Chickenfoot : Interview with Sammy Hagar

Chickenfoot are presently undertaking a short jaunt round Europe to promote their really quite brilliant Chickenfoot III album. When an invitation to go and interview Sammy Hagar before their Manchester Academy show arrived on the afternoon of the gig it sounded like a wind up,

But it wasn’t. Cue something approaching panic…

But, you know, I shouldn’t have worried. Lucky he didn’t get put off by the dead obvious opening gambit….

Well, I suppose the first question is… Chickenfoot, Why Chickenfoot, where did that come form?

*Sammy shows a tattoo on his arm*

I had this tattoo when I was 15 years old. I was knocking on a guys door, he was boarding up a nightclub and I was driving past on my way to rehearsal with my band, I had a Bass player and I had a drummer. I saw the guy and I said “hey, can we play here? Don’t put the boards up, we’ll play for free” and he went “What’s the name of your band ?” and I looked down at my arm and said “Chickenfoot” And by the time he let us do it that band became The Justice Brothers, then Manhole and Skinny, and all these different names but that was the first name, and the reason this band is called Chickenfoot is that I always thought that was funny, that I made it up at the last minute.

We were in Cobo, Chad Smith and myself and Michael Anthony at my birthday bash and we went up on stage and we played, and the next night we said “hey, let’s play again” and I said “we got to call ourselves something”, and I said Chickenfoot again and it fucking stuck. I don’t even get it myself. There’s no reason, there’s no method. It’s not like you could say “well, it’s funky, or it’s kinda like we’re an earthy band, or we’re this or we’re that. it’s none of that. It’s just a silly name that we started calling ourselves and once we called ourselves that then people made up all kinds of stories… but it has no meaning.

Photo By Neil Zlozower
Photo By Neil Zlozower

 

That answers the question of how you got together, but how did you get Mr. Satriani involved?

Well once Chad and Mike and I had played for 5 years in a row at my birthday bash in Mexico, and other times of the year, we said let’s make a record. I said not unless we get a great guitar player, it’s too much for me to be a guitar player and a singer in a trio. It’s good for jamming but it’s not good for really being a great band. I don’t consider myself a Jimi Hendrix kind of guy. I can do one or the other, I can sing good or I can play good, but I’m mediocre doing them both.

Well you’ve got a guy who can play pretty good though?

Yeah, well I always have another guitar player on my solo stuff, I never do it alone so Chad said “Well, who do you want to get?” and I said “Joe Satriani is my favourite guitar player” so we gave him a call and he did it, which is crazy because Joe has had his solo career forever. I think it was just that in his heart he was really ready for a change. And I was too, I was kinda missing Van Halen, I was kinda missing the super musicians, you know what I mean ? So that’s kinda it, I think all of use were really ready.

The band is labelled a side project, but it’s not really a side project is it? You guys are all focused on this just now while you’re doing it, then you go off and do other stuff?

There’s no side project. At our age and our success and experience that we’ve had it’s hard to just say “Oh, we’re just going to do this”, so we do whatever we want”, we’re not like kids just getting together.

When I was in Van Halen for example I wasn’t allowed to do solo records, it was like “Oh man, you can’t do this, you can’t do that”. It was like “what the fuck are you guys thinking?”, you know. I mean I didn’t mind too much but after about 10 years I started minding as I had a catalogue of about 70 songs I had written that weren’t getting used. We don’t have those restrictions on each  other, Joe can go do a solo album or a solo tour tomorrow morning.

But when we do Chickenfoot we’re all very committed. It’s unfortunate what happened with Chad. It’s just crazy that the Chilis took so long cos we were supposed to be come and gone twice before they got their record done.

So how does having Kenny in instead of Chad work, does that change the band at all ?

Oh, it changes the band, he’s fucking great but he’s just different to Chad. I’ve noticed, being in bands my whole life, that if you change one member things change, sometimes for the better, sometimes worse and sometimes just laterally, and I think Kenny is a lateral move from Chad. Kenny is more solid, Chad doesn’t do anything not great, every thing he does is great but he also jams and ad-libs a lot more so sometimes the songs aren’t played as well as the record. Not because he’s making mistakes, just because he’s so fucking loose.

Kenny’s right in the pocket so we’re playing the songs really good, you know what I mean. It’s like one side or the other. Since Kenny has been in the band Mike and I, our vocals are so good, I feel like I have to sing the songs better. Before I could jam and yell and scream and scat because we were more like a jam band. This band jams but the songs are being played really well.

