Wolfgang Van Halen

by Greg Prato

On key songs from his debut solo album, his contributions to the last Van Halen album (and if there are outtakes), and the definitive songs of the Sammy and Dave eras.

In 2017, word got out that the solo debut from Wolfgang Van Halen was soon to be released. And then... nothing. We later learned that the album was being held back because Wolfgang's father, the legendary Eddie Van Halen, was in ill health.

Soon after Eddie's passing on October 6, 2020, the first songs from Wolfgang – under the title Mammoth WVH ("Mammoth" was a pre-Van Halen band name) – were released. He was the bass player in Van Halen, but Wolfgang is exceptional on a number of instruments, and on the album, also titled Mammoth WVH and set for release on June 11, 2021, he's a one-man band.

Something to know about the album: It doesn't sound like Van Halen, and it doesn't try to. Wolfgang could have become a tribute act (he declined an offer to play his dad's set piece, "Eruption," at the Grammys), but is going in his own musical direction. A big distinction is his lyrics. Some of the songs we discuss here are about anxiety and mental health, something you would never hear from Sammy or (especially) Dave. And as Wolfgang explains, his dad also dealt with anxiety but handled it differently.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): First off, that's a heck of an album cover! What's the story behind it? 

Wolfgang Van Halen: It's a piece of art I've been a fan of for a very long time from this artist named John Brosio. I've been a huge fan of it for, gosh, about seven or eight years now. I think he made it in 2006 or 2007. I just love the way it represents the word "mammoth." When I think about the word, the animal is the last thing I think of. I think it really encapsulates the word in a really fun and creative way.

Songfacts: What made you decide to record all the instruments yourself for your debut album?

Wolfgang: Since I could, I just wanted to have a go at it, like Dave Grohl did for the first Foo Fighters album. A personal challenge, I guess.

Songfacts: How would you compare writing and recording the material yourself to your experience with Van Halen's [2012 album] A Different Kind Of Truth?

Wolfgang: It's a really fun and freeing experience to just be on your own and just fully go for it. With the Van Halen album, there was a lot riding on it – just in terms of how long the last album had come out and just the band's history. There was a lot more pressure. With this, the creative experience was very freeing, and it was fun to just follow what I wanted to hear.

Songfacts: Did you have any trepidation going into the recording as the lead singer? 

Wolfgang: Yes, I did. It took my producer, Elvis Baskette... "convincing" isn't the right word, but he gave me the confidence to really be able to pull it off. I know I wanted to and I wanted to try, I just didn't know if I could do it. But it took him to really give me the confidence.

Songfacts: Let's discuss the lyrical meaning behind several of your tunes, starting with "Distance."

Wolfgang: "Distance" is a song that I wrote between 2013 and 2015. My father had struggled with his health a lot throughout the years, and it was a song that came out during one of the darker times, where it was my brain playing a scenario of what it would be like if I didn't have him in my life, and being able to focus on the idea that while we may not be together at some point, we're never really that far apart.

Songfacts: Was it difficult for you to watch the footage in the video so soon after your father's passing? 

Wolfgang: I had been watching it anyway. I had never been through such a heavy loss in my life before. But that's what I had been doing: looking for any kind of footage I may have had. Then we decided to release the song and it just seemed like the right thing to do. So, I watched as much as I could to supply the clips for the video, but now that the video is out, I can't watch it.

Songfacts: "Don't Back Down."

Wolfgang: "Don't Back Down," the demo title was "Saltbath," which was just a joking mess-up of the word "Sabbath." It has that kind of shuffle-y, Black Sabbath vibe. It's a fight song when you want your team to decimate the other team.

Songfacts: "Feel."

Wolfgang: "Feel" is lyrically rooted in my anxiety, where I always feel like something's wrong, or that I'm doing something wrong and that everything is my fault. Just constant anxiety stuff.

But the track itself was really fun, because the bridge was a really fun moment to record. There's this guitar solo thing while the bass is going nuts underneath into a drum solo. It was a really fun one to record.

Songfacts: "Mammoth."

Wolfgang: "Mammoth" was one of the first ideas written for the project in mind. The demo title was "Mammoth 1." So, I cheekily squeezed the word "mammoth" into the bridge so I felt comfortable enough calling the song "Mammoth." It's about anxiety and depression.

I guess it's some sort of mantra to convince myself to keep going and convince anybody else to keep going when they're doubting themselves. It was really the song that defined the core sound of what the project was moving forward. So, it was an important one in the writing process.

Songfacts: Would you say anxiety and depression is something that you struggle with?

Wolfgang: Absolutely.

Songfacts: It seems like more people today are being diagnosed with anxiety, perhaps because doctors can diagnose it better than in the past.

Wolfgang: I think back in the day, it was like, "Why are you sad? Cheer up!" And it's more a chemical thing than a "Why don't you smile more?" kind of thing. I think it was looked on more as a joke back in the day, and now it's being taken more seriously, as it should.

Songfacts: Do you think that your father suffered from that, too?

Wolfgang: Anxiety? Absolutely. It's one of the main reasons why I'm such an anxious person. And it's why he drank.

Songfacts: "You're To Blame."

