“When there aren’t any more trees, your comic books are going to go the way of all vinyl,” David Lee Roth says.
Then he laughs.
“That’s good! Mark that one!”
And then he follows up.
“Hey, no more vinyl trees ’round here!”
With Diamond Dave, there’s always a laugh. And there’s usually a follow-up. It’s how he communicates. And Dave loves to communicate. Since March, the 66-year-old Van Halen singer hasn’t been able to do it from his natural perch, the stage – Covid put a quick stop to both his Las Vegas residency and his solo stint opening for KISS on their End of the Road arena tour. But a microphone isn’t the man’s only mouthpiece. For the past several months, he’s been drawing Covid-themed comics and posting them to his social media pages. And while these single-panel sketches have indulged his love for illustrating (as well as, apparently, frogs), they’re just the tip of the artistic iceberg — the 45 rpm single, if you will.
The full album, to hammer a metaphor, is “The Roth Project,” his new interactive digital graphic novel.
What is “The Roth Project,” exactly? In the singer’s estimation, it’s an entirely new approach to the form. Roth collaborated with PhotoshopCAFE founder Colin Smith on the novel, crafting what he calls an immersive “hyper-classic” platform that pairs Smith’s animations with his own Japanese Sumi-e inspired illustrations. “The kind of work that I do is basically 1500s pen, ink and brush,” Roth explains. “Really simple, handmade work that, like learning a musical instrument, requires thousands and thousands of hours to master, just to make a perfectly thin line that has some sort of character to it.” Once these hand-drawn panels — and there are hundreds in the final product — were scanned and digitized, anything was possible. “You can interact with it. You have narration. You have music,” he says. “You have the future.”
Built around a sort of infinite scroll, readers can navigate “The Roth Project” in numerous ways, customizing the experience to their own preferences. Roth narrates the story, and he also recorded original songs, incidental music and sound effects for the soundtrack. The words and music can be listened to together or separately, or muted entirely. And if a particular illustration catches a reader’s eye along the way, an “explore” button pauses the scroll to allow for closer inspection.
As for the story itself? In a nutshell, it was inspired by Roth’s interest in the computer program AlphaGo, and the plot, as much as it can be summed up, imagines a futuristic world where artificial intelligence has attained the capability to mimic humans — Roth among them — to chaotic and, eventually, murderous ends. “There’s a real hard-boiled, dark undertone that’s perfectly fitting to the general anger of our tremulous times,” he says. “Relatively few artists get to show that side of the coin. But Diamond Dave is very, very real.”
The words and images, however, are just one selling point (and here is where we circle back to that comment about comic books going “the way of all vinyl”). “The most entertaining, the most colorful and the most engaging thing is the medium itself – the mechanism,” Roth continues. “It’s vastly superior to the turned and printed page.” And while the concept behind the graphic novel was 100 percent Dave’s, he also gives credit where credit is due. “When Miles Davis did ‘Bitches Brew,’ he assembled the most stellar talent he could. Our talent extends to Colin Smith — and beyond. The fellas who coded this beast? These are the same fellas who are working for Elon Musk and doing coding for him.”
How did Roth manage to assemble this team?
“It’s one of the privileges of being a pop star,” he says with a laugh.
And then the follow-up: “Especially one that makes you smile.”
To be sure, even with his deep dive into the visual arts (and for that matter, stints as an actor, author, radio DJ, New York City EMT, daredevil rock climber and tattoo skincare company founder, among others), Roth is a pop-star entertainer at heart. Which means that no matter the pursuit at hand, there’s always music happening. Recently, he unveiled a new solo song, the uncharacteristically nostalgic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow Bar and Grill” (the tune also appears in “The Roth Project”), and he promises there’s more to come.
“My intention was to release the rest of the songs Drake-style, single by single,” Roth says. “That affords a great focus on the individualized tracks, most of which get lost in the shuffle when you release an album. Doesn’t matter if you’re Paul McCartney or Metallica; put out 12, 14 songs and we’re just engineered as primates to go, ‘I like this one and that one… now what’s for dinner?’ ”
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow Bar and Grill” attracted plenty of attention when Roth issued it as a standalone single in late October, and is closing in on a half-million YouTube views. “For somebody in my position, at this point in my career, that’s a knockout over the park,” he says. At the same time, he acknowledges that his new material will likely always place second in listeners’ minds behind his towering work with Van Halen. “I won the Super Bowl seven times over with the Four Horsemen — ain’t nothin’ going to knock that mountain down.”
On October 6 of this year, one of those horsemen, Eddie Van Halen, succumbed to cancer at the age of 65. In the wake of his passing, Roth fielded numerous requests for comment on his longtime band mate. But he has opted to remain silent out of respect for Van Halen and his family.
When he posted “Somewhere Over the Rainbow Bar and Grill” online, however, it was with a simple dedication. On a hand-drawn illustration accompanying the release, Roth wrote, “Hey Ed, I’m gonna miss ya. See you on the other side…” It was a fitting acknowledgement as the song itself, though written and recorded prior to Van Halen’s death, functions as something of a tribute to their shared history. “I don’t usually write autobiographically,” he says, “but this was a specific effort to replicate a time and a place.”
He points to one lyric, about the “smell of fresh sawdust” on the floor of the dives that would host Van Halen gigs in the band’s early days, as being central to the song’s genesis: “I actually walked past the door of a local drinking establishment and smelled the sawdust,” Roth says. “And like Proust with a lemon cookie, it triggered volumes of memory.”
As for the Eddie Van Halen dedication, he says, “There are two kinds of burials in show business. One’s very quiet, behind the scenes, nobody attends. And then there’s a ‘show biz’ approach, where you have a solemn ceremony and it’s followed by a reception where everybody gets up and tells stories. They can be off-color, they can be tear-jerkers, they can be of any nature. When my dad passed, the reception was at a Mexican restaurant around the corner. Everybody was eating and drinking and then the speeches become more colorful and much more energetic. Sometimes that’s the most heartfelt, heartbreaking, best material ever.
“And so I thought, if that occurred for Ed — which it did not — and everybody was going to get up and tell a story, when it got to my turn I would start with, ‘The smell of fresh sawdust on the floor…’ And go from there.”
He continues, “That’s the beginning of the story, at least for me. Because that was everywhere we played — the smell of fresh sawdust on the floor.”
Roth laughs. “And we were famous for breaking drinking records.”
And follows up. “Still are! And solo, too!”