Leader of his own eponymously-named band, guitarist Adrian Vandenberg broke onto the world’s stage with Whitesnake in the late 1980s. Co-writing a number of tracks on their monster ‘Slip of the Tongue’ album, and appearing on the accompanying global trek in support of the album, the guitarist has seen and done it all. Reassembling a new version of Vandenberg in recent years has been a passion project for the Dutch player. “I’m going to put a new band together and do Vandenberg songs and Whitesnake songs and just music that I love”, he tells us as we sit down for a chat at Stonedead Festival. Chatting his remarkable career, as well as the hand injury that almost ended it, we caught up with Adrian Vandenberg. Judgement Day; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Adrian, how are you doing today?
I’m doing great. You know, for everybody, for fans or bands or whatever, it was such a weird time with the COVID thing. It threw everything upside down, but I grew up on Monty Python, and every time when you’re in a period like that, I think about Monty Python, so ‘always look on the bright side of life!’. The good thing about a period like is that is, like so many people, you take things for granted, and hopefully, when it’s all over, you’re going to appreciate it more.
You played at Stonedead Festival today; how was it?
There were quite a few technical problems. I couldn’t hear anything, and for Mats [Levén], the singer, it was difficult too, because he of course he couldn’t hear either, so that’s why he walked to the front; at least he could hear through the PA. But all that stuff, when you see all the happy faces you go; “what am I talking about, I’m here!” For me, every day I realise it’s a passion, a hobby that went way out of hand, which makes me appreciate it even more. Not everything is for granted in life. Life is a weird ride, when you think about it.
It was great to hear you play the ‘Starkers in Tokyo’ version of Whitesnake’s ‘Sailing Ships’, today; it’s even more beautiful than the original.
For me, from day one, it’s been a very special song. I wrote it as an acoustic song for my mom, because I was always joking, and I said; “we’re going to record the next album and I won’t be seeing you for a while”, and she says; “Is there going to be some acoustic guitar on the album, because the rest is so loud!” And I go; “yeah, mom!” So I actually wrote that bit for my mom, and I recorded it on a cassette to send it to her, the whole thing, actually, and it ended up on one of the cassettes where I put on the music for ‘Judgement Day’, and all the songs for [Whitesnake’s] ‘Slip of the Tongue’ to take to the States to work on with David [Coverdale]. It ended up at the end of one of the cassettes, and David said; “what is that? Do you mind if I put a vocal on it?”
And it became a monster Whitesnake epic.
To me, like you said, the acoustic version, I love it. When it bursts into the big thing, which for my personal taste, was a little bit over-decorated. It was a little bit too much of a good thing, basically. So, the essence of it, like you mentioned, is basically an acoustic thing with the vocal on it. You could almost picture it by the fireplace, or whatever. So, when my mom passed away last year, I played it on the funeral, and that was actually really hard because I was constantly aware that I wrote it for my mom, and my mom wasn’t there anymore. She got to be 95, which is a respectable age. It was very emotional.
Mats sings it so beautifully; he’s like another Coverdale.
Yeah, he’s got all this stuff in his voice. He plays with his voice, and sometimes he sings with this really big baritone, and then he goes up in the AC/DC level, like Bon Scott. Between Bon Scott, and Coverdale, and Ronnie Dio, he’s really flexible. He’s a great guy; he’s a total professional, and he’s done a zillion gigs as well. It’s great to be able to rely on a band like this. Koen [Herfst] and Randy [van der Elsen] are amazing too, and it gets you through all the technical problems like the gig today.
Going back to ‘Slip of the Tongue’, and is it really true that a hand injury put you out of action for the recording?
Yeah, I had a serious wrist thing. It sounds like a blues song – “I woke up this morning!” – I was in a hotel working on the guitar parts, because I was already recording the rhythm guitars, and I flet like somebody was holding my wrist, like there was a tight band. I tried to play, maybe over-practiced or whatever, and I decided to see an acupuncturist in Tahoe [location of David Coverdale’s studio] because my wrist was weird and I couldn’t really move my hand properly. I went to a chiropractor and he put a band on my wrist, and for a couple of weeks I started doing something called isometric exercises. I bought this little book for piano players, so I had these exercised that I did in the morning.
So you tried a number of approaches to remedy the issue.
I had all kinds of theories about it, so I called up my dad, and he said; “I’m going to look for a therapist that specialises in musicians”. He found a guy who treats violin players, drummers, and the thing was, there was so much pressure on it because of the success of ’87’ [the self-titled, multi-million selling Whiesnake album], so I told David; “you know what, I’ve got to go home. I’ve got to take care of it”. So we talked about it, and; “well, we need somebody to play the parts”, and we both came up with Steve Vai. I know all the theories that say it’s all like a bullshit thing; it wasn’t.
It's such a shame that your parts weren’t on the album.
David put out a special edition where there’s a couple of rehearsal recording things and you can hear Rudy [Sarzo] and Tommy [Aldridge] and me. It was the way I heard it in my head when we wrote the music, that it would sound like my Vandenberg 2020 album from a couple of years ago.
So you had a more straight ahead, hard rock sound pictured for ‘Slip of the Tongue’?
That’s the picture I had in mind, and that’s what I personally think it should have been, as good as Steve is, because he’s an amazing player of course. But everybody, including him said; “well, I’m not really the player for that kind of music”; he’s got his own universe, you know? As amazing as he is, for a lot of Whitesnake fans that were fans especially since ‘Slide it In’ and the ’87 album it was like; “wow! What’s going on over here?!” At the same time, it was 1990, so the whole grunge thing was coming up, and we started touring and there was a shift going on in radio play and it as like one of those pivotal times.
It was a time of musical turnover.
