They say that the third time's the charm, though Chickenfoot III is actually the second studio album from the supergroup ensemble starring frontman Sammy Hagar, bassist Michael Anthony, guitarist Joe Satriani and drummer Chad Smith. But one could say it is the third stage of their development. Following their solid debut album, the group toured America and played some international dates, honing their live show put on display for the subsequent Get Your Buzz On Live DVD. Getting started was the easy part. Following up was trickier.
The proof is in the pudding of Chickenfoot III, a more cohesive and stronger yet still raw sounding album rich with different tones and sonic flavors. The 11-song CD spans anthems, ballads, even protest songs, invoking many different moods, and the sound is bluesy, edgy and immediate, almost sounding like one is in the studio hanging out and listening to them rock out. The group recorded without click tracks and sequencers, kept the basic tracks for whichever take they picked and then did overdubs and corrected mistakes as needed. Satriani says that at least half the vocal tracks are live from the original take. And it all was done in Hagar's modest home studio.
"Obviously having been in the studio on the first album and been on tour, everybody's really comfortable musically with each other now, and I think with this album we carved out a Chickenfoot sound," remarks Anthony. "I think we're more evolved and not just jamming anymore." Anthony says that he feels more freedom playing in Chickenfoot than in the later years of Van Halen, and Satriani likes that Hagar pulled out different styles of playing from him. They all made a concentrated effort to sync up better but with enough flexibility to express themselves however they wanted.
Hagar confesses that despite how well Chickenfoot III turned out, this latest album was more difficult to create than their popular debut. The original project was designed to be fun, with no pressure or expectations. It was not until it became a hit worldwide that talk of management and a second release emerged.
"It was just difficult getting it altogether again because Chad was ready go back to the [Red Hot Chili] Peppers, and I just finished my book and was ready to go out on a book tour," explains The Red Rocker. "There was too much on my plate, and I didn't feel like going in, as much as I love the band." But management told him it was either now or two or three years down the line. They agreed it had to be done now because the foursome really enjoys playing together.
The band was raring to go and produced a lot of music, as Satriani puts it, "more furiously and in a shorter period of time" than previously. But while he, Anthony and Smith nailed their parts down quickly, thanks in part to preparation through emailed MP3s and phone calls, their singer struggled to find the right words to complete the tunes. Hagar confesses he "had to squeeze and squeeze and squeeze the lyrics out."
A tragic event occurred during the making of the album that knocked everyone for a loop. Their manager John Carter—also Hagar's longtime manager, musical collaborator and personal friend—passed away. "He was a dear friend, and he was my bouncing board, man," recalls Hagar. "He's the guy that I called up and ask, 'What do you think about this lyric?' 'Eh, it sucks.' He was the only guy that really would push me and crack the whip on me. When I would say, 'Fuck you, this is good enough,' he would go, 'No, it ain't.'"
In terms of coping with Carter's death, Satriani says the band members all took their cue from Carter himself. "He was just such an amazing guy, and really funny, and not for a second would he take anybody getting maudlin about anything," he observes. "He was an ass-kicker, and that's what he was doing on his deathbed. He would hear a demo and call up and say, 'That sucks, you guys got to write a better song. Why don't you try one of my ideas?' He was being Carter, and we loved him for it. But we all kept a stiff upper lip."
Hagar adds that Carter convinced him this had to be the greatest record he ever made. "I think he actually fucked me up," quips the singer, "because he knew he was dying. I didn't know he was dying—we all had our heads in the sand—but he was saying, 'If this is the last record you ever make...' Everything he was saying to me was kind of about himself, and I was getting all pissy with him. Then when we found out he was really sick and was going to die, I got self-motivated and went, 'I have to write the best lyrics I ever wrote, and I don't have my buddy here to tell me if they're great or not. I have to be my own judge.' That's when I really got motivated and inspired for 'Up Next' and 'Something Going Wrong.'"
Carter passed before getting to hear one finished vocal take or one finished mix, like for the song "Up Next," which was inspired by him wanting to have Sammy really combine his party hearty side and socially aware sides on the same album; in this case, the same song. Carter also inspired the song "Three And A Half Letters," the spoken word concept for which came to the frontman after his friend's death. And "Dubai Blues" is a snarky, ironic take on a genre whereby the richest man in the world bemoans how he does not have the woman he craves. Of course, he has everything else.
