Some people might be surprised that Sammy Hagar, a dyed-in-the-wool (or, more precisely, dyed-in-the-Hawaiian-shirt) rocker dude, would have any interest in being a mentor on a pop-leaning TV talent show like The Voice. But when his “Cabo buddy” Adam Levine gave him a call, Hagar was happy to drive over — at a speed likely much higher than 55mph — to the NBC soundstage.
“I’m telling ya, it was a blast,” a jovial, chatty Hagar tells Yahoo Music’s Reality Rocks, admitting that he and Levine occasionally took a sip or two of Santo, their newly launched tequila/mescal spirit brand, while on set. “Well, we didn’t start drinking until about 12 hours into the show,” he clarifies with a chuckle, adding that he wouldn’t advise any actual contestants to imbibe while competing. “But we busted out the Santo and we’d do a shot. And then go finish our job.”
Well, that does sound pretty rockin’. Are there any other classic rockers that Hagar thinks could handle the Voice advisor job? He endorses second-generation rock royalty Jason Bonham (the drummer of his current supergroup, the Circle), Sting, Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx, or even his short-lived replacement in Van Halen, Gary Cherone (“because he’s a good technical singer, a very technical singer”). But when asked if his notorious Van Halen predecessor, David Lee Roth, would be a good Voice fit, Hagar bursts into laughter.
“Oh, no!” he scoffs. “He’s one of those guys — it would be all about him. He’s not there to help the other guy. He’s there to glorify himself. Come on. He’s too quirky for that. You’ve got to get people that make good teachers: open-hearted souls that want to help someone else, and are not interested in their own gain… and won’t ego-trip [contestants], or hold them down, or make it all about themselves.”
Of course, any conversation with Sammy Hagar eventually gets around to Van Halen and Sammy’s ” surprisingly successful years with the band. A couple of the “Van Hagar” albums, like the sextuple-platinum 5150 and quadruple-platinum OU812, actually even outsold some albums from the Roth era — but Van Halen Mach II never quite earned the same respect. “The Van Halen controversy never has helped me out,” Hagar says with a laugh. “Well, the years I was in the band and we sold 40-some million records, having #1 albums — sure, that helps. The fame, it helps you be part of the fabric of that era. But all the controversy between us after getting thrown out, or quitting, or whatever people seem to think — I was not thrown out of the band, I was forced out of the band, how about that? The point is, the controversy also puts a little black mark on me. So since then, I really haven’t cared.”
Hagar concedes, however, that he didn’t have it as bad as the above-mentioned Cherone, whose brief tenure in Van Halen was a critical and commercial disaster that forever turned the Extreme frontman into a rock ‘n’ roll punchline (and punching bag). “That was a horrible thing. It’s not Gary’s fault, because he’s a decent singer and all that,” says Hagar. “It was a very controversial time in that band. They had a manager that wasn’t really helping things out too much. That was a quirky time for them. If you think about what happened after I left the band, it really pretty just much ruined the whole band. They never made a great record since then, they never did a bunch of tours, they don’t do anything. It’s like, what the f— are you guys doing?”
Hagar — whose more than four-decade career dates back to his days with ‘70s hard rockers Montrose, before he became an entrepreneur with a string of cantinas, tequilas, and cookbooks to his name — figures he probably doesn’t earn as many accolades as his classic-rock peers because he “became a lifestyle guy and started going down the beach-bum route, singing in my bathing suit and whatever I wanted to do. That kind of got good to me, and it’s hard to go back: ‘You mean I gotta tighten my belt and go out there and be a professional?!’ The lifestyle thing really worked for me, but I think also kept me from getting as much respect. It isn’t that important to me… Me, I’ve got plenty of respect. Well, I’ve got fans. That’s what I got.”
On the subject of respect — and back to the subject of The Voice — Hagar admits that rock artists who compete on singing competitions can have a tough time being accepted in the real world. “Most of the time, the rocker guys, they make it to the finals and then they’re gone. They usually don’t win. It’s usually the country person or the pop person or the R&B person,” he says. “I hate to put my neck on the block here, right now… but quite honestly, I probably wouldn’t go see somebody that I’d seen on TV for free, especially if they’d been on there for a while and you kind of saw everything they do. And then they lost! You kinda go, ‘Nah, I wouldn’t pay to go see that guy.’ But seems that some of the guys that win pretty much do have a career.”
Hagar continues: “The era that I came from, it doesn’t gel with [shows like The Voice]. My era, you put together a band, and you practice in your garage, and you went out and played anywhere, anytime, anyplace. You worked and you worked and you worked, and your dream was to go on tour with a big band and open for them, and do 150 shows a year on the road, and go from town to town for five years, and then you would make it. So that is old-school thinking — and that is the way I did it.
“But to be honest with you, them days are over, man… I don’t believe that you’re going to have as long a career as the veterans, the guys like me that are in their sixties that can still pack places and people pay to see them because you’re an entertainer — you’ve earned your licks, and you’ve got chops, and you know how to entertain a crowd. So you know, people say, ‘Yeah, I’ll go see a Sammy Hagar show, he’s fun. I’d like to go see AC/DC, they’re fun.’ Some of these younger artists that do it this way [on TV], I don’t know what the longevity is. I’m not predicting it’s not going to be good, but I just don’t know how they can keep that stardom.
