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Q&A: Sammy Hagar on New Album and 'Re-Tarnishing' Van Halen

Kid Rock, Toby Keith, Heart's Nancy Wilson are LP guests

Sammy Hagar steps out of his Ferrari.
Ryan Craig
August 12, 2013 1:45 PM ET

It's no secret that Sammy Hagar loves cars. He's got 17 of them, with a heavy preference for Ferraris. Last year his neighbor, the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir, told Rolling Stone that when Hagar's wife throws him in the doghouse, he comes knocking on Weir's door to take him on a white-knuckle joy ride. So when Hagar's camp reached out to Rolling Stone about his new collaborations album, Sammy Hagar and Friends, the first question was obvious: Would Hagar be willing to tell us more about it himself . . . while taking us on our own joy ride? The answer was yes.

We agreed to meet at his warehouse in California's Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Hagar's warehouse is in an unsuspecting industrial complex, the same business park where Weir operates TRI Studios. But it was Metallica's spot just a few miles down the road that directly inspired Hagar's set-up. "I love the one-stop shopping," he says, referring to the fact that his building is used as his office, his practice space, his recording studio and, of course, his car hanger, where he keeps about a dozen luxury rides.

Photos: Sammy Hagar Recalls 20 Years of Madness With Van Halen

While jumping into the black Ferrari 512i Boxer from the "I Can't Drive 55" video is tempting, we opt for his 2008 custom-built Ferrari 599 GTB, which has his name engraved on the glove box.  Moments after we leave the driveway, Hagar states his mission to give the odometer a workout – except in this machine, even when the needle passes the 100mph mark, it seems as carefree as a Sunday drive. We take it out on Highway 101 and cruise up and down, going at speeds sufficiently above the speed limit. On one of our loops, we pass a couple state troopers on the side of the road. They have someone pulled over and have begun to search their car. Hagar casually remarks that we could go to jail for our speed: "In afternoon traffic like this? Reckless driving." That may be, but he's wrong about one thing: the way he drives, it's not reckless at all. He's in complete control.

Sammy Hagar takes his Ferrari out for a drive.
Sammy Hagar takes his Ferrari out for a drive.
Ryan Craig

Same goes for his career, which has been cruising along comfortably. In the past few years, he sold his final shares of Cabo Wabo tequila and started a new rum brand called Sammy's Beach Bar Rum. His restaurant business is thriving. His memoir, Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock, was a Number One bestseller. In it he writes that the unprecedented success of his liquor business has made it possible for him to take the business out of his music. Now, when he plays, it's because he wants to.

Right now, he wants to. His new album, Sammy Hagar and Friends, which drops on September 24th, features collaborations with Kid Rock, Toby Keith, Taj Mahal, Ronnie Dunn, Joe Satriani, Heart's Nancy Wilson, the Dead's Mickey Hart, Journey's Neal Schon and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Chad Smith, among others.

We caught Hagar in one of his characteristic good moods, and he opened up to us about everything from wanting to be more like Jimmy Buffett to why he hopes that his old pal Eddie Van Halen doesn't call him up anytime soon with an invite to rejoin the band.

You have a number of very different collaborators on this album, representing everything from rap-rock to country. Were you able to get everyone you wanted?
There were so many people that I forgot about. I'm such a screwball. All the people who have played Cabo Wabo should've been on this record.

I didn't start with the idea of doing this. I just started picking guys one at a time, then I said, "Oh, you know what? This is becoming a duet record." The last guy I called was Toby Keith. He's like my closest friend – in country, for sure – and one of the most typical Cabo Wabo heads. We've sat in Cabo Wabo and played "Margaritaville" there 35 times, if not more. And to not realize until after I cut "Margaritaville" that I should get Toby to do the duet on it?

I tried to get Kenny Chesney to sing on here. We were going to do "Eagles Fly," and I sent him my original mix – my original recording of it with Eddie [Van Halen] playing bass and all that. But he was on tour and couldn't do it.

