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Wolfgang Van Halen interview: stepping into the spotlight

Wolfgang Van Halen
(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

It’s a familiar tale. A 12-year-old kid decides to learn to play guitar, asks his dad if he can have one, and is overjoyed when dad says he can. What makes one particular example of this familiar story less ordinary, and considerably sexier, is when the kid’s name is Wolfgang Van Halen, and the dad in question is Edward Van Halen, the guy who took the perceived limitations of guitar playing as we knew it and tore them up, and completely revolutionised the way the instrument could be played. 

The guitar that dad gave the gobsmacked teenaged Wolfgang, at Christmas several months later, was the back-up version of a custom-striped ‘5150’ guitar that he had used in the promo clip for Van Halen’s Panama. Inside the guitar case was also a festive card featuring a Playboy bunny model. 

“Play, boy!” Wolfgang says today, chuckling at the memory. “He was really proud of that joke.” 

With his debut album Mammoth WVH (more on that to come) out now, Wolfgang Van Halen is introducing himself to the world. Before our phone conversation we learn that a US publicist and ‘Uncle Pat’ from the Van Halen camp will be listening in, although it’s soon clear that Wolf, answering questions with cordial authority, doesn’t need any metaphorical hand-holding.

Two years before he was given the 5150 guitar, Wolfgang began his musical journey playing drums, which he started when he was ten. His dad had brought him a small kit. It’s been reported that the youngster sometimes sat in to watch Van Halen rehearse and on occasion sat behind the bigger set-up of his uncle, Alex Van Halen, who also gave him advice. 

“In fact the encouragement came from my father, not my uncle – not that I have anything against Alex,” Wolfgang clarifies. “No, it was my father that showed me the way. He taught me a straight-up AC/DC, Highway To Hell-style beat, and I took it from there. To this day I consider myself a drummer before anything else. It’s where I feel most comfortable.” 

Asked how many different instruments he plays, he goes through a mental checklist: “I guess… drums, guitar, bass and I dabble on keys. I’ve also worked a lot on my singing, if you consider that an instrument.” 

Did he take any formal tuition? 

“Not at all. It often began with my dad showing me something, and from there I would take it and develop my own style. My dad wasn’t the best teacher,” he continues, laughing. “I would ask him to play something, but he would just proceed to be Eddie Van Halen. He would look at me and say: ‘Do that.’ To which I would laugh and reply sarcastically: ‘Sure thing, no problem.’” 

All the same, Wolf’s musicianship, including his guitar technique, came on in leaps and bounds. At a sixth-grade talent show, he got up in front of the school to perform 316, the almost 90-second instrumental guitar piece written for him by his dad that featured on Van Halen’s album For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (Wolf was born on March 16, 1991 – 3/16 – just weeks before the record’s completion).

During Van Halen’s 2004 tour, which was fronted by Sammy Hagar, 13-year-old Wolf started to make guest appearances with the band. “Now and again I would pop up during my father’s solo spot and play 316 with him,” he recalls. “It was nerve racking, but a fun thing to be a part of."

With his confidence blooming, it wasn’t long before the emerging prodigy could play Eruption, EVH’s celebrated finger-tapping tour de force from Van Halen’s classic self-titled debut.

“How old was I for that? Um… I guess I was fifteen,” he replies casually. “I had started at twelve, and by then I was a pretty confident guitar player.” 

While he was still in the womb of his mother, the actress Valerie Bertinelli, Wolf’s father had serenaded him by playing his guitar up against her pregnant belly. Given that he was named by his parents after the classical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, there was little likelihood that their one and only offspring would pursue a career in anything but music. 

“Not really,” he agrees. “But there was never really an active thought of: ‘I’m going to do this…’ It just gradually snowballed. The process was natural.” 

Perhaps surprisingly, given how accustomed we have become to seeing sons and daughters of rock stars putting bands together, Wolf did not learn his chops by hooking up with a succession of fledgling Los Angeles rock acts. 

“No, there wasn’t too much of that,” he says. “I preferred to play with friends in middle school and high school. We’d get together after class and jam, but it was never taken too seriously. Everything was just for fun.”

Wolfgang Van Halen

(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

Things came to a head in the summer of 2006. Now 15 years old, Wolf had also become a proficient bass player, and as he sat around jamming with his dad and Uncle Alex at Van Halen’s base, 5150 Studios, there was a lightbulb moment. Somebody sent for David Lee Roth, and an impromptu version of On Fire, the closing track from the band’s debut album, was all it took to confirm that things sounded good. Very good, in fact. 

The following year Wolf toured as Van Halen’s bassist, and in 2012 he appeared on what became their final album, A Different Kind Of Truth. It goes without saying that the job brought some gigantic pluses to his young life, but did he have mixed feelings about taking the place of fan favourite Michael Anthony?

“That really wasn’t on my mind,” Wolf insists. “I was just there to support my father in any way I could. He was newly sober, and because of that was dealing with some performance anxiety, so I was very happy to be there for him. The backlash wasn’t anything I thought too much about.” 

All the same, it must have provided a sharp lesson in dealing with fans and the media? 

“Oh, for sure,” he says, chuckling ruefully. “I now feel like a veteran in dealing with unwarranted criticism.”

