Sammy Hagar dishes on Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Adam Levine and much more on the eve of his show in Pompano
The Sammy Hagar & The Circle concert, originally scheduled for next week, has been changed to Sunday, Nov. 12 at Pompano Beach Amphitheater due to Hurricane Irma. The Red Rocker spoke to Lifestyle in advance of his South Florida appearance.
Sure, there are mornings, at age 69, when Sammy Hagar’s iconic voice is a little worse for wear after tearing through an evening of classic rock music that spans the better part of six decades.
But one pre-show glimpse at the songs he’s playing with The Circle—guitarist Vic Johnson, former Van Halen band mate and bassist Michael Anthony, and drummer Jason Bonham, son of the late Led Zeppelin drummer, John Bonham—and all is right in Hagar’s world.
“Nobody has this set list,” says the man who fronted Van Halen from 1985 to 1996. “We have Van Halen, solo Sammy Hagar, Montrose (where he had his first success in the early 1970s), a little Led Zeppelin. People are going to faint when they hear this.”
Some people might have the same reaction upon realizing the fortune Hagar has amassed thanks to his shrewd entrepreneurial dealings, ventures that include restaurants (the most famous of which is Cabo Wabo Cantina in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico) and spirit brands (currently, Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum and Santo Mezquila, the tequila/mezcal hybrid he launched with Maroon 5’s Adam Levine).
On the eve of his show at the Pompano Beach Amphitheater (theamppompano.org), the Red Rocker shares a few reasons he’s “one of the luckiest freakin’ guys in the world.”
On what he’s discovered about Led Zeppelin from being around Jason Bonham: Back in the old days, high-energy bands like Montrose, we would go out live and play songs twice as fast. Our 45-minute show would be over in 30 minutes. But Jason does the same thing his dad did—he holds everything back. If you speed up a Zeppelin song like “When the Levee Breaks” just two or three micro-beats per second, or however you measure it, it’s not the same song. Jimmy Page will hold his guitar back even more with the way he grinds [certain notes]. That’s what makes the Zeppelin sound so heavy.
By comparison, I came from a place where everything was about pushing the song forward and faster. I was in front of it, on top of it, jumping around and screaming. So Jason has pulled me right back in the pocket. I’m a better musician playing with a drummer like that.
On keeping his voice in shape: I don’t smoke cigarettes, and I don’t abuse myself in any way. The cigar-crazed people always want me to smoke a cigar with them; if I even take one puff off a cigar, I start talking like Tom Waits.
When I was in the middle of Van Halen, I probably did the most abuse to myself. I was partying a lot. I stayed up all night drinking and chasing women. One of the only things I do know is that if you don’t get a good night’s rest, your voice will be weak the next day. … Guitar players, drummers, they can change their drum head, change their guitar strings, change their amplifiers and speakers, but your voice tells the truth. You can’t hide it. If you’re having a bad night, everybody is going to know it. If you’re tired, your voice will tell that story. If you’re happy and excited, people are going to go, “He’s jacked up tonight. Listen to him!” So it’s a bare-bones instrument. There’s no messing around with it.
On the musicians he’s performed with that most stand out: Joe Satriani (part of the Hagar band, Chickenfoot) is the most amazing musician I’ve ever played with. And I’d put Eddie Van Halen second to that. I know all the Van Halen fans out there will call me a traitor and a liar, but I’m sorry. I played with Ronnie Montrose, Neal Schon (from Journey), Eddie Van Halen—and Satriani is the man. He’s so prolific. He can play anything, and he will play it twice and it’s perfect each time. And it’s not sterile. He got a lot of soul in his playing.
When we write for Chickenfoot, he comes up with a new song every day—and it’s a complete piece of music. It just needs vocals and lyrics. I just gave him a hint—let’s do a song like Zeppelin’s “Black Dog”—and he came in the next day with “Soap on a Rope” (off Chickenfoot’s debut album in 2009).
In Van Halen, it was pulling teeth trying to hone a song. Ed and Alex (Van Halen) would work for a week, 10 days, on one piece of music. If I wrote lyrics and melodies too soon, the next day they would change it. And now my stuff wouldn’t work. I have to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. I finally got smart and said, “Nope, I’m going to wait until they’re done.” It’s not that it wasn’t good. It was great when it was done.
