BILLY CORGAN, ALTERNATIVE
ROCK'S CROWN PRINCE, INTERVIEWS HARD ROCK'S
REIGNING KING, EDDIE VAN HALEN.
Make no mistake. Eddie Van Halen can still kick your a--. The man who single-handedly changed the
face of rock is still mean, lean and sharp as a tack. And if you dispute the ownership of the crown, try
to imagine a world without him. I came to pay my tribute, sneak a peek at that famous Marshall and
meet the man I most wanted to be at 17.
BILLY CORGAN: I was very familiar with all the David Lee
Roth-era albums through 1984, but when I
prepared for this interview, I listened to everything so my questions wouldn't be just about the past.
What struck me about the Sammy Hagar-era albums was that there was a slow but distinct movement
away from the kinetic approach of the early albums to a more song-oriented focus. But I sensed that
on For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge  your playing was in a weird place, that maybe you were
getting in a rut.
But when I listened to your most recent album, Balance  , it struck me that you were really
enjoying yourself again. There was more focus and you sounded really energized.
EDWARD VAN HALEN: For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge took a year to record; that's why the
playing on it might sound somewhat labored. Balance , on the other hand, was written and recorded in
only four months, so the whole process was quicker and more immediate. I also think our producer,
Bruce FairBairn, had something to do with the sense of excitement on Balance. Instead of arguing with
me, he encouraged me to pursue my own ideas. He was somebody I could relate to. Together we were
able to create a vibe.
And creating the right vibe for things to happen is probably the best thing a producer can do. We
interviewed so many producers before we started Balance, and he was the only one who said, 'Hey,
waddya got? Let's listen to some of your new music.' The others seemed more interested in trying to
impress us with their credits, rather than finding out what we wanted to accomplish. So I'd have to say
that musically nothing really changed between the two albums, but FairBairn created an environment
where something good could happen.
CORGAN: So after 20 years of recording what makes you still want to rock?
VAN HALEN: It's because I'm still 16 inside. I still have that passion, and any true musician doesn't do
it for any other reason than passion. My motivation has never been financial. Music is what I do. it's
the only thing I know how to do.
CORGAN: But don't you ever have to fight yourself to keep you music exciting?
VAN HALEN: Sure. I have my low points. For example, we recently finished a pretty grueling
11-month tour and I was beat to hell. I was depressed. I had the post-tour blues - whatever you want
to call it.
Usually I can shake it up by just doing some work in my studio. Up until that time I always thought of
my studio as my sanctuary - a place to jam and clear my head. But, for the first time, it didn't seem that
way. I just didn't have the desire to play at all. In fact, I was so fried I wondered whether I was ever
going to be able to write anything again. So, I just simply let go. Then, boom, one day, all of a sudden
the desire came back.
I think I learned something important. There are really three parts to the creative process. First there
is inspiration, then there is the execution, and finally there is the release. The last part is more
important than I ever realized. And after the last tour, I didn't allow myself to cleanse before I jumped
back in, and it really screwed me up fore a while.
CORGAN: One of the things that struck me after listening to all your albums is your fearlessness -
you've never been afraid to go where you've wanted to go. you've played blues, you've played crazy
music, you've played synthesizer music...
VAN HALEN: I think my desire to do my own thing came from my dad. He was a real soulful guy. He
played sax and clarinet like a motherf--ker. Unfortunately, he was also an alcoholic who died when he
was 66. But he lived a full life. My mom, on the other hand, is 80, but she doesn't live. So I'm trying to find
a balance between them. I don't want to be like my mom and live to be 80, and not live. And I
don't want to die at 66 like my dad.
CORGAN: You created the sound of Van Halen. After all these years, how do you confront your own
legacy? Do you ever worry about repeating yourself?
VAN HALEN: Not really. Change is a natural part of my evolution as a player. It just happens,
because everybody changes over a period of time. It's a very unconscious thing. I think the
unreleased acoustic piece I just played you before the interview sounds different from everything I've
ever done, yet I didn't sit down and say, "I have to do something different."
CORGAN: I admire your attitude, because I feel like I'm always fighting not to repeat myself.
