Twelve thousand fans are screaming their collective lungs out as Alex Van Halen hammers his Simmons pad. Five, four, three, two, one ... Kaboom! Smoke bellows out of the drum riser, bombs blast, and slowly, Alex and his silver Ludwigs float 40 feet into the rafters. Barnum and Bailey eat your heart out.
The venue is San Francisco’s Cow Palace and the shirtless drummer is soloing like a man possessed. At 38 years old he appears to be in the best physical condition of his career. And his performance reflects it. Yet surprisingly, Alex Van Halen’s contributions to rock drumming continue to go largely unrecognized by the rock press. Just ask his brother Ed:
“Alex is the greatest, most underrated friggin’ drummer on the planet. I can’t play with any other drummers, believe me. I’ve jammed with a lot of people and, well, Alex and I have this connection. He’s a musician, not just a timekeeper. He comes from the Baker-Bonham school, which is, ’Hey, this is my instrument and I’m not just up here to keep a beat,’ you know. Ninety percent of my inspiration comes from this guy.”
Alex chimes in:” One thing I’ve never done is promote myself, so to speak. I’ve never felt the need to do that, for whatever reason. I think what it really boils down to is, I know what I can do. I don’t care if a thousand people think I suck, or whether I can do this or that. To me, it doesn’t really matter. I like what I’m doing, and that’s the bottom line.”
Surprisingly, Alex has refused nearly every outside offer that’s come his way over the years, thus adding to his relatively low-profile. Why? “This band take up all of my time, “ he says. “Plus, I don’t think it’s fair to do something just for ego gratification, and then come back drained. the outside interests I explore should be applied back into the entity of the band, not burned out somewhere else. I think the same holds true for Ed, He’s done a couple of things; he did that Michael Jackson tune in ’84[“Beat It, “from Thriller], and he did some other stuff. But he hasn’t done any real ’solo’ projects because this is what he likes and this what he wants to do. And if he wanted to do a solo project, it would be, ’Al, you want to play drums on it? Hey Sam, you want to sing on it? Hey Mike, you want to play bass on it?’”
DRUM! spent an afternoon with Alex on his 38th birthday and discussed a variety of issues–from his new streamlined drum set to the making of the band’s latest milestone disc. Here’s how it went.
DRUM!: You’ve played some outrageous setups
over the years–for bass drums, Rototoms, radial horns inside bass
drums, Simmons pads hidden inside drum shells, and so on. Now we find
you playing a more traditional six-piece kit.
Van Halen: Well, I played the elaborate kits because the stages were so big. The kit always looked small, so I started adding stuff. The one thing I didn’t want to do was put up a bunch of drums that I didn’t play. I remember when we used to open for Black Sabbath, Bill [Ward] had a rather extensive drum kit. There were times when he wouldn’t even touch half of ’em. So when we did the video for “Pound cake”–we were pressured for time and the drums were somewhere else–I just got a small kit together because that’s how the song was recorded. It was just basically a four-piece. Ed looks at me and says, “Hey, I can see you now. Why don’t you take this kind of thing on tour with you?” I say, “Okay fine.” And he goes, “I have six strings, you take six. That was it. Basically that’s all you need anyway.
DRUM!: Is this the first time you’ve taken a
single bass setup out with you?
Van Halen: Yeah. I started off on double bass.