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Wolfgang Van Halen Builds His Own Legacy

Mammoth WVH

Up a difficult-to-see road, branching off one of the busiest roadways that cuts through Beverly Hills to the San Fernando Valley, is one of the most famous numbers in all of hard rock: 5150. The studio—accessible by navigating several corners of a curvy, gravelly road—sits behind a gate that’s carefully monitored. For the average person, it’s extremely difficult to find—and with good reason: quiet please, genius working. For Wolfgang Van Halen, this is home.

In a single-story gray building sits the house that Eddie Van Halen built—and it still feels that way. Beginning with 1984, every Van Halen album has been recorded in this space. Though the mixing console needs to be overhauled (“Damn ’90s technology,” says Matt Bruck, the co-manager of Eddie’s line of guitars, EVH Gear, as we walk into the live room), the elder Van Halen’s spirit is eerily present. The legendary guitarist’s instruments sit high on the wall by the mixing console, and walking into the live room, relics of Van Halen’s past are scattered throughout. There are instrument cases, drums, empty boxes, old setlists and notes on songs to practice nearly a decade old taped on the wall—and a whole lot of history.

It’s also where the second generation of Van Halen music was created.

For all of the shit that Wolfgang Van Halen (known to his pals as Wolfie) has taken since 2007, when he replaced Michael Anthony on bass in the band that bears his last name, he’s managed to remain even-keeled—facing scorn from bitter fans who have unleashed harsh insults his way since he was barely able to drive. 

Even before joining his father and Uncle Alex on the road with David Lee Roth (each of whom declined to comment for this story), young Wolfgang has been in the public spotlight. His birth was honored in an instrumental song on Van Halen’s 1991 album For Unlawful Carnage Knowledge, and growing up with his father and equally famous mother, actress Valerie Bertinelli, thrust him unknowingly into the public eye the day he was born. In 2007, the then-16-year-old Van Halen became the center of attention for what he wasn’t rather than what he was. 

Van Halen heard it all—and still does—from angry fans, and it doesn’t phase him. At a time when internet trolls and social media have ruined lives, Van Halen has not only managed to keep a level head but literally laughs off the angry messages from his father’s boomer fan base.

Yet if these people are willing to put their ridiculous grudges aside, they’ll hear and see a wildly talented musician—one whose path and skills have been carved out on his own terms, despite the weight of his family name and even in the face of tragedy.

The Rising Son Michele Eve Sandberg/Corbis via Getty Images

Wolfgang Van Halen was born on March 16, 1991. The instant bond between father and son was unbreakable. Wolfie always came first to Eddie and Valerie. Despite their busy work schedules, they always attended soccer games and were around for him, no questions asked, like great parents often are. He attended an elite Los Angeles private school with fellow celebrity offspring—even if he admittedly wasn’t the best student.

Even so, his love for music has always been strong. “I could see [Wolfgang’s] love of music when he was still in diapers, and you can see a glimpse of it in the ‘Distance’ video,” Bertinelli told SPIN. “He was always fascinated by all the musical instruments lying around the house and in 5150. And Ed was more than happy to encourage the talent he saw in Wolfie.”

Sitting on a stool in the middle of the tracking room clad in an all-black ensemble, sporting an unkempt quarantine beard and hair tied in the back, Van Halen is the guy you definitely want on your side. Fiercely loyal to his family and built like an offensive lineman, Van Halen isn’t afraid of backing down from an argument, even if he’s a teddy bear at heart. Just ask the legions of foils he’s defeated on social media what it’s like to feel his wrath.

As his parents’ marriage fell apart, the teenaged Van Halen also witnessed his father’s public battle with addiction and erratic behavior. By 2006, he helped his dad get help. Once the older Van Halen was ready, there was discussion of getting the band back together for the first time since their ill-fated 2004 reunion tour with Hagar. There was one issue—who was going to play bass? Ed’s suggestion? His son.

“Looking cynically on paper, as a kid replacing a longtime member, it’s like…yeah, you should hate me,” he says, fidgeting with a guitar pick. “It’s a lot more nuanced than that. It’s not like my dad was like, ‘Fuck you, get out of here.’ My dad wasn’t going through a good time, and Mike was having a good time playing with Sam. Sam wasn’t in the band. Sure, it’s a little dicey and complicated, but he really wasn’t a part of it anymore. I completely understand that he wouldn’t want to be around my dad when he was like that. It was never like I went to my dad and said [in a cagey movie villain voice] ‘I should be playing bass.’ At that point, I just wanted to keep my dad alive.”

