Exclusive: Wolfgang Van Halen on His Next Album, That Eddie Van Halen Tribute, Internet Hate, and Much More
Wolfgang Van Halen is playing a lot of Apex Legends at the moment, and just got engaged to his longtime girlfriend. Otherwise, besides hosting a monthly SiriusXM show, he’s enjoying a brief period of “doing nothing” after a long run of touring behind his well-received, years-in-the-making powerhouse of a debut album, Mammoth WVH – also the name of his one-man band, which becomes an actual band on the road. Later this year, he’ll tour Europe for the first time, and is set to be a guest at two Taylor Hawkins tribute concerts, one in Los Angeles Sept. 27, the other in the U.K. Sept. 3 (Mammoth WVH also started covering “My Hero” onstage after Hawkins’ death).
A year after the release of his debut, Wolfgang jumped on Zoom to share some thoughts on his next album, the future of his career, his time in Van Halen, the tribute his uncle Alex Van Halen was trying to plan for his late father, Eddie Van Halen, and much more.
You said that your long-in-the-works album, which finally came out last June, was the product of “trial and error and self-doubt and anxiety…
It’s also just the way I live my life in general [laughs].
Yeah, well, me too, man. But maybe you can expand a little bit on that, because it was a long, long process to get to the debut.
There was a lot of work. I didn’t know who I was before it started. I didn’t know what it was going to be. I just knew I had this dream of pulling a Dave Grohl and doing an album all on my own – you know, recording everything, writing everything. And I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I didn’t know if I could sing. But my producer [Michael “Elvis” Baskette], when he heard me sing a couple demos, he was like, “You’ve got this.” In general, I’m a very self-doubting person. I’ve been raised for half my life, with everyone – outside of my inner circle of people who are kind to me, and family and friends – vehemently hating me and trying to convince me that I’m not good enough. And I won’t lie. That, at a young age, really gets in your head. And I’ve had my trust abused throughout my life, in many different episodes with a handful of different people that have really shaken me up in different ways. And I’m still working through some of that, and a lot of that sort of fallout from those incidents in my life has resulted in me having a really poor opinion on myself. And it’s really difficult to kind of pick yourself up and get anything done.
That must make it all the more triumphant that you got the album out and went on tour and got a great reception.
Yeah, it’s an amazing feeling. When you really look at everything that we’ve done in the past year, it’s kind of crazy for a new rock band in 2021. So I’m really proud of the whole team. It’s really amazing
When you were talking about negativity, you mean online, right?
Yeah. You know, it’s hard. You know, I spend my life trying to get, you know … You want people to like you, you think you’re a nice person, you know, and then all these people who don’t know you have decided the person that you are because of who your parents are and what you do. We’ve become such a cynical place where everything is judged first. It’s who can get the most cynical hot take, rather than, you know, actual kindness. It’s a very unkind world out there in many aspects.
It’s easy to forget that you were just a teenager facing online hate for replacing an original member of Van Halen.
It’s a thing that we can’t escape in this internet age, and I don’t know, I just get really tired of it. It’s like, “Don’t you guys have anything better to do?” Yeah, that’s why I just make jokes back at the shit. At a certain point, man, it’s just fucking like, “Come on.” Even if I wasn’t in Van Halen before, there would still be people hating me as much as they do or more, but that really got the fire started. I will say that it’s been way more positive ever since Mammoth came out. It’s the most positive the internet has been to me.
And what were the betrayals of trust you’re referring to?
I don’t want to call people out or anything, but I’ve had people in my family steal from me. I’ve had people who I thought I was friends with end up taking advantage of me in the end. I’ve had people I’ve been in a relationship with abuse that trust. Cheat on me, steal from me. If you listen to the lyrics on the first Mammoth album, it’s like everything I write is directed at this amalgamation of people who took advantage of me.
What are some of the sort of peak experiences along the way over this past year?
