Q&A: David Lee Roth Vents About Van Halen’s Future
David Lee Roth is unquestionably one of the most colorful and dynamic frontmen in the history of rock music – and that extends to his epic interviews as well. Diamond Dave may not say much these days, but when he decides to open up, very little is off limits.
Last week Roth, who is doing a new Internet radio show called The Roth Show and was involved in the White Noise remix of the Van Halen smash “Jump,” opened up in a big way to Rolling Stone. Speaking by phone for over an hour from his new home in Tokyo, Roth spoke about a musical he recently wrote with Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie guitarist John 5, his interest in remixing classic songs as “floor” (the term he coined for dance music) and, of course, Van Halen.
The frontman expressed a lot of frustration at lack of movement within the band, both in writing new material and expanded touring. “I’m not sure what’s in Ed’s mind at this point,” Roth says of guitarist Eddie Van Halen. “Truth be told, Edward and I haven’t written a new song in 20 years.” He also expressed interest in taking Van Halen to festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza – provided, of course, that the rest of the band agrees. Adds Roth, “There’s nothing on the ticket as far as [touring past this summer], and that’s a disappointment, frankly.” Read on for more from our exclusive Q&A.
What brought you to Tokyo?
A lifetime of growing up next to a Japanese neighborhood. First time I held a Japanese sword in my hand, I think I was nine years old, 10 years old. Here now I train four times a week with a fellow who’s a professional instructor and I go to school every day of the week – I’m in school two and four hours variously in Japanese. I’ve never had an issue with changing my geography, perhaps to jolt my mind or my creative forces, or my fighting spirit. The first three months were challenging, I’m not gonna kid you. I came by myself and without knowing the language or anybody here, and cut to today, we have the Tokyo Dome show coming up, the Van Halen brothers and I, and I have more guests here than I had at Madison Square Garden. We sold out the Garden twice last February. I have close to 200 friends and family, all of them I know by first name, coming to each of the shows, so it’s exploded. And creatively it has had a really resounding impact on me. I have an apartment and I’ve been here since last May, actually – wow. I love the United States. I have not given up my New York City apartment or my tomb with a view in Pasadena – I understand the sprinklers are all working perfectly. But I don’t have any real plans anytime soon, until it’s time to talk about The Roth Show, which, again, is an international flavor. We launched that about four months ago, but I broadcast from here and, the miracle of everything, we shoot the show here and wherever I go. And I’ll be heading to New York, I’ll do a month there.
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Let‘s talk about the creative influence being there has had on you.
It’s across the board. Here you can’t join a specific neighborhood. In the United States you can put on a cowboy hat and join the country-western neighborhood. If you’re down below 14th Street in New York City, that’s bohemian, that’s left-wing. I was just speaking to my Uncle Manny, God bless him – he’s 93 years old – and we were discussing some of the controversy involving our remix of the song “Jump,” and he laughed and said, “You’re kidding. Bob Dylan just picked up an electric guitar.” You can’t have neighborhoods like that here. There’s no one particular neighborhood. I shared with Al Van Halen, who I speak with every morning here, “I understand there’s some controversy following the remix idea,” which indeed was Alex’s. Alex had heard Elton John had taken his greatest hits and had it remixed and turned into “floor,” I call it. [People] get confused between disco, house, trance and rave, so I call it floor.
I said to Al, “I heard of some fellows named White Noise out of San Francisco.” I subscribe to Beatport, where all the DJs of the world do file sharing and look over each other’s shoulders in 82 languages. And they did a smashing version of “Jump.” This is not a new idea. I’m not gonna say I did this first. There are four different versions of “Jump” that are floor that are easily as good, if not better, but this one is the most modern. So we got something that is well in line with our attitude, our core of larcenous sense of humor and let’s-take-a-left-hand-turn-now-and-then. We’ve had great success with it already. Alex and I were laughing that anybody cares at all, much less there’s a rallying cry or whatever. You just don’t change the smile on the Mona Lisa? Well, the fuck you don’t.
So will there be more Van Halen remixes?
I spoke to Al earlier and I said, “We gotta license this so we can get it up on Beatport. We can put it on iTunes and reach that audience.” In some senses of the word any controversy that follows Van Halen is akin to asking the country-western crowd, “What do you think of old Michael Jackson?” And then being surprised at the reaction. We have a core audience who is devout, just as any religion or political faction or any kind of long-term rock group has, but we have the capacity to play and to revise and have a whole lot of celebrative fun with a lot of other neighborhoods as opposed to just the lead, bass and drum gang. The brothers and I have a considerable amount of classic music training. When we write songs they almost demand revision and interpretation, as does any great material. I was always loving it when Aztec Camera would take a shot at something that we do or any of the aforementioned.
How will this experimental energy manifest in possible new Van Halen material?
