Sammy Hagar called into Rolling Stone the other week to chat about his contribution to The Art of McCartney, a 42-track collection of Paul McCartney covers by Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, the Cure, Kiss and many other huge names. Hagar sings “Birthday,” and is still a little shocked he was asked to participate in the first place. But when Sammy Hagar is on the phone, it’s impossible to stick to a single topic. The Red Rocker remains one of the funniest and most unfiltered men in rock, especially when the inevitable subject of Van Halen, and the extremely slim possibility of a reunion, comes up.
How were you approached about singing “Birthday” on this McCartney tribute album?
The guy that was producing the thing asked me. I’ve thrown a birthday party in Cabo every year for 25 years, so I’m pretty much a birthday celebration guy. “Birthday” is a good screamer and a nice fit for my voice, and the guitar riff is really nice.
So you think they just picked you for it because you’re seen as a party guy?
I was hoping they’d thought of me as an artist, but they probably did pick me because of that. If I had my choice of songs I would have went with “Let Me Roll It” or “Maybe I’m Amazed,” one of those songs were Paul gets up in that upper register and really screams.
Still, it’s a cool honor to be on the same collection as Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson and all those other people.
When they came to me I didn’t even know who was going to be on it, though that was my first question. You get bamboozled a lot in this business. People have an idea, get you to do it and then say to other people, “Well, Sammy Hagar did it.” I didn’t know if their plan was to bamboozle other people. But now that I see everyone else on there, I’m actually shocked they asked me.
I like to degrade myself a little but so nobody thinks I’m a guy with a big head. But it’s just really cool to be on with some of those people.
To switch gears here, I know you’ve played some shows with Jason Bonham on drums where you do a bunch of Zeppelin and Van Halen songs. Are more of those coming?
Absolutely. As far as I’m concerned, that’s my new house band. It’s me, Jason Bonham, Michael Anthony and Vic Johnson. We call ourselves the Circle because this band has kinda taken me full circle in my career. I can play from every era, from Montrose to Van Halen to solo, Chickenfoot and some Led Zeppelin. In Chickenfoot, we didn’t play songs by the Chili Peppers or Van Halen, but the Circle plays my whole world and everyone else’s world that’s in the band. It’s been really special so far.
Are you taking it back on the road soon?
Well, I don’t go on the road very much now. I’m old! I would, however, love to do some big festivals. But to go out and do 100 shows or something? I don’t think my body and my voice could take it. I credit myself with having somewhat of a preserved voice. I can still sing all these songs, but if I tried to 100 shows a year that would probably be my last one. I’d rather stretch it out and do 20 shows a year and do that for another five or six years.
That group would be amazing at Bonnaroo. Might that happen?
I would never go anywhere I wasn’t asked! You gotta give those guys a call and say, “You should get Sammy and the Circle.” I’d love to play there. We would kill at a festival like that.
Are you going to make another Chickenfoot record?
Joe [Satriani] is my favorite writer to work with since Eddie [Van Halen.] I’d rather write a record with him than anyone else, but I don’t see any reason to make a new record. Going through the whole experience with a record label, and then going out and doing 150 interviews, a big tour and waking up at 4:00 a.m. to go on Howard Stern all to sell 35,000 CDs…It starts to feel like, “Hmmmm. Is this pay for play?”
I mean, I love making music. But doing it on Chickenfoot’s level means spending a half million on a record. We write and record for six months. It’s a lot of work, and then to not sell many records. It’s disappointing. I don’t like being disappointed. I like winning.
Do you mind the fact that no matter what you’ve done with your life, you’ll forever be known as “Former Van Halen Singer Sammy Hagar?”
No. Man, if you put that whole Van Hagar catalog together and listen to the body of work it’s incredible, especially the highlights like “When It’s Love,” “Why Can’t This Be Love,” “Right Now,” “Dreams.” I’m honored to be a part of that. I’m sorry about the bad blood, but I’m totally honored. That’s the peak of my freakin’ musical career, no doubt about it. I was a platinum artist before that, but we became multi multiplatinum artists. I mean, I’ve only been on the cover of Rolling Stone as a member of Van Halen.
Do you see any scenario where you’d play with them again?
I would play with anybody that loves me and that I love. That would include Van Halen, but the love’s not there right now. I do love those guys. We really bumped heads on the last tour [in 2004.] Anyone that saw that last tour or read my book knows that I’m not gonna take any blame ’cause there’s no blame to give me. I went out and did my job probably better than anyone else in that band. Anyone that saw the show, I think, would agree with me.
I had “fuck me” money before, and now I have “fuck you” money.
That tour was just a mess and I would never go into a mess like that again. I’m too happy as a human being to be that miserable ever again. I was miserable for the last 40 shows. The first 40 shows I was thinking, “Well, maybe Eddie will straighten out” or “Maybe this can come together.” But that didn’t happen, and by the last 40 I was miserable. I would, however, be in the original band that we started. That was a love fest full of creativity.
What’s confusing to fans is that Eddie always says he has hours and hours of these great new songs, and then their album was almost all reworked stuff from the 1970s.
