Interview and Live Photos By Robert Cavuoto
Vault Date: October 7th, 2013
The Red Rocker, Sammy Hagar scored the 11th Billboard Top 25 album of his career this week when his new album Sammy Hagar & Friends debuted at #23 on the US Billboard 200. The album marks the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s highest charting solo album in 18 years, since Marching to Mars.
Sammy Hagar & Friends is Hagar’s first ever collaborations album, featuring many of his legendary friends and band mates past and present including Kid Rock, Toby Keith, Ronnie Dunn, Joe Satriani, Nancy Wilson, Neal Schon, Mickey Hart, Michael Anthony, and Chad Smith just to name a few.
Only Sammy would record an album that ranges from the convincing rootsy blues of the opening “Winding Down” to a hard rock gospel cover of “Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode to the radiant beauty of “Father Sun,” arguably one of Hagar’s most moving songs ever. The result is perhaps Sammy’s roomiest and most heartfelt album ever.
I had the honor to speak with the Hall of Famer about his new release, the importance of chemistry and why he will never rejoin Van Halen!
Robert Cavuoto: I thought your new CD had a real southern rock/country vibe. What inspired you to go down that creative path?
Sammy Hagar: I think it’s the lifestyle that I’m in right now and my head space of the kind of music I listen to. I didn’t start off with this in mind, on making a record that sounded like this. I didn’t start off to make a Sammy Hagar and Friends record. I wrote a couple of songs and started recording. Little by little, I started asking people to come in and play. The reason I think its sounds like it does is because I didn’t preconceive what I was going to do. So it’s really kind of more natural, more organic, more who I really am. And I guess this is really who I am. I listened to the whole record for the first time with the real mixes during a long drive in my car. I went, “Wow, this is really cool. This is really different” It shocked me probably the same way it shocked you a little bit, going “Gee, this is really different.” But I like it a lot. I really do. I’m excited about it.
Robert: Do you think there’s any appeal to crossing over into country?
Sammy Hagar: I don’t think this is quite a crossover. If I was going to do a real country record, I would get with real country guys. I’d go to Nashville, and I’d do it right. But it’s not really what I want to do. I don’t want to make any changes in my life. I want to always continue to be exactly who I am and now more so than ever. I’m getting closer and closer to who I really am whether I’m doing an art project, or building a restaurant. I’m finding myself in my 60’s. Isn’t that smart? [laughing] But it really is fulfilling, to say, “You know I can do this now. I don’t feel uncomfortable.” In 1984 when I did VOA, had I had this idea I would have been scared to death. It’s wonderful not to feel scared right now. I feel, actually, very content about it.
Robert: You basically re-invented Van Halen, by merging your musical style with theirs. Is it difficult not to sound like a Van Halen album from that era whether it is on a solo project or with Chickenfoot?
Sammy Hagar: I don’t have any concerns about any project I do. I’m really kind of a sponge. I’m very influenced and inspired by the people I work with, and that’s why I chose to do a Sammy Hagar and Friends record. I found that in Chickenfoot, it really was enlightening, and it elevated my talents. I really dig being around Joe Satriani, Chad Smith and Michael Anthony. I put myself in situations where I’m with great players, and I find a way to fit in. I find a way to elevate myself, within it. I think I write better lyrics, melodies and sing better when I’m around great musicians. And if I’m just sitting around the acoustic guitar by myself, I’m not as inspired. I don’t have someone to bounce ideas off. So I’m really a good team player, and that’s why I really like working with friends. I’ll make all my solo records like this for the rest of my life. I’ll do another Chickenfoot record which is planned, but I like playing with new people. It makes me different; it changes me; it keeps me inspired. So in Van Halen, all it was the chemistry. By myself, I couldn’t sound like that if I wanted to. My voice sounds like that; I can sing like that; I can write those kinds of lyrics, but without Eddie’s music to marry it together, it won’t sound like that.