“It’s like this big bubble. You get a big spike — 17 million people see you every week on this show, every night. And after that you’re like errrrrr — CRASH! You’re going around working your way back up… But, you do get elevated to a situation where you could actually probably play clubs and small theaters. And with that, you can make a living. So that’s pretty damn good… you can at least make a living doing that for the rest of your life, if that’s what you want to do. So it’s like coming in the back door — but I’d take it in a second. There’s nothing wrong with it. I would have shortcutted that in a second if I could have, rather than have paid all the dues I paid [in my youth]. I don’t mind now, but at the time, I was going, ‘Damn.’”
That being said, Hagar doesn’t think he would have fared too well if he’d gone on The Voice, had the show existed back when he was starting out. “Boy, I would have failed miserably,” he laughs. “I’m the worst to audition. I’ve been asked to write songs for people, some big people, and the long story short is that when I was auditioning for people to write songs for them, I choked. Like I wrote a song for them, and when I went to sing it for them, I couldn’t sing it for s—, and I was nervous. I’m real shy like that. I came from Montrose to Van Halen to Chickenfoot and bands like that, who play through 13 stacks of Marshalls as loud as they can go, and that’s what releases my voice. But to sit in a room and audition and sing like that? Low volume, no audience? I’m audience-driven — people screaming, and the more they scream for me the better I get! If I walk into an audience and they go, ‘Who is this guy?’ I choke. I could never make it on these shows. That’s what I was so impressed with, with some of these people [on Team Adam], that they could do it. They’d just close their eyes and do it. Wow, they’re standing in this room in front of Sammy Hagar and Adam Levine with TV cameras all over them, and they’re doing it. I couldn’t do it. I’d choke.”
Hagar remembers being especially impressed during Voice rehearsals with one Team Adam rocker, 35-year-old returning contestant and ex-Hinder frontman Nolan Neal, although he had trouble connecting with 15-year-old Riley Elmore, “this really young dude that’s singing like Frank Sinatra that’s just not my game… it’s not in my wheelhouse.” However, his advice to all aspiring singers, of any age or genre, is this: “I would sing as much as possible in front of people, and anywhere. I would learn to play an instrument, so I could support myself and I wouldn’t need anyone else. I think a folk singer/singer-songwriter is the most valuable seed in the industry. Just start playing music and singing the way you want to. Don’t say, ‘Well, I’ll sing like this and I’ll make it.’ Don’t ever do that. You gotta go, ‘This is the music I wanna hear, this is the voice I want coming out of me, this is the way I want to sing’… I think it’s so important that you don’t get that homogenized generic frickin’ pop sound that’s going on today. F— that!”
And what tune from his own catalog — solo or with any of his bands — would Hagar suggest a Voice contestant perform? “Well, Van Halen won’t let anyone cover anything from my era,” he grumbles. “They got a little stick up their ass about it. Nice guys, you know? So they fight it every time someone tries; they turn them down. But a song like ‘When It’s Love,’ or ‘Right Now,’ of course — huge, worldwide hits. When I play those songs in concert… you do a song like ‘Right Now’ and you’ve got like 60,000 people singing, ‘RIGHT NOW!!!!’ Songs like that are important to do on a show like [The Voice], you know? Doing an obscure song appeals to some of the artists, but to the masses — you better sing a song that they like.”
Hagar also thinks his solo anthem “I Can’t Drive 55” might be a good Voice choice — even if it’s a little dated now, due to the national speed limit being raised to 65mph only a few years after the song’s release. “It still is a protest song… Everyone thinks it’s a gimmick song, but from the bottom of my heart, that was not a gimmick. I was so pissed off, when I got that ticket, that I wrote that song! It’s really f–ked up, man! ‘Going the speed limit? Man, I’m driving Ferraris, this ain’t working for me!’ I was really pissed and I wrote that song in anger, believe it or not. That’s a young man’s anger.”
As for what makes the seemingly perpetually chill and cheerful, 69-year-old Hagar angry these days, he shrugs. “Not too much.” Then he gets serious and answers, “Hunger. I don’t think anyone in this day and age should not have something to eat. So that’s why I support food banks, and every time I play a show I give a bundle of money to food banks… Just seeing hungry people affects me. The rest of the world, it’s worse, but in America, it shouldn’t be.”
Hagar is wary of getting into too much political talk, but does say of this year’s presidential election, “I’ve never had two less likable candidates in my life… But I still like the shakeup, that [Donald Trump] busts people’s balls and says things that are politically incorrect. Amen! It’s like nowadays you can’t say s—. Somebody’s pissed you can’t say this you can’t say that. So if you say you like this person or this person, you lose that person and that person. So I think musicians and artists should stay the f— out of politics.”
However, Hagar adds: “I think the country needs a huge change. Whether it be Trump or Hillary, both of them would be a huge, huge change. That will really cause the people to shake things up and — I don’t think either one of them are going to be good. But we do need a change, so maybe it will cause something to happen and maybe we’ll get an alternative in there again. I gotta say, Bernie [Sanders] to me, he was the only guy who would take my fortune and rip it to shreds, but I would be OK with that if it went to the people. If he really wants to feed people, and help poor people, that’s OK. That’s a good thing. That’s what America is about, and what it still should be about.”
And with that, Hagar wraps up this conversation with a shout-out to America’s great equalizing singing show for the people, which definitely has Hagar’s vote. “Thank you. I hope you got everything you want [in this interview], so we can promote The Voice and it can be THE #1 SHOW IN THE WORLD!”
The Voice Season 11 Battle Rounds commence next week, featuring Hagar working with Adam Levine, Bette Midler with Team Blake, Joan Jett with Team Miley, and Charlie Puth with Team Alicia. Crack open some Santo and watch.