On a brisk December afternoon, Wolfgang Van Halen is weary but in good spirits. The admitted late riser is sitting in 5150, the studio home of Van Halen [the band] since 1983, nursing a coffee amidst the construction taking place around us.
Wolfgang leans carefully on the studio’s console, wrapped in plastic. He’s in the process of updating the legendary space with longtime studio manager Matt Bruck and his producer, Michael “Elvis” Baskette.
Towards the end of our chat, I get a notification on my phone that I knew would get his attention. In the thick of Hanukkah, Dave Grohl and Greg Kurstin have been plowing through their Hanukkah Session covers — and today’s selection? None other than Van Halen’s “Jump.” After I fumble with my phone for a second to get some semblance of service (we are perched in the hills, after all), Van Halen beams while watching the clip, laughing heartedly when he sees Grohl (who also happens to be one of his musical heroes) and Kurstin do their best imitations of David Lee Roth and his father, Eddie Van Halen. Considering he’d been observing the Hanukkah Sessions as a fan, he was as surprised as anyone to see them tackle a signature Van Halen signature song.
“I love how they get it done with just the two of them,” he remarks after watching the whole thing. “Just drums and keyboard. That was really really fucking cool.”
You know what else is impressive? How Van Halen, facing the tragedy of losing his father, unleashed a 14-song collection of energetic hard rock under the Mammoth WVH moniker — easily one of 2021’s best rock albums. When we spoke in April, he was cautiously optimistic, but now he can see tangible success playing out with raucous crowds at his shows. And “Distance,” the heart-wrenching song released a month after his father’s death, was nominated for Best Rock Song at the 2022 Grammys.
Add to that an upcoming co-headlining tour with Dirty Honey, followed by a jaunt in Europe opening for the Scorpions and KISS, and Van Halen already has a stacked 2022.
But he isn’t coasting on his solo debut’s massive success. In our chat, Van Halen looked back at his unlikely success in 2021, some of his favorite moments from the year, and why it was all just the beginning.
SPIN: So, overall, not a bad year for you, eh?
Wolfgang Van Halen: Yeah, it’s been pretty crazy. I’ve been viewing it as this phoenix rising out of the ashes of garbage and some of the worst times of my life in many different respects. Just the state of the world and losing pop and trying to, like, emotionally navigate life in a totally new way. But yeah, a lot of exciting and amazing things have happened.
Like an album being released, for example…
After a long time of waiting [Laughs].
It wasn’t quite your Chinese Democracy, but it was five years making.
It doesn’t stop people from saying it. Dude, non-stop I got the Chinese Democracy joke over and over and over again.
Who did you get it from? There were some mitigating circumstances delaying the release…
There were certain people who would say “Oh, man, we were just trying to pull it out of you. And it’s like, “No, you were just being an asshole.”
That’s also why you’re still the king of shutting down people on social media.
I’ve taken a little break from it lately. It’s been nice to take a step back from socials because it’s kind of an active thing. When I’m, when I’m touring, that’s when I’m really on it. It’s fun to do a little Q&A and stuff like that. And if anyone’s like a dipshit, it’s easy to make fun of.
Those seem to get the most engagement when you hit back at people.
So many people are like, “Don’t pay attention to this.” And it’s like, you don’t pay attention to this. Everybody pays more attention to stuff when I do that, so I think people like it. It’s nice to give people a taste of their own medicine, as childish as that is. Because if somebody says something shitty, all I have to do is retweet it or just say a little joke to it.
Once the album was released in June, though, you had only a couple of weeks to rehearse before you hit the road with Guns N’ Roses. What was that first proper opening show like in Pennsylvania?
We had done two practice shows beforehand, one in Kansas and one in Chicago. In a way, it felt a little more comfortable considering my history with Van Halen. It’s when you’re in a club and can count every single person in front of you that I get nervous.
What was it like in Kansas, then?
Any of my band members will tell you that I was hyperventilating. There were a lot of things riding on it. It was the first Mammoth show. It was the first time I was a lead singer. I was just sitting in the corner, and then Frank [Sidoris] would be like, “Dude, are you OK?” I’d be like “Yeah, I’m fine.” Then just go back to freaking out because like, nothing would chill me out until we just got up and did it. It was nerve-racking as all hell, but we got through it. And once you rip that Band-Aid off, it just becomes easier and easier.
What about the first GNR show?
I think the craziest part about that is by the time we went on stage for Hershey, it was about already 80% capacity shit, which is insane for the opening act. If that was the first show, then I really would have freaked out. But now that we were getting into it. I think it went much better. I’ve always heard Guns N’ Roses is tough. Not every Guns fan likes the bands that are opening for Guns. They even told that to us. But, they said, “We have not seen such an amazing response from an opener in like 19 years.” I think the craziest thing was after we played the show and Guns were about to go on, we went back to front of house to watch the beginning of the show. And as we walked out, people started to recognize us and started cheering like it was fucking graduation. And it was like literally like those stories where you go like, “And then everyone clapped.” And you’re like, “Yeah, sure, bullshit.” But that’s really what was happening.