‘Cause Joe is every bit as accomplished a guitarist as anyone on this planet. When he and I get together, it doesn’t really sound like Van Halen. It sounds like Chickenfoot. So I’m really proud of being that spongy kind of versatile and easily inspired [laughter]. That’s all it is. It’s not really trying to be anything. It is what it is.
My band is Chickenfoot and if I had a choice to be in one band for the rest of my life, if it could be Chad, Mike, and Joe, I’d be happy. That’s my dream band right there, right now, in my life today. And we get along so well. We have so much fun together. There’s no fucking head clashing or ego trips. There’s no bickering. The only thing we do bicker about is, “What are we gonna do when we’re finished working?” “Well, I want to go to a bar.” “Well, I want to go to a restaurant.” [laughter] That’s about it.
Robert: I recently interviewed Joe and he said Chickenfoot has only one or two albums left. I’m hoping it’s going to be longer than that.
Sammy Hagar: I think we do too, but our schedule dictates when we can get together to do it. We don’t force anyone. No one has to quit their band to be in Chickenfoot. No one has to leave their solo career to be in Chickenfoot. Most bands are like, “Well, you can’t do this and you can’t do that.” We don’t have any of that. It might be stretched out a little longer between projects, but it looks like January we’ll all try and get together and do it. And if we can’t, it will be February, or March or whenever it is. But as far as my solo work goes, I will do Sammy Hagar and Friends for the next decade, if I’m going to work that much or if I feel inspired to go in the studio as a solo artist, I will definitely do another record, this way with different people. You know the Wabos are always a part of my band, but I would like to bring in other people that I didn’t get a chance to play with on this record. Now that I have seen what I can do with other people, it’s kind of inspiring. I’m ready to do it again.
Robert: As a multi-platinum artist, how do you measure success in 2013 with no rock stations playing band’s current material, no video stations, and file sharing?
Sammy Hagar: [laughter] We’ll see. My record came out yesterday, and I guess we’ll see how to measure success because I have no idea. I feel successful that I made a record like this. So that’s one form of success. I got together with people, and we made some really cool music. The next album will be, “OK, how’s it going to sell?” I don’t expect it to go double platinum. I don’t think there’s such a thing anymore. It happens once every couple of years. But I’d like to see it come in the top ten. It’s a very competitive arena right now; there are about 30 new albums out this week. It’s like the biggest release week of the year and boy, I’m right in the middle of it. [laughter] I feel strong that I can hold my own in any arena.
I had really a great experience with my book. I was asked to write a book. I said, “I don’t really want to write a book.” The book company said, “We’d really like to help you do this and make you feel comfortable.” They got me to do it and then they started telling me, “Well, don’t expect to sell many books. I know you’ve been successful in everything you do. But books are different. Rock stars’ books only sell six or seven thousand books.” I said, “Are you kidding me? If I only sold 6,000 books, I’ll never write a book again and never talk to you people again”. I started thinking about them being so negative and said, I’m going to show these people they’re crazy. They just don’t know how to do it.” I went to work and decided I was going to do a book tour and made them push more books out to the locations. In three days the book sold 37,000 copies and went #1. They freaked out. No one’s ever had a #1 book on rock except for you and Keith Richards”. So I don’t take failure too easily, so I’ll go out and roll up my sleeves like I’m doing right now trying to have a big rock hit. I’ve done interviews for the last two weeks all day. And it’s like I don’t care. I want my album to be successful. I’m a classic rock artist. With classic rock, if that they play your song once a week, you have a hit. That ain’t gonna cut it. I’m going to work. That’s all. Let’s see what happens. I’m excited.
Robert: Was there ever a song in your career that you were confident would be a hit and wasn’t or vice versa?
