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Three Toes and a Joe. Guitarist Joe Satriani Speaks About His Ride in Supergroup Chickenfoot

By Krishta Abruzzini, Pacific Northwest Writer
Friday, June 5, 2009 @ 10:35 AM

"I think I’m the only sane one in the band."

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Chickenfoot. Sounding more like an old New Orleans blues singer, or the Chinese delicacy that’s eaten akin to Western popcorn; it’s a name that’s going to stay for former Van Halen members, Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony, along with shredmaster Joe Satriani and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith’s new group, respectively.

Hagar describes the name as being funky, lowdown and dirty. This pretty much sums up the entire incarnation of the band, name, and particularly the music. The eponymous album, (which is one of the coolest packaged CD’s I’ve ever seen) with its release on June 5, 2009, kicks off with an in store appearance at Best Buy in West LA from 8-9 p.m. and their appearance on The Tonight Show on Friday, June 5 at 11:35 p.m. with a full blown summer tour through Europe and North America. The CD is on sale now in the KNAC.COM: More Store. Click here to purchase your copy.

Satriani spoke to me of all things Chickenfoot. Once an intractable instrumentalist not very interested in incorporating a singer, Satch seems to be having the time of his life. Surprising even to all the members of the band, they’ve seemed to etch a resonance that will remain recognizable and timeless.

KNAC.COM: Tell me how this whole supergroup business started.

SATRIANI: You know, I just got a call one afternoon from Sammy Hagar screaming into the phone, saying, ‘Get your guitar and head to Las Vegas,’ which is not an unusual kind of phone call from Sammy Hagar. I thought I was just heading down to have a fun little jam at one of Sammy’s incredible party-like gigs and I knew that Chad, who I had never met, was going to be there, and Mike was going to be there. Sam, Mike and myself were in a band called Planet US for a minute about five or six years ago. We just jumped onstage at Sam’s encore, and it was just one of those jams that made us turn around and look at each other and go, ‘Wow, what was that?’ The reaction from the crowd and the other musicians lookin’ at us, everyone gave us that look like, ‘Woah, are you guys a band or what? And if you’re not, you should be!’ From there we said, okay, that only happens once in a couple of decades, so let’s follow it up. Let’s see what happens when we’re in a room alone without five-thousand screaming fans. What happened was, I had two short sessions with Sammy in the studio and we just wrote so many songs in such a short period of time and we realized that we really did have a really good writing partnership going on. From there, I’d come home, I’d write seven or eight songs, I’d make some pretty complete demos, I’d email them around, or I’d send them to Sam, and he’d write melodies or lyrics and then we’d all get together, rehearse them, change any arrangements that we needed. We immediately recorded. I’d go off on tour for two months, and I’d come back and we’d do it again. We repeated that about three or four times until about ten months later we were the studio recording the record.

KNAC.COM: It’s rumored that Michael Anthony said that Chickenfoot is not the real name of the project and that you guys are gonna come up with something better. Any truth to that?

SATRIANI: It’s too late for that! (Laughs)

KNAC.COM: I think it’s kinda grown on people.

SATRIANI: I think we kind of lost that battle a long time ago. Sammy was joking around to me that first night in Vegas that it was going to be called ‘Chickenfoot,’ and I actually thought it was a really great name, but I realized that I was the total minority in that. Everyone said that’ll never be the name. They’d always follow it up with, ‘That’ll never be the name.’ (Laughing)

KNAC.COM: That is the hardest thing for bands to come up with, the name.

SATRIANI: I always felt that if the music is good, people don’t care what you’re called. And it changes what the name means. If you come up with the best name in the world, but you serve up a lousy record, it doesn’t really do any good.

KNAC.COM: One fan was quoted as saying; “This will be the coolest thing Sammy Hagar has done since the first Montrose album. Hagar needs to get back to hard rock, Satriani needs to be more commercial, and Chad Smith will just be glad to make something other than surfer rock crap. This is going to be awesome!” How do you feel about that?

