Vandenberg is back with a first studio album in 35 years. Rushonrock editor Simon Rushworth caught up with flying Dutchman and Whitesnake alumnus Adrian Vandenberg ahead of Friday’s hotly anticipated release.
Rushonrock: Why did you finally decide to follow up 1985’s Alibi with a new Vandenberg release?
Adrian Vandenberg: I enjoyed doing the Moonkings records but there were two reasons why it was the right time to revisit Vandenberg. Firstly Jan Hoving, a good friend of mine who sang on the Moonkings records, was struggling to commit to touring. He owns one of the biggest agricultural companies in Holland and, for a while, he found someone who could run the business while he was working with the band. But that situation changed and Jan couldn’t really be out of the country for more than one or two days. That started to frustrate me – I’ve been travelling the world since 1982 and I don’t intend to stop now. So I wanted to tour more but it became clear I couldn’t do that with the Moonkings. The other reason was that on the second Moonkings record I found myself wanting to play heavier and faster and turn up the volume. So my management said why don’t you make a new Vandenberg record? It was the perfect answer. I could get a new band together, tour the world again and play without restrictions.
Rushonrock: Did you have an idea of how you wanted the new music to sound?
AV: The last thing I wanted was to bring back a nostalgia act. It’s never the same. So it made sense to find an incredible new singer and put an incredible new line-up together. My vision was a brand new dynamic with a name that has some heritage. Ronnie Romero was the first piece of the jigsaw. As soon as I found out he was keen to join me it just made complete sense. I was thinking about the live shows as well as the new record. With Ronnie on board we could easily add some Whitesnake and Rainbow – reflecting our respective connections – to the new Vandenberg material and the band’s classics. I wrote 2020 with Ronnie and the live shows in mind. It’s an in-your-face record that will be perfect for the live arena…just as soon as we can get back out there.
Rushonrock: Tell us more about the decision to recruit Ronnie…
AV: When Ronnie James Dio passed away I spent a long time revisiting his time in Rainbow. It was one of my favourite periods. I was searching the internet and saw Ronnie Romero in action – his vocal blew me away. I thought ‘holy shit – who is this guy and where is he from?’. So as soon as I started thinking about the new Vandenberg record I couldn’t get Ronnie out of my head. I contacted him and he was really up for it from day one. He told me that the reason he started singing was after hearing Starkers In Tokyo – the acoustic record that David Coverdale and I put out in 1997 – for the first time. He was a 16-year-old kid and admitted he didn’t even realise that Whitesnake was a hard rocking band at the time. But that record set him on the path he’s on now. He was so enthusiastic about working with me that I came away from that first conversation determined to go home and write a record that plays to Ronnie’s strengths. His range is pretty limitless and we have so much in common – both in terms of what we want to achieve together and what we listen to. It’s impossible to imagine another current rock singer fronting Vandenberg. Our partnership has been described as a marriage made in heaven and I wouldn’t disagree.
Rushonrock: What’s the chemistry like between the two of you?
AV: I just wish we could have developed that more but the coronavirus crisis has stopped us in our tracks. There was a full European tour planned – with shows in the UK, Germany and France – in support of 2020 and we were both desperate to do those shows. But when we have worked together there’s just been that instant connection. I took some songs over to him in Madrid – where he lives now – and that was fantastic. We also recorded together in Los Angeles. We shared an apartment together and did a lot of acoustic jamming. I guess for Ronnie it was like revisiting that Starkers In Tokyo record and I think we’ll be doing some live acoustic stuff together in the future. We’re a couple of rock n roll gypsies and it’s so easy to pick up a couple of acoustic guitars and play a few songs anywhere in the world – at least it was! But I’m just really excited to have the opportunity to play with Ronnie at this stage in my career. There’s a real connection there and he’s such a relaxed guy. He’s not a typical chest-banging rock singer. He doesn’t have an attitude or an ego. He’s pretty understated and what I love about him is his very British sense of humour – which I never realised was a thing in Chile. But apparently it is! I love that. A life without humour is so dull.
Rushonrock: How much fun was it recording a new version of Broken Heart?
AV: The goofy thing is I didn’t really mean for it to be on the album. When Mascot – our record label – decided to put out the press release announcing 2020 my manager decided it would be better if there was some new music to accompany the news. But at that stage Ronnie and I hadn’t had the chance to record any of the new songs. Then I remembered that the drummer and bass player from the Moonkings has re-record the bass and drum parts to Broken Heart. I found the recording, added my guitar parts and sent it to Ronnie for his vocals. It added a little more substance to the return of Vandenberg and we thought it might work as a B-side or maybe a bonus track for the Japanese edition or whatever. But the reaction was so positive and Ronnie absolutely nailed it. Initially I was worried that putting Burning Heart on 2020 would be too predictable but the more I thought about it the more I realised it would provide the perfect bridge between the old and the new. Ronnie only did two takes and when I heard his version I had goosebumps all over my body. He breathes new life into what, for me, is a very special song. He’s such an emotive singer and he really digs into the lyrics.
Rushonrock: Is Burning Heart a song you look back on with pride?
AV: I’m very proud of that song. I never expected back in 1981, sitting at the piano in my parents’ home, that Burning Heart would have such legs and still keep the Vandenberg name alive almost 40 years down the line. Even my 21-year-old daughter likes the song and that, in itself, makes me proud! It’s pretty timeless and that’s why it works so well alongside the other songs on 2020. When I grew up my parents were into jazz and classical music and it was very different to Hendrix, the Beatles and the Stones – stuff that inspired me. These days a good guitar song can span generations. It’s cool that I have one of those songs. It’s both retro and right up to date on the new record.
Rushonrock: Does 2020 stand up to the rest of your back catalogue?
