made it that much more special to us.
That’s also why we decided to keep the recording completely live. There are mistakes. After it was mixed I listened to a few parts and went, “Okay, I fucked that up.” [laughs] But that’s how it sounded that night, so we just left it. It’s like a photograph of that evening, and we didn’t Photoshop it. We did nothing. When you fix parts or mistakes, it’s not a real live experience anymore.
The performances sound powerful, but what’s really impressive is that the band still sounds aggressive after more than 40 years.
Van Halen has been aggressive since day one. The rawness of the recording adds to the power. There’s this uncontrolled energy that exists in us that spills over the edges. It’s never really right or perfect, but it creates tension. It’s like, “Okay, who is going to blow it?” [laughs] When you keep waiting for someone to fuck up but no one does, it keeps you on the edge of your seat. It’s just raw. It’s the real thing. If people are expecting a perfect live record, well, then it’s not really live anymore.
I was really bummed when I heard from Andy Johns—rest in peace—that Cream’s “Crossroads” [Wheels of Fire] was put together from different shows! That ruined it for me. I thought it was one performance, but it wasn’t. I don’t know if anybody else has ever put out a live album that is really, truly live.
The only exception I can think of is the old Monterey Pop Festival with the Who and Janis Joplin, where Hendrix burned his guitar. That was obviously not fixed. Woodstock was like that too. The only thing I hated about the Woodstock movie is that they had so many close-ups of things but you never got to see the big picture of the bands performing. Like “I’m Going Home” by Ten Years After—all you saw was close-up shots of Alvin Lee, and you never saw the whole band. I didn’t like the way it was filmed.
The show that Van Halen performed in Tokyo was kind of a combination of the 2012 tour and the 2007-08 tour. You performed several songs from the 2007-08 tour that you didn’t play often, if at all, during the 2012 shows, like “I’m the One.”
The Tokyo show was also one of our longer shows because we had no opening act. It pushed about two and a half hours.
What do you remember about the Tokyo show?
I remember it was long! [laughs] I was beat at the end of that show. Japanese fans are always so over-the-top and animated, especially since they’re now allowed to stand at shows. They used to be so controlled when they were forced to sit down, but now it’s mosh pit craziness. We played at “The Big Egg”—the Tokyo Dome, which is a baseball stadium. There were more than 50,000 people there, so it was loud.
It’s really cool to hear Wolfgang’s fills in detail on the record. Sometimes those details are easy to miss when watching a live show.
On the classics he embellishes in his own style. What blows my mind are some of the licks that he throws down during the breakdown in “Mean Street.” He’s hauling ass but still in the pocket and groovin’! It makes it exciting.
There’s a nice improv section during “You Really Got Me” that is longer and different than what the band did during the 2012 shows I saw.
The little jam sections were the only parts that changed from night to night. Sometimes we’ll play “Crossroads” or stray off wherever we feel like going that night. There might have been better ones, but that’s what we played that night.
At the end of “And the Cradle Will Rock” you played the “Smoke on the Water” riff.
We always have to figure out how to end that song. Since we were in Japan, we decided to play “Smoke on the Water.” Deep Purple’s Made in Japan album blew that song out of the water, so we thought it would be fun to play that song there.
Why didn’t the band release a live album with Dave back in the Seventies or early Eighties?
I don’t know. We used to tour so much and were on the road constantly, but it never occurred to us that we should record our shows. Back then you didn’t have Pro Tools so it wasn’t as easy to record shows. You had to hire a mobile truck.
People ask why we’ve never released the rest of the 1981 Oakland show that we recorded on video. The reason is because we only recorded three songs—“Unchained,” “Hear About it Later” and “So This Is Love.” We actually filmed those three songs for two nights. On “Unchained” I broke a string the first night, and if you watch the video you can see my guitars change just for a few seconds then switch back. We used the second night of audio, so you can’t hear it, but we used video from both nights. The bottom line is we can’t ever release the whole Oakland show because we didn’t film or record the whole show.
It seems like back then you were concentrating more on recording the next studio album.
On the bus all I would do is write songs. As soon as we got home people from the label would be asking me what new songs I’ve got.
During our first tour in 1978, we were out for 11 months, but our contract stipulated that we owed our label our second record by the end of the year. We basically had three weeks left that year to finish our second record. We cranked out Van Halen II because that was what I had written.
Did your touring rig change at all since we last caught up with you in April 2012?
I’m always refining my tone because my taste changes. I used the 5150III“S” in 2013. We put out a limited run of the III“S” in 2014, and we just built another limited run for 2015.
The second and third channels share a more common tonal DNA than they do on the main production 5150III head. You can’t tell when I’m changing back and forth between channel 2 for rhythm and channel 3 for solos because the tonal character of channel 2 is so complementary to channel 3. I like having more gain for my solos because it sounds buttery and is smoother to play.
Just last week, we were working on a new amp. Everybody is always screaming for my old Marshall sound. Well, we’re working on it, and it’s in the pipeline! It’s a new amp head. We’re not sure what we’re going to call it yet, but I’m thinking of calling it the 5150-34, because it has EL34 tubes. It gets the exact tone of my Marshall plexi in the early days. When I plug into it I go, holy shit! It’s like my old Marshall on steroids.