“Wolfgang breathes new life into what we’re doing,” the older Van Halen raved to Guitar World in December 2006. “He brings youthfulness to something that’s inherently youthful. He’s only been playing bass for three months, but it’s spooky. He’s locked tight and puts an incredible spin on our shit. The kid is kicking my ass! He’s spanking me now, even though I never spanked him. To have my son follow in my footsteps on his own, without me pushing him into it, is the greatest feeling in the world.”

At their 2007 press conference in Beverly Hills, Eddie justified selecting Wolfie, saying that, after all, the band’s name is Van Halen.

The rebooted Van Halen returned later that year to rave live reviews, and they hit the studio in 2009 after that tour ended. Six producers and three years later, Van Halen released 2012’s A Different Kind of Truth and toured behind it just as the youngest member was legally allowed to consume alcohol.

Playing songs with his father, uncle and their longtime frenemy was great, but Van Halen had other aspirations: his own music.

The Rising Son Daniel Kohn

Van Halen had started talking about his own solo material as far back as 2015, but he’d been working on it long before that.

Prior to rehearsals for the Van Halen’s 2015 tour (ultimately their final run), Wolfgang had quietly begun recording his songs and quickly knocked out seven. When he wasn’t with the band, he traveled to North Hollywood and recorded an additional seven half-formed tracks.

While on tour, he ended up writing an additional 12 songs on top of the 14 he previously laid down—including one that eventually became his first hit. Confident, Wolfie called producer Michael “Elvis” Baskette and told him it was “go” time. The duo headed up to 5150, where they spent the better part of the next few years meticulously working on a then-unnamed Wolfie Van Halen project.

Singing and playing every instrument, Wolfie created his own style—a “swirly soup” of AC/DC, Foo Fighters, Nine Inch Nails, Tool (speaking of which, who can forget this?), Jimmy Eat World, Alice in Chains and Queens of the Stone Age. (And of course, a splash of Van Halen because, you know, there’s that thing about genetics.)

“Foo Fighters and Jimmy Eat World—in particular Futures, Bleed American and Clarity—are the main ingredients,” he says.

By July 2018, one final recording trip in Florida later, they put the finishing touches on the album. He was finally about to escape from the lengthy shadow of the past decade, away from the Van Halen fans who doubted his musicianship. But instead of hitting the ground running, pushing out a release that received some online hype, Van Halen decided to take time off as his father’s health took a sharp turn for the worse.

“It was like, ‘Do you want to tour for 18 months, or do you want to spend three years with your dad?’ It was an easy decision.”

At this point, the album was done. Wolfie’s father had heard it in its entirety, offering his seal of approval. Given the two’s close relationship, Eddie beamed from ear to ear with pride at what his son created, knowing all 28 songs that he worked on. Every time he’d hear it, Eddie would tell Wolfie that it was his favorite album.

The Rising Son Daniel Knighton/Getty Images

Back in 2019, the odds of another Van Halen tour looked slim. Roth had moved forward to play a Vegas residency with his own band, open for KISS and start his own tattoo cream; during an interview that September, he said that Van Halen were “finished.” That news came as a blow for fans, given the recent rumblings of a “kitchen sink” trek featuring every former Van Halen member, including Anthony and one-and-done singer Gary Cherone. The project was Wolfgang’s idea, and it seemed like a great way to say farewell to one of rock’s greatest bands. 

But that moment never arrived.

In October 2020, on the day Wolfie had been bracing for, he sat at his father’s bedside at a Santa Monica hospital and watched him die from cancer at age 65.

Minutes after his father’s death, Wolfgang, surrounded by his mother and his stepmother, got a call from the band’s manager Irving Azoff. He alerted them that someone at the hospital leaked the news of Eddie’s death to TMZ, who was about to post it within the next few minutes. Appalled, Van Halen knew he had to do something—anything—to prevent the tabloid site from breaking the news.

“I’m in the [hospital] room,” he remembers, “and I’m literally sobbing, and I have to go through my phone to find a picture of him. I landed on my favorite picture of him where we were just sitting there, laughing. Hitting post [on Instagram] was one of the most painful things. It made it real.”