AV: I know everyone says this about a new album but I love 2020. As soon as I received the final mix I was so into it. I play it once or twice every day because I just have an urge to hear it again and it makes me feel great. Normally, by the time you’ve recorded the demos, played the songs over and over in the studio and listened to the various mixes you’ve heard the songs on a new album a million times long before the record is out. By then you’ve heard enough and it might be a couple of months before you revisit it to check your work. With 2020 it never felt like that. I always wanted to listen to it again. It’s got everything that I was hoping for – the excitement and the dynamic sound and great playing. I found the bass player (Randy van der Elsen) and drummer (Koen Herfst) on my doorstep in Holland and they proved to be a real added bonus. Logistically it was always going to be difficult flying in guys from the UK or America so that kind of forced my hand. But I’m so glad I looked closer to home. Koen has been voted Holland’s best drummer for seven years in a row and now I know why! Randy’s a young guy but his favourite bands are Rainbow, Deep Purple and Whitesnake so he’s the perfect fit. They’re both eager to get out there and play live.
Rushonrock: Whitesnake’s Slip Of The Tongue celebrated its 30th anniversary last year…has it stood the test of time?
AV: I’m so very proud of the songs that I wrote for that record. I played Judgement Day – as well as Here I Go Again – with the Moonkings and there are definitely a couple of the Whitesnake songs that I wrote with David that I’d love to hear Ronnie sing live. He doesn’t try to copy David and has his own way of interpreting those Whitesnake classics. But I love Slip Of The Tongue. Everyone knows it was a very weird situation for me back then. I’d written the songs with David but then I injured my wrist and I wasn’t able to record the album. The first time I heard it back was very strange. I guess I’d been expecting it to be relatively close to how I’d imagined the songs in the early stages. But David brought in Steve Vai and Steve has his own characteristic way of playing. His interpretation of the songs was very instinctive and I was shocked at the time. It took me a while to get used to it but on reflection it was the right way to go. It meant Slip Of The Tongue was different enough to 1987. Standing still is going backwards and Steve took Whitesnake forward. That’s why I wanted to pull together a new line-up for Vandenberg. If you want to keep doing the same thing, and stay comfortable in the saddle, then artistically that’s never going to work. I prefer to put my energy into creating new stuff and making new sounds. That’s what happened on Slip Of The Tongue. In retrospect it was a better move – and a better album – than people believed at the time. But rock fans are pretty conservative at the best of times and I think for many it was just too much of a departure from 1987. It had variation and experimentation. Looking back I love Slip Of the Tongue – it was a more progressive record than anyone could have imagined. Steve’s playing is so progressive and far more progressive than I would have been. But it stands the test of time. And I think it’s starting to get the credit it deserves.
Rushonrock: Once your wrist was healed you joined Steve on stage for Whitesnake’s live shows in support of Slip Of The Tongue. What was that experience like?
AV: We both have great memories of those shows. Steve and I are different players with very different styles and so we never saw one another as competitors. We complemented each other and developed into a very interesting combination. I loved playing the big power chords and Steve used to come to the fore with his incredible solos. Don’t get me wrong – it was a real challenge for me. Steve’s playing on the album was so technical and so precise and I had to teach myself a whole new way of playing. I had to take a critical look at the way I played and somehow try to grow as a player. Steve turned out to be an inspiration to me and we’re still good friends today. I remember going to his studio before the tour so that we could work out who was going to play what. We looked at Kitten’s Got Claws – it has so many intricate guitar parts but Steve made a few suggestions and showed me some new tricks. We were just talking about this a couple of months ago! You can see us doubling up on those licks during the Donington show. I think Steve enjoyed the whole experience. As a guitarist it’s really interesting to hear another player take on some of your parts while you focus on others. We developed into a really professional partnership.
Rushonrock: And that partnership excelled at Donington in 1990…
AV: Playing Monsters Of Rock alongside Steve was a fantastic experience. And it felt great to finally play with Whitesnake there. David had asked me to join the band two or three times by the time I actually said ‘yes’ and that show proved it was the right decision. I’d spoken to David backstage when Whitesnake had headlined there in the 80s but to be on the stage alongside him was very special. I was actually a little nervous before the 1990 set and I never get nervous. But I knew the show was being taped and it was one of the biggest gigs of my career. Just as we were about to step onto the stage I said to myself ‘you’d better get your shit together’!
Rushonrock: David has said he’s likely to retire, aged, 69, next year. Can you see that happening?
AV: I don’t know. He’s said that a bunch of times and he’s still here! Even when I was in Whitesnake he said it at least two times and that was 20 years ago! Who knows? I can see him retiring and I can see him carrying on. I do know that he’ll never stop making music. He can’t. So perhaps he’ll record from home and do some streaming because I get that he might have had enough of touring. He loves playing the shows but everything in between can become very tedious – the travel, the waiting around at airports and all that stuff. Personally, I still love travelling. But I’m a natural gypsy and I get itchy feet whenever I’m in one place for too long. Music is in David’s blood so he’ll always be involved in music. I was watching a DVD of David when he’d just joined Deep Purple in the 70s and he was so good even back then. He didn’t even need the PA system. He’s just a natural. There have only been a few naturals in the last 40 years as far as I’m concerned: David, Robert Plant and Ronnie James Dio are three that spring to mind. But I see Ronnie Romero as a natural successor to those guys – he just gets behind the mic and with no effort at all he lets rip. I’m stood there thinking ‘where does that voice come from?’. I know I’m tall…but Ronnie really is a small guy and he has this booming voice that’s both emotive and controlled. I’ve only really seen or heard that in David, Paul Rodgers and John Waite – the cream of the crop when it comes to classic rock singers.
Vandenberg’s 2020 is out on Friday via Mascot.