BY GREG RULE
Twelve thousand fans are screaming their collective lungs out as Alex Van Halen hammers his Simmons pad. Five, four, three, two, one … Kaboom! Smoke bellows out of the drum riser, bombs blast, and slowly, Alex and his silver Ludwigs float 40 feet into the rafters. Barnum and Bailey eat your heart out.
The venue is San Francisco’s Cow Palace and the shirtless drummer is soloing like a man possessed. At 38 years old he appears to be in the best physical condition of his career. And his performance reflects it. Yet surprisingly, Alex Van Halen’s contributions to rock drumming continue to go largely unrecognized by the rock press. Just ask his brother Ed:
“Alex is the greatest, most underrated friggin’ drummer on the planet. I can’t play with any other drummers, believe me. I’ve jammed with a lot of people and, well, Alex and I have this connection. He’s a musician, not just a timekeeper. He comes from the Baker-Bonham school, which is, ’Hey, this is my instrument and I’m not just up here to keep a beat,’ you know. Ninety percent of my inspiration comes from this guy.”
Alex chimes in:” One thing I’ve never done is promote myself, so to speak. I’ve never felt the need to do that, for whatever reason. I think what it really boils down to is, I know what I can do. I don’t care if a thousand people think I suck, or whether I can do this or that. To me, it doesn’t really matter. I like what I’m doing, and that’s the bottom line.”
Surprisingly, Alex has refused nearly every outside offer that’s come his way over the years, thus adding to his relatively low-profile. Why? “This band take up all of my time, “ he says. “Plus, I don’t think it’s fair to do something just for ego gratification, and then come back drained. the outside interests I explore should be applied back into the entity of the band, not burned out somewhere else. I think the same holds true for Ed, He’s done a couple of things; he did that Michael Jackson tune in ’84[“Beat It, “fromThriller], and he did some other stuff. But he hasn’t done any real ’solo’ projects because this is what he likes and this what he wants to do. And if he wanted to do a solo project, it would be, ’Al, you want to play drums on it? Hey Sam, you want to sing on it? Hey Mike, you want to play bass on it?’”
DRUM! spent an afternoon with Alex on his 38th birthday and discussed a variety of issues–from his new streamlined drum set to the making of the band’s latest milestone disc. Here’s how it went.
DRUM!: You’ve played some outrageous setups over the years–for bass drums, Rototoms, radial horns inside bass drums, Simmons pads hidden inside drum shells, and so on. Now we find you playing a more traditional six-piece kit.
Van Halen: Well, I played the elaborate kits because the stages were so big. The kit always looked small, so I started adding stuff. The one thing I didn’t want to do was put up a bunch of drums that I didn’t play. I remember when we used to open for Black Sabbath, Bill [Ward] had a rather extensive drum kit. There were times when he wouldn’t even touch half of ’em. So when we did the video for “Pound cake”–we were pressured for time and the drums were somewhere else–I just got a small kit together because that’s how the song was recorded. It was just basically a four-piece. Ed looks at me and says, “Hey, I can see you now. Why don’t you take this kind of thing on tour with you?” I say, “Okay fine.” And he goes, “I have six strings, you take six. That was it. Basically that’s all you need anyway.
DRUM!: Is this the first time you’ve taken a single bass setup out with you?
Van Halen: Yeah. I started off on double bass.
DRUM!: Was it much of an adjustment going from two bass drums to one bass and a double pedal?
Van Halen: Somewhat, because the left beater hits in a different part of the head and it has a different part of the head and it has a different response. But your foot gets used to it. If I’m not being presumptuous, most people do have one foot that’s better developed that the other. You’re always trying to get things balanced out. My left foot’s the kind of lame one, so…you’ve got to get used to it.
DRUM!: I took a couple of whacks at your kit before sound check, and noticed how incredibly tight your heads are.
