You haven’t truly lived until you’ve been on the business end of a David Lee Roth zinger. “Can you do a drum sound, like in dance music? Everybody has their own version,” he asks mere seconds into our phone call. After a few oomph-oomph-oomphs, he cuts me short. “All right, I can already tell your ethnicity,” he says with a laugh. The singer or, as he puts it, “the patron saint of midnight when everybody’s guilty” explains that he is, in fact, a dance-music aficionado. “It’s the reason Eddie Van Halen and I have had so much friction over these decades,” he says. “It’s the only music I listen to.”
So it comes as no surprise that Roth made a surprise appearance during Dutch trance Svengali Armin van Buuren’s headlining set at the Ultra Music Festival tonight in Miami, where the duo performed a remix of Van Halen’s biggest hit, “Jump.” But when Roth (“Call me ‘David Lee'”) and van Buuren got together to speak with Rolling Stone from an L.A. recording studio about a week before the performance for an unwieldy and often hilarious conversation, they kept mum on how it would sound and how they’d present it.
“‘Jump’ is 128 beats a minute, 126 depending on which printing plant did your vinyl back then,” Roth says. “What’s the new track?”
“It’s 130,” van Buuren offers. “I sped it up a little bit so it matches the tempo of the rest of the songs in my set.”
“It matches the general blood pressure and adrenaline, serotonin, alcoholic, indelicate house blend that is happening about 100 meters north of [Ultra’s] tent city,” Roth rejoins.
Roth originally co-wrote and recorded the infectiously upbeat hit in 1983 for the album 1984. Seeing news footage of a suicidal man threatening to leap from a nearby building, he figured someone in the crowd must be thinking, “Go ahead and jump,” and he refocused the lyrics to be about love as he wrote them in the backseat of his Mercury convertible. The song was originally released as a single just before Christmas in 1983, a couple of weeks before the band put out its diamond-selling 1984 album. It eventually spent five weeks at Number One in the U.S. and nearly half a year on the American charts alone; it also topped the charts in Italy and Canada.
“I’m sure that a lot of the kids I’m gonna play for are probably not even familiar with the original and how big of a track it was when it was released,” van Buuren says. “Plus, it was an easy one to pick because I ask my crowd to jump, and the song has a deeper meaning, and I hope the kids get it when they hear the song, when they start to invest some time in the history of the song.”
“It’s visceral,” Roth says. “It’s sort of like when your dog knows you’re drunk. In your gut, you know exactly what it’s about, and the [song’s] deeper meaning is being able to do something when you’re a little bit unsure. You know you wanna do it, but that’s the reason we teach our kids ballet lessons, music lessons. We have them get into doing dog shows and 4-H Clubs, so you can do pretty good even though you’re kind of scared.”
The remix came together when a friend of van Buuren’s offered to send him the song’s recording stems. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, hell yeah,'” the producer says. “I knew the song already as a kid. I think I was 6 years old when the track was a Number One hit everywhere. I was just eager to have the stems, because I always thought, ‘What if you could have the energy of that song from 1982 and transfer it to 2019?'” He sent it to Roth a few weeks ago, and the singer loved it.
“Just the fact that David is open for such a thing is quite huge to me,” van Buuren says.
“I agree with all of that,” Roth says. “It’s the first step toward world peace if we can do it.”
Rolling Stone: So Armin, how did David Lee get involved with the performance?
Armin van Buuren: I just sent it [to the Van Halen camp] and didn’t hear anything for two, three weeks. And then all of a sudden, I got a call from Raymond van Vliet from Cloud 9 [Music], and he couldn’t even breathe. He’s like, “They love it, and they possibly even want to come to your show.” I’m like, “What?” “David is a massive dance-music fan.” I’m like, “You’re kidding me. really?” I thought that was so cool, so that’s how we came together.
David Lee Roth: Let’s go back a bit. I go back to the day when the key to your hotel room came with a little plastic tag that had your number on it. And it was a big ritual for when we would land in my rock band to play in New York City, because I would make sure to give one of the road managers my key to go upstairs and make sure to change the 60-minute cassette tape and flip it, because I was recording WKTU, Stereo 92.
Van Buuren: Do you still have those tapes?
Roth: I have a couple of them. You bet. I know you’re saying, “Why not 90-minute tapes?” Well, because they would jam somewhere around Dayton, Ohio. I was an expert at this. I’d get back from being in the studio or wherever we would play and there would be three 60-minute tapes recorded on both sides, and that would have to do me for up to six months, depending on where we were recording. It goes back a long way.
