Sammy Hagar: 'I Wanna Be The Guy That Does Exactly What He Wants'

artist: Sammy Hagar date: 01/24/2009 category: interviews
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Sammy Hagar: 'I Wanna Be The Guy That Does Exactly What He Wants'
Sammy Hagar has led a pretty amazing life. He enjoyed success as the singer for Montrose, arguably one of the first truly heavy American bands. He then went on to pursue a solo career during which he created the Red Rocker persona. The singer would continue by jumping in and out of various bands/projects with the likes of Neal Schon and other heavyweights. And then, of course, he became frontman for the Mach III version (following David Lee Roth and the short-lived Gary Cherone period) of Van Halen. He just put out another solo album titled Cosmic Universal Fashion in which he offered up various styles including funk, punk, classic rock, world, blues, and some other intriguing hybrid crossovers. Additionally, he's been working with Joe Satriani, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Chad Smith, and ex-Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony in a new band called Chickenfoot. Whether the singer is working solo or as part of a band, he's always been honest. Both to himself and to his fans. I first encountered Hagar pre-Van Halen and I remember being impressed by him even back then. He didn't sidestep a question and answered completely and directly with no thought given to consequences. In the early days of Van Halen, I remember speaking to him again and he said that he didn't really have any desire to be in Van Halen. He said he made more money as a solo artist and he didn't have any designs on joining the band. That was an unbelievably upfront and bold statement to make. Here, in this conversation, he presented the same unrestrained responses. He actually remembered our earlier meetings and was at once open and informal and ready to talk about anything. The original interview was allotted 15 minutes but when he realized that he and I had a history together, he doubled our time. UG: Sammy, you've always been a man that has straddled two worlds, the solo thing and the band thing. And it's not like the bands were miscellaneous side projects. I mean, obviously Van Halen and the Montrose thing, the Chickenfoot thing coming up, the things with Neal [Schon]. Does one feed your soul more than the other? Sammy Hagar: Well I gotta tell ya, they really feed off of each other and they demand each other when the time is right. It's so weird 'cause, you know, I started off being in a band with Montrose. That was my first, you know, making it. So going on tour, doing all the things that can burn you out. Playing 300 shows a year and making a record in between on the days off, you know, and for three years. After that when it went bad I just said, Man, I just wanna be a solo artist. I wanna start my own band. I wanna be Van Morrison, I wanna be Bruce Springsteen or whoever. I wanna be the guy that does exactly what he wants to do when he wants to do it. And then I did that for 10 years with the first incarnation of my solo band before Van Halen. I had good success and everything and I totally was so burnt out after 10 years on being the boss that everybody called and asked, What are we gonna do? Oh, when are we gonna make the record? Oh, who's gonna produce? What songs are we gonna write? I was just 24/7 doing all the interviews and everything. When Eddie called and asked me to join Van Halen, I didn't necessarily wanna join Van Halen but I certainly was interested in playing with other musicians, like a band again, you know, and not being so much the leader. So then when I joined Van Halen I really grew again. Going back to Montrose, when I joined Montrose I grew as a guitar player and as a singer from what I was playing in bars, night clubs and any place I could get a gig. I really grew and I used all that stuff I learned with Montrose on my 10-year solo stint. Then I joined Van Halen and I grew hugely again because of the musicianship. You know, Eddie's an extreme talent and as a songwriter, writing all those songs together, I had a writing partner for the first time 'cause Ronnie wasn't much of a writing partner. He's a riff master but he really didn't write songs. So Eddie and I got this thing going and I really grew as a songwriter. But 10 years of that and the 11th year was hell, you know, things just go bad like a marriage or a relationship you know? And then I was so happy to be a solo artist again. All that stuff I learned in Van Halen, I grew. For my solo record, I think Marching to Mars is a fantastic record. I would still stand that up against anything I've ever done. Just say, This is a great rock record. Good songs, good lyrics, good singer, good playing. So I kinda put everything from Van Halen, kinda threw that, and then I wanted to leave it behind. Went out with the Wabos, started this partyI didn't even want respect with this band [laughs], even though we were good and the fans love us, it wasn't like we were going out to prove anything to the world. We were going out to party the fucking world stupid, you know? So we did that and I burnt out on that. I'm like, I don't necessarily wanna jump up there and be the party master again. So I'm back to saying, Now I wanna be a musician. I wanna play with the best players I can find on the planet. I got 'em. I got the best drummer, best guitar player, best bass player. Hopefully I'm a good enough singer to play with these guys [laughs]. We're in the studio right now, killing. I'm so into this project now and I'm learning again from Joe. Joe is so good. Joe's the best guitar player I've ever played with. Is he really? I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I'm not putting anyone down. He is the man.