Van Halen: Yeah. That’s the way I like to tune. I start off with the bottom head and get it to where it resonates the drum. And then, when I slap the second head on, I always tune it slightly higher than the bottom one. And you can hear when you’re in the range of the drum. The drums I use are somewhat small. But even with the larger drums, I think it’s–as Buddy Rich would say–all in the tensioning. you don’t tune a drum, you tension it. And on top of that, it’s a matter of taste. I know a lot of guys who just love that low thud, and you can’t distinguish anything really. Most of the people who I admired and looked up to were Keith Moon, John Bonham, and Ginger Baker. Their toms had a lot of tonality to them. They were easily distinguishable.
DRUM!: One thing you’ve been able to do, that not many drummers have, is define an immediately recognizable drum tone. But there’s a noticeable change in drum sound on the new record. What role did [producer] Andy Johns play in that? [Editor’s note: Johns is the former producer of Led Zeppelin.]
Van Halen: A big role. Since we first started recording, one of the most difficult things has been to make the band sound, on records, the way we do live. Anybody who has been in the studio knows how easy it is to change the sound of a band. You know, a few knobs here, a little bit of this there, and a little bit of compression here. And if you put the drums in the little room with all the padding on it, there goes all the sound. Maybe somebody suggests how you should tune them on top of that, and the choice of microphones, and how they finally mix it and remix it. Andy seemed like he was the kind of guy who would be able to really translate how we sound live, and I think he came pretty damn close.
DRUM!: How did you hook up with Andy?
Van Halen: Well, I hate to use the word audition, but we had met with a number of people because we had already cut some stuff, and it just needed a little something. The main reason being is, if you tweak the knobs yourselves, and you know that what you’re looking for isn’t quite there, it’s hard to tell anybody. And at the same time, you don’t want it to go out either. So we really felt like we needed a bonafide engineer. And out of the three or four that we had come up with, Andy was the one–not just from a technical standpoint, but his ambiance, his omnipotent presence. I mean he’s over six feet tall, and then he comes in with the cowboy boots and that makes him about 10 feet tall, he eats a few too many burgers, you know. I’m not exaggerating. He just had the spirit of rock and roll. He was not a businessman, he was not too overly serious as far as his demeanor. If you know your stuff, you don’t have to be serious. One afternoon with him and we said, “Yeah, want to do it?” He said, “Absolutely.”
DRUM!:Approximately how long did it take to make this record from beginning to end?
Van Halen: About a year.
DRUM!: What a luxury it must have been to be able to just go in and cut whenever you felt like it?
Van Halen: Yes and no. It can be a double-edged sword, because when you know that you have forever, you might just take forever. But this record didn’t take any longer to make than any other record. The first question everybody asks is, “Why did you wait three years to put out a record?” Well, add it up. A year and a half on tour, half a year to open a club, and a year to make a record. When I say a year, that’s not just the recording. That was nothing. I’m talking about going through and talking with different people, who we should use. This is one of the few times where Edward really didn’t have songs written in their entirely–nothing concrete anyway. You have to mix, master, and that take time. And because you have four loud mouths in this band, and everybody has an a opinion, mixing and mastering takes a hell of a lot longer than it does with anybody else. So there you have it. A year was not really out of line.
DRUM!: When everyone agreed on the final arrangement of the tunes, how did the recording go down? Were the drum, bass, and rhythm guitar tracks cut simultaneously?
Van Halen: Oh yeah. We don’t like to play in bits and pieces. It just takes the life out of it. Some people can do it, and that’s great. I guess if you can imagine that what you’re hearing through the cans is another person on the other side of the wall.
DRUM!: Was there much overdubbing?
Van Halen: I think a little bit more so on this one. It was just layering of guitars, but it was only just to fatten it up a little bit, and it’s the kind of overdubbing that if it’s not there you don’t really miss it and it’s not an integral part of the song. So you could do without it and you wouldn’t even notice it. On this record we actually wanted to play from beginning to end live.
DRUM!: But you flubbed one little thing at the end. would you start over?
Van Halen: Who me, or the bass player?! I’ll kick his @#$! [laugh]
DRUM!: We all know, of course, that you don’t make any mistakes. But hypothetically, would you typically keep portions of a tune and then overdub?
