Monday, June 2, 2008
Flashback: Eddie Van Halen on 1984 With Steven Rosen
You could hear the hushed whispers rippling amongst Non-Believers of the Guitar Nation: “Dude, Eddie Van Halen is playing keyboards!” Sacrilege maybe, but the first time you heard the guitar legend pounding out those Oberheim chords on a song called “Jump” from a new album titled 1984, it was instant conversion. The sound was new and different, but it was still definitely all Van Halen.
The song would eventually go to No. 1 (the band’s first) but it would only arrive there kicking and screaming. When singer David Lee Roth heard the original keyboard riff that would become the heart of a song originally titled “Go Ahead and Jump,” he threw a major tantrum. There was no way he wanted his bona fide guitar hero band mate plunking around on a keyboard. And then when he found out that Eddie had built his own studio, he went catatonic. David basked in the power and autonomy he wielded when the band worked in outside studios. Recording in the guitar player’s own backyard was not part of the plan.
But Eddie was adamant. He was hearing music in his head and the luxury of his home studio―named 5150―afforded him the time and means to, as he described it, “Noodle around.” Anybody thinking the musician had replaced guitars with keyboards needed only to put the needle down on any track. 1984 exploded with the most massive guitar tones Eddie had ever created. These ranged from the swampy Gibson Flying V rhythms on the ultra-hyper shuffle “Hot for Teacher” to the sweeping and kaleidoscopic stringiness of “Top Jimmy.” Not to mention the dazzling fingerwork on the “Jump” solo.
Several months after the December 31, 1983 release of 1984, I sat down with Eddie to talk about his creation. We got together up at his studio. As we sat out in the control room, I looked around and saw his Flying V propped in a corner and a row of modified Strats, Les Pauls, and various other guitars sitting in stands. And sitting out in the studio’s main room was a lone Oberheim.
Did you think that 1984 would have been so well received?
That’s hard to say; I like everything we’ve done. I figured that it was good and would get noticed. But how can anyone say, “This is going to go platinum!”
You spent more time making 1984 than any other album you’ve ever recorded.
Yeah, but Fair Warning also took a long time because I was getting married and this and that. But 1984 did take the longest because the U.S. Festival got in the way [major outdoor festival at which Van Halen headlined, earning a then-record $1.5 million payday for a single performance].
However long it took, obviously the wait was worth it.
It didn’t mar the success of the album. If we would have had to have the record out at a certain deadline in the middle of that, it would have suffered. But we said, “Screw ’em! We’ll put it out when it’s damn well ready.”
Having your own studio allowed you a little more flexibility in terms of bringing out different guitars?
Yeah; I used a Gibson Flying V on “Hot for Teacher” and “Drop Dead Legs.” Actually, I’ve used a lot of different guitars recording-wise. I used the V because I needed the pickup switch to do the quiet part in “Hot for Teacher.” Live, I used a Roland Echo Box with a volume knob on it and I hooked it up to my pedal boards so I could hit the pedal and drop the volume because I couldn’t reach for the knob quick enough on the guitar. That song was beyond any boogie I’ve ever heard; it was pretty powerful.
You must have felt pretty strongly about including a song like “Jump.” The keyboards and that strange solo section weren’t exactly Van Halen trademarks.
I had the idea for “Jump” around the time of Fair Warning . When Michael, Alex, and Dave first heard it, they didn’t like it too much. They either weren’t ready for it or probably me playing the keyboards had something to do with it. We [Eddie and then engineer, Donn Landee] put it down on tape and it was, “Here it is guys, if you don’t like it, write something yourself.” So they had to like it.
Did you worry about how your fans would react to their very own guitar hero playing keyboards?
No, though the rest of the guys wondered about it. If I go out there and play saxophone and play it well, what’s the difference? It doesn’t mean I can’t play guitar anymore.
What type of keyboard did you use on “Jump?” This really wasn’t the first time you’d actually put keys on an album.
Yeah, I used one of those cheap little kid’s toys, an Electro-Harmonix on “Sunday Afternoon in the Park.” It didn’t have any notes; you could rub your hand across the whole octave of the board and it would go rrrrrrrrr [rolls tongue and imitates sequencer line]. I just blazed it through the Marshalls. It was cheaper than a Casio and was made of cardboard, plastic, and a little sensor keyboard.
