Taking the route to his roots
Sammy Hagar has famously sung for Montrose, Van Halen and these days for Chickenfoot….but it was his own name album release ‘Cosmic Universal Fashion’ that intrigued me, because unless I was mistaken, this bloke had it in him to make a proper roots record. The hints were all there, although the collection had a couple of quasi-Alice In Chains dark mystery metal numbers on it ( and which I now understand entirely, from speaking to The Man) the styles took in rock’n’roll of the jukebox variety, blues, acoustic and especially a country rock gem in ‘When the Sun Don’t Shine’. So when the announcement came that Hagar and friends had made a ‘back t the sources’ album, I jumped on the brief. Would a Californian heavy rock god with a current superstar rock band and his own chain of restaurants bother to talk to some player from Surrey, England ? – he sure would ! So from a long chat about Montrose and everything, here I have extracted the lowdown on his new Sammy Hagar & Friends set
JLTT : Firstly, thanks for your time.
SH: You’re welcome.
Secondly, where are you now, Sammy?
I’m in Northern California, outside of San Francisco and this is my last interview of the day. Then I’m going to my rehearsal hall where I’m rehearsing with Bill Church and Denny Carmassi at Montrose with Dave Manacetti on guitar…
Well it’s a thrill. I remember the Montrose albums. I’ve known about you and your music for a long time and I’ve been listening closely to the ‘And Friends’ album They said to me ‘Sammy Hagar’s made a roots album.’ I said ‘Yes please. If you listen to a certain tracks on Cosmic Universal Fashion, he is perfectly capable’…in fact, it’s overdue
Thank you, Pete. Well with this album I have had some opportunities to defend myself because the hard rockers out there who think of me as their ‘hard rock guy’ don’t like it sometimes when I do songs like that. That’s more roots, that’s where I came from. This record I think I took it a step further, I went way into the roots and I got right down to it. To the first song, which was the last song I wrote on this record ‘Winding Down’ and getting my pal Taj Mahal to sing on it and stuff. I’m a blues guy. When I was in Montrose, I was singing the blues ‘Rock Candy Baby’, ‘Hot, Sweet and Sticky’ ..they could have been John Lee Hooker or somebody….
You could do a perfectly good bottleneck version of ‘Spacestation’. On the first cut of ‘Cosmic’, your phrasing’s very close to Jagger’s
Oh wow… What a trip! I’ll tell you myself – Mick Jagger may be the most influential person in rock for me. In so many more ways than just vocally. When I first started to sing, I was singing early Rolling Stones songs. (Laughs) That was all I sang!.
My favourite song of theirs is ‘Mother Daughter Helper’
Well even before that. The first two albums and the Chuck Berry influence.
Yeah!!. I was such a Stones guy. Then I saw them and that put me over the edge. If I hadn’t made it on my own I’d probably of been in a Stones tribute band! I love Mick and Keith so much
I don’t drink or drive fast, but where I’m a hundred per cent Hagar is the philosophy that everything starts with a dream and life don’t mean anything unless you’ve got dreams to build on. To motivate yourself. Now if that’s your philosophy, I’m a hundred per cent with you
That’s a good philosophy. I really think, without a vision or something to reach for you’re just unmotivated. The only thing that motivates a human being, especially someone whose had success like myself and could easily lay back on my laurels and say ‘Hey I’m rich and that’s all I need.’ Every time life goes on and you see something else you can do. I get inspired and I get a drive to keep trying and stretch myself
Well I know how versatile you are. Now let’s talk about this album ‘Sammy Hagar and Friends.’ When I heard that you were doing a track with Taj Mahal, I was begging that the two of you might tackle Bob Dylan’s ‘Everything Is Broken’
Oh s****!!!! I’ve done that song with people before ! maybe I should have included that ?
It was just in my head….
Check this out – I’ve done ‘Everything is Broken’ with Neil Young on stage in front of twenty thousand people. Neil Young, myself, Tom Petty, and Eddie Vedder. We did it at the Bridge Benefit and we all did a verse. I wrote that ‘Winding Down’ song and when I went to see Taj about a week before he recorded it with me I said ‘Taj would you sing on this song with me? I’ve got a blues tune. ‘Yeah’. So I bought him over there, he heard the song and the first thing he said was ‘I’ve not heard this song.’ He thought it was an old blues song that I’d just re-recorded. He was like ‘Man, where did you find this?’ I said ‘I wrote this myself.’ He said ‘Wow. Sammy that’s a good song. I like it.’ That’s a compliment, right? He thought I nicked that from a blues catalogue.
Brilliant. It’s a protest song. It’s a modern day protest song isn’t?
