Joe Satriani: Chickenfoot Is a ‘Band of Separate People’
Like all things Chickenfoot-related, their sophomore album (which followed their 2009 recorded debut as a band) didn’t arrive easily. Navigating their combined schedules when it came to touring was even more complex, with drummer Kenny Aronoff stepping in for Smith, who had to exit almost as soon as the album had been completed to return to his normal duties with Red Hot Chili Peppers.
A decade later, Satriani — who is releasing the third volume in his Crystal Planet comic book series this month — still has regrets about the group’s short flight, which produced only a pair of albums and assorted compilation and live releases. “I loved it so much [and] I always felt that we never toured enough,” he says now. “I always felt that we never recorded enough. [It] really felt like we never got a chance to really do it as well as we could.”
During a recent conversation with UCR, Satriani looked back on the process of making the band's two albums.
Thinking about your brief time in Deep Purple in the ‘90s, how much, if at all, did that prepare you to be in a band like Chickenfoot?
Well, there are a couple of things that I learned while doing that. It was so much fun, [but it] was completely nerve-racking to try to even come close to replacing the iconic Ritchie Blackmore. Because Ritchie is so Ritchie. He’s the total opposite of a generic guitar player. Nobody sounds like him. He’s completely unpredictable, and his sound completely matches Jon Lord’s sound in that band.
There is a synergy between those two that when you don’t hear it, you go, “Well, something’s wrong.” This is me talking back in the day, in the mid-’90s. I can go on and on about what I learned technically about it. If I played a Strat into a Marshall with a souped-up pre-amp, I probably would have sounded more together with Jon’s amazing keyboard playing.
But there was no time for that. I had literally less than seven days to prepare for the first Japanese tour. I had to learn a show on two cassette tapes, half of which Ritchie had walked out on, so there was no guitar. [Laughs] All I had was the setup I was currently using, which was my Ibanez guitar into a DS1 into my Marshall 6100s turned up really loud.
They loved it. They were so done with Ritchie that they were like, “No, we want what you sound like.” But in my head, I remember thinking, “I don’t sound like Ritchie.” [Laughs] It was really hard on stage every night. Because I grew up listening to that band. I loved the band. They were such a great group of musicians. Just their immense talent and then the heart and soul was so great and they were so gracious.
Watch Deep Purple Perform 'Knocking at Your Back Door' With Joe Satriani
I wanted to live up to what they should have had in that band. Certainly, I wanted the fans not to be too totally bummed out that Ritchie wasn’t there. The subsequent tour in Europe was a little bit better, because the audience knew that I was in the band. Whereas the Japanese tour, they were surprised that all of the sudden, Ritchie was gone. The tickets were already bought and then they found out that Ritchie was gone.
So there was a little bit of that I had to deal with. I think that Deep Purple was a piece of cake, because everybody in the band, they’re all gentlemen. There was no outside weirdness at all. They were just so dedicated to Deep Purple and so accepting of the fact that this American guitar player was stepping in for a bit.
Chickenfoot was completely out of control. It’s just a band of separate people. That’s why I had suggested Andy Johns as a producer [for the band's first album in 2009]. You know, mainly because he was really big, loud and scary. Obviously, I love the music that Andy made, but I thought, “Someone’s gotta come in and herd the cats.” Because it’s insane. No one can agree on anything, because everyone’s a solo artist. Everyone is a big shot. Except for me, of course.
It worked, because Andy came into a room and everyone — even Chad — had to look up to him, physically. They had to turn their heads up to make eye contact with Andy. When he yelled at everyone, everyone listened, pretty much. Until Sam stopped listening. You know, Sam eventually did all of his vocals at his own studio, because after like two days with Andy, he wouldn’t work with Andy anymore.
Yeah, I mean, it was rough getting that record done. I can’t tell ya... I can’t believe that record got finished. Luckily, Mike Fraser came in at the last minute to save it, to help us.
The Chickenfoot debut album, it still floors me hearing that “Down the Drain” was a jam. There’s magic in songs like that.
