Chad Smith: "There Was Blood, I Hit Sammy Hagar In The Head With My Drum"
Chad Smith on the Red Hot Chili Peppers, living out his childhood dreams, flattening Sammy Hagar with his floor tom and why, even at his age, he just can’t stop...
This article originally appeared in Classic Rock Presents: Chickenfoot III.
"Honestly,” says Chad Smith from his Malibu home, “when Chickenfoot started I really didn’t think it would go any further than the four of us getting together for a jam and having some fun. But then it kind of took on a life of its own…”
It was a chance meeting with friend Jerry Cantrell, from Alice In Chains, on a flight from Los Angeles to Mexico that led the Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer to the Cabo Wabo nightclub later that evening. The club’s owner, one Sammy Hagar, was celebrating his birthday and had invited a bunch of musician friends, including Jerry, to play at the notorious annual bash. Within 15 minutes of meeting Hagar, Smith found himself on stage and from that point on became a regular fixture in the former Van Halen frontman’s star-studded ‘house band’. And when a certain Michael Anthony joined Sammy and Chad at one particular Cabo Wabo extravaganza, he suggested the trio perform under the name Chickenfoot.
“We just had a fucking blast that night,” Smith remembers, “and talked about jamming together again when time permitted.” That chance came when the Chili Peppers announced in 2007 that, after 10 years of back-to-back writing, recording and touring, they would be taking an extended break. Joe Satriani – a close friend of Hagar – was duly recruited on guitar and it wasn’t long before the quartet’s jam sessions turned into song writing sessions. Chickenfoot’s self-titled debut album was released in June 2009 and live dates quickly followed – including an eventful show at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire. What had started off a fun side project for all concerned had suddenly, and unexpectedly, morphed into a full-fledged band with a life of its own.
Plans for a second Chickenfoot record were put on hold in 2010 as Smith returned to the Chili Peppers to start work on I’m With You – their first album with new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, after John Frusciante quit the band in 2009 to concentrate on his solo work. But at the beginning of 2011, when all four members found themselves with free time, Chickenfoot jumped at the chance to enter the studio again…
So when you, Sammy, Michael and Joe first started jamming together, you never imagined that you’d be sitting here now talking about album number two, III?
No, I really never expected things to take off the way they did. But we just had such a good time playing and hanging out that we decided to do that first record and then go out on the road. Suddenly we were a real band and of course we were then all excited about doing more songs together… I love playing with those guys, and creating and making music with them is so much fun, we really vibe off each other. It’s basically us celebrating our roots – the classic rock music that we love – and we have no problem going back to 1972 with big smiles on our faces. Those riffs and that whole blues/hard rock thing that came out of Britain in the form of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin is what I grew up on, and I’d spend hours playing along to it when I was a kid.
As the first record came about almost by accident, did you have a different approach when it came to this one?
Not really… we don’t labour over stuff too much in this band! I think the thing that’s different this time round is that we were just more comfortable with each other’s styles; there wasn’t that period of having to figure out your new girlfriend, you know? We’d been making out for a while by the time we came to do this, and it made sense that we felt more like a proper band because we just knew each other better and we’d played together more.
So how does the Chickenfoot songwriting process take shape?
Right from the start it’s always been very collaborative. Joe comes up with riffs – which he records in his home studio and sends out to the rest of us and then we all talk and throw in our two cents’ worth about which ones we like. At that point the ideas are all in different forms; some are more developed than others, some might have a drum machine on, some just acoustic guitar… It’s only when we all get together and fill those ideas out with us, our personalities and our playing – and Sammy does his thing over the top of it – that it really turns into Chickenfoot.
Normally it’s always the music first, but Come Closer on this record is a new approach for us because Sammy instead took a lyrical idea to Joe. Joe actually wrote the music on piano, but then of course it got all rocked out when we took it into the studio!
Actually, finding time to get together to record this album was a challenge in itself, wasn’t it? You and Michael live down in southern California, while Joe and Sammy are up in the Bay Area of San Francisco, and on top of that you were also juggling Chili Peppers commitments…
This record did come together quickly, but it happened in a very spontaneous and organic way. Michael and I would head up to San Francisco as soon as there was a window, we’d come up with the arrangements and just bang it out… There really wasn’t a lot of thinking involved to be honest – it’s more about the chemistry between the four of us and the experience we have as musicians – and for me that’s really good. The moment I start thinking about things too much is when we’ve got problems!
Recording took place at Sammy’s revamped Marin County studio, now known affectionately as The Foot Locker. Sammy was hoping for “drums that will take your head off” – and judging by the results, that’s just what he’s got…
It’s all about powerful drums and a big sound. I do hit hard – it’s the way I like to play and with this band I can rock out to my heart’s content! Recording in such a nice environment really helped too and made the whole process even more enjoyable. There was never any pressure because of studio time and it was like having our own little clubhouse. We’d hang out – just us and our managers – play, and eat hamburgers. And do you know what? I just watched this little promo DVD that’s been done for III – that has footage of us in the studio – and it really shouldn’t be legal to have that much fun making a record!
