Guitar god Eddie Van Halen has sold millions of albums with his eponymous band, performed with legends such as Michael Jackson and won accolades galore, including Grammys and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Not bad for a guy who came to America as a child not speaking a word of English.
Mr. Van Halen and his band are about to hit the road again, this time to support their first live album with singer David Lee Roth, “Tokyo Dome in Concert.” The Dutch-American legend speaks about how family and music saved him, reuniting with Mr. Roth and his recent Smithsonian honors as part of the “What It Means To Be American” series.
Question: What did the honor from the Smithsonian mean to you?
Answer: It is probably one of the biggest honors you can get. It is bigger than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or a Grammy or anything you can win. This is the history of the country.
To be recognized as a someone who has contributed to American music, especially being an immigrant, is a hell of an honor.
Q: You spoke as part of the “What It Means To Be American” series. What does being American mean to you?
A: Obviously freedom. That is the biggest. I still think this is the one country in the world where you can pursue your dream and accomplish what you set out to do.
Q: When you came to America as a Dutch immigrant, did you face hardship?
A: Oh, yeah. We came here with 75 gilders, which is the equivalent of about 50 bucks. We brought the piano with us, and that was all we had. I was in second grade when we came here.
My mother and father couldn’t speak English. Neither could Alex or I. Believe it or not, the elementary school we went to was still segregated. So because we couldn’t speak English, they lumped me in with the black kids. It was actually the white kids who were mean. They used to rip up my homework papers. They bullied me on the playground. The black kids stood up for me. My first friends were black.
My dad was a professional musician, and he ended up having to wash dishes and work as a janitor. My mom was a maid. I’ll never forget, we used to help my dad wax floors at the Masonic Temple in Pasadena. [I] learned how to use one of those floor waxers [and] helped my mom clean houses. But what saved us was music.
Q: Did the hardship inspire you to work harder at music?
A: I would exactly put it that way. I would have to say it made the family unit so tight. We had to stick together in order to survive. The common thread in that was music.
Alex and I were already playing piano. As we got a little older, we started playing drums and guitar. We used to play gigs with my dad. Everything from weddings to bar mitzvahs and oomph music. It wasn’t that the hardships made us work harder on our craft as much as it was a necessity just to pay the rent. When we first got here, we lived in a house with three other families. My family lived in one room. My dad used to have to walk 6 miles to Arcadia Methodist to wash dishes. We used to go dumpster-diving for scrap metal, then go to the scrap yard and sell the metal we found.
Q: Do you consider yourself the embodiment of the American dream?
A: If that is not the classic American dream, I don’t know what is. I have to hand it to my dad for having the balls, at the age of 42, to sell everything, pack his bags and come to a whole new country.
Q: That leap of faith paid off.
A: The thing is, we didn’t know any better. You just did what you had to do. It wasn’t like we looked at other people and said, “How come we don’t have what they have?” We just focused on what we had to do.
Q: How many guitars did you donate to the Smithsonian?
A: I donated the most important ones.
Originally, before I did this event, I donated my red, black and white striped guitar. When I did this event, I donated the black and white guitar that was on the first album. And “Wolfgang,” which is what I play now. And the 5153 amp and 412 cabinet.
Q: Now that rock ‘n’ roll is in the Smithsonian, does that mean it has become respected?
A: I wouldn’t say that. Music is just part of our culture. Whether it is rebellious or acceptable or not I think is irrelevant. I think it is just part of life. To me, it is the universal language that transcends any barriers.
Q: Are you excited to get back on the road?
A: Yeah! We are going out in July. We just did Jimmy Kimmel and the Ellen show. All of a sudden, [David Lee Roth] wants to do the live stuff. We said, “OK, great!” He never wanted to do it before.
Q: You just released Van Halen’s first live record with Dave, “Tokyo Dome in Concert.”
A: We were trying to figure out what to do since we didn’t have time to put a studio record together.
[My son Wolfgang] is working on his own project. Dave is off doing his thing. What I originally wanted to do was remix the original 25 song demos. That would have been really cool. But the tapes are lost. They are gone. So that was out the window.
Then we started digging through bootlegs from the club days. We tried our best to make those sound good, but ultimately it wasn’t good enough to put out. The quality of the recording was so bad that we tried to enhance them and make them better. Once we made them better, you lost that fly-on-the-wall aspect of it. It just didn’t jive. So we decided, “How about a live record?”
Q: What was special about that night that made for such a great CD?
A: In the old days, to make a live record, you had to have a mobile truck following you everywhere and all the BS that comes along with it. Not to mention the money it costs. Nowadays, we’ve got a Pro Tools rig out by the console, and we just let it run every night. We have a couple hundred shows archived.
When it came to doing a live record, none of us wanted to sit there and listen to 200 shows to pick the best one. So we left it up to Dave.
