The night Wolfgang Van Halen stepped on stage as a frontman with his own band for the very first time is seared into his memory. It was July 21, 2021, at 350-capacity club The Bottleneck in Lawrence, Kansas. His solo project-turned-full band Mammoth WVH were making their live debut and his family were there to support him: his mum, the actress Valerie Bertinelli, his uncle Pat and Wolfgang’s then fiancée (and now wife). But still he was, by his own description, freaking the fuck out.
“I was sitting there in the little dressing room, going: ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” he says. “I’ve found that the time that I’m most unable to control my anxiety is the first time I’m doing something. And that was a really, really, really big first – the first Mammoth show, the first time I was the frontman, the first time having to be the thing that everybody was looking at.”
The thing is, he’d played venues bigger than this before. Much, much bigger. In 2007 and 2008, when Wolfgang was in his mid-teens, he played bass on Van Halen’s hugely successful North American arena tour, which saw his dad and uncle, Eddie and Alex Van Halen, reuniting with original singer David Lee Roth. That was followed in 2012 by a second, equally high profile VH tour, and another three years after that.
“It was a lot of pressure, but we had rehearsed constantly, to the point where those songs were in my bones,” he says of his time playing with Van Halen. “And luckily nobody was staring at me – they were staring at Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth on the stage together – so I got to lay back and do my part.”
Of course, Wolfgang Van Halen made it through that first Mammoth WVH show in Lawrence, Kansas and plenty more since. Most recently he’s been opening for Metallica on the European leg of their M72 tour, playing football stadiums on a huge, in-the-round stage. For someone who suffers from anxiety and depression, he’s doing a great job of putting himself in the spotlight.
“I’m not that kind of person where it’s: ‘Yeah, the reason I do this is because I want to see my name in lights and I want to hear everybody shouting my name,’” he says. “I do it because I love writing and creating music. That’s all there is to it.”
Except it isn’t, not quite. Because when you have the surname Van Halen and your dad is EVH, there’s a whole lot of expectation that comes with it, not all of it asked for.
Wolfgang Van Halen has released two impressive solo albums under the Mammoth WVH name so far, the most recent in early August, but he’s already lived a lifetime in rock’n’roll. We’re sitting at opposite ends of a sofa on the second floor of guitar company Gibson’s London HQ. He’s the exact opposite of the cliché of the brash, belligerent rock-star offspring. Instead he’s softly spoken and attentive, and not a little droll. He’s open and unguarded when he talks about his father, and himself too. He puts his struggles with anxiety and depression down to insecurity, which he thinks started when his parents separated in the early 2000s, although there’s more to it than that.
“Trust issues with my dad’s drug-abuse issues,” he says, mentally checking off the reasons. “A relationship that was really meaningful to me that ended with me being cheated on. I had a family member steal from me… I’m still working through a lot of that stuff today.”
And then there’s his surname. He wears it lightly but proudly, although he’s fully aware of its weight and the reaction it can cause.
“I’m not a person to some people,” he says evenly, “I’m just an extension of the name.”
Wolfgang Van Halen was born on March 16, 1991, and named after his dad’s favourite composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. While growing up there wasn’t one specific moment when he realised he was the son of a famous musician, it was more of an accumulation of understanding.
“There’s videos of me running on stage when I was four years old just to see my dad,” he says. “And sometimes I’d go places with him and he’d get recognised. But I do remember one day I was atthe studio with him. They’d just done the remasters of all the [VH] albums on CD. He’s like: ‘Oh shit, I never really showed you these before…’”
Wolfgang’s first instrument was the drums, which he took up at the age of nine. He’d play along to Van Halen’s Best Of Vol.1 and Enema Of The State by pop-punk heroes Blink-182 (“Travis Barker is my hero,” he says of the latter’s powerhouse drummer). But his dad never pushed him towards music, even when the young Wolfgang took up the guitar.
“A lot of people assume: ‘Oh, he taught you everything he knew, it’s in your genes, in your blood.’ No. I’m self-taught. I learned everything myself. Sure, you could argue the environment helped, but I feel like that’s a cop-out cos of the amount of practice I put into it.”
Asked if he ever asked his dad for a guitar lesson, he shakes his head. “No. Maybe I asked him: ‘Hey, how do you do this?’ But even that was few and far between.”
The young Wolfgang and three of his friends put together a bedroom band in their early teens called The Vents to play System Of A Down and The Strokes songs. But his first proper band? That was Van Halen.
He was 16 years old when he walked on stage at the Bobcats Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina on September 2007 to play his first public gig as bassist with the reunited Van Halen (or “being fired out of the cannon”, as he wryly puts it). He’d been putting in the hours rehearsing for the tour since he was 14, but neither that nor the fact that he was just a kid made any difference to the more dug-in sections of the band’s fan base, who were disproportionately livid at the idea that he’d taken the place of original Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony.
“It was tough,” he says of the often toxic reaction his presence prompted. “I was there to support my dad, but I was aware that I’d become the biggest enemy of every forty-to-fifty-year-old man out there in the world. It was something I didn’t know how to handle. That did a lot of damage to me.”
He has nothing but praise for Anthony today. “Mike and I are very cordial,” he says. “He’s a wonderful fucking guy. We talk and it’s great.”
Recording Van Halen’s 2012 album A Different Kind Of Truth was “a crash course in collaboration”. Wolfgang loved being in the studio with his father and uncle, although navigating the band’s internal politics could be like walking through a minefield. He recalls working on a brand new song with Eddie and Alex they’d dubbed Ain’t Talkin’ About Panama. They agreed that they needed to pick the right time to present it to Roth, but the producer let the cat out of the bag.
