Stashed away in a non-descript warehouse studio somewhere in San Rafael, California, the members of Chickenfoot are hard at work on a new kind of monster. It’s mid-September, nearing the end of Phase One of their master plan, and all manner of instruments lie strewn about, still buzzing with the energy of a week’s worth of punishment suffered at the hands of the four rock icons currently milling about the place looking like a ragtag team of superheroes on their day off.
Chad Smith, dressed in white jeans and a white T-shirt and sporting his signature backwards baseball cap (rumored to be the source of all his powers), is chatting with guitar god (and probable extraterrestrial) Joe Satriani, in customary shades of black and gray. While team captain Sammy Hagar, owner of the 9,600 sq. ft. compound of which this studio is a part, roams the premises in classic beach-grunge attire, his curly sun-bleached mop and Colgate perma-grin so iconic they make the man himself seem almost surreal in person — like a life-sized action figure. His bass-wielding sidekick, former Van Halen bandmate and fellow Hall Of Famer Michael Anthony, tags along displaying his allegiance to the Hagar brand with a Cabo Wabo logo stretched across his barrel chest.
Separately, these men are rock legends. Together, they are Chickenfoot, a supergroup whose sole mission is to return rock and roll to its purest, most unapologetically ballsy form. Or at least craft an honest, unpretentious rock album and have a ton of fun doing it. Whichever comes first.
After Satriani and Anthony are finished laying down a few last-minute overdubs, everyone piles into the cramped control room off the studio to hear a rough mix of their latest effort, an original tune called “Soap On A Rope.” It’s one of just three I’m allowed to hear before an overly cautious station manager ushers me into another room. Luckily, “Soap” serves as a convenient illustration of what this band is all about, which I’ll get to in a minute.
Hunched over the mixing board is Andy Johns, the renowned L.A.-based British expat whose engineering wizardry is responsible for some of rock’s most pivotal albums, from Led Zeppelin II, III, and IV to The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. Right now, Johns is busy punching buttons, sliding faders, and adjusting knobs like some mad scientist trying to animate the assemblage of parts these guys have been sewing together from the vast bone yard of their storied pasts.
He throws the switch, and out of the monitors belch the raw sounds of a driving classic rock burner straight out of some lost ’70s archive, but with each player’s distinct personality emerging like a watermark: Smith’s powerhouse rock shuffle (teasing out, as always, some hidden funk current) locks in tightly with Anthony’s thundering bass and Satriani’s distorted power chord riff, interspersed with his trademark hyper-articulated trills that rise up to tickle the top of the note scale. Suddenly, the riffage drops out to allow Hagar’s gritty, distinctive holler — the very soul of testosterock, miraculously preserved from his Van Halen days — to fill the space with a howled declaration: “I Got money/I Got fame/Fast cars and everythaaaang!”
Not 30 feet from the control room is a door leading to a garage housing about a half dozen or so very fast, very expensive cars — a small sampling from Hagar’s collection. But the lyric could apply equally to any member of Chickenfoot, not least of all Smith, whose love of American muscle cars goes back to his Detroit upbringing and a father who worked at Ford, but whose love of American muscle music, the red-meat riff-rock that brought these four dudes together to form this band, goes deeper still.
Forget about money, fame, and fast cars. Been there. Done that. This is about rock and roll, plain and simple.
“This is new music with our influences of what we like,” Smith explains. “It’s totally legit. To me it’s totally natural. It’s not like we’re trying to do something. We’re just doing what we do. It’s just what came out of the air and what we thought felt and sounded good. That’s the best way to make music. That’s what I’ve always done — just be honest with it.”
You can trace Chickenfoot’s evolution back to Smith and Hagar’s first meeting, in 2003, down in Cabo San Lucas, the spring break mecca on the tip of Baja where they both own vacation homes. Hagar has been there since the mid-’80s, steadily building a personal empire centered around his Cabo Wabo brand, a lucrative name attached to a cantina, a band (The Waboritas), and a high-end tequila (an 80 percent share of which he sold in 2007 for a cool $80 million). Smith knew of Hagar’s outsized presence in the town, of course, but it took an outsized event for the two to finally connect: Hagar’s annual birthday bash, a week-long blowout held each October at the cantina.
