Chickenfoot: Putting their ‘Big Foot’ on the Gas

Super group returns with a new album full of rock and roll bravado, and a November tour.
By Peter Lindblad

That commanding voice of his, a primal scream surging with adrenaline and horsepower, has taken Sammy Hagar far in life. It got him into Van Halen, when brothers Eddie and Alex needed someone to fill David Lee Roth’s spandex. Its full-throated roar sent “I Can’t Drive 55” crashing through police barricades and barreling up the charts before settling in as a pop culture touchstone. What more could anybody ask of Hagar’s ravaged vocal chords, so beaten up by the hundreds and hundreds of shows he’s played over the years?

Joe Satriani, his Chickenfoot soul mate, thought Hagar was capable of doing so much more with it. “I related to him this experience I had a few months before we started really … or I started really writing for this record, and we were hanging out and I’d just come from another local studio, and I said, ‘Sam, they were working on a song that you sang on,’” relates Satriani. “It was Sammy and Neil Schon and Michael Walden, 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.”

Emboldened by what he’d heard, and knowing that Hagar has a soft spot for soul and R&B classics, Satriani approached Hagar with a proposition for Chickenfoot’s recently released sophomore record, the whimsically titled III. “So I was saying, ‘Sam, that was like the greatest vocal I’ve ever heard. Why aren’t we doing that?’” asked Satriani. “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.”

                But, Hagar figured that this stylistic shift was a two-way street and that Satriani was going to have to go outside of his comfort zone to help Hagar adapt to the idea. “This [record] we thought, ‘Well, what do you think, Joe? What would you like to see from me on this record?’ He said, ‘I would like to hear you sing in a way no one’s ever heard you sing before,’” remembers Hagar. “And I went, ‘Hey …’ And he goes, ‘What do you want from me?’ And I said, ‘I want you to write me a piece of music that makes me sing that way (laughs).’”

                Satriani did just that on the tender, smoky track “Come Closer.” But, first, Hagar had work to do, and he was nervous about it. “Joe said, ‘I wrote these songs … write some lyrics.’ He said, ‘What do you want to sing about?’ So I wrote ‘Come Closer,’” said Hagar. “And I gave it to Joe. I’ve never handed lyrics over to a musician and said, ‘Here, write music to these lyrics.” I wait for the musician to give me some music and I write lyrics and melody to that, and that’s been the way I’ve always done it. That’s the way we did it on Chickenfoot. So anyway, Joe comes back. He loved the lyrics. He came back with a little piano part, and it was just magic, I thought. So we transferred it to guitar and we did a demo of it, just him and I. And God, it was just f**king great. I’m just going, ‘Yeah, I’ve never really sung this R&B before.’ I’ve sung the blues, but I never quite sang like this. And the meaning, the lyrical meaning, is very personal and sensitive, and it’s not typical of Sammy Hagar – you know, yelling and screaming. I mean, I’ve written ‘Eagles Fly,’ and some nice songs, ‘Dreams,’ but nothing quite so personal about a relationship.” And that emotional connection made Hagar a little apprehensive about singing it live.

“I was afraid of that song,” admits Hagar. “As much as I wrote it, you know, those lyrics came to Joe. When he came back and the sensitivity and emotion of the music, and the openness of it, I’d walk up to the mic and go, ‘Rrrnt.’ I was f**king froze up. It took me a long time to get the courage to do a real vocal, because I was sick … when I did the demo. I had a really bad sore throat and I couldn’t sing at all, but I sang it anyway. It was kind of cool. I was kind of hoarse, and I had no range. But, it had a magic about it. It was like Teddy Pendergrass or something. You know, how his voice always sounded so raspy, and I didn’t. So then I got scared of it. I said, ‘F**k, I don’t know if I can outdo that.’”