VAN HALEN: I don't know. Every time I walk into the studio it seems like the first time. It's like I've
never written a song before. I am just as scared. In fact, someone asked me the other day, what I
thought I had learned about making music after all these years, and I said, "Nothing." I'm scared
shitless all the time. I'm really insecure that way.
CORGAN: At what age did you start playing guitar?
VAN HALEN: I started smoking, drinking, and playing guitar at age 12.
CORGAN: And how old were you when you recorded your first album?
VAN HALEN: I was 22.
CORGAN: So how did you get from playing your first open G chord to playing "Eruption"?
VAN HALEN: Practice. I used to sit on the edge of my bed with a six-pack of Schlitz Malt talls. My
brother would go out at 7P.M. to party and get laid, and when he'd come back at 3 A.M., I would still be
sitting in the same place, playing guitar. I did that for years - I still do that.
CORGAN: But where did that attack style of playing come from? At 22 you were killing people.
VAN HALEN: I have no idea. I can tell you how I came up with certain techniques, but the rest is a
mystery. It's the way I learned to communicate, because I was never very good with words. I was just
CORGAN: I find it interesting that it was so unpremeditated.
VAN HALEN: I believe that everyone on this planet is born with a gift, and I was just lucky enough to
find mine. So I'm very blessed and very grateful.
CORGAN: So, what was it like to wake up and you were suddenly everybody's guitar hero?
VAN HALEN: It was weird. But I'll tell you what was even weirder. Before our first record came out,
this guy wrote an article about the band in one of the major Los Angeles newspapers. He singled me
out as the important member. He just raved about my playing and didn't really say much about Roth.
And it freaked David out because he was the lead singer and frontman. It really upset him that I was
getting the attention.
I kind of felt bad and really didn't know what to do. It was like this journalist almost ruined the band
and my life by praising my work. He actually hurt me by putting the spotlight on me. I was like, "F--k
you. Just let me play." The tension it created in the band was unbelievable. I was like, "Holy Sh-t,
David! What did I do wrong? Did I play too good? I'll play worse. Will that make you happy?"
CORGAN: Yeah, suddenly everyone was tapping and doing whammy-bar dives. What was that like?
VAN HALEN: Actually, I thought it was kind of funny. Because, with me, it was a form of expression -
part of my style. When I used the stuff I invented, I was telling a story, while I felt the people who
were imitating me were telling a joke. I felt other players tended to use tapping and false harmonics as a
trick, instead of incorporating them into their vocabulary.
CORGAN: On your debut album, Van Halen  , your guitar solo "Eruption" was the second track.
Wasn't it kind of a bold move to place this crazy guitar instrumental so close to the beginning of the
record? Was it a conscious move?
VAN HALEN: The whole story behind "Eruption" is unusual. It wasn't even supposed to be on the
album. I showed up at the recording studio early one day and started to warm up because I had a gig
on the weekend and I wanted to practice my solo guitar spot. Our producer, Ted Templeman,
happened to walk by and he asked "What's that? Let's put it on tape!" So I took one pass at it, and
they put it on the record. I didn't even play it right. There's a mistake at the top end of it. To this day,
whenever I hear it I always think, "Man, I could've played it better."
CORGAN: But what was the idea behind making it the second track? It certainly gave it more weight
than if you had sequenced it at the end of the album.
I think they put it there because it was different, but I'm not really sure. At
that point in
my career, I really didn't have any control over anything. I was just like, "Yes sir. Whatever."
We barely had any input in the early days of the band. I mean, there are so many things wrong with
those early records _ the drums sound like shit on the first album and the bass is barely audible. We
just played live, they recorded it, and it got put out.
CORGAN: How did you guys write the first album? it's my guess that much of your early music
evolved out of jamming.
VAN HALEN: A lot of the basic ideas were things that I came up with when I used to practice on the
edge of my bed. I would take those ideas to band practice. At the time, we were rehearsing in David's
father's basement, so me and Al would go over there by ourselves and jam on the ideas for hours until
we came up with something we were happy with. For example, Al and I jammed on the basic riff from
"And The Cradle Will rock" two hours a day for two straight weeks. [laughs] We didn't really know
what to do with it, but we were having fun because it just sounded so wicked. Then, out of nowhere,
the chorus came to us and it was finished.
