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Wolfgang Van Halen on music as therapy, overcoming anxiety, how Blink-182 are amazing and why he’d like to drum for Nine Inch Nails
Then, in June this year, Wolfgang Van Halen released Mammoth WVH, the debut album he’d been brewing for many years. Recording began in 2015 and was completed in 2018. He delayed its release in order to be with his father, Eddie Van Halen, in the final years before the guitar icon succumbed to cancer in 2020.
“My father had every opportunity to listen to it and he loved it,” Wolfgang, 30, tells us today. “He couldn’t have been happier with it.”
Wolfgang spent much of 2021 touring Mammoth WVH (on which he plays all the instruments) with a “phenomenal” live band, as headliners and supporting Guns N’ Roses.
How was your head-space while you were writing the album?
It made me happy. It was a therapeutic thing. I had been going through a lot of stuff in my personal life at the time. It was a really fun, cathartic way to express myself. I had been in Van Halen and Tremonti, which were projects outside of my involvement in terms of the creative input, so having this thing that felt like my own, where I could just unabashedly be myself, was a very special thing to me.
The tracks are very easy on the ear, but there’s a lot going on in terms of detail, cool textures.
Yeah. I’m really proud of that sort of duality; you can take the songs at surface level and just enjoy them, but if you pay attention to what each instrument is doing you’ll find some really fun, cool moments. I think most people who aren’t musicians tend to focus on lyrics and melody, but as a musician I almost listen to the music first and the rhythm and the little fills that happen in between stuff.
How important was ‘Elvis’ Baskette (producer, of Alter Bridge/Myles Kennedy/Tremonti fame) to the finished sound of the record?
Elvis is integral to the process. Considering that creatively the band is just me, he’s that reflector I get to throw my ideas at and to bounce back at me. He’s really the other half of Mammoth when it comes to being in the studio.
Do you have a favourite track on it?
Stone is definitely one of my favourites. I just like that it’s this epic long song. But if I had to pick one that defines the sound of the band it would be Epiphany. One of my favourite bits of feedback has been that everybody has a different favourite song. That’s a really good problem to have.
You’ve said that singing lead was the thing you had to work on the most. Which vocalists do you look up to?
Growing up I was always a big fan of the grunge-era singers, Layne Staley from Alice In Chains being one of my favourites. And I’ve always been a huge Tool fan. I love how Maynard [Keenan] can have a heavy voice but also the cleanest voice possible. But I’ve never really tried to emulate another singer. I’ve been singing my whole life.
The harmonies on the record are gorgeous. Are you able to just pick up harmony parts naturally?
Yeah. I do that all the time when I’m listening to music. I think a big love of harmonies stemmed from [when] growing up I loved Blink 182, and I loved how Mark [Hoppus] and Tom’s [DeLonge] harmonies were always so amazing.
You’ve described yourself as an anxious person. Is that something you have to overcome in order to go on stage?
It’s always something to overcome. Usually in the beginning of the tour it’s really difficult, but at a certain point you kind of try to harness that nervous energy and use it. You’ve gotta just throw those nervous feelings in your back pocket, cos, what, are you just not gonna get on stage?! You gotta get up there. So you just kinda say ‘screw it’, and do it!
It must feel like a mixed blessing, with that enormous surname of yours, on the one hand having certain doors open to you but on the other hand really having to prove yourself.
Yeah, it’s definitely a blessing and a curse. I’m very blessed to have the opportunities that I’m able to just because of my last name, but I really don’t think that the last name keeps those doors open for you. If you don’t have the goods to back it up you’re not going to be there for long. So I guess if I disappear in the next year I didn’t have it [laughs].
Is it true that you learned the entire Tremonti setlist the night before joining their tour?
Yes! I happened to have been in New Jersey with my friends in Sevendust, where they were recording [2013 album] Black Out The Sun, I was just hanging out with them, and I happened to have some of my bass equipment with me because we were just jamming and stuff. And it was late one night that I got a call from Mark Tremonti. He was like: “Hey, man, I heard you were in town. We need a bass player. Do you think you could come by?”
And sure enough, I loaded my stuff in a pickup, and got there forty-five minutes later in New York, and I learned the whole set, and we started touring the next day!
Speaking of performing, didn’t you do well in theater/drama in high school?
It was the only class I got an A in, other than astronomy. I did really well in theatre, I had fun with that. Acting is fun.
There’s a story about your parents taking you out of school to drive to the Grand Canyon, and your dad playing you Big Balls by AC/DC…
AC/DC was always the band that dad and I bonded over. Other than Van Halen being the most familiar classic rock-era band, AC/DC is definitely my band.
Having spent your life around major rock stars, what would you say are the biggest misconceptions about them?
We’re all the same. I think that’s the big thing. You become so jaded and separated, you listen to this music and you think you know them, and half the time they’re this ‘product’ that just makes a thing for you that you like. But we’re all just people.
If you could be the drummer in any band for the day, which would it be?
I mean, it would never happen, but the idea of drumming for Nine Inch Nails… that’s an awesome position. I think Ilan Rubin, who’s doing it right now, is a phenomenal drummer. So I don’t wanna take his position or anything, it’s just… The drums are always such an interesting part in the live band of Nine Inch Nails to me. Because it’s not always there on the album.
What’s your ideal day off?
Just being lazy on the couch with my girlfriend, watching TV shows or playing videogames and going to bed early. I’m a big nerd; I’m always playing videogames if I’m not making music. On the last tour, Frank [Sidoris, guitar] and I would bring our systems around, hotel to hotel room, so we could play.
What’s your favourite stuff to jam for fun?
If I jam by myself on drums or something, I always try to challenge myself with crazy stuff, like Periphery or Animals As Leaders, or Tool. I’m not good enough to confidently play that stuff, but to attempt to is a fun exercise.
Looking forward, what would you most like to do next?
Take Mammoth to the next level. I’ve been working on it for so long, but in a way it’s only just beginning. So I’m really excited to just pour all my creative energy and time into Mammoth and see what I can do with it.
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