How Wolfgang Van Halen Made a Huge Shift With ‘Mammoth II’
After Wolfgang Van Halen finished the first Mammoth WVH album in 2018, he almost immediately started thinking about a second record. That debut didn't arrive until 2021, but the wait for his sophomore LP wasn't long. Mammoth II arrives on Friday
Van Halen has been busy lately, touring with Metallica, playing Van Halen songs at the 2022 Taylor Hawkins tribute and scoring work on the hit Barbie film. In a new interview with UCR, he talks about the Sammy Hagar-fronted era of Van Halen, remasters of that band's albums and his new LP.
When I talked to you before the debut came out, you were already thinking about the second album. How did everything take shape once you got a chance to work on it?
I had finished the recording three years before it even came out - 2018 is when we finished [the first] Mammoth [album]. And so I’d been itching to get in the studio before we even started playing live. I was really thinking about that for the longest time. There were a couple of ideas that fell by the wayside from the first tracking thing, where we dusted them off and breathed new life into them. We were inspired by certain aspects and changed things here and there. But most of the material [came from other places]. I remember at the beginning of 2020, I wrote five or six ideas. In that session, that’s where I came up with “Another Celebration at the End of the World,” “Like a Pastime,” “Better Than You” and “Optimist.” It was around 2022 after the Young Guns tour we did with Dirty Honey, I think, that I ended up writing another five or six songs. By that time, it was like, “OK, we’ve got 15 or 16 ideas here. We’re ready to go.”
Listen to Mammoth WVH's 'Like a Pastime'
There are some good metal-worthy screams near the end of "Like a Pastime."
The live process really informed a lot of the songwriting and also the recording. Because on that first album, I was figuring out and wondering if I could sing on top of it. But with this album, I’m a singer. I think you can really hear that difference. I came into this one with a lot more confidence, knowing that everything has already been established, so now what can I do with it? I think I let a lot of those heavier influences almost bleed into the material a bit. But I think it also challenged me to want to do more. On guitar, there’s more solos on the album than there aren’t. The drums, there’s some crazier moments that wouldn’t have happened on the first, and just musically in general.
Once again, you played everything yourself. Did a full band inform the material at all?
More than anything, it was doing something in the studio and going, “OK, I know that they can handle this.” It inspired me to write more guitar parts in layers, knowing, “Ooh, this will be Jon [Jourdan]'s part” and “Ooh, this will be my part” and “This can be Frank [Sidoris']. We can all play it at the same time and it will be like the record.” Where we don’t need to compromise and not play a certain part because of that, you know? It allowed me to allocate every idea properly knowing that we’d be able to pull it off live perfectly.
On "Take a Bow," there's reverence and reason for using your dad's Frankenstein guitar.
“Take a Bow” was a big step in maturity for my songwriting, as well as my guitar soloing and guitar playing. I remember when I was writing that solo. For three or four hours, I just had my demo to that song looped and I was just soloing over it. It just felt so good to continuously play over that part. By the end of it, I had a minute-and-a-half-long solo. It was like, “OK, I guess this song is going to be an epic, longer song. [Laughs] I mean, really, when it came to the construction of it, I just knew that I wanted to play the Frankenstein on it. Because it represented such a huge shift for me in maturity. I also just wanted to have some of Dad’s soul living on my album as well, kind of intertwined with mine. I thought it was a really special moment because it was such a rise for me compared to anything that I’d done prior. We used the Frankenstein and the original Marshall head and cab. It was all just kind of there, dialed in and ready to go. There wasn’t much that needed to be done. We just needed to make sure that it worked. Between [guitar technician] Matt Bruck and I, you know, Matt, more than anything, he knows the instrument and the amp in and out. He worked on them with Dad forever. So certainly having him there to make sure it was all up to snuff and ready to go was imperative to the whole process. But for the most part, we just kind of sat there and played through it six or seven times, maybe. For one, because it’s really fun. But also, near the end, because I needed to get that dive bomb proper before that last chorus. That’s really it. It was a pretty easy process.
I love how naked and raw the guitar is.
You can hear the string rubbing on the neck after that first bend. Like, it’s very, very raw and you have to kind of work for it. Because that old Marshall, it’s not all beefed up. You hear every little movement. It’s fun though, on that first bend, you can hear it sort of give out and I’m trying to bend it more to try to get more out of it. It’s really funny to hear how used to it [ we are now], the way we can just crank the distortion on everything and let it go forever. But back then, that wasn’t the case.
Listen to Mammoth WVH's 'Take a Bow'
Van Halen's Live: Right Here, Right Now was reissued on vinyl earlier this year. Reportedly, there are remasters of the entire Sammy Hagar Van Halen catalog in the works. What's going on with that?
I have always desperately wanted remasters of those albums because there never has been. I mean, the [David Lee Roth] stuff has been remastered a bunch of times and they sound great. I think the Hagar catalog deserves that treatment as well. Luckily, they began doing that. It’s not really anything I have any decision-making over. I’m just there to kind of help [Alex Van Halen]. Al is the end all, be all of every Van Halen decision. I’m there to do my part in Dad’s absence, to kind of help him. In terms of any decision-making for newer things, I’ve spoken my piece on that. Anything that has been released, was released for a reason. And anything that’s in the vault is there because it wasn’t meant to be released. Is there stuff down the line that might be an interesting thing? We'll just have to see. But I certainly wouldn’t hold your breath. I know there's some people who just went, “Open the vault, open the vault.” One, it’s not that simple. Two, Dad even said it many times, “I released what I wanted to release.” You know, what was worth releasing, in his eyes. Anything outside of that would be a big conversation to do so.