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Sammy Hagar on Acoustic Music, Booze, Charity, Van Halen, and Alien Abductions

Sammy Hagar is scheduled to perform on Saturday, April 5, during Phoenix Bikefest at Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino.
Sammy Hagar is scheduled to perform on Saturday, April 5, during Phoenix Bikefest at Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino.
Courtesy Photo

The Red Rocker is alive and well. Better yet, he's thriving within his own realm, which could appropriately be dubbed Sammyland. The thing about Sammyland is that it's not a standalone entity. Instead, it's sort of like a community outreach program filled with charitable efforts, loyal followers, and musical roots spiraling deep into the annals of rock and roll and heavy metal history dating back to when Tricky Dick still held the presidential office. And that's exactly the way Sammy Hagar likes to have it.

When the solo recording juggernaut and former Van Halen front-man is not up to his eyeballs in his own brand of Sammy's Beach Bar Rum or jamming out with his party band, The Waboritas, Hagar keeps himself occupied by many different endeavors -- some of which stretch outside the realm of music.

Most notable perhaps is the Hagar Family Foundation, which supports food banks by donating all the profits from Sammy's Beach Bar & Grill restaurant line back into the community. Additionally, Hagar writes a check to a local food bank in every city that he performs, which means that one such charitable organization will be getting a donation from the Red Rocker after he performs at Phoenix Bikefest on Saturday, April 5, at Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino.

"I chose food banks because [they] are not just for homeless people," explains Hagar. "A lot of times families, that are working people, don't have enough money for something. So, the food banks subsidize that, and that is the most important part of it."

Last fall, Hagar released a collaboration album titled Sammy Hagar & Friends, in which he invited a who's who of his musical compadres from Neal Schon and Michael Anthony to Toby Keith and Kid Rock to perform on the record.

"It was a blast," recalls Hagar, "I almost can't imagine doing a record any other way now."

Without question, Hagar has carved out his place in music at the age of 66. This is funny for a man who admits that before the successful solo career, and spearheading Van Halen, Chickenfoot, HSAS and his namesake rum, he would have been content with retiring after the success of his first band, Montrose. The cherry on top came in 2011 with the release of his autobiography, Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock, where Hagar says, "Having a #1 New York Times Bestseller was, I gotta say, just as exciting as having my first number one album."

Hagar is currently in his studio working on his latest brainchild to construct a one-man show with just his acoustic guitar. By restructuring his older rock songs and experimenting with modern country, Hagar says all his focus is currently on this project. But looking back on decades of albums, how would the hard rock and heavy metal professor describe his music today-- "I would have to call it classic rock; I'm sorry," says Hagar with an admitting laugh. "It's not a nasty word for God's sake!"

Sammy Hagar will be performing this Saturday at the Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino as part of the 2014 Phoenix Bikefest (more information on the Phoenix Bikefest here). Before he takes the stage, Up on the Sun had a lengthy conversation with Hagar on everything a Red Rocker fan wants to know. He discusses his current musical affairs, philanthropist work, and his relationship with Eddie Van Halen today, as well as a few things that perhaps fans didn't know; like his trick to career longevity and the time he found himself right in the middle of an alien abduction.

You recently released Sammy Hagar & Friends. What was the idea to release a collective album? Well, I've made so many records in my life so I always try to do something different. After the Wabos having such a party with Red Voodoo and Not 4 Sale, and all these party records, I was going, "Man, I'm running out of ideas, and I'll have to start repeating myself."

So, I asked a couple friends to come in and co-write with me and a few to come in and jam with me. It ended up being so much fun and so prolific, that I started calling up everybody and saying, "Hey, what are you doing next week?" [Laughs]

The album was not a preconceived idea-- it just ended up being a collaboration. I've been doing that in Cabo for 23 years now since the Cabo Wabo [Cantina in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico] opened for my birthday and people come down and play with me. So, it was pretty easy to incorporate that into making a record of new music. It was a blast-- I almost can't imagine doing a record any other way now.  

How do you feel about the album's reception? It's okay. In today's world, rock records are a thing of the past. As soon as you put it out it becomes free [laughs]. I'm okay with that, because the truth of the matter is I've sold close to 100 million records, I would imagine, with all my carnations and did really well with all that. So, I don't rely on it as a way to make a living anymore. I don't say, "Oh, I gotta make a new record so I can pay the bills," because a new record in this world doesn't pay the bills.