Van Halen: No, that’s one thing that we could absolutely not do. It has to do with the way the drums were recorded; we used 23 mikes on the kit. Nothing was any closer than maybe six inches away. I actually wanted the stuff further away, but Andy being an engineer-typing human, you know, “ I want to little bit of isolation, I want a little bit of control.” So, no you can’t patch. You can’t glue two of them together, because you’d hear it. It’s different if you mike up close or use an electronic device to make a simulated room sound, yeah, then you could do it.
DRUM!: Were you happy with the outcome?
Van Halen: Yeah. The only problem with this record was, out of professional courtesy, I let Andy have this… he had the kick drum tuned too low. I’ve never had a drum tuned that low before. And I used a wooden beater on a real thin clear drum head. One songs and that’s it, time to swap heads. I didn’t like that.
DRUM!: On stage, you use very minimal muffling on your bass drum–just the Remo Muffl’s on the front and back head with no blanket or anything inside. Same thing in the studio?
Van Halen: in the studio we didn’t use any muffling at all.
DRUM!: Thus the big Bonham-sequel bass drum.
Van Halen: Yeah. You’ve got to remember it was Andy who recorded “When The Levee Breaks” and “Stairway To Heaven” [From Led Zeppelin IV, Atlantic]. I mean everybody wants that drum sound. Andy tried to outdo himself. And before we ever got to mixing the record, it was very evident that the only thing in his mind with the drums was that there was no room left for anything else. And it took a lot of tweaking and a lot of bending just to get the drums to sound a little bit more in their chosen point of frequency. I mean if you take a kick drum that moves air from a big speaker and put it through a tiny car-stereo speaker, you’re not going to hear it because it doesn’t move any air.
DRUM!: Was there much outboard processing used, or was it strictly room ambiance?
Van Halen: No, just room, and 23 mikes. I would have been pissed if he would have been pissed if they would have had any kind of outboard stuff on me. You know what I mean, what’s the point?
DRUM!: What about click tracks? You haven’t used many in the past. Is that still your philosophy?
Van Halen: Yeah. Reason being was that if you’re going to use a click, then you may as well just record one person at a time. If you’re playing with a click, stay with the guitarist, or just scrap the whole thing? It’s just one more thing to get in the way. There were four keyboards act like a click. Well there you have it. Click doesn’t have to mean that it’s going clank-clank-clank-clank. It doesn’t have to do that all the time. It could be something that ’s relatively constant with a sequenced bass line. Some people can’t play with click. It’s a mental block. The idea is not to try and keep up with the click. You’ve got to mentally bend yourself to think of the click as somebody else playing and “We’re going to play together.” It’s a trick in itself. Some people can do it, some people can’t. It took me a while to get used to it.
DRUM!: The song “Right Now” [From for Unlawful Carnal Knowledge] uses a sequenced piano part. Live, you wear headphones to hear it.
Van Halen: Right. I play to the sequences. And also on “Jump.” There are only four of us up there, you know. No keyboard player. And if you’ve ever heard Mike [Anthony] play keyboards, you’ll know why! We tried that one tour. Oh man, I’ll tell you, it was fun. We didn’t put any pressure on Mike because we knew he’s not a keyboard player. In rehearsal he can get by fine. But you get in the spirit of things–and Mike does love that Jack [Daniels]–those keys start looking the same! So every night, we knew it wasn’t going to go perfectly.
DRUM!: Do you and Michael have a good musical rapport?
Van Halen: Oh yeah. I think the way Ed and Mike and I play is a lot different than the established way of thinking. Most people think that the bass and the drums are the rhythm section. But with us that’s really not the case. I’m the rhythm section, and Ed and I really play together well. Mike is more of the foundation, period. He’s the bottom grunge, if you will. Sammy always says, “Here’s the rhythm section.” Well that’s fine and dandy. But that’s not really the case.
DRUM!: How cognizant are you of Michael’s bass parts in terms of coordinating your bass drum patterns–do you think about that at all?