Sometimes you really have to work for inspiration. But ultimately, it's not really work, because my
brother and I genuinely love to jam. I'd say that's the way most things happen in our band. It usually
begins with me and Al, which is funny in a way, because most people don't usually think of the guitar
and drums as a unit. it's usually bass and drums.
CORGAN: But I think that's the way a band should be constructed - the core of the band should be
built on the relationship between the guitarist and the drummer. it's the simpatico relationship between
me and our drummer, Jimmy Chamberlain, that provides the foundation for the pumpkins. Drums can
do so much more then just hold down the groove.
VAN HALEN: Exactly. I think Al's drumming is more musical because he listens to me rather than just
being concerned with maintaining a steady groove. Billy, how do you write with the Pumpkins?
CORGAN: it's close to how you do it. I'm definitely responsible for coming in with some basic chord
changes, or ideas. Everybody in the band looks to me for the basic seed, so it's not very productive to
come in with nothing.
VAN HALEN: it's the same with us! You know, it's like, "Well, watcha got, Ed?"
CORGAN: Yeah! And if you don't have anything, everybody will stand around and look at their
watches and say things like, "This is boring. Uh, can I go? I got a date tonight."
On the other hand, you can't do it yourself. I'll come in with a string of riffs, and direct the musical
ideas. But you still need a band and their input to make the ideas come alive. You can't underestimate
band chemistry. You still need that - it's that weird jelling of people.
One of the cool things about Van Halen is that you've always been able to write great hit singles.
Unlike other hard rock bands, you never shied away from writing pop music.
VAN HALEN: Again, I just go with whatever comes out. I can't help the fact that I've written "Can't
Stop Loving You" or "Jump." Don't blame me. [laughs] Actually, if I could deliberately sit down and
write a pop hit, all my songs would be pop hits!
Let's put it this way. I play what I like to hear. And sometimes I like to hear something poppy, and
sometimes I Don't.
CORGAN: Van Halen II  is a really good record, but it sounds to me like you really Didn't have
the time to fully explore all your guitar and song ideas.
VAN HALEN: It was very hurried. We had just toured for a year, and we only had two weeks to write
and record. But I'll never forget the questions we got after the second album was released: "why does
this record sound different from the first album?" Because it's not the first album! it's always a
Catch-22 situation. They hate you if you're the same and they hate you if you're different.
CORGAN: But you agree that it wasn't completely realized?
VAN HALEN: Yeah, But I don't think it was because of us. There was a lot of cocaine on the console -
and it wasn't necessarily the band's. That was a problem. And we weren't allowed any input on the
mix. But ultimately we were just plain rushed. that's why you hear that little riff fade out at the end of
the album - Al and I didn't want to stop.
[laughs] We weren't done but we had a deadline.
think two great albums are Women and Children First  and Fair Warning
VAN HALEN: I was starting to get more involved.
CORGAN: And it shows.
VAN HALEN: Especially on Fair Warning. But what I had to do to get more involved was very
strange. We'd work during the day and I wasn't very happy with the way things were going or the way
people were approaching the whole recording process. I would sneak back into the studio at 4A.M.
with Don Landee, the engineer, and completely re-record all the solos and overdubs the way I wanted
them. The fucked-up thing was, no one even noticed. That's how uninvolved they were on a musical
CORGAN: Fair Warning is a really mean, dark album. That was unusual for you guys. Up until that
time you were more of a party band.
VAN HALEN: It was kind of a dark period in my life. I was getting married, which flipped Roth out to
the bone. I actually overheard him say, "That f--king little prick, not only is he winning all the guitar
awards, but he's also the first to marry a movie star." So that's what I was up against. A guy that
wanted everything that was going my way. The funny thing was, I really didn't want the attention. and
it came to me, anyway. I didn't want the press - it was like "Leave me alone."
CORGAN: Let's talk about some of the specifics of Fair Warning. What can you tell me about "Push
Comes to Shove"?