You just mentioned all of your carnations. So, with everything from Fabulous Castilles and on to Montrose and Van Halen, then Chickenfoot and your solo work what does keep your musical well so full? Well, I'm musically driven mainly by new projects. That's what drives me and why I've been in so many bands. People say, "What if Montrose would have stayed together this whole time?" Oh man, I would have been so dried up [laughs]. I get inspiration from being around other musicians.

My biggest trick for any artist that wants to be around as long as me and still be writing new music and feeling like you have something to say still is [this]--go from being a solo artist, and when you burn out join a band [laughs]. Then, you have three or four other guys that are really talented and inspire you and will help create something together.

Then you stay in that band, well for me it's close to a decade. Then, I get tired of being in a band and I start building up this well of ideas in my head and I just go, "I gotta make a solo record!" Then, I end up getting kicked out of the band because of it [laughs] and I go about my solo career again.

I've been back and forth like that forever, so every time I get bored with a solo project I just start another band you know like Chickenfoot or HSAS, which is coming up on its 40th anniversary. That was my first kind of super-group that I put together. And then I have the Wabos, which are always my party band and my cantina band, and we go out and play anytime anyplace anywhere. It isn't like we look at it like, "It's gotta be a big-time arena otherwise we are not doing it." No, no I'll play a club, I'll play for free, or I'll play a biker festival. That's what the Wabos are really all about, and I love having a band like that because that's the way I like to play--just free.

I don't like to have to put together a big production and rehearse the show that no one has ever seen. I want to just go out and play the music that I have. I've got 300 freakin' songs to choose from. I like to just go out and play whatever I feel like playing. It's fun.

Like this biker rally for instance, I'm tripping on, "Oh it's going to be so much fun." I'll play "Bad Motor Scooter", and "Trans Am", and "I Can't Drive 55", and I'll play this new song from Sammy Hagar & Friends called "Bad on Fords". I'll play all my car songs [laughs], and all my motor head songs, and it'll be a blast.

Do you have any projects that you are working on right now? Well honestly, every day I'm going to my studio, that's what I'm doing again today and I have a routine. Normally, I don't do things like a job you know like punch a clock, but I'm forcing myself to do this. I'm determined to be able to play a whole hour to an hour and a half show by myself with an acoustic guitar. I'm working on it really hard, and it calls for a lot of old songs having to be restructured. You can't sing a heavy rock tune with an acoustic guitar the same way you would do it with a band. So, I'm taking the songs that lend themselves to that, and I'm changing keys and tempos and stuff. I'm working really hard on it, because I really want it to be great.

I don't know where I'm going to do it [laughs]. I don't even have a plan--I just decided in my head that something I want to do is go out and play a real intimate show somewhere. I don't think I'd go on tour, and I don't think I would do it in Cabo Wabo either, because Cabo Wabo is such a party place. I'm telling you, this is the freshest information I have. I don't know where I want to do it, but I want to find a nice theatre somewhere and I want to go there and I want to do this, and have a few people accompany me. So, this is what I've been doing--it's my newest project musically.

Once again, it keeps my voice in shape and it keeps my fingers in shape for playing and it keeps me interested in music, which is my love. Sometimes I fall out of love with it and I say, "I don't feel like going on tour, or I don't feel like rehearsing, or I don't feel like making a record," and I don't like it when I feel that way, so I just try to find new things to make me want to go to my beautiful recording and rehearsing facility and make music.

Other than that, I'm just spending most of my time on my rum called Sammy's Beach Bar Rum. I'm really trying to make a couple flavors, but I want it to be real flavors and not artificial flavors. It's complicated, because it doesn't have as good of a shelf life. That's all technical stuff to you, but I'm really working with my chemist on figuring that one out and just trying to promote my rum. It's the best damn white rum in the world and people gotta try it out [laughs].

You have been known for your charity work, like Sammy's Bar & Grill. Yeah, those are restaurants that are just for charity. I give all that money away to the local community where the restaurant is. I don't look at that as a business. I want to help people, and you can only do so much so I figure if you put a restaurant in a town, mainly in the airports like Maui, Las Vegas and New York, and people come through and buy stuff and you take the profits and put it right back into that community by feeding people and helping out families that are having a little trouble.