Eventually, Hagar got over his fear, and now he croons it with confidence. Still, the trouble that Hagar experienced with “Come Closer” was emblematic of the difficulties he had penning lyrics for Chickenfoot III, a diverse, multi-faceted recording that has its moments of righteous rage (“Three and a Half Letters”), uplifting, emotional swells of pop-metal (“Different Devil”), writhing metallic-funk grooves (“Up Next”) and propulsive, accelerated rockers (“Big Foot” and “Last Temptation”) that swerve and careen like a runaway semi. 

“I really felt some pressure of the success of Chickenfoot I, because no one cared if it was going to be successful,” said Hagar. “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. I have had some No. 1s, but … 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.”

Wringing his hands and obsessing over every detail took some of the fun out of recording Chickenfoot III for Hagar. Don’t think for a second, though, that Hagar isn’t having a blast with Satriani, his former Van Halen mate Michael Anthony, and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith. For his part, Anthony found the making of Chickenfoot III thoroughly enjoyable.

“The reason why we even formed the band in the first place was because we didn’t want to have any kind of pressure,” said Anthony. “You know, everybody’s done their stuff in the past, in their respective bands and what they’ve done, so we wanted to do this purely to have fun and make music. In the beginning, even when we first went in the studio back in 2008, we had no intention of even doing an album back then. It was just so much fun getting together and jamming, we just wanted to see musically where it could take us or if anything could even come of it. And then all of a sudden, we’re working on an album, all of a sudden there’s a tour, and obviously, a second album. But we don’t want to have to feel that kind of pressure, because we just want to do it purely for the enjoyment of making music. But we are very proud of what we did. I think we have really evolved as a band, it’s more in-depth now. I think we’re finding our own niche and our own sound, and songwriting and everything else.”

While Anthony and everybody else were living the high life, Hagar was hunkered down trying to put down words that would match the intensity and drive of the music that was flowing out of the quartet in the studio. “For Sammy, I think it was a little more difficult because there were a lot of ideas coming out really quick, and when we actually got into the studio to start recording, jeez, like the first eight songs that we put down, we were like doing two basic tracks a day,” said Anthony. “I mean, we were on fire. And Sammy is going, ‘Hey, whoa, whoa. Wait a second. I’m still working on an idea for this song.’ And I think it was a little tougher for Sammy this time.”

Adding weight to Hagar’s burden was the sadness he was feeling over the passing of his longtime manager and confidante, John Carter. Closer than most managers and their clients, the Carter-Hagar bond was as strong as steel. Almost preternaturally, Carter seemed to know what was best for Hagar, and when there were calls for Hagar to go back in the studio with Chickenfoot while he was writing his book, “Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock,” Carter made sure his client didn’t spread himself thin.

“He was really just the greatest guy, and Carter wanted me to be great, and he insisted … he weeded out my bullshit, and he wasn’t always right, but most of the time, if he wasn’t right, he at least got my attention,” said Hagar. “I’ve got to tell you, he beat me up going into this record. ‘If you ain’t ready, we ain’t making a record. I don’t care,’ he goes. ‘I don’t care if it takes five years. I want you to be the best you’ve ever been.’ And I’m going, ‘F**k. Wow. That’s a big challenge.’ But he did. He postponed this record. We were supposed to do it last year. Chad had a little break. But I said, ‘Carter, I’m writing my book right now.’ And he goes, ‘No. Then forget it. I’m not going to allow you to do anything mediocre.’ He goes, ‘Until you are ready and inspired, then you’re not going in that f**king studio.’ I mean, what manager would tell you that? So, I don’t know. I love the guy. He really pushed me on this record.”

The track “Three and a Half Letters” is a perfect example of Hagar’s ambition. Inspired by Carter, with his manager’s words still ringing in his ears, Hagar took on the challenge of writing a song that would evoke the desperation and anxiety of these times, what with the troubled economy and the still-burning ember of war in Afghanistan glowing red hot. With Hagar intent on writing something with meaning for Chickenfoot listeners, he had a request for Satriani, and that was that the technically brilliant guitarist let loose and go wild. In recording “Three and a Half Letters,” everyone let out any pent-up energy they had left.