"I joined Van Halen and I grew hugely because of the musicianship."
How do you define that, the best guitar player? What does that mean? His ability to play anything and everything and technically just play it perfect and not unsoulful. He's playing the blues like early Clapton. I mean the guy is amazing, soulful feeling, he brings tears to your eyes with his solos, but technically he can burn that neck up. I mean, he can destory a guitar in one solo. You know those frets are used up, man [laughs]. They're done. You know, this guitar needs a makeover. Honestly, he's better than all of 'em and that's why he's the master and the teacher. Now I understand. You know, I'd never played with Joe, so I didn't know. I jammed with him one time and he blew my mind, but to write with the guy and to go, Well, you know that Procol Harum progression, you know, that keyboard/piano thing, and he'll go, Let's see, it was this and he plays it on freakin' guitar! Whiter Shade of Pale? Yeah, but not just that, like Salty Dog [laughs] and all those weird changes that only a keyboard can do. His fingers just go. He's amazing. He can fingerpick, he can flatpick, he can play slow and he can play fast, he can work the whammy and make all those noises that Eddie and Steve Stevens can make. He can do it all. He's the best. And I'm not saying this 'cause I'm in a band with him. If I'd of known this years ago I'd of probably have been in a band with him years ago. Interesting. So from a distance you looked at him and go, Wow, he's a great player, but Up close he's even better [laughs]. Wow, that's unbelievable. You know, guys can go in the studio and do darn near anything. But walking out and pulling it off onstage, you know, Eddie was good at that. In the old days he could really pull that stuff off really well. I've seen Steve Vai pull some pretty good stuff off, seen Eric Johnson pull some pretty good stuff off. But Joe, he not only can pull all those things off, he can ad lib, he can jam and he can create on the spot. We've written songs so fast it's unreal. He's just really good and he makes my song ideas so much more musical. You know, when I come up with an idea he'll go, Well, yeah, that's cool, I like that one part. Maybe we can and I'm going, Oh, shit, there ya go! He's really an accomplished musicians. He plays keyboards, he plays string instruments, he plays a mean harmonica, he could probably play a damn saxophone, I dunno I haven't asked him. So in some respects, Sammy, then Joe pulls more out of you as a songwriter than Ed did? No, I'd say it's really close to the same relationship, 'cause I'm only good for so much. You know, I've got my chops and that's it. Everyone has their limits and Joe can go way beyond my limits. So I dunno, we haven't done it. He likes my voice, he likes the way I sing, so he tries to bring out what he likes in my voice in the music he brings so that I'll sing a certain way or write a certain kind of lyric. It really works. I mean, it just really works. But Ed and I had the same thing. We really worked great together, 'cause Ed was so excited to have someone who had range. You know, vocal range. So it inspired him to write different things. I dunno what Joe wrote before 'cause he never worked with a singer, but he's having a ball I can tell you that much [laughs]. When him and I get excited about things, like last night we came up with a new chorus on this song, we put a background part in there that's just so brilliant that I never would've thought of by myself. So he is bringing things outta me, but not things that have never been brought out. He just brings out the best of me and I'm really growing again. I'm getting inspired seeing what can be done. Writing all the music and all the lyrics and all the melodies and practically producing the thing, it really tests you, and you run out of ideas quicker. When you've got a guy bringing you stuff, you just play with it, man. It's great. We're having a good time. This Chickenfoot project is It's the real thing, huh? It really is. I just keep bragging about it and I've already put my foot in my mouth a couple of times but I'll try not to do that [laughs]. Hey, I'm looking forward to it. When I first heard about it I thought, Wow, this could be like a bridge between the more classic thing you do and Joe, you know what I mean? On paper it sounds amazing. You know, Mikey brings those vocals and that pounding bass that Van Halen always had, so you've got a hint of that in there. Chad [Smith] brings a hard rock/funk to this band that no one, I've never played with anybody like that. He makes our stuff so rhythmical and so funky almost, it's