Chad Smith takes a break from the day job to turn in some of his greatest performances to date. Just don’t call Chickenfoot a ‘supergroup’, OK?
It’s fair to say that news of Chad Smith’s latest project didn’t exactly fill Drummer’s offices with the unbridled enthusiasm that usually accompanies his work. Here, after all, was a motley collection of rock’s elite – guitar god Joe Satriani, Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony – each with millions of records sold, millions in the bank and (we assumed) sizeable egos to boot. On paper at least, it was a musical car crash waiting to happen. And that’s without mentioning the name of this new ‘supergroup’. Chickenfoot? Chickenfoot!? The whole thing seemed so implausible and so ridiculous it couldn’t possibly be any good. Or could it?
When their self-titled album arrived through the letterbox, there was understandably some trepidation over introducing it to our stereo. When some brave soul finally hit play, you could have heard a pin drop… and then opener ‘Avenida Revolution’ started up. For almost an hour we were struck dumb with Chickenfoot’s bombast. We all expected big rock songs… we just didn’t expect them to be this big, or this good. There was shock at how well the record hung together and how much it sounded like a real band, but it was the drum performances that really knocked us bandy. Off the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ leash, Chad Smith had gone and turned in some of his finest performances to date. All of a sudden, Chickenfoot didn’t seem such a bad name after all.
A couple of weeks before the band arrived in London for their first British show, we got Chad on the phone to talk us through his Chickenfoot experience. Clearly happy with how it had all turned out, his attention was now excitedly switching to the long tour that was ahead. For a band that had started as a bit of fun, Chad’s enthusiasm for the project clearly betrayed the fact it was continuing to be a lot of fun too. For a project that was borne of family holidays in Mexico and visits to Sammy Hagar’s nightclub in Cabo San Lucas, the drummer happily admits that it’s all turned out rather well…
“Obviously, Michael and Sammy have been close for years, so I’d occasionally play with them when I was down in Mexico on holiday,” begins Chad. “We were having such a great time that we all agreed we should do something. Unfortunately, I was always busy with my group, Sammy was busy with his so it never really happened. A little over a year ago, I told him that the Chili Peppers were having a break and that I had some time off – we finally had space to do something! Sammy suggested we find a guitar player because he didn’t think he was good enough to sing and play guitar so he suggested we phone his friend Joe. The next thing we know, we’re jamming with Joe Satriani, it felt good, we started sketching some songs, began making a record and it’s coming out this week!”
Despite there being four distinctive (and big) musical personalities in the group, Chad maintains that it all gelled remarkably quickly.
“Absolutely, I was really pleased the first time we played together in Sam’s rehearsal studio. We recorded a few things quite early on and I was really surprised at how good it was. It sounded like a real band. You could hear everyone’s contribution, but it all hung together really well. I’ve been in situations before when I’ve played with people and it sounds good on the floor, but not so good when it’s played back. This felt and sounded great live and on record. It really took me by surprise.”
The musical foundation for the album was solid from the start, says Chad. Despite having enjoyed a very unique and successful musical relationship with the Chili Peppers and Flea for years, he was able to fit in very well with Michael Anthony’s different approach to the bass. “Flea and I have developed an understanding that’s the result of us having played together for over 20 years. We have a musical telepathy that you just wouldn’t get unless you’ve been together for that long. What’s great about Michael is he’s so solid – don’t forget he played in one of the biggest rock bands for years! He played behind Eddie Van Halen, so he knows what he’s doing, but he’s also seriously under-rated. He’s very musical, he learns things very quickly and intuitively, and knows when to play and when not to play.”
Having established the rhythm section successfully, the pair went about their business in the usual way – by feeling it out and letting the music naturally develop.
“We didn’t talk about it very much, to be honest. Mike does what he does and it’s great; same with me, Joe and Sammy. Everyone has a very strong personality on their instrument, everyone’s very experienced, so we all just played whatever felt natural. This is big rock music, it’s the stuff I grew up on, so it was almost second nature for me.