I flew all the way down to Alabama. I went and stayed a few days with Emeril Lagasse – we were working on something – and we went out to see Kenny play. We were going to record the song live, but then the band didn't work it up – they only knew some other songs we ended up doing. Kenny's a dear friend, but that guy works so hard. All them country guys do, you know?

That night I met Grace Potter, and I wanted to do a duet with her, but I didn't have the song. I thought "All We Need Is an Island," but I ended up doing that with Nancy [Wilson], and Nancy killed that thing. That's the best duet on the record. That's the real fucking duet.

I didn't really want to say this, but I'm completely honest: James Hetfield is a dear friend and we hang out in Hawaii a lot. Kid Rock did the duet on "Knockdown Dragout," which he recorded for me instantly. I would've just as soon had James Hetfield do it, but I ran into Kid, because I did that Detroit show with him, and we were communicating about other stuff and about his tour, so I just spontaneously asked him to sing on the track. And, boom, it got done. After he finished it, I thought that I would get James to sing just the "Knockdown! Dragout!" part.

I sent it to him and told him Kid Rock was on there and the whole thing, and he got back to me and said, quote-unquote, "I'm completely flattered that you would want my sailor-assed voice on your record." And then he said, " . . . but it isn't my style." And I said, "It's OK. I still love you, James."

I really thought it would be cool having Kid Rock, James Hetfield, Joe Satriani and Denny Carmassi on the same song with me. Whew  that would be amazing.

James has become just such a great frontman. He's really powerful, and he doesn't bullshit. He's not up there doing cheap shit to become a good frontman, like I do. I'll use a stupid line like, "Are we having any fun yet?" just to get a reaction. And I know how to say something right before you end a song, so the band ends it and you get a big giant cheer because of something I said, and it sounds like they loved the song. I know all them little old veteran tricks. James doesn't even use that shit and he's still got charisma up the ass. He's really strong, man.

I really wanted him on there, but it doesn't fit. I was cheating by sending him that song, because if he would've heard the whole album – if a Metallica fan would've heard this album and bought it because he was on there, they would be pissed off. This isn't a Metallica record, you know? But he's my friend, and I would've loved to have had him on it.

It's interesting that you cover Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville" with Toby Keith. After all, Buffett's Margaritaville restaurants are very similar to the business model both you and Toby have for yours.
Toby was just on the freaking cover of Fortune magazine, and he talks about me. He makes mescal. This is what I love about Toby and not these other guys: He said, "The reason I did this is that I saw what Sammy did with Cabo Wabo and he sold the damn thing for so much money. I went, 'Hell, man, I'm going to get into the business.'" He and I are tequila guys. We'll fucking down a bottle and then go on up and sing "Margaritaville" onstage in Cabo. But then he said that he couldn't do that to his friend. I thought, "Right the fuck on."

Meanwhile, there are guys out there like [Mötley Crüe's] Vince Neil, making Dos Rios tequila [the actual name is Tres Rios]. He has a place called the Something Cantina in Vegas and acts like he never even heard of Cabo Wabo. My name is never in his articles. It's OK. But that sort of thing does put a little stick up my ass, I must admit.

It's OK – I'm happy. My wife always tells me to shut up when I start bitching about somebody not mentioning me in one of those liquor articles. She goes, "Shut up. You fucking did it. You were first. You've got more money than you could ever spend. What is your problem?" I don't know. I just want respect.

I first met Jimmy Buffett when he first had his tequila. He came out a couple years after Cabo Wabo with his Margaritaville. I was playing at the same place that he was playing the next night and I had a night off, so I stayed in Detroit. I was sitting there having dinner with my wife, and he came up and said, "Who's this guy trying to get my job?" I said, "Oh, Jimmy, so glad to meet you." He's just really a great guy, man. So I said, "Well, now, wait a minute, who's this guy I heard about who's trying to make tequila?" And he said, "Oh, no, that's just for the Parrotheads. I ain't even going to sell it commercially." He kind of jived me a little bit. But I said, "Oh, no, it's cool."