And on Diver Down, I remember Dave always wanted to redo “Dancing in the Streets” and I remember him giving me a tape of it. I said, “I can’t get a handle on anything out of this.” I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t like it. So I suggested “Pretty Woman” because that seemed more a Van Halen song to cover; it was us. I was working on something on the Minimoog and Ted [Templeman, producer] happened to hear the riff and said, “Wow, we can use this for ‘Dancing in the Streets.’ ” So Ted and Dave were happy, and I wasn’t. Because the riff I had for something else got used for a song I didn’t even want to do.
And I used a Wurlitzer electric piano pumped through my Marshalls on “The Cradle Will Rock.” So I did use keyboards before “Jump.”
But getting back to your original question, I used an Oberheim OB-Xa. They stopped making them, so now I play an OB-8, which is a better keyboard. You can basically get the same sounds out of it; there’s just a slight difference between the two. To my ears, the OB-Xa seems to have a little warmer sound, but the OB-8 is much more dependable.
Was it difficult in coming up with the final version of “Jump?” Was it like a Fleetwood Mac or Steely Dan thing where you ran through dozens and dozens of different takes?
I think we just did “Jump” once. Actually the tape ran out at the very end just in time. That’s why we had to be careful with the fade at the end. When Donn mixed it, he had to fade it just right, otherwise he would have run out of tape. And most of the other songs happened the same way; some took longer but not much longer. Again, it was because of all the interruptions that the album took so long to finish.
So the album was really built around hearing sounds in your head, and then searching out the perfect instrument to create those sounds.
Yeah; I just knew what sound I wanted to noodle with. Not necessarily for “Jump” but just to noodle with. Whenever I sit down, I know what kind of sound I’m looking for.
You have always described the sound of your guitar as brown; how would you explain the sound of your keyboard playing?
The same: brown. I play brown to drums, everything. It’s just a warm sound: warm, big, majestic. That’s the thing―as long as you do something well, what’s the difference? I just knew that everyone from my father to the guy who works on my cars loved it [keyboards]. It had a universal appeal to it. If people didn’t like it, that’s fine, too; I knew what it was. Donn and I liked it so much, we didn’t care what anybody else thought about it, I guess.
Looking objectively at the album, do you think your main contribution was the serious introduction of synthesizers to the Van Halen sound?
Yeah, it’s neat. It’s almost like I play more keyboards now than I do guitar! I enjoy playing keyboards. It means you don’t have to jump around on-stage and have something hanging ’round your neck. No, I’m joking.
Did the success of the album give you even more freedom to wander outside the traditional Van Halen boundaries?
It gave me the freedom to play keyboards comfortably. Now I don’t have to worry about what the rest of the guys think other people will think. I never worried about what anyone thinks except it makes you feel kind of uncertain when the guys worry.
Did you think how you’d stage songs like “Jump” and “I’ll Wait?”
No, I just figured I’d cut the solo out of “Jump” because it’s such a short little thing; or play it on keyboard, which I did. Mike played a Minimoog bass live since I did some counter-melodies on the record that I didn’t have enough hands for. And “I’ll Wait” was one they really didn’t want. It was actually that song more than “Jump,” they didn’t want to touch with a 10-foot pole.
Are you the final sounding board on what eventually ends up on the record?
I’m not the only one involved; if the rest of the guys don’t like something, I’m out-voted. But with regard to my happiness about the album, what I think of it is more important. If I like it and other people don’t, of course my reaction might be, “Why don’t they like it?” But like I said before, I don’t write to please other people. It’s nice but you have to please yourself first.
When you look back at 1984, will it stand the test of time for you? Was this a high point in your creative life?
It was both a very high and a very low point emotionally for me. Since it was recorded at my house, I got a lot of flak from producers and from Dave. In a way, that made me work harder and in a way, it turned me off to working with those people. So what I did was work at night after everyone split and then the next day play stuff for them. They’re the types of people who, I guess, like to work from noon to 6 p.m., break for dinner, go to sleep at 11, and wake up at noon again. You know what I mean? I’m not that type of person, and they knew that all along. So I guess it scared the crap out of ’em when I built the studio. Because hey, I’d wake up at 5 a.m. and want to play. If an idea pops in my head, I want to put it down. You don’t put off an idea until tomorrow.
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