Photo by Jon Hill

You’re labelled a Supergroup, but you sound more like a band than individuals who get in your separate jets and go your separate ways after the gig, it’s a really good vibe, like you’ve been together for ages?

Yeah, I agree 100%. I don’t care if someone calls us a Supergroup, it’s flattering you know? I guess we are but it’s not our intention, it wasn’t put together in a business fashion. It wasn’t put together for any other reason except we wanted to play together, and the reason we sound like a band is that we are a band. There is no leader, under certain circumstances Joe’s the leader, under certain circumstances I’m the leader. Whoever is best at getting a particular thing done becomes the leader until it’s done, then there is no leader again.

When we were trying to find a drummer that was one of the biggest problems, Most of the drummers who are on our level, they’re rock stars you might say, and we don’t like trying to be rock stars. We are rock stars because it’s what we do but we don’t play that role, we don’t live like them the three of us. Chad was like that too and he fit in ‘cos you can’t have a guy who’s “I got to have my own jet, and I need my bodyguards, and I need this and I need that”. So that’s part of the reason why we’re not like a supergroup is that the guys who were available as drummers were fucking rock stars. A lot of them were good enough to do it but they weren’t the right type of human. We’re very humane amongst each other and we don’t have any problems.

When you are putting an album together how do you do it ? Do you get together and lock yourselves in the studio and do it? These days people can record albums without ever meeting.

Every song is played live with the 4 of us together and we took the take that is best between all of us and anyone who has to fix their part fixed it, then we overdubbed from there. We overdubbed to a live recording every time. That’s the way we did both albums.

Joe and I got together first and wrote most of the songs, we’d come up with some guitar stuff, really cool stuff and send it to everyone then I’d say I like this one, I like this one then I’d finish the songs and then we’d get together with everyone else and we’d record them.

So recording that way explains the live vibe that the albums have ?

Fuck yeah man. The song Three And A Half Letter is live, no overdubs, zero. That’s the take that we kept, that was about take 4 or 5 and we sang it about 7 times, and I completely lost my voice screaming, and we went back and that was the one.

What do you make of the reception the new album has had so far?

I think that considering we’re old guys, old rich successful guys, that people could really ream us for it and they haven’t. I thought we’d been treated very kindly by the press and believe me I’m sitting here saying Amen, because Van Halen, we got reamed by the press cos we were so big, and then I was replacing Dave.

It’s like there’s always some reason, and the fans too, they’re just like press as they can go on the internet and snipe you, say whatever they want behind your back and with a fake name.

We’ve put ourselves in a very vulnerable position by doing what we do and being so bullheaded about it, being like “We don’t give a fuck, we’ll release this song cos we like this song, we’ll make this video cos we like this video, we’re going to put it out on an independent label cos we don’t like the big labels”. We’re assholes, you know what I mean? We’re only going to play 12 shows this year. You could criticise us really easily so I think we’ve been treated very fairly.

Does it matter what the press say ? Guys like you and Joe, you’re always going to fill a place like this, because of bands you’ve been in in the past, because of what Joe has done in the past you’re going to sell out venues?

Yeah, we do really good business and we’ve been gold in every country, we’ve gone top 10 in every country with this record it seems like. That’s honourable and it’s great, but that was never our purpose and we have such attitude about it and we wont do anything to make it our purpose. I’m a nice guy but I’m really busy and I have a family and they come first, and I have other businesses and I have a charitable organisation where I help kids, and I’m just really busy you know. I said “I can’t do any interviews” when the record came out and my record company and my management were all “are you fucking crazy?”  and I said I just don’t have the time. You give me the most important ones and I’ll do them.

Now that we’re out working I’m committed and I have all the time in the world but when I’m at home in between projects I have to say “I’m busy, I’ve got meetings”, I’ve got to find time to do as many things as I can. We’re really that strong about it, the whole thing.  Completely committed to the music, completely committed to the band, completely committed to the fans. I’d play for free, I don’t care about that, I’m certainly not doing this for the money.

Photo by Sakura (http://rockphotographer.net)

So you’re still enjoying it as much as you ever were then ?

Oh I fucking love this band, this is my favourite band. I love this band more than I ever loved Van Halen. When I first joined Van Halen all I did was try to make what I do work in that band, and I think we did a great job, don’t get me wrong. I’m not condemning anything we did, except break up, I’ll condemn that. But this band, it’s not like I have to do any of that because we started from scratch. Joining a band is tough. Montrose was easy because we started from scratch too but it went south so fast, we did one record then by the next record we were done.

