Wolfgang Van Halen Discusses Mammoth, Stadium Tours, Songwriting Over Shredding
Like its predecessor, Mammoth II (which can be ordered here) features Wolfgang playing all the instruments, providing all the vocals, and composing all the songs himself. And again, he has no problem shifting between the heavy (“Right?”) and the melodic (“Miles Above Me”)…and even merging both together at times (“Take a Bow”).
Van Halen spoke with AllMusic shortly before the release of Mammoth II, discussing the new album, touring with some of the biggest bands, and if there are any plans to unlock the vault of unreleased music by his father, the legendary Eddie Van Halen.
AllMusic: How would you compare Mammoth II to the debut?
Van Halen: “It was a lot quicker. I think that’s normal with the sophomore release – I think everybody is always like, ‘Oh, you have your whole life to do your first album.’ And then you have only so much time to figure out through 18 months of touring how to do a second one. And that was real – the first album was recorded over three years, ten or twelve different sessions. And this one was done in two sessions in two-and-a-half months. Luckily, I think we came through with a better album. I’m really stoked and proud of it. I think it ended up being a bit heavier and darker in comparison. But there’s still that throughline that keeps it Mammoth and familiar to the audience that maybe loved the first one.”
AllMusic: Was it a conscious decision to do all the vocals and the instrumentation yourself once more?
Van Halen: “Yeah. I think at this point I’ve established Mammoth from its inception as my own artistic, creative vision and outlet that just seems to work for what it is currently – and I really enjoy it.”
AllMusic: Do you think there may ever be a point in the future that you would consider having someone else record with you?
Van Halen: “Yeah, I never say never. But for right now, I just have such a fun time playing everything. I really only get to play drums when I’m recording an album. I just really enjoy the process.”
AllMusic: Let’s discuss some of the tunes from the album that have been released ahead of the album, starting with “Take a Bow.”
Van Halen: “‘Take a Bow’ really represented a more mature shift and evolution in my songwriting – considering it’s almost seven minutes. There’s a really big guitar solo – like a minute-and-a-half guitar solo that I’ve never really done before. So, I think it really represents how I challenged myself in the making of this album. And I’m really proud of the result.”
AllMusic: “Like a Pastime.”
Van Halen: “‘Like a Pastime’ was funny how it started. I was trying to teach my fiancé what a polyrhythm was. And I tried to represent it simply with this repeating drone at the start representing the tempo of the song, and then when the drums come in, the kick is sort of accenting this triplet, polyrhythmic vibe on top. And I think I got it done before I realized I had a song that I was writing that was really interesting and fun.”
AllMusic: “Another Celebration at the End of the World.”
Van Halen: “‘Another Celebration at the End of the World’ I think was the first song that I had for the new album that felt new and exciting. I noticed that the first album didn’t have a really fast song – it was all very ‘rock’ and stuff, but it was more groove-based. Whereas I kind of just had the desire to have a really uptempo, fast, thrashy song. And that came out of that. It was like the first new flavor that wasn’t there with the first album that started to show itself. It was like, ‘OK. Now we’ve got a new thing. This is really exciting.’ And by the time the album was done…with the first one, it was like an argument – ‘Which one should we release? Which one is the first single?’ But with this, everybody was like, ‘Another Celebration’ is the first single.’ And I think it was the right choice.”
AllMusic: I recently read that you credited Tool as being a big songwriting inspiration. Who else?
Van Halen: “I’m sure people are really sick of me bringing it up, but Meshuggah is also one of my favorite bands. Surprisingly, you can hear some of those influences – talking about polyrhythms on ‘Pastime,’ and then on the first song, ‘Right?’, there’s practically a djent/metal/double-kick part after the solo, which is unlike anything we’ve ever done before. I think that Tool influence really comes through on the song ‘Optimist’ – the fact that it’s in a 7/4 time signature and it’s probably the heaviest song on the album. I think I let some of my heavier influences take over on this album more than anything.”
AllMusic: Was it a conscious decision to make this album heavier or did it just happen that way?
Van Halen: “I think it just happened. I love heavy music. But at the same time, melody is an important thing to me – and I think that’s represented well throughout the whole album. No matter how heavy a certain song like ‘Right?’ is, or ‘Optimist,’ or ‘Better Than You’ gets, it always goes back to a chorus that is melodic, and there’s a lot of melody there – no matter what. And they don’t override each other – they can coexist.”
AllMusic: How were the recent shows with Def Leppard and Mötley Crüe?
Van Halen: “That was great. We did just three shows with them, but it was so wonderful. The crew was wonderful, the bands were so kind. I didn’t get the opportunity to meet everybody in Mötley Crüe. I got to see John 5 – who I’ve known for years. He’s always been such a kind dude. And then meeting everybody in Def Leppard was super cool. I had met Joe [Elliott] at the Taylor Hawkins tribute show in Los Angeles, but then I finally had the opportunity to meet Phil [Collen], Vivian [Campbell], and Rick Allen – more than anything, I think we really hit it off. Rick Allen is such a sweetheart. Just the kindest dude. We ended up riding on a golfcart together to the stage, because he wanted to watch our show. So, I ended up walking up to my gig with Rick – and it was really cool. He’s such a kind human being.”
