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Chickenfoot: For the Birds

On the release of rock supergroup Chickenfoot''s sophomore effort, guitarist Joe Satriani and bassist Mike Anthony confess that making it look easy is precisely the point.

Joe Satriani dips the trem on his signature Ibanez JS2400 as Mike Anthony keeps the 4-string thunder rolling at NYC’s Beacon Theatre in 2009. Photo by Paul Bachman
Listen to a track from Chickenfoot III:
Although the collective members of Chickenfoot have plenty of talent and technique to spare, the one thing that’s not on anyone’s side is time. When the band got together in February 2011 to record its curiously titled sophomore release, Chickenfoot III, there simply wasn’t a minute to waste. Vocalist Sammy Hagar’s New York Times, No. 1 bestselling book, Red: My Uncensored Life In Rock, was weeks away from its release, guitarist Joe Satriani was barely decompressing from his Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards tour in addition to the Experience Hendrix tour, and drummer Chad Smith was just about ready to go back to his duties with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

“We’d meet up in the morning,” says Satriani, ”and someone would say, ‘I really like that song, let’s do that one.’ And we’d spend a few hours learning it and arranging it, and then record it and that would be it. We’d move on to the next song.”

This mad dash proved to be a good thing and gave the album its fresh sound. “There’s a lot of spontaneity on this album because there wasn’t a lot of time to rehearse the songs,” says Anthony. “We would rehearse it 20, 30 times and then we recorded it.” The time constraints extend beyond the recording session. Because of Smith’s commitments, drummer Kenny Aronoff will be filling in for him on the band’s upcoming tour. But this won’t be a permanent lineup switch. Anthony says, “We didn’t want this to be a revolving-door band.”

The long road to Chickenfoot’s origin can be traced back to 1985 when Van Halen and vocalist David Lee Roth parted company. After this breakup, Roth did what any crafty jilted lover would do: He got sweet revenge. He recruited über-virtuoso Steve Vai along with bass hero Billy Sheehan to form a supergroup with superhuman, pyrotechnical abilities. Van Halen counteracted by bringing in Sammy Hagar as the new lead singer, but as Eddie Van Halen became more and more content to rest on his laurels, his position as the king of rock guitar was slowly being usurped by the continually innovative Vai, who ended up becoming the guitar hero to round out the ’80s and onward to the present day.

Flash forward to 2007 when the impossible happened and Van Halen reunited with Diamond Dave. This reunion came with a twist, however. Eddie’s teenage son, Wolfgang replaced founding member bassist Michael Anthony, leaving both Anthony and Hagar without a gig. They must have asked themselves “what would Dave do?” because soon after, they formed Chickenfoot, a supergroup featuring Joe Satriani—Vai’s former mentor—and Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

This ensemble proved to be a success with Chickenfoot’s selftitled first album debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard Top 100 and going Gold. But this is no poor man’s Van Halen. “During the first tour we wanted to establish ourselves as Chickenfoot so we decided not to play any Van Halen or Chili Peppers stuff,” says Anthony. “Obviously some of the stuff is going to sound like Van Halen vocally because that’s where Sammy and I come from and people can identify with that sound in our voices. But we don’t want to be like Van Halen. We don’t want to be like the Chili Peppers, we don’t want to be like Joe’s solo stuff. We just do what we do.”

How did Chickenfoot III come about?
Anthony: Because we were going to be losing Chad to his other band [laughs]. Actually, we wanted Chad on the new Chickenfoot record and we knew once he got fired up with the Chili Peppers that would pretty much be impossible. So we said, “Hey, let’s go into the studio and put some stuff together while Chad’s still free.”
Satriani: We always knew we’d get together again and continue it. After the set of tours that we did, we really solidified as a band and I think we all look back on the first record like, “Wow, that’s hardly representative of what we can do.”

What revelations did you have?
Satriani: We felt like a band, but we didn’t know if we sounded like a band until we had that first album. When we hit the road we had to prove a lot to ourselves. We went from the club thing to the festival tour and did the theaters and the arenas in the summer and then it was over. But in that period we learned so much about each other musically, and the potential of the band would really blossom every night that we would play.
Anthony: I think we’ve really niched out what Chickenfoot is about on this record.

Michael, do you approach your bass lines differently depending on whether the guitarist is playing more in the pocket and bluesy or going crazy?
Anthony: The difference here is when Eddie would go off, he’d be like, “Pump on this note, it’s king of like an AC/DC thing,” whereas Joe gives me a chance to play different things and not just ride on one note.

Are you enjoying the freedom you have now?
Anthony: Oh, it’s great. I don’t think there was one time on this album where Joe came up to me and said, “Can you play this here?” He let me go off and develop my own bass parts. Everybody was allowed to put in their own two cents.

What differences and similarities do you see in Joe and Eddie’s approach?
Anthony: They’re both great guitarists in their own right. Eddie would treat every song like it was an instrumental and either Dave or Sammy or even Gary would fit their vocals around it. I had to be more basic in my playing to really hold it down.

