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Wolfgang Van Halen: ‘It is Really Important That I Play My Own Music”

“I could play Van Halen covers for the rest of my life, but I think that would be really lame,” says the 29-year-old musician

Nirmika Singh Jan 31, 2021

'There's a huge shadow that I'm under, with my name.'

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The complex genetics of musical genius aside, it’s certain that creative intellect can be passed on in an empowering environment. When I ask Wolfgang Van Halen to explain what might be the secret to how two creative brains interact – especially in relation to his illustrious family — he says it’s “almost like a psychic connection.” It’s hard to explain, really. “There’ll be moments on stage where maybe one of us miscounts or something and the other fill in that space. And the audience has no idea what happens… that they’ll never know. Sometimes with shows, like, you’ll think you had the worst show ever, and somebody comes up and is like, ‘Oh, man, that show was amazing.’ But yeah, it’s just an unspoken type of thing,” says the 29-year-old musician.

Sitting across from me on a Zoom call, Wolfgang is a picture of fortitude and optimism as well discuss his recent projects and the unparalleled legacy of his father, Eddie Van Halen, who passed away last October. Being the son of an iconic rocker can be a bit of a tricky thing but Wolfgang is certain he won’t succumb to undue pressure to be somebody he is not. “I get a lot of questions on social media like what, are you gonna play Van Halen songs?…But I would rather fail with my own music than succeed by playing my father’s.”

His latest single “Distance,” as much as it is an emotive tribute to his dad, is a testament to Wolfgang’s own unique, evolved artistry. He was only 16 when he joined Van Halen, replacing bassist Michael Anthony who had been part of the band for over three decades. Deeply influenced by his dad’s music as well as artists such as Trent Reznor and Dave Grohl, Wolfgang played with the band till it dissolved after the tragedy. His new band, Mammoth, marks a new beginning for the young musician, and also charts a novel legacy for the Van Halen sound.

In this candid, heartwarming interview, Wolfgang tells us everything about his new project and more.

What are your hopes for the upcoming album right now? A lot has been spoken about and written about “Distance” is such a great tribute to your dad and his legacy. But what are you looking forward to the most as a solo artist?
The biggest thing I’m looking forward to is being able to be my own artist. And, there’s a huge shadow that I’m under, with my name. There’s a line that my dad said, that I really liked, from some interviews where he said, ‘I’d rather I’d rather bomb with my own music than succeed with someone else’s.’ And that resonates with me, to a, to an incredible level, especially because my own father was the one who said that.

I get a lot of questions on social media, like, ‘Are you going to play Van Halen songs?’, ‘Are you going to do this?’ And I’m like, no, my dad would be disappointed in me, first of all, because he would be mad, he’d be like, play your own stuff. So I think it’s really important that I stand on my own, and play my own music, and have people judge me for that, because I would rather, I would rather fail with my own music than succeed by playing my father’s

 Absolutely beautiful! And as an artist you straddle a very unique sort of fence between what it meant to be an old school musician, coming from that breed where you had to play a lot of gigs, go up the rung and build a live audience. But the other side being a millennial musician, where you can play your material from your bedroom, and can still amass like, worldwide following. Do you feel you are at this cusp?
Yeah, I think this era is definitely an exciting, exciting time for an artist and for listeners because they can, they can really hone in and find anything that they want. So it’s really exciting — whenever I’m on social media — to see where all these people are from, who are actually interested in hearing my music and stuff like that. So it’s, I’m really excited to build upon this because we’re in the really early stages of this [project]. And, I’m excited to think where, where this project will be a couple of years down the line.

Through your artistry, you have also helped a lot of other people fulfill their artistic dreams. I’m sure your dad’s as well, when he wanted you to play with him. Similarly with Mammoth. You’ve been able to do it in a way that it didn’t seem, that you were being patronizing or anything. It felt it was honest, how do you feel about that, that you were sort of conduit for it?
Yeah, I don’t know. It’s this whole experience. My whole musical career has been such a whirlwind. But I mean, with Mammoth, it was important for me to touch on the legacy but not tread the same ground. And I think by calling it growing up — I always love the name Mammoth. When my dad would tell me the band before Van Halen was Mammoth, that it was a three-piece — it’s really cool. So growing up, I was always like, when I grow up, I want to call my own band Mammoth. And now that we’re here, it’s pretty crazy and exciting. Because I think it nods to the family history, but they never recorded anything as Mammoth. They were never that band publicly for the most part, like in terms of a recording artist. So I think it’s a special nod to history but it’s a different path I’m taking.

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Playing with your dad — what were some of the most real or practical learnings you had as a musician?
One of my favorite things, it’s kind of a joke, but it also just a fun thing because his father told him. I guess my grandfather told my father that if you ever make a mistake when you’re playing live, do it twice? So the audience, I think, to do it. I do that very often onstage.

As a musician, was your dad very forgiving too? How was the chemistry there, inside the studio?
It was unspoken. But at least between Al my uncle, and my father and I – it was just about how much we play. And we played so much that it was just a part of our muscle memory at that point. So it was just kind of an unspoken bond between the three of us that I don’t think I’ll ever experience with, with anybody for the rest of my life. So I really treasure that.

