Gary Cherone Reflects on his Three-Year Stint In Van Halen

'I was one of the three singers in the mighty Van Halen. You can't take that away from me'

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gary cherone
Gary Cherone (center) performs with Van Halen at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California. (Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/ImageDirect)

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.

Tell me about planning the tour.
During rehearsals, I remember Alex coming up to me and assuming that I was going to do the four food groups. For whatever reason, Sammy only did four songs from the Dave era. I get it. He was a contemporary of Dave's. I get it. But for me coming in as a third singer, I said, "Listen, I got to do everything that I can to get into the good graces of these fans here." I remember telling Alex, "Look, I'll do whatever you guys want." I wanted to do an equal balance of both of those eras.

Vocally, the Sammy stuff was very challenging. He is a great singer and has a higher range than me. When we were writing Van Halen III we were writing songs that seemed like they were in the Sammy key. So I was reaching for notes I would have never done with Extreme. I think it made me a better singer.

How was the first show? It must have been surreal to walk onstage with them for the first time.
It was surreal. Every first with Van Halen was surreal. We were in New Zealand and they were going to broadcast one of the first shows live. I got into a fight with the manager. I said, "You’re going to put this on video and I’ve only done three shows with this band? Let’s do a video at the end of the tour so I can feel comfortable." I remember being stressed out, but I felt comfortable. For me, all during the making of the record I couldn’t wait to go on tour because that was my comfort zone. I was dying to get out there and play some new songs, play some old songs. Of course you’re going to get the die-hard fans who are never going to like you no matter what you do. But most of the time, 90% of the audience was thrilled that I was singing the old shit. Two thirds of the set, if not more, were songs Van Halen fans hadn't heard in a very long time.

How did you handle all the spoken-word parts in the middle of the Dave songs? It's sort of hard for anyone else to get away with saying that stuff.
That was my only concern out of the catalog. I give you a nod for bringing that up. I said,  "Guys I can’t do that. That is so identifiable with Dave that anyone else who does it . . ." And you know, I’m not a rock talker anyways. It worked out because either I would sing the parts in “Unchained” or “Panama”and I’d let the audience do it, and the audience got a kick out of doing it. I would start it but I would let them finish it. 

Was there a point on the tour when you started to fear that things weren't working out?
Not on the tour. The tour went great. We came back to L.A. afterwards and I was living in the guesthouse at Eddie’s house for a while.  It was time to move out. And Eddie was like, "Why you wanna move out? You unhappy?" I go, "No Ed. I want to give you and your family privacy."

Some markets were soft on the tour. Did the band freak out?
No, cause they sold well enough. Every once in a while they'd cut an arena down in size. But no. With Van Halen, it doesn't matter who the singer is. They're always going to garner an audience. 

What happened when the tour ended?
We came back in '99 and we were writing stuff. Umm . . . to keep things general, things started to get a little dysfunctional. I think that some in the camp sensed my frustration. I knew the end was near. Looking back, I don't feel any regret. I do wish I had made another record with those guys though. Once we were on tour, we became a band. 

The new songs we wrote after the tour were better. We were working with Patrick Leonard and did a couple of songs with him. It was really good stuff. With Van Halen III, a lot of people say it was an Eddie solo record. I didn't think that. Mike Post produced it, but it was really Eddie's baby and maybe we needed a little more guidance on the album. So by coming home and doing other stuff, it felt more like a band. 

How far along did you get on the next album before everything stopped?
We made a couple of demos. Everything from guitar/vocal scratch tracks to a couple that were more produced. All of them were cut at 5150 Studios. All we had to do was turn on the mics and we had a pretty good demo.

You said that things got "dysfunctional." Is that between you and Ed? What happened?
Well, not dysfunctional among personalities. Cause me and Ed got along. I think Eddie started drinking a bit. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't going in the right direction. Also, I wasn't in a great place mentally. I had some things going on in my personal life that affected me. When we broke up, it was mutual.

How did it end? What happened exactly?
We went through a couple of people that were working with us. The hours got more crazy, a little bit more manic. Not everyone would be around. I'd be hanging out with a producer and he'd say, "Write to this." And Eddie would be on some crazy hours. 

I remember going home for a couple of weeks and coming back and we had a meeting. I don't know if Dave was on their mind. They were making a move and they were just getting rid of the manager, and I was part of that. But we sat down, me and Alex. He was like, "We sense that you're unhappy and a little bit frustrated." I was playing the diplomat. It wasn't crazy dysfunction because we all could talk, but there was an unhappiness and they wanted to move in a different direction. And I was cool with it. I really was. 

I spent another couple of months at Ed's house with the band broken up. If I had a lyric, I'd show it to him. Me and Eddie were like, "Yeah, can we still write?" I was like, "Yeah, great!" At the time I was hoping that Extreme were going to get back together, but that took another five years. Extreme ended too soon for me. Even though I spent three years with Van Halen and loved it, my heart and soul has always been with Extreme.