Yeah, we were all set up to do another song. I can’t remember what the other song was. But yeah. I know I was playing very differently, because I thought, any second, [they’re] going to yell, “Will you guys stop? Let’s do the song.” I didn’t want to have to retune my guitars. I was just barely playing and then all of the sudden, I see Sam walking across the room. And I mean, the room at Skywalker is huge, so it takes him about 30 seconds or a minute to walk across, get in his vocal booth and he starts saying, “Is that that new thing, Joe? It better be!” And that’s on the record! I mean, that’s him, just thinking it’s cool and he starts singing! It was pretty remarkable how that happened. [Laughs]
There were some cool things on that second Chickenfoot album, stuff like “Come Closer” and “Different Devil,” that kind of took things in a different direction.
That was a very unusual method of writing. Sam had sent me lyrics. He gave me two pages of lyrics that were really beautiful. Very heartfelt. One morning, really early, I got up and got a cup of coffee and went right over to my piano. I very quietly recorded myself singing and playing this particular piece of music.
I recorded it on my phone and sent him that. I was fully expecting him to just laugh his ass off at yet another Joe Satriani vocal performance. But he really dug it and he felt something and he wanted to do it. We forwarded it to the guys and of course, the way things happen in Chickenfoot is a few hours later, you get to the studio and someone says, “I want to do this song,” and then they just start playing and you realize you have to record it before you’ve had a chance to work any of the details out. Like, what guitar do I use, what amp do I use? Do I know what part I’m going to play?
As an aside, you know the song “Oh Yeah,” from the first record. I wrote that song and had a full demo. It’s got like six guitar parts on it. I get to the studio that one four-day stretch and I said, "The guitar part is like six guitars that are weaving in and out of each other." And Sam’s like, “Oh, just do it with one part. Okay, ready? One, two, three.” I start the song and I had literally 15 minutes to figure out how to take all of those guitar parts and put it into one guitar part that would start the song. And that’s on the album. I never got a chance to redo it or anything, because there’s no click or anything. Everything’s live, so we just had to leave it. “Come Closer” was the same way.
When I got to the studio, Mike and Chad were already doing some kind of version of it. I just remember thinking, “That’s not what I wrote.” You know, I wrote this thing on the piano. I was always trying to get Sam to be more relaxed and more personable. Because the sound of his voice, when you’re in front of him and he’s talking to you and he sings quietly, is really amazing. He’s got a really beautiful set of pipes. I mean, he can really sing and he can really communicate. But I think that part of him thinks that he needs to yell and scream a lot more than he does. But he may be right. I don’t know. [Laughs]
But I’m always thinking, “Man, Sam, I’d love people to hear you the way I hear you sometimes, which is just two feet away, singing quietly and heartfelt.” I just think the fans would go crazy over that, you know. So that song was my attempt at getting him to do that. And of course, it fell apart, and the song wound up becoming more power ballad-y with some kind of an R&B influence. I was very uncomfortable with that, to tell you the truth. But we had to produce it.
Because the way things work with Chickenfoot, once Chad and Mike laid something down and they flew home, that was it. No one ever did anything ever again. And I was left to do all of the overdubs. [Laughs] It was like, “Okay, this is it. How do we save this one? Well, let’s try this.” I played harmonica and banjo and keyboards. [Laughs] Acoustic guitar, electric guitar and slide guitar. I would just try to make it happen. I still have that recording of me singing Sam’s lyrics while I’m playing piano, and to me, that’s still the best version.
Listen to 'Come Closer' by Chickenfoot
Ultimately, what are the memories that stick with you about doing that second Chickenfoot album?
There were some really great moments. Where it really worked, I’ll tell ya — most of the time it was a positive, being forced to record something right away. I understand why they felt that way. You know, coming from Van Halen and the Chili Peppers where they spend months and months working on records, they came into this thinking, “We’ve just got to show up and record the excitement in the moment and leave." That was their thing. It’s just that I was the odd man out. [Laughs] I was the one that was like, “No, this is the fun part! This is where you spend hours and hours and days and days and weeks! This is the fun part where you get to do it right."
