Sammy Hagar should be soaking up the sun on a beach somewhere.
The self-proclaimed “Red Rocker” has more platinum hit singles than some bands see in their entire careers, thanks to his decade-long stint as the voice of Van Halen, along with his own successful solo career and time spent with Montrose and Chickenfoot.
If that wasn’t enough, he’s also built up a formidable reputation as a food and beverage entrepreneur, launching tequila and rum lines, as well as a string of restaurants from coast to coast. (Hagar, a New York Times-bestselling author, has also just released his first cookbook, Are We Having Any Fun Yet?.)
The 68-year-old Hagar’s latest musical endeavor, The Circle, is another super-group of sorts: Jason Bonham, Michael Anthony and Vic Johnson join Hagar, making a quartet capable of drawing upon some of the most indelible rock music of the last 40 years.
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Hagar and his bandmates will bring those songs to the Texas Motor Speedway Sunday, performing prior to the start of the AAA Texas 500.
To talk all about the hectic world of Hagar, the Grammy-winning rocker hopped on the phone earlier today. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
The Circle’s first release, At Your Service, is a double live album. Is that the band just deciding to put its best foot forward?
Hagar: It’s so funny, being around as long as we all have and having the history we have, it’s like, to go in at this stage of my life, or anyone my age, and try to make a new record that competes with your greatest hits catalog of about 400 songs [laughs] — it’s almost impossible. I don’t care how great you are or how inspired you get — it’s hard to outdo the Van Halen era, the Montrose era, the heyday of my solo era, I Can’t Drive 55, and even Chickenfoot. With Chickenfoot, we put our best foot forward and made a great, great first record ... and it had a lot of success relative to the era, but when you go out on tour, and play a new song, and then turn around and play I Can’t Drive 55 or Right Now or a Led Zeppelin song, it’s like [imitates crowd roaring] and a new song, everybody just listens.
So, I know that sounds long-winded, but the concept was, “Look, let’s go out and show how well we serve the greatest hits in all of our lives.” To me, it’s one of the best set lists anyone in the world can do — I don’t care who you are. You have a hard time beating the amount of hits and great songs, classics, on that set list. With that in your pocket, we thought — like you said — put our best foot forward.
I guess my answer could have just been yes, but ... yes, go out, put our best foot forward and show what we do, and then later, come with some studio tracks, like a whole CD, maybe just a few songs, showing what we can do as artists, once we get together — we’re just touching on that now. I think this is like a statement, saying “We’re a brand new band, and our first album is a double live greatest hits record.” (laughs) That alone has never been done.
Is the title deliberate? At Your Service made me think of your involvement and success in the hospitality industry.
It was just a coincidence, but you’re 100 percent right. We were looking for a title and I’ve been saying that on stage — I’ve got three shout-outs that I do: “Are we havin’ any fun yet?” [and] “At your service” and there’s another one ... I don’t even know what it is right now, it’s probably “Mas tequila!” (laughs) It’s funny that it just kept sticking — it’s a great title, it is. It’s what we do.
We serve up our classic catalogs between all of us in the band, and by serving it up, it’s really At Your Service. It’s like a great restaurant, you say, “Man, I’ve eaten steak all over the world, but that was the best steak I ever had!” It’s kind of like that — I’m very much in a good frame of mind. Everything I do seems to be related now. I don’t have to change hats anymore; it’s like I’ve got this one, big ol’ sombrero on and it covers everything.
I was going to ask if you see any distinction between the tequila or the restaurants or the music, but you just answered that question — it’s all one thing to you.
It’s like I have two images going right now, because of my Sammy’s Beach Bar and Grills that I have, quite a few of them now all over the place from Maui to New York and then my rum, which is made on the Hawaiian islands as well, and the whole Mexican culture thing, I really realize that I have two lifestyles. Rock and roll got me into both of these, and now I use them for different things.
When I’m in Mexico, in Cabo, I go down there and strip away the rock star image, but I still do the same [expletive]. I pound shots, jumping on stage and jamming with the band. I’m just really staying at that same energy level, but what Cabo did is it stripped away the rock star image — I do it in a bathing suit and a tank top and flip-flops, you know? It’s the way I roll — I roll right off the beach and onto the stage, if you know what I mean. I’m still doing the same high energy.