In the autumn of 2012, with Van Halen off the road, Wolf agreed to help out Alter Bridge guitarist Mark Tremonti, who was without a bass player for a European tour with his solo band Tremonti. Eventually Wolf became a permanent replacement for Brian Marshall, and played on their albums Dust and Cauterize. British fans got their first sight of Wolf playing live in late 2012, during a short run of Tremonti gigs that included one at The Forum in London. 

“That was a blast, and I was so happy to be supporting friends and playing music,” he recalls. “It showed me that I’m happy to do what I do and that the size of the room really doesn’t matter. If there’s people to listen and enjoy the show, that’s what it’s about."

His reputation was further enhanced by an invitation to appear on a solo album from Clint Lowery, the guitarist with the Atlanta band Sevendust. Wolf played all of the drums on 2020’s God Bless The Renegades, and also a sizeable amount of the bass. “I had admired Clint as a songwriter for so long, it was a complete honour to help him out,” he explains.

When asked whether he receives lots of similar invitations, Wolf replies: “Not as many as…” and then reconsiders his words. Seemingly he was going to say: “Not as many as you might think”, but modesty prevails. “No, not really,” he finally replies, adding: “If anybody wants me to play drums, I’d love to. Just hit me up. There’s nothing I like more than relaxing, playing drums and not having to worry about anything else.” 

Wolf’s world was torn apart October 6, 2020, the day his beloved father lost his battle with cancer. While the rock world mourned one of its greatest innovators, his son’s record label released Distance, a choking farewell to the man who had shaped his life. An emotional YouTube promo, featuring clips of Wolf growing from a child to a man, with his father looking on, has now been viewed more than five million times. The bond between the pair is truly something to behold. No wonder Edward wept upon hearing the track before his death.

“I wasn’t planning on Distance being the first song of mine that people heard,” Wolf explains, but getting it out as a tribute to dad felt like the right thing to do. Also for the money to go to his favourite charity.”

Amazingly, Wolf had considered omitting Distance from his debut album.

“That was pretty crazy I suppose,” he admits. “But the response persuaded me to add it as a bonus track because it’s only available digitally right now. It feels like a good thing to [include it].”

Alt

Understandably, Wolfgang is thrilled at the release of his long-awaited album. Instead of using his given name, it came out under the handle Mammoth WVH – both the record and the band. 

“I want us to be viewed as a band rather than a solo project,” he says. “Growing up I always liked the name of Mammoth and I vowed to use it later in life. For those that don’t know it’s what Van Halen were called before becoming Van Halen. My dad was Mammoth’s singer, so that also makes me feel like a kindred spirit.” 

Although Wolf wrote, played and sang every note on the album, Mammoth WVH is also a group, comprising guitarists Frank Sidoris (from Slash’s Conspirators) and Jon Jourdan (Texan progressive hard rockers To Whom It May) bassist Ronnie Ficarro (Falling In Reverse) and drummer Garrett Whitlock (Tremonti). 

So why do everything alone in the studio? 

“Because I could!” he says with a chuckle. “I really wanted to see whether I could pull it off.” 

The album has been a long time coming. Wolf began writing with the intention of doing something on his own in 2013. 

“We started recording in 2015 but then I went on the road again with Van Halen and wrote a bunch more tunes,” he explains. “When I got back I wrote more. Like I said, it took me a while to become comfortable as a lead vocalist. By the summer of 2018 the album was done."

It was produced by Michael ‘Elvis’ Baskette (Alter Bridge, Tremonti, Slash), who Wolf met via Tremonti. Wolf considers Baskette his equivalent of Van Halen’s Ted Templeman. 

“I don’t want to work with anyone else. Elvis is my guy,” Wolf states emphatically. “He helped me to find my confidence as a singer. Working with him is an absolute pleasure; Elvis is my partner in all of this.” 

Naturally, dad Edward heard the record at every stage right up to its completion. 

“Oh yeah. And I’m happy that he loved it,” Wolf says, smiling. “That pride of his is what kept me going in making it.” 

Although the tender, heartstring-tugging Distance might suggest otherwise, Mammoth WVH is a guitar-intensive record that fits comfortably into the category of modern rock. It begs the question of whether Wolf sees himself as a hard rocker, a metalhead or, as Distance could possibly propose, a soon-to-be popular entertainer. 

“I’m a hard rocker at heart but I’m not really interested in labels,” Wolf responds, sounding uncomfortable with the question. “I’m just happy to be making music that I enjoy, and if anyone else feels the same that’s a bonus.” 

At 30, Wolf has his life and career ahead of him. There are so many possibilities; remaining a bandleader, or joining a big group. Would he describe himself as ambitious? 

“Maybe,” he replies cautiously. “But I see myself going headfirst with this. I’m having a wonderful time, and it’s exciting to be behind something that’s one hundred per cent mine. I want to know how far I can take it.” 

For the time being, Wolfgang Van Halen has much to feel proud of. He’s made a cracking debut album, earned a lot of respect for defending his father against the Grammys (for their too-fleeting tribute to him this year’s awards), and more than proved himself as a musician and songwriter in his own right. He seems like a decent, well-grounded guy too. 

“Thank you. That’s good to hear,” he says. “And I’m always here to protect my dad’s legacy.” 

Make no mistake, we will hear much more from Wolfgang Van Halen. 

Mammoth WVH is out now on EX1 Records.