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Wolfgang Van Halen Played His Dad’s Solos for Taylor Hawkins — Then His Own Music Changed

Van Halen talks about playing on the ‘Barbie’ soundtrack, making his great new album ‘Mammoth II’, and how playing Van Halen classics at the Taylor Hawkins tribute shows raised the bar for his new songs

Wolfgang Van Halen


“The one thing I wanted to avoid was the sophomore slump,” says Wolfgang Van Halen — and if anything, his just-released second album as Mammoth WVH, Mammoth II, is a major step up from his impressive 2021 debut. The choruses and riffs are both big enough to match his band name, and the album is full of heavy, pleasingly tricky instrumental interplay that’s all the more impressive when you recall that Van Halen once again played every note on every instrument himself. He’s also embracing a key part of his legacy by letting loose on lead guitar far more than he allowed himself on the debut.

During a recent break between tour dates opening for Metallica, he talked about making the new album, playing almost all the guitar you hear in Barbie, performing Van Halen songs at the Taylor Hawkins tribute concerts, and more.

So you actually started work on this album before your first album was released, right?
I recorded five or six demos, right when the world shut down in March and April of 2020. And then I was immediately just creatively bankrupt. I just had no creative juices at all and no desire to really do anything. It wasn’t until the top of ’22 that I ended up writing maybe six or seven other ideas and then compiled those 15 or 16 ideas that I dogeared for Mammoth II. So I was ready to go by the time we got into the studio in September.

You’re looser on this one in some ways, and you’re definitely letting loose with the guitar solos way more than on the first one. What was the psychology behind that?
The psychology behind that is two things. I think I came into the second album with a lot more confidence in comparison to the first one, ’cause the first one was finding what it was. After playing live for the last two years and really understanding what Mammoth was, it made me want to push it and see what parts I could either improve or just creatively change. And then the second part was the Taylor Hawkins tribute shows. Playing like that, I now had to play like that on my album. There were some moments like that on the first album, but I feel like I just had to up it a little bit more, ’cause now people would expect that from me. So I think it’s six outta 10 songs that have a solo on this album now, and that’s way more than the last album. I’m still a songwriter first, but I definitely threw some fun songs in there this time.

Yeah, I had assumed that the Hawkins tributes either were liberating or just cracked something open for you in some way.
It was a little liberating, but at the same time it was more just, “Shit, I gotta do all these solos now myself.”  Luckily the songs were energetic enough that they called for the step up in soloing.

Can you make the case for guitar solos? Because solos have slipped out of mainstream music, along with bands, for the most part.
See, I don’t know if I’m the right person to be defending guitar solos, because I was never the one to shove a guitar solo in everything.  Solos need to be a special moment in the song, at least with my construction of it — a sort of song within a song that flows and creates its own tension and has its own moments.

The new song “Miles Above” has a really simple, melodic solo.
Yeah. I’m really happy to have something like that, too, to prove that it’s like you don’t need to be wanking the whole time in order to have a solo. It’s almost like the brother of “Think It Over” from the first album. On “Think It Over,” my dad called it my George Harrison solo.

“I’m All Right” feels like the most old-school rock song you’ve done.
Yeah, it’s almost like my version of a throwback-y sort of vibe, which is funny because the lyrics are very angry for it to be such a relaxing sort of dad-rock vibe. I think it’s really funny.

I have to admit it’s funny to hear you, specifically, use the term “dad rock.”
[Laughs.] Yeah, dad rock for me is Van Halen, like, to the definition. I don’t know if dad rock is Van Halen to many people, but, literally my dad rock is Van Halen.

On the first album, a lot of the lyrics are about personal betrayals. This time, you sound angry again, but the subject matter seems to have shifted.
With the first album it was very outward in that sort of vibe. This album was very much more inward and I feel like a lot was more focused at my stuff than anything else. Because the first album came out after my dad had passed, people assume that the therapy of me writing through it and getting through that is on that album. But I finished that album in 2018.  So you’re hearing all of me working through everything I’ve been through since 2019 on this album. And I think that’s why it’s much darker and heavier and angrier and way more inward.

The closest thing to a ballad on the album is the first verse of “Waiting,” and it sounds like you’re singing about grief on that song: “I’ll never say goodbye.”
It’s almost like a thematic sequel to “Distance” in a way. It wasn’t written intentionally to be that way, but as it came out, I realized those songs are really connected.

The last time we spoke, you talked about the fact that grief isn’t something that has necessarily an endpoint. It’s just something you live with.
Yeah, no, it’s something that you just figure out how to carry. It’s not really about getting over it. Now it’s, “OK, for the rest of my life now I have this backpack filled with all this grief.” You have to learn how to carry it and bear that burden, and over time it gets easier. There are so many things you don’t really think of until you’re on the other side of it. A lot of TV shows have sad arcs where characters are in hospitals and stuff, and even hearing hospital sounds is a huge triggering thing now. I don’t even like hearing things like an automatic dispenser for hand sanitizer. Just hearing that puts me right back in the hospital. It’s almost a PTSD-like trigger where it just brings you right back to that moment, and it’s the last place you want to be or think about.

