"Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks"
By: Jim Nelson

Album Network Magazine (January 20, 1995)

Balance shows that Van Halen can explore new territory without shunning the ingredients that have made them America's premier hard rock band.

It's like I was sayin' to Alex about Van Halen's new CD: Balance is just like a Van Halen record - and nothing like a Van Halen record. "That's a good way to put it," he enthuses. "Can I steal that from you?"

Van Halen's 10th CD possesses all the individual elements that have pleased so many for so long - Ed's wholly unique guitar style, Mike and Ed's vocal harmonies that are instantly recognizable, Sam's singular, impassioned voice, Al's frenetic drumming - and at the same time, it shrouds itself in unfamaliar accouterments. Like some lurking, distant shadow, this new music shows glimpses of darker, more discordant chordal patterns then we're used to hearing from this bunch. It's the same quality rock n' roll, with a fresh twist.

The bright sunshine belies the fact that it's a chilly, blustery December morning as I approach the gated entrance to Van Halen's inner sanctum; conveniently located next to Eddie's & Valerie's tudor-style place, on a private drive in the hills above L.A. The 5150 studio turns out to be a rustic room with "lived in" warmth. Listening to Balance for the first time in a office next door to the studio where Van Halen has recorded each of it's past 5 studio outings, I am instantly impressed by the diversity of this CD. It seems to stretch the band's ample musical talents to boundaries not previously reached.

Balance opens with sort of a muted Gregorian chant, before it burst into ballsy "Seventh Seal." For nearly an hour, I groove to the tunes, all the while noting the shit kickers ("Don't Tell Me (What Love Can Do)," "Aftershock," "Amsterdam" and "Big Fat Money"), the 'tweeners - not to hard, not to soft - ("Feelin'" and "Take Me Back (Déjà vu)"), the multi format hits ("Can't Stop Loving You" and "Not Enough") and three instrumentals ("Doin' Time," "Strung Out" and "Baluchitherium"). Then Alex and I convene in 5150's control room.

Album Network Magazine: You guys have done it again; Van Halen makes it seem so easy to make a record.

AVH: I wish it was…….I don't know what goes on in Ed's head when he comes up with the guitar stuff, but there seems to be a collective kind of energy. We kind of instinctively know how the record should sound, and the intangible things of how the music has an effect on people. I think the general encompassing thing is how does it make you feel? We finished the tour in August of '93, and in October of '93 we were back in here - playing, and getting the general feel of stuff.

ANM: Just jamming around?

AVH: Yeah, Ed always has musical ideas, it's just a matter of...maybe I'm over-thinking it, but it's not as simple as , 'Okay, let's make a great song.' That's part of it, but that's certainly not the be-all, end-all. It has to be interesting while you're making it.

ANM: Is it oversimplifying it to say that because you are all fans of Van Halen, you know when you've made a good Van Halen album?

AVH: It's not oversimplifying it, it's true. I think that's a different way of saying we haven't lost touch with the people we play for, either. We're a lot like the people who we play for. What better barometer than if we like something? And also, if you're happy with it...hypothetically (he whispers here for effect), if nobody else liked it, at least you are happy with what you did - as opposed to catering to what you think somebody will like and being wrong. 'Cause then you're fucked. Then you don't like it and they don't like it, nobody likes it!

For instance, on our first record, the emphasis was on certain songs, and they were really not what the band was about. Ed and I were getting our first taste of, like, 'Oh, there are other people involved in selecting where the focus of the band is.' And I'm not talking about the different individuals. I'm talking about the musical content. When 'Jamie's Cryin' was picked, everybody's memory of it now is 'Oh, what a great song.' And yes, it was a good song, or else it wouldn't have made it on the record. But we were more into 'I'm The One,' the hypokinetic stuff. We were heavy.

ANM: A moment ago, you were talking about the concept of being in touch with the audience. Van Halen's is a very loyal audience; very few bands can say that everything they've released has gone Platinum. What do you owe that audience?

AVH: You don't really owe anybody anything. But on the flip side of the coin, if you're true to yourself, whatever that may mean, the audience senses that, that you're not just there to sell a product.

At this point Alex and I are surprised to see Slash and Geffen publicist Kevin Kennedy walk into the 5150 control room. Slash has come up to discuss guitar playing with Eddie for an upcoming Musician magazine article, and Alex invites him to join us. Unfortunately, the G N'R guitarist is needed in the other room, so he and Alex shoot the shit for a moment about some spy stuff they're both into, and then Slash finds Eddie for his interview. Now where were we...

ANM: We were talking about what you owe the audience.

