Interview – Sammy Hagar – With a Little Help from his Friends

Sammy Hagar is a living legend that has been playing rock music for four decades. He’s played in three great bands (Montrose, Van Halen and Chickenfoot) and has put together an equally as impressive solo career. Sammy Hagar has a new album out called “Sammy Hagar and Friends.” I personally think it’s one of the best albums he’s ever made. Recently I got the chance to chat with Sammy.

If you want to listen to the uncut version of the interview you can do so right here:
 

Bob Zerull (BZ): Congratulations on the new album “Sammy Hagar and Friends.” When you sat down to make this album did you have this concept in mind from the beginning?

Sammy Hagar (SH): No I did not, not at all. When I started writing and recording this record I didn’t have any concept in mind except that I had these two songs that I was really in love with “All We Need is an Island” and “Father Sun.” I’d just written those two songs and I was real excited about them and I wanted to record them. I thought maybe we’d just do a Greatest Hits record or an Anthology record, like license some Montrose and Van Hagar, some early Sammy, whatever and put together this two or three CD pack with a few new songs. That was my first intention. Then as I started writing I got really excited and I started to get inspired and I wrote another song. Then I started doing some cover songs, then I started calling up some of my friends.

I really think it started with Ronnie Dunn sending me that song “Bad on Fords.” I thought wow what a great Sammy car song. I recorded it then I went back and listened to his version to make sure I took it somewhere because I wanted to make it my own and I heard him sing it. He sang it so good. I called him and said, ‘Ronnie would you wanna sing with me on this record maybe?’ I sent it back, he sang a verse then we split the last verse and the chorus and he sends it back to me and I just went, ‘Wow he’s singing his ass off.’ I went back and resang my part because his was so good it made me sing better. He was out singing me. That lead to, this is kind of a cool duet maybe I’ll call up this guy and that guy. Next thing you know I’m doing a “Sammy Hagar and Friends” record. It wasn’t even called that. I was calling it four decades of rock actually. It just created itself.

The cool thing is that when it was all done I was so happy and so surprised when I put it on and listened to everything. I listened to songs as we were going, but I only listened to one song at a time. When I put everything in order I thought, wow I’ve made a really interesting cool record here. When you plan on going in the studio you write your twelve songs, you get your musicians and you rehearse all the stuff then you go in and record it. By the time it is all done your usually bored with it. I usually think, hmm it’s not really the way I thought it was going to sound, it’s ok but I thought it was going to be different. With this one I had no preconception of what it was going to sound like. When it was done I was so happy and excited and I’m not bored with it for the first time.

BZ: How long did you work on the album, was it something you’ve been working on for years in between Chickenfoot?

SH: No, I wrote my first song in December of last year, “Father Sun” and I did it in French Polynesia during Christmas vacation. When I got back I went right into the studio around February and March and I just started doing it. I’d say maybe three months and I didn’t work everyday. I’m pretty leisure about my stuff because I have so many things in my life going on. I have to deal with my restaurants and my rum company and I have to take my vacations when my kids are out of school, because that’s the whole purpose of being able to do whatever I want whenever I want. So when the kids are out of school it’s like cool, let’s go somewhere. I didn’t kill myself working on it like you normally would when you make a record. I have my own studio so I didn’t have to be in or out at any certain time. It seemed like it went fast. It was the weirdest way I’ve ever made a record but I don’t think I’ll ever make one a different way. Maybe with Chickenfoot, but as a solo record I will always call up my friends and different friends and play with different people and have them co-write where every song is like a different super group, it’s the greatest way to make music.

BZ: I got the album last night and one of my favorite things about the album is that you get to hear your voice in a wide variety of genres and not just straight up rock. Was it freeing to get to explore the other genres on this album?

SH: Yeah I didn’t intentionally do that, but I am that kind of person. I think what created this record in my life, what made me do this was having the Cabo Wabo in Mexico where every great artist in the freaking book has played and jammed with me or played by themselves when I’m not even there. Like the other night Dave Grohl was there and he got up on stage and played when I wasn’t even there. It’s become such a mecca for musicians to go up and jam with each other that it’s caused me to play with Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney and some different people that I normally wouldn’t have gotten to know or play with, but because of Cabo Wabo it’s happened. When it came time to make a record I’m going, ‘yeah I want to play with Toby and I want to play with this guy and that guy.’ When I got a chance to ask Taj Mahal that put the nail in the coffin for me. I really enjoyed doing that.