Tell me about the rehearsals for the Taylor Hawkins tribute. You were on guitar, with Dave Grohl on bass, Josh Freese on drums, and Justin Hawkins on vocals.
We didn’t rehearse with Justin until we were at Wembley,. but I had been to [the Foo Fighters’] Studio 606 before that a couple times where Dave, Josh, and I jammed everything, and that was just surreal, to be playing with two musicians I’ve looked up to my whole life.

And then the same with Justin. It was really crazy. All in all, we didn’t really play that much before the performance. But I practiced like crazy, ’cause I, if I didn’t nail it, in my mind, it was the end of my life. I was like, “If I don’t play this perfectly, then my life is over.” Those were the stakes for me. Luckily, I think I pulled it off, but, man, I was, like, just suicidal with nerves prior to that. I don’t think I’ll ever be as nervous for anything ever as I was for that.

How did you choose the three songs — “Hot for Teacher,” “Panama,” and “On Fire”?
It was just things that I knew, that I could wrap my head around solo wise. It’s funny, looking back on it, one of the reasons I picked “On Fire” was that i was the very first Van Halen song I ever played with the band in December of 2006, when we rehearsed with [David Lee Roth] at the studio when I was 15.

But it was tough ’cause I don’t really listen to Van Halen stuff anymore. It’s tough for me. I’d rather play it with my dad, and he’s not here to do that. So it was really an emotional thing. I wasn’t even sure if I was gonna do it when I talked to Dave [Grohl], but it just seemed like the right thing to do. I know Taylor would’ve loved it. And, after Dad passed, he was just such a champion. He had Dad on his shirt for every show. Man, it was the least I could do, and being able to honor my dad in that way — other than the way that I already honor him, by just being alive and doing music my own way. It felt nice to do that on my terms.

It proved your point about always wanting to honor your dad without turning your own music into a Van Halen tribute band.
Exactly. Yeah. That’s why I will not play any Van Halen music. I mean, I’ll never say never to anything, because people love to take a screenshot of something you said and be like, “This you?” But I have no reason or desire to play any Van Halen music while I’m building my own career. Like my dad said when he was growing tired of doing covers with Van Halen. He was like, “I’d rather bomb with my own music than succeed with somebody else’s.” That really hits home with me.

Are you able to think yet about any Van Halen legacy stuff — documentaries or whatever — or is that purely your uncle’s job?
That’s very much an Al thing. I’m using this time to figure out Mammoth and build my own thing. Given that Alex is the proprietor and leader of all that, I’m just there to help him whenever he wants to get things going or be ready to maybe work on anything if he does. It’s all up to him.

All the touring you did —  including opening for Guns N’ Roses and other  big bands — how, if at all, did that play into the new music?
It’s more that it’s a really interesting and lucky thing to be able to witness how all of these bands operate, learning what to do and what not to do. It’s really just a wonderful opportunity to see how the big boys do it.

Obviously you were part of another huge band and were able to see how they did it as well.
With Van Halen, I learned a lot of how I didn’t want things to be with Mammoth. Why do we need to be walking around on eggshells? Why is there a problem all the time? Like, why can’t we just get along and play music? Don’t we all love music enough to put our bullshit aside and actually have a good time having this be our livelihood? Shouldn’t it be easier than this? That was one of the main things with Mammoth, was to build this healthy core of people on the inside. That can’t be swayed and that can weather any storm, throughout anything we need to

Tell me about working on the Barbie soundtrack, which started out with your friendship with Mark Ronson. How did that friendship come to be?
We met at the Taylor Hawkins tribute at Wembley. He came up to me and he told me his dad had helped work on one of the Hagar albums, and we just hit it off. I remember he hit me up: “Hey man, I’m doing this score for a movie and I think it could really use your Mammoth guitar.” I ended up flying to New York from Amsterdam after opening for Metallica there, and stayed there for two days. I just tracked in his studio with Mark and Andrew Wyatt. Before I knew it, eight hours had gone by. It was just a really fun time.

You’re pretty much all over the movie, especially in “I’m Just Ken,” right?
On “I’m just Ken” near the end, Slash is playing lead parts in between the vocals, but besides that, every other guitar that you hear on the album and in the movie was stuff that I had done. It’s really crazy. It’s just a really huge honor to be a part of something so wonderful.

Since you play all the instruments on your albums, how does that even work in the studio? Do you just start on drums and try to hear the whole song in your head?
Usually, I have a demo that I made on Logic that I’m playing to as a scratch track. I could probably, as a challenge, maybe do it the way you said, but it’s certainly easier the other way!

I believe Grohl did that on the first Foos album.
Maybe I’ll have to do that on a track or two or something on the next album. Just as a challenge.

When you play live, you’re on guitar and vocals, which means there’s all these bass and drum parts that you played in the studio that you don’t get to perform live. Are you ever jealous of your bandmates for getting to play those parts?
I feel that about drums a lot. I’m so jealous of Garrett [Whitlock] that he doesn’t have to worry about singing or being the center of attention and he just gets to have such a fun time playing drums. I’m so jealous. Same with [bassist] Ronnie [Ficcaro]. There are so many fun things to do on bass on this album and the last album that I’ll never get to play.

But you’ve said you don’t see yourself jumping between instruments onstage.
Maybe there’s a way to do that in the future, but right now there’s no reason to do that. Currently I have such an incredible band. I’ve forced my very introverted self to be in the front and to play the extrovert. It’s just a direct result of my desire to make this music.

From Rolling Stone US