Chickenfoot bassist Michael Anthony has never been busier – or happier. With Chickenfoot III’s September 27 release date only days away, the band announced the 2011 Road Test Tour- a five city blitz in support of the album. Between press and rehearsals, the rhythmic icon is officially up to his ass in alligators- and savoring every minute of it. Having spent upwards of thirty years in Van Halen, ending with a less-than-amicable departure, Anthony found a new longterm lease on life when he began jamming with former band mate and good friend Sammy Hagar. They struck gold with Chickenfoot’s 2009 debut, and the forecast for their new album is even better.
Joe Daly: The advance reviews for Chickenfoot III have been wildly positive, to say the least. I know that Sammy said that it’s the best record that he’s ever been a part of. What has it been like for you?
Michael Anthony: You know what? I’d have to agree with Sammy. Every now and then you hit on something. I mean, the chemistry in this band, right off the bat, is something that I experienced early on in Van Halen and then again when Sammy joined Van Halen. Once an album’s over, you don’t think it’s gonna happen again, and with Chickenfoot, it was kind of like “Oh my God…” We just got together as four friends and said “Man, this is great. Let’s just hang out and play some music.” Who would have known it was going to turn out into one album and tour much less? I’ve gotta say that from all aspects of this album, it’s one of the best things that I’ve been involved with. And that I can proudly say I’ve been involved with.
You’ve been involved in so many different projects over the years, what is it about this album that’s so special?
I love the music. Sammy and I really wanted to explore the vocals and the background vocals a lot more on this record. I remember sitting next to Sammy in the control room and we were listening to some of the basic tracks and just going, “Oh my God- we can do a background here, we can do some ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ here there…” And Sammy was just singing stuff off the top of his head. The music that was coming out really lent itself to do some great stuff vocally. I think this is some of the best vocal work that Sammy’s ever done. And the lyrical content, no matter what anybody’s said about Hagar’s vocals in the past, I mean, he’s got some damn good vocals on this record. I really like it.
I know that Joe Satriani said that he challenged Sammy to take it up a notch. Did you see that happening? How does that come across in the songs?
You know, musically Chad, Joe and myself were on fire. We went in and started tracking the first eight songs. We recorded two basic tracks a day for the first four days. We were like “boom, boom, boom, boom!” I think that it was a little bit of a challenge for Sammy because there were a lot of ideas coming at him at once and he was like, “Whoa! slow down, guys, slow down!” Obviously he didn’t want to spread himself too thin thinking about too much, and there were some songs that were probably a little tougher for Sammy, where he had to sit back and sort some stuff out. One of the songs, “Different Devil,” Sammy really had no idea what he wanted to do, and Chad actually ended up coming up with this little thing in the chorus. He put on a guitar and he started singing “and I know, baaa, and I know, baaa…” and Sammy couldn’t get that out of his head. Then he goes down to Cabo and gets inspired by talking to people that he knows down there, and next thing I know, he’s calling me on the phone and saying, “Oh, Mike, I got the best idea for this song!” So we went in and re-cut the track, and for me, I think it’s one of the better tracks on the record. It was a bit more challenging for Sammy than the rest of us because musically, there were a lot of ideas coming out, and Sammy’s trying to keep up and put his 110% in, too.
I’m glad you mention “Different Devil”because that’s a song that suggests a depth to the album, beyond it’s many stadium-shakers. What do you think is the biggest difference between the first and second album that a listener might notice?
You know, people will hear everybody being more comfortable with each other now, because we spent a lot of time together in the studio for the first record, and we toured a lot and spent time being a band. With the first record there was a little more of a jam vibe to it. I don’t want to say that the whole record was like that, but there was more of that going on on the first record, where things were really put together from scratch in the studio. Everybody had a lot more ideas to put into this thing and I think that we really found the Chickenfoot sound. We found our niche on this record.
Although Sammy might say… look, you are a supergroup. I know that Sammy…
I know that Sammy’s reluctant to use that term…
I laugh every time someone says that. You can be a supergroup without having good songs. I’ve seen plenty of times where you get great guys playing together without the chemistry and the magic, and if the shit ain’t happening then the songs aren’t gonna really be there. You can hear four players playing their asses off, but that’s all you hear. And with this band, it was really more than that. We didn’t say, “Let’s do this- we’ll do an album, and then we’ll get all the publicity that we can, and play some arenas and make a bunch of cash, shake hands, and go home,” you know? We knew that this was gonna be more than that.
You hit on something there- a lot of supergroups, like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and others had troubles compromising creatively. How did you guys deal with that. Or did you deal with that?
When we got together, we didn’t wanna put any pressure on ourselves, and thank God there are no egos floating around in this band. And that’s one of the biggest things that dictates, like you were saying there. There’s nobody coming in and saying, “These are the songs, and blah, blah, blah…” Joe and Sammy are pretty much the chief songwriters in the band. They come up with ideas and everybody is in on the arrangements. Joe didn’t ask me one time on this album, “Hey, why don’t you play this or play that?” Everybody was totally allowed to put in whatever they wanted to put in. And that really works with this band.
What was your role in the songwriting process?
