Sammy Hagar of Chickenfoot
Rock heavyweights Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony, Joe Satriani and Chad Smith released their debut album under their quirky moniker Chickenfoot in early June. Debuting at #4 the album is already a success but don’t label these guys a “super group” because they’ll prove you wrong.
Super groups, notorious for being put together in a boardroom and never lasting longer than an album are usually fueled by the industry. According to Hagar, Chickenfoot is fueled by the foursome’s passion for what they do.
The band took a very organic approach to pulling it all together and weren’t even sure how far they would pursue things, they were just having fun and enjoyed playing together. Before they knew it, they were a bonafide band and recording their debut album.
The Red Rocker himself took some time to talk to us about Chickenfoot, the dynamic of the four of them together and how it all fell into place.
Interviewed by: Mary Ouellette | August 2009
So I think one of the things people are surprised to see is how you were able to take your four larger than life personalities and mold them to create a band that has an identity all of its own. Did you have to work on that or did it just come naturally?
There was a little work to it I would say because I was so use to being a leader in a band and Joe was use to being a leader in a band so I think for mainly he and I it was a little work. First of all the chemistry has to work, and for us it does so we didn’t have to work at that but what I had to do was I had to stop myself from knee jerking all of the time and being the guy who as soon as there was a question, to answer it or as soon as there was a problem, to solve it. Instead I’d just sit back and let everyone kick in and we’d all discuss it and then it would be a unanimous decision based on everyone’s input. It was real easy to let go of the leadership reins, both Joe and I talked about that and we’re so happy to let it go. We’re tired of being the boss, let someone else do it. And in a funny way the guy that’s taken over a lot of the decision making and comes up with a lot of the ideas is Chad Smith. He’s becoming outspoken in this band. So we kind of turned the whole thing upside down and in a funny way it’s so much more exciting that way. It’s become so much more fun to run with Chad’s ideas or Mike’s ideas who haven’t had a lot of a voice in the past, so it was easy.
And like I said, if the chemistry wasn’t right in the first place – chemistry is just one of those things, you don’t know what you’ve got until you get in the same room for about a month and you realize you either don’t like each other or this is cool and we were lucky that we had the chemistry and the ability to allow each other to make those decisions. If you’ve got bad chemistry when that other guy makes a decision you start back stepping and it’s just a matter of time before it’s not going to work anymore.
You’ve said there’s a distinction between super group and band and that Chickenfoot is the latter, can you explain?
That’s exactly right, we’re a band. A super group can have chemistry but usually a band’s concern is for the band, it really is. The reason we don’t like the term “super group” is because usually that is someone that a record company, some management and some attorneys have decided to put together and to pick and choose the players because they think they’ll be huge, but it doesn’t always work. This band is like a garage band, a bunch of guys that knew each other and called each other and said “hey let’s get together and play” and everything else just followed. We weren’t trying to be a “super group”; we’re just a band that started from the bottom up. And that’s part of the reason that we did the nine city club tour that we just finished up, we did it before the album even came out, the tickets sold out in about four minutes. They weren’t giant places but there were thousands of fans that came out.
Yeah, I actually made it to the Boston show and the vibe was amazing.
Yeah! So we did that to start at the bottom. We weren’t just going to jump into an arena with our new songs and not know each other and not know who’s going to show up. We wanted to go find ourselves on the smaller stages like every band starting out would. I really think we did the right thing because by the time we hit Boston we were on fire.
Absolutely, I don’t think that place is ever going to be the same!
We probably won’t be either!
You’ve said that the recording experience for you was the most fun you’ve ever had recording because there was no agenda, no label, no pressure, can you talk to us a little bit about that because I would think there would be some pressure going into it considering the expectations?
No, we didn’t take it that way. I felt so much pressure when I went into the studio for the first time in my life in 1972 with Montrose. I was so pressured because I had never been in a studio, I had never sung into a microphone with headphones on to a track and recording something that the whole world would hear – that was pressure. Then, as a solo artist after that, I had a little freedom and felt a little more at ease. Then I joined Van Halen and came into a band that was already established and I felt huge pressure again. After I left Van Halen, I didn’t feel much pressure. I was over the pressure by the time I finished with my little ten year stint with The Wabos, so by the time this band came around, at this stage of my life and as much success that I’ve experienced, the fame and fortune has already come ten times over so there’s no reason to stress here. I thought, you are who you are, you have what you have to offer and that’s all you’ve got, so don’t stress. So the four of us came into this with no record company, thank God because they would have been stressing us out telling us what people expect and telling us about the money they have invested and the hits they need, you get all that crap going and man you don’t need that. So we intentionally did it the other way around. We wanted to go and make the music we wanted to make and see who wanted it. And ironically, we got turned down by three or four major labels. They didn’t even know how much money we wanted, we didn’t even get that far, they just thought ‘these guys won’t last, they’ll do one album and break up’, they all had pre-conceived notions about us. And thank God for that because they would have ruined us, or at least tried to. So, long story short, when we found the label that wanted to do this the way we wanted to do it and we came in on the charts at number four, we have big smiles on our faces. We did something right. Some big labels that we had all been on before too had turned us down, they weren’t even interested in hearing the music – they just had preconceived ideas that we’d be some superstar group that would take money from them and then never go out and do it again but they were so wrong.