It’s really rewarding to stretch a little bit. I can write “One Way to Rock” and “I Can’t Drive 55” all day long, but I’ve already written those songs and I’ve all ready written the Van Halen songs like “Right Now” and that sort of thing. I’m really more interested in more ethnic music at least as an influence. I think the song that brought it all together more than anything was “Father Sun.” It had a folk, country kind of American, Cajun, French Polynesian thing. It’s got it all in there man. Every one of those instruments from an accordion to a Tahitian ukulele, then what’s it do, it goes into a heavy Montrose riff like my early stuff like “Rock Candy” or something. I think that one brought the whole album all together in one song. I wish I could write ten songs like that. It wasn’t hard to write, but it’s hard to come up with songs like that, that song wrote itself. I just picked up a guitar in Tahiti and just started playing it, but it would be nice to make more music like that.


BZ: One of my favorite new bands is Rival Sons and Jay Buchanan wrote the song “Not Going Down.” My first question is why didn’t he keep the song for himself and how did you two hook up? 

SH: My manager manages Rival Sons and I didn’t realize it. I was a Rival Sons fan too. Somebody played me a track off their first album and told me it sounded like Montrose. Then I found out this guy Jay was from Fontana, my hometown. There are two guys in the world from Fontana, me and Jay Buchanan. It ain’t like this is San Francisco where you’ve got a ton of great artists coming out of there. My manager told me they had a new album coming out and I heard “Keep on Swinging.” I said, ‘get me Jay’s number I’ve got to talk to this kid.’ So I started asking him about growing up in Fontana and what was it like. He said his mom took him to this burrito stand that I use to go to and there was my picture up and his mom would say that’s Sammy Hagar he’s from Fontana too and he’s rich and famous. It had a big impression on him. This blew my mind. I said, ‘Jay write me a freaking song. Write me a song about growing up in Fontana or your opinion of me growing up in Fontana.’ I heard it once and the next day I was in the studio working it up. I called upon the Montrose guys because I really wanted to have that Montrose vibe on it. I really think Rival Sons is the new Montrose, you watch. Hopefully they don’t break up and make our mistakes.

BZ: When I picked up the album the song that jumped out at me was “Personal Jesus,” because of all the covers on the album, that’s the one that seems to be the least Sammy Hagar, but I love what you did with it, you gave it this bluesy soulfulness. Where did that come from?

SH: I was driving to the studio to meet with Chad Smith, Michael Anthony and Neal Schon. We were going to get together to do “Going Down” and jam a little bit. “Personal Jesus” came on the radio on the way to the studio and I had forgotten how cool the riff was and I love the lyric. I walked in the door and I asked if any of the guys remembered “Personal Jesus” and they didn’t. I downloaded it and they were like 'Ohhh I remember that.' Neal starts playing the riff and we jammed it and made it very bluesy. I sang it live, that’s a live vocal. I let Neal go; I put him in the studio by himself for a day and let him do all sorts of guitar overdubs. When I heard it I had to put these gospel singers in there. I said we’re taking this song to church. I’m not a religious guy, but when you sing the word Jesus in the fashion of a rock mode like that, it almost felt like blasphemy. It was kind of spooky. I’m going to take this song to church, I’m not taking any chances, I fear God, I fear the Devil I’m not going to cross nobody. I took it to church and I’m very proud of it. I love the song. It’s so much fun to sing. I’m real curious what Martin Gore and the Depeche Mode guys will think of it.

BZ: You’ve been doing this for forty years and over your last couple of albums what I find amazing is how amazing your voice still sounds. As you’ve gotten older has it been difficult for you to maintain your voice.

SH: No not at all. The cool thing about getting older is now I’m singing the way I tried to sing when I was young. When I was in Montrose I was singing in such a high register, and even in Van Halen I always painted myself into this corner of singing so high because I was trying to strain my voice because I wanted to sound like the old blues guys sounded when they sing in the low register like Taj Mahal, he’s got that growl and that nice tone, all the blues and soul guys do. I was always trying to sing like them. Now I don’t have to sing in the high register to sound that way and it’s so cool. I love the timbre in my voice. The first time I really felt it was on the last Chickenfoot record “Chickenfoot III.” Joe wanted me to sing in a lower register and I told him I don’t sing in a low register because I don’t have any soul or tone, I didn’t think I did. When I started doing it they were like, ‘yeah you do.’ I guess getting older has a little benefit to it. Now I use it so much more. I used it quite a bit on this record. It’s so much easier to sing in your natural register like in “All we need is an Island” or even “Bad on Fords,” because I’m not screaming it. It’s really cool to be able to sing that way without ripping your balls out of your sack to fucking hit a note like in “Dreams” or some of those Van Halen songs, but I can still hit them. I’m a very lucky guy. I don’t smoke cigarettes, that’s something I attribute it to, because I do everything else (laughs).