Well, obviously I do a lot when it comes to the harmonies, so I do a lot of suggestions there. And for bass, Joe left it wide open for me to come in and do parts that I wanted to do. And a lot of that, I worked on with Chad. Rhythmically, we wanted to have a really cool-foundation going on behind what Joe’s doing. It was kind of a trip at times, like with songs like “Come Closer,” Joe’s playing his thing and Chad and I are like, “Hmmm… we’ve gotta find a cool little groove to go with this.” It was a little bit different straight ahead rock and roll-type stuff. Joe comes with a basic idea that he’ll demo to us and everybody, because of our schedules, we’re all doing stuff over the internet or on the phone, and then everybody just goes off and does their homework and takes material that we’re gonna possibly work on. By the time we get to the studio, everybody’s got a pretty good idea of what we’re doing and what they’re gonna put in, and boy, that’s really where the magic happens. That’s where the chemistry really kicks in.
Did you find any challenges in playing between Chad and Joe, stylistically?
Yeah, just keeping my jaw from hitting the ground while I’m standing between these two awesome players. I’ve been blessed to play with some great musicians, and being in the studio with these guys is totally inspiring. The way Chad plays, he’s pretty unorthodox in what he brings to this band, you know? He’s not just your four-on-the-floor, typical rock drummer, and that’s great because it really challenges me to do some different stuff. Like a lot of the stuff in Van Halen was a lot of “poppoppoppop..,” popping, sixteenth note kind of deals. Here I can actually play some notes and step out a little bit.
Then you’ve got Joe. I mean, obviously, what the hell can you say about Joe? The only kind of music I haven’t heard him play is reggae. That guy walks into a studio and he can play anything. And it’s great because he’s an innovator in his own right. Joe comes into the studio and he really knows all the theory behind the stuff that he plays, so it’s cool to just listen to Joe when he has an idea.
Speaking of Eddie Van Halen, for you, what’s the biggest difference between playing with Joe and Eddie?
(pauses) You know, I don’t know. I really can’t. Playing with both guys, I really just try to lock in with the drummer. Because here are two guys who can really go into outer space with what they play, and if it what’s happening behind them isn’t solid… Cream was the only band that I know of that could do something that almost sounded like three guys playing three different songs and then be able to dive right back in where they’re supposed to come in and be playing the same thing again. You don’t want everything to get disjointed when the solo comes up. They’re different players, obviously, but they’re both on that same level, so I treat it all the same.
You wrote the forward for Sammy’s bio (Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock).
I had never been asked to do anything like that in my life and I said, “You know, Sammy, I’m just gonna talk from the heart, and I’m gonna just throw something down and not try to embellish anything.” And his co-writer on that book, Joel Selvin, was trying to… obviously, people are going to try to get you to spew out some dirt and stuff like that, and I had him re-write it about three or four times. I said, “No, I’m not gonna say that kind of shit, I’m not gonna talk about that, I’m not that kind of guy. I’m not gonna dis our fans. You write it like I want it to be written.”
Everyone used to call me “Mr. Switzerland.” I’m not the kind of guy who smack talks anybody or whatever. Whenever I do an interview and people ask me Van Halen questions, I say “You know what, if you want the smack talking, ask one of the other guys. They might be ready to talk all the shit.” I always want harmony within the band. I want it to work. I want everyone to get together great musically and socially, and personality-wise, because that’s when the shit is happening.
There was a long time in Van Halen when Roth was in the band, and we had that camaraderie. And when Sammy was in the band, there was a time when we called ourselves the “four headed monster” ’cause it was like, “Nobody’s gonna stop this band.” That’s the way I like to see it run. When you see something start slipping… that kind of shit really bums me out.
Yeah! Today is going to be only our third day of rehearsals with Kenny (Aronoff, who will be filling in on tour for Chad Smith who will be on the road with the Red Hot Chili Peppers) playing drums. Chad is off with the Chili Peppers right now, and so he recommended Kenny and and Kenny’s really clicking great, so we’ve been playing the whole new album. We haven’t put the set totally together yet, but we can play this whole album live. I’m excited for people to hear the album first, but then I’m just as excited to go out there on the road and play it for the fans.
Typically we end our interviews with five quick Either/Or comments. I’ll give you a choice and you simply say which one you prefer and why, if you’d like. Sound fair?
Either/ors, huh? OK, we’ll let’s see what kind of either/ors you’ve got.
Guitar solos or drum solos?
Guitar solos. No, I hate guitar solos, drum solos and bass solos at this point, but if I gotta pick between the two, I’ll say guitar solos.
Beatles or Stones?
Beatles. Paul McCartney is one of my favorite rock bass players.
David Lee Roth or Axl Rose?
(laughs) You know what? David Lee Roth. David Lee Roth has turned out to be the same guy he was in the band, believe it or not. I’d pick Dave.
Big stadium or small club?
Small club. Love the big stadiums but there’s nothing like sweating it up in a small club, with your fans right in your face.
Last one. Chickenfoot III or Van Halen II?
Mmm… you know, I was wondering when that one was going to come up. I’ll say Chickenfoot III. I’ve gotta say that this is probably one of, if not the best thing that I’ve ever been involved with. I love this album.
Thanks a bunch for taking the time to talk to us.
Thanks a lot, man. Good talking to you and yeah, hopefully people can get on out there and catch us on tour. Man, it’s gonna be a good time and we’re really fired up for it.