Wolfgang Van Halen on Being the ‘Jesters’ for Guns N’ Roses
After seeing Mammoth WVH make their stadium debut on the opening night of their current trek with Guns N' Roses, we drove back from Hershey, Pa. with a pile of questions building up and decided to reach out and get Wolfgang Van Halen on the phone.
With the group nearly two weeks into their inaugural tour introducing the self-titled album to the world, we wanted to check on their status to find out how things are going. Our conversation took place Aug. 6, prior to the band's headlining date in Cleveland. Van Halen was in a jovial mood, and excited to discuss the tour's early days, unexpected challenges and the trajectory of bringing Mammoth WVH from rehearsals to the stage.
Let’s start with your prep for this tour. Can you kind of take us through rehearsals and working up the material for the road?
We pretty much just took four weeks to woodshed all of the material. I had spent some time and put together what I thought would be a good set list for a half hour, forty-five and for an hour-plus [performance].
Through us just playing, we picked each tuning, which songs were in drop D, which songs were in standard and the ones that were in a couple of alternate tunings. We spent days going, “Okay, let’s do all of these.” We had all of the time to [do that].
After a couple of weeks, then we started running the set lists and started seeing what flowed better. After four weeks, that’s kind of where we ended up.
You’ve lived so long with these songs. Once you got into rehearsals, what were the challenges?
There really actually weren’t too many challenges. The guys in my band are so great that it just kind of seemed to come pretty easily. I think the biggest thing for us was trying to maybe spice the songs up for a live setting.
There are certain things, like the song “Mammoth,” for instance, we play it a bit differently. We add a couple of things to it. There’s a handful of songs that have different endings, just to be spiced up for live.
Watch Mammoth WVH perform 'Mammoth' on July 28, 2021
That’s something that comes out a lot with bands, you record the songs and then there’s what they turn into live once you start getting to play them. Are there any of the songs that you’ve seen start to morph as you play them out on the road?
“Mammoth” is definitely one of them. I feel like “Epiphany,” at a certain point, that little intro that we do might become some sort of jam. You never really know. But yeah, it’s just fun how the songs kind of take on a life of their own.
One of the things that I was really impressed with is the fact that including yourself, there’s three guitar players on stage. And as I told some friends, unlike some bands I’ve seen, you’re not just letting Frank Sidoris and Jon Jourdan, in this case, do all of the heavy lifting. How did you go about divvying up who plays what?
It was kind of what was most comfortable. I think there are just certain things where it’s like, we’re singing here, we’re singing here and how about you do that and we’ll flip that around. It just was kind of what we were most comfortable with. Sometimes, the parts are a bit more difficult to do.
I think there’s this one thing in “Stone,” where in the second pre-chorus, I’m doing the high guitar melody while singing. That’s kind of a weird thing to do, but it’s just like, they were doing the other thing and I was like, “Okay, I guess I’ll try it!” [Laughs] And it just kind of stuck.
“Stone” is a mother of a song and I know that a lot of folks are happy that you guys are playing that.
Oh, that’s probably collectively, our favorite to play, all of us. It’s a really fun one.
Watch Mammoth WVH perform 'Stone' on August 7, 2021
You began this tour with a couple of smaller club shows prior to starting the GNR run. What are the differences between gigs like that and the opening slot on these GNR dates?
They’re actually kind of similar. In a way, the pressure’s off with a Guns show. It’s such a huge venue, but they have the cameras and you’re popping up on the sides of the screens and stuff. But at a certain point, you’re doing your best to try to entertain people who otherwise don’t really give a shit about you. Which, I don’t have a problem with that. That’s exactly what you’re signing up for as the opening band.
You’re the jesters to lead everybody to Guns. I’m totally happy with that and it’s a really good time. But when we headline, that’s kind of what makes me more nervous, because everybody’s paying more attention. Chances are, they’re bigger fans than the Guns shows would otherwise have. You feel more of an obligation to make sure they have a really good time, because they went out of the way [to come see your band].
It was interesting seeing the Hershey show, because I know what you’re talking about, being the opening band and the split in the audience. I think this is one of the first times where the people that were there, were super-engaged in your band, even if they didn’t know your band. I really haven’t seen that with that many opening acts. One of my favorite moments of the night was that there was a guy sitting next to me. He was clearly enthralled with what you guys were doing. He leans over to me and says, “Hey, isn’t this the band that has that guy that’s the son of that one guy?” I said, “Yeah.” And he goes, “Which guy?” I said, “It’s the singer.” And he just goes, “Holy shit, dude!”
[Laughs] That’s really funny. And that’s cool. I like that people don’t really know. That’s my favorite. I like to kind of give them that first impression, without people coming into it with ideas of what it already is or expecting to hear a Van Halen song or something.
Going to the first night in Lawrence, Kan., after running the set with the band in private, what are the moments that you loved, getting to finally play these songs in front of people? And on the flip side, you come away from that first gig, what was there to tweak as far as adjustments you felt like you needed to make?
I think after the first couple of shows, it was a matter of the set list and moving some things around, just in general. [With] tunings, maybe it didn’t make sense to swap a guitar there and it made more sense to stick with that. So just kind of little things like that, which is why I’m excited for Cleveland tomorrow. Because we haven’t had a little headline show since those first two shows, so I’m very excited to get back into that environment.
What did that first stadium gig in Hershey feel like?
A lot of nerves beforehand. I think after it happened, it was a huge relief. The first bit of the tour, having the two headliners and the first [stadium show] at Hershey, there was a lot of anxiety, just because it was the first one. As soon as I was over that hump, I started to feel a bit more relief. Now, I think I’ve gotten a bit more comfortable for the last couple of shows.
Where do you think that came from? Because when you and I first spoke a couple of months ago, you noted that you had played venues this size with Van Halen. So what was the difference?
I think it’s just because I’m all on my own. Also, I’m just a very anxious person to begin with. [Laughs] So it’s always kind of there.
What has been the most challenging song to play live?
A song that I’ve been nervous to play, we haven’t played it yet, but I really want to, is “Horribly Right.”
I was going to ask about that.
Yeah, it’s just because, there’s this one note that’s really hard and if I miss it, it will completely fuck the whole song up. I think once we’re in the middle of the tour and I’m warmed up and I’m comfortable, we’ll be able to hit it. It’s just a matter of making sure I’m comfortable. Because I’m super nervous about doing it. [Editor's note: They moved up the timeline and performed the song at the Cleveland show the very next night.]
Listen to UCR's full interview with Wolfgang Van Halen