BZ: You’ve released a handful of albums since the music industry fell apart. Has that affected your level of excitement when releasing a new album like this?

SH: It has up until now. This record we’ve got so many cool avenues. I own ten restaurants. Let’s start right there. One of them on the strip in Las Vegas, which has 48 million people walk by the Cabo Wabo and a lot of them go in, it’s packed, same with Mexico in Cabo. I wanted to utilize that, so whenever somebody pays their bill I wrote this little card up. It says “Sammy Hagar and Friends.” You look at it and it tells you how to download the album. Then with my rum business, all the stores that have my rum in it, we put these neck hangers on it that say “Sammy Hagar and Friends." The problem with the music industry is that there is no MTV to play your videos 24/7, there’s no radio hardly at least none that play new songs in rock. Classic rock doesn’t want to play your new stuff. If they do and it’s hot rotation they play it maybe once a day and once a week if its not.

There’s no avenue except your own personal website and those are your hardcore fans that would buy the album anyway. I’m really excited about the promotion and the marketing of “Sammy Hagar and Friends” because of all the different avenues I have to do it with. We created a radio show Michael Anthony and I called “Sammy and Mikey’s Happy Hour.” We just went in the studio and made this great, fun ass show that was played Saturday night in 50 different stations across the country. I’m just finding all different ways to do it.

To be honest with you it’s as exciting as like the wild wild west. It’s like a new frontier out there. How am I going to promote my records? I’m going to do every interview available I’m going to promote through my own avenues. I think I’m going to have decent sales the first week. I’ve got my fingers crossed, I’m thinking top ten, but I’d really like to see top five. There are a lot of people releasing records today by the way. I just found out about it. We had our eyes closed, I didn’t look around, I had blinders up I wasn’t interested in what anyone else was doing. I wake up this morning and my wife gives me this list, Kings of Leon, Metallica, freaking Elton John Peter Gabriel, Cher it’s going on and on. Can anybody else come out the same day here?

BZ: Last question, what’s going on in the Chickenfoot camp?

SH: Joe’s on tour, I’m promoting the new record, Chad will be on tour with the Chili Peppers for the rest of his life it seems like. They keep extending it and it’s fine, our motto is that we’ll get together when we can, it’s always been that way, this is our hobby band so whenever we can get together we will. Joe and Mike I think are the most horny for Chickenfoot because Joe doesn’t have a singer, he’s out touring the world playing seven nights a week because he doesn’t have a singer to complain. He’s really missing having a singer. Michael Anthony is missing going on tour, because he only goes out when I go out and I only did fifteen cities this year, so he’s horny. Me and Chad are happy, no hurry. Joe is writing songs on the road and he’s getting ideas together on the road and he’s going to send them to me and I’ll write lyrics for them. In January its set aside that we’re going to get together for a couple of weeks and if Joe and I already have four or five great songs written then it’ll make it easier and we’ll be able to knock another record out.

Chickenfoot, we don’t go in there and slave. The musicianship is so high quality, Joe comes up with an idea, Chad and Mike learn it in five minutes and I’m sitting there pulling my hair out trying to write lyrics. The music side of it gets done in a week to ten days I swear. This band is so prolific. Then I have to write lyrics and come up with melodies to sing on. I usually come up with melodies the same time the band comes up with the music, I can sing right along to anything. Then going home and struggling to get lyrics that are on the same level as that music…the last record I worked my ass off, I struggled. I was miserable man; I held the record up for like three months. I had to go to Mexico and write, when I came back I had a couple done. Lyrics are hard. I have a real theory about it, people who just write lyrics, that’s one thing. Bernie Taupin, I talked to him about it, he just picks up a paper and pencil and writes lyrics all day then gives them to Elton (John) and Elton writes music to it.

When you have to write lyrics to somebody elses music, which is my part time job because I also write my own lyrics and music, but in Van Halen, Montrose and Chickenfoot it’s my job to write lyrics and melody for the songs. When you’re handed a job like that and the lyrics didn’t come by themselves and there wasn’t an inspiration then you have to wait for that inspiration. If the music doesn’t inspire you enough to come up with a title and the meaning of what you want to say then you have to sit around and wait. You can’t make that shit up, I mean you can but then you have stupid lyrics like I use to have in the 80’s (laughs). I’m at a point in my life that I don’t want to sing made up lyric, I want to sing something that means something. It’s getting tough that’s all I’m saying.

 BYLINE: Bob Zerull is the Managing Editor of Zoiks! Online. He writes pop culture commentary, does interviews with bands, and reviews music and stand-up concerts. He also administers Zoiks! Online's Facebook page. Follow Bob on twitter at bzerull. Email Bob at bob@zoiksonline.com.
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