Chickenfoot: Fowl Play
Originally published in Guitar World, June 2009
They hardly seem like birds of a feather. But when Joe Satriani, Sammy
Hagar, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith get together, the result is
Chickenfoot, rock and roll's most unlikely—but most talked
I'm riding shotgun with Sammy Hagar as he varooms his brand-new, custom-built Ferrari—one of the 15 he owns—through the suburban streets of Marin County, California. Images of passersby, UPS drivers and even a cop or two whiz by in a mind-bending blur. We’re going 140 mph at least—it’s hard to tell when your head is about to explode.
“You’re loving the hell out of this, aren’t you, Joe-Joe?” Hagar yells, cackling with laughter like a kid in a water park.
Even though Hagar has primed me well with a generous, super big-gulp of his premium Cabo Wabo Tequila, the ride is too much for my stomach, and the singer—who can’t drive under 100, much less 55—is oblivious to the fact that my face has turned green.
“I don’t know how to tell you this, Sammy,” I say, trying to control my chattering teeth, “but I’m fucking scared to death!”
This only makes Hagar laugh harder. He brings the car to a screeching halt (thank God for seatbelts or we both would’ve been through the windshield) and looks at me with a mixture of amusement and pity. “Yeah, I get that a lot. That’s the problem with these babies. Nobody will ride with me.”
Hagar loves playmates of all kinds, and recently he’s found a willing bunch of the musical variety in shred virtuoso Joe Satriani; good friend, and one-time Van Halen bandmate, bassist Michael Anthony; and drummer Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The four have formed an unlikely alliance in an outfit called Chickenfoot. Yes, you read that correctly: Chickenfoot. It’s a dopey name for a group that is anything but.
“I am so goddamn excited about this band,” Hagar says as we make our way back to his three-story office/compound/recording studio/car lot. “When I think about the fact that I could probably retire or be in this group, brother, that’s a no-brainer. Only an idiot would pack it in when he can play with motherfuckers this bad!”
Inside, the “motherfuckers” Hagar refers to are sitting in a conference room. There’s Joe Satriani, dressed in his customary black, listening to final mixes of the Chickenfoot album that are, even at the time of this interview, being sent to him on his MacBook (he’s also receiving hourly updates from his lawyer on his ongoing lawsuit against Coldplay, on this, the day after the English band won numerous pieces of Grammy hardware for what he calls “my song.”) He’s the “studious, serious” member of this enterprise, the world-famous guitar god who has finally, at long last, stumbled upon a group of like-minded players who wanted to play vocal-oriented hard rock in a day and age when the art form is being seriously questioned.
Then there’s Michael Anthony, the gregarious good buddy to all. Unceremoniously dumped from the latest Van Halen reunion, he’s now smiling ear-to-ear, happy as a bucket of clams to be in what he describes as “the best damned band around right now. No joke. We’re not fucking around here.”
And there’s the oddball of the bunch, Chad Smith, heretofore thought of as a “funk/alternative” drummer, who’s champing at the bit to “play in a big-time rock and roll band, where the rock is right up front and there’s no second-guessing what we’re all about.”
Of all the members, Joe Satriani has waited the longest to be part of a group like Chickenfoot, and in his opinion, “the hoping, wishing and the dreaming were all worth it. I could have jumped into any number of bands over the years—I’ve definitely had offers—but nothing really felt right. Everything seemed like a career move, not a way of life, or an artistic expression. And the thing with Chickenfoot”—he still stumbles on the name occasionally—“is it never felt like a calculated career move; everything about it was very organic. I think that’s why the record turned out so good.”
The members admit they’re no young pups (Hagar is 61, Anthony is 54, Satch, 52, and Smith is the baby at 47), but according to Hagar, “We’ve already got the money, and we have enough fame. This band is about being part of something again. Something great. Maybe even something better than we’ve ever been in. Otherwise, I’d retire—I don’t have anything to prove to anybody anymore. But hey, if I can knock somebody’s dick in the dirt with this record, then goddamn, I’m gonna enjoy every minute of it.”
Clearly, enthusiasm is no problem in the land of Chickenfoot. At the time of this writing, the band is negotiating a record deal and lining up dates for the summer. Produced by Andy Johns (whose long list of credits includes Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart—not to mention Van Halen and Satch), the finished album is an 11-song slab of raging rock. From no-bones good-time rockers like “Sexy Little Thing” to “My King of Girl” (both clear-cut singles) to heavier, darker tunes like “Avenida Revolution” and “Learning to Fall,“ the songs stomp and snort and do all the things that great rock songs should do.