[Drummer] Alex [Van Halen], [bassist] Wolfgang [Van Halen] and I were pretty consistent every night, [but] for a singer it’s more difficult. Because if the bus ride is too long, or you slept with the air conditioner on or the heater on and your throat is [messed] up, [it can change his voice].
Dave said, “How about Tokyo Dome?” We said fine. The bonus of that show was we didn’t have an opening act. So we played much longer. It’s about a 2-hour show. We got Bob Clearmountain to mix it. We were pretty involved with the mixing. Once we got the instruments sounding the way we wanted, we just let him go. He would send us mixes, and we would say, “Yeah, it sounds great. As long as you hear all the instruments and the vocals, that’s all you need.”
Q: Last time you toured, Wolfgang assembled the set list. Did he do it this time, and are you playing any songs this time out you didn’t play during the last tour?
A: That is yet to be seen. I’m hoping to play some other songs, but a lot of times that comes down to what Dave will sing and what he won’t. Wolf and I talk all the time and say, “Let’s throw this in. Let’s throw that in.” Ultimately, if Dave doesn’t want to sing them, then we can’t do them. I would love to throw in “Drop Dead Legs” and “Light Up the Sky.” All kinds of stuff. I think it would be a treat for the audience. Maybe we can convince him this time around
Q: How are things between you and David Lee Roth these days?
A: He is always off doing his own thing. Getting tattoos in Japan. He’s got an apartment over there. He’s got an apartment in New York. The relationship has always been the same, really. Just because he quit back in 1985 to pursue a solo career, the press I think made a bigger to-do out of our relationship being sour than we did, you know what I mean?
When [my son] Wolfgang joined the band, he was actually responsible for calling Dave and getting him back in the band.
Q: Speaking of Wolfgang, we hear he is working on his first solo record.
A: I wouldn’t call it a solo record. It’s not just him. It’s him and one of his best buddies who goes by the name ERock. His real name is Eric Friedman. Those two guys, working with a producer named Elvis Baskette. French for basket. [Laughs.] Between these three guys, it’s just incredible.
Q: What instruments is he playing?
A: Wolf is playing drums. And bass. When he plays bass to his drums, it is so locked in. He plays guitar to it and it is just so damn tight and powerful. It is like a freight train coming at you. Then you add Eric Friedman on top of it, and that’s the icing on the cake. To watch them work and see how much fun they are having just reminds me of the old days. I’m actually jealous.
Q: Did you give him any advice about putting out his debut album?
A: No. No. No. This is totally his own thing. I have not said a word. I told him which songs I liked. There was actually one I didn’t like.
Q: Musically, how would you describe it?
A: It’s the simplicity in riffs of AC/DC and Van Halen mixed with very progressive pop. More progressive than Van Halen, I would say.
Q: When do you think it will be released?
A: They put down seven basic tracks in January, [which] took them maybe three weeks. They’ll have something ready probably next year sometime.
Q: Are there any countries or places you want to play that you have yet to?
A: How about Bora Bora? But it wouldn’t be big enough. [laughs] No, I’m kidding. To me, it is not necessarily the country or where you are playing. It’s the audience. When the audience comes to see you play, they are pretty much the same. They come because they like your music. Half the time, I’m not even aware of where I am.
Q: What is the one thing you always need to have with you on the road?
A: My wife. Our dog, Cody. And obviously my equipment.
Q: Speaking of equipment, what new EVH gear are you working on?
A: People are always screaming and yelling for that classic vintage guitar sound. The 5150 III amps are very high-gain. The main thing that we’re working on is an amp that is modeled after the old vintage Marshall that I used on the first six records. I wanted more sustain out of them.
The difference between the 5150 III amp, and this new amp we are working on is the tubes. They use EL34 tubes, which are more like my original vintage Marshall. Still trying to figure what to call it. Might call it the 5150 III-IV because they use the EL34 tubes. I told Howard Kaplan, the amp guy at Fender/EVH, what I wanted, and just last week they all came out and I gave it a test run. It blew my mind. It has the old vintage tone but with more sustain
Q: Will there ever be another Van Halen studio album?
A: After this touring cycle, we will probably hunker down and do a studio record. We certainly have enough material. It is a matter of timing and getting everybody together. That’s the only way it can be done.
We put out [“A Different Kind of Truth”] in 2012. But then you go onstage and play those new songs, and the audience looks at you like, “What’s this?” They really want to hear the classics.
Q: Is it frustrating that when you play a new song, the audience makes a beer run?
A: It’s kind of a double-edged sword. Thank God we have so many career tunes that people want to hear — songs they grew up on and that bring back memories of where they were and what party they were at and what chick they were with.
That’s what they remember and want to get back to. But at the same time, it would be nice to be able to put out new music that people would give a chance. Maybe 10 years from now stuff off of “A Different Kind of Truth” will be considered classic and people will want to hear those.
• Van Halen’s latest album, “Tokyo Dome in Concert,” is available now.