I would certainly look forward to working with Ed on some new material, but we have yet to do that. Almost all of the music that you hear on our most recent album was written and demoed before the first album. And I would certainly look forward to writing a whole list of songs with Ed, but we haven’t found the time to do that [laughs]. You hear the tone. I’m not sure what’s in Ed’s mind at this point. I’m gonna guess that his plans are to write with his son, and I’m not sure where that actually leads. But truth be told, Edward and I haven’t written a new song in 20 years.
The Tokyo dates are coming up. Will there be more after that?
There’s nothing on the ticket as far as travel, and that’s a disappointment, frankly. How long have I been back with the gang? Maybe six years, we’ll say and we have yet to travel to Europe, South America, Japan, anywhere outside of those basic 50 cities in the United States. And again that’s been a disappointment. We have an audience and we have a potential future in many, many places, but our story is one of a whole lotta Shakespeare going on. And I don’t know where the Van Halen future lies aside from the States. We’ll always be able to play our hits – and keep in mind we have more hits than Beethoven, we have more hits than Tony Soprano – so getting onstage and playing that is glorious, and certainly getting onstage with the brothers will always be an excitement for me. But in terms of taking the music past where we found it, I’m not sure where that’s going to go.
And in the interim I’ve written and recorded an entire album of material with a fellow named John 5. It’s called Somewhere Over the Rainbow Bar & Grill, and it was designed as a jukebox musical after seeing what the South Park fellows did. Those fellows are ardent Van Halen fans – they’re been to Vegas and L.A. variously on the last tour. I saw the play [Book Of Mormon] and went home and we started putting together what I guess is called a jukebox musical, but it’s not particular to Van Halen. Indeed we can create Van Halen material as the interstitials, but we have 15 songs ready to go, and it’s my story. Indiana kid goes to the big city, sells his soul to the devil. Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets Dave. It’s knockout stuff.
The “Jump” remix is part of an approach I wanted to take of, “What if we take a specific song and update it both in terms of time period and neighborhood, and you use that throughout the play?” The way “Jump” sounds originally is very different than the way it sounds on this latest version. You can turn it country, you can make it a very sad song. I was also thinking to take this material to one of our finer filmmakers and see if the whole package might be used. That being said, it’s not heavy metal, and no, it’s not dance music. It’s R&B-based, a lot of B3 [organ] and a lot of girl-friendly . . . It’s rock, but think early Rod Stewart, perhaps, arguably the best years, [or] “Tumbling Dice” if you’re thinking in terms of classic. So who knows where that’s gonna go.
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But Ed has his own vision, I’m assuming. We haven’t really been able to speak about it and it’s a disappointment, just as not having a chance for a reunion of the original band. Clearly, vocals are every bit as much a component of success as a rhythm section or a guitar solo, and there’s an old expression saying, “They don’t go home singing the lighting show, they don’t go home singing the production.” You’re right, they sing my words and my melodies. And what we have at our fingertips is arguably one of the greatest high tenor voices ever – that was in Michael Anthony. In our tiny little corner of the universe, that voice is as identifiable as the high voice in Earth, Wind & Fire, as identifiable as the high voice in the Beach Boys. Van Halen is an indelicate house blend of both – that’s intentionally. So I would always look forward to that reunion, and I would always look forward to writing a whole variety of material. I’ve offered the fellows, come on out here to the land of the gods. And if you don’t want to make it that far we’ll make it halfway – Konishiki [his friend and former champion sumo wrestler] has said he’ll lend me his house in Hawaii, Let’s go woodshed. But so far there hasn’t been any response, so hope and faith are not actual tactics and strategies – they’re strippers from Albuquerque.
Let‘s focus on the positive first. Would you want to take those 15 songs with John to the stage?
Absolutely. That’s what it’s aimed at. It’s autobiographic. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow Bar & Grill” is the opening theme song, and it’s about an Indiana kid who goes to sleep – think The Wizard Of Oz – and the characters in his life, the butcher, the baker and the newspaper guy, pop out of posters and sing him a song called “Giddyup.” And he finds his way to all the good things in life, having discovered rock in the Sixties, and there’s a song titled “Alligator Pants” – yes, I own a pair, I wore them for the last two tours. And things go horribly left-of-center wrong, of course, when you sell your soul to the devil, and one of the tunes is called “The Shit That Killed Elvis.” So yeah, it’s pretty stellar material. Again, I’ve offered it up to the Van Halens, but I seriously doubt there are going to be any takers there. As I’ve said, we haven’t written a new song since I left in 1984. Almost everything on that record [A Different Kind of Truth] is from before we recorded the first album or out or about somewhere in that time frame. Wait, what am I saying? “Stay Frosty” is brand new, and I wrote that whole song myself. I wrote the chord structure, played the guitar, the vocals, etc. Therein that was remanded to the back side – well, it’s not a record anymore, side B, next to the last of whatever. It’s an update, thinking symmetrically – “Ice Cream Man,” “Stay Frosty,” I get it [laughs].