Your touring schedule with the Chili Peppers means that you won’t be available to hit the road with Chickenfoot later this year. Just confirmed to take over drumming duties, on your recommendation, is Kenny Aronoff, who also sat in for you in your jazz-funk-rock outfit, the Bombastic Meatbats…
It’s funny, because I think the Chickenfoot guys had almost forgotten that I had to go back to my day job! I really wish I could do both, but I can’t, so I’m passing the baton on to my dear friend Kenny once again. He’s a powerful, musical and very experienced drummer and, on top of all of those things, a great guy. And with a band like Chickenfoot, it’s not just about the playing… Of course that’s important, but it’s also about the fit and the chemistry between everyone when you are travelling and touring. I know Kenny will do an awesome job.
It’s great to see the new record getting some love, even if we are being branded ‘dinosaur rock’ and I’m excited that the band now has more great songs to take out and play live.
So you’re still a fully-fledged member of Chickenfoot?
Absolutely… I didn’t quit – Kenny is just my tour replacement and anyway, they can’t fire me because I started this fucking band!
And after such a long break, you must be looking forward to going back out with the Chili Peppers?
I love playing in the Chili Peppers and I’m very proud of everything our group has achieved. We do have a sound, we do have something cool to say, and we are able to keep changing and growing. I’m With You is different and I’m glad it’s different, but it still sounds like us, you know? Having Josh is great and he’s given us a new injection of youthful exuberance. We couldn’t have asked for a better guy.
Everyone is really excited and happy, we premiered the video for The Adventures Of Rain Dance Maggie yesterday. I rode down to The Forum in Los Angeles on my motorcycle – along the Pacific Coast Highway – and I was just looking out at the ocean thinking about how fortunate I am… Music is what I love, and I’ve been lucky enough to do it for a long time now. The fact that people still care about the Chili Peppers after all this time is amazing to me. It warms my heart and it’s something that I’ll never take for granted.
How do you deal with the demands of the heavy touring schedule that now lies ahead?
The way we play shows is very physical – we still like to go crazy out there! But it’s important to remember that it isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon, and it’s all about pacing yourself. And let’s face it, I’m no spring chicken anymore – I’m 49 now, an old man – and to be able to do what I want to do, I have to take care of myself. I haven’t got my ‘road muscle’ on yet, but that will come, and we’ll soon settle back into the routine of three weeks on the road and then a break to spend time with our families.
In addition to playing with Chickenfoot during your time off, you also managed to record and tour with the Bombastic Meatbats, work with Rick Rubin, and play on Outernational’s debut album…
Ha ha! I really need to learn how to say no, don’t I? I think it’s very healthy to do different things. It helps you grow as a player and I love the challenge and the variety of all the different projects that have come my way. Seriously, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to play and be creative with top class musicians?
Take us back to the place where Chickenfoot all began – the famous Cabo Wabo club in Cabo San Lucas…
I had just bought a place in Mexico and, during hurricane season, I had to rush down there because there had been some damage to my house. On the plane I bumped into Jerry [Cantrell] from Alice In Chains, who told me he was playing at Sammy’s birthday party that night, and that I should pop along. So I did…
I’d heard of Cabo Wabo, but had never actually been there. I went expecting a little place with a couple of pictures of Van Halen on the wall, and then I turned the corner and was met with this huge line of people who were going crazy and loud music blasting out all over the place. I had to explain to the security guys who I was and they took my ID and disappeared inside… I was told that Sammy wanted to see me, and before I know it he’s giving me tequila and I’m up on stage playing – all within the space of about 15 minutes!
We just hit it off immediately and became great friends. Every time I went down to Cabo we’d play together at the club, jamming to Doors songs, Led Zeppelin, James Brown… That first Montrose album is one of my favourite records, and if you’d have told me at the age of 16 that one day I’d be playing Bad Motor Scooter with Sammy Hagar, I’d have said you were out of your mind.
Jamming with Michael Anthony fulfilled another childhood dream, didn’t it?
Are you kidding me? Michael Anthony from Van-fucking-Halen! I played those songs in my garage when I was in high school.
The four of you first played together in 2008, as the encore at one of Sammy’s shows in Las Vegas during Superbowl weekend.
We immediately knew that we had something; we were really vibing off each other. Everyone had other careers, other things to do, but we all felt strongly enough to want to invest time and energy into it. And I cannot tell you what it meant to have Andy Johns – the guy who worked with Zeppelin – record my drums on that first record. Am I going to say no to that? Like fuck I am!
You have particularly fond memories of Chickenfoot’s gig at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire too.
That show was a fucking blast! I remembered it was a cool venue because I took part in a drum event there years ago called Drums In The Bush – along with Ginger Baker, Bernard Purdie and David Garibaldi. Ginger was kind of cranky, which was great because that’s sort of what I expected. It was such an honour to be on the same bill as him – he’s a total genius – and it was a really fun day.
Our show there turned out to be pretty crazy too. We had blood because I cut myself on a cymbal – as a little nod to Keith Moon I decided to throw my drums around at the end, in the process hitting Sammy on the head with the floor tom, so he was all beat up. Backstage we had John McEnroe and the Spinal Tap guys hanging out, and at the end of the evening came the shock news that Michael Jackson was dead. All in one night – it was quite a show!