Wolfgang Van Halen on His New Music, His Time in Van Halen, and Getting Closure
Written by Contribute Author on December 25, 2020
Wolfgang Van Halen talks to Rolling Stone about his solo debut, missing his dad, Van Halen’s planned mega-reunion, and much more.
“I’ve never seen such an outpouring of positivity,” says Wolfgang Van Halen, who’s used to dealing with cranky Van Halen fans online. Using the band name Mammoth WVH, he released his first solo single and video, “Distance,” on Monday, paying tribute to his late dad, Eddie Van Halen — and fans almost universally responded with praise and gratitude. Wolfgang, who plays all instruments and sings all the vocals on the song, with a full album due next year, called Rolling Stone to talk about Mammoth WVH, his time as Van Halen’s bassist, and more.
You’re 29 years old. Do you find that Van Halen fans treat you as if you’re younger?
I just think they feel such ownership over me. I guess because they followed my dad forever, they kind of feel like I’m their son. But yeah, I’m 29, very much a man.
So why play all the instruments yourself?
I just wanted to see if I could do it. I knew I could play each instrument, but I was like, “You know what? It’s really cool to see if this could work.” And it did.
You already have a touring band for this project. With the Foo Fighters, Dave Grohl started out playing everything himself, but it evolved into a band. Could that happen with you?
Never say never, but I would expect to be doing the albums on my own. Because it’s just such a fun process that it’s not like I’m looking for people to fill in to make it easier. I enjoy getting in the trenches and just recording.
I’ve been thinking about your uncle, Alex Van Halen. He played with practically no one but your dad, and they played together since they were kids. How is he doing?
About as you’d expect. We talk every day, ever since Dad passed. Just checking on each other. “I love you. Call me if you need anything.” Some days are better than others. He’s just got to go through it.
What does he make of your music?
He’s proud of it. Just like Dad.
Using the word Mammoth in your band name draws on some deep family history. What’s that about for you?
Oh man, growing up, whenever my dad would tell me the story that, you know, [Van Halen was once] called Mammoth… It was a three-piece, and Dad was singing. They had a bass player, Mark Stone, who unfortunately passed about a week or two before Dad did. He was a wonderful man. And I just thought that it was so cool that, one, Dad was singing. And two, it was an awesome band name. So growing up I was like, whenever I have my own band, I want to call it Mammoth.
Did your dad know you were going to use the name?
Yeah, I was nervous, I asked for his permission. Gosh, it was around 2014. I was like, “Hey Dad, I got a question: Would it be cool if I called the band this?” And he was like, “Yeah, why would you worry about that?” He was really stoked.
How much of an ongoing relationship do you have with David Lee Roth?
Not too much. We’re cordial. But it was very business-related. You know, we were always cool, but we really only ever saw each other on stage.
You told Howard Stern that you and your dad discussed a “kitchen-sink tour” with Dave trading vocals with Sammy Hagar and maybe even Gary Cherone. Do you think you could have gotten Dave to do that? I know Sammy would have been down for it, but I just don’t know about Dave.
I would have loved to see it happen. Unfortunately, we’ll never know the answer to that. I think at a certain point you would have just had to get everybody in a room and just be like, “Come on, how awesome would this be?”
You talked about Michael Anthony being part of that tour, too. That means you you were personally ready to sort of retire from that band a while ago.
Pretty much, other than maybe jumping on stage for a song or two, because Dad would be like, “You got to be on stage at least a couple times.” He kept trying to pull me back in. Not that I didn’t want to be there. Playing with my father was the best thing I ever did. It was my favorite thing to do.
You obviously had a certain birthright to be in Van Halen, but at the same time, the spot you took was Michael Anthony’s. Did you ever have a personal conversation with him about that?
Never had too much of an opportunity. That’s kind of what that whole tour was supposed to be. And then it never panned out. I was really looking forward to speaking with him, and that hasn’t happened yet. I’m looking forward to the opportunity that I have in the future to speak with him.
You want to make sure there’s no hard feelings?
I mean, I don’t think there are. I’ve seen things he’s said. He’s always been an amazing guy.
When did you start writing songs?
I really started making my own attempt at writing my own music after the 2012 Van Halen tour. When I got home, I taught myself how to use Logic [recording software], and I made some of the first early demos for some songs that actually ended up on the album. That’s when I was like, “Hey, I’m doing music, might as well try and see if I can write my own stuff.”
How many songs are in your personal archive already?
Oh man. For this, there were 28 songs that I had. Then there’s a handful of other ideas that are, like, partially done. “Distance” was one of those ideas that I decided to finish really quick after everything happened.
How did you find your own musical style?
It just kind of happens over time. I mean, it took me a very long time to record everything. It was just kind of waiting for the process to show me myself, developing that original sound. There’s a lot of different kinds of flavors on the album.
