'The right mix of old and new': Wolfgang Van Halen on building fresh songs from previous sounds

In the current edition of Guitar World magazine, Wolfgang Van Halen takes fans into the early sessions for what would become the band’s well-received 2012 comeback A Different Kind of Truth, detailing his reasons for pulling out some of Van Halen’s previously unheard demos for inspiration.

The album raced to No. 6 among top-selling rock projects on Billboard magazine’s mid-year list, and was followed by a blockbuster reunion tour with original singer David Lee Roth — despite the fact that some diehards had already heard rough versions of several songs: “Tattoo,” for instance, was based on a previously unreleased track called “Down in Flames”; “She’s The Woman” and “Bullethead” were originally part of the band’s 1976 pre-deal sessions with producer Gene Simmons. “Blood and Fire” was based on “Ripley” from mid-1980s soundtrack work Eddie Van Halen did for The Wild Life.

Of course, A Different Kind of Truth wasn’t the first time Van Halen had returned to unfinished earlier ideas when constructing a new album: “Hang ‘Em High” from 1982′s Diver Down, “Mean Street/Voodoo Queen” from their 1981 project Fair Warning and 1984′s “House of Pain” are among those that have had a similar creative birth. But that didn’t stop some from complaining anyway.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Check out David Lee Roth’s hand-written lyrics for “Blood and Fire.” Toward the end, there’s a doodle that enthusiastically says: “BOOM!”]

By the time sessions began for A Different Kind of Truth, Wolfgang, Eddie’s son, had long since taken over bass duties for the departed Michael Anthony — and slowly but surely was beginning to take a more central role within Van Halen.

He knew just how to break the ice between his guitar-god father, drumming uncle Alex Van Halen and Roth, the rambunctious on-again, off-again lead singer of Van Halen: Remind them of their storied beginnings, not their often tempestuous recent past.

Roth’s first tenure as Van Halen’s lead singer was between 1972-85. He then returned in 1996 to front the band for a pair of new tracks to be included on a greatest-hits compilation, before things went sour again. Another brief stint followed in 2001, then another between 2007-08. That made the first tentative steps toward their new studio project last year a delicate situation to manage.

“I knew that Van Halen had this incredible catalog of music they’ve recorded and written that nobody has ever heard. Some people have heard a few of the unreleased demos, but there’s so much more that they haven’t,” Wolfgang Van Halen told Guitar World. “When you walk into the studio, there are endless shelves of recordings. I grabbed a bunch of random tapes and picked out a few songs that I had known and liked.”

From there, the group began reworking the songs, adding new parts, new lyrics, and in some cases a whole new feel — ultimately combining sounds fans had heard before with something fresh.

“It felt like classic Van Halen that was written today; it had the right mix of old and new,” the younger Van Halen says. “I wanted to remind my dad of the mindset he was in when he wrote songs like ‘Running with the Devil’ and ‘Dance the Night Away.’ I thought that recording those old songs would make it easier for dad, Dave and Al to put their minds where they were back then and get back to writing how they would have then.”

    

Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Van Halen. Click through the titles for more …

VAN HALEN – A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH (2012): It’s interesting that A Different Kind of Truth doesn’t always go for the easy hook (recalling Fair Warning), something that may surprise late-arriving fans of keyboard-driven pop successes like “Jump” (and certainly the subsequent period with David Lee Roth’s successor, Sammy Hagar). Some of the material requires more than one listen to completely absorb, and Anthony’s cloud-bursting tenor is missed at times. But A Different Kind of Truth has a way of burrowing in. That’s largely thanks to the presence of Roth, of course. He’s always good for spandex-splitting laugh or two.

AFFABLE MICHAEL ANTHONY SAYS HE WON’T PURSUE ROYALTY CASE OVER NEW VAN HALEN ALBUM: When David Lee Roth confirmed that Van Halen returned to the band’s vaults in search of old pieces of music and existing lyrics for a much-anticipated new album, it brought up the question of royalties for original bassist Michael Anthony. Van Halen had a policy, back then, of crediting all four members equally for each song — meaning Anthony could potentially make a case for a cut of the cash when it comes to A Different Kind of Truth. That won’t happen, though. Anthony, who was ousted from Van Halen along with singer Sammy Hagar in advance of this reunion with original frontman Roth, says he won’t be lawyering up.

SOMETHING ELSE! FEATURED ARTIST: VAN HALEN: A long-waited reunion with original lead singer David Lee Roth has Van Halen back in the news … and us digging through some old albums. Here’s a look back at a few favorite moments with Roth — and yes, Sammy, too — including “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Hot for Teacher,” “Jamie’s Cryin,’” “Good Enough,” “And the Cradle will Rock” and “Ice Cream Man.” Let’s start shredding!

ON SECOND THOUGHT: VAN HALEN – A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH (2012): I stand corrected – and pleasantly surprised, too. When I went into my first listen of Van Halen’s A Different Kind of Truth, I was expecting a steaming pile of mediocrity. Instead, the album is loaded with big, crazy riffing from Eddie Van Halen. As I listen to the record, I keep coming back to one word – swagger. That could be a complete review of this album in itself. It’s something that the best work from Van Halen has always had, and something that, for me, was often missing in the post-DLR version of the band.

Something Else!

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  • Steve Peete

    I was so grateful my first listen through with DKOT. My first thought was, “someone gave them their balls back”… hell ya! This is the VH I’ve been wanting to hear again. I’ll never forget the way I felt when Eruption hit the radio back in the late 70′s… HOLY S##T!!! Thanks to Wolfgang for taking the ball and running with it and his exceptional Bass playing. Alex is sounding as solid as ever with his supreme drumming as he really is the rock drummer’s drummer. DLR is well, DLR, and very much needed. Eddy is the best rock guitar player of all time – undisputed. He is a Clockmaker, not a timekeeper and belongs in realm of greatness with Jaco and Bonzo… My prayers go out to him that he recovers quickly and gets back on stage as Rock needs these guys!!!