I've heard stories about them jamming with David Lee Roth around 2001. Is that anything you knew about at the time?
I was gone by then. I heard the same rumors. I head everything from him jamming with Ozzy to Chris Cornell. I don't know if any of that's true.

It's interesting that right after you left the band slid into this crazy period of dysfunction where nothing seemed to get done. It took them fourteen years to release a follow-up to Van Halen III. What caused that? Ed's drinking?
Yeah. It started there. It obviously got worse and worse after I left. I was talking to him a bit here and there for a little while after I left, but as time went on it got sparser and sparser. 

When was the last time you spoke to him?
Probably 2000. Maybe there was one other time . . . You see, the Van Halen camp is a very small circle. Eddie's the boy in the plastic bubble, and the brothers are very protective. So if you're not in that circle, you're not going to get information. I guess the circle got real small. Looking at photos of Eddie now, he looks healthy. I think he's not even smoking. He's put on some weight and he's playing his ass off. At the end of the day, that's what matters.

It's interesting that so many songs on the new album appear to be built around old material. It's sort of an acknowledgment that the band can't write in the same way they used to.
In defense of Ed, there was always way more material than I could even get through. I remember going to the garage part of 5150 and there would be what seemed like hundreds of two inch tapes. They were filled of jams and riffs. I don't know whose idea it was to make the album the way they did, but they wanted to recapture the starting point of the band. It made sense to go back to the demos from before the first album and use them as a starting point. But knowing Eddie, he's probably revamped all those leads. From what I've heard, he's on fire.

Did you see any shows on the reunion tour with Roth?
Now, but I almost saw them in 2007, but I was out of town. Pat got to go, and he went backstage and saw Alex and Eddie. Hopefully I'll see them when they come through Boston this time around. 

But I'm putting it out there right now . . . I heard that Sammy wants to tour with Van Halen. That'll never happen in a million years. But I'm calling Sammy out right now – Extreme/Chickenfoot. That's the tour. This summer. Please put that in your story.

That would be awesome. It would be three members of Van Halen on one tour.
Yeah. I have a side project called Hurtsmile with my brother on guitar. We played a gig once with Sammy. Over the years, he's been great to me. He's always had nice things to say about me. I talk to him every once in a while.

Have you ever met Dave?
We met in 1991. Extreme toured with Cinderella. But not since then. I don't know if I want to meet him. I love what he does onstage, and lyrically, he can turn a great phrase. But he seems a little out there for me.

I feel like a lot of former singers of big bands are bitter about their experience. That doesn't seem to be the case with you.
Not at all. Like I said, I'm coming from a different perspective. I'm from a previous generation. I grew up on Aerosmith, Queen, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen. So at the end of the day, I'm gonna say, "Hey, I was one of the three singers in the mighty Van Halen." You can't take that away from me. 

What's up with Extreme these days? Do you guys have to schedule your activity around Rihanna's tour because she snagged your guitarist?
At the moment, yes. She's been touring for two years. It's somewhat frustrating for all of us, including Nuno. It's just such a different world he's in there, as far as the production and the dancers. You know, it's the pop world versus the rock world.

Her tour just wrapped, so what are the plans for the band?
We're currently writing, but I doubt a record will be out this year. But we are going to put out new music over the Internet to the fans. Right now we are touring. We are actually working on getting a summer gig. I just found out that we were up for a Def Leppard tour, but that fell through. That's why I'm soliciting in this interview. Sammy, I'm calling on you brother. I think he said he wanted to tour with Van Halen, but that will never happen.

He told me there's a 90% chance they'll play together one day. But I think he burned that bridge to the ground with his book
Yeah, and then he burned the ashes. Strangers things have happened. There was a long time when the brothers weren't talking with Dave.

What else are you working on these days?
Last year I put out out a record with my band Hurtsmile and it got some good reviews. We are writing a second record. We toured Japan and we did some U.S. stuff. It's pretty aggressive stuff, pretty hard, but it's rock and roll. It's also got a little punk edge to it. There's a song called "Just War Theory" that I think you would dig.

Any thoughts on the new Van Halen material?
I wouldn't come to the conclusion that those guys can't write anymore. It think they went back to the material from that initial explosion of Van Halen. Eddie became a different songwriter during the Hagar years. He became more of a craftsman. Man, I wish I heard those riffs when I was in the band. That stuff is pure Eddie Van Halen . . . I do think that releasing "Tattoo" first was a misstep. I think it was a good song, but it was more from the pop side of Van Halen. I heard a rumor they picked it as the first single by just picking a title out of a hat. 

If they invited you back into the band, is that something you'd ever want to do?
As far as songwriting, it's always at the back of my head. I know me and Eddie could write in the future. I would record songs with them, absolutely. You never know. Stranger things have happened. As far as I'm concerned, this record is inspiring. I'm sending it out to all of the Extreme guys. "Get your rocket helmets on, guys. We need to write a record!"

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