SATRIANI: Wow. You know, I never enter into the mind of the critic, or the reviewer, or the fan because you can only be yourself. I learned that a long time ago. Can you imagine embarking on an instrumental rock guitar career? It’s the longest shot you could ever try. So I realized you just have to do what you do and believe in what you do and you really have to not believe good reviews as well as bad reviews. At the heart of the whole thing is that when these four and unusual guys got together we realized that we had so many common roots that it surprised us and it was part of what propelled the excitement of each gathering that we had. We would just start playing and everybody seemed to know this Black Sabbath song, or that Chuck Berry song, or that Rolling Stones song. I mean, everybody knew the same kind of songs. And we were surprised by it. They were looking at me like, ‘Joe Satriani knows Chuck Berry? I can’t believe it!’ And I’d be looking at Chad going, ‘You know how to play Black Sabbath? I can’t believe it!’ (Laughing) And Sammy, if I did mention some obscure Jimmy Reed song, he would say, ‘I know that one.’ We would just be shocked at how much we had in common because I would have never thought of it if I had just listened to their catalogues. I know that individually, these guys are amazing. Chad is in absolutely amazing drummer. Mike is a musical powerhouse and a joy to play with. And I can’t believe how great Sam can sing.

KNAC.COM: You’re not too bad yourself.

SATRIANI: I really wish we had a couple records out so people could hear all the different things that these guys can do.

KNAC.COM: Since you’ve been so prolific together, is it hard to narrow down what songs get sacrificed on the album?

SATRIANI: Oh yeah. We definitely are [prolific in our writing]. There’s a spark there and it’s still going.

KNAC.COM: People seem really excited about this project. What do you think separates this ‘supergroup’ from all the others that seem to have a spurt of success and then it’s gone?

SATRIANI: I can tell you exactly what it is. This is a do-it-yourself project. It was not put together by an A&R department or record label. It really was Sam, Chad, and Mike having fun down in Cabo San Lucas and getting the idea to reach out and call me. When we got together in Sam’s studio, we said, ‘you know what we should do? We should just keep writing songs whenever we can and record an album all by ourselves.’ This was a self-funded project that we didn’t really bring in the entertainment industry into until the album was done. When we went to bring it to the industry, we sought out other independent-minded concerns which led us to Best Buy and to Adele Europe. We’ve kept it as an independent project and that makes me feel very good. There were no outside influences. You’re really getting, Mike, Sam, Chad, Joe.

KNAC.COM: Do you feel like your fans have been wanting you to go into a more commercial direction?

SATRIANI: I don’t know, you know? I always figure that people that kind of like me but just feel like I play too many notes would be very happy to hear me in Chickenfoot. There might be the opposite, maybe people who are just the hardcore guitar solo fans might think, ‘Hey, what happened to all the solos?’ That’s never anything I should ever enter into. I’m the musician, performer, and artist. It’s not my job to think about how other people think about me. I just need to be myself, and if they like me, great, and if they don’t, then I just need to deal with that.

KNAC.COM: If this thing takes off with great success, would you consider giving up your solo career, and has that been discussed with everyone else respectively?

SATRIANI: I don’t think anybody needs to think about giving up anything. There’s plenty of time for everyone to go about it. People ask me that a lot, and I think about it, and I want to hear a new Chili Peppers record, I do want to see the original Van Halen with Sammy get back together, so I can go buy a ticket. And I would like to get back with my buddies and do some more solo stuff. I don’t see why that can’t happen. Life is a scheduling nightmare, but somehow we work it out.

KNAC.COM: Sammy Hagar is quoted as saying, “To me [this band] is 10 times Van Halen, because it's functional, we all like each other."

SATRIANI: Yeah, well we definitely like each other. It’s definitely a party. My face hurts from smiling and laughing so much. Every night on tour I get back to the hotel room and go ‘wow, that was like so much fun!’ The vibes are just great. The important thing is that a bunch of guys can get together and have a good time and keep it light and all, but when the songs are clicked off, heavy music goes down and I think that’s what gets everybody off. The four of us look at each other and we know we’re laying down something really heavy and that allows us to be the humorous chaps we are. (Laughs) I don’t think we would have such a good a good time if we weren’t totally getting off on what we were playing.

KNAC.COM: I hear Sammy’s tequila is pretty good at creating some laughs as well!