And there are surprises galore: a banjo intro here (courtesy of Satch), a snatch of Hagar beat-poetry there, not to mention the constant head-turning fluidity of the Anthony-Smith rhythm section. What’s also interesting is that Satriani, who has, over the years, established a personality on the guitar that is instantly recognizable, doesn’t quite sound like himself. He sounds like another guitarist entirely, one still blessed with ungodly chops, but not the same Joe Satriani we’ve come to know since 1986. His playing is grittier, dirtier, less “fussed over” and, in effect, more soulful than ever. When I mention this to him, he grins an inscrutable grin. “You really think so?” he says. “That’s great. I think I’m too close to it to tell.
“Beyond that, the greatest compliment anybody can give us is that we sound like a band,” he says. “A ‘project’ is the last thing we had in mind; in fact, it’s the biggest thing we hoped to avoid. We’re a band that’s excited to be together, and if that translates onto the tracks, then we’ve succeeded. I can’t wait to do it again.”
GUITAR WORLD Last I spoke to you guys, you were adamant that Chickenfoot was not going to be the name of the band. What happened there? [All eyes go to Satriani.]
SAMMY HAGAR Joe, you want to answer that?
JOE SATRIANI [reddens, chuckles] Why me?
HAGAR ’Cause you were the most opposed to it.
SATRIANI Well, yeah, but…
MICHAEL ANTHONY All right, I’ll tell you what happened. During the time it was first announced that we were forming a band, the news got so big and everybody started talking about us, and the name just took on a life of its own. It sort of got to the point where it was like, “Okay, everybody assumes we’re called Chickenfoot. Why change it?”
HAGAR It’s true—the name got out there. I was telling this one guy about the band, and I said we were maybe going to call it the Nine—that was a name we had for about three minutes—and he just goes, “Oh, you mean Chickenfoot.” [laughs] So that’s just it: before we could think of anything else, we were Chickenfoot. And I’ll tell you, the more I see it in print, the more I think it’s right.
SATRIANI I didn’t like it at first, that’s true. But during the past year, we actually became Chickenfoot. My resistance to the name has gradually gone away, and I’ve accepted it. The music is there, which is what matters most.
HAGAR Dude, the music is so there. It’s dirty, it’s greasy, it’s swampy, it grooves. It’s as tripped out as a fucking chicken foot! [laughs]
GW Since you were announced, you guys have been branded a “supergroup.” What are your thoughts on this? Do you feel as though there’s too much expectation put on you?
HAGAR “Supergroup”? Hey, I don’t know. We were just trying to make a kick-ass record and be a great band. I love being a part of this. [points to Satriani]
CHAD SMITH When I think of the word “supergroup,” I think of those bands that were kind of artificially put together, where guys auditioned and record company guys got involved and all that. We came together very naturally. Everything was fun, it felt good, there was nothing preconceived about it.
GW Before you guys officially said, “Okay, we’re a band,” were there any discussions about what you wanted to avoid—problems you had faced in other bands that you didn’t want to repeat?
SATRIANI We had no time. We were too busy writing and making the record.
ANTHONY The thing is, we’ve all played together in various ways: Chad came down to Cabo and jammed with me and Sammy; Sammy and I had a thing going for a while with Neal Schon and [drummer] Deen Castronovo; then Joe came down and was possibly going to be a part of that…
HAGAR But we never sat down and said, “Hey, we’re gonna be like this, or we’re not gonna be like that.” Joe came with his riffs, Mikey started playing over them, Chad went loose and laid down the groove, and I started scatting—and that’s how it all went down. Song by song, we did it just like that.
GW So there were no discussions beforehand, like, “Well, let’s make sure this guy isn’t crazy, like so-and-so from my last band”? [laughs all around]
SMITH I don’t think so. Of course, now that I think of it, you’d have to be crazy to be in this band. Nothing about it makes any sense.
HAGAR Joe won’t hang around with me on tour, I guarantee you that. I’m waaaay too crazy for him. When I start bringing naked pigs into my hotel room, brother, he’ll be long gone! [laughs]
SMITH But in all seriousness, I don’t think we had those kinds of talks. We’ve all been in bands with, you know, drama and drugs and stuff like that—all except Joe. But we knew going into this that we were four guys who just wanted to play music. The great thing is, there’s a terrific democracy in this band. Everybody’s involved, everybody contributes equally. It’s not like Sammy’s up there and we’re his backing band.
HAGAR I wouldn’t want that. This isn’t the Sammy show. This isn’t the Cabos. No siree. I’m tired of being the boss. I just wanna sing and be part of something great.
GW Joe, this is something you’ve wanted for quite some time.
SATRIANI I’ve wanted this since I was a kid, basically.
GW When you signed your deal with Sony back in the early Nineties, you made it clear you were intent on being part of a vocal-oriented rock band. Yet, you’ve had this incredible career as a solo instrumentalist.
SATRIANI By accident. [everybody laughs] I kind of fell into it.
GW Now, let’s say Chickenfoot is a smash. What happens to the solo career?
