The legendary Sammy Hagar, known to fans as the The Red Rocker, was in Toronto for Canadian Music Week 2010, serving dual purpose for the event. For starters, Hagar debuted his documentary Go There Once, Be There Twice as part of the event’s film festival. Twenty one years in the making, the film depicts the history of Hagar’s infamous birthday bash party held annually at his Cabo San Lucas nightclub, Cabo Wabo. The club shares the name with Hagar’s own brand of Mexican tequila. Part two of his CMW visit included an hour in the spotlight as a guest speaker, as he discussed the release of his new autobiography, Red Unabridged, from publisher Harper Collins. The book takes a look at Hagar’s forty-year fixture in rock music, as the lead singer of such infamous bands as Montrose, Van Halen, and now Chickenfoot. It also takes a truthful look at life on the road, in a compelling read of wild touring, backstage antics, and all of the excesses of fame.
Surely Hagar’s illustrious yet raucous career has been filled with the kind of stories that need to be told by the man himself, such as his worldwide tours with Van Halen that saw controversial parties, conflict, and eventual alienation, to his diversified business interests that encompass the expansion of Cabo Wabo nightclubs into Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas, and the advent of Sammy’s Beach Bar and Grill restaurants, which are now popping up across the US.
But as exciting as all of that is, and despite the slew of infamous musicians that he has aligned with over the years, most fans are interested in the gregarious and extraordinary personality that Sammy is… the man that is in love with life, with an impossibly white-toothed smile that never leaves his lips. I am one of those fans, and wanted to know more about the man behind the larger-than-life stage presence. As such, I was positively thrilled to be able to go one-on-one with Sammy during a sit-down in suite at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel during Canadian Music Week. Ironically, though Sammy was in town to underscore the highlights of his fascinating career, interviewing him became the highlight of mine. And here’s how it all went down……
Laurie: Wow, this is a sincere pleasure. I’ve been requesting this interview with you for the past three years. You got away on me before, but not this time and I could not be more thrilled.
Sammy: Well, with an opening like that, come here and give me a hug.
Laurie: I’ve got to bring this up, you look amazing and you sound just as good if not better than before. How do you keep in this kind of shape? Is this leftover boxing training from your earlier days, or is there some kind of preservative in your tequila? (Before fronting his first band The Fabulous Catillas in 1967, Hagar followed in his father’s footsteps and had a brief career as an amateur boxer, wearing what else but ‘red’ boxing trunks)
Sammy: Oh, I definitely give the tequila full credit! But really, I think my whole life I’ve been an athletic kind of person because of my dad being a fighter. He was telling me at five years old, ‘Come on son, skip some rope, or punch some bag.’ So I’ve always been a physical person and it really helped, especially at my age now. But my voice, I don’t know what the deal with that is. I smoke, I drink, party and stay up late… but when it’s time to sing I just start screaming at people backstage at the top of my lungs. It warms me up and I can go on singing for two and a half hours. Let me rephrase that, I can scream for two and a half hours.
Laurie: It’s the twenty-first anniversary of Cabo Wabo (Hagar’s infamous nightclub in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico). Is there anything beyond the anniversary that triggered you to want to do this movie?
Hagar: The documentary I’ve been working on for twenty-one years. There’s old footage in there that’ll blow your mind. I’ve been filming this thing from day one. I was determined to document everything I do. It’s fantastic, and it really tells the story. This birthday bash thing, it’s the most fantastic thing I’ve ever created. Hardcore fans from around the world start getting in line a couple days before the shows because it only holds about eight hundred people and there’s about two thousand people trying to get in per night. Once I started seeing this I started talking to the fans, and it’s the story of how a small, sleepy Mexican fishing village got turned into the biggest party there is! All the locals are like, ‘What the fuck?!’ but everybody makes money off it. The furniture store around the corner brings furniture out and rents it to the guys in line. We bring them tacos, we set up porta-potties for them, and it’s turned into the coolest thing. I love this movie, I’ve spent a quarter of a million dollars myself on this movie, its a labor of love. I showed a longer version to fans in Cabo for my birthday last year, they stood up and cheered.