 And I’m sure it’s very difficult for creative people to be able to explain that unspoken connection, right? How does it happen? Is it just the environment? I mean, if you were to explain to the people about that sort of, engagement…
I think the fact that we’re, related, and, and it’s just kind of this thing, where it’s almost like a, like a psychic connection; you don’t even have to talk. There’ll be moments on stage where maybe one of us miscounts or something and the other fill in that space. And the audience has no idea what happens… that they’ll never know. Sometimes with shows, like, you’ll think you had the worst show ever, and somebody comes up and is like, ‘Oh, man, that show was amazing.’ But yeah, it’s just an unspoken type of thing. It is really is hard to explain.

Recently, you also went on record saying that this is not the right time for you to be, releasing stuff from the vault. And it’s not something that people should be looking forward to. Do you want to release it to the public or cherish it as a personal treasure?
Well, I think what I put out – “Distance” — was kind of that celebration story for his life and for the person that he was. And the proceeds went to his favorite charity. I think when you see an influential artists pass, there’s always like, immediate, unreleased stuff from the vaults to take advantage of, and it’s like, they wouldn’t be cool with that.

If I would ever do anything like that, I would want to take a very long time and go through things that would be good, because in his opinion, I’m sure there are plenty of amazing things in the vault. But, my father released the stuff that he was happy with. So, to a certain extent, it’s in there for a reason. But considering how amazing my father was as a musician and a songwriter, I know there’s incredible stuff in there. And it’s a matter of time, but it will happen just not anytime soon. It’s not the time.

Absolutely. Also, I’m just curious to know what your relationship is with, people that your dad was close to musically? How does that translate and move across generations?
Yeah, I think considering how close people were with my father, either by just listening or friendship, I think people have a lot of ownership of me in a positive way. They kind of view me as their kid, even though I’m, I’m practically 30 and it’s a different way than I thought, I never expected so many people to welcome me so openly. There’s always going to be negative people, but this has been a way more positive experience than I ever could have imagined.

I think it’s a cool thing that only artists get to experience. Such a precious, rare thing…
Yeah, no, it really is. I don’t know, I’m just really thankful that those people are giving me a chance. Because it’s just really important. For me, it’s one thing for people to be interested in it, but after hearing it and people actually wanting to hear more it is a huge thing. So I’m really excited for people to hear more of the project and stuff because I think they’ll enjoy it.

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Do you say that because you don’t want any sense of entitlement to people’s attention right now?
Unfortunately, it’s a double-edged sword with my name; people are going to pay attention either way. But I, I think there’s a difference between, it’s like, well, there’s nothing I can do about what my name does. It does open doors. Luckily, I’m in a very lucky position. But I think it doesn’t, it doesn’t keep the door open. I think you have to prove yourself in order to keep that door open. Otherwise, you’ll fizzle and disappear. So I guess it’s just a matter of time to tell if I have the goods or not. But my father believed in me. And that’s in the end. That’s all I really need. Because he believed in me.

Great. Did you often find yourself sort of justifying or explaining what you just said right now? And I am that am continuing to talk about the legacy and how you have to be seen as your own.
I need to make it really clear because a lot of people out there just can’t seem to understand why I wouldn’t want to play. And I think it’d be really lazy, right? I could, I could just do nothing but play Van Halen covers for the rest of my life, but I think that would be that’d be really lame.

Yeah…
I owe it to him to be my own musician. More than anything.

Tell me more about your music and the new album, if you could just take us through the sonic scape?
Overall, it’s more of rock to a hard rock type album. But I think if you just enjoy music in general, you’ll find something to enjoy on it. I think “Distance” in terms of that sound, it’s a bit softer, kind of an outlier, but I think there is that vibe on the album. There’s a whole bunch of different vibes. But overall, it’s something I’m really proud of, and can’t wait for people to hear.

Brilliant! So it’s going to be out soon. Are you already working on your future material after this album?
Oh, yeah, I mean, I recorded 28 songs for the first time. There are a lot of ideas that weren’t 100 percent finished. So I’m sure those ideas will show up on the next album; they certainly won’t take as long.

 In the years to come, what kind of sonic legacy would you like to create, a sound that you’d like people to remember you by?
I guess I’m currently doing that to a certain extent, because my father would want me to be my own musician. This [the album] is purely me in every way. I mean I’m playing everything. I wrote everything. So hopefully down the line, this is what people know me as instead of the Van Halen kid.

Right. And who are you listening to these days; any favorite bands?
I haven’t really had much of an opportunity to because I’ve been so focused on finishing my stuff. But I really liked the new Tool album. Foo Fighters and Nine Inch Nails were big inspirations because they started with one guy and it kind of evolved from there. So I placed those two guys (Dave Grohl and Trent Reznor]) very high up for me in terms of inspiring the Mammoth WVH project for sure.

What advice would you give to budding musicians?
I think my father’s advice, which is: just keep playing. Just keep playing! Because as long as you’re enjoying that, that’s all that matters! And it’ll all come.

Personally, have you emotionally turned to play a lot more of the Van Halen repertoire lately, since your dad passed?
It’s a bit tough emotionally, I think for me to do that yet. So I’ve pretty much just been kind of focusing on myself, for the most part, but I know at some point, I’ll probably fall down that hole eventually.

And between focusing on your project right now and giving it all your attention, you also have to be the son at home at this time, taking care of your mom. How has that process been?
Yeah, it’s been nice to kind of focus on family and, and to focus on my own mental health instead of worrying about so much else. But this [project] has been nice the past month. I’s been a welcome distraction for sure to kind of focus on some other things because the second everything goes away that’s when my brain usually starts to go crazy. Right?

I wish you all the very best with your music. It has empowered the people that have heard it so far.
Thank you so much.

 

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