“I guess I took a little more of an off-the-cuff approach because I was able to be a little looser. What was most important was the listening. A good musician is someone that can support the song you’re playing. Mike isn’t about being flashy or having a ‘Hey, look at me!’ attitude. He’s about setting a nice, solid foundation for the more melodic instruments, like the vocals and guitar. And that’s my job, too – that’s what being in the rhythm section is all about.”
Chad was clearly allowed a little more freedom than he’s used to with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. With the opportunities that come with shaping something new and having some distance from a pre-defined sonic template, Chad cut loose and turned in some amazing performances. Not having Rick Rubin, the Chili Peppers’ famed producer, helped too…
“Ha ha! Yeah, I could get away with more because I didn’t have Rick going, ‘Hey Chad, do you have to do all that stuff? Can’t you just crash into the chorus?’. Rick is very much into a meat-and-potatoes approach on the drums – his favourite drummer is Phil Rudd. And that’s cool. It definitely works for the Chili Peppers and I’d say that for at least 80% of the time, he’s right. The thing is, I quite like being a show-off and I always want to get something extra in there. That’s probably the reason why I got away with more on this record.”
And what about the other members of the band, did they try reigning in the ‘show off’?
“Nah! They’re smaller and older than me so they were too frightened to tell me otherwise! They didn’t give me too much shit because they knew I’d beat them up, so they gave me carte blanche to do what I wanted. No, only joking, the other guys were actually encouraging me to do more, like ‘Go for it, man! That sounds great! More, more, more!’. If anything they wanted me to go even crazier, but I think we found a happy balance in there somewhere!”
Producing the record was a hero of Chad’s. Andy Johns had engineered many of Led Zeppelin’s early albums, as well as The Rolling Stones’ magnum opus, Exile On Main Street. Having already worked with Sammy Hagar and Joe Satriani, Johns seemed a natural choice for Chickenfoot. Not only was he a master at producing big rock songs, but he was also a big fan of the big drum sound.
“It was a different experience to working with Rick and the Chili Peppers”, says Chad. “Rick isn’t an engineer; he doesn’t touch the board or move microphones. He’s an ideas guy and he does a lot of work in pre-production with song arrangements and parts. Andy has those qualities as well, but he has an engineer’s background. He was always out in the live room moving stuff around, changing mics and suggesting I change the snare drum or my heads. It was weird for me because it was a change to talk about this stuff with the same guy I’d talk to about arrangements. I was really impressed with that.
“Sometimes I’d be playing and he’d walk into the room. I’d be like, ‘God! Here he comes! He’s going to ask me to move something again!’. I had to remember it was for the greater good, and I was cool with that, but sometimes you get into your zone and all you want to do is play. I’d try putting him off and tell him it was fine, but he was adamant. You have to defer to someone like that though. He has so much experience and what he did was great.”
A refreshing change from the Chili Peppers experience, Chad not only captured some of his greatest parts, but arguably his finest sounding performances as well.
“My usual sound is a lot tighter and in your face. I hardly use any reverb or ambient microphones at all. It’s all very tight and clean, but that’s what works for the Chili Peppers and the musical personalities in that band. Chickenfoot is all about big rock songs, which calls for big drum sounds, which is what Andy’s known for. I was all for it. I love big rocking drums.”
It was a marriage made in heaven. With the opportunity to now play these parts live, Chad couldn’t be happier. He offers us a chance to sample Sammy’s famous tequila after the London show and finally leaves us with no doubt that he’s currently very, very happy with Chickenfoot.
“It’s been a blast, man. The whole thing has been such good fun. The live shows are going to be a riot.”
PEARL Masters Series
24 x 18″ Bass Drum
14 x 5.5″ Chad Smith Signature Snare
12 x 10″ Rack Tom
14 x 14″ Floor Tom
16 x 16″ Floor Tom
SABIAN 14″ AAX-Celerator Hi-hat
19″ AA Medium Crash
20″ AA Rock Crash
21″ AA Rock Ride
10″ AA Splash
20″ AA China
21″ Prototype China
REMO Toms: Clear Emperor
(Batter)/Clear Ambassador (Resonant)
Snare: Coated Controlled Sound (Batter)/Clear Emperor (Snare Side)
Bass Drum: Powerstroke