Van Halen: Not really. I don’t know. It’s probably because in the early days, Ed and I would play, just the two of us, and I would cover everything. Not only the tempo or the beat, but also what another instrument might do. Lots of ghost notes, little things here and there in between. Nothing really obtrusive, but just to fatten things up a little bit. Usually with Mike, it’s, “Figure out what you’re going to do.” But it all depends on the tune. A song like “Run Around” is pretty straightforward. There, the guitar and the vocals are really the focal point.
DRUM!: Let’s talk about technique for a moment. You’ve mastered the fine art of balancing power with finesse. On one hand, I look at your drumming and think, “This is one of the heaviest hitting guys in the business.” And on the other…
Van Halen: That came from the club days. A force of habit. I wish I hadn’t of started out that way, but that’s the reality of it. At the clubs, you had no mikes. You got these guys who can turn a knob and totally obliterate the drums. So you tend to hit harder, when of course the irony is there’s a certain point at which a drum just does not get any louder. You can hit it with all your might, and it ain’t going to get any louder. But you try telling that to somebody 15 or 16 years old while they’re gigging. Of course, I’ll whack the hell out this thing ’til something breaks!
DRUM!: But yet you manage to bring a lot of finesse into your playing.
Van Halen: Bonham was one of the most underrated drummer, first of all. You know when the guy only gets, upon his death, a half a page in Circus Magazine. That’s when I stopped looking at the magazine. He had a lot of finesse, a lot of stuff that he did in between–other than just the two-four. He brought dynamics and sensitivity to the instrument. Ginger Baker, for instance, a song like “Doing That Scrap yard Thing” [From Goodbye Cream, RSO] is another example. It’s like part of his body is doing something totally different, but it helps it groove. It helps it move along. But it’s something that you wouldn’t ordinarily just think of off the top of the head when somebody says give me a straight two-four.
DRUM!: Watching you warm-up on the snare drum leads one to believe that you have a drum corps or rudimental background. Is that the case?
Van Halen: Well actually I only started doing the rudiments seriously about five years ago. It’s just that I think one of the great things about playing, about being in music is that there’s always room to grow and do different things. You know when we started out, the emphasis was sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. You do your tour–two hours on stage–and then get the hell out of there so you can get laid! I’m not going to practice tonight! That’s not to say that we didn’t take it seriously as far as the music. But there’s only 24 hours in a day. “Why should I spend two or three hours a day getting the finesse stuff together if it’s not going to be heard anyway?” In the studio, it did. But again, I always had been doing it. I did. But again, I always had been doing it. It’s just getting a little better I guess.
DRUM!: Given where you are today as a drummer, do you still find yourself encountering stumbling blocks, do you still find yourself encountering stumbling blocks, either creatively or technique-wise?
Van Halen: Sure. The most obvious ones are overcoming bad habits that I’ve developed, things I wished I’d done differently at the beginning. Like, I sit very low and about the only other person I know who sits this low is Vinnie Colaiuta. It gives me hope that I can develop the foot. When you watch guys like that play, you know you better go back to the woodshed. It’s not that I don’t practice, but I just don’t tell anybody that I do. When I grew up and I saw Ginger and I saw Bonham, all I ever read about was their parting and having a good time. I thought it was God-given thing, and that’s what made them so special. “Hey forget practicing, anybody can do it!” If only you would have known that these guys spent five or six hours a day. I forgot who it was, but somebody said ideally you want to get past the point of even thinking about playing your instrument. you should become totally oblivious to that. Don’t let anything become a stumbling block, and sometimes I just wish I had two more arms so I could play what I hear in my mind. The one thing I’ve always wanted to do is put together a great record with drums being the featured instrument, so to speak. But I know that it’s the nature of the instrument. Drummers, it’s not that they are the low guys on the totem pole. It’s just that when you get your letter from the Union, and it says’ “Attention Musicians and Drummer.” What’s wrong with this picture? What’s the matter with you chumps?! I just shows that it’s the nature of the instrument. It’s like a bass player. Okay, so you have an incredibly fast bass player, but the nature of the instrument is such that it should be underneath. Bass is an instrument that you really shouldn’t even notice until the guy screws up. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s a lot more to playing drums than just technique. I’m sure there are probably hundreds of thousands of unbelievably incredible drummers, but they can’t get their acts together. Because music is about people it’s not just being able to do a perfect buzz roll, and do fives against sevens against threes against ones. I see guys who just are phenomenal players, but they just can’t get it together; it almost makes you feel bad. But what do you tell them? Because it’s something in your heart I guess.
