Sammy Hagar on His New Acoustic Album and Revisiting Classics – Exclusive Interview
Sammy Hagar has been all about spontaneity over the past few years. When he went into the studio to make his last album, ‘Sammy Hagar & Friends,’ he wasn’t even planning to make a new one so soon. As he told us at the time, he was planning to record a few new songs for a anthology that would cover his career, but what happened was something completely different. He ended up with a full album of songs recorded with his friends and completely off the cuff.
“Most records, when you make them, you write the songs ahead of time, you plan it out, you hire the musicians, you rehearse for freakin’ two weeks or a month and then you go in and you cut the record,” Hagar says. “Then, when it’s done, you’re going, ‘Boy, I had something else in mind, I wonder what happened to that song.’ You have all these things that didn’t turn out quite like you planned or expected … because you planned it.”
His old way of making records was over — and beyond that, his past glories don’t weigh on him creatively. “I think that at this stage in my life, what else am I gonna do?” he says. “Make another ‘Standing Hampton?’ Probably would if I could, I’m not sure I’m capable, you know? Or another ‘Three Lock Box.’ I’m just not that same person that I was then. So those are treasures that you leave alone. I’m not going to become just a standard what-you-heard-is-what-I-am-forever [artist]. I’m going to take chances, I’m gonna try to grow and stretch. Otherwise, there’s no reason to make a record. I’m not gonna outdo ‘I Can’t Drive 55,’ I ain’t gonna outdo ‘One Way to Rock’ — at least not in that vein. So I have to find new avenues.”
Hagar’s latest avenue took him to ‘Lite Roast,’ an album of acoustic versions of songs from his back catalog, recorded with longtime guitarist Vic Johnson. Together the pair revisited some of Hagar’s favorite compositions, taking only a few passes at each to ensure a looseness. He had so much fun making ‘Lite Roast’ that he jokingly says his next project might be ‘Medium Roast.’
He recently spoke with Ultimate Classic Rock to talk about the new album and the Circle, his new collaboration with Johnson, Michael Anthony and Jason Bonham.
You’ve been busy, from what I understand.
We did [an] acoustic show last night at the Island [Sammy’s Island Bar & Grill in Roseville, Calif.], and we played the whole album plus other songs. And we played an hour and 15 minutes, just me and my guitar player, and it was phenomenal. I’m telling you, it was frikkin’ fantastic. I had more fun musically as an artist onstage. The creativity that it allows for a singer, to just have an acoustic guitar backing you up, you know — you and another acoustic guitarist or whatever — it forces you to be really more subtle and more profound with your creativity and I’m telling you, it was a real joy for me. You know, I was scared s—less going in — I’ve never done an hour acoustically in my life! I don’t know, it got to me — I loved it. It was really, really rewarding and fulfilling.
For you, your acoustic moment used to be walking out with the guitar and doing ‘Eagles Fly’ or ‘Give to Live,’ so this is obviously a lot more than that.
Yeah! And I never feel comfortable doing that by the way — I sang songs that were in a register that we recorded electrically. So ‘Give to Live’ was like, [sings a bit of the higher parts of the song], you know? And I’m screaming. So when I started working on this record and rearranging the songs that I was trying to do acoustically, I changed keys, I changed melodies, I did this and I did that to most of them, and it came out really cool. Because you know what you look for? Last night, I was thinking when I was being driven home from Sacramento after the show, because I was drinking, I was thinking, “What other songs could I do, if I did multiple nights like this?” I wouldn’t want to play the same songs every night because it bores me.
And all you look for, now that I’ve done a real acoustic performance, is you just look for a great lyric and a great melody and that’s what makes an acoustic performance great. If you don’t have either one of those things, it comes out weak. If you’ve got a big loud band, you can scream and sing about “get on your bad motor scooter and ride” all day long and it’s OK. But to try to do that acoustically, it just don’t work. [Laughs] So it was pretty cool — I learned a lot.