Laurie: It was just announced that you’re about to do Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp this year. I’ve already interviewed Kip Winger and Rudy Sarzo (bass for Ozzy Osbourne, Dio, and currently Blue Oyster Cult) and both are resident mentors for the camp. I’m assuming you’re a guest mentor for your upcoming involvement, but would you ever consider taking on a regular role?
Sammy: No, I’m just too busy. I think I’m a very experienced musician, songwriter, singer, I could bring a lot to someone, tell them what NOT to do. But I get asked to do this all the time and I never can, so I’m doing it this time. I love the concept. I would start my own fantasy camp if I had more time. Time is always a problem. That’s why I’m not going on tour this summer; I’m doing a book tour. It’s like I’ve got to start getting my priorities together in life.
Laurie: Speaking of priorities, you’ve managed to surround yourself with some of the best guitarists in the business – Ronny Montrose, Neal Schon, Eddie Van Halen and now Joe Satriani in Chickenfoot. What do you think they’ve taught you?
Sammy: Aw, hell man, every time I play with any of those guys I become a better singer, a better musician. I learned a ton from Eddie. I learned about positioning, tuning, I learned about how his brain thinks within music. There are just little techniques musicians have and it makes me a better singer and a better songwriter every time I come out of a project with a guy like Joe Satriani or Eddie Van Halen.
Laurie: So, do you think you’re songwriting process has changed from being in Montrose and Van Halen to now with Chickenfoot?
Sammy: With Montrose it was purely emotional. It was great for me, some young kid, to get up there screaming, banging chords out, but not really knowing what I’m doing. Looking back at “Bad Motor Scooter” and the melodic structure of the song, the rhythm and the chord change is a very basic, very primal. But I can write a great song now; I can really construct a piece of music and write a lyric and a rhythm to my words. Even if you notice it in Chickenfoot, it sounds better because I’m constructing words that really sing well.
Laurie: Speaking of songwriting, the new Chickenfoot is due out later this year, right? How do you think it differs from the debut?
Sammy: We’re more seasoned, we know each other now. With the debut we tried things, but we were afraid to say anything. Chad was playing some badass drums, but he wasn’t expressing his ideas because he didn’t know where I was coming from or where Joe was coming from. Joe and I are the main writers; we present the ideas to each other, then come up with a song and present it to the band. But now that we really know each other, we’re really cooking up a stew, man.
Laurie: Do you get the feeling you’re gathering a whole new brand of fans?
Sammy: Most of the fans that know me, know the other guys, they’re all still there, but I do see a lot of younger kids. Chickenfoot has a lot of teenage guys watching Joe (Satriani). That’s very cool, I love the fact we’re developing a lot of younger musicians. We’re a musical band, we’re not a pop band that has all these teenagers chasing us down the street and trying to pull my hair out. Thank God! They’re welcome to, but I can’t run that fast.
Laurie: Does the size of the venue or the size of the crowd alter the way you play?
Sammy: Hell no! Well, if we’re playing a stadium then I’m running around more with bigger gestures. I’m trying to make a big place as small as possible, that’s my job, and that’s one thing I think I’m good at. When it’s a small place you don’t have to do that, you’re still singing the same performance, playing the same, we don’t alter anything. I just perform a little more outward when I’m playing big venues.
Laurie: Cool. Okay, last question…… much like Ebenezer Scrooge, you’re visited by three ghosts. The ghost of your musical past, present and future, and one of them offers to grant you a wish. Do you go back and change something about your past or your present, or do you set something up for your future?
Sammy: Damn girl! That’s a heavy-ass question. Shit! I like that! Well, now I have to think about it. Okay…. I certainly wouldn’t go back and change anything from the past and I’m pretty damn happy with everything right now, so I’d have to go with the future. I’d make sure it is as good as the present. I would ask, “Could it be this good forever?”
Laurie: That’s a great answer.
Sammy: That’s a beautiful question. I’m gonna get every journalist to ask me that one.
Laurie: Glad you liked it.
Sammy: I did. Now are you going to get in a picture with me?
Laurie: I’d love to!