Michael Anthony: ‘It Is An Unusual Mix Of Characters That Make Up This Band’
Chickenfoot are comprised of former Van Halen and Montrose vocalist Sammy Hagar, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, former Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony and world renowned electric guitarist Joe Satriani. The group is already being hailed as one of the most exciting rock and roll guitar bands in years. Recently, Chickenfoot released their debut album which went on to achieve phenomenal world wide acclaim, and debuted at #4 on the American Billboard 200.
Bass player Michael Anthony was one of the founding members of Van Halen, and was the man responsible for lying down the bedrock for which guitar genius Eddie Van Halen could fly. More than that, he provided a signature style of background vocal that became such an intrinsic part of that band. “A total fluke,” the good-natured bassist humbly asserts today. “I was just doing what came naturally.” Michael Anthony recently took some time off from his very hectic schedule to sit down and talk to Joe Matera about Chickenfoot, Van Halen and his new bass rig.
UG: The Chickenfoot album oozes such a strong sense of fun and excitement, something that reminds a lot of what was captured on the early Van Halen records.
Michael Anthony: You hit that one right on the head. Obviously playing in a new group situation like this really inspires you to play differently. And these guys are great musicians and I don’t have to tell you that. And so we’re all good friends having a great time. And it is exactly like what it was in the early days of Van Halen because later on, everybody was kind of doing their own thing. But it makes me remember why I got into this business in the first place. And that is that you can have fun doing it.
As a bass player, having played with Alex Van Halen for many years, was it challenging for you to play with Chad Smith, who’s more of a funk player than the sort you’re used to?
It is definitely an unusual mix of characters that make up this band. Chad is such a great guy. I actually first met him about four years ago, down in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. He’s got a house down there and that was actually where Sammy met him also for the first time. The three of us have camped down there numerous times, and obviously before the Chickenfoot thing, I’d jam with Chad on many occasions. And he has this funk and un-conventional rock style that he plays, which is really cool and which he brings to the band.
“Obviously playing in a new group situation like this really inspires you to play differently.“
Listening to the album, it feels like the music and songs came together from more of a loose jam type situation with each other than any sort of structured songwriting format?
Yeah. Actually we first jammed almost two years ago now and the magic and the fire, was great from that initial jam. It was then that we said, ‘we’ve got to take this to see where it goes’ and so we went into the studio but without a producer or anybody. We did this for ourselves. We didn’t have any type of super group in mind when we were first thinking of putting it together as we were just four friends jamming. And because Joe [Satriani] had just put his last solo album out, he was ready to go out on the road so it wasn’t like we had a lot of time to go into the studio. We only had about three days over a weekend and so we went in and just jammed and came up with about six or seven ideas. Then whenever we could, we would just get together and basically jam and work on ideas that we had and also come up with different ideas.
Was it a total difference approach making this album compared to how you and Sammy made the Van Halen records?
It was much closer to how we did the music in the early days of Van Halen where somebody had an idea. Like Joe came up with most of the basic guitar riff ideas for this album, and then we would all just throw our own two cents into mix. Nobody during the recording and rehearsing of this whole thing ever told anybody else what they thought they should play.
It seems making this record was very prolific songwriting wise, so have you got any material for another Chickenfoot record?
We actually had some ideas that we didn’t use because they didn’t go with the bulk of material that ended up on this album. And also when we were on tour this year, we had a little MP3 player with us. And before every show, all four of us would get together to do a little practice session with little practice amps, and we would jam before every show together as a band. Just warming up, and the ideas would start coming out. So we’d turn on the MP3 player, put the ideas all down and let it go. And from those sessions, we got all kinds of bits and pieces and ideas that we can now expand and work on.
The most striking thing I noticed on this album is how prominent your bass sits in the mix. On most of the Van Halen records – aside from the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge album – your bass was always buried in the mix.
That was one of the great things about having Andy Johns work with us again. [Johns produced For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge] as he really likes to make the mix heavy. For the most part, a lot of the Van Halen stuff, the bass was always mixed in really light. But on this record, everybody wanted the bass to be out there. And both Sammy and I really wanted to take advantage of our vocal harmony blend too because it is a unique sound.
Speaking of Andy Johns, what did he bring to the process?
Andy is a real hands on guy. And he’s also one of the guys that jumps right into the mix. He’s great with ideas with everything from the parts to play to the song ideas. For me, as bass player, he had some great ideas as far as how to mike up and record the bass. And that worked really well. In Van Halen, a lot of times, the recording sessions were really tough. I’d need to bring in five or six different rigs and I don’t know, how many basses. With Andy, I ended up recording this whole album on this one little Ampeg B-50R amp that I had, and a couple of my Yamaha signature basses. And that was what I used for the whole album. With just that amp and bass, we got a sound that fit in just right.
