Van Halen blindsided many cynics with their comeback album A Different Kind Of Truth with David Lee Roth a decade ago. While lead-off single Tattoo had emerged to mixed reactions, the rest of the album was… different. And a huge success. Wolfgang Van Halen can take a hefty slice of credit for that too.
While the album contains a clutch of 'new' compositions, the musical ideas that spawned songs including China Town, She's The Woman, Big River and Outta Space date back as far as 1976 in some cases. And the idea of raiding the vault was Eddie Van Halen's son's.
"At that time Van Halen was very much a legacy act," Wolfgang tells Ultimate Rock in a new interview marking the album's tenth anniversary. "Sure, the die-hard fans wanted an album, but ... most people only wanted to hear Panama and Jump and stuff like that. So I thought it would be worth looking at old demos for inspiration ... and build upon old ideas to bring out something new. Dad was always writing, so there were always so many ideas up there."
One of Wolfgang's favourites became Blood And Fire.
"Blood and Fire, I think, musically, is one of the best songs Dad ever wrote," Wolfgang continues. "It was an old idea called Ripley [Eddie's score for the 1984 film The Wild Life] based on this stereo guitar he had built by a guy, Steve Ripley — three strings were on the left [channel], three strings were on the right, and that was an old demo from 1984. The old demo has the old rototoms that Al used on that, so it was very trippy to hear that era Van Halen in that demo.
"But I really think Dad's melodic phrasing on that song was so picture-perfect 1984 era that you can still hear that," adds Wolfgang. "But then there are little flashes, like the little pre-part before the solo, Dad does this harmonic thing that reminded me of the Balance-era stuff that he would do as well. It almost reminded me of Baluchitherium in a way. I think we played that a couple times, but we didn't play it enough. I was really happy with my little bass riff in the chorus; I did this little run throughout it and it was tough to sing it and play it live, but I got it done."
Wolfgang Van Halen interview: "I really think I found my own way, I never tried to replicate anyone”
The creativity Wolfgang would showcase on last year's Mammoth WFH solo album was already manifesting during the sessions, were he went beyond bass playing to contributing a key role in arranging David Lee Roth's ideas for the track, Say Frosty. Wolfgang even ended up using a capo on his bass for album highlight China Town.
"I remember when it came out, everyone was like, 'Ed must be using an octave pedal on that intro.,'" remembers Wolfgang. "I was like, 'No.' I put a capo on the bass. I was so creative that I put a capo on the bass and I'm tapping. Nobody believed it until we played it live, but that was a really fun thing because it was just Dad and I messing around the studio. I kept trying to play it and I was like, I need a six-string bass with the last two strings tuned to a B and an E to do this.'
"So I grabbed the capo and did it, and it was perfect. It went really well. That's another song that I'm just very proud of with everything I did on it. It's just a very aggressive and fun song. I think out of all the songs on the album, Dad, Al and I are really firing on all cylinders on that one. I think the end is just hilarious because then Dad starts soloing like crazy. I just got a new bass wah pedal, and I was having way too much fun with it. I was just doing all kinds of tapping stuff. Listen to the end of it, it's just a cacophony of tapping and funny noises. It was a really good time and one of my favourites."
Taking two years to make and featuring John Shanks (Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi) on production duties, A Different Kind Of Truth is a fitting send-off for one of rock's greatest bands, and a guitarist whose impact is hard to overstate.
"I think it's very impressive that Van Halen was able to do that in 2012," Wolfgang reflects. "I don't think people understand how much of an effort it was that we were actually able to record an album. It took us a while, and we worked really hard on it. It was a fun experience and a fun experiment that I think we were grateful to be able to pull off. It was pretty crazy. I'm proud of what I put into it and what we were able to achieve."
Read the full track-by-track interview at Ultimate Rock.