Exactly. It’s kind of every ten years. When The Beatles came up, the Cliff Richards and the Tom Joneses of this world were pissed off, they go; “oh, that’s not what we’re doing!”, and they ended up in a different circuit. So, grunge needed to be there for ten years and now people realise that this kind of rock is so much cooler, because it doesn’t make you depressed, it makes you happy!
Were you pleased with the work on the reissued ‘Restless Heart’ album that came out in 2021?
Yeah, I did a little bit. The thing was, we ended up in a disagreement about the direction of it. So Joel [Hoekstra, current Whitesnake guitarist] doubled the rhythms that I did on the album to beef it up a little bit.
It’s been given a more modern-sounding Whitesnake coat of paint, but what do you remember about the original recording or ‘Restless Heart’ in 1994?
It was weird because the demos that we made for ‘Restless Heart’ were also more back to Whitesnake being a blues rock band. I’ve always been a Whitesnake fan, so I know exactly what Whitesnake is supposed to be about, and that’s what I discussed with David at the time. We both decided, you know what? It’s a weird period, it’s the ‘90s, let’s bring Whitensnake back to what it originally is, like a blues rock band without too many frills going on, too much polishing and stuff. Like in ‘Too Many Tears’; that’s where David especially excels; he’s got this big, bluesy voice, low register, and that’s just great, and I’m really happy that we recorded that album.
You and David worked together for quite a while from then on.
We did two tours in 1994 and 1997, and finally in 1999, my girlfriend and me had a baby girl, so I thought you know what, I’m not going to tour for a while. I wanted to be a part of raising my daughter, and when that relationship went wrong, when my daughter was three, that’s when I thought I’m not going to tour for quite a while because I want her to know that I’m there.
Back to the present day, and is Vandenberg your primary focus, rather than Vandenberg’s Moonkings?
What happened with the Moonkings, I had a really great time and they’re great guys, great musicians and everything, but Jan [Hoving], the singer, he’s got a huge farm, more like a farming company, and he loves farming as much as he likes singing, so for him, he could not be outside of the country for more than one or two days. What that means is I couldn’t tour internationally, and I really missed that. I missed playing in England and all over the world and just being a rock and roll gypsy, you know? It’s a great thing! So, I really had to make a decision and go; “you know, I can’t do it with this”, and I didn’t want to continue Moonkings with a different singer because it would be too weird.
So is that the end for the Moonkings?
Maybe at some point we’ll put another Moonkings album together or something, but I go; “you know what, I’m going to put a new band together and do Vandenberg songs and Whitesnake songs and just music that I love, and write new stuff how the old Vandenberg would sound right now” because, how it sounds now, that’s what I head in my head at the time but I didn’t have the experience to make it sound like that yet. I was just a young guy from Holland who loved Rainbow and Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin and all that stuff.
As you mentioned, you released a new Vandenberg album in 2020; is there more new music planned?
We’re actually preparing for the next album. We’re going to start recording in a couple of weeks and then it’s going to come out early next year, and then we’re finally going to do the tour that was planned two years ago, all over Europe and do more British shows because I love playing in Britain. This is where all my roots are, and all my favourite music comes from Britain starting with the Beatles, Van Morrison, Free especially – one of my favourites – followed by everything.
I noticed you playing not with a pick today, but with your fingers; are you going back to your blues roots?
Yeah, I’ve used that ever since that thing I had with my wrist. It never came fully back. Only in 2019, I finally discovered what it was. I went to a surgeon in the United States, and he took x-rays, and he said; “did you ever have a car crash?”, and I thought about and I went; “wait a minute, I did”. In 1981 I was working in an advertising agency as a graphic designer, and I got hit from another car, in the back, and I had instant whiplash. So, I had a serious pain in my neck for about two or three weeks, but I suddenly realised in the last two years of the classic Vandenberg, whenever I was in the studio I had to soak my right arm in water because it felt stiff. I only realised later when the guy told me; “you have two neck hernias and they’re pressing against the nerve of your right arm, and the index finger and the thumb”.
So your pick-holding fingers!
Yes, so right now I hold the pick between my middle finger and my thumb. It’s really weird, but I’m lucky with really thick nails, so I put some hardener on it, and for most of the solos I use this nail as a pick. It’s not as precise.
I assumed it was an approach like the old blues players, like how Richie Kotzen no longer uses a pick.
I didn’t really have a choice because I want to play. I thought, “no matter how, if I have to play with my big toe I’m going to do it!” I’m still trying to develop it more and more because I started doing that one or two years ago, and sometimes I have one or two days where the pick goes pretty well between my middle finger and my thumb, and then it doesn’t and then I go; “okay, today I’ll switch mainly to my nail”, especially when I get insecure, like today; it was one of those Spinal Tap things.
You’re clearly a professional, because you got on with it!
I love being on stage, and I go; “fuck it, I’m lucky to be here”, and the things where I feel like I’m really fucking up, the crowd really gets you through. You see the smiling faces, some were teary-eyed, and I talked to so many at the signing that were really happy. I have the fortune that you guys allow me to play. That’s all I want to do, and like Mick Jagger said, I read years ago and it stays with me, when they asked him when he wasn’t even fifty; “aren’t you a little bit too old to play rock and roll?” And he said; “it’s not me who decides that. When the people decide that they’re tired of me, they don’t want to see me anymore, that’s when it’s time for me to leave”.
That’s a good way to put it.
Every musician that I’ve met from that generation, whether it’s Brian May, Billy Gibbons, they all have a similar kind of attitude; “guys, aren’t we lucky that we have this amazing life, you do something that you love, you make people happy?” It’s not brain surgery or something, it’s rock and roll, and you if feel happy on stage and the people are happy, then it’s fine.
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