Starting it up with opening for Guns [N’ Roses] was just being thrown into the fire in a really exciting way. Having the third show ever be at Hershey Park in front of a sea of people was something I’ll never forget. I can’t thank the whole Guns crew enough. I think that was 28,000 and change.
You played “Paradise City” with them, and Frank Sidoris, who’s in your band and in Slash’s band, taught you Izzy Stradlin’s old guitar part, right?
He had been playing it with Slash, and I was like, “Dude, like, you need to teach me how to play this because I know the song, but I’ve never learned how to play it.” That’s all I did on the bus for that week. One night at like 3 a.m. I was walking around playing it for like two hours.
When I saw your headlining set in New York, it felt like the crowd was really your fans, which must have felt great.
Yeah, it’s really insane. It’s really gratifying to see so many people really, really enjoy it.
There was maybe one person in the audience waving a Frankenstrat flag, but I guess you just roll with that kind of thing?
I don’t have a problem. I feel like my stance on Van Halen has been telephoned so hard, as in the game telephone. People are like, “Oh, don’t mention Van Halen. He hates Van Halen!” It’s like, “It’s my fucking name! Why would I hate it? It’s my dad! I love my dad! I was in the fucking band! I don’t hate it at all.”
All I’ve ever said is I don’t want to play Van Halen music at Mammoth shows. I’d rather bomb with my own stuff than gain attention for playing dad’s. We covered [Alice in Chains’] “Them Bones.” And before playing it, I would kind of tiptoe into it and be like, “OK, we’re gonna do a cover right now.” And everybody in there is going [whispers] “Van Halen!” And I was like, “And I’m not gonna play a Van Halen song,” and you’d hear people go like, “Awwwww.” And it kind of turned into a dialogue, and I’d be like, “What, you don’t think I love Van Halen?” I would always say that expecting to hear Van Halen at a Mammoth show is like expecting to hear Nirvana at a Foo Fighters concert. And getting pissed off that they didn’t play Nirvana!
I guess just the one time, they did get Krist Novoselic onstage and did in fact play a Nirvana encore.
Yeah. And when they played with Rick Astley, they played a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” version of “Never Gonna Give You Up.” So if anything, it’s a really, really rare occurrence. I think my point still stands! Don’t expect Van Halen from a Mammoth concert.
Just to be clear, you’re not opening the door here.
No, no, I’m not opening the door. If anything, the door is cracked very slightly. Just because you should never say never. But also don’t take what I’m saying right now to go “Oh, man, they’re gonna play Van Halen!” I would say like if I happen to play one Van Halen song at one show in the next 15 years, don’t come back to me like an asshole and go, [dumb-guy voice] “Well, you said you hated Van Halen!”
Well, good luck to the internet at fully comprehending what you just said.
[Laughs.] I probably am just ruining things.
You started playing a heavy new song called “I Don’t Know at All” on tour. Will that be on the next album?
Most likely. I really like it. I don’t know if it’ll be a single or anything. But it’s a song idea that was left over from the first album. There’s about seven or 10 ideas left over that were written around that time. And since then, I’ve written many, many more. So there’s a lot to pick from.
Were you writing on tour?
Not too much, really. It was funny, when you go on tour, you’re like, “Oh, man, I’m gonna play video games. I’m gonna go out and I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that.” And it’s like, “Not really.” Anytime I could sleep, I would take it. I was sleeping a lot. That’s my favorite thing to do on tour.
I mean, you’re already a grown-up going on tour. This isn’t a 22-year-old going on their first tour.
I just really care. It’s my job, right? I think most people who just go out there and party and drink and fucking be hungover, it’s fucking stupid. Like, “Grow up, man.” And we had a pretty strict Covid protocol, too. My overall vibe is that it’s my job. It’s my job to give people the best performance. And if I were out there partying and being a dickhead, I wouldn’t be giving my best performance. You know, I’ve been around a lot of different places where that really wasn’t the case. I like to be very professional.
