By Peter Lindblad
A summit of hard-rock superpowers that wasn’t supposed to last beyond a round of tequila shooters at Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo joint, Chickenfoot has made it to album No. 2, amusingly titled “Chickenfoot III.” The combined virtuoso talents of guitar wizard Joe Satriani, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Chad Smith, former Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony and, of course, the charismatic Hagar produced 2009’s self-titled “Chickenfoot” LP, a gold record laden with hooks and boasting several undeniably catchy blasts of full-on rock and roll fun — “My Kinda Girl” and “Sexy Little Thing” to name a few — that could have been born in the ’70s.
Now an assured foursome completely at home in their own skins and feeling like a true band, in every sense of the word, Chickenfoot is back.
On “Chickenfoot III,” heavy, riff-filled rockers like “Big Foot” and “Up Next” only set the stage for the riotous guitar free-for-all of “Three and a Half Letters,” a scathing, yet heartbreaking, dissection of how the awful state of the U.S. economy is crushing the American Dream. Dynamic, sonically rich and bursting with energy, while also showing a soft side with the ballad “Come Closer,” “Chickenfoot III” was informed by the death of Hagar’s longtime manager and confidante John Carter. Satriani, Hagar and Anthony discussed all things Chickenfoot with Goldmine.
Is this the most fun you’ve ever had in music?
Sammy Hagar: Damn near, you know. I didn’t have as much fun making this record as I did the first one. Don’t take that negatively; I think it’s a better record. But I really felt some pressure after the success of “Chickenfoot,” because no one cared if that one was going to be successful. No one thought it would be that successful. I mean, I thought it was going to be successful, but I didn’t think it would go gold in every freaking country. And it was on the charts for a year. I haven’t had an album on the charts for a year my whole life. So that caused some pressure. It took a little bit of the casual “we don’t care” attitude out of it for me. And I thought, “I do care. And I really gotta out-do that last record.” The first Chickenfoot record was pretty damn solid. It’s like every song, we looked at it and we said, “Nope, throw that out. Throw that out. Put that in. Here’s a better bridge. Here’s a better chorus.” You know, we worked on it. And that work was not fun. I’m having a blast now that it’s done. I mean, I cue that sucker up. I get in one of my cars, a convertible, crank it up and shoot down Highway 1 and just f**king sing at the top of my lungs, having the best time I’ve had in a long time with my own music. It seems kind of narcissistic, but I’m having a good time.
Talk about the recording of “Big Foot.”
SH: That was the easiest one. That was the most fun. Out of all the songs on the album, that was the most fun to record and it came the easiest. Some of the other songs we worked real hard on. But “Big Foot,” we went in that day, Joe presented us with that riff, and I had the title “Big Foot” in my head because actually Joe called it “Big Foot” before I even had lyrics. So when I first heard the music, I thought, “That is ‘Big Foot.’” But what is Big Foot? I don’t know, but that is it. So, I didn’t want to sing about Sasquatch, about the Abominable Snowman or some shit. So what else are you gonna talk about? My big foot? Where is it going to be? Is it going to be up your ass, or is it going to be on the gas, you know? So the guys thought, well, let’s go with the gas on this … I’ve made a career out of these kinds of songs. And by the time the band had learned the song and recorded it, which took two or three hours, I had the lyrics written and I did the vocal and that song was done. And we all said, “This has to be the first song the fans hear from Chickenfoot III,” because this is all-out Chickenfoot.
Michael Anthony: The music seemed a little bit heavier, a little darker at times. I don’t really want to say, “Darker.” I don’t know. I like to think it’s meatier than the first record. The first record there was, I think, a little more looseness to it, because we had just gotten together, and a lot of things came out of a lot of jamming in the studio on first record, where [this time] we actually had more ideas when we went in to do the stuff – even though we did do a lot of writing while we were in the studio, too. It just kind of comes out of everyone’s influences. We all grew up around the same time and the same era, early ‘70s, listening to Cream, Zeppelin, Who – all those kinds of bands. Joe said in an interview I heard where he says, “We’re like a ‘70s band, you know.”
Joe Satriani: I think we recognized that that’s what was happening as we were doing it. We never really plan things out. We record ourselves sort of bouncing off each other. That’s kind of like the way we operate, and every time somebody picks up on something like that, you just laugh and smile and say, “Oh, ’72 … you know.” (laughs) That’s just the way we are. That’s part of why it stuck together, because we thought it was exciting but curious that it didn’t sound like “Satch Boogie,” “Give It Away Now,” and a whole series of Van Halen songs put together … I think everybody had a couple of things they were trying to get out of each other. It culminated in just a stronger sound. I know Sam kept wanting me to just let loose, and I wanted him to sing in a lower register. I thought it would be more powerful and more intimate at the same time. I definitely wanted to write grooves where Mike, Chad and myself would sound like one big Mack truck coming right at you at a hundred miles per hour.