“When we finally got in the studio to do ‘Three and a Half Letters,’ by then a lot of things had happened,” said Satriani. “I mean, the record was pretty much done and we had just this one last piece of music that Sam and I had written. And our good friend, co-manager and Sam’s personal manager, John Carter, had gotten ill and passed away during the making of the record. And we were back in the studio after he had just passed doing sessions, and so all of that, together with Sam’s earlier request of letting go, was definitely something that I was feeling at that moment. And that I think allowed everybody to let go, and everybody did on that particular one. It was just a very emotionally charged afternoon in the studio.”

A spoken-word piece in which Hagar reads letters that speak of the hardships people are going through presently in America, “Three and a Half Letters” explodes out of the speakers, sending shards of disenchantment and anger flying in all directions. As impactful and surprising as “Three and a Half Letters” is, perhaps the most memorable track off Chickenfoot III is “Big Foot.” The first single – a driving song, of course – from the new LP is a stomping, hook-filled, heaving beast of a song, and for Hagar, it’s the one where all the pieces fit together almost immediately.

“That was the easiest one. That was the most fun,” said Hagar. “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 [with] ‘Big Foot’ we went in that day, Joe presented us with that riff, and I had the title ‘Big Foot’ in my head ‘cause actually Joe called it ‘Big Foot’ before I even had lyrics. 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. Here’s a Sammy cartoon. 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,’ because this is all-out Chickenfoot. This is the way we work. This is the way we roll. This is the way we did the first album. It was done in no time. And the rest of the CD didn’t come that easy.”

Hopefully, the North American road-test tour Chickenfoot embarks on in November to try out the new stuff onstage will go more smoothly for Hagar and company. However, Smith won’t be joining the rest of Chickenfoot this time around. Touring commitments to the Red Hot Chili Peppers will keep him from going out on the road with Chickenfoot this time around. In his place will be another legendary drummer, Kenny Aronoff. So far, the transition with Aronoff has been seamless, although Anthony was surprised at how Aronoff prepared for his mission.

“Actually when Kenny came in, and he’s got some … well not big shoes, because Kenny, he’s very talented in his own right, but Chad’s so unorthodox the way he plays in this band, and you know, Kenny came in like trying to play it like how Chad did, and we knew as soon as Kenny started getting comfortable with the songs, he’d just kind of make them his own,” said Anthony. “Especially, only having rehearsed a couple of days, all of a sudden it was just really clicking. He was just throwing in a lot of his own fills and making it his tune, which he should, stepping in a live situation. So I think it’s a pretty smooth transition. I think he’s going to do really well. But, you know, when he first came in – he played with us probably about a month ago now – he came up and he goes, ‘Well, yeah, I’ve been listening to these songs …’ and he pulled out … he charted them. He says that’s what does when he plays other people’s stuff, when he comes into … like with John Fogerty, who he’s been playing with recently, that he’ll chart it all out so he knows the song. And I said, ‘Okay, okay, Kenny. You look at those charts, but once you’ve got it down, you throw those charts away. You don’t need them anymore. Do your own thing, man.’ So that was a little strange right at first, but he’s slipped into it really well.”

                As did Hagar when he joined Van Halen, a time of incredible creativity for him and Eddie, Alex and Michael Anthony, when they answered the critics who doubted they’d be able to carry out without David Lee Roth. Hagar recalls the band being “on fire” in the studio during the sessions for the first Van Halen with Roth, 1986’s 5150. Eventually, Anthony and Hagar, in particular, were able to develop some amazing, signature harmonies that made Van Halen soar higher than ever. “It was pretty much an instant mesh, but I’ll say one thing, after doing backgrounds to David Lee Roth, because his vocal range is a lot lower, all of a sudden, it was like, ‘Whoa,’” said Anthony. “I mean, it really pushed me in the beginning, so I was all of a sudden singing in registers that I hadn’t really sung in before. Not that I couldn’t do it. But I never did it with Van Halen, and it was cool. And I think it really inspired me and the fact that I could sing those parts, I was really digging it. We really kind of took it to another level vocally with the backgrounds we were doing.”