Yes. That’s totally what it is. (Sighs)- It’s about all this stuff going on in the world, people killing each other, Wall Street ripping off people’s retirement funds. It’s not as angry as it might be ! I put it in a blues format to keep it from being TOO angry, Pete
It’s driven and that’s what we wanna hear. When you get with someone like Taj, we want driven music. I love it
I love the way he answered ‘I hear ya son!’ When I heard him do that I had goosebumps!
He sounds like Howlin Wolf. There’s a couple of albums that I’ve got of his where the phrases he comes out with sound so much like Howlin Wolf. It’s amazing
You’re saying about Taj Mahal sounding like Howlin Wolf, when he gets roughed up after singing a couple of times with me and he came in and started talking he sounded like Howlin Wolf !!. I said ‘You sound like the Wolf!’ and he went ‘Yeah.’ He sounds exactly like him. He told me ‘You sound like Wilson Pickett. Trying to sing ‘Winding Down’.’ I replied by saying ‘I’m trying to sound like you Taj !’ (Laughs)
Now ‘Personal Jesus.’ This made me laugh out loud and do you know why? I found myself playing ‘Personal Jesus’ at a gig by mistake a few years ago. I think we were doing ‘Shake Your Hips’ and for some bloody stupid reason that lyric came into my head.. You’ve got these great background singers on this.
I wanted to take it to Church because that lyric is very strong and to me that’s an unconditional love song with such a twist. I made it more of a Gospel song. I made it more literal, like Johnny Cash did. When he did it on that weird record with Rick Rubin. So I thought ‘I’m gonna go more to that direction.’ But the riff is a heavy Blues riff and you can play that on a ukulele
It’s a John Lee Hooker riff really. It might be electro-pop but you and I both know that’s a heavy John Lee Hooker riff
Yeah it is. The guy that wrote it from Depeche Mode, I thought it was so brilliant for a band that’s artsy-fartsy like that to play a ballsy blues riff like that. That was my favourite Depeche Mode song ever. It was killing. When we recorded it, it came like that
‘Father, Son’ that’s a key track clearly. How old is your son Aaron?
My son Aaron is forty two years old. Is that funny or what? If you look at the ‘Red’ and if you look at that picture there’s a lady and a little boy and they’re walking down the street. That’s Aaron.
Ok. I would never have known that.
Aaron is a great singer and when you sing with your family, there’s something that happens only with a family member. On the chorus I’m only singing one part and Aaron is singing the rest of the parts. It sounds like me. When he sings by himself he doesn’t sound like me. When we sing together we sound like one.
That’s a dynamic. Johnny and Rosanne Cash had that dynamic
Totally. The Cashes, The Staples, The Carter Family, The Jacksons, The Osmonds, The Everly Brothers are classic. There’s a sound that you get with your siblings or your blood that is special. The song was originally called ‘Waiting for the Sun’ but I changed it to ‘Father, Sun’ because the word was originally sun spelt s-u-n and not s-o-n. But using my son on it I thought was a nice little twist. I love that song, it’s the most adventurous song I’ve ever written
‘Knock Down Drag Out’, that’s sort of sports jock music isn’t it?
Kid Rock’s on it. Kid Rock is on the second verse and everyone I play it for if I don’t tell them and play the song they think it’s me. I just read a quote right before I did this interview, Kid Rock texted me some interview he did and his quote was ‘When you’re singing in that register, you can’t help but sound like f***ing Sammy Hagar !’
I just reviewed the new Buddy Guy album and he’s on that.
Kid Rock is?!! Really ??
Yeah, Kid Rock is on the new Buddy Guy album.
Oh fantastic! I love Buddy Guy. There’s a guy, who..wow.how long can he do this and still be good? I love Buddy’s Guy’s voice and guitar style.
He’s seventy-six but he sounds like he’s just jumping out of college, Sammy. Like he is raring to go at his first gig at the Chequer Lounge! With the Bob Seger song, did your wife twist your arm to do this record? You sound like you enjoy singing this song. It’s got a great rhythm to it doesn’t it?
It does. That’s live in the studio with the Wabos, that’s my band right there. Guitars are me and Vic and bass and drums. My band is a bluesy, rock/soul band. Seger is the epitome of that. The first time I saw Bob Seger I was in Montrose and we opened for him in Ann Arborr, Michigan outside of Detroit. I never knew who he was and I’m sitting there going ‘He’s a couple years older than me.’ I’m watching him and he’s got that whisky voice when he was young and I didn’t have it yet. I wanted to sing like that. I wanted to sing like Rod Stewart, like him. That’s the voice I always wanted. I wanted to be a blues guy. He was doing it and it blew my mind. I became a fan instantly, I became friends with him and I’ve always been a Bob Seger fan. He’s got some great, great songs.