What were some of the challenges that you ran into as you started tinkering with the idea of revisiting some of these tracks for the ‘Lite Roast’ album? You spoke to this a bit just now, but It seems like there would probably be songs that would seem like they would translate very easily, but then you find an interesting hurdle that you didn’t think of and vice versa, songs that maybe seemed more difficult to approach acoustically might have been easier than you thought they might be.
You nailed it, and a song like ‘Halfway to Memphis,’ I just steered away from that. It was the last song that we finally put on the album and then one day, I said to Vic, “Let’s just try it.” I thought, “This is not going to work acoustically,” as crazy as that sounds. It was tone magic — I had to forget about the bridge. Throw the damn bridge out, you know? It’s an acoustic song and it’s only going to be three minutes long, you don’t need a bridge. It was fine and it’s not only fine, it’s one of my favorite songs on the whole CD. Then a song like ‘Dreams,’ which you would think that I would shy away from that for sure — that’s the highest register I’ve ever sang in in my life — it’s like a super-sonic range helium voice thing, and all I did was say, “Change the keys.” First, I tried to sing it an octave lower and it just didn’t have enough power — it was too low. And then I thought, “Well, let’s just change keys and try it again.” [We tried a few different keys] and then it was like, “Oh, there it is — it sounds great in that register.” So the hurdles, they presented themselves one after the other and almost every one of them were not as easy as I thought or easier than I thought, just like you said. It was never like “Oh, this is going to work” and then it did.
A song like ‘Finish What Ya Started,’ the Van Halen song, is a good example. You would think that it would lend itself really easily to acoustic, because I wrote it on acoustic guitar. Eddie and I sat on my porch with two acoustic guitars at two o’clock in the morning and wrote that song — boom. But singing it, there are some high parts where you’ve got to scream — it’s a really dynamic ranges of vocals that are real low and then you’ve got the big scream in there. [Hagar sings, “I’m incomplete!”] But it works — I just have to suck it up and say “Now, I’m going to sing this with a little more screaming — those parts, I’m going to go ahead and scream ‘em just like the record.” So it’s more like the record with just acoustic guitars, whereas most of the other ones aren’t anything like the record.
When you and I spoke about the ‘Sammy Hagar & Friends’ record, you said that you wanted to make records like that for the rest of your career, and this album really seems to fit in with that thought. I think you know that the old music business way, if you wanted to do an acoustic album, there were a lot of hoops that you had to jump through. You’ve got to talk to the record label and make all of the arrangements, probably discuss what songs you’re going to do, hear their ideas on how to make it all better. This seems like it was all a lot more spontaneous than that.
Yeah, it sure is. When you owed the record company another record, you signed a three-record deal and you did your first two records, you had this huge hit on your second record and you had this horrible record deal. So [my manager, Ed Leffler] was saying, “Hey, we deserve a better record deal” and they would say, “No, you owe us one more record and then we’ll re-negotiate.” He’d go, “You’re getting an acoustic record.” That was his f—in’ line — he said that to more record company executives … he threatened them with an acoustic record from a rock artist. Now, I’m laughing my ass off, because I f—in’ made one and it wasn’t even a threat — it was what I wanted to do!
After all of these years, I finally made one, and that’s probably what took me so long to make it. Because all of those years, you used it as a threat and the record company would give you what you wanted not to do it. So here I went ahead and did it, and obviously it wasn’t for business reasons. But we’ll find out. If you’re a fan of Sammy Hagar’s voice, then this is your record, because you get to hear my voice, and you get to hear it stripped down, bare bones with an acoustic guitar and no production. I think that’s awesome — that’s for the real fans and the fans of the deep tracks. You know, last night the other thing that was really impressive to the fans that I kept hearing from the feedback when I would kick off a song. The night before the concert, I put up on the Internet that I was going to do a free acoustic concert at the Island. I got there at six o’clock and there’s a f—in’ line all the way through the whole damn town. The place only holds 420 people, and the fire department was there, because it was a new restaurant and we got about a third of the people in and it was great.
When I went into ‘The Love’ and ‘Halfway to Memphis’ and songs that they’ve basically never even heard me do live, they were just screaming, and the girls in the front are looking at each other, so excited with every song that I went into. So this CD is for those people that really miss those songs. Obviously they like those songs because they’ve got heart and soul in them, and they get to hear more heart and soul than the original recordings because it’s stripped down.
