Interview Date: 12/17/2008
Run Date: 01/02/2009
It used to be that “55” was the number most associated with Sammy Hagar, but wrap your head around this figure: the Red Rocker is now 61 years old. Not that it’s stopped him from rocking and / or rolling, you understand. Hagar has just released a new album, Cosmic Universal Fashion, and he’s making the press rounds to promote it, which is how Bullz-Eye came to speak with him. We asked him about life as an elder statesman of rock, his thoughts about Van Halen, and playing in a new band with Chad Smith and Joe Satriani, and he regaled us with stories of being denied the right to change the lyrics to a Beastie Boys song, of how he screams to prepare for shows, and how he once opened for…the Little River Band?
Sammy Hagar: Will, Sammy here. How’re you doing, bud?
Bullz-Eye: I’m doing good, man. Good to talk to you.
SH: Well, thank you. Where are you calling from, Will?
BE: I’m in Chesapeake, Virginia. Right next door to Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
SH: Ooh, that’s kind of a fun little place.
BE: Well, I’ve lived here all my life, so it must be all right.
SH: No, believe me, I’ve been through there. It’s, like, one of those kind of places where certain times of the year you’ve got some good times going on, right?
SH: My wife’s actually from Virginia…and right around there. I met her in Virginia Beach.
SH: What can I do for you, Will? What do you want to know about me?
BE: Well, first off, how did you find your way to Roadrunner Records to release Cosmic Universal Fashion?
SH: Well, they found me! And I’ve been kind of friends with them, with Tom Lipsky for awhile. From the day I left Van Halen, Tom Lipsky was the first guy knocking on my door, but I didn’t do it. I went with Universal. Then I left them, and he came back again…and I didn’t do it. I went with another thing. Then I decided to do my own thing, and then I finally did the Sanctuary record with him, and I came back on this thing. They sounded the most interested in what I was doing because, as you can tell, I’ve made a pretty eclectic record. I wanted to experiment a little bit with Cosmic Universal Fashion, and they liked it. A lot of my other traditional friends in the music industry didn’t like it and I thought, “Well, if you don’t like that song…it’s my main song!” I paid for the video, I did the whole thing myself, and I thought, “I’m not going to just hand this over to somebody who doesn’t get it.” So it was really about finding somebody that wanted to give me worldwide distribution, which is the most important thing to me now. Because I tried doing it myself through the internet, you know, like a lot of people do, and to me it’s a disaster. You make plenty of money, because you get all the money, but I don’t need money, so I’m looking for distribution. I’m not looking for people to go out and find the damn thing or download or whatever. I’m just looking for the marketing plan worldwide so that I can go and play in Greece if I want to go play in Greece. I can go there, play a couple of shows, and have a week’s vacation at the same time.
BE: You released a couple of digital singles for this album, didn’t you?
SH: Yeah, in the beginning, before the album even came out, I had a digital single out: “On a Roll.” That was before I even had plans for an album or had the album finished; I didn’t know it was going to get out in time. But I’m a fan of just putting out a single without a record. It’s hard, because no one wants to invest any marketing money into it to get it out there, so it’s got to be a good word of mouth thing. Otherwise, it doesn’t do much for your career, or it doesn’t sell that well. But I’m a big fan of that. If I had my way, I would release probably…I wouldn’t even make a new CD! (Laughs) I would just release five or six new songs every year, so I could go out and play them on the stage.
BE: How tough is it to be…don’t take offense to this term…an elder statesman of rock, as it were?