SATRIANI: (Laughing) It’s great. He’s got four different kinds; that’ll keep you busy for some time. You can’t forget Mike’s hot sauce and my favorite, his barbeque sauce. It all goes together too! (Laughing)

KNAC.COM: Sammy is also quoted as saying you guys could rival Led Zeppelin. Pretty bold statement!

SATRIANI: (Laughing) I love Sammy. He says the craziest things. Led Zeppelin is like the greatest band ever. No one could be better than them in my point of view for that kind of music. I mean, they just did it. If anything that links us together is that we belong to that tradition of being open with our roots. Led Zeppelin was like that. Really open with their blues roots and it became part of their identity. I think it gave them validity as a band. This band, not by design, but simply by the way it happened actually, we’ve been very open with the roots that we have. We’re a little bit moved along in time. So we quote Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones, and Sabbath, and Deep Purple, Humble Pie, but we’re open about it. That’s what makes us like a classic rock band. We’re open with our influences.

KNAC.COM: This is produced by Andy Johns who worked with Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones…

SATRIANI: And me and Van Halen.

KNAC.COM: Did you guys hand-pick him? Did you know he was the “guy” you were going to use as a producer?

SATRIANI: It was a funny thing. Part of the record was done before he came in, but as we finally were getting into like the tenth month of us being together and having these sessions spread apart by months of touring for me and Sam, I brought the idea up that we should bring in Andy Johns, and I really didn’t know if anyone would go with it. I knew that Sammy had fired him for a Van Halen project, but I had a great experience with Andy doing The Extremist record, and quite frankly, I was looking for a tall authoritarian person into the mix you know that could open his mouth up and everyone would listen. I had a feeling that if there was anybody out there, any engineer who could capture the sound of the room when we get together, it’s got to be Andy. I brought him in and I said, ‘You know, I think Andy’s the right guy, because he can pull us together.’ He’s very creative and is totally from the heart like the rest of us are. I think also he’s going to be able to capture the sound, which I think the heart of the Chickenfoot sound is the sound we make just naturally. So he came in, in December. He really did pull it together, he really did capture the sound of the band. He really bonded with Chad and was able to capture the excitement that Chad makes all on his own. He was able to get that bass sound of Mike’s, I think properly represented after all these decades of Mike’s sound being sort of neutered a little bit in Van Halen. Now his bass sound is big. Like Mike really is. He and I saw eye to eye on the idea that the guitar production should be different for every song. So that if I needed to play B3, and piano, and banjo, and acoustic, and 12-electric, then I would do it. We kind of shook hands and said, ‘yes, lets do that. Let’s go all the way.’ Some songs will have one guitar, some will have twenty. Whatever the song calls for, we’ll do it. And that will be part of the identity of the Chickenfoot album. It’s not going to be Joe doing Satch Boogie all the time.

KNAC.COM: So you’re saying it’s not so formulated, as many bands that get in projects seem to fall into?

SATRIANI: You’re right. And the word you used, project, is the right term there. We want this to be a band record, not a ‘supergroup’ recording, where each person does what they’re famous for. That’s another reason I thought that Andy would be the guy. He’d be able to identify, even more than us, who we were. He could help us as a co-producer get to that point.

KNAC.COM: The response has been great for this band.

SATRIANI: I’m so happy to hear that. That’s what we experienced on our little ‘road test’ tour, playing the album, in almost sequence, who hadn’t heard it yet. It was really a great experience.

KNAC.COM: You’ve all had these dream-like music careers collectively with decades of huge success. How do you get four guys, all with strong personalities, into a room that have had that and agree on what should be played?

SATRIANI: First of all, dream-like careers, that’s amazing, because at times I would say it was nightmarish. (Laughs) I like the way you kind of cleaned it up though. Dream-like. I tell ya, it’s been part of the magic that we toss our individual ideas out there, and we instinctively want to know what the other guy wants to do, then we make room for it. That’s very unusual. I remember bringing in the first seven or eight songs I wrote, playing it for Sammy, having him react so positively to all of them. Even the ones that were so different from each other, like ‘Sexy Little Thing’ to ‘Avenida Revolucion;’ two totally different songs for two totally different bands. And he’s like, ‘I love all of these. I know exactly what I’m going to sing, and I know the story behind this song and that song.’ And I’m thinking, this is amazing. Then the other guys hear it and they’re jumping all over it. Everything I hear Mike do, and everything I hear Chad do, I like. And I make room for it because it’s making the song better. That’s what kept us in the room, I think, was just always liking what the other guy was playing.