Satriani lays down the funk at the Fillmore in Detroit. Photo by Gene Schilling

Joe Satriani’s Gearbox

Ibanez JS prototype with DiMarzio pickups, Ibanez JS2400, ’55 Gibson Les Paul, ’58 Fender Esquire, ’59 Gibson ES-335, Rickenbacker, Deering banjo, Ovation 12-string, Gibson Jimmy Page No. 1 Les Paul

Marshall JVM 410 Joe Satriani Signature Model, ’53 Fender Deluxe, ’59 Fender Twin

Electro-Harmonix POG, Vox Big Bad Wah, Vox Time Machine, Voodoo Lab Proctavia, Roger Mayer Voodoo Vibe

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
D’Addario .010–.046, D’Addario .011 sets on some vintage guitars, Planet Waves signature picks (heavy), Planet Waves signature straps, Planet Waves cables

Joe, with this band, do you feel Eddie’s shadow lingering over the music?
Satriani: It was obvious that, at least for me, I’m not going to try and recreate the over-playing heroics of the ’80s that was pioneered really by Eddie. Nobody can do it, really, like Eddie. So why would you do it?
Anthony: I don’t want Joe to do anything like Eddie Van Halen or sound like him. We get enough comparisons to Van Halen the way it is [laughs]. People on the internet are like, “Chickenfoot III...they’re jabbing at Van Halen III.” I have to laugh at these references— they’ll make them musically, too. I’m thinking, “Do these people sit around all day long and try to find one note that Joe has in common with Eddie and just go off on it?”

Joe, on this record you seem to play less technically than someone might expect, given the band’s lineage.
Satriani: That can be said for everybody in the band. Sammy can try to sing higher than he did with Van Halen, although I can’t imagine trying to sing higher than that [laughs]. Chad can try to be funkier than he is with the Chili Peppers and, as you mentioned, I can try to do flashier, more outside stuff, but that’s so calculated and so wrong to me. It’s the antithesis of why we got together.
Anthony: Obviously, when you have a lead singer, you don’t have to be playing notes every second. So now Joe doesn’t have to play the melody and everything all the time on the guitar. I know he enjoys doing all the rhythmic stuff, too, and not just being the guy playing the lead all the time. Maybe he is making his own conscious effort to kind of hold back on the album. All I can say to that is that people should come see us live—Joe’s on fire.

Joe, your older stuff like Not of this Earth is more cerebral, whereas this is more feelgood, jam music. Is it hard to switch gears?
Satriani: No, it’s not. I know that it seems odd from the outside looking in. Twenty-four hours in the day of Joe Satriani, there are so many different kinds of music running through my head, and if I’m hanging around at home I play lots of different stuff. Stuff that you would never release or you wouldn’t want people to hear because they wouldn’t know what you were or what kind of stylistic box to put you in.

But that’s typical for the way that a musician thinks. An artist is just simply being artistic, so when they see a mandolin, they start playing some mandolin music. Someone says, “Check out this piano,” they sit down and they play whatever piano music they know or like at that moment. We’re always hopping stylistic fences or at least, I should say, I am. I’m always playing lots of different things on an average day at home playing music. When you’re making an album you can’t do that. It’s very difficult to have a career based on being scattered stylistically.

But you’re the guy who whipped rock guitarists of the ’80s into getting serious about learning music theory and studying the enigmatic scale and pitch axis, among other things, and now it’s back to the basic blues scale. Isn’t that quite a contrast?
Satriani: It is. That’s a really good question you’re asking and the answer is quite profound for someone like me who started out knowing absolutely nothing and, little by little, learning from very gifted and patient teachers. What I’ve arrived at, which is what all musicians arrive at once they get through all the learning, is that a three-note scale doesn’t carry any more extra weight than a 12-note scale. Whether a scale is called Lydian Dominant or whether it’s called blues, it doesn’t mean one is better than the other.

A complicated arrangement is not necessarily better than a simple arrangement. It’s just music and what matters is whether it’s powerful—does it move people? Does it move you, the artist? So it’s really great when you arrive at that point and generally you can’t, until you actually know all of it. I’ve been as good a student as I can possibly be all these years. So I can say, “Yeah, I can play harmonic minor scales harmonized in any way that you want, in any key, anywhere on the guitar.” None of that phases me anymore. So that means that everything’s equal. I’m not impressed by complications.

Joe, Chickenfoot’s music is definitely less complex than a lot of your own music. No adjustment issues?
Satriani: Well, Sammy’s always dogging me about two things. He wants me just to go crazy. He doesn’t want me to work things out, and he’s always trying to convince me that commercial success is a good thing. My success is based on being under the radar, so it’s natural for me to go for the odd, not the accessible. The joke in the band is that whenever we’re working on a song that we think might have some commercial success, it’s guaranteed to put me in a bad mood and I’ll want to stop working on it.

“Different Devil” comes to mind as one with a commercial sound.
Satriani: I think the worst mood I was ever in with Chickenfoot was when we recorded that song. When I brought the song in it was about 90-percent finished and I thought it could be a really good and weird song—the typical way I think of things. I bring it in and everybody starts tidying it up, and then I start to think, “Hey, it sounds like you guys want to make this an accessible piece of music.” And I’m bumming out about it.