But with Joe, I can give him a title—like “Come Closer”—he’ll write a piece of music that sounds like [that sentiment]. Just like that.
On succeeding with restaurants where others celebrities have failed: When I opened Cabo Wabo Cantina (in 1990), there would be 30, 40 people in there. But the town grew. Pretty soon, you couldn’t get in that restaurant. I think that kind of made me look good. I was lucky to get in the right place at the right time with the right concept. Now, it’s a bucket-list item. If you go to Cabo, you have to go to Cabo Wabo.
Since it’s not how I make a living, I don’t have to cut corners with all my restaurants. I’m not looking to squeeze every penny out of it. I have a high-end restaurant in Mill Valley called El Paseo. I have fine wines, I just hired the best chef in California. He’s expensive, but I hired him anyway. So I break even there. My other restaurants make a ton because they’re in places like airports, where you don’t often get good food. You go into Sammy’s Beach Bar & Grill, you get pretty damn good food, because I insist.
On other artists approaching him with entrepreneurial ideas: I don’t want to get into too many more ventures. I pick and choose projects so I can pay attention to the ones I have. But I get approached all the time with great ideas from people, some of them big stars. I don’t want to slice myself any thinner than I am. I only take on projects I know I can complete.
For instance, I ran into Adam Levine. He wanted to make tequila and asked me to help him out. At the time, I was working on a project for Mezcal. My partner in Mexico suggests that we tone down the smoke with Mezcal by blending it with tequila. We went to these old Cabo guys who make a great tequila you can’t even find in America and asked them to blend it. They kept mixing it and mixing it, and it just wasn’t right. I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, “Mezquila!” I told the mixologist the next day, make me some Mezquila. And he found it. Adam and I tasted it, and we went to the moon.
So having a partner like Adam Levine is fantastic. Number one, he’s my buddy. I love the guy. Number two, we like the same things. Today, we can’t make it fast enough. Every week, we pump out a thousand cases of Santo Mezquila. Pretty amazing.
On his drink of choice, feet to the fire—Santo Mezquila or Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum: How about this. It depends on the day. If it’s hot, and I’m sitting by the pool, I’m going to have a mojito or a rum and coke. If it’s nighttime, and I’m partying, I’m doing tequila shots.
On stage, I drink a rum and coke. I don’t drink tequila on stage anymore. I used to, but you do a shot of tequila and it scratches your throat; the alcohol takes away the mucous and leaves your throat a little bare. With ice cold cola, the ice takes the swelling down, and the syrup coats your throat. So, my drink is either rum and coke or rum with Dr. Pepper. I call it a Pepper Upper. Sometimes, if I overdo it with the cola, I come off stage and I can’t sleep!
On the future of rock music: When I was growing up, the Stones, The Who—I lived for those bands. When “Who’s Next” came out, you camped outside Tower Records to be one of the first to get it. Now, there are so many other options for your money and time; music isn’t as much a way of life. So, yes, I think [rock] is fading, and I don’t know if it will come back.
But live music is still alive. Bands like myself, and The Who, and Metallica and Green Day; they’re doing bigger business than ever.
You have someone out there with the latest No. 1 hit, and it’s their first big song, you may be reluctant to pay the $100 to go and see them. You don’t know if they’re going to be good or not. I think us old guys have a little edge on it when it comes to playing live.
On a possible reunion with the two main incarnations of Van Halen: The only reason I would do it is for the fans. Both incarnations of Van Halen sold tens of millions of records, but the camps are divided. You bring those two generations together, and I don’t think you can have a better rock-n-roll show on the planet.
I don’t have high hopes. I put my neck on the line by saying it in interviews, but I haven’t heard from anyone. I’m not sitting around waiting for it to happen.
Honestly, The Circle is the band that has served my eras better than any band I’ve ever been with. This band plays Montrose as good as Montrose. Van Halen as good as Van Halen. And we play Sammy songs better than some of my stuff.
I won’t say anything about Led Zeppelin, because no one can touch that mighty band. But we do a damn good job. We’re not going to take any tomatoes in the middle of “When the Levee Breaks.” You’re going to be happy.