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Playing Chicken

When four of the biggest rock musicians come together in one band, it’s an experiment destined for either superstardom or a bloody crash. Chances are that the hardrocking Chickenfoot are headed the former way. Guitarist Joe Satriani speaks about the newest supergroup to hit us

Bobin James Aug 25, 2009
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Fantastic set of musicians? Check. Great in-your-face energy? Check. Raucous singalong songs? Check.

Chickenfoot have been getting a whole lot of attention since sometime early last year when news first filtered out about this new supergroup. After all, it’s not everyday that you get Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony (both ex-Van Halen), Joe Satriani and Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers) jamming together. The quirkily-named quartet has just released its self-titled debut ”“ a collection of 11 hardrocking tunes (12, if you have the limited edition vinyl) that magically manage to hark back to the Nineties, while simultaneously keeping their boots firmly planted in the present. Guitarist Joe Satriani spoke to us long-distance from Los Angeles, in between Chickenfoot’s North American and European tours.

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I believe Chickenfoot has just wrapped up a North American tour, Joe?

Yeah, that’s right. What we actually did was a “road test” tour. We just played some small clubs, to get things going. We will be returning to do a North American tour in about a month and a half. August and September will see us all throughout North America.

So how was the road test? How has the response been?

It was so much fun to be able to play really small clubs, just a few inches away from the fans and to play songs they have never heard before and just work really hard at winning over the crowd. It was just a great experience.

You wouldn’t have had played really small clubs in a long while, right?

Yeah, but it’s always fun. I mean, I do a lot of it privately, but you don’t really hear much about it. So it was a great experience all the way around.

Just to get back to the beginning. How did Chickenfoot come about? I believe the other three were already jamming, and then someone made a call. Who made that first call to you? And what was your reaction?

Well, it was Sammy actually who gave me a call in February of 2008 and asked me, just invited me to come to jam at the end of one or two shows that he was doing in Las Vegas. And it just seemed like a really fun thing to do and it just so happened that Mike and Chad were gonna be there as well. It was just one of those jams that turned out so good that we wanted to continue in some way. So we said let’s see if we can write some material and see what it sounds like when we are not in front of 5000 screaming people, and see what it sounds like in a small room. And every time we got together, it just got better and better, so we kept pursuing it.

You’ve always been more of a solo instrumentalist, except for that short stint with Deep Purple. Two questions: One, what is it that kept you from joining a band until now? And two, what was it about Chickenfoot that actually made you join it?

Well, you know, I think that the experiences with Chickenfoot were always so much fun and creative that it really didn’t take that much thought to convince me that it was a good idea. It felt good, it sounded good. So I think that is a good enough reason right there.

I think in the past, my experiences playing with Mick Jagger and Deep Purple were pretty good and they kinda spoiled me for playing with other bands, you know. And plus I really enjoyed my solo records and my solo tours – they really are a special and unique thing that the fans have allowed me to do. So you know, I have been very busy most of the time doing that.

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There’s Sammy, there’s Chad, there’s Michael and there’s you. That’s a whole lot of big names with a whole lot of incredible work behind each. How do you put all of that behind you and say that this is something absolutely new that we are starting?

Well, it is new because we’ve never really played together before. I mean, there’s no way to separate each of us from the decades of music that we have published and all the shows we’ve done and entertaining around the world. But just as artists, when we get together, it’s natural for us to kinda surrender to the moment. It really isn’t that unusual to do. It takes more effort to try to insert your solo act into another unit, because obviously it goes somewhat against the grain. It’s more natural just to be creative and be in the moment and try to be with the band when with them. So the whole process has been very natural.

Personally for you, how’s the experience of playing with somebody like Sammy Hagar, Chad Smith or Michael Anthony? I mean, how is it being up there on stage and seeing those guys playing with you and making music with you? What sort of an experience is that?

