On the off chance you haven't heard, Van Halen released a new album this week. The only problem is they don't seem to be up for doing much press. We spoke to Sammy Hagar recently, so we figured it was time to get late-1990s frontman Gary Cherone on the phone to hear about his brief tenure in the band. During the course of a long interview, the Extreme singer told us how he hooked up with the group, what it was like to write a new album and tour the world with his heroes, and how it ended around the time that Eddie's drinking started to become a problem. We also talked about his dream of a Chickenfoot/Extreme tour, and his side project Hurtsmile.
Tell me how you first heard about the opportunity to possibly be in Van Halen?
Oh wow, you're going back. It was in the summer of '96. I remember Pat, the bass player in Extreme, calling me and saying "Turn on MTV. Dave's coming back!" There was some story about them, and they were playing the theme to Welcome Back Kotter. That summer, my manager Ray Danniels – who also managed Van Halen at the time – calls me up. Extreme was breaking up and he goes, "What do you think about auditioning for Van Halen?"
At the time I thought that Extreme was going to get back together. I thought that Nuno [Bettencourt] was going to do a solo project and then the band was going to reunite. I said, "Yeah, sure. I'll go out for the weekend, sing 'Jump,' come back and have a good story to tell." And that was truly, truly how much I thought about it. I got on the phone with Eddie a few times and we wrote a song over the telephone. I flew out for the weekend and we just hit it off. Eddie and I, at the time, had the same temperament. We started writing the moment I got off the plane and he actually asked me to join the second day I was there. I said to him, "Maybe you should ask the other guys."
I've heard that this happened before they appeared with David Lee Roth at the MTV Video Music Awards that year.
Oh yeah, yeah. That is true. The commercial I saw was just coincidental. I didn't know what was going on with that. But when I came down they were putting out a greatest hits things and doing the VMAs. I remember one morning getting up to go to the studio and no one told me all this press was interviewing the Van Halen guys because of the VMAs and all this stuff. They told me, "Gary, no one knows you're in the band." I remember bumping into a photographer from Japan and he knew me from Extreme. He goes, "What are you doing here?" I go, "Nothing."
Wait . . . they ask you to join the band, and they go do the VMAs with David Lee Roth? Did you worry that you were already out and Dave was back?
No. Maybe Dave thought that, but . . . and maybe he didn't. I don't know. Me and Eddie were writing at the time. I remember him calling me that night saying that he got into a fight with the press or something. He was very protective. I didn't feel threatened. But the three years I was in the band, every day I woke up not knowing what the day was going to bring. Sometimes it was great, other times it was a little dysfunctional – especially at the end. But as far as how those guys treated me, they treated me like brothers.
Tell me more about that first jam session with the whole band.
That was the first day. I got off the plane in the afternoon and I remember Mike Anthony came out. I'd met him over the years at some Extreme shows. I said, "Mike, hey man, you're my only ally here." He goes, "Don't worry about it." And Alex and Eddie came out and shook my hand. I'm holding my suitcase, my overnight bag – and Ed goes, "You ready to sing?" I go, "Yeah. Can I go to the bathroom first?" Then we literally went into "5150," three other songs from the Hagar catalog and "Jump" and "Panama" from the Dave era.
I remember whispering into Mike's ear, "Hey man, help me with the high notes." But for some reason, my voice opened up. The Dave stuff was easy. Sammy stuff . . . I thought I'd have a hard time with that, but it was good. I think we sang about four songs and Eddie went to the bathroom, came back out and said, "Let's write a song." It was a good day.
Are you freaking out at this point? It's every kid's fantasy to sing with Van Halen.
It was surreal. Even when I was in the band, Nuno and Pat [Badger] would call and go, "I can't believe you're in my favorite band." It was surreal. You're growing up with Aerosmith and Van Halen posters on your wall. Obviously I'm younger than Hagar, and when Sammy joined the band, he was a contemporary of Van Halen, So it was different for me.
How quickly did you guys start working on the album after that first session?
Actually, right from the get-go we were writing songs. Even though Eddie was real enthusiastic and he embraced me and the band embraced me, I was skeptical. I was thinking, "I'll take it day to day, week to week, let's write another song, let's write another song." I remember calling back home and everyone saying, "Are you in the band? You're in the band, right?" And I would go, "Yeah, I guess." I never bet too high because I didn't know how long it would last. But I think when we finished the record and put it out and the tour started, I finally realized, "Ah, okay. This is my comfort zone. Being on tour." That's when I felt good.
I've read over the years that Michael Anthony didn't play much bass on the album. Is that true?
No, he did. There were a few things that Eddie played bass on. Trying to think . . . Eddie might have had a scratch drum track on one song, but I don't think that made the record. No, Michael played. Looking back, it's tough to listen to the record. I didn't think the production was great. I think there was some great songs on the record, but I didn't think the record was great. I think the songs developed once we played them live. The stuff we wrote later was more developed. But looking back, Michael Anthony's vocals weren't on enough of that record.
And that's such a huge part of the Van Halen sound.
Yeah, Michael Anthony's voice is as identifiable as Alex's drums or Eddie's guitar. You hear those harmonies. That's Van Halen.
Their new album seems to be largely built around old material. Did they dip into the vault for any of the songs on Van Halen III, or did they write all new songs?
Van Halen III was pretty much all new. Some of the stuff we worked on later got into the old stuff. I've heard samples of the new record, which sounds great, but a lot of that stuff I didn't hear. I would have loved to hear it, but I didn't hear it. There's one track they released as an instrumental that I wrote too. I don't know what the name of the song is.
During this time were you worried that the fans were going to be unhappy that you were the new singer? The brief reunion with David seems to have certainly confused a lot of fans, and it certainly got their hopes up.
Yeah, that didn't help. Because, listen . . . I was excited that summer when Pat called and told me there was a commercial on saying that Roth's getting back with Van Halen. I was excited, and so here I am in the position of replacing Sammy. The thing that got me through that time was that the fans are so loyal to the band. I was in the band for a minute compared to the era of Dave and the era of Sammy, so the loyalty for them, I get it. They are going to hate anybody up there.
It was a pretty crazy move to come out with Roth at the VMAs when they had no intention of bringing him back
Yeah, I wasn't part of that little think tank. I think they were putting out a greatest hits, so it makes sense from that standpoint. I think they were renegotiating royalties. There was a lot going on before I came in. Who knows? I think I was the second or third person to try out for the band. I definitely know of one other person.
How was Ed during this time? In Sammy's book he's described as a complete drunken mess, but that was a few years later.
Ed was good. Towards the end he got a little dysfunctional. 2004, the time period that Sammy writes about, was the lowest point. During my three years, Eddie was lucid. Everybody has their idiosyncrasies. How I explain it is, if he puts on his guitar, he can fluently talk to you. When he takes off the guitar, he can be a little ADD. But Eddie was fine for three years. Towards the end he started drinking, but he was no way close to how he was in 2004.
Did they treat Michael like an equal, or was there already a distance between them?
I have no reference point as to how close anybody was during the Sammy era or during the Dave era. But during my period, I think the cue was Eddie. If Eddie is happy, then the camp is happy. Alex is happy . . . Michael has been the one constant throughout all the eras. I think the rift between Michael and the brothers came when Michael joined Sammy. The brothers are pretty territorial. "You're either with us, or against us." When I was in the band, Eddie was playing his ass off and I was in the dressing room with Michael everyday.
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