Van Halen’s ‘A Different Kind of Truth': A Track-by-Track Guide
A new Van Halen album probably wouldn't have happened in 2012 without the musical equivalent of a son asking his father, "Are we there yet?"
It was Wolfgang Van Halen's enthusiasm and initiative that drove A Different Kind of Truth, the band's 12th and final studio album. The group had reactivated in 2006 — with Wolfgang on bass and David Lee Roth back as singer — and toured the following year, but Eddie Van Halen, in particular, was reticent to making a new album. He was stung by the lukewarm response to 1998's Van Halen III, made with singer Gary Cherone, and by the indifference toward the new studio tracks recorded for 2004's The Best of Both Worlds compilation.
But his son was not to be deterred.
"It seemed like a logical thing," Wolfgang Van Halen tells UCR. "We've got a really good thing going here, what if we tried to do an album?" He did, however, understand that "at that point in time my dad's writing style had changed, drastically — not in a bad way, but I think in a different way, to where fans of classic-era Van Halen may not have appreciated it as much." But Wolfgang had an idea: Go back to the demo vault for songs, primarily from the years before Van Halen's debut album, and update them with the current lineup.
"At that time Van Halen was very much a legacy act," he explains. "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."
Van Halen trolled the vaults for candidates, and the group wound up creating a few brand-new tracks along the way, mostly from jams the three Van Halen instrumentalists played in the studio. Initial producers Rick Rubin and Pat Leonard didn't pan out, but John Shanks, Roth's choice, stuck, and A Different Kind of Truth was recorded between Van Halen's 5150 studio and Henson Recording Studios in Hollywood.
It took nearly two years, but the 13-track set came out on Feb. 7, 2012, to good reviews, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and No. 1 on the Top Rock Albums and Top Hard Rock Albums charts.
"I think it's very impressive that Van Halen was able to do that in 2012," Wolfgang says now. "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." To commemorate A Different Kind of Truth, Wolfgang takes UCR on a personal tour through the album, track by track.
That was a song I didn't think should be at the beginning or the first [single] released. It’s still a great song. I was really happy with it. It was an old demo called "Down in Flames" [from 1977] that had a really cool riff. ... It happened twice as much on the original demo. We spread it out a little to make some space for the solo, that weave thing Dad does in the beginning. I thought it was fun. I think Dave's lyrics are super-quirky on that and really fun. But as an opener or first single, I wasn't into that. I fought for "She's the Woman" to be the first single. It's not a comment on the quality of the song "Tattoo" in any way. It was a little different in comparison to the rest of the album. People are so cynical and reactive these days with social media that I think when they get that [song], that's their first impression and they think the rest of the album's gonna be like that. And that wasn't the case with that.
"She's the Woman"
"She's the Woman," to me, was the most classic, like, straight-from-the-demo-era  that it got. The original bridge in that was used in the original song "Mean Street." At the time it was a song called "Voodoo Queen" ... so we ended up coming up with our own thing for ["She's the Woman"]. I think it was cool the way Dad soloed around this new progression. It's almost a little bit proggy when you listen. It's a very interesting chord progression that he came up with. That song really epitomized the classic-era Van Halen party rock sort of vibe. I was really happy, really proud with that song.
"You and Your Blues"
That was a straight-up new song. That was a really fun one. Looking back on it now, it was the more melodic side of pop that you saw in the Hagar era, but with Dave there, and I thought it was really fun. I'm really proud of my performance on this song. Near the end, on the fade-out, I do some really cool harmonic stuff on the bass that sounded really fun. It was also one of the few songs I was able to sing on. Dave, for the longest time, didn't let us sing, do the background vocals on the album. I think it was just an opinion — he wanted to do it himself. And I disagreed with that because I think one of the biggest parts of Van Halen are the backing vocals. I think there were a couple songs we went back in and just said, "Fuck it, we're gonna do this. It's part of it. He can't stop us." It was Dad and I in the chorus, and that was really fun. I don't know if we ever played it live, but we did rehearse it, and man, playing that riff and singing the "ahs" in the chorus is a really tall order. But I really loved it.
With "China Town," I was so excited for people to hear it because that's probably my favorite song to play some from the album. I remember when it came out, everyone was like, "Ed must be using an octave pedal on that intro." 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 favorites.
"Blood and Fire"
"Blood and Fire," I think, musically, is one of the best songs Dad ever wrote. It was an old idea called "Ripley" [from the 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. 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.
"Bullethead" (1977, 2011)
"Bullethead" was one of the first three, as like a proof of concept if we could pull this off. It was "She's the Woman," "Bullethead" and "Let's Get Rockin'," which became "Outta Space." When we did those three songs it was like, "Oh, shit, we can do this!" It was kind of to prove it to ourselves that we could repurpose and build upon old ideas to bring out something new. And I think that's exactly what we did. "Bullethead" was just a straight-up punk song. Hearing all the old demos and old live bits for it, it's really just a thrashy punk song. It's a really fun, fun song.