Sammy Hagar: Both ways actually. The first song, “I’ve Done Everything for You,” back in 1977ish. I thought I had a #1 hit single. It was so pop when punk was fashionable. It was such a fun song, my record company said, “Oh, boy, Sammy’s written us a hit.” They released it on Capitol Records, and it got about five radio station ads. It was the biggest flop I’ve ever had. And I said, “This is crazy; this fucking song’s a hit.” But for some reason, the radio rejected it at that time. Five years later, Rick Springfield has the #1 Top-Five record with it. It sold five million records worldwide. I’m going, “I told you it was a hit.” That’s one that I was surprised wasn’t a hit.
Then there is “Eagles Fly,” which was never a single or written to be a single. It’s a very personal song about being born. You know, a deep subject on a Sammy Hagar solo record after I joined Van Halen. It didn’t get any radio play ever. When I play that song at concerts, it’s probably one of the biggest hits I’ve ever written besides “I Can’t Drive 55.” So that was a big surprise for me too because I never thought that one was a hit. I thought it was just a hidden album track, my little self-indulgent track about how I felt about being born. There’s a lot of that in music, and I think I got one on this record – two or three, actually. [laughter]
Robert: I love your version of, “Ramblin’, Gamblin’ Man.”
Sammy Hagar: It’s such a great song – Bob Seger is such a great artist. The reason I did that was because it’s my wife’s favorite Seger song. She’s always trying to get me to sing it in Cabo when I’m jamming with people. I’m always going, “Look, it’s got too damn many lyrics. I can’t jam to this song. I don’t even know it.” Seger to me is the man; it’s a tribute to him like “Margaritaville” is my tribute to another great American rock singer, Jimmy Buffett. I look up to them.
Robert: I was never a fan of “Personal Jesus,” until I heard you’re rocked out version.
Sammy Hagar: Yeah, that was kind of a chancy thing, and it wasn’t premeditated. I was driving to the studio, and I heard it on the radio and remembered that I really liked it. Nothing to do with Depeche Mode or anybody. But that riff is really heavy, even on a synthesizer. Whenever I think about doing cover songs, I think about what would be a cool song to “rock up”. You usually take a folk song like Jimi Hendrix did with “All Along the Watch Tower”. That’s an easy one, but to take an electronic, art-rock band like that, I thought it was pretty risky. At the same time, the band was into it, Neal Schon, Chad, and Michael. They said, “Yeah, let’s try it and started rocking. I said, Yeah, this is great; this is different. You can’t compare the two versions. You can say I like that one better than the other, but you can’t compare them. It’s apples and oranges.” Well, this is apples and taxicabs. [laughter]. But it’s a great lyric and it’s a great riff. I’m a sucker for a good riff and good lyrics.
Robert: Neal joined you on that song along with the other members of Chickenfoot; do you ever see yourself going out with different members in Chickenfoot like you did with Kenny Aronoff?
Sammy Hagar: Probably not. As much as I love Neal and playing with him, Journey works so damn much. They do more shows a year than all of us put together. It would be hard to have him be committed for a long enough period, to be able to really do it. But he’s a wonderful guy to play with. Neal is so prolific on the guitar; I’m always accusing him of having sex with the guitar around his neck. He never takes it off. He’s driving down the street in his car playing guitar. I love playing with guys like that because he’s so liberal and loose with his playing. His hands are frigging butter, man. Like who greased those hands for you, man? [Laughter] Chickenfoot is Chickenfoot. We went out with Kenny last tour because Chad couldn’t do it and we wanted to tour so bad, that we did it. I wouldn’t do that again, not that Kenny wasn’t great. Kenny is the greatest, but Chickenfoot is about the chemistry. The band’s all about the chemistry. Like I said earlier about Van Halen. It’s really about those four guys. If you change one of them, it changes.
Robert: You teased Kenny pretty bad when you played in New York City a few years back.
Sammy Hagar: I’ve never seen a guy play so well. His conditioning is phenomenal. He tried so hard every night; he beat those drums to death. They practically had to rebuild the drum set after every show. He was so determined to fill that seat. And he did; it just wasn’t the chemistry between Chad and me. Chad and I are just goofballs. We have more fun than frickin’ any two people on the planet.