It’s a strange one. There’s a real dysfunctional thing about Van Halen. It used to work, I think, when we were kids. But as adults you can’t go around saying something and then not deliver. I think people are becoming aware that there’s something not quite right.
When we did the reunion thing I said, “Let’s do a new record and we’ll go out and play it live.” Everybody said, “OK.” About four months later we had three songs with everything done but the guitar. I just said, “This isn’t working. Obviously, this is a greatest hits record.” That was the last thing I wanted. That’s what broke up the band to begin with. But, yeah, there’s just something not too prolific.
And the fans never have any idea what’s happening. Are they making a record? Are they gonna tour? No information ever gets out.
I think that helps them. If they went around telling people what was really going on, I think it might drop some jaws. That’s just my opinion.
It’s amazing Dave and Ed have been able to work together. He’s been back now for seven years and it hasn’t fallen apart yet, at least not publicly.
Oh, I don’t think they’re working.
Well, they get through the tours at least.
I made it through a reunion tour that was just about the most dysfunctional thing I’ve ever done in my adult life, times 10. But I made it through. There’s something funny about a concert. They can work for dysfunctional bands. You can get into a fistfight backstage. You can get into a fistfight the night before. You can be trashed, lying on the ground, feeling like you’re dying. But when you drag your ass on the stage and 15,000 people are screaming with their hands in the air, you get revitalized. Then you look at the guy next to you, the guy whose neck you want to break, and you think, “This is good. I can tolerate this.” When the show is over, you go back to fighting. And then there’s the money. But, look, a lot of bands are in that situation.
This is obviously never going to happen, but the dream scenario for fans, and probably promoters, is a tour that features you and Dave taking turns singing, with Michael on bass for all of it. Beyond that, they’re stuck with the same show they’ve been doing since 2007.
You mean that Sam and Dave tour with Van Halen as the backup band? Yeah, that would be a dream scenario for me too, but it would be the same old thing. On the reunion tour, we traveled on separate planes. You check into the hotel at different times so you don’t even see them in the lobby. You don’t really see them until the gig. I could deal with Dave on that level. [Huge laugh.] But he’d have to be cool.
A tour like that would be the coolest thing for the fans ever. I would do it for the fans. I wouldn’t do it just for the money. Everybody would have to be cool and have their hearts in it. I hate to give out bad news, but I just doubt it’ll ever happen. I would like to just see Mike back in the band with Dave. If that works, all right, I’ll come in next.
It sounds to me like you’re semi-retired at this point, though.
Yeah. I am. I mean, I’d still do a tour. I’ve got to say, I’ve never done a tour like the way they did the last one. They did two shows a week, maximum three. There was never two in a row. That’s a financial disaster for a band, though I guess when ticket prices are that high you can do it. It would make it much easier on me than three in a row though. But I don’t know…Maybe we can do one big show. Come on. We’ll play for the whole world on one huge stage!
There’s just so many songs they can’t do now. They’re confined to the Dave era, which ended 30 years ago.
Absolutely. That’s the hard part for the fans. The band acts like, “Oh, those songs were never written.” I’m like, come on! They were Number Ones. We sold about 46 million records together and they have to dip around that. That’s why it seems like it’s inevitable that some day someone is gonna have to come around and say, “Hey, let’s do this again. Wanna play these songs? Fans need to hear them.” We play those songs in the Circle, but they can’t.
You know, I don’t think about this kind of stuff too much. But then someone like you comes around and stirs the Van Halen ashes. Believe it or not, I’m a big sucker for it. After these interviews someone always goes, “Oh my God, you shouldn’t have said that.” I’m like, “Fuck that!” I say what I want, all the time. I love those guys. I love what we did. I would be involved with them again in a second if it was cool and right. But if it’s not, I would never go back to that nightmare. That’s the basic, bottom line.
You know who I miss? Fucking Al. He’s the most fun, that guy. There was something about Al and I, we had a real special relationship, even more than Ed and I. Now, Ed and I were the creators, but when it came time to just sit around and shoot the shit, Ed and I never could do that. It was either me and Mike or me and Al.
Have you spoken to Al in the past ten years?
No! I haven’t talked to him since the reunion. Hey, he’s attached to his brother at the hip. And rightly so. They’re brothers. They should be.
The whole thing is a real shame for the fans.
Yeah. They should be a little more fan-friendly. That’s my recommendation to them. My second one would be, get Mike back in the band and give them all the original members everyone wants. The whole time I was there, we heard that complaint every day. The fans want the original members. Well, dammit, give it to them. You got your chance now. I’m OK. I’ll sit on the sidelines. I’m happy with my life.
I imagine your book pissed them all off, but they seemed to really dislike you before that for some reason.
I think they’re mad because I did so well with the Cabo Wabo sale. At one time, they were part of the cantina. Then I started the tequila company and then sold it. That just scared them.
That really gave you “fuck you” money.
I kinda had that before, but you’re right. I suppose I had “fuck me” money before, and now I have “fuck you” money. That’s absolutely right, and they don’t like that.
So, what’s happening with you next year?
I want to put out a live album with the Circle. We’re a brand-new band and our first record will be a greatest-hits record. Top that!