Wolfgang Van Halen was aboard his parked tour bus in Missoula, Montana, a few weeks ago, describing his rock band Mammoth WVH's recent string of dates opening for Guns N' Roses as "stress-free, because we're the opening band. Nobody's here to really see us," when the phone went dead.
No big deal — bad connection, probably. His people would call back to reconnect. But as the minutes multiplied, something seemed off. Had the soft-spoken former Van Halen bassist and son of the late guitar master Eddie Van Halen bailed on the interview less than two minutes in?
Turns out yes.
As Wolfgang, 30, recalled a few days later, "My road manager and my uncle [Patrick Bertinelli] had just run on the bus and said, 'Hang up the phone!'" Wolfgang motioned to them that he was doing an interview. They urgently repeated their request. Click.
Despite the crew and band being fully vaccinated, someone had been diagnosed with a breakthrough case of COVID-19. "We need to test everybody because somebody in the crew got it," Wolfgang said his team told him.
The multi-instrumentalist, who played every note on his recently released debut album, "Mammoth WVH," was less than a third of the way into a three-month tour, but he and his touring band had no choice but to enter lockdown mode, forcing them to postpone a week's worth of shows, including their sold-out Los Angeles debut at the Whisky a Go Go on Aug. 18.
"We spent the next day getting many tests, and, thankfully, they were all negative, and they've all still been negative," Van Halen said. "Our guy who got it is doing very well." The soft-spoken musician, who is vaccinated, added: "I'm normally a germaphobe, but it's been in high gear for the past two years, that's for sure."
As the delta variant has marched across America, musicians eager to return to the road have willingly served as guinea pigs in efforts to reboot the concert business. For Wolfgang, the pause meant interrupting his first solo endeavor after his trial-by-fire rock 'n' roll debut, at age 15, replacing former Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony when that band reunited with original lead singer David Lee Roth for a 2007 tour.
Even then, Wolfgang already knew something about the spotlight. Not only was his dad a superstar but his mom, actor Valerie Bertinelli, is also famous for her starring role in the mid-1970s-'80s sitcom "One Day at a Time." As such, Wolfgang was reared in Los Angeles with the threat of paparazzi looming around every corner. Notably reserved during conversation, he's the opposite of former bandmate Roth.
Recording at Van Halen's 5150 Studios in Studio City, Wolfgang spent three years tracking what became "Mammoth WVH," and he was almost finished with it when, in 2017, Eddie was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Wolfgang stopped doing music to focus on taking care of his dad. Eddie lived three more years. He died of a stroke on Oct. 6, 2020. As the son grieved, he prepared to release his debut album.
Filled with catchy, distorted guitar melodies, "Mammoth WVH" is driven by a Van Halen-esque chunka-chunka rhythm section that rolls like Pearl Jam or Queens of the Stone Age. Tracks such as "Don't Back Down" and "You'll Be the One" could score your next NFL highlight reel.
Asked whether he's eager to write new songs, Wolfgang is direct. "The past year-and-a-half hasn't been a really creative time for me. There was a lot that's taken my attention away from wanting to write music." He added that going into the pandemic, he had a handful of demos ready to work, "but then, as life started to really happen, I lost that creative bug — just the weight of everything."
Along with his Uncle Alex, Wolfgang oversees Van Halen's catalog. It's too soon to even think about archival projects, he said when asked about his guiding philosophy on posthumous releases, describing the idea as "not really a priority."
"I know exactly what my dad would say: 'It's unreleased for a reason. I put out the good stuff,'" Wolfgang says with a laugh, noting that it doesn't help that Eddie's "not here to help aid in that decision." Interrupting himself, the younger Van Halen added, "Granted, the two people who would be best suited to make those decisions would be Al and myself, but even then, it would have to be something really important and special."
Last week, Mammoth WVH resumed its Guns N' Roses opening slot at Banc of California Stadium in Exposition Park in downtown Los Angeles. Mammoth WVH's postponed headlining debut at the Whisky is back on the books as well. That setting and stage, Wolfgang added, was deliberate. On that same Sunset Strip in the late '70s, Van Halen helped jump-start the Southern California heavy metal scene.
Wolfgang describes the sold-out Whisky gig, which has been rescheduled for Oct. 12, as "a perfect match, considering my family history. A couple of the first Van Halen videos, 'Runnin' With the Devil' and 'You Really Got Me,' were recorded at the Whisky. It'll be a fun little homecoming."