So you already knew Armin van Buuren’s music?
Roth: Of course. I know all or most of his work. You wanna really go back? Van Halen’s based as much on European music hall, old-school Vaudevillian [entertainment as rock]. That’s where Freddie Mercury and Bowie came from. If you look under the hood, you’re gonna find a European engine in Van Halen. It adds up perfectly.
Van Buuren: I actually think it’s funny there’s so much Dutch DNA in this song, as well. And a Dutch guy mixed it. It’s van Buuren and Van Halen. I thought that was pretty hilarious.
Roth: Well, my God is a fierce and vengeful, Old Testament God, but he also created Borscht Belt comedians.
David, can you describe what the remix sounds like to you, since our readers might not go to Ultra?
Roth: You want us to describe sound? I wanna tell you about the time I sat with my guitar player while I was in New York, laying on a hardwood floor with a headset, discussing the color blue [on a monitor]. And I said to him, “What do you think? Is the color I’m looking at right?” He says, “A little bit less.” I said, “How about this?” He says, “Too much.” I realized 20 minutes later he doesn’t have anything in front of him. You really want us to discuss sound?
Just give me an idea of what Armin did to the song.
Roth: Sure, it’s like the first time you drove past the pyramids. Remember that feeling?
I haven’t had that experience in my life yet.
Roth: We’ll give you the “Stevie Wonder version,” so to speak.
Van Buuren: I didn’t change the song too much. We recreated the Oberheim synth that was in the original. I just completely replayed it with respect to the original obviously. And the original track is not in time, so I had to spend a lot of time putting all of the original stems onto a click.
Roth: Can I say something about why it’s not in a specific time or in the grid? It’s because we approached celebration as a seasonal thing, not just like for Christmas but for all winter. So it’s what you call “Russian dragon.” Your drummer is either rushin’ or draggin’. And this leads to … OK, now I’m being pretentious and presumptuous here. How many guys in my job does it take to put in a light bulb? One. We wait for the world to revolve around ’em.
Van Buuren: So I made something initially for my DJ set, ’cause I thought it would be cool to premiere it at Ultra. So at this point, it wasn’t necessarily produced as a radio song. It’s made for a crowd going crazy, 18-to-22-year-olds dancing their socks off to a song they don’t even know was originally made in 1982.
Roth: What time do you go on, is that 9 o’clock?
Van Buuren: 9:20.
Roth: You could write 9:15 on a T-shirt and all of our colleagues would know what that means, right? Doesn’t matter if it’s Jason Aldean or Armin here or myself. Doesn’t matter if it’s Ariana Grande. By the way, Kory, you’re in the business. Which part is “Grande”?
The one right before “venti.”
Roth: Órale! If Gaga calls, I’m taken, OK?
Armin, did your brother Eller play guitar on this “Jump”?
Van Buuren: No. I wish he did. He’s an amazing guitar player.
Roth: Out of curiosity, what kind of guitar does he play?
Van Buuren: Well, he wouldn’t be able to talk if he was sitting in this chair, because he has so much respect for where you’re coming from. He knows all the Steve Vai and Joe Satriani albums back and forth.
Roth: The top secret to all of that kind of music is that we took an international approach very early on. We didn’t discuss it, but let’s start with the órale, like, Latino influence. One of our most famous songs, and we’re a power trio with a singer, is “Jamie’s Crying.” Today, I can tell you that’s Ricky Ricardo, r-r-rumba. [Sings part of the song]. That’s not exactly heavy metal, unless we were playing for the “lowriders,” in which case, Armin, you’ve got to change your evil ways, ese [laughs]. But that [Mexican feel] is the middle part of “Dance the Night Away,” OK?
David, what do you remember about when you heard the music to “Jump” the first time?
Roth: My background in music is classic in many regards, and not just orchestral; same for the Van Halen brothers. One of the posters I had on the wall was Lenny Bernstein, and it went way beyond orchestra and into Broadway. In this case West Side Story, which begat like-minded theater like Damn Yankees. In Damn Yankees, the key song is, “You Gotta Have Heart.” I learned that song word-for-word probably when I was five or six years old. “Jump” is the answer to that.
What do you mean?
Roth: I’m a wiseacre. You want me to have heart? What’s my first step? Well, first you gotta get past spending all your time aiming, test the deep end with both big toes. Sometimes there’s no shallow end. And now I sound like the Devil in Damn Yankees, right? “Test it with both feet, Dave. You can swim.” Even in terms of many of the Van Halen pieces, you think of it as Broadway; the talking part in the middle of “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” is like the breakdown in West Side Story. “Now I know Tony like I know me … But the playground is Jets territory. [Sings] When you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way.”