hard to describe that element. Maybe kind of Zeppelin-y because John Bonham kinda had that funky foot too, you know, they liked to get funky every now and then. It's really cool and its bringing out the R&B side of my voice believe it or not [laughs], but it isn't R&B music. I just can't explain it. It's just fucking great. You know, I'm just I'm waiting to get off the damn phone and go in there and go to work today! Hey, you know me, I'm a lazy bastard. I'd rather sit on the beach any day than work. You know, it's funny, for a lazy bastard you've made a few records in your time. When you look back at it, it's a pretty funny thing that you'd reference yourself that way. Well I just feel like I could do so much more if I got up at six in the morning every day, but I don't. And I could do so much more if I didn't like to go out and have a great dinner and a great bottle of wine in the evening and then I'm going, Man, I'm good for nothing! [laughs] So you add those two things up, I sleep late and I don't go to bed early but I stop working after the sun goes down. If I could just change that, Steven, I could change the world, man. I got so many ideas. You know, I love making songs. I built my own studio when I left Van Halen, so I've had the convenience of being able to, you know, make the song right; go in the studio anytime I want. That's why I've been pretty prolific. It's been pretty easy to walk downstairs and then I finally moved it out of my house and built a real studio and a real complex. It's just so inspiring to just walk in there with nothing to do and say, Oh, I'm bored, let's go in the studio and write some music. It's almost like that convenience makes you very prolific. I dunno why Eddie and Al aren't anymore, but they've got that setup and that's really where I got the idea from of having a place where you just walk out of one door into another and you're in a creative environment; it's pretty cool. I mainly write and record new songs at this stage of my life so that I can go out and play new music. Because otherwise, I love playing live, but I get bored with playing I Can't Drive 55, you know? Not if I have new songs to play around it, then it's a pleasure, but when you're sitting here and you only have the old stuff to play it makes you less motivated to wanna go play. But when you've got new songs you get excited andn you go, Man, I can't wait for the fans to hear this. You know, my fan base, they're real user friendly 'cause we've had so many great shows in Cabo where I play anything and everything I want. There's no set, no show, it's like, No, we're gonna play all this music, check it out, and they love it. So when I walk out onstage, Yeah, we're gonna play a half hour of some new ones, man, yeah, the place goes nuts, rather than everybody sitting up going, Nah, hey, we wanna hear 'One Way to Rock.' Long as I play they get to hear it all. The main thing is that that's really why I'm more prolific, and when I get horny to make new music it's really 'cause I'm going, Well, if I'm gonna go out and play some shows this year, I wanna have some new shit to play. Talking about new stuff, Sammy, the new record. You've touched on it before, you're an R&B guy, you're a blues guy, you're a funk guy, you're a rock guy, there's all these kinds of elements here. The title track is something pretty different for you, right? That world loop thing with David Kahne. Yeah, Cohen is actually the producer guy that really helped write and produce that thing. The Middle Eastern guy, whose name sounds like a regular name but he's an Iraqi musician. Obviously changed his name but, you know, Sting? Bono? [laughs] So this guy, he sent me this music and it was so inspiring, I said, Oh, this is so cool, 'cause I love to stretch but sometimes you run out of ideas. But this record, the whole thing in general, has covered every base right down to a song like Loud could've been on my Red album; Loud could have been on one of the Van Halen records. I did try to swing through all the little experimental things I've been doing over the last four or five years in my studio where, you know, I'm bored, I'll call my band up, the Wabos and say, Let's go in the studio; I've got this little idea, and, you know, write a song like 24365 or the blues thing with Billy Gibbons, Switch on the Light. You know, that's experimental stuff. I'm not trying to make a record like that when I record songs like that, I'm just saying, Hey, let's fuck around with this kind of a vibe. So I put the fuck around stuff on this record and it really kind of an eclectic thing and I liked it a lot.
"I'm getting inspired seeing what can be done."