SATRIANI I’m sure I’ll be able to keep it going. I would imagine that everybody in the band wants to keep doing their own thing. From my own perspective, as you know, I did fall into this instrumental career, and it’s been amazing, of course, going all over the world and playing my songs. But this…just in the last six, seven weeks, it’s been amazing. To be in the studio and watch these songs come together, it was like, “Wow, I’m in a band!” And I’m in a band with these guys. Song by song, it was very exhilarating. And we’ve even got a name! [everybody laughs]
GW Chad, last we spoke, you said you had a year clear to pursue other things. Yet, when I spoke with John Frusciante recently… [see Guitar World, April 2009]
SMITH Oh, how did that go?
GW It was…interesting.
SMITH He’s an interesting guy. [laughs] He’s in his own world.
GW He did tell me, however, that there were “no plans” for the Chili Peppers at all. I took that very literally, as in you guys might not be getting back together.
SMITH The status is that we’ve been on a break for a year and whatever. I can’t speak for John; he’s doing his thing. I think when the Chili Peppers are ready to play, we’ll play. I’m not naming names, I’m just saying we’ll do it again when we want to. We have to feel it. I don’t have a time frame. I thought it was going to be a year off, now it looks like it could be longer. Maybe it’ll be two years, maybe longer.
GW If Chickenfoot is a smash, would that make going back to the Chili Peppers harder for you?
SMITH Well, I still love playing with those guys, and I have tremendous loyalty to them. But hmmm, to be in two hit bands at once… wow, what a choice! [laughs]
HAGAR The best karma we’ve created is that we’ve never put any pressure on anybody not to do their thing. If this thing is supposed to happen, it’s gonna happen. Although personally, I can’t see anyone wanting to go back to doing what they were doing without playing this music first—it’s that good! Already, this feels more like a band than Van Halen did in 12 years.
GW In what way?
HAGAR It feels like it did in the beginning. It’s exciting. Everybody’s bringing something to the table. I mean, we’ve all got chops, we can all hold our own in our own arenas, and we’re just trying to do things at the highest level possible. I’m digging deeper than I ever have. That’s the way it was in Van Halen when I joined. I decided I wasn’t going to get criticized for being the second singer in the band—I was going to be the only singer in the band.
ANTHONY That’s a good way of summing it up. I remember when Sammy joined Van Halen, there were a handful of songs sitting around kind of unfinished, and Sammy came in and knocked ’em down, lyrics and melodies, and we used everything he had. It’s the same way in this band. Sammy’s really digging down hard. I know I am—and then you add Joe and Chad and they’re just unbelievable.
GW Joe, have you changed your playing style to play in this band?
SATRIANI It wasn’t so much adapting to the other guys; it was more a matter of being excited and bringing things in. Take a song like “Sexy Little Thing”—I could never do that on my own. But with Chickenfoot, I could bring them a song like that and I could add Chuck Berry or Keith Richards stuff. I could put more into my playing in that way.
GW It’s interesting you say “more.” I imagine you’re able to do less in this band. It’s not all about you and your guitar; your guitar doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting. You can lay back and play rhythm if you want.
SATRIANI I could agree with that first, but then something else happens. When you’re doing an instrumental song and your guitar does the “heavy lifting,” as you say, it becomes a lot about what you don’t do, what you leave out, what things you have to focus on. But for this kind of music, you have to play with the tone quality of everybody else, what they’re doing melodically and rhythmically. It’s not liberating because you’re making it simple; it’s liberating because you have so many other choices available to you. I’m able to do so much in this band.
GW [to Satriani] I want to see how much you can embarrass Michael Anthony…
HAGAR Oh, I’ll take care of that! [everybody laughs]
ANTHONY Oh, no…
GW No, no, it’s not what you think. Here’s the thing: Michael is never mentioned in the same breath of the world’s greatest bass players. Yet he’s played with two of the greatest guitar players in the world. What is it about him that guitar players like? What makes him the go-to guy?
ANTHONY Joe was just stuck with me when the band formed. He didn’t have a choice! [laughs]
SATRIANI Well, he’s fucking great. That’s about it. I mean, I have so many memories in the studio where we were doing mixes, and I would push up the faders on Michael’s tracks, and I’d just listen and go, “God, that’s so cool. Listen to that.”
HAGAR The reason why Mike doesn’t get the kind of credit he deserves is that he’s played with Eddie Van Halen. A bass player is never going to get the kind of respect he deserves next to Eddie Van Halen. Hell, Jack Bruce didn’t get much credit compared to Eric Clapton. That’s just the nature of things.
GW Sammy, do you think your lyric writing has changed in this band?
