Sammy Hagar on self-belief, Van Halen and the bright side of fame

A press shot of sammy hagar

Rocker, restaurateur, author, multimillionaire businessman, Sammy Hagar is a genuine ‘lifer’ in a notoriously fickle music industry. During an ongoing career spanning five decades, the 69-year-old Californian has electrified stages with Montrose, Van Halen, Chickenfoot and The Circle and as a solo artist. So it’s little wonder he laughs out loud when he is asked to walk through his storied career in a one-hour interview. “You might need a week,” he says, “but let’s see how this goes.”

The twenty-five-year-old who knocked on Ronnie Montrose’s door in 1973 looking to form a band: who was that kid?

That was a kid who wanted fame and fortune so bad that he would have done anything to get it. I’d seen Ronnie the night before at a sold-out Winterland playing with Edgar Winter, who had the number one album in the country, and so to me he was a big rock star and my ticket to the big time. I had real belief that I could make it.

Although it’s regarded as an all-time classic, the first Montrose album never made the charts. Did that knock your confidence?

No, because just having the chance to make a record meant my foot was in the door. I would have loved to have had overnight success, but the prospect of hard work didn’t bother me, because with my poor, blue-collar working background I only knew how to do things the hard way.

You’ve said you were a bit of a slut back then.

Oh yes, I was very promiscuous. I looked at that as part of the rewards of stardom. Rock’n’roll was such a fantasy world to me, and so in regards to groupies I was like, well, this is part of what you do if you wanna be a star.

When Ronnie broke up Montrose at the end of their first European tour, how did you feel?

Like I’d been punched in the gut. Ronnie was getting more and more distant, so I knew something was coming, but it was devastating. I didn’t have a penny in the bank, and I’d a wife and a baby at home, so it was a pretty insecure time. Ronnie was a piece of work, he liked to get everyone uncomfortable

Montrose producer Ted Templeman passed on signing you as a solo artist. Did that serve as motivation to prove him wrong?

It was disheartening initially, because Ted was very powerful at Warners, and all his projects got attention. But I think the reason he passed was because of the politics with Ronnie. He probably thought: “If I sign Sammy, Ronnie is going to hate me and won’t want to work with me.” If he hadn’t believed in me, he wouldn’t have given me money to make my demos.

In 1977 you played at Madison Square Garden for the first time, with Kiss. It should have been a dream show, but it ended up being a nightmare, with the audience booing you off.

Man, the way you’re phrasing these questions is reminding me that I’ve had some hard times in this wonderful life! It’s true, though. The Kiss fans wanted to kill me. And I was like: “Fuck you people!” I was mad, and that show really put a fire up my ass. The next show, I walked out thinking: “I’m going to kill these people!” And that’s the way I approach every live show since that night.

In 1981 you became only the third signing to the newly formed Geffen Records. What convinced you to sign to that label?

I had such a bad record deal with Capitol, and I wasn’t making a penny. Capitol didn’t see me as a top-forty artist, they saw me a road warrior. But John Kalodner, Geffen’s A&R man, said: “You should be a superstar, you should be selling millions of records, and we’ll give you a million dollars to go write the songs that’ll make you a star.” I wrote twenty-eight songs for Standing Hampton, sold a million copies, and that turned me into an arena act.

Why did your ‘supergroup’ HSAS, with Neal Schon, not work?

Looking back, I get it. I can see that you can’t expect a live record to become Frampton Comes Alive if nobody knows the songs. The record company was freaked out. They’d given us a lot of money for that record, and it was real stiff – it only sold like seventy-five thousand to a hundred thousand.

You were obviously aware of Van Halen before you joined, in 1985. What were your initial impressions of the band?

I thought the band was really cool. I liked that they wrote great hard rock pop tunes. They were very unique, their music was edgy but sweet. I was always impressed by them, although I didn’t like Roth’s antics.

Your manager thought you’d be nuts to join Van Halen. Why did you?

At that point in my life I was looking for a reason to go on. I’d had four platinum albums in a row, and was selling out double arenas in almost every city in America, and I was thinking: “What am I going to do now? I don’t need any more money, and I don’t need any more fame…” I was looking for inspiration, and Eddie Van Halen brought me inspiration. I thought: “This is fucking good. This is better than what I can do on my own.”

Your early years in Van Halen sound like they were pretty idyllic.

We were having so much fun at that time, and accomplishing so much – number-one albums, selling out stadiums across America, picking up loads of awards. The only negative I’d say was that we got so confident that we could do anything that it spilled into arrogance. It was the never-ending honeymoon.

So when did things start to go sour?

When [VH manager] Ed Leffler died, everything started to fall apart. The wolves started circling and vultures were landing all around us. We started arguing among ourselves, about everything. But did I see it that they’d kick me out? No. I’d been in bands that got along worse than that. But I’ve said this a million times: it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. If I’d stayed in Van Halen I’d have been miserable.

And then Chickenfoot grew out of jam sessions at your bar, Cabo Wabo.

Yeah. Chickenfoot for Mikey [Michael Anthony, former VH bassist] and I was like everything we were missing with Van Halen, with the creative genius guitar player [Joe Satriani] and the badass drummer [Chad Smith], and everybody getting along. That first Chickenfoot record [self-titled, 2009] might be as fun a record as I ever made, right up there with [Van Halen’s] 5150. Chickenfoot had amazing chemistry, and if I had the chance to go back and do a Van Halen reunion or a Chickenfoot reunion I’d do Chickenfoot first.

Is your recently released new record, When The Party Started, a true reflection of where your head is at in 2017?

Absolutely. How can I write a better rock song than Rock Candy or There’s Only One Way To Rock or Right Now? I don’t think I could in that genre, so I want to say something else. This might not be the new hard rock Sammy Hagar record that a big record company wants, but I love it. If someone wants to know the real Sammy is, with the music I listen to, the way I act, the way I think, it’s all on there.

When The Party Started album is available now via Mailboat. Chickenfoot’s Best + Live collection is available now via eOneMusic.

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Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.