Sammy Hagar shows off some of his car collection.
Sammy Hagar shows off some of his car collection.
Ryan Craig

On the new album, you chose a very unexpected cover, Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus." It's an incredible song, but nobody would've predicted that Sammy Hagar would cover it. It really speaks to how strong the song is, that you can take it across genres like that, from electronic to rock.
Exactly what you said. And see, to me, I look at the whole thing backwards. The reason I picked that song is because an electronic version of that song is the weakest version. As great as Depeche Mode did it – I love that song by them. I'm not a big Depeche Mode fan, but I've always loved that song. It's that riff. You put that motherfucker on a ukulele and it's a mean riff. You could play it on the banjo. You could play it on a violin. You could sing it. I'm serious – that riff is badass, man. And that's the song.

And then the line, "Your own personal Jesus" – I want to call it an unconditional love song. Everybody asks, "What's it mean to you?" It's an unconditional love song. To say to someone, "I will be your own personal Jesus," or "I've got my own personal Jesus" – I sing it both ways, meaning it's not a give-and-take relationship, it's a give-give relationship. You're both each other's personal Jesus. Commitment. One hundred percent unconditional love is what that song means to me, and that's deep. And it's got a dark little blasphemy to it. But that's why I try to take it to church, man. I went out and got gospel singers from the East Bay to sing those parts, because I wanted to take this thing to church to make it almost more religious. When you sing "Jesus," that's a powerful word. And I'm not even religious. I felt a little uncomfortable there. I felt like it was blasphemy. It's a bit weird.

I did that with the gospel singers because I felt guilty. I don't like fucking with the devil and I don't like fucking with God. Those things are sacred and I'm a little bit afraid of them, so it's like I don't want to do anything to cross the devil, and I don't want to do anything to cross Jesus, just in case there is such a thing.

And I have no idea what [Depeche Mode's] Martin Gore was talking about. I read that he read Priscilla Presley's book, which I read too, and she said at some point that Elvis was like her father; he was almost God to her. And Gore thought that's a weird one-way relationship. That's why, when I sing the song, I say, "I've got my own personal Jesus too" – both sides of the thing.

Anyways, it's a deep song. And Neal Schon fucks that song up on guitar. I don't care what you think of Journey – Neal Schon is killing that song.

With all the collaborations on this album, would you ever do a duet with David Lee Roth?
[Sighs]

I know, that's probably a shitty question.
No – but it's so hard. It's so hard! Because, probably, if he came to me, fuck yeah. I'll do anything. But to go to him and put myself in that vulnerable position, I would get probably the wisest fucking crack that ever came out of his mouth. I don't think Dave wants to sing with me. I don't think Dave wants to be in the same room with me, to be honest with you. I don't know if I intimidate him or if I piss him off or if he just flat don't like me, or if he's afraid of me. I don't know what it is, but he and I do not get together. We tried. I gave it every shot I had on that tour. And I could care less. I mean, I'm totally over the guy.

As a matter of fact, the whole idea of Van Halen – people ask me all the time, "What if Eddie called you up and asked you to be back in that?" I just hope he doesn't do that. I'm so past it, and I'm so happy and proud of what we did, I wouldn't want to tarnish it again like that '04 tour. And now what they're doing, acting like I was never in that band, just playing all that early material . . . How can they do that?

But Dave can't sing it, so what the fuck. It is what it is, and I'd just as soon let it be. Let them finish it off in their own way, and whatever happens, it's all good. I would love to be friends with those guys. Michael Anthony is one of my dearest friends, and I don't see why Ed and Al shouldn't be that, someday, in our lives. But until then, it's all fine.

I don't want to go backwards anymore. At my age, I have a hard enough time rehearsing and playing those old songs at a rehearsal. And I certainly can't go back and listen to them. I just want to keep moving forward, and I'm so anxious to play my new songs in the set that the thought of going back and playing with a band that hasn't recorded since 1994 or something like that – ewww. That sounds painful to me.