DRUM!: Have all of the years of recording and touring started to wear you down?
Van Halen: Not yet. Every night, when we hit the stage, the rush is still there. When you played well and it sounded well, it doesn’t really matter at times whether somebody else thought you did. But it’s almost inevitable that they’re going to go, “Yeah!” Even though most people are not musicians in the audience. My dad, again, all these words of wisdom, he said, “Don’t ever play for other musicians, because if you play better than them, they’ll probably be jealous. If you’re worse than them, they’ll probably laugh at you–and they all got in for free!” He says, “Look, 99% of the people are not musicians. They’re going to know if you suck, but, hopefully you can marry the two.” And that’s why I think bands like Zeppelin and Cream were in my mind, even Cactus with Carmine [Appice]. Those were really the marriage of great musicianship, song writing, sometimes plagiarizing, and also being able to portray that in a live situation.
DRUM!: You’ve always been a consummate showman, live. And this time around, even though the gear is more streamlined, you’ve added the flying drum riser.
Van Halen: Yeah, well you know it seems that it comes with the territory. It’s either burn the damn drum set down or do something. I guess you could call it the show aspect. People who say that it’s bulls–t and doesn’t account for anything, well, the next time you get up in the morning, why do you comb your hair, why do bother shaving, why do you bother even having your drums cleaned, why do you bother even having a different color surface on it? It’s all show. I think the important thing to keep in mind is don’t let that be the main point of attraction, you know. Yeah, so the drum riser goes up. We tried it once going down into the ground. Sometimes it wouldn’t come back up. The people who sell you this stuff will tell you it can do everything but the windows. And then when it comes time for you to try it out, “Oh, well you didn’t tell me that you had to push up the weight of this too. Well, you mean you’re going to be on it? Oh, no this thing is only rated at 500 pounds. You’ve already got 1,500 on there. What are you doing?” We used to have this thing, on the 5150 tour, where the drums were supposed to be completely hidden from view. The audience saw nothing but stage; everything was underground. Then all of a sudden, boom, the stuff comes out of the ground. All except my drums! And it happened, I’d say, probably about ten times out of 20.
DRUM!: At this point your career and the band’s career, given all that you’ve achieved, do you have anything left to prove?
Van Halen: My father played until the day he died. And I fully expect to do the same. This is not a job. It’s not a career. My father played until the day he died. And I fully expect to do the same. This is not a job. It’s not a career. Quite honestly, when I was very young and people were dying by the time they were 30, I kind of felt that in the back of my mind, “Hey, I’ll probably be dead by then,” which was really stupid. Nowadays, people are being much more aware that you don’t need to be intoxicated, and by that I mean whether it’s heroin, whether it’s cocaine, whether it’s alcohol, whether its smoking a joint. But you know, you don’t do that anymore. It just doesn’t make sense. This is going to sound kind of philosophical, but music is about the truth really. Because it’s just you and your instrument and you are being emotional with your instrument. And that ’s why people remove themselves from it and take a little bit of this and a little bit of that, because they don’t want to expose themselves. In the long run, no, you’re not going to be around. It’s something that I felt for the last five years. So at least a lot more people are talking about it; it’s not taboo anymore.
DRUM!: What happens if the day comes where you don’t feel up to the demands of being on the road?
Van Halen: I think you cross that bridge when you get to it, because–this is going to sound kind of funny- but look, everybody is going to die, you know. It’s inevitable, but why worry about it if you know it’s going to happen. Yeah, there may be a point where I just say, “I don’t feel like going out for ten months and doing this again.” Who knows? When that point comes, that’s when I’ll decide. Maybe we’ll be in hock so deep we’ll have to go out! Maybe we’ll get a beer commercial together! But yeah, you take it as it comes, because the obvious question would be, what did you think in 1985? It didn’t matter. You go on.