“We were on tour at the time, The Chili Peppers, and a couple of hurricanes had hit,” Smith recalls. “So on one of our breaks I went down there to check on my house.” At the airport in L.A. he bumped into some heavyweight musicians he knows, including Alice In Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell, who told him they were all heading down to the Cabo Wabo to play. “So I go down and see my house is okay, and I make my way down to the club that night,” Smith remembers.<>He was floored by what he saw when he arrived: “Line out the door, big video screens, Tommy Lee, Cantrell, all these people. I had no idea. I just thought it was this little bar in Mexico.” After having to whip out his ID to prove to a clueless bouncer who he was, Smith made his way upstairs, where he found Hagar.
“Sammy’s like, ‘Hey, Chad, man. What’s up? I love your band. You live here, man? Get outta here.’” A half hour and a few tequila shots later, the two found themselves onstage rocking out in front of the star-studded crowd. “And from then on, we were thick as thieves. We’d call each other like, ‘Hey, you gonna be down in Mexico?’ And we’d jam whenever I was in town.”
On one of their first gigs together, Smith subbed for the drummer in Hagar’s Waboritas band, in which Michael Anthony would occassionally cameo (more so after 2006, when the Van Halen founding member was infamously dumped for Eddie Van Halen’s son). Smith didn’t know any Waboritas stuff, so he suggested they play some old Van Halen and Montrose songs. “And sometimes you say that to guys who’ve been around for a long time and they’re like, ‘I don’t do that stuff anymore. I don’t play the old stuff.’ And he’s like, ‘Great! I love playing all those old songs. Let’s do it!’ So we did almost the whole Montrose album, and some Van Halen songs, and some James Brown covers, and whatever. And we played all night, and it was a blast. I felt like I was in high school,” he laughs. “It was such a thrill for me. Because these are guys that I just looked up to, and loved that music. And I grew up on that kind of classic rock stuff.”
Hagar is quick to return the endorsement. “I think Chad’s the most amazing drummer there is,” he says simply. “And all my drummer friends think the same thing. And it’s been a really great personal relationship. I love the guy, on a personal level. He’s so much fun. He’s got so much energy. And he’s quirky. So him and I really have a sparky relationship. And musically, God, we can just play anytime, any place, anywhere.” Occasionally they would throw around the idea of starting a new project together with original material, but Smith didn’t think much of it. “Often, when you see other musicians, it’s like, ‘Yeah, we should play together — yeah, yeah, yeah — and nothing ever happens,” he says. But then something did happen that provided just enough traction for their idea to take hold.
In the fall of 2007, The Chili Peppers decided to take a break, their first in nine years. “We’d been working a lot,” Smith says. “Three records and three long tours. It’s been great, but it’s time to take a break, do other things, and just live your life a little bit. We’ve all got families and stuff like that.” (The Smith clan just gained a new member this past February when his wife gave birth to their second son, Cash. “I’m like Mr. Mom,” he laughs.)
Meanwhile, Hagar was dealing with a game changer of his own: his 60th birthday. “I can’t believe how old he is,” cracks Smith, who, at 47, is the baby of the band (Satriani is 52 and Anthony is 54). But with Smith now in the clear, and Hagar freshly motivated to seek out new ways to keep his rock flame burning bright, the two recruited Anthony and started playing together under the name Chickenfoot. (Three players — three toes on a chicken’s foot. Get it?)
In January of 2008, they convinced Satriani, with whom Hagar had played before and who just happened to be harboring supergroup fantasies of his own, to join them. Satriani got right to work putting his extensive production skills to use, pumping out demos from his home studio (complete with drum machine samples as temporary stand-ins for Smith) and sending them to the rest of the guys to flesh out on their own.
Things moved fast, and within a month they got the chance to bounce some of the new material off a Vegas audience during a Super Bowl party at The Palms. “It felt great,” Smith says. Hagar, meanwhile, had just completed the studio in San Rafael. So in March, the guys convened at The Warehouse, as it came to be known, to live-track the demos in the studio for the first time. And with that, Chickenfoot (the name had stuck) was officially off and running.