You played live on the record which seems to be a bit of a lost art in this day and age. What are the advantages to that approach?
Well if you’re good players you feed off of each other. And if you have good chemistry, which we do, then you feed off of each other. If we had just done it one instrument at a time we would have had nothing to play off of, nothing to feed off of, it would have been just a sterile drum track and then you put a sterile bass track on top of that and then you put a couple of sterile guitars on there and then a sterile vocal. The guy that would have the best shot at it would be the vocalist who when everything is finished he at least is singing to a band but we didn’t want to do it that way. That’s usually for bands that really can’t play that well or use a lot of gimmicks in the studio and cut pieces up and make the track out of nothing. We knew from the beginning that we played well together and every time we’d play a song, for example “Sexy Little Thing” it was a little different so we thought, this is outta sight. So when we started playing together on every track we’d go in and listen and then we’d all decide which take we liked the best and then we’d put it away and move on to the next song. We just knew we had the magic. When you start building a track from the bottom up you don’t know if you have the magic until it’s done and it can be a bummer if you finish it and then are like “geez, that aint it, I was hoping it would be better” but we knew we had it before we moved on to the next.
When the band was starting to fall into place and you needed a guitar player, you immediately thought of Joe Satriani. He seems to be the most reserved of the four of you, what does he bring to the band other than being a true guitar hero?
He does bring a mellow personality. Chad and I are crazy, we’re on fire and frantic. We’re just always doing crazy stuff and Joe is always the serious guy who always keeps an eye on things while we’re screwing around sometimes and maybe overlook something. When the music is playing back in the room and Chad and I are screaming and yelling and jumping over couches, Joe is sitting there really concentrating. We’ll say “hey that one was great” and Joe will be the first to say “no no no, wait wait wait, this part here…” and we’ll all be like “oh yeah, he’s right”. He’s really the intellectual of the band and its awesome because he’s really musical and quite honestly the music all sprung from him, he’s our spring. We say Joe, come up with an idea tomorrow and that’s the way it works. Joe will come in with the guitar and say okay here’s are some chord changes and a riff and Chad will start playing a beat and I’ll sing to it and once I’ve got my melody down to what Joe’s original chord changes are then I go write lyrics. I have to figure out what I want the song to be about and that to me is the hardest part of the whole songwriting process. Everyone in this band is so capable of playing everything and anything but to figure out what you want to sing about in a song is the only thing that takes extra thought. I have to take it home, maybe go down to Cabo for a weekend, get away from everything, and let my mind go clear and get some new inspiration and go “ooh, this song is about Mexico, or this song is about…a single mom..like “My Kinda Girl.” So that was probably the only thought process through the whole thing. Everything else was Joe bringing in some music and us jamming until we wrote a song, so that’s what Joe really brings. Even if he had no personality or if he had a crazy personality what he really brings artistically is he brings us the music, the inspiration for the music and we all run with it.
Let’s dig into the songs a little bit. You’ve called “Learning to Fall” the best love song you’ve ever written in your life. Chad said that he thought your vocals were the best on this song and Michael also calls it a favorite, can you tell us a bit about it?
I love the song and Joe played me some music the first day we got together and that was one of them. I thought “Ooh that’s good, that’s a ballad, that’s special.” I didn’t go to work on it right away but I kept it. It was kind of the oddball song of the whole album. While we were recording, “Learning to Fall” was kind of like ehhh I don’t know, let’s not work on that one today, we don’t want to put a power ballad on this record and it was always kind of the odd man out. Then the day we finally decided to do it in the studio, Joe had this idea that it should be big productions and synthesizers and strings and I thought no no no let’s just make it a real raw song and Chad agreed so Joe said okay let’s try that approach and I’ll just try the solo live. So we played it and it was so awesome and I saved the vocal that day. It was so soulful and it gave us all goose bumps. It transcended any situation, it made you feel like it was four in the morning and it made you have these kinds of emotions and every time we played it we felt the same way and everyone we played it for agreed so we decided it had to go on the record. It’s become one of our favorite songs. All of our wives love it and it’s just special. It’s almost dated, you could almost say, man this is an 80s power ballad but it’s not, it transcends that because it’s so honest. I think the lyric “Once as a child in my mother’s eyes” is maybe one of the best lines Ive ever come up with, it’s saying I love you more than anything and that I would die for you in a much more sensitive unique way and I think that’s the line that brings it home for me.