AVH: I think you owe them the best you can be. When you're playing, you can't really fool anybody. You can some of the time, but in the long run, you can't. I think some of the best and most prolific musicians have played until they depart. Some earlier than others. It certainly is not a job, it's a way of life.

ANM: How was the writing distributed? Songwriting in Van Halen is always credited to the whole band.

AVH: The (songs are) actually written in two pieces; first the music by itself. If it holds up as a song, then you have a damn good basis to put lyrics over. Sammy walks in, and 9 times out of 10 - if not 99 out of 100 - his first reaction to it, what comes out of his mouth as he kind of scat sings along with it, generally ends up being the song.

With this record, we spent a little more time asking Sammy to re-write stuff. Like, 'Don't Tell Me (What Love Can Do)' was originally 'What Love Can Do.' The whole slant of the song was one of universal love - that it can cure all and fix all, and the planet will be all right. Well, you hear so many people talking about it. I don't wanna hear it. Show me. I'm sick and tired of people telling me this shit. Then again, that's not the focus of the record, it's just one song. In it, we're saying 'Don't tell me this shit,' but (sequenced) right before this is a song called 'Can't Stop Loving You'.

ANM: Which is that universal love thing.

AVH: Exactly. The band does different songs, as opposed to the songs being (about) image control for the band. (We never say,) 'No, wait, this band can't do a song like that. We're supposed to be macho leathermen.' The song's either good or it ain't.

ANM: Balance would seemingly be the first serious album title in quite some time.

AVH: No, not really. I think it's just more up front. In the past, particularly since 1986, starting with 5150, most of the songs (have been) either escapist songs, love songs or heavily metaphorical. And sometimes people don't get past the metaphor. I think we really had a taste of that with For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. That title was not meant to be a joke. We just thought it was interesting that the word ('fuck') is universal, literally. You can go to any part of the world and use that word and they'll know what you mean, especially if you use it emphatically.

Anyway with Balance, I think we've come a little closer to the surface, without sounding judgmental or…preaching anything.

ANM: 'Can't Stop Loving You' is so inviting, musically. Would Van Halen have had the confidence to do something like this before Sammy joined?

AVH: I doubt it. That's a tough question. We had a song called 'Secrets'. It's partially confidence, but I also think that everybody has to be on the same wavelength. If there's one person who's not really into it, we'll know it. When that song came together, it felt right.

ANM: 'Not Enough' and 'Can't Stop Loving You' are in the same category as 'Love Walks In,' 'Why Can't This Be Love' and 'Right Now.' These songs are not about the power of Eddie's guitar or your's and Mike's rhythm section. They're about a poppish melody, or Eddie's piano. They exude confidence, like saying, 'We are a hard rock band, and it's okay if we don't rock out sometimes.

AVH: That's one way of looking at it. Another way to look at it is a good song is a good song.

ANM: What are we listening to in 'Strung Out'?

AVH: 'Strung Out' was a thing Ed did. He rented a beach house about 10 years ago, and it turned out to be Marvin Hamlish's. And (in it was) his own piano. And Ed made those sounds while throwing hammers in it, he was using a saw..all kinds of shit to see what he could get out of the piano. He demolished the piano, and it (cost him) 10,000 or 15,000 to replace it, or have it fixed. When Ed told Bruce (Fairbairn, the producer) the story behind it, Bruce said, 'Well, if you paid that much for it now I see this piece of music as being more than a bunch of noise. There's an additional dimension.' Ed did it innocently and (he) did damage to something that's part of somebody else's heart. Now here it's on a record. It may not mean anything to anyone else, but it means something to Ed.

It's actually a piece selected from six hour's worth. Musically, it works. First it seems there's confusion and disarray, then all of a sudden there's order to the chaos.

ANM: And what about the title to the guitar instrumental, 'Baluchitherium'?

AVH: According to Ed, it's the largest animal that walked the Earth that's not a dinosaur. Everytime we heard that piece of music, we said, 'Wow, that's big, large. So what are we gonna call it? 'Big Large'?' On a whim, Ed just called it 'Baluchitherium.' Sammy calls it 'Balupyourassitherium,' or something like that.

ANM: Is there anything pertaining to Balance that we should know about that we haven't covered?

AVH: Balance is a slice of our life. We hope it does to you what it did to us when we listened back to the record. I think one of the criteria whether (or not) you think it's a good record is 'Are you still moved by it?' Balance does it for me. My favorite song on the record is 'Don't Tell Me.' You crank it up in the fucking car and you can't help but start to drive faster. It moves me and I still don't know all the lyrics.

Interview © 1995 Album Network Magazine