You want to be Michael Anthony, once of Van Halen and now of Chickenfoot. No, you really do

True gentlemen are rare in rock’n’roll: even the most chummy interviewees often turn out to have a history of treating people badly, or throwing tantrums, or stealing their assistants’ girlfriends, or whatever. Not Michael Anthony, the affable Chickenfoot bassist, who most journos agree is a sterling chap who you could easily have a pint with at your local watering hole. What a refreshing change.

Anthony’s previous band, Van Halen, were and remain a huge institution in rock history, dominating the airwaves in the 1980s with a series of stadium-sized albums and singles. Similarly, Chickenfoot – a supergroup featuring our man plus ex-VH singer Sammy Hagar, guitarist Joe Satriani and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith – has been acclaimed in rock circles.

Asked about the band’s second album (which they’ve named Chickenfoot III, the comedians), Anthony explains: “I was really pleased with the way it turned out. The music was great and it lent itself to some really interesting background vocals from me. As for the bass playing, these guys inspire me to play my best. At no point did Joe or I tell each other ‘You should try playing this, or this’ – everybody had total freedom, because Joe’s ideas were so amazing, and Chad’s playing really got me going as well. As for Sammy, we got most of the music done before he even showed up – these singers don’t even wake up until one or two in the afternoon, ha ha! Joe, Chad and I would be in the studio jamming, and Sammy would come in and he would be a little overwhelmed because we were tracking two songs a day. He’d be like, ‘I’m not sure I can keep up with you guys!’ That’s the way it should be – make these lead singers work for their money….”

He adds: “Seriously, though, we were coming up with a lot of ideas, so Sammy did the only thing he could and took a break at his place in Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, so I’d be getting phone calls about the songs – in particular a song called ‘Different Devil’. Initially Sammy wasn’t inspired by it at all. He didn’t know what to do with that song, so we weren’t going to use it on the album – but he took that break and called me and told me that had a great idea for it. We recut it and it turned out to be one of the best songs on the album.”

As with Chickenfoot’s first album, I, Anthony used his distinctive signature Yamaha bass. “I used the ones that have the Chickenfoot logos on them, which were made for our last tour,” he says. “It was funny: everything happened so fast when we recorded the first album back in 2009 that I didn’t really have time to prepare for it. I normally bring 10 to 15 basses to the studio, so I can try different sounds out, and also a bunch of amps – but because I thought I was just going up there to jam, I only took two basses and a little amp, an Ampeg B50R. That amp sounded so great that I ended up using it on the first album. Well, this time I was a little more prepared so I brought a few different amps – but I still ended up using that same B50R, even though it only has one 12” speaker. It had everything I needed. I guess I just found an amp that mixed really well with Chad’s drums. If that’s happening, why keep messing around with stuff?”

The Anthony Yamahas come in four- and five-string versions. When we ask him if he’s equally happy with both configurations, he replies: “Yes I am. Some bass players play a five-string just to say ‘Hey, I play a five-string!’, or they play a fretless bass for the same reason – and I’ve played fretless with Van Halen before. But why make it more difficult than it has to be? My main guitar is a four-string, but I’ll use a five or a fretless if the song calls for it. It’s all about what the song calls for and what sound I want on the album. I also have a drop tuner on the four-string, and that helps a lot of the time.”

Although he’s been asked many times about his early days as a bass player, Anthony is happy to run through the story one more time for our benefit. “That’s okay, that way I never forget it!” he responds to our apology. “I started playing music when I was about eight years old. I played the trumpet, so I already had some knowledge of playing music by the time I got to high school. In school all my friends were guitar players, singers or drummers: this was back in the days of early Led Zeppelin. If you were a bass player, you were regarded as being like Bill Wyman: you just stood next to the drummer and did nothing but play bass. Nobody had a bass player, so I borrowed a friend’s guitar, took the top E and B strings off and started playing bass like that.”

Just like that, eh? However, it took some time before the budding stadium-rocker got to know his instrument, he says: “For the first six months or whatever, I didn’t even know how to tune: I had my guitar player play an E chord and I tuned the strings to the first four strings of an E chord – so you could actually strum the bass and it would be that chord. Later I found the proper way to do it, and I figured that I should probably learn how to play properly. I’m also left-handed, but I’d never heard of flipping a guitar over, so I just learned how to play right-handed. It wasn’t difficult to do, because I’d never heard of an alternative. Can I play left-handed now? You know what – very little. Believe me, you’d think I was just starting out on bass if you heard me!”