Hagar is elated with the final product. "I think it's the best record I've made in 100 years," he gushes. "I can't tell you any record in my life that's better from my standpoint—my singing, my lyrics, melodies, what I put into Joe's music. I don't think I ever did as good a job on any Van Halen record."
The strongest song on the new album is "Three And A Half Letters," which was triggered by correspondence from a 24-year-old Afghanistan war veteran. During the verses, Hagar reads thoughts from people who have written the singer letters about being in need, punctuated by the desperate chorus crying out, "I need a job!" At first he read real letters verbatim, but he felt it would be more effective with the limited time in the song to compile different stories from them into three letters for the song and compound the problems. "Lost the house, lost the wife, lost the job, lost the car. It's like, what else can go wrong? I wanted to make it effective and ring the bell on you," emphasizes Hagar.
Some people have remarked online about the fact that the members of Chickenfoot are not starving and have no idea what many Americans are going through. Satriani will not deny their success, but he believes their perspective on the situation is unique. "The song is a story about Sam's perspective in a way, because if you gather up a million U.S. citizens that are living below the poverty line, no one's writing them letters asking for help, so what's their introduction to that world other than their own experience and their neighbor?" he ponders.
"As far as our perspective," continues Satch, "if someone says that we're rock stars and what do we know, that's naïve because we don't belong to rock star families. Our children, husbands, wives and brothers and sisters are not rock stars like us. Generally they put up with us. There's one of us in the family, and everybody else is out there just like a regular American. We see it in our families, our extended families, our friends and people that are part of our community, so I think we're as valid a storyteller as anybody else would be."
The video for "Three And A Half Letters" depicts various people in states of need and distress, and at the end a plug for the charity FeedingAmerica.org is prominently displayed. "We didn't plan it this way, but look at the state of what's going on right now," muses Anthony. "We figured with a song like this, we could do our part to help. In the past with Van Halen, we did America's Harvest and food bank stuff. I feel fortunate to have what I have, and if we can help someone out who's less fortunate let's do it. Sammy came to us with the lyrics because he gets these letters all the time, and he was talking about doing spoken word type thing. At first I wasn't sure about it, but when he explained the concept of what he wanted to do, we wanted to put emotion behind it. It's nothing more than us making people aware. We're not preaching or anything. I think it turned out great."
It is interesting to note that while Hagar is known to many as a party guy, a la "Mas Tequila," he has more serious matters on his mind, as shown on last album's "Avenida Revolución." It's a dichotomy that has existed in his music for a long time.
"I'm a simple guy," states Hagar. "I only go on what I feel. The first protest song I ever wrote was 'I Can't Drive 55.' That was the real deal. I keep telling people that as commercial and silly as that seemed, I was getting pissed off for getting pulled over for driving 62 miles an hour, and I wrote a song about it. I don't consider myself a rebel. I'm a simple person, and if something really affects me and bothers me, I will stand up and bitch about it or get in somebody's face about it or stand up on stage and talk about it or write it in my book. I do stand up for things I believe in. Other than that, I mostly believe that people should have a good time and that people really want to be happy in life, not pissed off. The only reason I get pissed off is when somebody does something that takes my happiness away. When I walk around and see people on every street corner with a sign and see them with kids and older couples, it just breaks my heart, man. You've got to write about it. "
Energized and excited, Chickenfoot will play a few U.S. dates this fall, then select European dates in January before launching a full blown tour sometime next year. Drummer Chad Smith is busy touring with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, so veteran skinbeater Kenny Aronoff is filling in behind the kit. The other Chickenfoot members agree that musically and personally he is a great fit for the band. All around, everyone is happy.
"I think this is the best album I've ever been involved with," declares Anthony. "This has some of the best background vocals I've ever done, and it's just great music. Getting back to Sammy's lyrics, people talk about how they're cheeseball, and he really has something to say on a lot of these songs. Of course we can't be all heavy and dark. We have some lighter stuff like 'Last Temptation.' We don't want to lose sight of why we're doing this: We want to entertain people."
Chickenfoot will play Webster Hall in NYC on Nov. 8. For more information, go to chickenfoot.us.