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

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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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