That sounded like Steve Earle’s band to me
What a trip, I like Steve Earle. Steve Earle’s a country blues guy himself isn’t he? It’s impeccable.
‘Bad on Fords’ with Ronnie Dunn – sounds like it’s from that ‘Roadhouse’ film you know?
Yeah and he’s got that kind of rockabilly rhythm thing going on in his voice. I love him as a singer
Now talking of great musicians, here’s another thing I’m pleased about. The Buffett song ‘Magaritaville’ that’s a sure-friendly crowd song?
Oh man! Toby Keith and I have sang that song at least fifty times .. The way Toby explains it, that’s the kind of song you sing right before you pass out. He’s not lying. We’ll be sitting up in my dressing room drinking tequila and eating tacos and it’s about one in the morning. We say ‘Let’s go down there and play a set.’ We do ‘Margaritaville’ and it’s kind of like our own little theme song you know? You know my band, that band when Elvis Costello came over here a couple of years ago and was doing a tour with an acoustic band this was his band. I got them to play on this song. All of them that’s a live track except the background singers I put them on there. A few years ago I did that and I got Toby to sing on it. Live in the studio that band played it just like it is. Great musicians
These guys are great musicians and they are underrated. Because they are singing happyish songs people go ‘oh well.’ You’ve gotta be clever to write songs like that
When I was singing that song, I realised why it’s such a legendary song that carried a man who hasn’t has a hit like that since 67. He has sound some underground hits but today he can sell out stadiums. It’s because of that song. When I am singing that song in the studio I go ‘What a lifestyle song.’
It’s the slackers’ anthem isn’t it?
Yeah it’s an anthem. It’s an anthem for so many age groups. Anyone who’s ever been on a boat or a beach and fallen in love with it and said ‘This is what I wanna do for the rest of my life.’
My favourite track on this record is the one with Heart’s Nancy Wilson. ‘All We need Is An Island’
Nancy ! I think is the best duet on this record. I think she bought more to that song than my other friends. Except maybe Chad, Mike and Neil on ‘Personal Jesus’. What they brought to those songs was a lot. I could never had made those songs without them. But Nancy… if you listen to the stripped down acoustic version with just myself, it’s nothing compared to what she comes in singing on those backgrounds. Her background harmonies are gorgeous
That’s the song for me. If I was gonna play someone a track off this I would say listen to this
You’re my new best friend! That song is so magic, I get goosebumps and I think I’m in Hawaii.
It’s like the ‘South Pacific’ film in Technicolor isn’t it?
Don’t you think that it deserves a soundtrack or the Hawaiian theme song for the commercial on TV ?? ‘Come to Hawaii! Ha ha !
‘Going Down’ the Don Nix classic. Neal Schon makes me laugh because when he did that, did he have his determined ratcatcher face? Because he always looks as though he’s come to rid your house of vermin!
(Laughs) I have to think about that! He is my buddy and we’ve played together many times but I never looked at him and think that. He always shakes his head whilst he’s playing and I think he is trying to get your seal of approval while he is playing. Is the rat thing like chomping on something?
No – he has this determined look on his face when he plays with Journey he launches into these solos and he looks as though he has come to rid your town of vermin. Like he’s got flamethrowers and stuff
(Laughs) I have to study that more closely. But let me tell you, Neil Schon’s hands are the most loose and free hands. He is the most free guitar player I’ve ever played with. If you ask me who is the best? Joe Satriani. But who’s the free-est, the most creative and just off the cuff ?. It’s Neil Schon. The guy is just loose as a goose. His hands are so spectacular, his right hand, his picking style. He is so fast with his right hand it’s unbelievable. I think he has the most identifiable guitar style than other guy in rock today
I first saw him with Carlos Santana back in ‘Santana Three’ era
Now he says him and Carlos are gonna do another album and tour together. I love the guy because he is such a musician. He’ll pick up a guitar and he doesn’t have to warm up
There’s nothing on this record that could’ve been on the Van Halen record. So, basically between these two you’ve just got a taste of both ends of what Sammy Hagar could do. I’d like to think you’d continue stretching yourself and making friends
I’m probably going to make record like this for the rest of my life because I really don’t think that a solo Sammy Hagar record would be acoustic and me doodling because to me if ‘Sammy Hagar and Friends’ is a new way of recording I could see me continuing like this. I have so many friends that I would love to write and record with. It’s opened up a whole new door for me. Now I have to go rehearse ! ..so thank you, Pete. Good talking to you and take care -. Bye Bye.
Sammy Hagar’s new album “Sammy Hagar & Friends” is out on Frontiers Records