SH: I’m not trying to fool anybody. I’m the only guy out there that doesn’t shave off my age. I’m 61 years old, proud of it, and I feel like a kid still. I can sing and perform and act like a kid…which is to my detriment, but it feels great. I’m telling you, the experience of being around that long, you’ve kind of…seasoning is a great thing. It’s kind of like an old frying pan: you throw the meat in there, and it tastes better than if you pulled a brand new frying pan out of the wrapper. It’s, like, “Well, God, this don’t taste as good as the old iron skillet,” you know? So I feel like that with my voice. If I sing a song, even if I’m singing someone else’s song, I think I can put a lot of soul into it and I can do it really good. I mean, thank God I’ve still got my chops. Some people don’t. I don’t smoke cigarettes, I never really did, and I’m a pretty healthy guy, so I still have my chops. When you have your chops and you have all that seasoning and knowledge, you only can get better. I believe it’s like artists, you know, Picasso and Dali and those guys, who did some of their greatest work later in life. That’s because as you get older, you get smarter, you get more abilities, and if you still care and still have your facilities, you can kick butt. I’m in the studio with Chickenfoot right now, and (producer) Andy Johns is an old timer himself, you know? Zeppelin, Stones, Van Halen, he did it all. He just did a vocal with me two days ago that he just said, “Bloody hell, Sam, I think you’re better than in 1986, or whenever it was I worked with you,” and I’m going, “I am!” I really am. It’s like my voice has just got more soul, I’ve got more confidence and all that. So it feels great being an elder statesman. I guess I could have answered that shorter and sweeter, huh? (Laughs)
BE: Nah, it’s all right. But as a follow-up, is it harder or easier to be an old-school rocker in an era where the consumers’ memories are shorter than ever before? I mean, in a sense, I would think that you actually have the ability to be more eclectic than ever, because nowadays you’re preaching mostly to the already-converted.
SH: Oh, they certainly are shorter, but that doesn’t bother me. I stopped being motivated by fame and fortune probably in the middle of the Van Halen era. Ever since then, I’ve pretty much done whatever I wanted to do when I wanted to do it, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have record companies and a following where I could go out and play any city in America, anyway, I don’t know about the rest of the world – I haven’t wanted to do that for awhile – but I would think…I think it’s more difficult for some, but for me, it’s fine, you know, because like I said, I’m not trying to get rich from my musical career. I’m just trying to have fun with it and keep it alive and have it keep me alive with it. There’s something about playing rock and roll music, the freedom of it, that is timeless with age. If The Stones weren’t so out there all the time…I mean, every time they came back, you would see it; you would go, “Man, these guys are older, but they’re still the same.” They’ve been there the whole time, they never went away, so you kind of accept them, which is great. They’re setting the bar for all of us. But like I said, if they just came and went, came and went, and they kept their chops just the way they are, every time they would come back older, but if you just close your eyes, it’s the same. It’s an amazing thing what music and what a band chemistry and songs and the audience and blah, blah, blah…it’s just timeless. You get older, but nothing’s really changed. I mean, everyone is getting older, so if just musicians were getting older and the people weren’t, it would be different. But our fans are growing up right with us, and so it’s really cool. They drop off, you know. Like, I used to sell five or six million records, but of those people, there are only 300,000 or 400,000 of them left that are still interested in buying the record and going to the concerts, you know what I mean? As they get older, they’ve got kids, they’ve got jobs…they kind of drop out. But other than that, the ones that stick with you…? It’s the same. And it’s really cool. I dig it.
BE: Is there any truth to the rumor that The Beastie Boys wouldn’t let you change the lyrics to “Fight for your Right” when you covered it?
SH: Yeah, I don’t think it was The Beastie Boys, but their representatives, management, and attorneys wouldn’t let me change it. But I understand now why, because I understand that Rick Rubin owns 75% of the song, and so they only have 25% of the song…and then there’s three of them and a manager. And that little 25%, they had to cut in half and give it to Eddie Cochran estate because it was using "Summertime Blues" lyrics. That kind of narrows it down to, well, what’s the use here? And they probably had been burned on it in the past, so they just…I don’t know. Whatever the reason, I was disappointed, but I would never dog anyone about their decisions on their rights of the material that they have written.
BE: You were a staple of movie soundtracks during the ‘80s. Do you have a favorite of your contributions over the years?
SH: I love the song “Heavy Metal.” Man, I love that song; I still play it today. Everyone thinks of me as “I Can’t Drive 55” as being my big solo hit or “Mas Tequila,” but ‘Heavy Metal” wasn’t even a hit. When I play that in concert, that’s the one where the audience starts getting a little pushy and is starting to get rowdy. I love that a lot. But as far as a soundtrack as a whole, I thought the “Footloose” soundtrack was really good.
BE: A friend of mine said that he saw you open for ZZ Top years ago…
SH: Yeah, 1983, probably. Yeah, ’82 or ’83.