I love Dreams, man. The acoustic approach really gets the listener thinking that's maybe how the record started when maybe you and Ed were working on it? It didn't start like that but the fact it ended like that is kinda what I've done with Right Now and Finish What Ya Started and Dreams. When I play the Van Halen stuff, my band is a complete jam band. We can go out and I can say at the last minute, Ok, we're gonna slow this song down. Onstage I can look at 'em and tap my foot and say, Ok, here's the tempo, and we're gonna change the key to D instead of E or whatever, and they just do it. In Cabo, at the Cabo Wabo, we've learned to just be free like that and do anything we want. It's free to get in so if you don't like it it's like, Hey, too bad, you don't get your money back! [laughs] Nah, but the fans dig it. So Dreams, we hadn't played that for five years since our keyboard player Jesse Harms left the band, 'cause it's a keyboard song. In the dressing room that night, on my birthday, I said, Vic, come on, play it acoustically, let's mess around here, and we worked it up and we went out onstage and did it. We'd just done a set with Ted Nugent, Toby Keith, Chad Smith; Michael Anthony and the Wabos were all onstage together, and at the end of the show I went into that. If you listen to Cabo Wabo, there's a bunch of people beatin' on stuff, it got way off and everything but we left it all in. But if you could've seen that moment where everyone had goose bumps. The audience didn't know what it was at first and then they started singing, it was just, whoa, goosebump-city and like, Wow, this is amazing. So that's the way I play it all the time now. But it was just strictly a, Hey man, let's strip this thing down. We did it intentionally with Right Now, and we did it with Finish What Ya Started. We broke it way down. To me, when you're gonna play the old Van Halen stuff after 15 years, getting up there in age now, I think it's cool to say, Let's take it somewhere else and see what these lyrics mean in this key. The reason I put it on the record, it's a horrible recording, you know, [laughs] but it was so magical with the whole audience singing. I could see Nuge's face, he's standing there saluting. He's at attention; he wasn't even at ease, man. He put his hand up to his head and saluted the audience during that whole performance [laughs]. Things like that are invaluable and you have to give that to the people. You touched on it earlier, Sammy. Did you learn anything from Ed maybe in terms of recording a guitar or soloing or going for a different tone? No, I learned plenty. I didn't learn on a technical basis about how to mike a guitar and stuff 'cause I leave that to engineers. I'm not a technical guy. I don't even wanna know how to mike a guitar, you know what I mean? If I don't have a guy that can do that for me then I just won't mike a guitar. I'll stick a mike up there if it doesn't sound good I'll just crank the guitar up. Turn it up so loud you won't need a microphone [laughs]. But the way Ed soloed and the way he approached chord progressions and positions for chordings. You know, the way he would use different strings and put the bass notes in a different place. I learned a lot from Ed. You know Ed, man, he's a great guitar player. Certainly in the early days he was so innovative that everyone ripped him off, so I shied away from that when he first came out. I would not do hammer-ons, I would not use the whammy bar. I mean, I would, sparsely, because I didn't wanna copy Ed. He was that distinctive. It was like, You're not gonna get away with this, you start copying a guy that was that distinct, you're gonna be busting yourself 'cause it's gonna be too obvious, you know? I never did it, but when I joined the band then I really got into it and studied it. I still don't play like that, but I do some of his chordings and I use some of his solo positions. I like the way he ended solos. I used to always try to end on the beat while Ed would give you a statement and the beat's not even over. It's very cool. It's more verbal, you know, the way he solos to me. Joe does the same thing. It's really weird. You know, he'll say a statement and he's done and I'm going, Oh, you can get one more note in there, but he's like, Yeah, but that's not what I'm trying to say. It's pretty cool. Psycho Vertigo, if I said that I heard a little bit of Ed in that solo would I be right or wrong? That's Neal Schon, so you might have, 'cause Neal loves Ed [laughs]. That was stupid. Neal Schon is one of the most underrated guitar players; I don't know why. You know, Journey is one of those bands that is so great and they did such great songs, but they were so commercially successful and kind of so outdated a lot of times with their hits that they didn't get respect, but they're amazing. Neal's an amazing guitar player, and that's him on there. Him and I wrote that song together for Planet Us, and that's Mikey on bass and Dean Castronovo on drums; on that song and Peephole, those two songs are very, very intense. I love those two songs. And that's one of the reasons I called this a solo record, a Sammy Hagar record instead of Sammy and the Wabos, because the Wabos are all over it but I had so many guest musicians like that, it would be unfair to call it the Wabos 'cause, you know, Neal and Mikey and Dean need credit for that. Was there a lot more music left in you and Ed if it hadn't fallen apart? Could it have gone to new places, new horizons? You know, maybe some of the stuff you've done here or the Chickenfoot stuff? Could Van Halen have conceivably gone in any of those directions? I think the writing relationship, the chemistry would've had to change. Because quite honestly, in case you haven't noticed, since I left the band they've only done one record. I don't wanna point the finger at anyone, but in order for a writing team to work one guy's gotta bring his stuff to the table and Ed wasn't really bringing anything. When I said, Hey, I'll do the reunion [2004], let's do a new record first, and everybody agreed 'till we got in the studio and Ed didn't have anything. We had to go through friggin' cassette tapes to find three old things that we'd already been through ten times on 5150 back then and we found those three things. I was trying to make a whole record and I found out shortly that just wasn't possible. I don't know why. You know, I can't say I know why but I just know they can't. You know, they've done a couple of greatest hits records, a couple of new songs on the greatest hits records with Roth and a couple with me and this and that, but I don't know why, because his brother lives down the street, he lives in the studio right there in his house, his son can play bass, ok, but he also has Mikey if he wanted, he has Sammy Hagar and David Lee Roth for singers if he wanted. If he was cool and called one of us up and said, Hey, let's make a record, I'd do it in a second.
