Interviewed by Marcel Anders
Published in Playboy South Africa April 2012
In this exclusive interview, Diamond Dave talks about his first Van Halen album in 28 years, the radical changes in the band’s attitude and chemistry, the upcoming world tour, his legendary jumps (and back problems) as well as women, religion, and the US presidential elections.
PLAYBOY: How was it working on a new Van Halen album for the first time in 28 years?
David Lee Roth: (DLR:) Nothing has changed. We’ve worked together periodically. It’s like mixing fuel for a racecar. Ultimately you’ll find the right recipe for what motivates and compels you individually and as an ensemble. And that can be something as simple as how much do you appreciate this one? The answer is generally a whole fucking lot more than I used to. I used to hate going into the studio because I perceived it rather like a test in school. It would be much the same. I perceived of it as a microscope that would reveal imperfection. Today, I am most revered for my imperfections. I’m like your favourite pair of jeans – they’re not perfect, I’m sure. I’m like your favourite leather jacket – it’s not brand new. And the more worn in it is, the more prized it becomes in our culture. And it’s the same for Van Halen in their playing. Consequently there’s more depth. I think there’s more gravity. We’ve confronted our mortality and have returned with album in hand (laughs).
PB: So it’s age and experience that brought you to this point?
DLR: Clearly. There’s a thin line perhaps between rage and great work in the ensemble. We still rage.
PB: Have you put the guys through boot camp – at least mentally? Or how did you make them sound just like they used to?
DLR: What we did was full circle. In theatre, there is a term called “off book.” It means simply that you no longer have to read the script. You have internalised it. One of the reasons that first albums for most artists are so superb and then there’s a slow decent from there is because they were “off book” on that first album. Subsequently, people would go into the studio, write the lyrics and record it there. We didn’t play the studio. We trained and prepped and rehearsed for hundreds of hours until it was Shakespeare. You can’t think of what is next if you’re going to do Shakespeare. Can you really play the song from start to finish without the enhancement of Pro Tools? Can you actually sing what it is you’re singing or is that a fabrication? So for us it was a full circle: what you’re hearing is very much live in the studio. And that is consequently what you’ll hear on the road.
PB: But A Different Kind of Truth does have the spirit of the early Van Halen records, doesn’t it? It’s about women, cars, tattoos, having fun and getting yourself in danger – instead of drinking milk, driving Nissans, and being in relationships?
DLR: Well, we can go song by song. There is a vague sense of humour, but it’s adult in every sense of the word. Even though we’re singing about tattoos, we explore some of the different cultures that tattooing intersects with. I know for a fact that in the US easily 75% of all tattoo customers today are women. And you can watch swap-meet Sally (a swap-meet is like going to a convenience store) get a simple tattoo and she turns from a mousewife into a momshell. What is the psychology of that? Perhaps for the first time she’s telling the truth instead of pretending false virtue. Alternatively, there are times when you don’t want to pay attention to lyrics at all.
PB: However, there are parts where you are just having fun. Like in that line: “If you want to be a monk, you got to cook a lot of rice…”
DLR:: Well, it means hard work. You want to be a monk, it means you got to get used to very austere, hard work. If you want to play like Eddie Van Halen, it is endless, mind-numbing practice. If you want to perform like this band, we have been rehearsing three days a week for four months in preparation for this tour. Most performers in our bracket would rehearse for six weeks. We’re cooking a lot of rice (chuckles).
PB: “And driving with an Asian model is like Kabala – but it’s for free”?
DLR:: Well, you’re quoting out of context: “If the ancient rabbi said to me: It’s a lot like Kabala, Dave, but for you it’s free.” Our perception frequently of spiritual pursuit is skewed by the price tag. Sometimes in America we judge it by the price tag. There are some artists who benefit the product they endorse. Frank Sinatra endorses a scotch and he lends it class. Today, if Absolut Vodka endorses an unknown act, we determine that’s a big product, assume it must be an important or a very cool act. And the truth is, you know, the opposite. Frequently we judge the quality of a new religion by the price tag. And from what I understand Kabala comes with a substantial one.