BE: Now that’s a great double bill…but who’s the weirdest person you’ve ever been teamed with?
SH: (Considers the question) I guess in the old days…you know, the worst experience I ever had was opening for Kiss.
SH: And I wouldn’t call that a weird pairing, but for some reason it just didn’t work. I got booed off the damn stage. I had to bust my guitar up and say “fuck you” to people and I left…and it was Madison Square Garden! But it was their first hometown gig after they made it ,and they came back and played Madison Square Garden for four nights for the first time. And I was on the bill and I played first, and I said to the guys, “Bye-bye! You guys can do this on your own; you don’t need me as a whipping boy.” But I was paired one time with…it was Montrose, Linda Ronstadt and The Stone Ponys, and Humble Pie. We played, and then she came out. I went back to take a quick shower, but she had asked if we wanted to come out and see her, so I’m walking out towards the stage, and I hear the audience screaming and whistling and going crazy…and she’s running off the stage with her hands in her face, crying. I’m going, “Oh, my God!” There’s been plenty of them. I opened for the Little River Band one time in a big stadium, and I didn’t do so hot.
BE: I think you would blow the minds of the average Little River Band fan.
SH: It was to my detriment, the pairings. Except for Linda Ronstadt, it was never where I ruined somebody else. I’m the one that always got burned on the pairings, you know? I had to open for the wrong band.
BE: Do you remember the Thelonious Monster song “Sammy Hagar Weekend”?
SH: (So cheerily that you can almost hear the grin) Yes, I do!
BE: (Laughs) What did you think of that tribute when you heard it?
SH: Well, when I first heard it, I was pissy. Because at that time, I really hadn’t made it big enough, I don’t think, to where I was confident that it was a compliment. I was looking at it as a slam, so I was a little pissy. But for my birthday the before last, in Cabo, Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers…I don’t know if you know it, but John, the guitar player in the Chilis, auditioned for Thelonious Monster, and that’s where Anthony saw him, auditioning for that band, and got him to be in the Chili Peppers originally. I mean, that’s a strange story. So here’s Chad, and for my birthday party he makes….well, a bunch of people made me this video for my birthday, and he was singing that song. Chad was singing with an acoustic guitar sitting on the hood of an old Mustang. (Sings) “Well, it’s a Sammy Hagar weekend…” And I was just cracking up. So, I mean, we do it daily with Chickenfoot. We’re always screwing around with that song.
BE: Actually, I wanted to ask you about Chickenfoot. Did that kind of originally evolve out of your earlier side project, Planet Us? Because I know you worked with Joe Satriani at least a little bit on that.
SH: Well, that’s half the reason we decided upon asking Joe if he wanted to join, but Chickenfoot…Planet Us would have been a great band and was a great band, and there are two songs on my CD that are Planet Us: “Peeping Through a Hole” and “Vertigo.” That’s Planet Us; that’s Mikey (Anthony) and Dean (Castronovo) on drums. But what happened was that Chad, who has a house in Cabo San Lucas close to me, we met about six years ago down there, and we’ve been playing at the club, at the Cabo Wabo, Chad and I, and we’d call Mikey all the time and say, “Hey, come on, man, come on down, we’re going to jam and do this and do that.” So what happened was, we were calling that little jam band Chickenfoot…and then we started getting good. I mean, we’ve been doing five or ten shows a year for, like, six years. So Chad’s going, “Let’s make a record,” and I said, “Okay, but if we’re going to make a record, I need a better guitar player than I am, because I want to be able to really sing,” because I can’t sing that well and play guitar as a trio, you know? So they said, “Well, who are we going to get?” And I said, “Let’s call up Joe Satriani; shit, I played with him before and he’s like a monster!” He’s the best guitar player I’ve ever played with, honestly. So everybody said, “Call him!” And I called him, and he said, “Yeah, I’m interested.” It was crazy. It just came about, and we had no idea what kind of chemistry we would have; we had no idea what kind of songs we would write; it just sounded good on paper. So Joe, because he’s never worked with a singer, has just…he’s just blossomed into this amazing songwriter. I mean, we’re writing these amazing songs. I mean, the whole band is writing some songs, but Joe’s going, “Wow, I’ve got a singer! I can write a song like this…and it’s magic!” I mean, it’s so great, chemistry-wise, and the world is going to see when we come out in April, May, whatever it is, with this record. I think people are going to freak out, man.
SH: They are going to go, “Wow! This a good band!” You know, you can be the best players in the world, but you’re not necessarily a great band. You’ve got people like The Beatles, who probably weren’t the greatest musicians of that era, of their time, but together they were the greatest band that ever lived, just because they had great songs and great chemistry and great vocal sound. You know, it’s really all about the four or five or how many there are of you; it’s really about the package, the sum of the parts. That old story is really true to life in Chickenfoot: as good as everyone sounds on paper, the chemistry is even better.
BE: Is there any truth to the report that you get ready for a show by just screaming for a couple of minutes?
SH: Yeah, I yell and scream at everybody. Not in a violent way… (Laughs) …but at the top of my lungs, which I don’t want to do it right now because, you know, I’m…
BE: (Laughs) No, that’s fine, I understand.
SH: But, anyway, I’ll go, “Somebody bring me a glass of water!” And then I’ll go, “I need a glass of waaaaaaattttttterrrrrrr.” And then, “Pleeeeeeeease!” Shit like that. I yell the set list out. “We’re going to start tonight with ‘Ooooooone Way to Rooooock’!” (Laughs) I don’t know why I feel more comfortable doing that then just sitting there going, “La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.” Somebody might hear me.
BE: (Laughs) Man, it just sounds like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch waiting to happen, though.
SH: Yeah, good luck with that. (Laughs) They could invite me on, and I’ll do it for them live, man.
BE: Do you remember your initial thoughts when you first heard that they were going to have Gary Cherone be the new singer for Van Halen?
SH: Yeah, I thought on paper it was going to be okay. I didn’t think it was going to be a bad thing. You know, Gary can sing; I’ve met him before, and he’s a good guy. So I just didn’t know how the chemistry was going to work. You never know that until you get them together, and, uh, that proved to be not a great chemistry. I mean, I’m not burning them, but, really, it really wasn’t a great chemistry.
BE: Did you happen to see the band in their most recent version, with Wolfgang?
thing, and that's it. What the fuck is the problem? You know, don't blame me. Don't be pointing at me and saying, 'Fucking Hagar, fucking Hagar.' I'm here, brother!”
SH: Well, I saw a million things on YouTube and all that kind of stuff, which…unfortunately, YouTube can be very cruel to the people. So a lot of the stuff I saw was not flattering, but…the only thing I can say about the whole thing with Wolf is that it wasn’t that Wolf was not capable of being the bass player in a band or anything like that. It just took…to replace Michael Anthony and have his vocals on tape all over the damn place, I mean, it sounded like all the background vocals were on tape and it was Mikey’s voice. It was kind of unfortunate that they used Mike like that, because Mike’s a great player, he’s a great singer, and he’s the most consistent human being. I mean, he’s the first guy there and the last guy to leave, and while he’s there does his job perfectly every time. He’s so consistent, and there’s no reason to replace a guy like Michael Anthony unless you just want to play with your son. And, I mean, if you just want to play with your son, well, go start a band with him. Or produce a record with him and play on it. Or whatever. But, my God, don’t ruin a reunion that the fans, millions of fans, have been waiting for for twenty years or something. I just think it was unfair to the fans, and I think it was unfair to Mike. Take Woflie out of the equation. Love the little guy; he’s cool; he’s talented; he’s a good kid you know? But I just thought it was totally unfair. But that’s just my business. I wasn’t in the band, so I couldn’t have protested, but I wouldn’t have done it. Like, when I did the reunion for the Best of Both Worlds, the Van Hagar reunion in 2004, Eddie said he wanted to get a new bass player, and I thought he wasn’t going to play with Mike. I said, “Well, then you’re going to get a new singer, too, dude.” I said “bye” and I split. Then they called me back and said, “Well, Mike’s got to do this and Mike’s got to do that,” and I said, “Well, you guys deal with Mike any way you want, but if you think I’m going to do it without Mike, you’re crazy.” That’s not what the fans want and it’s just unfair. Why? Mike’s the best guy in the band in the sense of…who’s there every night, who’s in tune every night, who plays the song perfectly, who never makes a mistake, who sings right on key? Mikey. You know? (Laughs) There he is, and the rest of us are up and down and all over the place. Why get rid of him? So that’s the only thing I would say about the reunion: that that was unfair. Other than that, I thought Dave did a good job considering he hadn’t been in that arena for a long time, and he got himself in good shape and went out there and worked hard every night. Got to give him some love for that.