“We didn’t have any type of super group in mind when we were first thinking of putting it together as we were just four friends jamming.“
How did you go about capturing your bass sound in studio?
With Van Halen as simple as it seemed, it was a really tough band to record because of the interplay between Alex’s big drum sound and Eddie’s guitar tone. Eddie wasn’t the type of guy, like a lot of guitar players are, where they have a certain frequency range that everything else would have to sit around it. Eddie’s tonal range was so broad and so wide that it was always kind of tough to fit the bass in. And also playing with two brothers like that, they wanted all their stuff to be big and bad and so, I’d try and squeeze the bass somewhere in there, and try and find a frequency that fit. When we worked with Andy the first time, he was probably the first producer we had worked with, that was really able to make everything work and sound big. And as we’ve discussed, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge was the first album where my bass actually had a real good big bottom end to it.
You have always used Ampeg amp but you have switched to Peavey amp recently. Why?
When we were recording this thing, the funny thing was that Joe had just quit playing Peavey at the time. And he’s actually working on a new amp of his as we speak. Anyway he introduced me to the Peavey guy who told me that Hartley [Peavey] had apparently been after me for such a long time and so was keen to show me some of his stuff. At that point, I had been going through a tough time with Ampeg. They got bought out by a company out here on the West Coast, in Seattle, called Loud Technologies and so they weren’t as personable to work with anymore. So I told the Peavey guy I would like to check out their stuff. And their stuff actually did sound really good. And I figured why not change? It is a new band, so new equipment too. I put it [Peavey] up against my Ampeg stage rig and it had just a little bit more to it. More of presence and more of a crunch that I really like. I have a brand new bass amp called a Peavey VB-3 and a brand new cab, in fact the cabs that I play are all prototypes, 8 x 10” cabs which we’re going to put together as a Michael Anthony signature bass amp.
When can we expect the signature bass rig to be available?
We’re working on it right now and it’ll be sometime during this next coming year.
How is your bass collection these days? I hear you have around 150 basses in your collection?
Yeah it is something like that. But the majority of those basses are basses that are…[sic] during the Van Halen years it’d be, Roth more so than anybody else out of the band, who would always be saying, ‘oh yeah new tour so you’ve got to use something different and get a different look or whatever’. So a lot of those basses are things that people made and gave me, as I’ve never been much of a collector until probably about the last ten years or so. Out of all those basses, I have probably got about 25 or 30 basses that are really collectible basses. Like, I’ve got the third Rickenbacker 4000 series bass ever made and I’ve got some semi-hollow Rickenbackers, a couple of the old Gibson EB-1 violin basses and some old Fender basses. But I’ve never been that much of a collector. Most of the basses I have in my collection have been because guys have put together for me and because they looked different and cool. Of course, I got them to sound and play the way I wanted them to, but it was mostly just for a different look for when we went out on tour.
With all your years with Van Halen, what do you consider one of your most treasured memories of your time with the band?
It is probably when we walked out on stage in Southern California at the US festival in 1983. There was like 300,000 to 400,000 people there as we walked out on to that stage. I mean my mouth just dropped wide open. It was Woodstock times ten to me.
My personal favorite Van Halen album of all time is the Fair Warning album.
Cool, Fair Warning is my favorite Roth era album.
“With Van Halen as simple as it seemed, it was a really tough band to record.“
I really think that album has been highly under rated over the years. Looking back now, what do you remember about the making of that album?
After having had made a few Van Halen records, we were obviously becoming a lot more comfortable in the studio. I think at that stage, as players, we were really becoming more accomplished as far as playing better than we have ever had as a unit and as a band. I just remember it was all good times. One great thing about a lot of that early stuff too is that we never, or used very, very few, overdubs, guitar overdubs. We always wanted to play it live, like we did on stage because that was how we would ultimately end up playing it to the people anyway. At that stage we were also learning a lot of the technical stuff, all the magic and all the stuff, the fairy dust that you can spread on stuff in the studio, but we always wanted to maintain that raw type sound. I think at that point we were probably rocking as a band.
Finally having been in this industry for many, many years now, what advice would you offer on the business side of things to up and coming musicians?
To probably go with what you feel in your heart to do. Like we [Van Halen] had management and record companies try and sway us one way or the other, but Van Halen, we always stuck to our guns and recorded the kind of music that we wanted to play. We never sold out to doing what was happening in the industry at the time or what everybody else was buying. Sometimes you may suffer or starve a little bit, but it is always more satisfying to play what you feel in your heart and what you love to play rather than trying to second guess and please anybody.
Interview by Joe Matera
Ultimate-Guitar.Com © 2009
Photo credit: Paul Bachmann, Ross Halfin