I think the hardcore fans definitely dig seeing tracks like the ones you mentioned on this collection. ‘Red Voodoo’ was one that stuck out to me — I don’t know if you even played that one on the tour that you did to promote that album. What brought you back around to that song?
Well, the only place that song gets heard is at the Birthday Bash or at the annual anniversary in Lake Tahoe. If I play three or four nights somewhere, ‘Red Voodoo’ gets in the thing. If I’m playing one night, ‘Red Voodoo’ doesn’t get played. You know, in Cabo I do “no repeat” Birthday Bashes and the fans have heard this many times. For four nights, I don’t repeat a song — we play two hours a night without repeating a song. Sometimes, I’ll repeat a song or two, just because I don’t really have a set list, but I feel like, “I’ve got to play ‘Heavy Metal’ right now — I’ve got to do it. I don’t care if we play it acoustically, I’m playing it!”
So that’s when songs like ‘Red Voodoo’ come in there, but even under those circumstances, you don’t hear ‘The Love’ or ‘Halfway to Memphis’ or ‘Who Has the Right.’ I mean, that song, I don’t like playing that live, because it will bum you out — it’s a real song and it’s got heart and soul and it’s got a f—in’ meaning and a message. It bums me out to sing it, so I never play it — people ask for it all of the time and I’m going, “We’re in Cabo at a Birthday Bash, we’ve got a celebration going here, people are having the time of their life — I am not going to bum them out with ‘Who Has the Right,’” but people want to hear it. That song deserves [the] acoustic [treatment]. You never get to hear ‘Sailin,’ you know?
I have all of your albums, and when I was looking at the track listing yesterday, I had to look ‘Sailin’’ up to see what record that’s on!
Was it ‘Livin’ It Up’?
You know, it’s so funny that ‘Livin’ It Up’ has more songs on this CD than anything, I think, doesn’t it? I think it’s got about three or more than any record, and I think that’s unusual because ‘Livin’ It Up’ was not a very big record at all, but it was one of my favorite records. It was my first real lifestyle record. When I made ‘Livin’ It Up,’ I remember that I had record companies turn me down. I was at a point where I was coming off ‘Red Voodoo,’ which wasn’t that far before that and that was gold and you know, I had pretty good success.
‘Livin’ It Up,’ the record company went, “Eh, this isn’t the Sammy Hagar that we want to hear” and I thought, “Wow, what a trip, man, because this is Sammy Hagar!” [Laughs] This is the Sammy Hagar of today, and it was just kind of a strange one. And it’s funny that those three songs surfaced on this and that’s good.
Working spontaneously has been the name of the game for you in recent years, and I know it’s how you love to work. I heard John Cuniberti talk on a podcast about working on the ‘Sammy and Friends’ album with you, and it seems like the process of making that album really pushed him to the limit. He said he didn’t know if he’d ever want to work on another album in that way again.
John saved that record in a lot of ways, because I was being so spontaneous and I was being so “no rules” where anything goes, that I could still be recording that record right now. Because I was just trying anything and everything, and thank God for him that he controlled it. He kind of pulled the reins in on me a little bit and said, “Come on, we’ve got to do something that makes sense here!” And yeah, it stretches a guy like him, because he’s a technical guy. He’s really technical and he’s a wizard and he goes, “No, this is the way you’ve got to do things if you want this to be good or you want the drums to sound right, you’ve got to put them here.”
And I’d be like “You know, f— it — let’s put the drums out in the back seat of my car and see what happens,” you know? He’s shaking his head, like, “OK.” You know, I probably drove him nuts with my open-mindedness, but I love John. Like I said, he really focused that record and he put about as much control on it as you could have put on me. I don’t blame him for not wanting to work like that again. He’s done all of these records and he knows what works and what doesn’t work, and then you get with a crazy guy like me that says, “Well, I don’t care if it worked before, I don’t want my record to sound like everybody else’s” or “I don’t want to do it like everybody else did.” So I’m a little bit of a wild card and a wild man and a lot of s— doesn’t work and, even if it doesn’t work sometimes, I’m still willing to live with it, saying, “You know, maybe it doesn’t work for you, but it kind of works for me.”
