Interview: Sammy Hagar ‘Elevates’ With a Little Help From His Friends
After 40 years in the business, Sammy Hagar wasn’t looking to discover a new way to make records. But that’s exactly what he accidentally did with ‘Sammy Hagar & Friends,’ a collection of spontaneously recorded songs that features almost as many musical styles as guest stars.
“I’m in love with this process, and I don’t think I’ll ever make a record another way as a solo artist,” Hagar tells Ultimate Classic Rock. “It’s gonna have to be Sammy Hagar & Friends, because the ‘friends’ brings so much. When you call up Chad Smith, Michael Anthony and Neal Schon, and walk into a studio with just a couple of ideas in mind, and everyone just starts playing, something really happens and everybody elevates. When we all get together, we all rise because we’re all trying to outdo each other, or trying to impress each other, or are inspired by each other.”
Hagar originally planned to record just a few new songs for inclusion on a career-spanning anthology, but the project quickly grew into a new full-length album. “It was like by accident,” he says. “And then when I finished the record, for the first time when I played the whole thing back, I was so shocked and so excited and so happy … me hearing it for the first time was like you hearing it back for the first time. It was like, ‘Wow, this is weird,’ or ‘This is different,’ or ‘This is really cool!’”
Besides the high-talent level of the guest stars — a long list of names that also includes Joe Satriani, Kid Rock, Taj Mahal and Nancy Wilson of Heart — Hagar credits the fast pace of the writing and recording with making the album special. “Most records, when you make them, you write the songs ahead of time, you plan it out, you hire the musicians, you rehearse for freakin’ two weeks or a month, and then you go in and you cut the record,” he says. “Then, when it’s done, you’re going, ‘Boy, I had something else in mind, I wonder what happened to that song.’ You have all these things that didn’t turn out quite like you planned or expected … because you planned it.”
That wasn’t the case this time. “I just had my head down and was working, working, working, calling up people and just writing the songs on the spot and everything,” he explained. Take his cover of Depeche Mode‘s ‘Personal Jesus.’ “I had no intention of doing that song. It wasn’t even on my radar until I was driving to the studio to meet with Chad, Mike and Neal. I thought we were just gonna do [album-closing track] ‘Going Down,’ that was it, then go have some tacos and margaritas and call it a day.
“And on the way there … all of a sudden, ‘Personal Jesus’ comes on, and the first thing I thought was, ‘You know what? That’s really a cool song,’” he continues. “I forgot that I really did like that song when it was out. I walked in, said, ‘Hey, anybody know “Personal Jesus”?’ Nobody knows it, right? [So we] downloaded it, everybody just started jamming it, learned the riff, went in and blew it out. I’m in love with it, because right there is as fresh as you get. That was learn the song on the spot, go in and make an arrangement and play it … third take, done! Well, we did three takes, but you know, the first take was the one. We did the same thing with ‘Going Down.’ We took it three times, went back, listened to the first one, said, ‘That’s the one – done!’ Both of them have live vocals, both of them every part on the original was kept. Neal did some overdubs on ‘Jesus,’ and we took it to church with the gospel singers, but other than that it’s live as mother, and ‘Going Down’ is f—ing live as a mother, ain’t a damn overdub on that thing.”
The new album certainly covers a lot of ground, ranging from throwdown rockers to gentle acoustic-tinged ballads, along with a dash of country and a heavy dose of the blues. But Hagar says he isn’t worried about it being too eclectic. “I’m real proud of that,” he says. “I think that at this stage in my life, what else am I gonna do? Make another ‘Standing Hampton?’ Probably would if I could, I’m not sure I’m capable, you know? Or another ‘Three Lock Box.’ I’m just not that same person that I was then. So those are treasures that you leave alone. I’m not going to become just a standard what-you-heard-is-what-I-am-forever [artist]. I’m going to take chances, I’m gonna try to grow and stretch. Otherwise, there’s no reason to make a record, to me. I’m not gonna outdo ‘I Can’t Drive 55,’ I ain’t gonna outdo ‘One Way to Rock’ — at least not in that vein. So I have to find new avenues. And I chose the blues on this one. I really got rootsy and went back to how I felt when I was first starting to play music.”