                Hagar and Anthony are bringing that same intricate vocal knitting to Chickenfoot, putting more emphasis than ever before on their unique harmonies and bringing them to the forefront in a way Van Halen never did.

“Singing with him, he’s the only guy that I know that could just go above – 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,” said Hagar. “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. Like Joe goes to Mike, [scats a line] and Mike goes [scats the same line] second times he’s done it. Okay, go. I mean, he does that with my lyrics and my phrasing … you know, I’ll go, ‘No, Mike. I’m going [sings a line].’ And he’s just right with me. You know, third take. And I just want to do anything but work. Having a guy like him, to be able to learn Joe’s parts and my parts and get out of the studio to get down to the beach as quick as we can, is like a f**king dream come true. I think that pretty much sums Mike up, right? (laughs)”

With Chickenfoot III out and the band ready to hit the road, the guys are content with how this Chickenfoot project has taken off. Though it wasn’t meant to set the world on fire, in a way, it has, breathing new life into the careers of Hagar, Anthony and Satriani. The music of Chickenfoot is straight out of the ‘70s, influenced by such legends as Cream, Led Zeppelin and The Who – bands that inspired all of the members to become musicians in the first place. And the rest of the world is responding.

“I’ve met tons of people going on the Internet, fans, younger people, that don’t even necessarily know where we come from,” said Anthony. “But they hear of this band Chickenfoot and they like the music, and that’s great. It’s like, wow. It’s not like we’re not just bringing the fans that we have out; hopefully, we’re gaining some of those new fans.”

When asked what he thought the future of Chickenfoot is, Anthony joked, “We can’t even map out what we’re doing a day in advance (laughs).” Turning only slightly more serious, the affable Anthony remarked, “Well, right now the future is getting this album out and going on tour. Unfortunately, Chad can’t be with us. Chad’s still in the band. I know he has a big commitment with his other band now, and he’ll probably be out on the road for quite a while now. And so, what’ll even happen at that point, once we’ve been out on tour, I don’t know. But I mean, right now we just want to get this album out because for me, personally, it’s one of the best albums I’ve ever been involved with in my career. And I really, in my heart … I mean, I listen to this album when I’m at home, and I’m like, man … from the harmonies to the songs and the way everybody’s playing, I just can’t wait to get out on tour and play this. We are going to afford ourselves the time now, or we can, to go out and do a tour and tour as much as we can, or we want. The last time, we go to Europe, we can only play here, here and here. We’ve got to get back to the States, and the whole time, we’re kind of like crossing our fingers that Chad doesn’t have to be called back in to do anything. So we just kind of … we had to look at everyone’s schedules and this time out, I think, everybody’s schedules are going to be on the same track so that we can go out and play.”

To the men of Chickenfoot, getting together to play is what matters most. And as long as everybody is enjoying themselves, Chickenfoot could go on for many years. Or, it could end very quickly.

“I’m pretty confident that the core group – Sammy, Mike, Chad and myself – will make another couple of records,” said Satriani. “I truly believe that. I think that every time we finish a record, I think we all got the feeling like, ‘Wow, this is almost like a step to some new beginning.’ And then, of course, reality steps in and then it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s right. Chad’s in the Chili Peppers. Sam’s got a million things going on. I’ve got a solo career. And Mike’s on a permanent vacation, which he takes very seriously.’ But, we kind of just put that out of our minds, and we just move ahead, one step at a time. That’s what I think. I really do think there’s so much more music to share between the four of us, we will make more records.”

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