This band is really special to me, because we’re still fucking great.

There’s a question I had.. when I got the email from the PR company they said “only one question about Van Halen”…

No, you can talk about Van Halen all you want. I had some of the greatest times of my life you know, it just ended really bad, and as you can see it’s still bad.

OK, what do you think of them getting back together? I’ve got a question here which was not intended to be about them specifically, but big bands who get back together, are they doing it for the music or are they doing it for the money?

Well, I’m not going to speculate why anyone does anything, but I’ll tell you what, they waited so long and they’re so not fan friendly, and as big as Van Halen was in the past…

That’s what we used to argue about when I was in the band, I got thrown out because I didn’t want to do a Greatest Hits record. I said “Why the fuck, we’re the biggest band in the world, every album we’ve done since I’ve been in the band has been at number 1, we’ve sold out every arena on the planet, now why would you want to sell them the same old record again and give them two new tracks? Why do you want to do that to the fans?” And we got into it. They wanted to do it at that time for the money, a new manager came in and he thought we could make a whole bunch of money for doing nothing, and I’m going “We’ve got a whole bunch of money, so why are we doing this?” you know. We really didn’t need to do it and it really caused problems in the band

Why they’re doing it now I have no idea, but I think it’s about time. I personally don’t think that what they have just released, what I have seen and heard, is great at all. It should be better than it is but hey, it is what it is and at least they got together and at least they came out with something, that’s all I can say, you know. God bless them but I was expecting a lot more.

Photo by Jon Hill

You’ve been lucky that you always work with brilliant guitarists. I don’t mean to compare them technically, but what’s it like working with Joe compared to working with Eddie ?

Joe is so organised and Eddie is not. Eddie is a genius guitar player and he can really play and he’s got a million things he can lay on you but you’ve got to try to make a song out of it. Joe comes with the song, done, all I have to do is write lyrics and figure out what I’m going to sing to it. It’s really.. it’s awesome. Joe and I could write great songs for a long time. It was a struggle working with Eddie. It was always hard because he’s so busy and he’s so unorthodox with his playing and his chord changes and his noodling you know, he just noodles all the time and there’s no room to sing.

If you want my honest opinion Eddie should be the instrumentalist and Joe should always have a singer because Joe’s the best musician, the music is so organised, it’s a dream come true for a singer, you know, you write that music, I can sing to that, and I could write great lyrics, and I could do it like *that*, it’s not work. Eddie should be an instrumentalist, more than Joe

Right, almost time to wrap it up. So what’s next then ? What’s next for Chickenfoot, what’s next for Sammy Hagar ?

Well, I’m just happy to be healthy over here. Last time I was over here I had, like, walking pneumonia on the last European tour and I couldn’t sing one show. Even Shepherds Bush which was a brilliant show but take my vocals by themselves and it sounds like a guy who was washed up. I was shot the whole tour but I did it as we were committed and I just felt that if we had cancelled our first tour we’d really look stupid, so I just did it and we powered through it and it was all good. I’m just so happy to be over here singing again, and once we finish this up we’re going to go home but we want to come back and do festivals this summer in Europe. That’s why we’re not playing too much, we just came over to support the record and show everyone that we have a new drummer and we can do it and that we’re still great and then come back and do some festivals

And a new record ?

I really want to do another record but I think we got to wait for Chad. Chad’s the drummer in Chickenfoot and we can always get someone to sit in for him. Kenny’s always this guy, you know, when Chad has these other gigs or he’ll be asked to do a record with someone and if he can’t do it he says call Kenny.

Chad’s out drummer, so we’ll wait for him then do another Chickenfoot record. I think we’re on to something with this band and we’re just barely cracking the door on songwriting. Joe and I man, we got.. I sit and think of concepts.. Joe is the only musician I have ever worked with that wont do his guitar solo until he knows what my lyrics are. I asked him why and he said “Well i want to know what you’re singing about, and I want to play that” and I’m like “That’s like Beethoven or something, that’s like Debussy. I can’t name another guitar player, Eddie Van Halen, anyone that really cared about what the lyrics were for his solo.

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I’d like to thank Sammy Hagar for taking the time to do this interview, and Michael Anthony and Joe Satriani for chatting beforehand when I was nervously waiting. It was such a thrill talking to Chickenfoot, the  nicest, most down to earth Rock’N’Roll superstars you could ever hope to meet.

And thanks for the beer.