“He told Dave: ‘Check this out…’” says Wolfgang. “And Dave was like: [abruptly] ‘No, not doing it,’” he says, laughing. “The relationship between Van Halen and their singers was always complicated.”
Wolfgang had to put up with a lot of shit during his time in Van Halen – the kind of shit no teenager deserves, no matter what their parentage – but he says it was worth it just to be able to play with dad and his uncle Alex.
“It felt natural,” he says. “We’d play non-stop, we were in the studio every day. We’d barely take Sunday off. We became this trio, this unit. It felt natural, it felt like the only thing I needed to be doing. I miss it a lot.”
Wolfgang didn’t write his first proper song until he was in his early 20s. He’d plonked around on the piano as a child, but that was young-kid stuff. He then spent a chunk of his teens focusing on Van Halen’s music. It wasn’t until he’d toured as bass player in Alter Bridge guitarist Mark Tremonti’s solo side band in 2012 and 2013 that he felt equipped and confident enough to start writing his own material.
The first full song idea he came up with was the track Mammoth, which would finally emerge years later on Mammoth WVH’s debut album.
“The demo title was Mammoth I, because I saw it as the birth of this new thing that I wanted to do,” he says, then pauses. “Wait,” he says enthusiastically. He pulls his phone out of his pocket and plays a snippet of the original demo for me (it sounds pretty similar to the finished version, even through the tiny phone speaker).
The title was significant. Mammoth was the name of his dad’s band when they started out in Pasadena in the early 70s, before they rechristened themselves Van Halen at Dave Lee Roth’s insistence. As things began to coalesce with this new project, Wolfgang figured Mammoth would be both the perfect name and a subtle connection to his heritage. Typically, he was worried about whether it was the right thing to do. “I didn’t even tell dad that I wanted to use the name Mammoth until two years into it. I was nervous asking him. He was like: ‘Why the fuck would you be nervous about that?’”
It took eight years for Wolfgang to release his debut solo album. When it did come out, it was billed as Mammoth WVH. His name – and, more pertinently, the Van Halen surname – were notable by their absence, something that wasn’t unconnected to its lengthy gestation.
“I was trying to work out who I was,” he says. “Call myself Van Halen Jr and I’ll have people watching. You hear my name and you’re like: ‘I know what he’s about.’ But that’s not what I’m about. Sure, that stuff is in my blood, but it’s like: ‘What do I have to offer of my own merit as a songwriter and a musician?’”
The first song to come out under the Mammoth WVH name was Distance, a slow-burning rock anthem powered by an emotionally raw vocal. ‘No matter what the distance is, I’ll be with you,’ sings Wolfgang, his voice a mixture of defiance and desolation. It was released in November 2020, just a month after EVH died from a stroke following a long, on-off battle with cancer. Wolfgang was understandably devastated. Even today, the sense of loss is tangible. The song’s poignancy was emphasised by a promo video showing Eddie playing with his son at various points through his childhood.
“My dad’s health was up and down my whole life,” Wolfgang says now. “He initially got cancer when I was eight years old. He had half his tongue removed. I remember Distance coming about after an episode that had happened prior [to his death]. It was me just imagining…” His voice trails off. “It’s crazy how poignant a song it became afterwards.”
He says he found himself in tears at times when he was writing it. “I was in such a dark space. The uncertainty, the emotional weight of everything I was experiencing. That’s when I really started understanding how healing music can be.”
He seems at ease talking about his dad. There’s sadness there, naturally, but pride too. It sounds like they had a great relationship.
“When it was good, yeah,” he says. “Nobody’s perfect. He had his demons, but he was always there and he loved the music. At the same time, he wasn’t insisting on being involved. He wanted to watch me grow and be my own person. But he was so proud of everything I was doing.”
Wolfgang has dropped the ‘WVH’ from the title of his new solo album, it’s titled simply Mammoth II. Like the debut, he wrote and played everything on it himself. It was written and recorded over a much shorter time-span span than the debut, albeit one defined by much personal trauma and upheaval.
“There’s more of me dealing with the illness that took my dad on the second album than on the first,” he says. “It’s an aggressive album, the lyrical content is angry but sad and depressing at the same time. It’s the fall-out from all that happened.”
‘Angry, sad and depressing’ might be part of the equation, but so is ‘fun’. Not least on raucous rock’n’roller I’m Alright, a sarcastic, snarky rejoinder to the haters that offers a literal “fuck off” to those who rag on him for everything from his surname to the fact that he has the temerity to want to play music. The song is merely an extension of his approach to online trolls, which is to give as good as he gets.
“I always had fun with it,” he says of the take-no-shit approach that fuels his frequent Twitter take-downs. “Finding those opportunities was always fun to me, but I think I lost it once dad passed. People being rude and trying to say hateful things don’t bother me. It’s when people are stupid: ‘Oh, you’re milking the Van Halen name.’ It’s my fucking name, you grape. Stupidity bothers me more than people trying to hurt me.”
Those self-appointed Van Halen gatekeepers are likely to be unhappy at the fact that the chances of a much-speculated Eddie Van Halen tribute concert are pretty much non-existent. For Wolfgang, his appearance at last September’s Taylor Hawkins tribute concert at Wembley, where he played Van Halen’s Panama with the surviving Foo Fighters under a giant image of his father, is as close as it will get.
“For me, it was a tribute to Taylor but it was also a tribute to dad,” he says. “It was my way of getting my closure outside the mess that is the social hierarchy of Van Halen and the fact that a tribute show will never happen.”
He sounds resigned but emphatic when he says that. Still, it must be disappointing for him.
“Certainly,” he says, then he changes tack slightly. “The thing is, people are, like: ‘You need to do a tribute, man.’ I am a tribute. Everything I do is for and because of my dad, and I think that’s tribute enough."
Mammoth II is out now via BMG.