So, the Beach Bar & Grill is most of the money that feeds the Hagar Family Foundation, which is what feeds my charitable endeavors. I've really narrowed it down to when I go on tour, and every time I play a city, I write a check to the local food bank. That's my way of coming through a town and saying that I'm not just here to take the money and run, but I actually care about this town otherwise I wouldn't be playing here. I've been doing that for a long time. Since the first Chickenfoot tour actually, and not that many people know about it except the food banks that I give the money too.

I chose food banks because food banks are not just for homeless people. With the prices of insurance, and fuel for your car, and paying rent, utilities and the cost of food you know, well families with three or four kids sometimes have to be like, "we can either pay the rent, or we can go buy groceries for the week." A lot of times these families, that are working people with a house and a car and go to work every day, don't have enough money for something. So, the food banks subsidize that, and that is the most important part of it.

How would you classify your own music nowadays? [Laughs] I would have to call it classic rock; I'm sorry [laughs]. It's not a nasty word for God's sake. Classic rock stations have been around 35 or 40 years, so people like that kind of music. I don't like classic rock in the sense that I'm tired of hearing the same old songs over and over again--that's why I make new records and I write new songs, but my new music, even my Chickenfoot, is basically classic blues rock driven. That's what I would classify my music as.

I'm a little experimental lately, and I'm leaning a little bit towards modern country. I can't help it because it's where the blues comes from. I'm a blues guy to begin with, and my roots are pure blues with American folk music like Bob Dylan and Hank Williams. I like that kind of music a lot, because it's really about this country in the old days--it's like historical music. So, I'm kind of leaning into that a little bit with my writing by trying to write historical songs about today and not about picking cotton and stuff because I didn't pick cotton, you know, but I'll write about the stuff that I am doing today and what everybody else is doing out there. I think it's valuable for artists, like Springsteen and stuff like that, who really talk about the times.

I'm sure this is your least favorite part of doing interviews... [Laughs] Uh oh, it's coming up.

But, let's touch on Van Halen... Sure.

And your time in Van Halen, what your relationship with Eddie is like today, and given the opportunity would you work with them again? Well, to answer those three questions, I'll start with my time in Van Halen. The first nine years of Van Halen were fantastic. [They were] some of the greatest musical moments in my life, and some of the greatest crazy rock n' roll experiences, and just life experiences. We had more fun than what probably should have been legal, and all of that [laughs].

When it went bad--it went bad. I have no relationship with those guys now, but Michael Anthony plays with me all the time. He's one of my closest friends, and we call ourselves The Other Half, because the other half is Ed and Al; the brothers. They don't even get along with each other [laughs], so it's pretty dysfunctional and it's pretty hard to be around, and on the reunion tour everyone saw that. I must say, the show that I can remember note for note, the show in Phoenix was one of our better shows-- Eddie was in a little bit better shape. At that time the reunion was so bad, it was so miserable, and Eddie was in such bad condition that every night I sat in my dressing room with Michael Anthony and we waited until we heard his guitar on stage before we left our dressing room, because I never thought he was going to make it.

I don't like living like that, and I don't like going out into the world like that and standing there for this sold-out audience and have a guy be in that condition. I don't see it ever happening again. I have heard that Eddie has cleaned up, and I've seen him a couple times in pictures, but I haven't spoken with him, so I have no idea. All I know is, under the last circumstances of the reunion tour, which I talked about extensively in my book, I would never do that again. As far as playing music with Eddie Van Halen or Alex Van Halen again, I would love to. I think it would be one of the great things we could do. I don't care about going on tour, and I don't care if we made a record, but just being friends sitting in a room somewhere and playing music would be a joy for me. I would do that in a heartbeat if everyone was healthy.