“We played really well right off the bat,” Smith says. “I was amazed. I mean, these guys, it’s not their first rodeo. They know what they’re doing.” But still, the pace of the recording process and the quality of what was coming out surprised everyone.
“Quickest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Hagar. “Chad’s the fastest-learning drummer I’ve ever played with. Straight up. Simple as that. Joe comes up with some complex, crazy-ass guitar stuff, and Chad just lays a hard-ass beat down. He’s like, ‘What was that part? Play that part again? Oh yeah: Bop. Bah-bah-bom-bom, bah-dah bam boom. Okay, I got it.’ Boom. He’s got it. It’s crazy. It’s the best chemistry I’ve ever seen!”
In just two days they had eight songs in the can. Of course, Smith is the first to admit these weren’t exactly symphonies they were crafting. This was, after all, about channeling the rock spirit, about dropping any pretense and playing straight from the heart. About having fun. And anyone who’s seen Smith play knows nobody has as much fun on an instrument as he does. “I didn’t put a lot of thought into it, and I certainly didn’t over-analyze it at all,” he says of his contribution. “It’s kind of a loosey, jammier approach.”
Which is why they live-tracked as much as they could. “That’s the way we do it with Chili Peppers too — keep as much as we can,” Smith says. “I think there’s something to the vibe of when everybody’s playing together. And whether you replace it or not, at least when I go and listen back in the control room to it, I can tell the takes that feel good to me are based on not only what I’m playing but how I’m relating to the other instruments. And I just think that’s really important. If it moves a little bit, speeds up or slows down, it’s human, it’s rock and roll, you know?”
The one notable exception to that rule was a track called “Avenida Revolution,” a “dark, tuned down, evil-sounding” song about the Mexican drug cartels and porous borders, which Smith and Anthony recorded while Satriani was on tour in Europe. “That came out so good,” Smith says, “that we couldn’t really beat that version. We tried to do it again — we did do it again, and it just didn’t have the magic of that one take where actually we played to Joe’s guitar.” That initial demo version eventually made it all the way through the studio gauntlet, emerging as the opening track on the final album. Goes to show, even the most seasoned pros sometimes can’t best the spirit of that first take. As for the rest of the material, by the end of March they’d boiled their selection down to nine demos, before Satriani left to tour with his own band. When I went up to San Rafael in September to interview Smith, they had just gotten together again for the first time in six months. This time, the idea was to flesh those demos out with the aid of a heavyweight producer. But who would it be?
“We talked about Bob Rock,” Smith remembers. “And I was like, ‘That would probably be cool. He’s got that big, slick sound.’ But we want to keep it kind of tough, kind of raw, kind of old-school. And Joe had worked with Andy Johns on a record a long time ago, and Van Halen did one of their albums with him a long time ago, and somehow his name popped up. It was sort of last minute, like a week before. We were just going to go in and use Joe’s guy.”
But Hagar’s studio was still untested, and most of the demos, Smith says, still needed a lot of work. “It just takes a guy like Andy to come in and move the drums. He came first thing [claps into the air and affects an English accent] ‘Yeah, drums go here. Chad, you’ll sit here.’”
Johns sized up the situation right away, grilling Smith about his gear and recording habits before they ever went in to record. “So we just talked about drums and it was really exciting because he was like, ‘Drums are my thing, man.’ And it was like, immediately, ‘Bonzo’ this. ‘Ginger’ that. You know? So, needless to say, in the downtime he’s happy to regale you with his rock star stories.” Smith props his chin up in his hands and bats his eyes. “Uncle Andy is going to tell us the time Keith Richards shot him up in the arm with heroin and said, ‘You’re a man now,’” he laughs.
In the end, Smith says Johns turned out to be exactly the right guy for the job, bringing his booming room-mike aesthetic to the mix to give them the massive classic rock sound they sought. “My sound normally is a little tighter, in-your-face, real punchy and clear and clean,” Smith says. “That works well for The Chili Peppers. But I mean, these songs are kind of like big, big rock songs.”
