Wolfgang Van Halen: “Playing music has been written in the stars for me since I was a little kid”
With his first name a tribute to perhaps the greatest composer in the history of written music, and his last inherited from one of the finest players to ever pick up an electric guitar, life was never going to be quiet for Wolfgang Van Halen. Even still, his accomplishments have often left observers speechless.
Aged just 15, he took over from legendary bassist Michael Anthony in his father and uncle’s band that so famously bore his family name, delivering the final Van Halen LP A Different Kind Of Truth and several stadium tours. A decade later, he was expanding his expertise alongside Creed / Alter Bridge six-stringer Mark Tremonti on 2015’s Cauterise and 2016’s Dust. Now, he’s back on every instrument (and vocals!) for excellent solo debut Mammoth WVH – 14 tracks that pay tribute to his deep lineage while daring to strike out on their own.
Following his father Eddie’s death in October last year, Wolf explains that there is a real bittersweetness in forging his own path in 2021. Publicly, there is an inescapable expectation that comes with carrying the Van Halen name. Personally, too, every word written and note played is a reminder of times passed and lessons learned from the best of the best. Ultimately, though, Eddie would be the first to stress the need for his son to keep moving forward and to get out there and make a name for himself…
Mammoth was the name of your father’s band before it became Van Halen. Is reviving it a way to tie back into your family history, or does it have a deeper meaning for you?
“To a certain extent, it’s an homage to where I came from. It’s also a name that I’ve loved since childhood. My dad would tell me the story of the band, and when I was little I would say to him, ‘When I grow up, I want to name my own band Mammoth!’ When I told him that I was actually going to do it, he was so excited. I did ask his permission, but he just laughed and said, ’Of course!’”
Was there ever a real chance you’d be anything other than a musician?
“I guess playing music has been written in the stars for me since I was a little kid. But I’m not really good at anything else, so I’m glad that I’m able to do this. When I was a kid, I did really enjoy playing video games, and I was maybe interested in working with something like that, but as soon as I picked up the drums, I knew that this was what I wanted to do.”
How beneficial do you feel it was growing up with one of the greatest musicians of modern times?
“Just being around [the band] meant that I was able to pick up some things by osmosis, and that I had more of an affinity for music. Whenever I started to play, it didn’t feel weird. I started with the drums. Then, in sixth grade, I decided I wanted to learn to play 316, the song my dad had penned for me. From there, I slowly taught myself.”
You were 15 years old when it was first discussed that you’d be joining Van Halen on bass. How daunting was that?
“Terrifying. I can’t believe I actually did it, considering how young I was. It was crazy.”
What were the most important lessons you learned?
“What I learned, starting out onstage in such large places as part of Van Halen, was to never get overwhelmed and to really focus on my playing. After that, it’s that as long as you still enjoy what you do – as long as the love for the music is still there – you can’t go wrong.”
As you developed as a musician, was there the sense of parental oversight that traditionally comes with a father teaching his son the trade?
“I think that just the fact I was there at all showed that they had so much faith in me. They just believed in me and let me go. They treated me more like an equal than anything else. It was an honour.”
Compared with that “terrifying” experience, how does it feel now that you’re starting out on your own?
“It’s exciting! Sure, I’ve been working for so long, but in a sense this is brand new. Having something that is completely mine is a whole different thing. It’s so exciting to be able to push myself and be able to stand behind something I’ve worked so hard on and am so proud of. I’m really just happy to do what I’m doing.”
How comfortable are you with the fact that people will view Mammoth WVH as an extension of the Van Halen legacy?
“I think that’s gonna happen either way, but this is very much its own thing. If you come to it – as most people have – as a Van Halen fan, I would ask people not to necessarily expect just that. It’s very much its own thing. Of course there is a respect to the lineage, and of course my father will always be a part of my writing and playing, but this is not [just] some ‘continuation’ of Van Halen.”
How keen was your father for you to strike out on your own?
“There was no pushing; he was just happy to witness it. He’d come to the studio, but it was less about giving me pointers than cheering me on, like a proud dad at a soccer game. He was happy to watch it happen.”
How long has this album been in the works?
“I’d just gotten back from that second Van Halen tour that I was part of in 2013 when I really started. The song Mammoth was the first written with this project in mind. From there I just focused on learning how to write and what kind of music I [wanted to play]. We started to track it in 2015, with me playing everything, mostly working at my father’s 5150 studios. My producer Elvis Baskette and engineer Jeff Moll were on recording duties. We tracked everything to tape, which was a cool, vintage way of doing it. Nothing sounds as crisp and warm as tape. After a few sporadic sessions, we finished up in 2018.”