I was surprised to hear that, because here’s a guy that works with Joe Satriani, so if there’s somebody that you would think would be used to going down a lot of roads, you would think it would be John.
Well, Joe comes in so prepared most of the time — he’s a producer’s dream. I mean, I’m walking in there and John’s going, “What are we going to do today” and I’m going, “I don’t know!” He says, “You don’t have a song?” and I say, “No, let’s make one!” [Laughs] Engineers and producers, they start scratching their heads, going “OK — can I just go home now and come back another day when you’re ready?” You know, Joe comes in with his s— together. He goes down some weird roads sound-wise though — Joe’s definitely very experimental with sound.
We premiered ‘Dreams,’ which was a big track for you with Van Halen. What are your memories of how that song came together originally in the studio?
It was the ‘5150’ record, and we did it in like less than a month. Mick Jones from Foreigner, I got him to come in and produce it with us, and he was saying, “You guys need one more song.” We had the whole album except that song. We were saying “Oh, f— you, we just want to get out on tour,” we were so happy and jacked up that we just couldn’t wait to get out and play for the people. He was saying, “Give me one more song” and we didn’t have one — we had nothing. So Eddie starts pulling out all of these cassette tapes that were laying all over the floor and he’s just sticking them in the cassette player and hitting play, fast forward, play, fast forward, play — and all of the sudden we hear [Hagar imitates classic riff from ‘Dreams’].
All of us look at each other and we’re like, “Oh, that’s cool — what’s that?” It wasn’t like a whole thing — he had the intro and then he had [that riff], so we all said, “Well, let’s work on that.” So the band started working on it and got it sounding really pretty cool, and then I’m going, “Oof, I don’t have any idea what to sing to that! I don’t have any idea what the lyrics for that are going to be,” and Mick kept saying, “Come on!” because we weren’t on a deadline, but we all wanted to get out to play. And then all of the sudden I was hanging it up, because it just didn’t hit me musically, as far as the melody and a lyric [to go along with it]. So Mick would come out to my house in the morning and for about a week, and we’d go for a walk on the beach and he would start humming things to try and inspire me. “What about this?” And I’m going, “Arrrgh,” and then all of the sudden, I just heard in my head, driving in — I had it in my car cassette player, I’m sure — and I’m listening, and I started going “Higher and higher” in my head. So I kind of had a melody, I came in and I just started singing, and it was in that f—in’ register. I had never sang in that register ever in my life, but it just came out and I just kept singing it.
Mick and everybody’s behind the counter, with their arms in the air and their f—in’ eyes buggin’ out and they hit the talkback and go, “Get in here!” I come in there and they’re all going, “Oh my God, listen to this — this is unbelievable! I didn’t know you could sing like that!” Eddie’s going, “How the f— are you doing that? If I’d known you could sing like that, damn, I would have written [more stuff like that].” And I’m going, “I don’t know, I never sang like that.” I didn’t know I had that range, you know? So it just wrote itself — the lyrics, I just went in the other room and it just wrote itself once I had that part, the “higher and higher” thing, you know, the chorus is “baby dry your eyes” and all of that. So that’s how we wrote it. For some reason, I could sing like that live every night, not a problem. That song was never a problem to sing onstage — everyone’s like, “What are you going to do live” and I’m going, “I don’t know.” I had never used that part of my voice, so it was fresh and I’m telling you, it wasn’t worn out. Like right now, the voice that you’re hearing, I did an acoustic show last night where I didn’t even go near that range, and my voice is hoarse from singing in a register that I always talk in. So it was harder on my voice doing that acoustic shows than in the old days doing a Van Halen show, singing ‘Dreams’ and s— like that.
