Gary James' Interview With Gene Henrikson Of

Completely Unchained

They are regarded as the premier Van Halen tribute act. They are Completely Unchained. Portraying David Lee Roth in the band is Gene Henrikson.

Q - Gene, there's not much information on the band on your website.

A - You know what it is? When you have a website, you got a hear my perspective, and buyers go to it, they don't really care who is playing what part. They just want to see if the band is great. Some people get deep with their bios, but I know when I go to check out bands, if I'm trying to do like a Monsters Of Rock, four or five other tributes, I go to hear just what the bands sound like. I don't get into who plays what role. I know where you are coming from. I just feel like the website is more for buyers to look at the band than to see who's playing what particular instrument.

Q - You guys look like you put a lot of money into this show of yours. Where did the money come from to put into this act?

A - Me. I have another company. I have a company called Music Idol Entertainment. It's a fundraising company I do for all the school districts on Long Island. It's based around the American Idol show. So, when I put this company together, it was an idea I had about six years ago. We raise like over $100,000 a year for schools. In the process of putting the shows together, I started getting all the trussing and the video screens and started using it for the Music Idols shows. Then when I was asked to join the band three years ago (2010), I just told the guys in the band, "listen, if you are going to do a Van Halen tribute, you got a put a show on. That's what VH is all about." You can go see great bands. You can go to a club, go to a casino. You can walk in, you see a great band on the stage. I was always one of those guys, I need to take it over the top. I need to have smoke machines. I need to have a follow spot. I'm an effect guy. When you go to see a band like Van Halen or AC/DC, you have to have a little extra. It's not like going to see The Grateful Dead.

Q - I don't even know if there's any Grateful Dead tribute acts out there.

A - Oh, yeah. There's a couple of them. I forget the names of them. Because I'm not really a Dead fan. They do well because The Grateful Dead isn't together anymore.

Q - Is Van Halen still performing?

A - Yeah. I just saw them last year, twice.

Q - I know Michael Anthony isn't in the band anymore.

A - Right. Eddie's son is.

Q - Wolfgang.

A - They sold out Madison Square Garden all by themselves. They had Kool And The Gang open up and they sold out every show . They're doing the big venues. Then I went down to Florida to see them. Their new album was number two on Billboard for like a month.

Q - I saw Van Halen way back in 1982. Did you see Van Halen in the early days?

A - Yeah. I saw them on the Fair Warning tour and then I saw them when they first came out with Black Sabbath.

Q - You really go way back!

A - The first time I heard "Running With The Devil" on the radio, I pulled over and I was like 'Who's this?'" You never heard that kind of guitar playing back then. I mean, you had your Aerosmith and you had your Rolling Stones and you had your Led Zeppelin and you had your Queen, but you never had a guy who shredded like that on guitar. When you first heard that and David Lee Roth back then, when his voice was nice and clean and that and he had all the screams and all the harmonies and they just had really big, good songs. I was just blown away. I've loved them ever since.

Q - I never understood why a singer would want to smoke.

A - I don't know either. I never smoked. I couldn't answer that question for you.

Q - I don't understand why some guys would destroy the very thing that is there meal ticket.

A - I don't know. I'm basically a drummer by trade. I've always played drums.

Q - So before "Completely Unchained" you were in another group?

A - I was a drummer and a Billy Joel tribute.

Q - Which one?

A - Big Shot.

Q - I interviewed the guy who plays Billy Joel.

A - Yeah, Mike.

Q - How long did you do that?

A - I started that band with him in 1999.

Q - How long were you with him?

A - Three years. We were friends and then he decided to throw me out of the band I guess because he wanted to make more money. I never got the final reason. I just got a phone call. After doing all the work and putting the band together and setting up the sound all the time, booking the band. I haven't talked to him since 2003.

Q - That's too bad.

A - Well, that's the way some people are. I know the way I am. I'm very loyal to my team. I put 110% into it. I want everyone to be happy. Some guys get caught up and it's all about them. I guess sometimes when you are the focal point or the lead guy in the band, that's how it ends up. I forgive and forget. But it was just something I started with him that was very successful and it still rolling. I felt when I was pushed out of the band without an explanation that I felt was adequate, for me to say okay that was a good reason. I got over it, but I never got over him. But he's done it to every other member of the band. Now he plays with the guys from Billy Joel's band. So it is what it is. There's nothing you can do about it. You just move on.