If you didn’t write on tour, when did you write all this new music?
I wrote a bunch of ideas during quarantine. And then, you know, random things here and there. I’ll just have an idea, and I’ll just bring out my voice memos on my phone. And every bit of time off I’ve had from touring, I started making demos just actually on this computer right here. And so I’ve just accumulated a bunch of ideas that I’m really excited to start working on. Some of them are kind of different, which is exciting. I want to keep challenging myself and not just keep doing the same stuff. Not crazy different but just different vibes and stuff. Maybe even a little heavier, maybe even a little lighter. Just kind of widen that breadth of what the band can be.
Softer as in acoustic, or softer as in more poppy?
Both, maybe. And I listen to heavy music more than anything. I fucking love Meshuggah. Meshuggah is, like, my favorite band. And Jimmy Eat World is also one of my favorite bands. There’s nothing I hate more than gatekeeping in music, you know, or just gatekeeping in general.
Onstage, the only other instrument you play besides guitar is a little bit of keyboard.
I just play the keyboard parts that I got to play because I don’t want to do [prerecorded] tracks.
You could do more jumping around and playing various instruments. Is it a conscious decision not to?
It would be like, “Look at this asshole. Taking the bass from the bass player, taking the drums from the drummer. He’s already fucking playing guitar and singing and doing keyboards. Like how much of an asshole is this guy gonna be?” I really enjoy just being in the cockpit for the album. But when it comes to the show, I’ve got my bros, I’ve got my guys.
What’s the timetable on the next album?
Not a specific timetable, really. But more than anything, I just want to be able to take the process and squash it down a bunch.
So you’re aiming to release next year?
I’m aiming for that. Absolutely. I want it to come out next year.
It seems like you’re settling in for a career as Mammoth WVH.
I think this next round is really going to show people that it’s not just this one-off, you know, Van Halen kid playing musician. Like, this is what I do. It’s what I’ve been doing half of my life. This is all I want to do. It’s the only thing that really gives my life meaning [laughs].
And this is the format you’re sticking with.
This was not a one-off solo band thing. Like, this is what I do. I go in the studio and make the album, then I go out with my live band, just like a Nine Inch Nails thing. You know, Trent goes in the studio, he does the whole thing, he comes out, gets guys to play, and he does it. But in this case, I have a trusted band that I want to be playing with forever.
Although your dad loved playing with your uncle, other than that, I feel like he’d love to have been able to do music the way you’re doing it. Does that play any part in your choice to do it this way?
I’m not sure to that extent. I think I’m just, you know, the reason I’m doing what I’m doing is because I know dad would want that. He loved the music so much. And, you know, I just really wish I kind of had him involved in some way that would piss people off. We would joke about it and be like, “You know, if Dad were to ever be on anything, it’d be, like, ‘Don’t play guitar. Like, I want you to play piano, or I want you to play cello, or I’d want you to hit a triangle in a song, or just something.'” Like, [dumb-guy voice] “You got Eddie Van Halen to play on your album, and he’s not playing guitar,” something like that. So somebody can write up a big scathing essay.
There was apparently some kind of Van Halen tribute attempted that involved your uncle [Alex Van Halen] and Joe Satriani. What can you say about that?
What I can say is that there was an attempt at doing something. But, you know, I don’t like to speak negatively about people, but there are some people that make it very difficult to do anything when it comes to Van Halen. After being in Van Halen for a long time, I really have strived to have an environment where there is no walking on eggshells and there is no personality that you have to deal with. It’s just guys having fun making music and just having a good time. But, you know, from my time in Van Halen, there was always some stuff that gets in the way from just making music and having a good time. And, I think, that’s what happened.