You can play a lot of instruments really well, but you’re very restrained on “Distance.” You’re serving the song.
That’s kind of what what my whole thing is with Mammoth WVH. It’s always for the song. There’s certain songs that have guitar solos, there’s certain songs that don’t. It’s whatever the song calls for. It’s never sort of a wank-off fest just for the opportunity to play crazy.
Ever record that kind of thing just for fun, though?
I’ve never thought of myself as a shredder, but there’s one song on the album that has a fun breakdown, where the guitar and the bass are soloing and then there’s a drum solo.
What do you do if you come up with something that’s very much in a classic Van Halen vein? Do you toss it?
It’s pretty much just, “Do I like this idea or not?” I think there actually was an idea, or at least one melodic part on a song, where [producer Michael “Elvis” Baskette] said, “You know, that sounds very Van Halen-y.” I was like, “Yeah, you’re right.” I guess I can’t avoid it. it’s in my blood.
Your previous recording experience was playing bass in Van Halen on 2012’s A Different Truth. What was the reality of that experience?
Yeah, that took a while, too. Some of the very first tracks we did, just demoing at 5150 [Studios], were in 2009. The album didn’t come out ’til 2012. The very first first three tracks were “Bullethead,” “She’s the Woman,” and a song called “Let’s Get Rockin’” that would eventually be called “Outta Space” on the album. Those were the first three songs we did where it was like, “Hey, I think we can actually do some new shit here, this will be really cool.” And from there, it just evolved. It just took finding the proper producer that Dave was wanting to work with and making sure everyone was happy. Three years later, there we were. It was never very easy to get anything done in the in the Van Halen camp. Everybody’s very particular. So I was really happy we actually made the album.
What are the biggest things you learned about music from your dad and from playing in Van Halen?
One of the good pieces of advice that he always gave me that his dad always gave him was, “If you ever make a mistake, do it twice so that people think you meant to do it.” [Laughs.] Playing with Van Halen, there wasn’t really anything I felt I learned. It was just kind of this in my blood type of thing. It felt right to be playing with Al and Dad. The three of us just kind of melded together musically in a way that I’ll never experience for the rest of my life.
Where do you see your mom in yourself and where do you see your dad?
My dad obviously rules the music side of my life, for sure. I think everything else is my mom. She’s the reason I am the kind of person I am today. She really did everything.
You always seemed to have this old-soul maturity to you. As a young teenager, you helped convince your dad to go to rehab right when you were first about to reunite with Roth in 2007.
I mean, that’s why I was there in the band in the first place. It was all for Dad’s health and his wellbeing. Obviously I wanted him to be as healthy as possible, so when the opportunity came, he actually was okay with going. He was like, “Fuck yeah, whatever we got to do.” … I experienced a lot of life really fast. I think that might be a reason why you might get that vibe of me being older beyond my years, because I had to mature very quickly in order to handle everything. Everything that was being thrown at me early on in my life.
How do you feel about standing on stage as a frontman? That’s something you haven’t done yet.
I’m still working through that, because it’s not my style to be the center of attention. But I’m ready to step up to the plate, because even if I don’t have that confidence in myself, my dad had the confidence in me, and that’s enough.
You said you have no immediate plans to go through your dad and his band’s archives for future releases. Is it possible that Alex might take that on by himself, though?
It’s something that we’d probably do together. Yeah, I know it’ll happen at some point. I promise, I promise you it will. Not yet!
You were ready to release this album back in 2018, but you called it off so you could spend time with your dad when his illness took a turn, right?
I was rehearsing with the [touring] band and everything. My dad was watching us rehearse.
Were you able to get some of the closure you needed?
As horrible of a situation as it was, I feel like it couldn’t have gone any more smoothly. I was able to spend every single second with him. I was holding his hand the entire time. For such a shitty, worst moment of my entire life, it was peaceful.
Does it help at all to know that you’re joined in mourning by millions of other people, even if they didn’t really know him?
It’s a double-edged sword. Somebody who I really hold in high regard is Zelda Williams, Robin Williams’ daughter. We talked. She reached out to me. She was wonderful, because we are unfortunately part of a very exclusive club now. But she put her thoughts into words that were really helpful on the anniversary of Robin’s death. She was like, while the love and support is wonderful, you begin to feel sort of like a roadside memorial. Sure, flowers are nice, but a ton of flowers still weigh a ton. It’s a lot to carry. So while it’s wonderful, it’s difficult.
When Van Halen came out with their debut, rock was at the center of the culture. Now, it’s not. How does that affect you?
Rock is just what I’m passionate about. I don’t think it matters what’s in the forefront. What matters is what’s in my heart, what I want to do.
If you’ve learned anything from Roth, now you’re supposed to say, “and I’m going to fucking save it.”
[Laughs.] OK! I’m gonna try and fucking save it.