The best way to pay tribute to his father was to look at the past. In 1973, Alex, Eddie (who handled vocal duties at the time) and bassist Mark Stone formed Mammoth in their Los Angeles-area home neighborhood of Pasadena. Van Halen thought he’d honor his family’s past by naming his own project Mammoth, adding his own initials, WVH, to differentiate it.

Under the Mammoth WVH moniker, a month after his father’s death, Van Halen released his first solo song: “Distance,” about exploring what life would be like when he was alone. The result was beyond what he expected. The single (and its tear-jerking video, which compiled intimate footage of Eddie, Valerie and Wolfie as a kid) hit fans hard. But it also showed how strong the force was with young Van Halen. The track became a hit, topping the Mainstream Rock Airplay and Hot Hard Rock Songs charts.

“I mean, I thought people would check it out, just considering everything…I mean, that’s not why I put it out,” he explains, his voice getting quieter. “I put it out because I love my dad. I’m just glad that song resonated in the way I hoped. It’s heartbreaking but also incredible to see, in somebody’s worst moments of their life, that I can at least give them some sort of emotion that isn’t sorrow.”

Culling through the video footage with his mother and Uncle Patrick (Valerie’s brother) was difficult. The first time he saw the final product, Van Halen had to hand his phone to his girlfriend, overcome with emotion. To this day, he can’t bring himself to watch it. There are also hours of footage that still need to be digitized.

The universal acclaim he earned from “Distance” was a major turning point. But the reception of his later singles was even more proof of his staying power.

“The thing that made me go like ‘Oh, shit, people are actually listening’ is to see the ‘Don’t Back Down’ video hit over a million [views],” he says. “It’s one thing the ‘Distance’ thing because you know for fans of my dad, it was a place to grieve as the comments are incredibly sweet and heartbreaking. It really feels a bit more real now to see something…maybe in a year it’ll hit a million.”

It took a week.

Following the success of “Distance,” Wolfie made the rounds, doing media and making TV appearances in the face of great adversity…and, ultimately, great success. He spoke with us and deservedly earned a spot on our list of 2020’s most interesting artists. Van Halen never claimed he was resuscitating or reviving Van Halen. He’s done just the opposite: moving forward with his own material and creating his own artistic identity. 

Van Halen also realized pretty quickly, even as he was finding solo success, that the haters would never be satisfied. He smiles and shakes his head, thinking about it.

“There’s always a bunch of people who were like, ‘I wonder if he’s ever going to do an interview where he doesn’t talk about Daddy.’ And it’s like, you realize they’re asking me these questions, right?” he says, incredulously. “It’s not like I’m going and saying ‘Hi, nice to meet you; you know who my dad is, right?’ It demonstrates the simplicity that brains operate at where they just want to hate.”

Wolfie is having the last laugh. He’s making the music he wants; it’s helping him cope…and making him happy. Also, as he notes, there’s nothing better than silent success to silence the haters.

The Rising Son

With the Mammoth WVH album finally out on June 11, Van Halen’s new chapter is just beginning. Few, if any, musicians will ever have the career he’s had…and for some, it’s hard to imagine he’s finally going out on his own. 

“I couldn’t be prouder of Wolfie,” Bertinelli says. “He has been through so much, and, I mean, I know I’m his mother, so there is prejudice there, but I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say he is a phenomenally gifted musician and songwriter in his own right. He works so hard. It’s really nice to see him carve out a place for himself and have other people enjoy his music as much as Ed and I have.”

When touring resumes in July, Van Halen will unveil the live version of Mammoth WVH…in a setting he’s very familiar with. The stage group (which includes bassist Ronnie Ficarro, guitarist Jon Jourdan, guitarist Frank Sidoris and drummer Garret Whitlock) will make their debut opening for Guns N’ Roses on their upcoming stadium tour and play a slew of festival dates this fall.

Van Halen’s famous last name may have opened doors, the recent string of success wouldn’t have happened without his own talent and dedication. A name itself doesn’t keep an artist around, no matter how deep their familial roots run.

“It’s exciting to be able to finally be my own person,” he says. “I would love people to get into me and be like, ‘Oh, shit, that’s his dad’ instead of it being like ‘Oh, it’s his son. That would be the ultimate compliment.”