But where it worked out was something like “Something Going Wrong.” Again, it’s me playing an acoustic guitar into a computer and just recording with a live microphone, emailing it to everybody. I show up at the studio and everyone says, “Let’s do that one, Joe!” And I go, “Okay, you realize it’s not really written and we don’t really have the right instruments for it.” Sam goes, “I have an acoustic guitar upstairs here. Go get it for Joe. Here, you play this.” I’m playing it and it’s like, “Oh, this thing is rough!” But there I am, in the booth and microphones are set up. Everyone’s like, “We’re ready to go.”
We just recorded it, and I have to improvise and I have to write some things right on the spot as they come to my head. Then everyone gets in their cars, they go back to the airport and they fly home. And me and Mike Fraser are like, “Okay, well! What do we do now?” [Laughs] So again, the process of building [it], although it was a bit head-scratching and arduous, it turned out to be an opportunity to be really creative. I wound up playing some things on that song that I really love that never would have happened unless those guys had pushed me to just record the song right away. I appreciate that.
I’ve learned to love that part of the Chickenfoot dynamic of not laboring too hard over anything and just getting it to happen. We had to do a lot of things like that. You know, write parts right on the spot and record them right on the spot and that was it. You just had to own it. Whatever you played, that was it. Every song has got some part of that in somebody’s performance. Because no one got to do anything over again. It’s a very truthful set of recordings.
“Dubai Blues” is one of the most interesting sounding songs on the album. How did that one come together?
[Laughs] That’s another one of the songs. You know, the way that record came together, it was very much like the first one where I had a bunch of demos all done that I did right here [in my studio]. I sent them out to everybody and I wondered which songs they were going to like.
This particular one, it had a bit of a hip-hop vibe to it. It was a little more automated-sounding. I was kind of shocked when everybody said, “Oh, we’ve got to do this song.” Chad and Mike started playing the way they were playing on it. I remember thinking “Wow, this is not like what is on the demo at all.” All of the sudden, it’s moved over, and I realized I’m not going to be able to play these parts that really fit with this sort of hip-hop drumbeat kind of thing.
I knew how I was going to be able to play on the basic track, because the part is pretty straight-ahead, but I thought, “How is all of the weird stuff going to make sense?” The thing about hip-hop that’s very interesting is that you have these repetitive parts and they’re very accepting of weird things on top that come and go. The opposite of that would be the recording of a band in the room, where the whole band has to have an integrated set of parts that work with each other the whole time.
Because pretty much everyone is always playing something unique. It’s very different with hip-hop, like I said before, where there are things that are short and repetitive. But the variety of stuff on top is incredible. It’s so much more colorful than rock. Plus the lyrics, it’s crazy, the amount of information in a typical hip-hop track.
After we got the basic track, Mike Fraser and I were stuck there for days trying to figure out, what can we use from the demo? Because Mike really liked a lot of stuff on the demo. Like, the scraping guitars in the verse were very weird, and they didn’t really fit with what Chad was doing anymore, but we wanted them to be in there. I remember that we were challenged with how to get the guitars to sound as bright.
I wound up using a ‘54 Goldtop Les Paul that was converted by the previous owner. We used these special Altec speakers that were super bright, that Mike had brought from an AC/DC session. It was just one of those things where it took a lot of detailed work to get that song to have that kind of excitement. And then of course, the lyrics kind of shocked us. Sam was doing a lot of things where he wouldn’t tell people what he was going to do. When he talked about “Dubai Blues,” we were like, “Huh?” [Laughs]
But that’s typical band stuff. It’s kind of the same thing, he would probably listen to my guitar parts and go, “Huh?” The song was fun to play. I’ve gotta say, it’s one of those songs that sort of has a vibe and sound to it that’s all its own. It’s infectious and you love it. I’m always happy when people pick up on those parts of it. They don’t have to like everything about it, but it’s funny you should mention that. Because that was one of those songs that the transition from demo to album, it’s like “Come Closer,” it’s just sort of like night and day. It’s almost better if you have no connection to the demo.
Listen to 'Dubai Blues' by Chickenfoot