Wolfgang: When I write my lyrics, while they mostly come from personal experiences, I like to write them from a perspective that anybody can insert themselves into and get their own meaning from it. I tend to write my lyrics as this amalgamation of everyone who has ever done me wrong, and I think that really shows in that song. While it may not be specifically about anyone, it's about everyone who has ever hurt me.

Songfacts: "Think It Over."

Wolfgang: "Think It Over" lyrically is about nostalgia, and not being able to move forward. Just the idea of nostalgia controlling your life.

But song-wise, it was a really fun breath of fresh air. It's kind of a pop song. It was my dad's favorite song – he loved it so much and it's one of my favorites as well. But it was really fun to flex that poppier muscle for it.

Songfacts: Did your father get the chance to listen to all the Mammoth material, and if so, which songs did he enjoy most? 

Wolfgang: Yes, "Think It Over" was his favorite, but he was so proud and happy with all of it. He was the only other person – other than me – to have all the ideas and everything on his phone. He had what would be the album, and then he had about 10 more other ideas that are pretty fleshed out but hit the cutting room floor during the recording process. Those will probably show up on an album in the future.

Songfacts: How long were the songs completed, and how long did you hold off releasing them for?

Wolfgang: Everything was finished about halfway through 2018.

Wolfgang joined Van Halen when he was 16, replacing Michael Anthony on bass for their 2007 tour, with David Lee Roth up front. This same lineup: Eddie, Alex, Wolf and David Lee Roth, recorded the last Van Halen album, A Different Kind Of Truth.
Songfacts: On A Different Kind Of Truth, which songs did you have the most hand in writing?

Wolfgang: "Stay Frosty" was an idea Dave brought in that was completely original and not stemming from an older demo, but in terms of structure, I was the one that put it together. It was just this little acoustic ditty, and we were like, "Well, what do we do? We're not sure." I was the one who actually structured the entire song on how it would go.

And then there were the more fresher ideas like "China Town" and "The Trouble With Never," which I was really able to insert my own flair into and do the tapping intro with the capo on "China Town."

But ideas like that, and "You And Your Blues." "As Is" was a fresher idea. The ideas that were stemming from older ideas were things like "She's The Woman," "Beats Workin'," "Bullethead," "Big River," and stuff like that.

Songfacts: Do you remember if there were any leftover songs from the A Different Kind Of Truth sessions?

Wolfgang: There were not. I don't know where this rumor came out saying that we recorded like, 60 songs. What's on the album is everything we recorded. I have no idea where that rumor came from.

There was one song we almost did that we wrote in the studio, but it fell apart before we had the chance to do it. It's so weird – I see Van Halen fans on Twitter go, "I have the inside track... they recorded like, 60 songs!" And it's like, "No. No. No."

Songfacts: What do you consider the definitive Van Halen song?

Wolfgang: I think that's hard to boil down. I look at the Hagar era and the Roth era as two sides of the same coin, but I think they should be equally viewed and appreciated. I think Fair Warning and 1984, those two albums are really great representations of the Roth era, and I really like For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and Balance from the Hagar era. But I guess if I really had to pick iconic songs from each era, I think "Dreams" from the Hagar era, that's one of the best things my father ever wrote. And for the Roth era, "Unchained" is pretty fuckin' awesome.

Songfacts: Largely due to seeing "Mean Street" performed on the tours you did with Van Halen, it led me to a whole new appreciation of that song.

Wolfgang: Yeah, I love everything off of Fair Warning. "Hear About It Later" is one of my favorite songs.

Songfacts: While it seems like the primary focus of what made your father such an iconic guitar player was his soloing, he was such a phenomenal rhythm player.

Wolfgang: Everybody focuses on the tapping and the fast stuff, but his real strength was in his rhythm playing and his songwriting.

Songfacts: What was the most exciting Van Halen song to play live?

Wolfgang: I was really stoked in 2015 when we played "Dirty Movies." That, and we played "Drop Dead Legs." We opened with "Light Up The Sky," and we also played "In A Simple Rhyme" with the outro ending, called "Growth." Being able to play those was... YES! It was so exciting to play stuff like that.

Songfacts: What are the touring plans for your album?

Wolfgang: Right now, we're just sitting at the starting line, waiting to know when it's safe to do so. We have a couple of dates in September and October, but for right now, it's just, "We'll see."

We're all just trepidatiously walking into this unknown future of a post-COVID concert world, but I'm really looking forward to it, whenever it may slowly start to have a semblance of normalcy.

Songfacts: Who is in the touring band?

Wolfgang: It's the same band that we played on the Today show and Kimmel. Frank Sidoris, who plays with Slash, is on guitar, as well as [guitarist] Jon Jourdan, who has his own band called To Whom It May. Ronnie Ficarro, who played bass in Falling in Reverse, and Garrett Whitlock, my good friend who I played with in Tremonti, is playing drums.

Songfacts: So Mammoth is your main project going forward?

Wolfgang: I already have poured all of myself into this, and I plan to keep doing so.

June 9, 2021

A good place to follow Wolfgang is on Twitter at twitter.com/WolfVanHalen

Further reading:

Van Halen Songfacts
How Eddie Van Halen Revolutionized Rock Guitar
Van Halen in Photos, 1979-1982
Eric Senich of the Van Halen News Desk on the Songfacts Podcast
Fact or Fiction: Shredders

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