VAN HALEN: That was Roth's idea of trying to cash in on the reggae thing. I said, "Okay, if you want
that kind of beat I'll see what I can do."
CORGAN: That song has an incredible guitar solo!
VAN HALEN: I'll never forget that one. We were sitting in the studio with our producer, Ted
Templeman, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I must have played that solo over 20 times, and
Ted kept saying, "No it's not good enough." So I said, "Okay, but I don't understand what you want."
So we just called it a day. Later that night I came back and played the same solo that I played 20 times
that day and left it. The next day he heard it and said, "That's great."
On the whole album I was angry, frustrated and loose . It's like the solo in "Unchained." I love that
song. It's rare that I can listen back to my own playing and get goosebumps, but that's one of them.
My frustration continued to grow when we made our next album, Diver Down  . Half that album
was damn cover tunes, and I hated every minute of making it. David Lee Roth had the idea that if you
covered a successful song, you were half way home. C'mon - Van Halen doing "Dancing in The
Streets"? It was stupid. I started feeling like I would rather bomb playing my own songs than be
successful [laying someone else's music.
Ultimately, that's why I built the studio we're standing in. I built it so I could work on my music without
having to battle anybody. So after Diver Down I demanded that we do 1984  in my own studio,
my way. The motivation behind Diver Down - which was to play it safe and make money - was
completely different from 1984. One had heart where the other was bullshit. Diver Down is my least
favorite record - even though I still tried to put so much of myself into it.
CORGAN: That's so strange, because a studio devoted to the band seems like such a positive thing.
VAN HALEN: That's what I would've thought. But I was trying to take the band in a direction that I
thought was appropriate, and Roth was trying to take the band in more of a Las Vegas direction. And
there he is.
CORGAN: You did what you thought was right and it succeeded. I ran into similar obstacles recently.
I met with a lot of resistance when I wanted our newest album [Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness
(Virgin)] to be a double CD. Many people thought I was going to ruin the band by doing it. But it
proved to be the right thing.
VAN HALEN: You have to follow your heart. But don't ever get cocky and say to yourself, "Hey I was
right." Just do what you feel. Do you understand what I mean?
CORGAN: Yes, you can't gloat.
VAN HALEN: Right. When "Jump" went Number One, I was almost embarrassed. You did this double
album because it's what you wanted to do, not because you wanted to prove anybody wrong or make
CORGAN: In the beginning, though, I have to admit that I did have a chip on my shoulder. I did want
to prove everyone wrong. But after I went through the process and came out the other side, I
realized why I had to do it. It wasn't about anyone else. In fact, the deeper I get into my life as a musician, I'm
discovering that it becomes less and less about other people, and more about what I want to do. And
that's a good place to be.
So I can understand what you're talking about. There are all these fish swimming around you, and their
motivation is not necessarily to make sure that you're playing great or that you're going have a great
show that night. Instead, it's, "Are there people in the f--king seats?"
VAN HALEN: The thing is, after 20 years it doesn't change! I hope you're prepared for that. [laughs]
CORGAN: I read in Van Halen II's liner notes that you guys once parachuted into a stadium show.
[laughs] What was that all about?
VAN HALEN: That was one of Roth's big ideas. I'm not even sure why, but he said, "Let's parachute
into the stadium." Of course we couldn't do it ourselves, so we hired four professional sky divers to
jump out of an airplane right before our set. The idea was that we would wear identical gear and run on
stage and pretend it was us that jumped out of the plane. So there we were, wearing these crazy, heavy
outfits, sweating our balls off, waiting for the sky divers to come down so we could jump on stage. It
was so silly, and it almost turned into a catastrophe, because while we were trying to get out of the
gear, Al severely twisted his ankle and had to play the show with practically a broken foot.
I guess that's why Dave's in Vegas. He saw playing music as show biz, and it's not show biz to me. I
should've known when Roth said, "Let's say we're two years younger than we really are." And I'd say,
"Why? I'm only 22. What's the difference?" That still causes me problems for me to this day. I'm 41,
and people think I'm 39.
CORGAN: But in a positive light, it sure made things interesting in an incredibly dull period of music.