HAGAR Absolutely. I’m tuned into things in a way I never have been. I find myself looking around at the world and going, “I can write a song about this, I can write a song about that.” The passion and excitement I feel about being in this band, it stirs up my senses. I’m not an educated guy; I don’t know about poetry and all that stuff. But I do know how to write about real-life experiences, and this album is full of them.
Take the song “My Kind of Girl”: I have a 12-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old daughter, and half their friends have single moms. I got inspired thinking about that, so I called Joe and told him I wanted to write a song about single moms. It’s a tough gig, man, being a single mom. I take my hat off to ’em.
GW Talk to me about Andy Johns. How did he come to work on this record?
ANTHONY I fell in love with Andy’s work when we did [Van Halen’s] For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. He brought the bass up, and you could feel it.
SATRIANI I’ve worked with him before [on 1992’s The Extremist], and every time was just an explosive musical situation. He captures the velocity of a rhythm section. Plus, he knows what makes musicians tick.
GW Did he challenge you?
HAGAR [laughs] Oh, he challenged us! He’s a sweetheart, but he can be a rude motherfucker. At first I had a problem with that. [adopts a gruff British accent] “You call that singing? That ain’t singing! Now sing the song in key already and get it right!” And I’m like, “Fuck you! That’s the best I can sing it, asshole!” [everybody laughs] But he knows how to get the job done. I have a ton of respect for the guy.
GW Let’s get into some of the songs on the record. Tell me about “Avenida Revolution.” Joe, what are you doing in the beginning guitar-wise?
SATRIANI It’s just a little trick with a guitar pick. For that song, I was trying to create something that had the weirdest-ass riff, something nobody could ever sing over, and of course Sammy nailed it. At first, the song was called “Into the Fire,” so I was trying to come up with a part that sounded like it was boiling—like it was bubbling up, you know? I did a pick thing that really worked.
GW Sammy, this song is one of your weightiest lyric-wise. Do you sometimes feel hampered by your “good time” image, being Mr. I-Can’t-Drive-55?
HAGAR I am a good-time guy. And I can’t drive 55! [laughs] I don’t feel hampered by anything. I write about what I want to write about. I put no limits on anything. When I heard that music, I saw people running through ditches and crawling through mud. And there’s this area in Cabo called “Avenida Boulevard” with nothing but crosses on the streets, and people have died literally trying to make their way across it—so that’s what I saw. That song wrote itself.
GW Michael, you’re all over this record as a background singer. Are you aware of how familiar your background singing voice is to people? It immediately sounds like Van Halen.
ANTHONY Sure. In the early Van Halen days, Eddie and I would sing together, and it was as much a part of the sound as Eddie’s guitar playing. Then when Sammy joined the band, it increased. You hear it and you’re like, “Whoa, that’s Van Halen!” Our fans know the sound. They grew up on it.
GW Joe, on the solo to “Sexy Little Thing,” how are you getting that cool tubey sound?
SATRIANI It’s the [Ibanez] JS6 guitar. I’m also using a set of 11s, the guitar is tuned down a whole step, and the capo is on the second fret. [laughs] Why? Why would I do such a thing? It was all about keeping the guitar in tune. It contributed to that tubey sound.
GW Sammy, are you playing any guitar on the record?
HAGAR Nope. Not one note. What would be the point of me playing guitar? Put it this way: I can play guitar as well as Joe can sing. [everybody laughs]
GW But how about live?
HAGAR Live, yeah. There’s some songs that’ll need the rhythm guitar. We’re figuring it out.
GW The song “My Kind of Girl” sounds like a single to me.
HAGAR [laughs] That’s funny. Joe tried to have me go back and rewrite it ’cause he thought it sounded too commercial. I’m like, “Joe, there’s no such thing!”
SATRIANI Because I’ve succeeded so well at obscurity. [laughs]
HAGAR You know, there’s an old Eddie Van Halen statement: “They call it ‘pop’ because it’s ‘pop-u-lar.’ ” That’s a driving-your-car-fast kind of song. The minute I heard Joe’s music, I had it. I sat down and wrote it and nailed it.
GW The solo you do is very cool, Joe, that one sustained note really works.
SATRIANI I didn’t feel like I had to fill up the space with all these notes. I’m really excited about playing rhythm guitar, and that was a moment in the song where I could do that. It would belittle the song if I did a crazy solo. Less was definitely more there.
HAGAR Musically and emotionally, everybody in this band is very plugged in. The fact that Joe listens deeply and makes those kinds of connection is great. That’s the spirit in this band: everybody is so conscientious and considerate of what the other guy is doing. You can’t do that when you’re a young band. That’s seasoning. It comes with experience; it comes from doing this for a long time on a very high level. If people wanna call us a supergroup, fine, but it’s only because we’re communicating with one another in a way that other bands don’t. It’s about storytelling. It’s deeper than anything I’ve ever been involved in. It’s taken us a while to get here, but I’m so damn happy we made it.