PB: Maybe you should start your own religion or sect then – the Church of Roth?
DLR: Oh, we may have. What is a religion? It can be football, it can be a political premise, it can be me. My religion, if I had to say, was finding myself in other people’s eyes and identifying that in the music, identifying that in what I do as an artist. And perhaps what I do in my off time.
PB: What about A Different Kind of Truth for a title? I know it’s a line from “Bullethead,” but is it meant in the sense of letting the music speak for itself or what’s the idea?
DLR: Van Halen was always an island – while you were on your way from one place to another, culturally or musically. When we were flavour of the week the first time the world was on a wild ride from Studio 54 and Saturday Night Fever and steaming hot across the channel towards the world of the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Not a bad final destination either. And Van Halen music, Van Halen recreation, Van Halen climate, everything that you encountered on our island had virtually nothing to do with anything else that was popular. We were never cool. We’re not cool today. Nevertheless it is such a signature sound. I don’t know anybody else that sounds like us.
PB: But it sounds surprisingly fresh after 28 years, doesn’t it?
DLR: Yes! Well, there are new influences. You can only get worse if you attempt to remain deliberately young and look only in one direction. There’s been a lot of life here. And I think it’s in the performance and in the sound itself, the care in terms of the sound: how does that drum sound? Not: what is he playing but how does it sound? The sound of my voice is not a choice a producer made, I made it. Listen to the beginning of “Tattoo”: in the very first chorus at the top of the song it’s completely Jason Derulo, it’s Rihanna, it’s been Auto-Tuned and backward echoed to death. ‘Cause I love that stuff.
PB: Plus you’ve got a young kid on bass now. Does Wolfgang bring some fresh air into this ensemble, as you call it, as well?
DLR: No! Trying keep up with Van Halen is a task that’s going to take somebody years to do. The kind of music that we play is about the brothers and myself. We went to school together for theory and orchestration, we went to the college of musical knowledge and played for five years in the clubs and the saloons and the backyard parties together. And we wrote every song that we used to pay the rent together. We are a one-trick pony. It’s a hell of a trick (chuckles), but there’s only one (laughs).
PB: However, you’ve tried to rejoin Van Halen at least twice – in 1996 and 2000 – but it didn’t work. Is this third time lucky or is this meant to last?
DLR: I like the impermanent. I like tension. Whenever things get too comfortable it becomes something other than compelling. It becomes something that is equivalent to comfort food. I like something that is an encounter. And I like the threat of the clock. When you watch a boxing match most people think there are only two opponents in the ring, you forget the clock. And the clock can beat both of them. Let’s invoke that in order to create some tension, some conflict. This is a band that’s lived hard, and has worked even harder. My back doctor says I should have thrown in the towel years ago (chuckles). And Van Halen is a competitive value, in every respect. We’re not here for an exhibition, there’s no ironic wink of the eye or nudge of the elbow.
PB: So a Jerry Springer-style fight is still an option?
DLR: No. This isn’t television. That’s why I’m still around 37 summers later. There is a big difference. A great deal of Rock ’n’ Roll has become a parody of itself. It’s a great way for us and the audience to feel as proprietors. Van Halen is the band that has not been co-opted by any neighbourhood. Not the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, not Rolling Stone magazine, not the Grammy’s, not the Super Bowl. You don’t see us on the red carpet. In a world where the rebels sell and the backwards baseball hat and the hand sign is a specific neighbourhood, Van Halen still remains an entirely separate island. And what do you think, what is art? It’s as simple as something that compels you to thought. Television is not; it compels you to buy products. When you get to the good work you are compelled to question eternally.
PB: I had to travel to Anaheim in 2007 to get a hold of the reunion tour. Will you take this album around the globe or are you just concentrating on the US once more?
DLR: There’s been a lot of changes, even a lot of updates in the band. This is the band that thought we would go play the Café Wha? in Greenwich Village, a place that small, that far downtown, and encounter the press from 20 feet away without a production. Of course! If we have gone there, we can go anywhere. The band is red hot, we have been rehearsing for months. And we are club ready. Seriously, that’s what makes the best arena show. I can fully see Europe, Japan and Australia on future horizons. And I will imagine that this will happen at some point.