But when I go to Hawaii, go to Maui, it’s a whole different style of drinking, it’s a whole different style of partying and it’s really a whole different — I unplug completely. I get rid of the bathing suit even; I put on a sarong, because I’ve got teenage daughters — I can’t roll naked anymore, but it’s pretty much my naked paradise. I go there, I strip it all down completely and I don’t play music. I pick up an acoustic guitar, and I go into my property of gardens and vegetables and fruit trees — pineapple — I have everything on my property. I’ve got a fish pond with tilapia — I eat my own fish, and I have my chickens, and I eat my own eggs and my own chickens. I become this completely unplugged dude. And when you’re there, the rum is completely indigenous to the property, because it’s sugarcane and it goes with the pineapple, so if I drink, that’s what I drink over there. I find myself these two different people, but really, it’s the same kind of hat because one is just stripped down farther than the other. (laughs)
I found it — I’m telling you, brother, I’ve found it. And when I go play, I put on some nicer clothes now. I can’t go out there with a sarong at my age. Sometimes shorts, sometimes long pants, depending upon the weather.
Did all of that inform [Hagar’s new book, Are We Having Any Fun Yet?] — I was going to call it a cookbook, but it’s being sold as a “cooking and partying handbook.”
It is a cooking and partying handbook, because it really did inspire that. The reason I wrote a cookbook was, number one, my first book, Red, went number one New York Times bestseller, so the first thing that happens is the business people, the publishers, are hounding me: “Give us another book! Give us another book!” “What am I going to write?” Then I thought, “Well, I think I’ve found how to live, and I think I’ve done it through experience.” And I thought, “Well, I can write this book, and tell people this is how you do this, and how I got from here to here and what I enjoy to do.”
I have a philosophy — fame and fortune is a great, great thing. I mean, it really can liberate you, and I’m a walking example. I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. But, you don’t have to be a billionaire to do what I do, is what I found out. You can be on the same beach, sitting right next to me or you could be sitting next to ... Warren Buffett or Oprah, on the same damn beach; your feet are in the same sand; you’re swimming in the same water; walking on the same beach; getting tanned by the same damn sun and you’re doing it for free.
There’s certain things in life that really are great, and that I find I like to do. You know, garden — you can have a garden in New York City, on your balcony, you grow some herbs at least, tomatoes, I don’t know. So all those things that bring me joy, I figured a lot of people could have that without being filthy rich — you know, fame and fortune.
I really want to share that with people. I feel like that is something I can really give back to my fans. Charity work is one thing — this is not charity work. This is frickin’ — “Dude, you’re missin’ it! You live two miles from a river with fish in it!” I’ve just really become adamant about it lately. Everyone thinks you’ve gotta to be rich and famous to do all these things, and you don’t. There’s all the things rich and famous people are doing is the same [expletive] our grandparents did, damn near, you know? Anyway, I think it’s enlightenment, and I thought I was enlightened enough to write a book about it.
A lifestyle, sort of.
Totally, man. Trying to get somewhere is very time-consuming, and takes you away from the things you’re gonna do when you get there, you know? You’re working your ass off for this, and then, when you get there, you’re like “Oh, I could’ve been doing this all along. I’ve just got money in the bank now. What the [expletive]?” (laughs) I don’t know if it makes sense to anybody ...
Speaking of working your ass off, you’re someone who works his ass off. At this point, you could easily be someone just hanging out in Cabo, hanging out in Maui, so what keeps you on the road, keeps you going?
Creativity is the most — is the thing that drives me. If I get an idea, I can’t sleep until I do something about it. I’m actually — if anybody wants to know what problems I have, I’m snakebit with the fact that I’m an energy, adrenaline freak and I’m a nut for success, successful things, no matter what it is. Save someone’s life — that would make me feel so good! I’d go, “All right, saved someone’s life.”
So it’s not just about fame and fortune, it’s more about doing things that work and — anyway, so, I’m bitten with that. I can’t sleep if I have an idea — it drives me [expletive] nuts. I just got up in the middle of the night, two nights ago, and wrote down this idea for a new restaurant concept, which I won’t share with you until I’ve got it sussed out and open, but the point is, it was such a great idea, I saw the whole vision, I saw it from the name of the place, to what it looked like —
Well, it woke you up.
Yeah! I’m going, “[Expletive], I’ve gotta get up. Ah [expletive].” I kept getting up and writing down more and writing down more. I finally went and got my cell phone, which I don’t take near my bed, and I spoke into it and got it all down and went back to bed. I’m driven like that, and I can’t help it, and it’s a cool thing, but I only do things I like and want to do, so it’s not work. It’s work when you’ve gotta do something you don’t want to do. “[Expletive], I’ve gotta go dig a ditch again.”
So you’ll never stop — you’ll just go until you can’t.
