UPDATE: Bonus footage added. See below.
By Michael Christopher
Last week, Sammy Hagar was in the green room at The Tonight Show, preparing to musical guest with Chickenfoot, his band that dropped its critically acclaimed second album (cheekily titled Chickenfoot III) in September. Host Jay Leno popped in to say hello, and seeing the Red Rocker in the midst of an interview, started squawking. “It's all lies! Don't believe a word!” Given Hagar's former mates in Van Halen have released a bombastic new album with David Lee Roth at the helm titled A Different Kind of Truth, it's an interesting course of joking.
To a fault, Hagar has long been a straight shooter. His 2011 book, Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock, was a no-holds-barred look at professional and personal highs and lows. This spring his tour with Chickenfoot wraps up at the Greek June 10. Candid as ever, Hagar talked about Eddie Van Halen, wanting to be a '70s rock band and those cool jumpsuits he wore in the '80s.
You took a lot of flak for some of the things you put in your book. Were you ever worried that you were being too honest?
There were a lot of times where I said, “I really shouldn't say this.” But I felt that my fans, who've been with me all this time, deserved the real story; they need to hear why and understand why I am who I am and why I've become what I've become and how I did it and what I went through for it. I just figured at this stage of my life I'm just gonna tell the whole story. A lot of it had to do with Van Halen; there was always a controversy of who said what and “He did this and he did that,” and I wanted to tell the truth about all that.
You told me you haven't heard the new record yet but they are out on tour.
The fact that they're out right now, that's so great; I'm so happy that they're out doing it — but look how long it took. It's so dysfunctional and who knows how long it will last like this and I just can't be part of something like that.
I don't think I ever slowed down and stopped trying to prove something in that damn band 'til the reunion in '04, but by then it was too late. Eddie was shot at that point, though I heard he's great now, and I'm really happy that he's supposedly sober and playing great and doing good. People think, “Oh you hate the guy.” I don't hate the guy, I love the guy. I hate what he did in '04 to me on the reunion tour, but other than that I still love the guy.
Chickenfoot (featuring fellow ex-VH member Michael Anthony, guitar savant Joe Satriani and session drummer Kenny Arnoff filling in for the busy-with-the-Chili-Peppers Chad Smith) seems to have you in such a happier place.
The musicianship in this band is on such a high level, you can't even compare it to anything, and no ego trip about it, everybody's so great at what they do on their instruments. In our sleep we could probably play better than a lot of bands out there.
We really get along; there are no direction problems. We all want to be a '70s frickin' rock band; we want to be Humble Pie. That's really where our roots are and we love playing that kind of music in tribute to it and just kind of bring it up to date a little bit. Chickenfoot IV, the third record, I think will blow people out of the water — I just know what we're capable of now. I think we're here to stay.
Back in your solo days, all I have are the images of you in the red jumpsuit with the straps on it, the yellow jumpsuit with the red straps on it, now, were those straps functional?
Oh yeah; you could tighten them, loosen them, like if you had a big meal the night before and you had a little gut on you, you could loosen up the gut a little bit — it was great. That was just a big old baggy frickin' mechanics jumpsuit basically with a bunch of straps all over it, totally strategically put where you could tie it up close around the legs, tighten it up around the hips, you know? It was definitely cool.
Before joining Van Halen, had you been a fan of the band?
I was a fan of the band, yeah, and the music I always dug it. I wasn't a fan of Roth's image. If I had never seen him, I could've handled his vocal style and his attitude was great; he had a great rock and roll attitude — it fit with the music.
They had such a heaviness but they were really poppy at the same time; I thought that was really cool. But when I would see that guy and the way he was suckin' his jaws in and his stances and his attitude and raps it was like, oh my god, who is this guy trying to kid here? He was playing the role of a rockstar too much to the bone and I never liked that role too much. I wanted to be more of a musician and an entertainer. He bugged me — that's all I can say.
Was there a hesitation then after getting the call to potentially take Dave's place?
When Eddie asked me to join the band, I thought, well, I'm kind of interested, but don't expect me to put on those clothes and go be that guy. And it was like, “No, no, no man.” And when I got with Ed, Al and Mike, they were so down home and we had such a common family bond; all of us had alcoholic fathers, the Van Halens and me, and we were kind of raised poor and we struggled and we had all those things in common.
Still, it had to be hard stepping into that situation, getting in front of those fans who only knew one Van Halen. Was it daunting at all?
Wow, I'll tell you, I didn't even talk about this in my book. It took me awhile. I came out with fire in my belly and frickin … I came out to prove something for a long time.
I think when I joined that band and everybody heard “Why Can't This Be Love” they just went, “Yeah, this is better than we thought.” We took a giant step; we didn't just make another Van Halen record, we made a frickin' new Van Halen with songs like “Love Walks In” and “Why Can't This Be Love” and “Summer Nights” — that was sophisticated music. “Best of Both Worlds?” Get outta here. That song still holds up when I play that with my band and it's still one of the great moments in our set.
But you still had the specter of the old Van Halen. In the beginning you were only doing a few of the early hits, but as time went on it seemed like you were more open to them.
I didn't feel comfortable singing those songs and I felt like I always had to prove myself to sing them different, but once I got over that it was like, “No, sing the songs like they are for God's sake; you didn't write them, but do them right, do them justice or don't do them.” It took me awhile to get that much confidence to be able to stand up there and sing a great song like fuckin' “Jump” or “Panama.” Those songs are kickin' ass. “Unchained?” Shit, come on, that's just rockin'.