"As Is," that was another new one. People would recognize that main idea from when Dad was on Two and a Half Men, and he called that idea "two burritos and a root beer float." He does the very beginning of the "As Is" riff — which shows you just how long ideas are kicking around. If you listen to "Jump," at the end dad plays "Top of the World"; that's how long that idea was around. In The Wild Life soundtrack, you hear "Right Now." With musicians, their ideas can be used at any time and might sit for a while, you never know. But going back to "As Is," that was a very special tuning because Dad was using this special bridge that he developed that allowed him to go to a different tuning at the flick of a little thing. So when you hear those dramatic changes in tuning between the intro and the main riff, that's his thing. I had a really weird tuning on the bass. The first string was a super low, a really weird note, and the rest was, like, normal standard. That was another fun one I have a really good time with because in the ride-out Dad and I do this thing together where it's like this descending tapping thing that's really fun, between the riff. That's a really good one. I love that."
The most ridiculous name ever for a song. When I heard that I was, "OK, that's Dave ... " [laughs]. I think the original demo title was called, like, "Flex" or something, and it was because, at the very beginning, that weird scratching sound sounds like metal breaking. That's actually me. A lot of people think that's guitar, but the only guitar you hear at the beginning is that kind of high-pitched beeping Dad was messing with, with like an octave pedal and a delay, where that scratching thing is me with a bass wah [pedal] scratching up and down, and when it gets to the main riff that's me tapping with one finger. That whole main riff is just me tapping. And then Dave added, like, Russian walkie-talkie. He's, like, "Whatever." And his dog also, I believe, barks in the middle of the song, which was really fun. He was a great dog. He hung out around the studio. That was just really fun, such a different side. You never expect to hear a song like that from Van Halen. It was just a real heavy, evil-sounding song. It was a really fun one we'd play all the time.
"The Trouble With Never"
Out of all the songs on the bass, it is so fun to play. That riff that Dad wrote is just a really great warm-up. It was one of the few areas where there was a little slap moment in the verse. That was really fun to play. For the longest time, even after it was called "The Trouble With Never," we would still call it "Da Da Da Da Da Da Da" because that's the intro. So for the longest time, we would be like, "Well, what song should we play next?" and Dad would be like, "Da Da Da Da Da Da Da." It sounds counterintuitive, but that's just what we would do. That's another one where it's a different style. It's funkier, but a lot of really fun bass parts. I would love to do playthroughs on my YouTube channel at some point and would include this because that's a really fun one.
Lyrically that's all Dave, but when it came to the song that one was pretty much unchanged from the  demo. I think that's pretty much one for one, from "Let's Get Rockin." Hearing that guitar riff for the first time when I heard that demo was, "Oh, man, we gotta do this." It's such a perfect, classic Van Halen-era sort of sounding song. I updated the bass riff of it to make it my own. It's a really busy bass line. It's all 16th notes the whole friggin' time, a really active bass part.
"Stay Frosty" was a brand new track, and it was all Dave. It was his original song. But I'm the one who added structure to it. It was just that original, that beginning, and we didn't know where to go with it. And I thought, What if we treated it, obviously, as a sort of "Ice Cream Man"? It's called "Stay Frosty." It's Dave acoustic at the beginning, it just makes sense. I'm not trying to sound like, "Oh, it was all me," but literally constructing that song, it was all me, the idea to do the stabs into it and come into it, with Dad doing the little slide part and then the solo and stuff. It's pretty much like "Ice Cream Man 2" in a way. That was sort of the vibe we were going for in the studio. That was one of the main collaborative experiences when it was all four of us in the studio together figuring that out. Because usually Dad, Al and I were in the studio during the day recording stuff, and then Dave would come in later by himself to do the vocals. But that was the one where, "Hey, we need to figure this out," and all four of us were in the studio together, and that was a really fun collaborative effort. And I'm, in a way, really honored that Dave and the producer at the time, John Shanks, gave me the time of day to actually lead a bit. That was, it showed that they trusted me or at least wanted to give me a chance. That was nice.
That was another one where it was pretty similar to the demo [1976, as "Big Trouble"]. That bridge section is one of my favorite moments on an album. I think Dad's solo and the chord progression in that solo section is just really, really fun. It's aggressive. The main riff is pretty much one for one, and I thought it was funny that Dave called it "Big River" when it was "Big Trouble," so it pretty much transferred really easily.
Listening to the album as a whole, "Beats Workin'" was a really fitting finale, I think because we did that whole epic intro that Dad and I wrote. We were doing these two parts together, and it's like a minute and a half, this building intro thing. It has probably my favorite bass part on the whole album, which was the bridge. It almost hearkened back to the era of funky sort of '70s groove stuff. I dig how melodic and chord-based the bass riff is in that bridge, where it's just by itself and Alex is hitting the cowbell. It's just a fun thing. And then Dad goes into the solo. That's one of my favorite moments on the album, for sure. Maybe it's just looking back on it, or just with the context of where we are now, but it being the very last song on the very last album, it has this feeling of finality to it that you can almost hear in the track. It feels like a very good, in my opinion, send-off for what Van Halen was. When you listen to it, it's pretty great.