KNAC.COM: What’s it like being in the studio with you guys?

SATRIANI: It’s crazy. Let’s face it, Sammy and Chad are just the craziest extroverts ever. In the studio, I guess Mike and I are a little bit more reserved, but then you get on stage and Mike turns into the same crazy extrovert as the other guys. I think I’m the only sane one in the band.

KNAC.COM: Chad looks so much like Will Ferrell, I think it would be hard to keep a straight face around him anyway.

SATRIANI: (Laughing) He’s much more handsome than Will Ferrell, you know? He does several good Will Ferrell impersonations that are dead on. Sometimes I think he does a better Will Ferrell than Will Ferrell.

KNAC.COM: I interviewed you a few years back, and asked you if you’d ever consider using a vocalist, to which you said that you actually had a separate deal with Epic records back in 1990. It ran for about three or four years, where they were really interested in you getting together with a singer that was totally devoted to vocal oriented rock music. And you could just never find the right singer. You said that this was at the time when a lot of great singers were coming out of the Northwest. Once you heard Soundgarden, you knew you probably wouldn't find another guy as good as Chris Cornell. So have you found your guy now?

SATRIANI: Oh, absolutely. It’s funny what happens when you’re not looking. When you’re not trying, it suddenly falls in your lap. Sammy exceeds all expectations. Not only does Sammy have a history of laying it down with so many different styles, he was an architect of a particular style and formed in people’s minds and general music history what rock & roll lead vocalists do and what they’re capable of.

KNAC.COM: He’s had so many incarnations, too.

SATRIANI: That’s right. His musicianship goes so deep. His sensibilities as a musician, as a melody writer and a lyric writer, are pretty awesome to watch him work. And traumatic because sometimes I bring in songs. I remember bringing in this song called ‘Open Your Heart,’ I had written for Sam back when we were in Planet US, and it was supposed to be an acoustic song, where he would just walk to the front of the stage in front of thousands of people and reveal something very close to him, to the audience, in a very personal way. I showed it to him the first time we got together, and he really liked it. I actually presented it with lyrics, and I told him I wouldn’t tell him what to sing, I just wanted him to know where I was going with it. He really took to the song, but I watched him throw out the melody, come up with a melody that was a hundred times better, and then come up with a story that was just the lightest amount of lyric, told a more poignant story. I was floored by that. I thought, this is how a real singer does it, or how a real lyric writer communicates to an audience. It’s not only the voice, it’s that unusual quality of being able to communicate feelings to the audience. To watch him use the mike. You know, the vocal performance that’s on the record, he did live, which was even scarier. That’s real power.

KNAC.COM: He’s one of few, I think that through the years hasn’t lost his vocal prowess. So many bands that have been around for decades have to bring the notes down to accommodate the singer’s new range.

SATRIANI: I think it has something to do with his vocal warm-up. He basically shows up backstage and he screams as loud as he can. Has a shot of blanco tequila and he talks a mile a minute, and can’t wait to get onstage.

KNAC.COM: What are the touring plans for Chickenfoot?

SATRIANI: In a couple weeks we’re off for our European tour, which is mostly festivals and then about five or six solo shows thrown in there. Hopefully, it’s just the first, dipping our toes in the European water there. Then we’re going to come back and we’ve got two months of touring here in America and Canada. Then we’ll see what the Chili Peppers want to do with Chad.

KNAC.COM: You’re going to steal him, aren’t you?

SATRIANI: (Laughs) We’ll work something out.

KNAC.COM: Do you have a favorite song for this release?

SATRIANI: Onstage every night, every time we go to the next song, I look down at the set-list and I’m so excited to play the song. Just purely from a guitar player’s point of view, every single song is completely different. It’s fun to play. It gives me more different challenges each time we play it each night. I know there’s improvisation, at the beginning, the middle and the end of it. So, I don’t know, I’m still liking all of them.

KNAC.COM: Are you still an Ibanez man, exclusively…and are you still designing guitars?

