How Wolfgang Van Halen Is Making His Own Beautiful Noise

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Heavy is the head that wears the crown. In this case it’s Wolfgang Van Halen, whose late father Edward single-handedly reshaped guitar playing in much the way Jimi Hendrix did a few years prior. But rather than get caught up in the expectations of others, the younger Van Halen has been charting his own course, even while maintaining an extremely close relationship with his father, who wound up passing away on October 6, 2020 from cancer at the age of 65.

Wolfgang Van Halen
(Photo by Travis Shinn)

Building on the success of his solo band Mammoth WVH, the 30-something guitar-playing songwriter made his debut with his self-titled 2021 album that yielded “Distance,” a cut that earned Van Halen a 2022 Grammy nomination for Best Rock Song and was written as he watched his father struggle with cancer. Amid dealing with his grief and working on his craft hitting the road as a support act for Gun’s N’ Roses and Alter Bridge and being personally invited by Dave Grohl to participate in the Taylor Hawkins Tribute Concerts in London and Los Angeles, Van Halen returned to the studio at the end of 2022 with a renewed sense of purpose.

The result was Mammoth II, a 10-song outing that the earnest and cheerful multi-instrumentalist saw as part of his continuing creative evolution even as he played all the instruments as he did on the first album.

“I think with the second album, I came into it with a lot more confidence after proving to myself that I was able to do it,” he explained. “There were so many unknowns on the first album. It was done over the course of three years where we recorded over many different sessions. And I wasn’t even sure if I could sing lead. I was just kind of nervous all around and it was a test to see if it was even possible. We ended up seeing that it was, which is why I was so excited to go back into it with all of that. It’s almost like the first record was a rehearsal for the second one.”

“I think after touring for two years, instead of trying to be a singer like I was on the first one, I came into this one as a singer because I’ve been doing it. There were so many aspects from touring that you don’t get had you not done it. I think the live aspect of playing really played into some of these songs on the new album, which is why I think it ended up being a bit more aggressive, heavy and upbeat.”

Whereas his father gleaned inspiration from the likes of Eric Clapton, Allan Holdsworth and Jimmy Page, the younger Van Halen’s influences lean more towards the likes of Blink-182, Tool and Swedish extreme metal band Meshuggah. On the new album, those sonic nuances are flexed be it in the infectious combination of layered vocals and pounding riffs that infuse the nearly seven-minute closer “Better Than You,” the thumping pop-punk “Erase Me” or the breathtaking sweep of “Like a Pastime” with its jackhammer rhythms that go from staccato sonic exclamation points to more of a serpentine time change.

It all reflects a musician very much on his own creative quest that while it is very much fueled by the hard rock approach of the father is definitely the sound of a son forging his own path and having a good time along the way.

“The challenges going into this project were just trying to expand up on the sound and trying to do something new versus treading old ground,” he said. “I think that’s why I maybe pushed a bit harder in terms of my songwriting and the length of certain songs. I started to not get super-careful or nervous about worrying that a song should be around 3:30 for a single. I think that’s where ‘Better Than You’ and ‘Take a Bow’ sort of came about. And then I wanted to push myself after doing the Taylor Hawkins shows and people seeing me play guitar.”

Wolfgang Van Halen got his start sliding into Michael Anthony’s bass slot in Van Halen when the former was only 15.
(Photo by Sven Mandel/CC BY-SA 4.0)

“I think they wanted to expect a bit more guitar solos and I think as a songwriter first, I usually do whatever I want that I think fits the vibe. And I think there are more aggressive songs on this album, so that called for more solos. I think I wanted to make a better, concentrated effort on guitar solos.”

Only 15 when he cut his teeth sliding into the bass playing slot previously held by Michael Anthony in Van Halen, Wolfgang started playing drums when he was nine after his father taught him how to play “Highway To Hell” using magazines to pound out a rhythm on a table. When the elder Van Halen saw his son was musically evolving, he purchased his progeny a Roland V drum kit. And like his father, Wolfgang graduated from drums to guitar when he was 12 and learned how to play “316,” an instrumental the late guitarist originally recorded for 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and is a nod to his son’s birthday. And while he originally tackled the song to play at his sixth-grade graduation, the younger Van Halen would later play it with his father in the latter’s namesake group and most recently walked down the aisle to it with now-wife Andraia Allsop. With so much going on, Wolfgang and his band (guitarists Frank Sidoris and Jon Jourdan, bassist Ron Ficarro and drummer Garrett Whitlock) are eager to hit the road.

“We’re embarking on our first sort of full-length tour and we’ve got Nita Strauss opening for us who is a badass,” Van Halen said. “It’s going to be really fun. We’ve already had a couple of shows that have sold out already, which is crazy. We’re playing an hour and a half set and is our longest set yet. As a headliner, everything is new for us. And then moving into next year, we have a whole other year of opening for Metallica. We’ve did that last year, which is crazy. We had a fun tour with Slash and Myles & the Conspirators. One of the Conspirators, Frank Sidoris, is in my band—I stole him. So he did double-duty on that tour, which was fun. And then also, a dream come true for me is that we’ll be opening for the Foo Fighters this year.”

Given the technical prowess of his late father, it’s easy to think that Wolfgang Van Halen’s main takeaways from being around his pop’s musical genius would primarily have to do with complex woodshedding. But instead, it’s a far more simplistic and spiritual lesson he learned.

“I think more than anything what I took away from dad is that it’s important to love what you do and to chase that feeling,” he said. “You always saw him smiling when he was playing. That’s what he was meant to do. And I luckily have that same feeling. Playing music is what brings me peace and happiness. It’s something I follow to this day.”

Mammoth WVH will be opening for the Foo Fighters on July 17 at Citi Field, 41 Seaver Wy., Flushing. For more information, visit www.ticketmaster.com or call 877-201-6694.

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