And again, these are secret ingredients that we would bring into our music, and it gives them a translational quality that defies genre. You can play it on a ukulele. I’ve heard, for example, “Bohemian Rhapsody” played by Jake Shimabukuro on ukulele; it will slug you in the heart, guaranteed. Want tears in your eyes for the next scene? Listen to that. And I’ve hard it played by 150-piece orchestras and cause elation. It’s all up to the translation. We tried in Van Halen to create that kind of music, and perhaps in this case we have.
What about when you heard the synth sound for the first time? That was pretty different at the time for your band.
Roth: For me, it was not. It sounded like Shalamar [laughs]. Really. Take a listen to “Dead Giveaway” by Shalamar at or about the same time period. Dance floors are like a mulching machine. They really eat up the material and really compel a competitive quality that’s probably closer to what happens in classic music. Popular music, everybody gets along. One world, one love.
In an orchestra, about once a year [they] go, “Hey, I’m second chair. I challenge you.” And we both play the same song. Whoever plays it better gets first chair, and it’s competitive, and you win. There’s an urgency and a changeover quickly in dance music. In most of the genres, that doesn’t really happen so much.
When did dance music become the main music you listened to?
Roth: My pop was just graduated from medical school and was starting his practice, and we moved to Altadena, California. And that became part of the busing program. So the very first record I ever bought was a one-dollar single of Major Lance singing “Monkey Time.” All my first girlfriends were black and Spanish-speaking. A couple of them, you can still look at on old YouTube rewinds of Soul Train. And I own two lowriders to this day. That’s for goin’ to the 7-Eleven. Ask Armin the next question.
Armin, are there any other Van Halen songs you’d like to remix or work with?
Van Buuren: Well, this song has the tempo, which is very tempting. Actually, I don’t do many remixes, to be honest. Especially touching a song like this is very delicate. And that’s why I first sent it to the band before anything else, because I didn’t want to step on any toes. I know the legacy of the songs. Touching a song like this is kind of scary, because you know how many fans love the original.
Roth: Armin, if I may …
Van Buuren: It’s such a big song.
Roth: They made the same sound when they changed Batman’s costume. [Van Buuren laughs.]
You get used to it.
Van Buuren: It’s kind of like getting a Rembrandt or Van Gogh painting. You add colors to it; you wouldn’t do that. Fortunately, the original painting is still there, so it’s not damaged. But if they want to see the new version they have to come to Ultra and see it.
Roth: See, I would take the painting and I would get with the Adobe Photoshop and I would blast that fucker starting with the blues until your retinas burst. I’m gonna work through that palette and it’s gonna take me four fucking days and I’m not even gonna be done with the facial tones, pal [laughs]. Sorry, it’s an art thing.
Are there any other songs, Dave, from your catalog that you would want to remix?
Roth: They’re all eminently remixable, but there are so many different genres of “the groove.” And whether it’s dubstep, chill, trance and on and on, and yeah, judge, I admit it. I knows the difference.
If you’re talking remix, I’m an extremist, and I would head for Korea. We’re in Henson Studios in the heart of Tinseltown. Pharrell is walking these halls and John Mayer is recording and rehearsing across the hallway; he lives here now in the studio. The Grateful Dead’s been very, very good to him. God bless them. But no, there’s a whole lot of Shakespeare going on here, musically and theatrically. And when you say, “remix,” that could be 15 different haircuts before happy hour. Yes, yes, yes. You want me to say it 15 times?
Would you want to do something with “Panama”?
Roth [to van Buuren]: Oh, he’s trying to beg the question. They do that on CNN all the time. He just gave you the answer [laughs]. And yes, we’re thinking of doing “Panama,” we’ll get it right over to you [laughs].
Van Buuren: Exactly!
Roth: “Panama” is a groove. That has a four-on-the-floor [beat]. Yes, some of it has a supersonic boogie, but if you know how to swing and jitterbug, and if you know anything about Frankie Manning and his Lindy hoppers, then you could catch up with that, too. Go look at the jitterbug scene in Hellzapoppin. If you’re young and spry, let’s try it.
How are you going to present “Jump” at Ultra Fest?
Roth: It ain’t poetry, if I gotta explain it to you, Kory. C’mon, you want me to roll it, smoke it, and get the cancer for you, too? Come on.