AllMusic: Are you looking forward to the upcoming dates with Metallica and also Alter Bridge?
Van Halen: “Big time. We’ve done I think five or six shows with Metallica over in Europe, and it’s been quite the trip getting used to their insane stage – it’s so cool but so different from anything we’ve ever done. But I think we finally got used to it by that last show – so I’m excited to give it another go here in the States. And with Alter Bridge, we’ve toured a bunch with them, as well. We’re practically family – I’m tight with Mark [Tremonti] and Myles [Kennedy] for a very long time. It’s like a happy traveling family – so I’m very excited to go out and do that again.”
AllMusic: What can fans expect with the upcoming headlining tour this fall, with Nita Strauss opening?
Van Halen: “I am more excited for that than I can possibly think of – because it’s our first true headline run. We haven’t done a full run of headline shows. We’ve had a smattering of some in between certain shows, but this is the full front to back. We have two albums now, so we don’t have to do any covers – we can do a full hour-and-a-half set of our music. And having someone as wonderful as Nita Strauss out there, it’s going to be quite the gig. If you’re a rock fan, you’re not going to want to miss it – it’s going to be a good time.”
AllMusic: How was it playing Van Halen classics at the Taylor Hawkins tribute shows?
Van Halen: “It was emotional. It’s not something I take lightly at all. In fact at first, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be able to do it. When I talked to Dave Grohl, he asked, and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m not sure. I have to think about it.’ I put some time into thinking about it and what I’d be comfortable doing. Because it’s been my sort of mission statement with Mammoth that I don’t want to play any Van Halen music, because I would much rather – as my father said when he was getting sick of playing covers with Van Halen – bomb with my own material than succeed with somebody else’s. And I really would rather build something from scratch from my own and make my own name for myself to the best of my ability. So, I didn’t take it lightly.”
“And also, I don’t want to play that music without my dad, and he’s not here anymore. So, that means I don’t want to play it. Knowing that it was for Taylor and I know he was such a champion of my father – after he passed, he always wore the striped shorts and shirts of my dad at shows. It just felt like the right thing to do. Not so much say goodbye to that material, but just to kind of put it to rest a little bit in my mind – on my own terms. And taking the emotional weight of it all, and just playing with three musicians I looked up to my whole life was quite the incredible experience. I’ll never forget it.”
AllMusic: I thought the Darkness’ Justin Hawkins did a great job singing those Van Halen tunes. Would you consider working with him again?
Van Halen: “I’d love to. Justin is such a sweetheart – he’s the nicest dude. I would love to work with him, absolutely.”
AllMusic: Alex recently posted a few photos on Instagram of himself and his drums. Do you know if he still plays? Also, do you know if he plans on playing in public again?
Van Halen: “I’m sure he does. But in the same respect of my feelings of not wanting to play the material because I only wanted to play with my dad, I know he feels the same way. So, I really don’t know. He’s a very private guy. We still talk all the time, but in terms of playing anything, I don’t know if he really has that desire as long as my dad’s not here.”
AllMusic: Are there any updates as to if/when you may be going through your father’s vault of unreleased music?
Van Halen: “As far as that, Al is certainly the decision maker in that process. I’m just kind of there to help him decide and help what he wants to go through – as sort of being the person in place of my father, in his absence. But when it comes to that, I know my dad was vocal of that in the past, he released everything he wanted to release. So, when it comes to stuff that hit the cutting room floor, that would certainly have to be a serious conversation to have – if anything is actually worth releasing. So, we’ll just have to see. I certainly wouldn’t hold your breath.”
AllMusic: Who are some of your favorite modern day rock artists?
Van Halen: “One of my favorites is a guitar player named Aaron Marshall – he has a band called Intervals. Out of all the modern guitar players, I think he is probably my favorite. I’m super inspired by the way he plays. And my father always said that you can have fun and shred a little bit, but you should be able to sing a guitar part. It should be melodic enough to get stuck in your head. And everything that Aaron Marshall does with Intervals just gets stuck in my head. He’s been a huge inspiration.”
AllMusic: That’s what I loved so much about your father – he was obviously very technically talented, but he always put the importance of songwriting first.
Van Halen: “Exactly. That’s the same thing with me and Mammoth. More than anything, I view myself as a songwriter rather than a guitar player or a drummer or something like that. It’s always for the song – it’s never about doing too much on top of it just for the sake of doing it. To me, it’s about the construction of the song and does it serve the song well enough.”
AllMusic: Future plans?
Van Halen: “I just plan on pouring myself into Mammoth 110%. And that’s kind of looking like what it’s going to be – with all this touring we have ahead of ourselves. And then Metallica has us locked down for next year, as well. It’s a very exciting two years ahead of us. I’m very stoked.”
For more info, visit Wolfgang’s official site.