It has the same tone but more sustain.
The classic Van Halen tone chasers are really going to love this new 5150-34, because if it literally blew my mind, it’s completely going to blow theirs. When Wolfgang checked it out he was saying, “Dad! I’ve got to have one of these!” I don’t know how Howard [Kaplan, senior electronic engineer at Fender/EVH] did it. He got that classic vintage sound but with more sustain exactly as I had envisioned it and asked him to do. He did an amazing job.
How did it feel to be honored by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History for your contributions as an inventor and musical innovator?
It took me by surprise. To me it’s way beyond a Grammy or the usual music industry awards. To be acknowledged by the Smithsonian for my contributions to American music and pop culture is much bigger and more of an honor than any award I could think of. It’s amazing to think that I’ve contributed something to the history of this country, especially since I came here from a different country. I think it’s the highest honor you can get.
One detail that really stood out to me from the event was your explanation of just how important your family has been to your music and motivation.
The four of us—my mom, dad, Alex, and I—were very tight-knit. When you come to a new country, you can’t speak the language, and you have no money, you’d better be a team or else we wouldn’t have made it. My mom was the one who basically wore the pants. She took care of the finances. We all worked, gave the money to her and she took care of the rest. It forced us to be close. There was nothing else we could do but work and try to make it through our weekly payments.
I don’t even know how to explain how it feels to have Wolfgang follow in the footsteps of my father and me. He’s a third-generation Van Halen. When people ask me what it’s like to play with my son all I can say is that it’s the greatest feeling you can imagine.
How is Wolfgang’s album coming along?
He’s still working on it with Erock [Eric Friedman]. He used mostly old Marshall amps, a 5150III, an early Seventies Sound City 50 and a lot of my old guitars. He really fell in love with my 1959 Gibson ES-335.
I don’t know how he got those Marshalls to sounds that way. I couldn’t get the sound out of them that he did! I guess there’s a benefit to playing both bass and guitar, as his fingers are so damn strong. He’s playing drums, bass, and guitar on the album. It’s like AC/DC meets Van Halen meets aggressive pop. The riffs are catchy. It’s a little of everything and sounds like a freight train coming at you. I’ve never heard anything quite like it. It’s so powerful that I’m jealous.
Ah, to be young…. As you get older you get so many more things to deal with in life. I just turned 60, and my main priority now is to maintain my health. I’ve beaten cancer four times and dealt with other health issues. Now it’s all about working out every day and doing Pilates.
I used to spend all day playing guitar, but now some of that time is spent in the gym. I’ve lost 10 pounds since people saw me at the Smithsonian and dropped a lot of body fat. You’ve only got one body. When I turned 60 something clicked inside me, and I thought that I’d better get my shit together. Being 60 sounds old, but I don’t feel any different in my head, which is scary in its own way, you know what I mean? [laughs] I feel like I should be smarter, but sometimes I feel like I’m still 12. But music keeps you young.
The first six Van Halen albums were remastered 15 years ago. Why did you remaster them again?
Mastering technology has changed a lot since then, so it made sense for us to remaster everything. Warner Bros/Rhino suggested that we release remasters of our two Diamond-award [sales of 10 million or more] albums—the first Van Halen album and 1984—at the same time that we released the live album. That’s why those albums were remastered first. Chris Bellman did such a great job that we decided to do them all.
Were you involved with the remastering process?
It was pretty much the same as how we worked with Bob Clearmountain on the live album mixes. Once we heard what Chris was doing, we just let him go to work. We totally trusted him. He sent us roughs of each song and each disc as he went along. The main thing was to let him know what we were looking for so he would be on the right track from the beginning. Once he zoned in on that, we just let him go to work.
Had you listened to any of those albums much before this remastering project?
No. I was really surprised how well they still hold up. But I also realized that there is no music like that out there anymore. It’s really sad. What happened to rock and roll? That’s why I can’t wait for the world to hear what Wolf’s working on. I’ll be bold and say that what Wolf and Erock are doing is important. It’s like early AC/DC. It hits really hard. I think that people who hear it are either not going to believe it or they’re finally going to go, “This kid is the real deal.” When he plays drums, it’s scary. When he plays bass to his own drums, it’s even scarier. And then he’s playing guitar on top of it. It’s insane. The grooves are so locked in it’s ridiculous.
Will Wolfgang’s work on his album affect the upcoming Van Halen tour that’s starting in July?
He’s going to work around our schedule. He recorded seven basic tracks in January. All four of us just started rehearsing last night for the tour as well as our appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel show. I think we’re going to do seven songs on Kimmel, and they’re going to show four of those songs over two nights. When Dave first heard us at rehearsal he was surprised how good it already sounded. When he started singing it all fell together. It was exciting. It was our first time playing together since Japan—almost two years. It was so tight, and we had a lot of fun.
Does the band have any long-term plans beyond the tour?
We just take it as it comes. I’d love to do another studio record if everybody else is up for it. At the end of this tour Wolf is going to finish his record. After that we’ll see. We don’t ever plan that far ahead. That’s how the live album came about. The best things aren’t planned that far in advance. We like to keep it loose.
Photo: Ash Newell