PB: Does performing still hurt?
DLR: Only when I’m awake! (laughs) There never was a time, there never was a time when it didn’t hurt. I remember 20 years ago asking one of my Kung Fu instructors if it would stop hurting and he told me: “No.” But it will ultimately look a little better progressively. Perhaps that’s part of what makes it look compelling. It’s part of what makes playing compelling. When it doesn’t hurt, you don’t quite fight as hard. Perhaps it forces one to focus that much more. There’s my medical answer (laughs).
PB: Are you still jumping on stage, or is that something you cannot do anymore simply because of age or pain?
DLR: There is an adolescent whinging that most rock musicians seem to cling to. And it looks kind of funny. Sort of like jokes that were hilarious 20 years ago that aren’t funny now. Or certain dance moves from 20 years ago that are kind of a joke now when you see them. Or certain haircuts you were wearing 30 years ago. And you go: “What the hell was I thinking?” I can cling to specifics, simply because they’re part of the past that’s dangerous. I think the energy and the capacity certainly remains. But there needs to be an update to it.
PB: And taking Kool & The Gang on tour with you – that’s quite an odd choice, don’t you think?
DLR: It’s a left turn. Van Halen appeals to a whole lot of neighbourhoods. Heavy metal is only one of them. Kool & The Gang represents perhaps to us what Clarence meant to Springsteen in his audience. It’s also the sounds of American celebration for several decades’ worth. You couldn’t get through a spring break, a vacation, a burial, a wedding, a picnic of any kind without hearing one of these acts. Uhm… we have chairs because half our audience are women. So we don’t do animal seating. But we might as well not have chairs, because nobody sits down while we’re on.
PB: Crazy From The Heat, your autobiography, including your favourite chilli recipes?
DLR: No! I am focused entirely on what we’re working with here. Everything that you will experience on the road right down to the shoelaces is art centric here. And that’s 100% involvement. We did not have a stage designer, I did it. I went down to the constructor’s and laid it out on their grids. We oversee virtually every department, including the logistics of the tour. “What day do we play Madison Square Garden on?” is part of the language we have learned to speak here in Van Halen. For the first half of our entire career, this was a band that was living off of a dollar and a quarter. We were splitting that four ways. We had to learn these languages. The only thing we had to live on was the live show and it compelled us to learn to do all of those things. Not only can we design and build it, but (chuckles) I can tell you how many trucks it will take to get it to your city.
PB: I need to confront you with this great quote of yours: “The perfect woman has an IQ of 150, wants to make love until 4:00 in the morning and then turns into a pizza.” Is that still valid?
DLR: I think it’s leftover from the 80s. When I was a child I thought as a child, you know? I think her IQ would probably be up around 162 now. Uhm… pizza, let’s be heart smart – I would go with Thai food. (laughing) I’m a little more demanding.
PB: But it’s still a topic to have fun with though?
DLR: Oh certainly. I think you will always muse about who is listening to your music or for whom you’re writing your words for. When you’re composing on a guitar, you are thinking of who is in that audience watching you. And for most hard rock fans, or most heavy metal artists, they’re thinking of audiences that are mostly guys. Anytime you see fists in the air, that’s for guys! However, do you think I ever wore yellow anything for fellas? (chuckles) It just happens to you. Who you think of when you are recording and composing and rehearsing is not something you choose.
PB: The US presidential election is coming up, wouldn’t it be time for President Roth?
DLR: No! I think it’s a responsibility that requires a different kind of focus. You have to be responsible to various neighbourhoods of people, particularly in these trying times. Ah… the only thing that we have to be accountable to as an artist is to accurately and honestly demonstrate a… I don’t know what would you call it? Where your mind is at without false pretences, without masks. On the other hand, once you wear a mask you can really be yourself. Isn’t that what Bono did when he was The Fly, or whatever? I don’t know. I’ll start the next show with “I’m Not Myself Tonight,” but then who is? (chuckles)