It’s amazing when you find something about your body, your voice or your mind that you’ve never used. It’s got a lot more life to it than something you’d been doing over and over again. You become an expert at something you’ve been doing over and over again, but when you find in your mind a part of your brain that you’ve never used and you can go there, man, you have developed a genius [thing]. You can invent things and you can come up with ideas that are so fresh and nobody’s ever heard before. It’s the same thing with your voice [or any other] physical part of your body. It was just magic — complete magic. So the reason that I’m so into the version on this record is that when you do something as great as ‘Dreams,’ a song like that, it’s hard to f— with that. People don’t accept it. People have tried it again and again and again, and the fans get pissy when you f— with a classic. You know, like Robert Plant, who I love, when he goes out and does the Zeppelin tunes and he messes with them, you know, the Plant fans love it, [but] the hardcore Zep fans are pissy. They’re like, “We want to hear it the way we grew up with it and the way we loved it.”
But I think what I’ve done with that song, it’s a better song this way. The lyric has more meaning, you get it and it touches your heart closer and better. The other one is a physical and emotional performance that the lyrics don’t mean almost anything — you can say anything you want. But when I stripped it down, I finally sing it now, like the way I wrote those lyrics, I know what I’m talking about now. I think the fans, it touches them — people cry and s— when I sing this acoustically. So this song works. It’s one of those songs that you say, “Check this out — I think you’ll be OK with this.” It’s not like, “Oh God, not another guy trying to change the classic that we wanted to hear [a certain way].” I really think this works. It’s worked so well that it’s almost like it ain’t the same song — don’t even compare it — just listen to this. That’s the way I like to say it to people: Check this out and don’t compare it — it ain’t that song. Listen to this song — do you like this? And people go, “Yeah, I like it!” That’s why I wanted it to be the first thing that they heard off this record. Because I think it’s the farthest stretch of anything I’ve probably ever done to anybody’s song in my life. This is as far as anybody could take it and it’s still great. That’s the sign of a great song.
During your acoustic segment with Van Halen, you used to say, “Just pretend like you’re all in my living room, like I invited all 10,000 of you crazy motherf—ers over to my house!”
I kind of got that vibe listening to ‘Dreams,’ it’s like Sammy Hagar is sitting around a campfire with you, strumming the tune, and if you’re a hardcore Redhead, who doesn’t want to have that?
Well that’s great, because that’s what I would hope for. This is as close as you’re going to get to sitting next to me in my house. Aaron, my son, said it onstage in Tahoe during the May Cinco de Mayo shows. I came out and did my first acoustic show there — we did about five or six songs and then we broke into electric, and I had him introduce me that night. I said, “I want you to introduce me, because I’m going to do this acoustic thing and I’m a little bit uncomfortable. Go out there and tell these people what you think about this.” Because he was encouraging me to do it, because he’d already heard the record and some of the recordings. He went out there and said, “This is as close to what I’ve felt like growing up, sitting around the house with my dad. This is as close to it as I can get.” And then he introduced me. It was soulful — I thought, “Wow, what a beautiful thing for him to say,” because that’s exactly what I wanted it to be.
When I’d look up to who I looked up to — John Lennon or Paul McCartney or Keith Richards and Mick, or Elvis Presley — if I would have had the opportunity to sit around with them and listen to them really just pluck around and sing? F—, man, I would pay more for that than every penny I spent on them my whole life! So I feel that my fans, if they feel that way about me, if they really want to get close to me and see what it’s like sitting around with me, well that was it. That’s the way we recorded this record. We had an engineer in there, with me and Vic sitting in a room with two guitars and two microphones and we just sang and played live. We did not overdub and we didn’t overthink it. We took each song about three or four times and then picked the best one.
It’s kind of an organic flashback to when folks were hearing your stuff coming out of Van Halen on the ‘Marching to Mars’ record. Because ‘Little White Lie’ was the first thing that a lot of folks heard out there on the radio, and this whole thing is kind of a nice flashback to that period.