BE: So do you have any relationship with Eddie or any of the guys nowadays?
SH: Not really. I mean, I would love to; I would be happy to. I don’t have a problem with them, but they obviously have a problem with me. I mean, it cracks me up how some people…how the chemistry went out in that band. There’s a good example. The chemistry went bye-bye, because we had great chemistry for nine years, and then the tenth or eleventh year, it started going sideways. The eleventh year, it went totally sideways. They threw me out. But there’s something really wrong in that camp that I just wish everyone would really look at and do your math. Go realistically. You know, they always blame me for everything, or they used to blame Dave, but now that Dave’s back, they just blame me. They blame Mike. The truth of the matter is Eddie owns his own studio at his house. We did every record I ever did in the band at his studio. They did 1984 at his studio, that’s how long that studio has been there. It’s state of the art; it’s totally cool. I could go in there right now and make a record. Alex, his drummer brother, lives just a couple of miles away, is there every morning, comes over to Ed’s house, and they sit and have coffee together, whatever. They have at their disposal Michael Anthony, Wolfie as a bass player if nobody else, me and Dave as singers. If they really wanted to, they could call me up or they could call Dave up; I mean, I wouldn’t do it right now, because I’m in the middle of a project, but I would be happy to try to do a record with Van Halen. But they’ve only done one record since I left the band. They did one record, the Gary Cherone thing, and that’s it. What the fuck is the problem? You know, don’t blame me. Don’t be pointing at me and saying, “Fucking Hagar, fucking Hagar.” I’m here, brother! I went down for the reunion tour and said, “Let’s do a CD first; let’s do a brand new record.” Al agreed, everybody agreed; we couldn’t get it done. We got three songs done in, like, four months, and the next thing I knew, it was time to go out on tour. I was so disappointed, because it’s like pulling teeth, you know? Obviously, I’ve made a few records in between. Whether you think they’re great or not is not the question. The question is, why can’t they make a new CD? Why haven’t they done it since 1993? I mean, just do your math, and you go, “Something’s wrong,” right? They can point the finger all they want, but that’s the only thing that drives me nuts with the fans and the internet always going back and forth about stuff. I don’t think there’s enough talk about what’s the problem here, you know what I mean? Eddie can play every instrument. He could do a solo record and play every instrument if he wanted. He could even play drums, that guy. So what’s the problem? Don’t point fingers and accuse me and Mike or Dave in the old days of being the problem. There’s obviously a dysfunction within the creative sect, and right there in the heart.
BE: And, lastly, what do you think is your best, most underrated solo album?
SH: Marching to Mars without a doubt. Marching to Mars…when I left Van Halen, I had so much pent-up solo in me, because I had co-written with Eddie for eleven years, and I did one solo record during that time and one greatest-hits package with two new songs. So I really had so many ideas on ice, and I wanted to really, really make a move musically and just image-wise and everything in my life and my career. So that record was fearless. I went in, and I wrote straight from my heart, and I used the best musicians around on that record, and…I just think it’s a great record. I think every song on there is valid, and it’s some of my best singing and guitar playing and songwriting and some great, great lyrics. You know, songs like “Who Has the Right” never saw the light of day. That’s a great song; it’s a timeless song, you know? A song like “Kama,” which I wrote about my daughter being born, is so for real and so natural. There is just some good stuff on Marching to Mars that makes your heart…like, there are some co-written songs that are just really great. “Little White Lie”? Come on, man, that’s the shit. Need I go on? “Would You Do It For Free?” Come on, that was my first time I ever got funky on a record. (Laughs) Yeah, I just think it was a great record. I really like it.
BE: Excellent. Alright, man, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.
SH: Okay. I’ll see you sometime on the east coast. I guess I’ve got to come back there and party with you…like, spring break or something!BE: Hey, I’m here all year ‘round.