Let’s see, how can we decode that?…
I would love to just sit here and say everything and say the truth. There are plenty of interviews my dad did, where he straight up just said everything. And people hated him for it and thought he was lying. So I could just say shit, but people have already decided how they feel about things, facts or not. So I can say the facts. But that may not align with how certain people feel. I know how Van Halen fans get. They are very motivated by which specific people they like in the band. And it’s just not worth it. Just, we made an attempt, and some people can be hard to work with, and made it not happen.
When you say “we,” what would your involvement have been in this?
When it comes to Van Halen, and decision-making overall and what Van Halen does, it’s Al, and then I’m there and supportive. You know, I basically help make the decisions that dad would be there to make, because I’m in there in his stead.
So basically, you gave your blessing to this attempt that didn’t work out.
It didn’t even get to that point. It was in such an early stage that it never even got off the ground.
Yeah, no, I would really like to do something for Pop.
So to get this straight, was this going to be a tour or a single concert? There’s a lot of confusion.
It was not a tour.
So it was a one-off tribute concert. And even on that, they couldn’t get together?
Right, surprise. Look at anything that’s happened with Van Halen. And look how things have fallen apart. You know? The fact that in my tenure, in Van Halen, we managed to do three tours, put an album of original material and a live album out is a fucking miracle.
It must make any band dynamics you have to deal with now seem like a fucking vacation.
When it comes to Mammoth, it’s just like, “Grow the fuck up. Like, We’re here to have a good time. Like, Why the fuck would you want to ruin that?” But apparently, some people are too full of themselves to let other people have a good time.
There’s been a tremendous amount of confusion out there on this tribute thing.
People love to pin every decision Van Halen has ever made on Dad. But Al’s the brain. Al has been the guy forever. He’s the dude. When it comes to Van Halen, Dad just wanted to play guitar. But, you know, Al’s mentality, and it’s the mentality that Van Halen took for the entirety of its band, is that there’s nothing worth talking about unless it’s happening. So the reason that nothing has been talked about from Van Halen, the official channels, is because nothing’s happened. And I know how that will stir people up and piss them off. But that’s how the operation is run.
When Robert Plant wouldn’t tour with Led Zeppelin, they auditioned all kinds of singers, including Steven Tyler. But just because they jammed a couple of times, doesn’t mean anything really came of that.
Not at all. And just because one person [former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted] decided to talk about it when they weren’t supposed to, it fucked everything up.
Was that really what fucked it up?
That wasn’t the end of it, actually. It was already not happening.
And if someone were to assume that the main problem was a certain singer with three initials, what would you say to that?
I would say “Do your research on the history of Van Halen, and come to your conclusions.”
You’ve had this very public grieving process for your dad. Where are you emotionally with that?
I’m never going to be OK. I think my time where I seem OK is just me not thinking about how I’m not OK. I heard a thing where it’s like, “You’re not necessarily experiencing happiness, you’re just experiencing the absence of sadness.” And I feel like that is how I am most of the time. I feel like my mentality is really below average on everything, most of the time. You know, with the state of the world. I miss my dad, and, you know, people are mean, and everything just kind of creates this, this cocktail of just depression and anxiety that I already have been dealing with my whole life. And you just kinda figure it out, and find the things that are worth living for. And the things that are worth living for, for me, are Mammoth, my girlfriend, my mom, my uncle, you know, my whole team with my band. And you just got to hold on to that stuff.
We joked last year about how you had to save rock & roll, and weirdly, now it looks like it’s kind of coming back in the mainstream, from Olivia Rodrigo to Harry Styles to the pop-punk revival.
You know, Demi Lovato just came out with a pop-punk song. Fuckin’ Machine Gun Kelly switched genres! It’s what’s in. I don’t know if it’s just being used as a facade or if they’re just kind of copping on the scene to look cool. But at the same time, they’re playing the music and that could open up the doorway to other things. It really does seem like rock-based music, or at least guitar-bass-drums-style music, is coming back into the limelight. That’s pretty cool.
Maybe you did it.
Rock & roll is saved! Sorry, Gene [Simmons]! [Laughs.]