Having established themselves in record time as one of the earth’s premier rock bands with their Gold-certified 2009 self-titled debut, Chickenfoot – the illustrious, virtuosic supergroup formed by singing legend Sammy Hagar, guitar god Joe Satriani, and the renowned rhythm section of bassist Michael Anthony and drummer Chad Smith – approached the initial stages of recording their new album, Chickenfoot III, with supreme confidence and a firm sense of intention.
They, of course, had good reasons to feel cocky: There were the high-octane, hook-o-rama singles, “Oh Yeah,” “Sexy Little Thing” and “My Kinda Girl.” Then there were the riveting live shows, starting with a sold-out-within-seconds “Road Test” run of clubs and ending a year later with a sold-out-within-seconds world tour of large halls. The not-so-little engine that could definitely did…time after time.
Beyond the obvious, however, something more important happened during Chickenfoot’s rise to the top of the rock: They became a band. A real band. “We went from being a weekend fun-time thing to making a record and touring the world,” says Sammy Hagar. “Our learning curve was fast – even for us. But we went out every night to kick ass and prove that we weren’t resting on our laurels. We earned everything we got, and along the way, we established a trust in one another that happens very rarely in bands. To me, it’s magical.”
It was that very trust factor that allowed Joe Satriani to approach Hagar during the demoing stage of the new album and express this wish: “I want to hear you sing differently,” he told the vocalist. “You have light and shades to your voice that have never been on record. I want to hear you do new things.” Hagar accepted Satriani’s words as a challenge, and then he threw down the gauntlet: “Fine. But you’ve got to bring it too, Joe. I want to hear you play guitar like you never have. We shook hands on it.”
And so it was that Chickenfoot set about making the heart-pounding and high-minded Chickenfoot III. And they did it at the perfect time, too. In an era when the relevance of the album as an art form is under close scrutiny, Chickenfoot III is a superlative, rip-roaring rock ‘n’ roll disc that simply must be experienced from start to finish. Tough yet full of intricate textures, played by musicians at the top of their game, this is the kind of record that bands both young and old dream of making.
“It’s the best record I’ve ever been a part of,” Hagar says unashamedly. “Songwriting-wise, playing-wise, we reached a level I’ve hoped was possible. There’s nothing this band can’t do. I’m convinced of it.”
The origins of Chickenfoot III began to take shape in early 2010 as Satriani and Hagar exchanged song ideas while the group was still on tour. Throughout that year, Satriani sent the band demos in various forms of completion. Then, in February of this year, Chickenfoot convened in Hagar’s warehouse studio (affectionately dubbed “the Foot Locker”) to hash out the material. On board was veteran, award-winning engineer Mike Fraser (AC/DC, Metallica), who was also serving as co-producer with the group. According to Michael Anthony, “We thought we might still be demoing at this point, but the sounds Mike Fraser got were extraordinary. Plus, the spontaneity in the room was incredible. The musical chemistry was undeniable. Suddenly, it was like, ‘Might as well roll tape. We’re making a record!’”
The batches of music – dynamic, stadium-shaking riffs that would morph into ginormous earth-movers such as “Alright Alright,” “Last Temptation,” “Big Foot” and “Lighten Up” – were shaping up just fine, faster than anyone expected. “To come up with huge, monstrous riffs that become big-time rock anthems, that’s what every guitar player dreams of,” says Satriani. “But you have to have a band that can help craft them and render them with authority, and that’s something Mike and Chad do better than anybody.”
Sammy Hagar, however, was having a tough time wrapping his thoughts around the songs – or anything else, for that matter. Right as the band was entering the studio, he got the news that his longtime manager, and Chickenfoot’s co-manager, for that matter, John Carter (or simply “Carter,” as he preferred to be called) was stricken with cancer, and the prognosis wasn’t good. Suddenly, the heretofore carefree, laid-back, can’t-drive-55 Red Rocker was shaken to the core.
“I was in a mental place I’d never been in before,” Hagar says. “I had my book tour going on, my manager was very sick…everything was taking my mind up. I was blocked.”
Rallying against his failing body, Carter served Hagar his marching orders: “Make the greatest record you’ve ever made. Make songs that matter. Write words that mean something to people.” Hagar took his friend and manager’s words to heart, and when Carter did succumb to his illness in the late spring, Hagar miraculously found many of the lyrical themes he was looking for. “It was heartbreaking what happened,” says Satriani softly. “We all loved Carter, and Sammy, of course, had a very long history with him. But it’s almost as though the minute Carter passed away, Sammy was unlocked. In a strange way, I think Carter would have been very pleased.”
As a tribute to his late manager, Sammy penned the words to “Up Next,” just one of the album’s crushers. Against a massive sonic assault that packs the force of Godzilla after too many Red Bulls, (the song also features a mind-altering, tour de force guitar solo by Satriani) Hagar tackles mortality in a slightly skewed manner all his own. “I started to think, Wow, your number could be up at any moment,” says the singer. “Picture waiting at the pearly gates as if you were in line at a fast-food joint and somebody goes, ‘Up next!’ Right there’s the chorus.”
Spirituality gives way to biting social commentary in the form of the pile-driving, relentless “Three and a Half Letters,” or the “I need a job!” song as it’s referred to in Chickenfoot circles – in fact, that’s the chorus. Hagar doesn’t so much sing as he does talk/rap – it’s a soul-tugging performance piece as he reads desperate cries for help from actual letters he’s received. “It’s the one song where we didn’t go for melody,” says Satriani. “The band just unloaded everything we had. It was raw, unchecked emotion.”
Melodies abound, however, throughout the balance of Chickenfoot III, especially on the aching rock ballad “Come Closer,” which represents a dramatic turn for the band in that Hagar wrote the completed lyrics first for which Satriani then composed the music – on piano. By the time the full band had its way with the number, Satriani abandoned the piano and strapped on his guitar – his solo, a glorious cloudburst of notes, enlarges the scope and deepens the song’s meaning.
And everybody had a big hand in the infectious, Nashville pop-tinged “Different Devil,” an absorbing tale of tangled relationships, which features Michael Anthony’s strongest singing yet – the ever-dependable background vocalist is practically dueting with Hagar. Satriani penned the music to this sure-fire radio winner, but he wasn’t certain the arrangement was clicking, that is, until Chad Smith took a whack at some chords and came up with a new chorus. “Suddenly the song felt smooth and we just blazed through cutting it,” says Satriani.
The need for a personal connection is further examined on the bold and brash classic-rock homage “Dubai Blues” – tradition meets innovation, a ‘Foot’ specialty – in which Hagar presents himself as a self-satisfied man who has everything the world can offer, all but that special someone.
Finishing this stunning set is the Delta-flavored “Something Going Wrong,” which sees the Foot serving up spicy, authentic blues. “Chad and I had a lot of fun wearing different musical hats on this one,” says Anthony. “And Joe was astounding. The guy played Dobro, banjo… He’s not just this shred king that everybody assumes he is. He’s got some really deep roots.”
From free-wheelin’ lifestyle rockers (“Big Foot,” a car enthusiast’s wet dream, is the first single) to the myriad nuances of the human heart to unvarnished portraits of the world today, Chickenfoot tackle them all with matchless assurance on Chickenfoot III. “The messages are pure and direct, the playing is the best I’ve ever heard, it’s all right there,” enthuses Hagar.