VAN HALEN: Hey, we were young and crazy. We were trying to do all the things that Led Zeppelin
did - throw televisions out the window, and so on. We used to drive people crazy. For example, very
early on, we were on a tour supporting journey. They would never give us soundchecks and treated
us like shit in general, so we liked to f--k with them anyway we could. So while they were on stage we
would sneak in and destroy their rooms - we'd use fire hoses and extinguishers, whatever we could get
our hands on.
What really drove them crazy was that at the beginning of the tour no one knew who we were. The
audience would say, "What the f--k is this?" But by 30 dates into the tour, we were the ones selling
the tickets. In fact, halfway through the tour we wanted to bail, and despite all the sh-tty stuff we did
to them, they begged us to stay on. Needless to say, we didn't. [laughs]
Here's another good story from that tour: We were in Madison, Wisconsin, and while I was out of my
room, Al and David snuck in and grabbed my table and chairs, took out the screen and threw them out
the window. When I came back to my room I was like, "Where the hell is my table?" So I looked out
my window and there, seven stories down, were my chair and table lying in the snow. The screen had
I figured it must have been Roth, so I went down to the desk and said, "My name is David Lee Roth,
can I have the key to my room?" I went into his room, grabbed the table and chair and put them in
mine. When the cops came, they looked in my room and said, "Hey, there's no screen here but there's a
table and chair." Then they looked in Roth's room and said, "Hey, there's no table and chair here, but
the screen is intact." They couldn't figure it out. [laughs]
CORGAN: I saw the 1984 tour. In fact, I waited in line all night and froze my ass off to get tickets, and
I was on your side of the stage, of course. It struck me that the band seemed really disjointed at that
point in time.
VAN HALEN: Well, Yeah. It had degenerated into the The Tonight Show. There were so many solo
spots that it seemed like we were doing the show one person at a time. We were never out there as a
band for more than 10 minutes.
CORGAN: Yeah, it was pretty strange. David would tell some jokes, and you would disappear off the
side of the stage and go into "Eddie's House."
It was like, "Hey, Johnny, are you done with your monologue yet?" It
wasn't a band
anymore. It couldn't have gone on that way. It was a good thing Roth quit.
it strange to you that even though you were going through so much turmoil
behind the scenes around the time of 1984 , your public image was still so positive and
VAN HALEN: Roth was very good at maintaining the public persona of the band. That
was his thing. It's strange, because we're still perceived as a party band, and I still never go
out and party. I guess that has to do with Sammy.
CORGAN: But there's nothing wrong with the fact that your music makes people feel
VAN HALEN: That's my point. The music makes people feel good. I'm not sure if it's
also our responsibility to act the part. The point I'm trying to make is that at this point in my
life I would like to strive for something deeper. There are more emotions I would like to
express that are difficult to express when you are perceived as a "party band."
CORGAN: So do it. Do it, and take your lumps. I have almost the opposite problem. I'm
viewed as this weird, crippled character. [laughs] And it's not always easy to know that
people view you as this overly emotional, overly sensitive big guy. But artist to artist you
got to take your lumps.
VAN HALEN: Oh, I know, and I do. Hey, c'mon man, I've been at this for over 25
f--king years. I've taken them! There's a plaque on our wall that says we've sold over 65
million albums, and I don't feel I've accomplished anything. I feel like I'm just getting
CORGAN: That's the artist in you speaking. Even in your guitar hero days, you were
never vainglorious of it. The band has never appeared snooty or snotty. And I think that's
why your fan base is so big. You guys never went through that "sick period" that a lot of
bands who've recorded for 20 years often go through, where they hit rock bottom with
their fans. Even around Diver Down, which admittedly is not your strongest effort, people
were still there for you. And I think that says a lot about you personally. That you care,
you want to have a good time, and you want others to have a good time.
VAN HALEN: And I think there's a certain amount of honesty and heart and soul that goes
into it that people can feel, even on Diver Down.
CORGAN: That's why you'll always have people on the other end for you.
VAN HALEN: Music is for people. The word "pop" is simply short for popular. It means
that people like it. I'm just a normal jerk who happens to make music. As long as my brain
and fingers work, I'm cool.