But as the songs began piling up in short order, and everyone seemed happy, Smith couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. “It was kind of weird,” he says. “I noticed in here [the songs] were, like, rockin’ and sounded really good. But I always loved the tempos and the feels from the demos that we did here in March. So I put on the old demos and just A/B’d them. And every one [of the new songs] was just a little bit faster. And it changed the feeling. I’m like: ‘Do I have demo-itis? Because I’ve heard it so many times?’”
Debating whether or not he really wanted to break the band’s momentum, but convinced they could do better, Smith eventually opted for full disclosure. “I came in and I said: ‘You guys, everything’s a little faster and not quite right.’” At first Hagar didn’t want to hear it, saying that was closer to how they would play it live anyway. But eventually he deferred to his resident timekeeper. “I had to kind of talk him off the ledge a little bit,” Smith laughs.
On the flipside, nobody wanted to rob the tracks of the spontaneity and live energy they’d all tried so hard to preserve. So they settled on a compromise. They’d match the click up to the March demos, which they’d recorded without one, then rehearse to that click setting, shutting off the click when they felt they were in the ballpark of the right tempo, and then immediately recording the track. “That actually worked out pretty good,” Smith says. “Because everybody plays pretty well. And if it moves a little bit, it’s better than stiff.”
About six months after the warehouse sessions with Johns — time enough for Smith to drop into The Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan and tear through a couple of big band arrangements at the Buddy Rich Memorial Tribute concert (his list of side projects occasionally yields some unique surprises, from recent collaborations with Brandi Carlisle to his own Chad Smith’s Bombastic Meat Bats) — Chickenfoot gathered once again, this time at the highly exclusive Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas’ sprawling production studio–slash-retreat not far from Hagar’s, where they recorded another seven or eight tracks, coupling them with four keepers from the sessions with Johns.
Johns, meanwhile, had fallen ill, and was unable to see the album through to completion, so they handed the baton to Vancouver engineer Mike Fraser, who’d just done AC/DC’s latest, Black Ice, to take them across the finish line. Smith credits Fraser with masterfully keeping the Johns vibe alive, while still fielding remote input from the band right up until the end.
They had arranged to release the album through the big-box giant Best Buy, one of the only brick-and-mortar retailers still capable of moving units in any quantity. “There’s nowhere to buy records anymore. Record stores are gone,” Smith says, noting half in jest how he, too, has felt the sting of the industry’s losing battle with online piracy (“I’m not as rich as I was!”). But he’s also realistic about it. “If I was a kid, man, and I could get records like that, for free,” he says, leaning in conspiratorially and dropping his voice, “I’d do the same s**t, too, man.
“But if you love to play music — you have to do it. I can’t not do it. That’s what I’m passionate about. Any way for people to hear it and get it, I’m all for it.”
Of course, this is coming from a guy who sold 8 million units of his last album with The Chili Peppers, Stadium Arcadium, in 2006, which he admits ain’t too shabby. But Californication, he points out, sold twice that many just six years earlier. As for what The Chili Peppers’ next album will bring, that remains to be seen, but at least, Smith assures us, there will be a next one. The hiatus, he says, has just about run its course. “We’re going to reconvene after this,” he promises, probably in the fall of 2009.
But for now, he’s just looking forward to touring with Chickenfoot, a band that, let’s face it, isn’t exactly worried about where its next meal is going to come from. These days, selling records has taken a backseat to just enjoying the ride. And about that ride — okay, so it might still be a little bit about the money, fame, and fast cars, or at least fast planes, seeing as how Chickenfoot will be motoring around Europe and the U.S. on Hagar’s private jet, a fact Smith seems almost embarrassed to admit. “We’re just mooching off of Sam’s Cabo money,” he cracks. “It’s the tequila starship. I’m sure it’ll have a big Cabo Wabo thing on the side of it or something.”
Mainly, though, he’s just grateful to be part of a group of this caliber. “If I could play with a couple of Hall Of Famers, and Joe Satriani, and have Andy Johns record me, why not?” he says. “You know. It’s like my heroes. I’m checking the list. Now I’ve just got to get Jimmy Page in there sometime.”