Oh, hell yeah. I’ll drop on the job. (laughs) I hope it’s not in concert. I’ll be writing something down in the middle of the night, I’m sure. I love it. I really am passionate — not doing anything for any other reason than passion and helping other people. I really like doing things and saying, “Oh, man, my fans are going to love this” or “Oh, man, I can hire all these people and give these people jobs” or “Oh, my brother’s been looking for a job and I’ve got a job for him” — I love doing that. That’s the thing that drives me now, and making people happy — at your service. Walking out on stage, hey, I can do that, because I know there’s going to be a lot of smiles out there, and when I leave, they’ll be even happier.
I wanted to ask too — obviously you feel that on the record, but The Circle’s chemistry. You’ve known these guys for a while, but was that chemistry an instant thing?
Absolutely. The chemistry is the most important thing about this band. How can I put it? When I first started Van Halen, we had amazing chemistry. We got along and we had so much fun. Chickenfoot was the exact same way; I only do things like that. After seeing a band like Van Halen go sour, I mean, Montrose went sour, it’s like, “Ahh! I’m so over that.” It’s horrible. So just always look for musicians — when I play in Cabo, my birthday bash and going down there four or five times a year, jumping up onstage and Slash is there or somebody’s just hanging out in Cabo, we jump up onstage. It’s been my way of finding people to play with and it all happens from there.
Jason, being that same guy, he finally came into the fold. I played with him a long time ago in Cabo, he’s fantastic, never thought about it again, because I had [drummer] David Lauser, my lifetime friend and then his wife got sick and died. Through all that two years of hell for him, I started playing with other drummers, because he couldn’t do it because he had to take care of his wife. It’s a horrible story with a beautiful side to it. When I found Jason, I was like, “Holy [expletive]!” And then Mikey jammed with us, and I brought Vic into the fold, and it was like “Holy [expletive], this is like a really cool band.” We just go — we never rehearse. As crazy it sounds, The Circle has rehearsed maybe 10 days maximum. We rehearsed for three days before we went out and played for 40,000 people, and we did a string of 14 dates, and that’s what that album is from. Half those songs on that album were recorded after the third show with only three days’ rehearsal. It’s like we all know each other’s material. All of us grew up on Zeppelin, so Jason, he’s got that in his pocket. He grew up on Van Halen and Sammy Hagar and Montrose, so it’s like, OK. It’s so easy.
You haven’t played Texas Motor Speedway before, but are race crowds any different for you?
Van Halen, when we did the stadiums, we always played the Cotton Bowl. I don’t think we ever played a stadium in Fort Worth, but certainly arenas there. I’ve played Indianapolis and I’ve played Fontana Motor Speedway — I’ve done it a few times, maybe three, four times, played 100,000-seat places and the part I don’t like is you’re way far away from your audience. I don’t care if they put you right up against the first bleachers, you’re in front of a few people, but there’s 75 or 80,000 people around you. So you don’t feel as connected.
I just sang a couple songs at the 49ers/Seahawks game, and there was 75,000 people, same kind of thing. You hear ‘em and you feel this crazy electric weird energy, but it’s like being a big thunder-and-lightning storm, like it’s all around you. I don’t mind it, because I have songs that immediately demand audience participation. When I play I Can’t Drive 55, and I sing “I can’t drive —” and however many people are there, 99 percent of them are gonna scream “55!” I have those kind of songs, so it sucks them in. If I was a ballad guy, like Don Henley or something, I don’t think I’d want to play a place like that. They didn’t pay to see you, they paid to see the damn race, and you’re just added entertainment. But I am Sammy Hagar, I’m a car nut and I’ve written songs about cars. It usually works — when I played Indy, it was fantastic. Quite the rush, you know?
Before I let you go, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask if you and Mike sit around these days and trade Van Halen war stories.
Mikey? Oh, hell no. We just sit around and swap good-time stories. Him and I are the most positive, upbeat guys on the planet. That’s why we’re the buddies of all time and it’s why the brothers don’t like us. (laughs) We drive ‘em crazy. We’d get on the airplane, and they’re sitting there waiting for us, and we’re walking on the plane, laughing and joking, high-fiving, talking about something. We’d get on and everybody’s all serious: “Ooh, excuse us.” Sometimes we’d get on the plane first, and we’re laughing and being jolly, and here comes [Eddie and Alex Van Halen], and everybody kind of goes quiet. We’d just start laughing at ‘em: “Hey, what are you guys so [expletive] serious about?” I don’t know — if you’re not on our wavelength of fun and goofiness, then we will drive you [expletive] crazy. I’d be the first to admit it. You’ve gotta get rid of us. “What are those guys so happy about all the time?”