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Q&A WITH SAMMY HAGAR : 'There's No Image to This Band Whatsoever'

August 27, 1993|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

\o7 Sammy Hagar has now been Van Halen's singer for longer than was his predecessor, the flashy David Lee Roth. When he signed on with the L.A.-based band in late 1985 it was a big change both for Hagar, who'd had a successful if unspectacular solo career, and Van Halen.

Instead of the leering, brash 'n' bratty image that Roth stamped on the band, Hagar's regular-guy persona gave the band more of an ensemble feel, built primarily around Eddie Van Halen's ground-breaking guitar skills and the solid playing of drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony.

Though many figured the less-colorful lineup would not be able to maintain Van Halen's status as the premier American hard-rock band, during Hagar's eight-year tenure, it's been one of rock's steadiest successes.

At a time when even hard-rock icon Aerosmith is having trouble selling concert tickets, Van Halen's 1993 tour, which concludes with shows tonight and Saturday at Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa, ranks among the top-drawing rock treks of the year.

Taking a break between shows at his Mill Valley home, Hagar, 44, spoke by phone about Van Halen's enduring appeal.

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Question: With Aerosmith, Poison and virtually every other hard-rock band having trouble selling concert tickets, how has Van Halen managed to keep doing so well?

Answer: If I had the answer to that, what I'd do is put another band together just like us and take all the money. To make a long story short, I think this band is genuine. Eddie is the originator of his guitar playing, and I don't sing like anybody else. I mean I've been accused of it, but I've been around longer than the guys they accuse me of singing like.

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Q: Is there anyone you feel is doing the same things you are?

A: You can't put us in a category with Poison or Motley Crue. Who do you want to pick on? Pink Floyd? You can't put us in any of those categories. We're Van Halen. And I think that's why we're not going away. We're not a fad band, we've never been. Other bands have copied us and come and gone, but we're the originals, and we've never strayed from that, we've just gotten better.

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Q: You do it without a lot of flamboyance and flash.

A: We've been anti-fashion now for about seven years. It's hilarious. We were just laughing the other day about how goofy we looked. We go on stage in the same clothes 90% of the time that we wear to the gig. We go to the show, we goof off and we end up on stage that way. There's no image to this band whatsoever. We're totally natural. We're not trying to be rock 'n' roll stars as much as people think that maybe we are rock 'n' roll stars. We're not. We're musicians.

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Q: So how does a band without an image keep drawing such big crowds?

A: The only group you could compare us to in this regard is the Grateful Dead. Maybe there are Halenheads out there too! If I had to go put on some weird stuff and get all made up and have my hair, you know, poofed up and go through all those changes to go out there and be somebody that I'm really not on stage, I would grow to hate it, I guarantee you. I used to be a little of that, back in the old days in my solo years. We used to try a little harder, as they say. So I would try to look good on stage and make sure my hair always looked cool, and it wore me out.

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Q: On the other side of the coin, why are some of the real flashy bands who have done well in recent years having such a hard time on the road?

A: The only band that really surprises me is Aerosmith, because they're a great band and they've always been great. But maybe they had too many hit singles from the last album, maybe the image got to them. I think they're a great band, and if I had to criticize them and if I sat down with Steve Tyler and he said, "Why do you think?" I'd say, well, your last record isn't as good as the one before, and that's all I can say. But I admire Aerosmith and it ain't like they're bombing out there.

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Q: But how do you explain the whole pattern of hard-rock bands not being able to fill the amphitheaters and arenas?

A: With other bands, it's a matter of economics, I guess. If you're gonna say, "OK, we have a choice of seeing seven bands out there. Well, they're all the same ticket price and half of them are in the same venues, and it's like I want to go see Van Halen, I've seen them 12 times and they come through every time." Where're you gonna put your money?

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Q: It seems that the song and video "Right Now" were a turning point for you the same way "Jump" was for the original Van Halen, in terms of people who had dismissed you starting to take you seriously. Did that help with people who didn't accept you as a suitable replacement for Roth?

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