Later Chad took my acoustic guitar back to the hotel room. He shows up the next morning with a new part to the song and Sammy hears it and says, “I could sing a chorus over that.” So we insert it into the arrangement, and after awhile I’m going, “They’re right, this is actually sounding pretty good.” And so we built up the track until the end of the day. Then over the next couple of weeks as we’re doing the overdubs, I started to realize that the melody Sammy’s singing doesn’t actually go with the chords that Chad wrote for the chorus part. So I had to go and listen to Sammy’s vocals without guitars and bass, and figure out melodically what he thought he was singing over harmonically. Once I realized what he was singing over in his mind, I had to go find those chords.

Did the reharmonized version throw him off?
Satriani: No, it fit because I think when we did the last tracking together everyone was just worried about their parts, they really weren’t thinking about what Sammy was singing, they figured he’d change his vocals. But I know Sammy and when Sammy gets on a trajectory he’s not going to change his vocals. He’s going to look at me and say, “Joe, change those chords.”

“Come Closer” showcases a moodier side of the band.
Anthony: That’s a song where Sammy already had the vocals and lyrics first.
Satriani: One morning I just went over to my piano and put the cup of coffee on one end and the iPhone on the other side and I very quietly sang a moody… it was sort of like, if you can imagine, Radiohead doing an R&B song. It was kind of drifty, especially in my croaky voice. I quickly emailed it to Sammy to see if this was something he could get into because this was me putting him in a lower register.

Was that one originally written on the piano in A♭ minor (as it sounds) or A minor but then played tuned down?
Satriani: It was written in A minor. I’m not too good with A♭ minor [laughs]. I play just enough piano to get a song across.

Anthony digs into his signature Yamaha bass at Detroit’s Fillmore in 2009. Photo by Gene Schilling

Michael Anthony’s Gearbox

Yamaha BB300MA Michael Anthony signature bass

Ampeg B-50R

MXR Micro Chorus (live only), MXR Blue Box (live)

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
Dunlop picks, Jim Dunlop strings (.045, .065, .087, .107), Monster Cable (studio), Shure wireless (live)

Joe, in your “Come Closer” solo, you play this long arpeggiated sequence then in the last two measures you break away from it so it doesn’t sound predictable.
Satriani: Right, I had to let loose. To tell you the truth, when we were rehearsing, it had a loaded bluesy solo in the beginning, and I just started thinking that it sounded too much like a power ballad where the guitar player steps up and he’s blowing a solo on the mountain top. I thought that was too corny. I kept thinking with the solo that I wanted to be part of the band.

Let’s talk gear for a second. Joe, I understand on this record you used that blue Ibanez prototype with three single-coils you played on the Experience Hendrix tour.
Satriani: Yeah, that prototype is a winner, man. We’ve worked on that one for almost 10 years now and Steve Blucher at DiMarzio just came up with really cool pickups that, for some reason, really go together with a maple neck and that particular body. It just sounds like the punchiest Strat you ever heard in your life.

Is this the first album you recorded with this guitar?
Satriani: I think it is. And the whole record was done primarily on my new 4-channel Marshall signature amp called the JVM 410 Joe Satriani Signature Model.

Michael, I know you generally use your Yamaha signature bass, but what happened to the Jack Daniel’s bass?
Anthony: I still have it and it will probably come out on tour. At the end of every tour, I put it in the closet and say I’m done with it. And there’s always somebody like you who says, “Hey, what’s with the Jack Daniel’s bass?” My original one has been on display for at least a couple of years now at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Michael, there’s a rumor that you’re the richest among the original Van Halen members, is that true?
Anthony: [Laughs.] Well, everybody used to joke that I saved the first dollar that I ever made in Van Halen. I probably did somewhere. You know what, my wife Sue and I, we just celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary in February. That might have something to do with it, because every guy in Van Halen is divorced—a couple of them a couple of times. So, of course, that’s going to tax their account a little bit.

Some people out there say Chickenfoot is in it just for the money, but you guys don’t really need the money. Sammy made something like 80 million dollars selling a share of his tequila business.
Anthony: And that was just selling the first 80 percent. Once he sold the last 20 percent, I’m sure he made a good penny on that, too. The best part about Chickenfoot is that nobody needs the money. We’ve got nothing we need to prove to anybody. We wanted this to be a fun band and when we get in the studio it’s just so loose, relaxed, and open. It’s like the early days of Van Halen. Everybody’s just throwing in their input and having a great time making music. We don’t want any pressure and we said if any came up, we should just stop doing this.

Michael, if the situation presented itself, would you rejoin Van Halen?
Anthony: At this point in my life and career, I’m so happy with what I’m doing and I want to have fun making music. I don’t want any drama. That whole drama thing in Van Halen, the way it ended up, I was like, “I’d rather make no money having fun playing music than make a shitload of money tearing my hair out.” Maybe when I was 20 it would have been different, but not at this point. I want to keep my sanity.