Wolfgang Van Halen (Interview): "You Can Feel The History"
The eyes of the rock world have been on Wolfgang Van Halen since he was a child. Now 32, he played bass in his father's band in his teens (we're talking, of course, about guitar icon Eddie Van Halen, who died in 2020) and is now one of the guardians of the Van Halen legacy. This includes his work with the EVH guitar brand.
With his own band Mammoth WVH, however, he wants to do things differently, as he tells in the interview. The band's life should be uncomplicated and harmonious (which, as is well known, was not always the case with Van Halen, especially within the singer duo David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar). In the studio, however, he does everything on his own - no wonder, Van Halen has been a multi-instrumentalist since early childhood. Now Van Halen releases the second Mammoth WVH album "Mammoth II" - which he toured among others as a support act for Metallica and Guns N' Roses.
Markus Brandstetter: Wolfgang, you started playing the drums as a child. Do you think that had an influence on your approach of all the other instruments you play?
Wolfgang Van Halen: Yes, absolutely. I think I have a very rhythmic approach to every other instrument because of my background as a drummer.
Who were your early influences on drums?
My earliest influence was without question my uncle [Van Halen drummer Alex Van Halen, note], who I saw all the time as a kid. The first drummer I discovered on my own that really intrigued me was Travis Barker. I grew up listening to Blink-182. I bought "Enema Of The State" and tried to play every part on it.
Later, progressive metal bands came in as an influence for you - Tool and Meshuggah, for example.
I realized that I became a much better drummer when I discovered Tool for myself and tried to learn everything from them. Learning Tool has really pushed me forward. It started with "10,000 Days," the album came out when I was just in high school. Then I moved on to "Lateralus." I wanted to be able to play everything from Tool - and I taught myself through trial-and-error.
Did you have a similar approach with other instruments?
Yes, I think it all just came out of wanting to be able to play the music I liked. The more I heard it, the more I wanted to learn how to play it.
You followed up relatively quickly after your 2021 debut, and that's despite the fact that the second album always tests fresh careers.
I'm actually writing material all the time - and I already had a handful of ideas that I had saved. When I finished the first part of the tour, I stepped up the writing a bit. There was still some time before I went on tour in Europe with Alter Bridge and Halestorm - and so we recorded for a month and a half. When we came back from the tour, it took us another month to finish everything, especially the vocals and some guitar solos. So compared to the first album, it was fast, because that took almost three years.
The first album already made waves in the rock world. Did you feel any pressure for the second one?
I think the only pressure I felt - which I always feel! - was that I didn't want it to suck. I think a lot of people wait for that kind of "sophomore slump" when they see a new band. Bands have their whole lives to record their first album. But then their second album comes out and they didn't have enough time to work on it - and that's bad. I wanted to avoid that. I just wanted it to be something I could be proud of and continue with. I'm really happy with how it turned out. No question, I'm also really proud of the first album, but I think this new album is even better!
So what exactly does your work process look like?
We do one instrument at a time. I usually have a rough demo already done with Logic on my computer. Then when we go into the studio, depending on the number of songs, we do drums for a week, then bass, then guitar, then vocals - and we just replace every part of the demo with the studio takes.
So the songs are already done before it's time to record?
Yes, at least in terms of the structure of the song. There are a few specifics like drum patterns and drum fills or solos that can be checked out during recording, but when it comes to the overall structure and tempo of the song, everything is more or less done before I go into the studio.
Already in your early teens you toured with Van Halen, later with Tremonti - I assume two groups with quite different dynamics?
It was fascinating to see how the respective bands worked. With Van Halen, I learned how I wanted to lead my own band later on. Through all the processes in the band, I knew I wanted to make Mammoth a safe haven for fun and music. A place where nothing bad happens. Where nothing happens to complicate things and get in the way of the music. I learned that I just wanted to have fun with people and tour without anything getting in the way. That's my mission statement. It's important to always keep that core and then spread it out in all directions. That way you can weather any storm together and everything will be okay in the end.
You've often faced headwind on social media, your reactions to hate comments are often hilarious.
Social media is an important tool for us, so I can't really get away from it. But I do take breaks when I'm not on tour. I just pick the moments when I think it's worth responding to. It's okay as long as I can make a joke about it - or maybe try to correct something that I think is worth correcting.
For your new album, you used your father Eddie Van Halen's "Frankenstein" guitar - one of the most famous guitars of all time - for one song. For those of us who will never have the pleasure of checking out Frankenstein: Would you mind describing to us how the guitar feels?
It has a lot of history. It really feels like this relic, like a part of a special time. There's something very special about playing it. I don't even know the best way to describe it: You can literally feel the history. I'm glad that I was able to capture this feeling in a song forever.
Asked pragmatically, does an EVH replica of the guitar feel similar to the original?
Oh, absolutely. The replicas are really one-to-one with the original We spent a lot of time perfecting the replicas and making sure they felt the same, with the neck profiles, the feel of the body and other factors. So yes, the replicas come very close!
You yourself let yourself be seen lately with a new signature guitar - a semi-hollowbody. That hasn't been done by EVH guitars before.
I've had the guitar on tour for a year, so it's being road-tested and crash-tested, as we do at EVH. I wanted to play an EVH guitar, but at the same time I wanted to play a semi-hollow. To combine the beauty of a semi-hollow body with the specs and power of an EVH - that's what we wanted. And without that baseball bat neck that hollowbody guitars often have. I can't wait until people finally get their hands on them.
How much time does working with EVH take up for you?
It's quite time-consuming. There's kind of a collective brain trust of people at EVH and Fender that meets quarterly to run the brand with Matt Bruck [Eddie Van Halen's longtime guitar tech, note]. Fortunately, he's a very knowledgeable and smart person when it comes to the inner workings of the brand, having worked with my dad throughout. So yeah, the brains of the thing are just in great hands. And we have a lot of things that we're working on for the future that are very exciting! My signature guitar is just one of them.
(The German version of this interview was released on rollingstone.de)