Asked how long it was before he was up and running as a bass player, Anthony recalls: “Within the first year I was playing with friends of mine. My sister had an album by Mike Bloomfield’s band the Electric Flag, and their bass player was called Harvey Brooks: I just fell in love with a lot of his blues lines. The next guy that I really fell into was John Paul Jones. I loved the bass-lines on those first three Zeppelin albums, he’s a real inspiration to me. I was also listening to Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, Chris Squire… all the rock bass players. They were all innovators in their own right. Paul McCartney too: people don’t look at him as a bass player in the same light as those other guys, but he’s one of the best rock players. A lot of the stuff that he played was just amazing.”

By the time he joined Van Halen in 1974, Anthony was a decent pocket player – and he knew from the moment he first heard Eddie Van Halen’s supremely elaborate guitar playing that he would need to keep the bass parts solid rather than extrovert. “I took the opposite approach,” he says, “because Eddie’s the kind of guitar player who has so much going on. There are riffs but also a lot of leads, and I felt I should keep the bass playing down a lot more. We could have done the Cream kind of thing, where they go into a solo and it’s like three different songs are being played at the same time, but really Cream were one of the very few bands who could make that work. It was amazing the way those guys played together. I always wanted to make a really tight foundation, so that Eddie could play anything he wanted without losing focus on where the song was going. In a way it restricted me a little bit, because there were times when I wanted to play a little more – but I had to hold myself back because I wanted to keep a really tight anchor on everything. We must have been doing something right, though, ha ha!”

All these years later, Anthony’s current band allows him to stretch out as a player. “The great thing about Chickenfoot,” he explains, “is that it calls for a lot of eighth-note and sixteenth-note pumping stuff, and a lot of the songs lend themselves to me being able to play some different bass-lines – some really flowing lines, which is great.”

It only took three decades for the right band to come along, we quip. “Yes, I had to wait 30 years for it to happen, but for the most part it was a great 30 years,” he chuckles. “I feel blessed that we were able to form something like this and keep it going, because a lot of times after a band like Van Halen is over, you don’t find something like that again. I’m sure when Chickenfoot were formed, people said ‘Oh, it’s just a glued-together band’, but bands like that don’t have the fire and the magic to keep it going.”

You won’t hear any slapping in Chickenfoot (“I’ll very rarely do any of it because what we play doesn’t require it, but I can slap and pop a little bit. I don’t know if I want any of my hardcore fans to see me doing it, though – they might think that I’d gone a wayward way! I appreciate all different kinds of playing, though”) but you’ll definitely hear Anthony play more expressively than he’s ever done before. “I’m looking at things differently now,” he says. “I’m trying to be more melodic, and the music that Joe comes up with makes me look at the bass a little differently. You know, I was actually contemplating putting together a solo project before Chickenfoot happened, because I’d played so many years with Sammy that I wanted to do something different. But I’m having so much fun with this band, and if everyone wants it, then I see no reason why it shouldn’t go on for a long time yet. Joe has so many ideas. From the first album to this one, fans will hear the evolution of the band.”

He adds: “I could have retired some time back, but we just love making music. One of the reasons that we all got together was that we’ve all done a lot with our respective bands in the past, and we don’t really need the money and we have nothing to prove. We just wanted to jam together and have some fun, but our first record went gold in the USA – and this album is much stronger.”

Whiskey In The Jar

Long-time Anthony watchers will remember his famous Jack Daniel’s bottle-shaped bass. It would be remiss of us if we didn’t ask if he still plays it…

“Much as I always put it away in my closet after every tour, the first thing that anyone says to me when we’re going out on tour is ‘Will the Jack Daniel’s bass be out here?’ I guess it became so associated with me that I can’t retire it now. I’ll probably have it out on tour with me this time, yes. It was meant to be a novelty, just because I drank a lot of JD back in the day, but in fact the current one is the third Jack Daniel’s bass that I’ve had. Yamaha built that one for me and they’re going to build me a fourth. Nowadays we build them better than we used to. The first one I pieced together with parts from a Kramer bass and it was a piece of junk. I could hardly play it, but it started to become so popular that I thought I should probably have one properly made. Did I ask Jack Daniel’s for their permission? Yeah. Actually, for the second JD bass that we made – which is currently on loan to the Rock’N’Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland – I got the graphics from the people at JD. They have a picture of me with that bass on the wall at their corporate headquarters. They gave me their blessings, because they know how much I drink JD, and I’m also a Tennessee Squire – which is an elite group of people who own a little piece of land at the distillery. I don’t drink it as much as I used to, obviously, because I’m still here – if I drank as much now as I did when I was 24 I’d be dead. But then everyone’s a big drinker at 24. I had to learn to grow old gracefully… a little bit!”

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