Michael, talking about how your vocals and Sammy’s work together, in Van Halen those harmonies were not pushed to the fore, as they are with Chickenfoot. Was that a conscious decision?
MA: Yeah, actually, Sammy and I did make a conscious decision that, in this band, we were really going to bring that out. And there were a couple of songs, like “Turning Left” from the first album, where it’s like a two-part harmony lead vocal part through the song, but we definitely wanted to bring it out more, because it’s pretty signature-sounding. But in Van Halen, like you said, the background, my part, was more … not ghosting, but it was a little bit more in the background, where Sammy really wanted to bring it to the front. And on the new album, I think we really took that a lot further.
SH: Singing with him, he’s the only guy that I know that could just go above [me]. I don’t care if I’m at the peak of my range; he can get up above me, just squeeze his nuts and get on up there – and right on key, he can mimic my phrasing. He’s just … he’s so fast. That’s the thing that people don’t understand about Mike. He learns faster than anyone I’ve ever met in my life. Joe Satriani, Eddie Van Halen … guys come up with riffs, and come on, I can’t f**king play them. I’m sitting here with an acoustic guitar around the house still trying to learn these riffs on this record, and I ain’t got ‘em down yet … And he’s playing his ass off in this band. He never played like this in Van Halen. Eddie [Van Halen] doesn’t even realize what a great bass player he had. I think he never realized it, and that is his complete loss. I remember recording in Van Halen, Eddie was always saying, “Just play eighth notes.” And he would play all this stuff, and Mike’s just going, “boom, boom, boom, boom.” Boy, Mike’s really capable of playing more than that, and he never found out. So Mike and I, one time, we’re in Cabo San Lucas when we were in Van Halen — say probably around ’89, ’88 or ’89, when we were still loving each other, and having a good time — and Mike was in Cabo jamming and doing a live broadcast from the Cabo Wabo for some album network that I think used to be around that would do live broadcasts. And Ed is listening to it on the radio, and we get back and he asked me who was playing bass? He went, “Yeah, yeah, you guys did ‘Crossroads’ by Cream,” and he goes, “Who was playing f**king bass on that?” I’m saying, “That’s your brother right over here.” That was Michael Anthony on the bass. And Ed goes, “Yeah? Yeah? Yeah? Yeah?” And then he’d smoke a cigarette, take a hit off a beer and go, “Hmmm.” But, he didn’t get it, you know? But Michael has been tearing it up on this record.
Joe, you approached Sammy about trying something new vocally with this record. What was that conversation like?
JS: Oh, I think he was totally into it, because I related to him this experience I had a few months before I started really writing for this record. We were hanging out, and I’d just come from another local studio. I said, “Sam, you were working on a song that you sang on.” It was Sammy and [Journey’s] Neil Schon and [Narada] Michael Walden [who made appearances with the Tommy Bolin Band, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Jeff Beck], and other local musicians doing a Sly Stone song for a local film. And I was totally blown away listening to Sam’s vocal performance. He just sounded like a stone-cold R&B singer. And the register was lower and his vibrato was beautiful, his voice was the usual, a thousand feet wide. And so I was saying, “Sam, that was like the greatest vocal I’ve ever heard. Why aren’t we doing that?” So, he was definitely excited about it, because he remembered that session. And he had a good time doing it, and he started telling me about all the soul music that he loves and how he’d love to do it. So I kind of took that back with me, and during my writing period for the band last August, 12 months ago, I just focused on that a couple of times to make sure that I could sort of count of that.
And likewise, Sammy, you had some ideas of what you wanted Joe to do.
SH: Yeah, I wanted Joe to play the meanest, craziest, most belligerently evil, f**king music he’s ever played in his life. He’s not an evil guy, so it’s hard for him.
Michael, what is your favorite track off the new record?
MA: Oh boy, you know, you’re actually the first person that has asked me that. I love ‘em all … “Up Next” is probably one of my favorite rockers on the album, especially when we rehearsed that yesterday, and when we launch into that, it’s like on fire. But then like “Come Closer,” where you think there’s a lot of production to it, that maybe live it’d be hard to do … of course we’re not going to use any kind of tapes or samples or any of that crap – just stripped down raw with the band, and Sammy and I doing the backgrounds, it sounds great. I’m really fired up, because we could pretty much play this entire album live. But “Up Next” is probably one of my favorites right now. It’s on fire.