It’s really exhilarating, you know. The other night we were playing on the Conan O’Brien Show in Los Angeles, and I remember looking across and I am looking at Mike Anthony and I am thinking, ”˜I can’t believe I am playing with Mike Anthony on national television!’ [laughs] And yeah, every once in a while, I gotta check myself and go ”˜Wow, this is really so unexpected and so amazing; it’s so great.’

A lot of people have tagged Chickenfoot a supergroup, because of where you guys come from individually. Is that a whole lot of expectations to live up to?

Yeah, that’s natural. If you add up all the millions of records we sold together as a group, it’s something staggering – it’s probably over 200 million. So you gotta figure there’s going to be some kind of expectation. But as entertainers, we know that. Every day we step on stage there’s expectations. So it’s not an unusual thing for us to feel. It’s something we deal with everyday of our professional lives. Believe it or not, we really put that stuff out of our consciousness and we just concentrate on writing and playing the best that we can every time that we play. I think that’s the only sane way to go about it.

Coming to the album, Joe, what’s the songwriting process on this record been? Did you come up lyrics first, did you come up with music first, how did it work?

On ninety per cent of the material, I would write the music first and I would send the music around to the rest of the guys and they would come up with melody and lyrics. And then we would get together and as a band we would arrange the material. On maybe two or three songs there were some inputs from Mike and Chad. Then there is one song where we wrote all together in the studio. So that’s pretty much how it happened”¦ and it was spread out over a 12-month period.

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Any particular tracks you can pick out as favourites?

I like all of them, to tell you the truth [laughs]. They’re all so different from each other and they are unusual. What really made me like the record so much was that it really didn’t sound “Van-Chili-Peppers-Satchi-whatever you wanna call it.” It really did have its own sound and each song was different. It wasn’t like we picked one style to hit people over the head with. The difference between ”˜Avenida Revolucion’ and ”˜Sexy Little Thing’ and ”˜Down the Drain’ and ”˜Bitten By the Wolf’”¦ they are all so different. I think it’s a great introduction to a band that’s got a lot of records behind it.

So this is not going to be just a project; it’s a band that’s here to stay?

I think so. I think we have a future ahead of us.

Coming back to the style, I personally felt that your guitar playing sounded a lot more raw. Do you think you had to modify your style for Chickenfoot?

”˜Modify’ wouldn’t really be the right word. I am really playing what I think is appropriate for the music that we wrote. If I take a song like ”˜Flying in a Blue Dream’ [Flying in a Blue Dream, 1989], it is a very unusual piece that would not lend itself to a rock band playing it. So playing that style of guitar over it wouldn’t work. Same with, something like ”˜Professor Satchafunkilus’ [Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock, 2008]. That approach stylistically and arrangement-wise doesn’t leave any room for somebody to sing. So of course I am sounding different. But it’s not really different for me, I think it’s just different for the audience, because they haven’t heard me do that in a while. But for me, it seems like I am always doing that everyday, just that I do it privately.

When I heard the music, one of my first reactions was that the music didn’t sound laboured over at all. I mean, it sounded very spontaneous. It sounds like you guys are having a complete blast. So was it, for you personally, a very spontaneous creation of music?

Yeah”¦ I mean, every chance we got to play with each other was very precious, because we had such conflicting schedules. So the record is really made up of live performances with some added tracks here and there to fill out the recordings. But I think that’s that – at the heart of it, the recordings of everybody being very spontaneous. That’s why it sounds the way it does.

Coming to your live performances, Joe. You guys are playing the entire album, that’s 11 or 12 tracks, plus another 3 or 4 covers. That still makes it about 14-15 tracks. That’s pretty much a short set, isn’t it?

Well, the way we play though, we want to be up on stage for two hours. So we stretch them out and we improvise”¦

So a lot more solos happening than on the record?

I think so”¦ and a lot more interaction between the band members.

You move on to Europe this weekend. Any plans of coming to India at all?

You know, I am working on convincing the other three guys that they have to go to India. They haven’t been there before and I keep telling them what a great time I had a few years ago when I was there. I am doing my best trying to convince them. That would be great, it would be fantastic, yeah.

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