Ex-Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony isnt shying away from thumping rock grooves with his new supergroup Chickenfoot, featuring the epic talents of old bandmate Sammy Hagar, Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and guitar maestro Joe Satriani. Interview: Greg Cook
With a bass guitar subtly crafted to resemble a bottle of Jack Daniels, a passion for racing and collecting performance cars and his own brand of ‘piquant’ BBQ sauces out on the market, you’ll probably guess that Michael Anthony, Van Halen’s bassist for three decades, isn’t exactly the shy and retiring type. You’d be right. But you don’t need to speak to him for long to realise that behind the rock’n'roll veneer is a real gentleman. He’s a true pro to boot, who cares passionately about the craft of entertainment, and a man who managed to maintain a dignified and non-accusatory stance after discovering online that he’d been sacked from Van Halen to be replaced by Eddie’s son Wolfgang in 2006.
It may have been Eddie and ‘Diamond Dave’ Lee Roth with the fretboard pyrotechnics and ego-satisfying stage antics who whooped up the audience back in the day, but the band’s fans have not failed to notice the dignity displayed by a certain musician in the face of some pretty shoddy behaviour – including the erasure of his image from Van Halen’s first album cover on their website.
Michael Anthony has moved on, and then some. He’s now part of a band with more than sufficient skills to provide the thrills of old. His old friend and fellow ex-Van Halen member Sammy Hagar steps up for vocal duty, drums are provided by the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Chad Smith, and there’s the comforting dynamic of a world-renowned virtuoso guitarist tight on the lead singer’s flank – Joe Satriani. Satch is one of the few musicians in the world who could comfortably run Eddie Van Halen to the finish line. And the name of this band, already with a string of booked-out US dates before the much-buzzed debut album release in early June? Well – they’re called Chickenfoot.
‘It was just one of those kinda dumb-ass names that popped out one day,’ explains Anthony, probably not for the first time. ‘Sammy and I have been buddies for years, and any time there was ever limbo with Van Halen we’d go down to Cabo Wabo, the club that Sammy owns in Mexico, and play just to keep our game up. Chad lives just down the road from Sammy there in Mexico, so he got involved for the kicks.
‘We were doing that for a while, and suddenly we realised we weren’t just having a ball – we were getting something really good going. Then Sammy decided we needed to find a guitarist and make it a proper four-piece. Sammy’s a friend of Joe’s, so – to put it simply – we decided you don’t get more proper than Satch. When he joined were going to drop the working title of Chickenfoot and think of something better, but by that time there was already this buzz going on about us online, and we all figured this was about the music anyhow, so since then the name has just kind of stuck.’
The music the four have been cooking up since this informal supergroup gave birth to itself in a Mexican tequila party town is the kind of balls-out, bar-room blues rock that makes floor feel sticky as you listen to it. Yet it still manages to avoid being too obvious, for the most part by taking some truly Zeppelin-esque detours in progression and arrangement. It also leaves plenty of space for some blistering Satriani lead guitar work, with a lot more mojo and a little less maths than many of Joe’s followers will be used to.
Like all bassists who use their talents to play for the team, right there in the heart of the mix is Anthony, keeping things driven as he and Chad lock together with the focused, easy confidence of a rhythm section that sounds like it’s been together for years. Yet Anthony isn’t on cruise control: on several tracks he appears to be exploring new personal space by positively funking out there at the back. Which begs the obvious question – has playing with the drummer whose musical day job involves partnering Flea, one of rock’s most famously funk-driven bassists, had a certain recent influence?
‘I guess,’ Anthony reflects. ‘There’s something so kinda magnetic, animal and natural about Chad’s drumming that you can’t help but get behind it. Alex [Van Halen] is a good, hard technical drummer and Chad’s certainly got the power, but there’s something elemental there that just makes you want to bounce around. I think that’s extended my repertoire – and we’ve all just been having a blast.
‘When we came to record the album,’ he continues, ‘we ended up laying it down at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in California, which was awesome – there were the four of us rolling around on this huge soundstage built to hold John Williams and the whole London Symphony Orchestra. We really got the energy going right from the start, with Chad and I in the groove, Sammy punching out the vocals, and Joe – who is one of the few guys you can say has easily got the technique to match Eddie’s – putting in some blistering guitar work. The whole vibe felt great… familiar and yet totally different, all at once.’
Though Anthony’s pure, powerful falsetto backing vocals may have formed a more obvious part of vintage Van Halen than his bass work, as a player he knows exactly what he’s doing. His heroes include Led Zep’s John Paul Jones, Dylan/Doors/Electric Flag bassist Harvey Brooks, and bands like ’60s psychedelic blues-rockers Blue Cheer; he first met Alex Van Halen while studying for his music degree at Pasadena college, and he frequently kicked off his solo spot on Van Halen tours with a rendition of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Yet just as the definition of a gentleman is someone who can play the banjo but chooses not to, Anthony knows that his ability to showboat isn’t really where it’s at.
‘I’ve always been proud of my role as bassist in a band,’ he says. ‘I like to think of myself as the perfect sideman – if you want to take a lead solo for the next 10 minutes, then it’s my job to pin down the groove. It’s an important job and it’s a real discipline.’
The chance to rip it up live again is something that the bassist is looking forward to with relish. Who can blame him: the pre-gig hype has already seen what the band dubbed ‘the road test’, nine American dates before a major circuit of Europe, sell out in an instant.
‘For me, once you know your music’s good and your band is strong, taking it out there is the pay-off, the thrill, what it’s all about,’ he says. ‘I’m looking forward to playing in Europe because I haven’t done that for a while, and the reception is always amazing. When I’m onstage and it’s rocking, I get as much of a kick from watching the crowd as they’re getting from the show – and right now I’m with three other crazy, talented guys who all feel the same and are all determined to bring down the house with this thing we’ve got going.
‘Despite everything that went down with Van Halen, we had some incredible times. I’ll always be proud of the music, but as you get older you learn that if you go with the flow there’s usually better times ahead – and right now, being in Chickenfoot is phenomenal. It’s great to keep playing with Sammy, Chad’s drums are awesome to rock with, and Joe’s guitar leads are – well, wait until you hear them. The guy’s a monster!’