Q - With Completely Unchained, did you put it together or were you asked to join?

A - I was asked to join from Johnny, the guitar player.

Q - So, they'd been around before you joined?

A - They were around before me. It was Johnny, another guy, Kevin, and another, Steve. When I was asked to join the band, the drummer decided he couldn't do it because his wife was having a problem with him. So, we got another drummer and after playing with Kevin for about a year and a half; he was the bass player, continuously drinking; he lived all the way upstate, it was always a mission or a problem to get down to the gig. I decided I can't do this anymore when I put in 110% and have someone complain. I got another bass player who used to play with the Billy Joel band, my friend Mason. Now, I turned a band that was doing nothing into a business.

Q - How many gigs are you doing a year?

A - I just bought a condo in West Palm Beach, so I've been booking us in Florida. We've got seven shows down there in two weeks. About 20 to 30 shows a year, which is a lot for a tribute band. It's one of those things where there's so many people booking so many bands. Sometimes it's hard to get back to a great place you played before because maybe the particular night you played, that draw wasn't as good, but the band was great. There's a place on Long Island we play once a month. I've gotten to a point where I don't want to burn myself out anymore. If I can play twice a month, like once on Long Island and it doesn't get me out of state, I'm happy. 20 to 30 times a year, which is pretty much twice a month.

Q - Is there a big marketplace for a Van Halen tribute act? Do you really have to hustle to get gigs?

A - Everyone I know loves Van Halen. If you were going to pick the top five rock 'n' roll bands in the world, I would say Van Halen, Guns 'N' Roses, and an Ozzy tribute, it's hard to market those guys when you are doing these outdoor gigs. We're on the cusp of maybe being a little bit too heavy to play for the 60-year-olds. An Eagles tribute or maybe a Bon Jovi tribute would go over. So, it's not like you beg and you plead. When you send someone to the website, they automatically love the band because of the energy level and the way we look as a band. So, most of the time we get a gig when we send a buyer to the website. It's kind of tough. It's not like a Journey tribute were you can put that anywhere. I would say it's a little rougher to be in a then Halen tribute then a Bon Jovi or a Journey tribute.

Q - You look like David Lee Roth. Did you look like Dave when you were playing in the Billy Joel tribute? How did you get this idea that you could go from behind the drum kit to being a front man?

A - Well, back in the '80s, the early '80s, I was in a band with the guitar player in Completely Unchained and my brother Thomas, who's in Alice Cooper, we were a three-piece rock band, back in like '83, '84, '85. I would come out from behind the drums to do Van Halen copies and my drum tech would play drums. So, I've been doing David Lee Roth since the early '80s. But then when I got the opportunity to really play the role, I took total advantage of it. I did have a little bit of an edge because I was doing it. When I was asked to like fully do it, go get some outfits, put the wig on, do the whole thing and really, really got into the character, I took total advantage of it. I had the advantage because I've been listening to Van Halen since the beginning. When we do Van Halen, you are never going to see me with the white spandex and the furry boots. That's not right look. We do Van Halen music great and with our kind of edge to it, which people really dig a lot. There are some Van Halen tributes with the David Lee Roth guy weighs like 250 pounds in a pair of spandex and white furry boots. It looks kind of silly, to be quite honest with you.

Q - The David Lee Roth I think of is the guy with the black leather pants.

A - Right, with the long blonde hair and the tight abs. The guy was always in great shape and he's still in great shape. So, anybody playing that role, you'd better be prepared to take some kind of criticism if you are not doing it the way it should have been done back in the '80s.

Q - I notice your drummer is not playing a double bass like Alex Van Halen plays. Right?

A - Right.

Q - Do Van Halen fans ever point that out to you? Tribute fans tend to notice those kinds of things.

A - It's funny. No one has ever pointed that out, maybe a few people. It just seems that every time we do a show, everybody is always objective about me and the guitar player. Dave and Eddie.

Q - Your bass player bears a resemblance to Michael Anthony.

A - Yeah.

Q - When you see a guy playing a single base and you know Alex played a double bass, you notice things like that.