You seem so easygoing that lasting the whole tour seemed like it wasn’t that difficult.
It wasn’t until I think it was like the Live Nation head or whatever said that there haven’t been many openers that have lasted an entire tour. Axl was really so kind. You could really tell during that last show, where he invited the whole band up, and then they wanted me to play “Paradise City” with them for the two nights, which is crazy. I want to frame that picture of my band and Guns bowing together. It was such a cool experience.
How did that come about?
It was Axl’s guy. He was like, “Hey, Axl wants you to come and play ‘Paradise City,’ and do the bow for the last two nights.” And I was like, “Holy shit, I have to learn ‘Paradise City.'” Luckily, I have a guy in my band who has been playing “Paradise City” with Slash for a very long time, Frank Sidoris. So he sat there and taught me every little thing. And then I took it upon myself to just play it every day like people were getting sick of it [Laughs]. It was the only thing I played when I had a guitar in my hands on the bus because I wanted it to be fucking perfect. It wasn’t right until we started that Duff was like, “Hey, come, come sing!” You know, come sing the backups. I was like, Oh, shit, I gotta do backups. All of a sudden, I just started singing like this high part that I had always heard on the song. And at the end of it, Duff said, “Hey, you did the high harmony. We forgot about that shit. Good job.” I was like, “Oh, OK, cool. I did something good.”
What was another memorable show?
Shaky Knees [Festival] in Atlanta. It was the first time I’d ever seen a mosh pit during our set. At first, it felt ironic like they were doing it to make fun of me at first because that’s how just the other side of my brain works. Like people are always making fun of you. But they were really enjoying themselves. It was hilarious and fun. And people were crowd surfing. It was like I’d never seen that type of shit for our music before.
Have you been writing any new material?
I’ve been writing a little bit. I found myself in a creative rut ever since the pandemic and pop. Like early on in the pandemic, like March, April, I was like, “Ooh, I’m gonna write so much.” And I think I wrote about five ideas that I was happy with. And then just stopped. And then just depression took over, and then it became the worst year of my life. Honestly, in a really funny way, [the writing spark] sort of came back after the Grammy nomination. When I got nominated, I was just like, “That’s a huge thing of respect that it’s a rock song and it’s for my songwriting.” So it gave me a little kick in my step. I’ve actually been writing a bit more and have come up with a couple of ideas. Elvis is coming up here this month so that hopefully next year, whenever we can carve out some time, we can get the train rolling on Mammoth Two.
I see what you did there.
That’s just the working title and what I’ve been referring to it as, considering there’ll probably be some ideas that I wrote and/or recorded because there’s a lot leftover from the first album. So I think thematically it’ll be very similar in a way.
So outside of getting your suit ready for January, are you excited to hit the road with Dirty Honey?
I know that the Grammys are on the 31st. And my manager Tim was like, “We’re going,” so it’s like, “I don’t know how that’s gonna work with routing, but I think we’ll figure it out if we have to fly in.”
So it was really that unexpected?
Oh, yeah. I certainly would never plan for a Grammy nomination, but we’re gonna figure it out because [my manager] said we’ve got to be there. You never know when it’s gonna come up again.
When is there going to be time to even record?
I have no idea. Hopefully whenever that ends up being.
Last year you told me that it wouldn’t be until at least another decade until you went through your father’s archives, and you weren’t kidding.
Like I said, a monumental effort that needs to have its proper time dedicated to which, you know, it’ll happen eventually. But as I said, don’t plan on it. Don’t wait for it.
Are you going to Vegas at all?
Not anytime soon…I’m just focused on this [updating 5150 and getting ready to tour].
Isn’t your uncle playing with Dave at his final shows?
I don’t think so…
Isn’t that what Dave said?
Yeah, I know. I don’t know about that [Laughs].
I figured I’d go as close to the source to ask…
Well, I’m not talking for Al [Alex Van Halen] or anything, but I haven’t heard. I haven’t talked to Al about it, but I mean, that doesn’t really seem like something Al would do.
That’s why it seemed…unusual?
The thing with Van Halen that people should have learned right now is that if it doesn’t come from them, it’s not true. And Al has not made any public statements about this. So I wouldn’t expect it. If he didn’t say it, it’s probably not true. People love to talk about dad and the way he ran the band, but that’s not really true. Al’s the kind of the one who was in charge and in the way that the band publicly sort of related.
So are new songs in ’23 looking possible?
That’s the hope!