Having had the record done almost three years ago, is its release now about continuing the Van Halen legacy in the wake of your father’s passing?
“The reason that I sat on the record for so long was really just so that I could spend that time with him. He really wanted me to go out and do this, but I didn’t want to go out and tour when I could be spending that time with him while he was still here. But he was so happy and so proud of this music that, if I didn’t go out there and do this, he would be so pissed off at me.”
Does that there’s an element of closure now that the record is finally coming out?
“Yeah. It’s really cathartic. Playing music in general is the last thing I have to feel really close with my father. I’m happy to keep doing this for as long as I can. There’s certainly a lot of bittersweetness to it too, though. Any success that I’ve had so far isn’t as sweet as it would’ve been if my father had been here to share it with me.”
You play all the instruments on Mammoth WVH. Was that down to a desire for control, to show off, or just because the variety can be so damned fun?
“It was mostly the latter. When I was learning to play, I think maybe [my multi-instrumental abilities] stemmed from me wanting to do my own thing. It would’ve been boring if I just tried to be my dad my whole life. Given I can do it, why not try? I’ve been really surprised by some of the negative feedback I’ve gotten where people have said, ’Well, he’s just selfish!’ I just wanted to see if I could do it! Also, when you’re playing everything, you have more respect for what makes each song better rather than what makes me look good. I’m sure, subconsciously, that there was an element of proving myself, too. Given my lineage, that’s something I’m going to have to do for the rest of my life.”
Are there any instruments you can’t play yet that you’d fancy a stab at?
“I’ve always wanted to play the theremin. I think that thing is really weird and interesting. It’s the instrument that you play by not touching it.”
As you’ve been branching out, did you reach out to any of the other Van Halen guys for their expertise?
“This was really just an exploration of what I can do on my own, and if I’d allowed that – I wouldn’t call it interference, but that vibe – it wouldn’t have been the road I wanted to go down. I’m happy that I found my sound on my own. Elvis was [a great support]. There were moments when I would doubt myself and he would pick me up and push me across the finish line.”
You played some of these songs on Eddie’s infamous ‘Frankenstein’ guitar. Was that as special for you as it would’ve been for another guitarist?
“Oh, certainly. When you’re holding that guitar, you’re holding history. It was a terrifying and exciting prospect to be allowed to play it. The weight was not lost on me, for sure. It’s not something we just keep lying around the house, it’s kept in a very safe area. It’s literally priceless.”
The opening track on the album, Mr. Ed, feels like a tribute to your father both in name and in sound.
“That was the demo title because I harmonically tap the intro and it reminded me of something dad would’ve done, and I loved it so much I just kept it. But that’s it. I’m sure people will be digging through the lyrics like, ‘Is this about his dad?!’ But it’s certainly not.”
There is quite a pronounced classic rock influence, but there are also elements of more modern outfits like Foo Fighters and Jimmy Eat World at play. How would you describe that combination of eras?
“I don’t think there was ever a [fixed] decision where I thought. ‘Okay, I need to do this with my influences.’ But, certainly, everything from Foo Fighters, Nine Inch Nails and Tool to AC/DC, Jimmy Eat World, Alice In Chains and Queens Of The Stone Age [are in there]. It’s like a big soup of inspiration that formed the backbone of this project.”
It’s interesting to hear bands like Tool and NIN mentioned there. They’re not prominent in the mix this time round, but might we get some proggier, more industrial material further down the line?
“I wouldn’t throw anything out the window. I’d like to keep the future as open as possible! So, sure, maybe (laughs).”
You’ve mentioned that there are songs from these sessions that didn’t make the album, too. Where do those fit in?
“This record was about trying to find the right collection. There were never really any ‘rules’ to it, and more of a focus on making the music I wanted to hear. I was thinking, ‘If I could only ever put one album out, what would best represent all the areas where my sound can go?’ That’s what ended up on the album. There were a couple of songs I dropped because they felt a little too metal and didn’t quite fit. There were a few that felt too poppy, too. Maybe some of those other songs will find their way onto a future album. It’s fun to surprise people!”
And what are your ambitions, longer-term?
“I just want to keep doing this. I’d like it to be what I’m remembered for. It would cool if, by the end of my life, people were like, ‘Hey, that’s Wolf from Mammoth!’ rather than, ‘That’s the Van Halen kid!’”
Mammoth WVH’s debut album is due out on June 11 via EX1 Records / Explorer1 Music Group.
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