"I mainly write and record new songs at this stage of my life so that I can go out and play new music."
Would you really? Oh, absolutely. I mean, not now 'cause I'm in the middle of this, but if I was just doing what I was doing the last 10 years I would've taken the time out. I did it! I did it for the reunion tour, you know, the Best of Both Worlds, which I thought was gonna be great. It wasn't as great as I wanted it to be but it was great on some levels. So I'm saying that I don't know if we could've went on. I think, quite honestly, I think it was kinda done. On the Gary Cherone record, the only record they've made in the last 13 or 14 years or whatever it's been, three or four of those songs were rejects from our last Balance record. You know, the music was. We started it, this and that, and it wasn't working. We always have four or five songs that we try or mess around with. To be honest with you I don't know. I don't think we could've done it unless, like I said, the chemistry changed and I came in with musical ideas and got Ed inspired and got him into it and he could help me write. Kinda like Joe and I have done a couple times on a couple things. Most of the time Joe brings his music and I write the lyrics, just like Van Halen, but a couple of songs I brought in and Joe got inspired and made them even better. If that chemistry was there, that would've been the only way I could see it working. I think it was over. I hate to be nasty here, but it's not being nasty because the truth of the matter is I think Van Halen, Van Hagar, you know, and obviously with Dave, you know, they haven't done a record. I think it kinda might be done. It's sad because Ed was so prolificwell, Ed was never extremely prolific but he was so capable, you know, as a musician, on the keyboards and on the guitar to come up with some shit, man. Certainly Mike has some feelings about not being involved in the last reunion. Well I think he was happy. Truth of the matter is he was hurt and crushed in one sense, but in another sense he was happy. After the Best of Both Worlds Van Hagar reunion, Mikey was tortured and tormented on that thing. Noboby gave him any love. I mean, Al was ok to him but Ed really wasn't a good guy to Mikey and Mikey deserves to be treated like a king. Anybody that shows up before everyone else, last guy to leave, and while he's there does an incredible perfect job of singing and playing night after night, day after day, should get all the respect in the world but for some reason it's not always like that. I dunno, it's weird. Eddie obviously wanted Wolfie in the band on that tour. You could tell. When I did the reunion with him Ed said, Well, I'm gonna get a new bass player, and I said, Well, then you gotta get a new singer too because if you think I'm gonna go out with you and Al without Mike you're fucking crazy. So I fought it, I quit before we even got started. I said, I'm done. So then their attorney calls my attorney and says, Hey, let's try to work this out. So finally Irving Azoff, who was my manager at the time, got involved and got it smoothed out. It really wasn't a fair deal for Mike but at the same time Mike did it and we got him in. So even back then I knew something was fishy, but I didn't think it was Wolfie [laughs]. You know, you wanna go get Jack Bruce or something. So you're working on this Chickefoot thing and we'll be hearing this thing soon and seeing you guys out on the road? Yeah, we gotta go live. Hey, that's the only reason why I make a record! So I can go out there and play the damn thing in front of people. So, you know, we're looking at maybe June. We just don't know if we wanna go out with a band like AC/DC or something and, you know, play big stadiums, or go to Europe and play stadiums. Or if we wanna just go out and do small arenas ourselves and just start off like that because we have the choice. Do you really? Man, we can do anything we want. Man, that must feel good. I feel like a kid again! You could open for Van Halen! Hey, you know what? It would be the smartest thing we ever did [laughs]. Could you imagine how that would be? 'Cause everyone would expect me to go out and jam with Dave. What people would imagine that to me, like everyone imagined the Sam & Dave tour and what I tried to do with that tour. When I drug Dave across the country on the Sam & Dave tour, it was done strictly to try to develop a relationship for a Van Halen Sam & Dave tour. But after going out with Dave I knew that thing was never gonna work out [laughs]. He won't jam; he won't cooperate. He goes out and does his little schtick and that's it. But Dave's alright, I'm not down on Dave. I think he did a pretty good job on his thing considering he's been out of it for so long. To come back on jump on it and do that, I was pretty proud of him. Interview by Steven Rosen Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2009
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