Van Halen talks immigrant roots

Van Halen

WASHINGTON — For Eddie Van Halen, making music is all about having good ears and a talent for experimenting with guitars and amps to create just the right sound.

Now 60, Van Halen told The Associated Press he’s ready to get back on the road. His band recorded a live album in 2013, and it’s waiting for a release date.

Eddie Van Halen visited the Smithsonian on Thursday for a sold-out event to donate some instruments to the National Museum of American History and to discuss making music and his innovative guitar and amp designs. He even holds patents on some inventions.

Van Halen, it turns out, is a Dutch immigrant born in Amsterdam who came to the U.S. when he was 7. Their family immigrated to California in 1962.Their father was a musician who also worked as a janitor, while their Indonesian-born mother was a maid. The Van Halens shared a house with three other families.

“We showed up here with the equivalent of $50 and a piano,” Van Halen said. “We came halfway around the world without money, without a set job, no place to live and couldn’t even speak the language.

“What saved us was my father being a musician and slowly meeting other musicians and gigging on weekends, everything from weddings to you name it to make money.”

Van Halen went on to help lead one of the most popular rock bands of the 1980s, known for hits including “Jump” and “Why Can’t This Be Love.” He discussed his roots and his penchant for experimentation.

Q: Did you feel like an outsider as a new immigrant?

A: Oh yeah. Believe it or not, the very first school I went to was still segregated where people of color were on a certain side of the playground and white kids were on the other side. Since I was also considered a second-class citizen at the time, I was lumped with the black people. It was rough, but music was a common thread in our family that saved us.

Q: What sparked your interest in pursuing music?

A: It was definitely just being in a house that was full of music. My earliest memories of music were banging pots and pans together, marching to John Philip Sousa marches. And hearing my dad. He had his music going downstairs, practicing.

Q: What was the most important thing you’ve done to innovate with your equipment?

A: I’d say combining a Gibson (guitar) with a Fender. After that, every company on the planet made a guitar like that. Before that, there was no Fender or a Stratocaster-style guitar with a humbucker in it. (He also modified his amplifier by attaching a light dimmer to regulate the voltage.) A lot of people had no idea what I was doing. ... And I didn’t bother telling anyone because it was kind of my little secret.