You clearly have a lot you want to do individually. Where will this go for you?
Well, I was just on the phone yesterday with John, and we’re now beginning to explore what that means. It’s been a year since our last tour with Van Halen. There’s virtually no impact or contact in terms of writing new material, and given that I don’t have the opportunity to work with original material I invented a whole new website show, Tokyo Hi-Power Style and all the music you hear there is my personal collection. That’s all floor, and it’s kind of talk radio but with that kind of a musical background, and half of it is in Japanese.
That’s heavy lifting, conducting recording sessions completely in Japanese. So I’m pursuing with a vengeance. I went to the Sumo tournament with Konishiki as my teacher, and we went not only to the tournament, but we went to the beya, which is the gym. And we had what in music is called an encounter, question and answer, back and forth. And I asked them, “What inspires you? What compels you?” And variously one would say, “I do not want to dishonor my parents.” Another said, “I would like to be a great champion.” We went around the circle, and one of them said to me, “Dave-san, what inspires you?” I said, “Fear and revenge.” They asked, “Revenge against who?” I said, “People who have a whole lot more talent than I do and then threw it away. Sometimes friends of ours have Maserati-style talent and they treat it like a fucking lawn mower.” And they all laughed.
I said, “Then there are folks who have lived much faster and got much farther down the track. Now my wristwatch seems to be moving forward faster and my knees seem to be going slower.” Everybody sort of nodded. It’s revenge against my wristwatch. And fear that I might not have all the time that I wish I could in order to do what’s in my imagination. I don’t think what I’m imagining is preposterous. I don’t think what I’m imagining is undoable at all. Maybe I’m audacious, but I can’t really even smell it. Let’s get after this, like Grandma Roth said. I’m furious to beat the clock here. And whether or not I do last to 93, I want to live a life well-lived. And I do it with a sense of humor. I brought up something in an interview with one of the magazines here in Tokyo. I said, “I wish Bon Jovi would’ve given me a call before he recorded all of his hits, because the lyrics would’ve been smarter, the melodies would’ve been much more smashing, and they would’ve sold a lot fewer records.” Fighting spirit, Steve-san. It’s a goddamn war every day in the music business in one faction or another. I have a taste for that. I like conflict, and I can admit that now. “Come on, let’s get after this. Where’s the next war, guys?”
What is there left to accomplish that you still want to do musically?
I don’t know that it’s so much to accomplish as it is to get with a team or a group, to get with other folks and have an idea and a vision and to be busy all the time. My favorite expression of Andy Warhol’s was, “I think to be busy is the best thing in life.” And I can heartily agree now and just get on horseback, and if you have to change your direction in momentum, so much better than sitting and thinking about and deciding and not even going. For me, 60 is the new 80. You oughta see my X-rays. So get going, start heading north. And whether we accomplish anything or not becomes beside the point. The goal is to get with somebody and get with a group or team or a squad and get going on something that everybody’s contributing to. I believe in that for me, probably for most folks, more than ever. You might be surprised to hear that from somebody – when you say lead singer, you think that’s a solitary vision, a self-centric kind of positioning. “How many lead singers does it take to put in a light bulb? One. You’re supposed to hold the bulb and let the world revolve around you.” As achingly true as that might have been periodically in my life, I can follow just as good as lead. But I do want to be on that boat.
Would you want to work with another group of musicians?
Certainly, absolutely, and we can sit here for another hour and go through the list. It doesn’t matter the kind of music, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a cowboy hat or a yarmulke. I don’t care if it’s outer space or pop, the spirit is the same. There are only so many letters in the alphabet. When I talk to young musicians or authors and they ask for advice, I say, “You gotta learn all the letters of your own personal alphabet. With music, you need to know all the different kinds of music and everything in and around your given instrument.” They say, “Well, why would I want to learn somebody else’s alphabet?” “Son, you’re not gonna invent any new letters in the alphabet, but if you do learn all of them and you can start creating words with them, well, last I looked, the Bible is written in the identical alphabet as all of my favorite pornography. At least you can make an informed choice.” [Laughs] Which way is the porn store?
It will be very interesting to see what happens with all of these merging interests you have. You mentioned Coachella. Would we ever see Van Halen on that type of stage?
Alex and I have been begging to become part of that, and Glastonbury and Reading and Hyde Park. We keep being shuttled into the heavy metal world, and that’s a very exclusive neighborhood, but here we are – we’re back knocking on the doors begging for Bonnaroo and begging for Lollapalooza and Coachella, not even as an advancement of career, but there’s a whole new audience who doesn’t know and doesn’t give a shit about Van Halen, and that’s exactly the best audience to sharpen your spirit on. That will compel you to the very best that you have. I can’t wait for those opportunities and wish us well. We’ve been asking for those shows since I’ve gotten back with the band six years ago, and I’ll be very curious to see where we wind up come next season.