Satch had some misgivings about “My Kinda Girl” in the beginning but in reading all of the reviews thus far, it’s been pegged as a favorite on pretty much everyone. Why was he so hesitant about this song?
You’ll never believe this, this is so oddball that you’re going to think is Joe really that anal? Yes he is! Joe was in the studio finishing some guitar parts and I was in another studio doing the vocals on that song with Mikey. Joe really had no idea what I was going to sing yet because we wrote that song in the studio and put it together as a band without really knowing what I was going to sing and I was very hoarse because I had been singing ten days in a row so I really couldn’t express how I was going to sing the song. So no one had really heard me sing it yet and that’s one of the ones that I didn’t record the vocals live on. So I went over to my studio and worked on it all day and I knew it was great. Mike and I went over the moon with the chorus, if you had heard it, it sounded like Crosby Stills and Nash, it was big four part harmonies and I got so excited and the engineer was excited and Mike was excited and I said, let’s call up Joe and play it for him over the phone because this is beyond a hit. This might be the biggest hit any one of us has ever had. So I played it for him and he said “Oh I don’t know, it sounds too commercial” and I said “Joe, first of all, there’s no such thing. It sounds like a hit right?” He said “Yeah but almost too much.” So I said, nope, no such thing. Joe’s been an instrumentalist all of his life so he’s never had a hit really except for the one he wrote for Coldplay, hahaha. So he was nervous, he thought it was too pop for us so we went back in, we roughed it up, took some of the layers out. We put the vocals deeper into the track so it wasn’t so out front with these big four part harmonies like The Beach Boys and we rocked it up and toned it down but after that he still had some apprehension because it was singing about a girl and he just though Oh man, the women are going to be mad. And I said, Joe, you don’t get it, women are going to love this song, it’s an ode to a single mom and it’s a big deal. My kids in school, half of their parents are divorced. Probably 35 percent of the kids in this country have a single mom or a single dad and they deserve a little credit for the workload, that’s pretty tough cake to have a job and raise a kid so I thought it was a nice tribute to them. Joe finally came around and again our wives and friends and radio guys like it. That’s how serious Joe is, he thought people would feel like we were copping out but I said, this is not a cop out, this is as sincere as hell, this is as sincere as “Learning to Fall.”
You’ve been friends with Michael for a long time, a lot of people feel like he’s been very underrated through the years, what are your thoughts?
He’s been underrated because playing bass with Eddie Van Halen it’s like…when I played guitar in Van Halen no one even rated me. Eddie’s this great guitar player and that makes it difficult for another guy playing on an instrument with four strings very limited compared to someone playing with six strings and a whammy bar and so he never got credit. Jack Bruce never got that much credit when he played with Eric Clapton in Cream and anybody that ever played with Joe Satriani. You never hear about Joe Satriani’s bass player, that’s the last thing you’re going to hear about so Mike was always shadowed like that. He is probably the best rock and roll bassist today in my opinion. There’s him and there’s Flea and a couple of others and he’s a great vocalist too. I think in this band we’ve exploited the two part harmonies that he and I have always had and are able to bring them to the front. Mike is the most valuable player, MVP, in any rock band he’ll ever be in. He’s one of the all time great guys, the first guy there, he’s always sober except for after the show, remembers his parts, carries the flag so high, he’s the banner boy for whatever he’s doing, he’s the greatest and he’s just never got his due credit. He’s getting it now because I don’t think I would be in this band without him. I mean, with all the guys, the chemistry is so right but Mike came with me, there was never any question that if I was going to be in another band Mike was going to be the bass player.
You guys hit the road for a handful of shows playing smaller places to get your live groove on. We saw you in Boston and I couldn’t help but think that that had to be the smallest stage that any of you have been in a good decade or so, what was it like getting back to those smaller more intimate type clubs?
Well it was out of sight and it was so the right thing to do for this band because we kind of proved that we humbled ourselves and started at the bottom like any new band would do and work our way up. We could have waited for the record to come out and wait for it to go top five and went out and played arenas but that would have been such a pompous superstar thing to do and we really wanted to play that down from the name all the way down. It was so rewarding to go play those club shows and it made us so confident that now we can go to Europe and jump on those big festival stages and know that we have our shit together and that we earned it. I really believe that when this band becomes an arena act, we will have worked our way to that and have earned it. I loved playing those small places, it was so rewarding, I was probably the most comfortable because my Cabo Wabo place is about that big, maybe a little big bigger but not much and I play there all the time because I love it. You get to get down and dirty and you don’t feel like you have to reach those people in the back of the arena, you can focus on the people right there in your face and get personal with them and it really matters. We enjoyed it, we really loved it. If we could make a living doing that we totally would, but you really can’t. We lost so much money doing that but it was worth the investment, we invested in ourselves and said lets go get our shit together and figured we’d rather play to fans rather than in an empty rehearsal hall. We’re going to be a better band in the end for it.
You can check out this interview in print in the latest issue of ROCKNATION: