By: Steven Rosen
The year is 1983. Six albums ago, including the one yet to be released, Van Halen, the group, released its first record, Van Halen. It was dramatic, intense and bold. Within the eleven tracks was a feeling of “This is an important statement.” It was.
The energy, passion and technique of guitarist Edward Van Halen set the band apart from hordes of others. Now, with the Pasadena-raised quartet about to release its sixth record, it’s obvious that Eddie stands as the main catalyst of the electric guitar’s ascendancy in the ’80s.
Like any true artist, he never plans or conceives. He just does. Whether the next record sounds like the last one is of little concern to him. What he does do is ‘try” and while he, self-admittedly, doesn’t always succeed, there’s an underlying quality and integrity in every note he plays.
Still staggering from the effects of the ’83 US Festival, Van Halen sits in his home nestled in the Hollywood Hills feeling bitter about the performance. Ultimately, the show will be viewed as one of the grandest rock ‘n’ roll fests in history, but in the following conversation guitarist Van Halen clears the cobwebs, sheds real light on the concert, and describes the work thus far on the band’s upcoming album, 1984.
Steven Rosen: How did you feel about your performance at the US Festival?
Eddie Van Halen: I thought I did very well. I thought I played real good. It’s a difficult period when you haven’t played in front of an audience at all for that long, three or four months. “Jump,” off the next album, is the only new song we had a chance to do.
That whole US Festival to me was like the world’s quickest tour. We rehearsed for it like a tour. We had to design the amp setup, the lights, everything. It was like a tour except there was only one show. After we got done with that one show I said, “Well, where are we going after this show?” And it was home.
You get yourself psyched up for a show and you want to do more when you’re done. You’re just getting warmed up after the first one. Normally, we do ten shows before we hit any major markets to get back into the swing of playing.
The whole US Festival to me was a pain in the ass. The only thing it received in print was how much we made. All you hear about the US Festival was how many people got killed on our day and the money we made. I’m still wearin’ the same pair of shoes and the same pair of pants.
Steven: What did you think of the video they made?
Eddie Van Halen: Alex [Van Halen] and Pete [a member of the lighting crew] edited it and I thought it was real good. I think it was excellent.
Steven: I remember you mentioning earlier that you weren’t real happy with the camera crew at the festival.
Eddie Van Halen: It was ridiculous. There was a camera on me and it was like the guy would put his camera underneath the stage and take off and take a piss or smoke a cigarette and come back and put the camera back up. Five minutes later he was gone again. Union camera guys just don’t listen. They don’t want to put up with screaming kids. They don’t want to put their ears above the stage so they can hear the music.
For the amount of money that we made, we lost more than it was ever worth. A million-and-a-half dollars sounds like a lot, but whet you can lose that much in return video-wise and every other way. On top of that they offered us the money, we didn’t demand it.
Steven:You’re working on a new record?
Eddie Van Halen: It’s near completion and will be out in January. It seems like we’re taking our time on it but we’re actually not. The US Festival, again, hasn’t stopped haunting us. We were committed to do a radio show we didn’t know about and in the meantime we’re trying to do a record. We get a call, “Hey, you’re committed to a radio show,” and we go, “Oh, God, not again!”
We have all the tracks finished for thirteen tunes but we can’t use them all. The songs are four to five minutes long and we don’t like putting more than thirty-five or forty minutes on a record because you lose that crispness. It starts sounding like a greatest hit package from the ’50s. You lose fidelity. People give us shit about that too: “Your records are too short.” You listen to a record from beginning to end and if you feel you got your money’s worth, that’s fine.
I think this next one is going to be a hellified record. The majority of the solos will be overdubs. It just depends on how it feels right. There’s a fast boogie called “Hot for Teacher.” There’s another one called “Anytime, Anyplace” with a live solo on it. Lots of overdubs. My dad might play an intro for a song. There’s a song called “Panama” with a live solo, and a song called “Jump.”
Steven:There are some keyboard tracks on the album?
Eddie Van Halen: Yeah, I’ve been getting into keyboards lately. Donn [Landee, engineer] is going to find me a piano. There are two songs basically based on keyboard; one is called “Jump” and I don’t know what the other one is called yet.
I’m using an OBX-A and an OB-8. With a synthesizer you can fool around with sounds to the point where you’ll be happy. The last song we did I actually came up with on the OBX-A, but the thing wouldn’t stay in tune so they gave me a loaner while the OBX-A was being fixed. They gave me the OB-8 but it wouldn’t get the same left-hand sound as the OBX-A, so I just had to make do with whatever it would get. It ended up sounding completely different, but I still liked it.
Steven: Do you think at all about what people might say concerning you playing keyboards as opposed to guitar?
Eddie Van Halen: I think as long as I do whatever I do well, whatever they say I don’t really care. I mean they can’t say that it sucks. If they don’t like seeing me play keyboards that’s too bad.
Steven: Haven’t you also been using another guitar built specifically for you?
Eddie Van Halen: It’s a guitar built by Steve Ripley. He had this idea where each string on the guitar has an individual pan pot. You have to use two amplifiers. On this guitar you can pan each string to whatever side you want. I have a super-duper prototype which allows you to not only put each string to the left or right, but also add an effect to each string, left or right. It’s a crazy sound. I use it on two tracks on the album and I’ll definitely take it out live.
Steven: Are there plans for a tour?
Eddie Van Halen: January 19th is the last I heard.
Steven: And you’ve been working on music for a film your wife Valerie [Bertinelli] is in?
Eddie Van Halen: Yeah. I basically got cornered. I went to pick Valerie up from the Burbank Airport after she had been filming up in San Francisco for a week and I saw her and she was all excited. She said, “Write a song to this,” and she explained the scene.
As soon as I got home I started plinking on the synthesizer and came up with something. She heard it and said, “That’s perfect.” Donn and I went down and saw the dailies and it did fit. It’s pretty much perfect for the scene, but the director wanted vocals. If you added vocals it would turn into a Saturday Night Fever trip because it’s a street scene.
Then Valerie told me she needed something for the end which sounded real sad and I remembered something I came up with a long time ago, a piano piece, and she liked that too. They’re trying to get me to do the whole flick and I don’t want to. There’s too much pressure; I’m not mature enough to handle that kind of shit. I don’t know how to deal with adults who want to sing.
They said they want to use the opening theme in different parts of the movie, but I told them I don’t know. He [the director] called me a week ago and asked me for a tape. I told him I didn’t want to give him a tape. I wanted to be there with Donn to see what the hell they were going to put it to because if it doesn’t fit, I don’t want them using it.
Steven: Returning to the US Festival for one moment. The day you headlined was billed as Heavy Metal Day. Do you feel something in common musically with the various support bands, that included Ozzy, the Scorpions, Judas Priest and Triumph?
Eddie Van Halen: I didn’t really even realize what bands played with us, it didn’t even hit me until I was over at Donn’s house watching it on Showtime. I’m going, “Now I know what they mean by heavy metal.” The bands kept changing; our manager kept telling us, ‘Well, you’re playing with so-and-so.”
I think it changed up until the day we played, and it wasn’t until sitting at Donn’s house watching the tube and seeing who actually played with us that it dawned on me. I think the only way we really fit in was volume-wise.
I don’t consider Van Halen heavy metal at all. I don’t even know what the word means. Heavy metal? It’s a good name for a magazine.
Steven: The direction those bands are heading in doesn’t interest you?
Eddie Van Halen: I don’t listen, I don’t listen at all. I don’t listen to anything. I listen to Donn, I listen to Al. I can’t remember the last time I bought a tape. The last time I did it was Brand X or Bill Bruford. Things like that. It’s been years since I bought any kind of rock ‘n’ roll record or tape.
That doesn’t mean I can’t rock ‘n’ roll. What is rock ‘n’ roll? It’s a feeling put out at a high volume. To me, heavy metal is just rock ‘n’ roll. I guess the more leather and studs you wear the more heavy metal it is. So, I wear funny striped clothes.
Sometimes the way you see yourself isn’t the way others do. I sure as hell don’t see us as heavy metal. I don’t really try to do anything but something interesting and different than the last thing I did. I don’t think I always succeed, but I try.
I don’t sit down and listen to our stuff and go, “Is this different than the last one?” I don’t care. Because what I come up with is what I come up with. I don’t compare. A thing Alex always says is, “This is going to be our sixth volume.” What if you were married and you have your sixth kid or your wife is about to have your sixth kid? Are you going to say, I hope he’s going to be different.” You know? You can’t judge all six of your babies, they’re part of you. You just can’t. That’s up for critics to do, I guess.
If they want to think it’s different, let ‘em. Let ‘em read into it what ain’t there. I don’t really care. I definitely don’t write for anybody but myself. If people want to consider it stupid, bang-your-head-against-the-wall rock ‘n’ roll, fine. Then I guess that’s what I like to do.
Steven: Obviously, people don’t think that.
Eddie Van Halen: To tell you the truth, I don’t care. I wouldn’t put my life into something that I considered stupid. I enjoy it. I think other people get off on it, so what the hell?