Robert: Kenny was more of a straight man for your teasing.
Sammy Hagar: Exactly. He became the straight man. With Chad, I’m the straight man and Chad’s comic. So you nailed it right there. That was the difference in chemistry. I had to play a different role with Kenny.
Robert: I asked Joe Satriani who’s funnier, you or Chad. He said, “Chad borderlines crazy. You go to that edge but always pull back right before the “Oh my God” moment.
Sammy Hagar: Oh, Chad, definitely, man! Joe nailed it exactly. Chad will go and do something crazy when I’ll say, “Nah, that’s crossing the border.”
Unprovoked, Chad will walk in the room, and he’ll turn a table over, that I was just about to say, “if I turn this table over, that would really be funny.” Chad walks in and does it. Chad walks in and grabs the coat hanger rod, hanging in the dressing room. He grabs it and tries to do fricking pull-ups on it, rips the whole fucking side of the wall out and goes, “Whoa,” lands on his back, flips on his side, gets up, brushes himself off and goes into the next room. He’s completely whacko. I love the guy.
Robert: Your book was really a “tell all book” particularly about the inner workings of Eddie Van Halen. Were there ever any ramifications from him or his people regarding what you wrote?
Sammy Hagar: I only said what I saw and what happened. I didn’t make stuff up, and I didn’t put my two cents in about what I think he did, or what I think he was doing. And that’s the only thing that will get you in trouble with people is when you start speculating on what he was doing. All I did was tell what I saw day after day, and what went down. Everyone else around me saw the same thing. So it wasn’t like, “Well, Sammy’s the only guy that saw that. I never saw it.” Nah, that wasn’t the case. We were always surrounded by security guys, management, band members, and roadies. Everyone saw the same thing. No one complained about that whole thing, because it was horrible, man. That reunion was just a disaster. The stuff we did prior to that, we were having a good time and doing crazy shit, all that was fun and games. But what happened on the reunion tour was not fun and games. It was seriously fucked-up stuff.
Robert: As a fan in the audience, you could definitely tell something was up.
Sammy Hagar: Man, it was definitely up. I’m really happy I wrote that book. One of the reasons I wrote about Van Halen was because of everyone – me and every fan out there, and we sold 48 million records, was asking, why would I quit? I get letters from the fans, “Why can’t you guys get it together? We miss that band. My life isn’t the same without you.” And I’m just going “These people don’t understand.” I have to stop answering that question. And journalists, would say, “Oh, why can’t you guys make a record? Why aren’t you still in the band? What do you think of this? What do you think of that?” I’m going, “I got to write the story and puts it to bed because I’m over it. Eddie and I, under those circumstances, cannot be friends. We cannot play in the same band together. We cannot make records. We cannot go out on tour because I can’t tolerate that kind of behavior and that kind of relationship.”
Robert: You’ve got to do what’s best for yourself.
Sammy Hagar: I had to put that out there, and it’s all good. Everyone said, “Boy did you burn that bridge.” That’s fine; [laughter] I don’t have to look back on anything. I’m very happy moving forward at all times, and as long as I can keep moving forward, I’m a happy man.
Robert: It’s not like you’re a starving artist where you have to go back to relive your success.
Sammy Hagar: Even if I was starving, I don’t think I could do it. [laughter]
Robert: I’m going to see you in Pennsylvania at the Sands Casino in a couple of weeks.
Sammy Hagar: Oh, out of sight, man. That’s going to be great. We’re doing a four-decades thing there. I’ll tell you; it’s a set list from heaven. And you’re gonna go, “Wow, I didn’t realize that there could be that many great songs in one night.” I’m loving this show.
Robert: Is Michael Anthony going to be playing with you there?
Sammy Hagar: I’m not sure. He comes out with me almost anytime he can. We haven’t even discussed that yet. I take Mike for granted. I just book my shows, I have my band, and we rehearse our set. If Mikey shows up, we know what to do.” [laughter]