You don't want to go back and re-tarnish. Van Halen was so great and is so special for the time that they had their reign, that to leave that alone – they're smart, in one sense, in that they don't do a lot. When they do, everybody's horny again: "Oh shit, I got to go see it again!" I'm proud of being in Van Halen. I really am. I'm really proud of that time in my life. It was great shit, man.

Sammy Hagar opens the door to his car hanger.
Sammy Hagar opens the door to his car hanger.
Ryan Craig

Growing up, I remember turning on MTV when I would get home from school, and suddenly having you in my living room.
. . . singing "When It's Love." What a great video. What a great song. A ballad? Forget it! It's a fucking ass-kicking ballad. I added that to my show. I haven't done it in years, but I had to have that song back in the set. And Van Halen doesn't play that stuff anymore, so it's my obligation. I do a 40-minute Van Halen tribute in the middle of my show.

You're playing 40 minutes of classic Van Halen material? Then why aren't you playing the major festivals like Bonnaroo and Outside Lands? They scream "Sammy Hagar" to me.
See, now I'm upset. Because that pisses me off. I never get asked to do those things. And Chickenfoot neither. Chickenfoot wanted those festivals so bad, and [there's] something weird about my image or something I've done to where they don't want me on those shows. And I begged to be on the one right here, Outside Lands – it's right in my fucking backyard. I called my manager, I called my agent. I want to do it.

I just played in front of 70,000 or whatever it was with Toby Keith. Here's a country [lineup] – Willie Nelson, Ronnie Dunn, Garth Brooks, Carrie Underwood, all those people. And I walked out there and fucking killed it. It was unbelievable. I was so proud. I was going, "Fuck!" because I didn't know what to expect, right? You play "I Can't Drive 55," you play "Right Now" by Van Halen, you play "Eagles Fly," you play "Bad Motor Scooter," and fuck, man – I went down like crazy. Put me in front of a [festival] crowd, and I can work them good.

My plans for touring with this album is that I'm going to do some shows to promote it. And if it comes out and gets some traction, and I get reviews and it gets radio play – instead of a typical classic rock record where it comes out and you don't even know it – then I will go out next year, and I want to support it. And I'm going to beg for festivals. Beg for them. I'll play them for free. I'll play them for free!

You used to get compared to Ted Nugent. Over the years you've been lumped in the same sentence with everyone from Aerosmith and Bon Jovi to Jimmy Buffett. What's the one you're most comfortable with these days?
I think the lifestyle thing – the Jimmy Buffett thing – is really who I am. And that's why I recorded "Margaritaville." I took that song and I stripped it down acoustically. I took it so far back to just kiss the ring a little bit.

I didn't copy Jimmy in any way. I invented my own thing. And then I found out that Jimmy was doing this on the side. But when I first met [my wife], Kari, I showed her what I was doing down in Cabo and she went, "Oh my God, you're like Jimmy Buffett!" And I was like, "Get out of here! I'm in Van Halen! What do you mean I'm like Jimmy Buffett?"

But we all wish we were Jimmy Buffett. People say to me, "You're a Jimmy Buffett wannabe." And I say, "Everybody wants to be Jimmy Buffett." You think Kenny Chesney wouldn't want to be Jimmy Buffett? You think Toby Keith wouldn't want to be Jimmy Buffett? So I'm very comfortable with that. It's the way that I am. I didn't dress up for you today. Actually, I did – I put on my bright red shorts instead of my blue ones.

If I said I was going to go somewhere musically from here, though, my lifestyle thing would swing really nice into, like, a Grateful Dead, jam band kind of thing. I love that. That's what I'm made out of. I don't like to rehearse and work out every part, and I don't like playing the same shit twice. So I fit into that scene really well, and that's why Bobby [Weir] and I can play, that's why Mickey [Hart] and I can play, that's why Phil [Lesh] and I can play. Most guys can't play with people that don't have a structure like that. I know so many guys that just cannot do that. And I love to do it. Just take me on a ride – a long walk through the woods, like Bobby would say. And I like that.

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