SATRIANI: Absolutely. We’ve got a new one that we hope to finalize that was a prototype that I used on the record, about a third of the songs. For those guitar geeks out there, it’s a 24-fret model with two pickups and they’re slightly different, and we’re experimenting with some different woods. It did make a difference on the recording. Hopefully we’ll be able to get it all worked out within the next four weeks for it to go into production and come out around January.

KNAC.COM: Looks like you’ve also designed pedals, picks, straps, and amps, and even a microphone!

SATRIANI: I go out onstage and I’ve got my own strap that’s holding my own guitar with my own pickups and cables that I endorse, that go into pedals that I designed, which go into the amps I helped design with Peavey. So I’m getting really comfortable.

KNAC.COM: Your sisters at one time had a hand in helping with the artwork for your guitars…do you still use their designs?

SATRIANI: You know they moved on from painting guitars, and they’ve stuck to canvas. I’ve been lucky to have a bunch of artists, along with even my wife for being a contribute to the straps and she does my hats as well. Music and art, it’s all open and all one thing.

KNAC.COM: You actually didn’t get your first real music contract until you were 30 years old? Kinda long in the tooth for this business!

SATRIANI: Amazing isn’t it? The fans have had to endure the many looks of Joe Satriani as he’s gotten older. (Laughs)

KNAC.COM: Funny thing is, I haven’t seen you change for many years now. Something is wrong here.

SATRIANI: People ask me very often about that, and I say, that’s because when people are out on the beach having a good time, I’m usually inside, no sun exposure, all work.

KNAC.COM: As kind of a twist of fate, and being his guitar teacher, do you credit Steve Vai with giving you commercial success?

SATRIANI: Absolutely, you know it’s interesting how when you give everything of what you have to people, it comes back to you in interesting ways. I learned that from my high school music teacher, who I knew was heading towards a career as a classical concert pianist. At this high school he would just offer everything that he knew about music to me, and I thought this is what I should do, if I’m ever doing guitar lessons. I just happened to be teaching Steve Vai at the time and I remember I was just going to do what my music teacher did. I’m going to show Steve everything. And it just turned out that Steve was one of the most talented guitar players ever born. He just happened to be one of my students. He quickly became a comrade and we dreamed about being rock stars as we would improvise together in my backyard in Long Island. I remember very vividly, this conversation I had with him where I started my own record company and I was about to release ‘Not of this Earth,’ and he said, ‘Hey, my first record is weirder than yours, and I just got signed to this crazy label out of Jamaica.’ And he asked if he could send a copy of my record to this guy, he might like it. I said, yeah go ahead, and I didn’t think much of it. That phone call led Steve to introduce me Cliff Cultreri, who is still one of my best friends and musical mentor, and he signed me to Relativity. It was in his personal conviction in me that we got ‘Surfing with the Alien’ because the label really did not think I looked like a rock star at all. They wanted me to be more of a medieval gothic shredder. I thought, no, no, I want to have a little bit more fun with it. It was Cliff that really pushed me through that label and made that record happen for me. That’s really what broke me. It was that introduction through Steve that really made that happen.

KNAC.COM: Speaking of students, you gave one of your students your very first guitar. I remember you telling me he hit hard times and sold it to a pawn shop. Did you ever find it?

SATRIANI: Wow. It’s unbelievable you should say that. I know this Canadian guitarist, her name is Kelly Hugh, she’s going to Berklee right now, she’s nineteen, and she’s really talented, and at the Boston show we just did, she showed up backstage and presented me with the exact make and model and year of my very first electric guitar, which was a Hagstrom 3. I hadn’t held one since I sold it to that student, who actually took lessons together with Steve Vai. I think the actual one that I played has probably fallen apart by now. Who knows where it is. The one that Kelly presented to me was a perfect specimen. And I’m waiting for it to show up. Gary Hoey was there backstage and he gracefully took it upon himself to pack it up and mail it to me. So I’m waiting to receive it.

KNAC.COM: Uh oh. Gary’s a guitar player. Hopefully you do receive it! (Laughing)

SATRIANI: (Laughing) I have Gary’s address!

For more information and tour dates for Chickenfoot, please visit: www.Chickenfoot.us

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