I think ‘Marching To Mars’ is one of my best solo records I’ve ever made. I think it’s so artsy, and every song on there is really special, and I really took a chance coming out of Van Halen, to just really pour my heart into that album with ‘Kama’ and songs like that and ‘Little White Lie,’ which was about those guys talking on MTV. [Laughs] I mean, that’s a pretty frikkin’ honest record. ‘Who Has the Right,’ my first real protest song. ‘I Can’t Drive 55’ was a protest song, but nobody thinks of it as one. But ‘Who Has the Right’ was a real stand-up-and-make-a-statement kind of song. ‘Marching to Mars’ was so weird and out there, with Mickey Hart’s influence on that. It was really a good record. I just feel that was a great fearless record and it set the tempo for me to feel confident enough to do what I just did. But I’ve always liked acoustic bluesy kind of things. I mean, I’m just such a fan of that — I’ve just been such a chickens— that I’ve always been afraid to do it.
Your collaboration with Michael, Vic and Jason now has a name — the Circle. You’ve played with Vic and Michael for a long time now. Besides the obvious Zeppelin tie-in, what does Jason Bonham bring to the table that you really like?
He is an incredible drummer. I think he’s maybe getting as good as his dad, and I have to bite my tongue to say that, because the Zeppelin freaks go nuts when you say anything about anybody comparing them to that. But when I talk to every drummer on the planet [and ask], Who’s your favorite drummer? Who influenced you the most? John Bonham. I go to Alex Van Halen: Who’s your favorite drummer? Every studio album I ever made with Van Halen, Alex was in there playing ‘When The Levee Breaks’ saying, “I want that drum sound.” It was always Bonham. I just interviewed Tommy Lee for a TV thing, and I asked him, “Tommy, who has been your biggest influence?” and he said John Bonham. Every frikkin’ drummer on the planet, it’s John Bonham, John Bonham, John Bonham. Well, Jason Bonham plays just like his dad. He’s got his sound, he’s got his feel and he’s has his chops — he grew up with them — his dad taught him how to do it and he uses his dad’s old drums half the time!
He’s really, really gotten good beyond [being just] the child of the famous guy. He’s filling those shoes about as good as anybody on this planet. And I’ve played with some great, great drummers and I’m telling you right now, he’s as good as it gets. That’s what he brings to this thing. I’ve never had a band that I felt could play Van Halen as good as Van Halen, I’ve never had a band that I thought could play Montrose as good as Montrose. I’ve had bands that do my solo stuff and my solo bands, but when I go to pick on Chickenfoot, it’s a little bit scary, you know, you had some super players in that band. But the Circle serves our music, the music of my life — that’s why I call it the Circle, because it brought me full circle. Everything I’ve ever done, we can put it inside that circle and play it and serve it as good as it can possibly be served. You know, I don’t want to say “better,” but just as good — you close your eyes up there, man, when we’re playing some of those tunes and you’re thinking, “F—, I’m here, man.” A lot of that has to do with Jason — he’s as good a drummer as any guy out there right now — he might be my favorite, him and Chad Smith, I think, are my two favorite drummers I’ve ever played with in my life and boy, Jason’s keeping me real happy.
Giving that grouping a band name seems to indicate that you’re committed to working with these guys further in the future. Do you have plans to do a lot of things with these guys?
If I get offered a show, my first thing I’d find out is if the Circle is available before I say I will do it or not. Because I’m not sure that I would do it with any other people. I think the Circle is the band that I want to play with right now. It’s the band that I choose to play with over any band — even Chickenfoot is hard, because we only play Chickenfoot. So I miss playing ‘When It’s Love’ and ‘Right Now’ and ‘I Can’t Drive 55’ and ‘One Way to Rock’ and ‘Heavy Metal’ and ‘Rock Candy.’ I miss doing that, as much as I love Chickenfoot. The Circle is so satisfying that I don’t even see a reason to make a record. We have so many great hits that we can choose from our catalog, all of those Van Halen hits, all of the Sammy solo, all of those Montrose hits, Chickenfoot hits, Led Zeppelin songs — we have that catalog to choose from for our shows, so to make a record would just be kind of a waste of time. I wouldn’t say never, but first I’d like to put together the greatest set list that ever existed in rock ‘n’ roll, and I think we’re pretty close to it right now with the one that we have, but it can even get better. There’s a frikkin’ goldmine to choose from of songs that I’ve written and sang in my life.
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