You have been recording music for over 40 years, did you have a career goal in mind when you began, and do you think you've reached it today? [Laughs] Oh Lord, have mercy-- I don't even think I had a clue that I'd be here today doing this. I thought Montrose would have been it for me. In my mind, when I was thinking about making it before I was in Montrose, I would have thought that was it. I could have done that, and I would have retired at 30 and said, "I'm washed up as a rock star." That would have been fine for me, and my dream would have been fulfilled in Montrose--can you imagine that? [Laughs]

Looking back, I can't, but I can tell you that is the truth. Really, that was my dream--to do what I did in Montrose, and that's as far as my dream went. The only oddball thing that I dreamt of back then was that I wanted to write a book. I really wanted to write a book because I thought my childhood was very unique, and my father was unique. So, when the book part of it came true that was really pretty exciting for me. It was almost like the last remaining piece in my dream. All the music stuff had been a thousand times the dream, but when the book became reality I thought it was really cool because that was something I wanted to do before I was a rock star.

It turned out to be a different kind of book than what I planned, but having a #1 New York Times Bestseller was, I gotta say, just as exciting as having my first number one album.

Are you still producing a line of guitars? You know, I don't because it's too complicated and I don't like trusting anybody with my brand anymore. I make up my own brands now, and since Cabo Wabo I saw how I can really control it, like Sammy's Beach Bar & Grill and rum, I can control it. I just like doing my own thing.

I play Gibson's period. I'm a Gibson guy, and I always have been. I went with a couple other companies and they made me some great guitars, but when they put them out for sale with my name on it the quality wasn't as good as the ones they were making for me. I didn't like that. It wasn't always that way, but I found a couple of times where it was. Somebody would buy a guitar and ask me to sign it, and I would go, "Wow, this is made in Korea. It's not supposed to be like that. How much did you pay?" And the guy says, "Oh, I gave them $3,000."

That happens to everybody in every kind of business there is, people like to cut corners. So, I really don't make a guitar anymore, but I do play a Les Paul and I had a signature Chickenfoot model that was a standard Les Paul with my little Chickenfoot garb on there, and the pick-ups that I like to use.

You were once a mountain biker, are you still doing that? Not really, as I got older it really hurts my neck and hands and wrist. I actually have a quirky wrist from mountain biking. It's the downhill that gets me. They have all these great components nowadays with the shocks and variable adjustments that you can make for this and for that, but I'm an old hardtail guy, man. If I'm a biker, I'm riding a hardtail. I like that rigid feel on a bike, especially going uphill. I can't go uphill on a bike that has movement. So anyway, I don't do it much anymore because my wrist just can't take it, and I think my guitar playing is more important.

I'm interested in extraterrestrial activity, and your own alien abduction. Can you elaborate? Oh [laughs], that is a whole separate story by itself though, you see? That's so complex and crazy, you can't tell a story like that and get into the whole philosophy of it. I can tell you that I'm a believer. I completely believe in life in outer space. To me, it would be impossible that we were the only ones in the vast universe. When you know the size of the universe, and how small we are and how small our galaxy is, and if you think we were the only ones, I think that is about the most narrow-minded thinking you could ever have.

How they get here and how it all works--I have no idea. But I can tell you that it does happen, and they are around. There're tons of extraterrestrial experiences that people have that they don't even know they had them, because most of the time it's a hypnotic kind of a thing and they don't remember.

The people that wake up in the middle of it, like I did--I woke up in the middle of it by accident--and it was like they said, "Oh wow, he's waking up." They didn't say shit, but that was the mental thought that was going between us of, "Uh oh, we gotta get out of here." And I caught them, and it was wild.

That's all I can say--it was just a wild experience, and it ain't like a dream. Well, it was similar to a dream, I'll take that back, it was similar to a dream, but it was different because I was conscious while it was happening. It was pretty neat, but that's deep, deep stuff. I'll just let people that read this small little taste say, "Oh, he's crazy." Yeah, yeah I'm crazy, you would be too. [Laughs]

There's so much speculation, because no one really knows, it's too deep. It's beyond our mental capacity to know how they would get at light speed from somewhere to somewhere. Its Star Trek shit, you know?

That's interesting. I feel like we can't comprehend infinity because everything we know has four walls and a beginning and an end. It does! And it's even controlled by the speed of light. If you think about [it], our universe is controlled by the speed of light in our brains, because if there is no light then that is the end--that's the wall. So, it's kind of the Einstein theory of if you shine a light straight, it will eventually come back around, because there is a curve in space. So, that's our boundaries. We're in that little bubble--that little light bubble--and it ain't little, it's fuckin' big [and there's] a lot going on in that little light bubble. I like that word actually, "light bubble". I might have to call my next band Light Bubble.


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