A - You know what's weird too? George, he don't look the part, but I got a tell you, we auditioned like nine drummers and nobody could play Van Halen like George, the drummer. Nobody. Every time you tell someone to do "Hot For Teacher", they can never get through the song. Every time we put the keyboard parts on for "Jump" and everyone thinks they can play along with the keyboard tracks, they can't get through the tracks. Alex Van Halen was one of the most underrated drummers around. People took him for granted because he did "You Really Got Me", "Pretty Woman", and "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love", which are good, straight-ahead rock 'n' roll songs. Me being a drummer, he's got a little bit of shuffle to him. He's not like a John Bonham kind of player. He's got a little bit of groove. You really, really got a listen to it to know the parts. Perfect example is, last night I went and played with this Van Halen tribute band from Staten Island. I just went to go play. I was listening to the bass player because you need to find backup. Everybody in bands are like in four other bands, because that's what they do for a living. So, I went to go play with these guys and it was funny, the guitar player sounded great. He didn't look that good. And the drummer came in. He was a fireman and he was a correctional officer and when he started playing drums, that's where he should have stayed at, as a fireman. He hit everything too hard. He did everything too fast. I told him at the end of the rehearsal, "what did you think?" I said, "listen, I'm an ex-drummer and I played with a drummer that does this stuff exact. You are a good drummer, but for this, it's not the right thing for you." You have to be really dynamic. You have to have finesse. Alex Van Halen is a very, very underrated drummer. Some people take this stuff for granted. If you are going to do it the right way, you are going to have to find the right guys, even if they don't look the part. I think the sound comes first.

Q - Have you ever met David Lee Roth?

A - No. I was at a show at the Mohegan Sun when David Lee Roth was doing his solo stuff. It wasn't good. He was doing his thing and he was hardly doing 2000 people. A friend of mine was the guitar tech at the time and he got me backstage passes. At the time, Dave didn't want to talk to anybody because I spoke to his security guy. I said "is there any way I can meet Dave? I'm like his number one fan." "No, he don't want to talk to anybody." So that was the closest I got.

Q - Van Halen is impossible to get to.

A - They are tough. I went to Florida to go see them because I bought tickets for $600 and it got you into a pre-party, before the show. You got to watch the sound check. I was talking to the woman who worked for Van Halen at the party. People were coming up to me in Florida, backstage and saying "you got to see this guy. Man he does Van Halen great." It was cool because these were people I never met before who had seen my band before at venues in Florida. I didn't say anything to make these people go up to this woman who has something to do with Van Halen to make it look like I was in with somebody. As I was talking to her, I asked "what are the chances of meeting the band?" She's like, "these guys are like Michael Jackson. You are never going to get back there." So, I didn't push the envelope. But I would've loved to have met them.

Q - Well, there's still a possibility down the road.

A - Yeah, there's always a possibility. I never give up, but I'm at the point right now where I'm not gonna beg. I'm 51 years old. If it happens, it's meant to be. If not, it's not meant to be. I'm playing their music and it's fine for me right now. To get a picture with them and put it on the website with an endorsement would be great.

Q - What does it mean to have Doug Thaler in your corner?

A - It means a lot. I met him through my brother Tom a long time ago. He moved to Long Island and my brother got in touch with him and said "if you're bored and want to make a couple of extra bucks, go see my brother's Van Halen band. Maybe you could start booking 'em." So my brother gave me his number. He's lived five minutes away from me for I don't know how many years, which I never knew, and we met. He came and saw the band, liked it. Put his name on the website, got us some really good shows and he's been working.

Q - Do you have any competition here or abroad?

A - They are all over. There's one in Vegas. There's one in California. There's one in Florida. There's one out here with us. There's one in Baltimore. To me, I don't feel they're giving the band that justice it used to be. Nobody brings in the trussin' that you see I bring in. When you go see Van Halen, you want to see great musicianship and you want to hear amazing songs, but you want to see a show. And that's what we try to do. We want to be a step above everybody. If I do a show locally that starts at 10 o'clock, I'm there at four setting stuff up. I gotta get their early. I have my sound system I bring for the band, a really nice sound system. A lot of rooms don't have their own sound system unless it's a casino or a theater. So, I'll bring my own stuff. I get there extra early and make it look great. When the show is over, I talk to fans. I hang out for a little bit and then I tear my stuff down and go eat. I feel like we do Van Halen the best out of all the Van Halen tributes. I'm not being biased because it's my band. I'm being real. Like I said before, if you are playing the role of David Lee Roth and you just don't fit the part, I gotta get past the look first.


© Gary James. All rights reserved.