The S+V Interview: Van Halen’s David Lee Roth

In honor of today’s release of A Different Kind of Truth, the first album from Van Halen with David Lee Roth as lead vocalist since 1984, we’re proud to present an interview I did with the inimitable Mr. Roth back in 2003. Our chat was ostensibly centered around his covers-oriented solo album Diamond Dave, but we quickly went into, well, a different universe. “As far as learning the alphabet of music goes,” opined the ever-quotable Dave, “I always tell young musicians, ‘Last I looked, the Bible was written in the exact same alphabet as my favorite pornography. So I guess the choice is yours, son.’” As the song says, might as well jump. . .

What kind of music got your juices flowing when you were growing up?

The songs I grew up with in the ’60s — that was the stuff I started shoplifting on vinyl. It’s material you learn to sing with. And it’s very poignant now, the ’60s. There’s a very thin line between rage and great artwork. When everything’s relaxed, comfortable, everybody’s getting along, and the food is great — well, that’s more of a fishing trip in the Hamptons. [MM laughs] I’m looking for combustability. A lot of music is low fat, high sugar. But I’m an American. I want high fat, high sugar.

All of my favorite humorists always had the same ethos as my favorite swashbuckling cowboy/pirate characters in that they all laugh to win. And I think each one of my songs contains that. There’s furious enthusiasm, no belly laughs. There’s very little vaudevillian undertone to what I do. I may use that sometimes to attract folks to it, but the integrity of the music is undeniable, and the artists that I chose usually have the simplest songs to pop. It’s part of an attitude. If there’s any recommendation I can make to anybody at the end of this brief but very colorful tenure, it’s, yeah, laugh to win.

What do you think of music today?

Rock & roll is still very much the sound of a Marshall amplifier and a big bass drum. Whether you are the Hives or Tom Petty, this is familiar turf. The backing tracks like the Neptunes have to move to, by the time it’s in the air, it’s already obsolete, like the aerospace industry. The sounds of the drums, the sounds of the instrumentation has to change really quickly to last.

I don’t know that the content is that great because there are a lot of talented musicians who have nowhere to learn their trade. There are plenty of clubs to play new material. There’s no place to learn Top 40. You gotta go learn 300, 400 other people’s songs before you start writing it and make a living at it.

That’s what Van Halen did back in the day.

That’s what everybody did. It’s what everybody does in the orchestra, the mambo band, in rock & roll, to have the capacity to exist longer than 3 or 4 years. It’s how you learn to operate a camera, how you learn ballet, how to paint, whatever, so you don’t spend your life squandering your talent, reinventing the wheel. Hey, I can teach you the wheel in 10 seconds. Now go from there.

And now go in the other direction.

[Laughs] It has been denied now to several generations of musicians, and you hear it in the musicality. I don’t mean the capacity to just play fast on a guitar, I mean to create melodies, create songs that are memorable. A lot of stuff that’s great. A big part of how we judge music is, is it memorable? Do you care to try to even remember it?

Can you hum it?

Mmm… you wouldn’t bother to hum it unless it had some emotional content that appeals to you. How do you join the two? How do you get the mathematical equation of chord progressions to match up with your tortured soul? Well, you say nobody in country & western went to school. I say, the f— they didn’t. I consider five 45-minute sets a night, 6 nights a week for 10 years for serious industrial-strength program continuation learning. Now, they don’t know to say that… [laughs]

And a lot of beer-bottle ducking is going on there, too.

Well, that’s part of the sports program. We offer that also. [laughs] Those intramural sports — very important for your graduation. [laughs again]

See, dodgeball did help us.

Absolutelyit did! Especially when we duck! You bet! It is school, are you kidding? On-the-job training. Five 45-minute sets a night was the standard, and we would do that 6 nights a week, 7 if you’re lucky. That’s industrial-strength education. And the folks who did that will always have some way to feed themselves, singing and dancing for a living. If you have any intention of making a contribution that an Elton John has made, for example, then you’re going to have to use some of the same ingredients he used. Elton John played in millions of other bands and learned thousands of other people’s tunes, and consequently he has every ingredient available to him when he goes and writes. That’s why we still recognize the name when we still hear it.

A long time ago you said about your relationship with your audience, “I’m merely the pond that reflects the stone.” Is that still the case?

That is an old Buddhist saying. I think what I was referring to is that you see yourself in what I do. That’s what’s given me the longevity. I haven’t ornamented this. I haven’t turned this into much ado about clothing. Drum beat, please. [both laugh]

For all of the color and fireworks and etc., etc., we’ve managed to keep it cool enough that you recognize your sense of humor here. You recognize your furious enthusiasms here, and you recognize the same things that piss you off, happening right here. Generally, artists seek to separate themselves, or at least create the impression that they’re separate and somehow beyond it, that there is a division of some sort. And even though I’m not the boy next door — nor have I ever been — you recognize me from next door. [laughs]

Maybe more like from the alleyway from next door.

Exactly. I’m a very familiar face. You know, You need one of me on every expedition. If life is in fact some kind of big adventure, well, you always take somebody like me along for quickness, dash, and general insecurity. If nothing else, I can play the records while you set up the barbecue. [laughs]

As an action figure, you can ask Busta Rhymes if he knows Diamond Dave and you’ll probably get the same answer: Would it rock radio in Omaha?

I guess Diamond Dave is your rap name, then.

No, it’s D. Ro. I’m known as D. Ro in certain neighborhoods. [laughs] No. I can walk down a college campus in 22 different countries, and within 3 meters of sidewalk have somebody go, “You’re that white guy.” You don’t even have to speak English as a third language to know what I’m about. It’s probably of benefit.

Do certain, uh, hand gestures get thrown your way?

Mmm. . . not so much gestures, but I’ve got a certain editorial bias that transcends shoes and haircuts. It transcends neighborhoods and types of music.

I could be putting on a cowboy hat and all of this attitude may make even more sense. [laughs]