Life is good for Michael Anthony. After three decades achieving fame and fortune playing with Van Halen, he now rocks out in another popular group, Chickenfoot, with ex-VH bandmate Sammy Hagar, guitarist Joe Satriani and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith. Their self-titled debut album has sold over a half million copies, with a live DVD coming and a second album in the works.
In Part One of his ADD interview, the bassist spoke about Chickenfoot, his hot sauce line, documenting the past and dealing with fame. In Part Two, he discusses Planet US, the rock star life, cars, his musical heroes and his love of facials.
You were involved with the group Planet US. Most of that stuff didn’t come out, did it?
A couple of the Planet US songs came out on a CD that Sammy put out a couple years ago. None of that stuff is 100% finished, but we did mix down a couple of them. Sammy put out a CD a couple of years ago called Cosmic Universal Fashion, and there are a couple of songs from the Planet US thing that made their way onto that.
Are there other projects that you’ve been involved with that people might not know about?
There’s lots of stuff. I’ll sing some stuff or play a line or whatever. A lot of times, unless they really want to publicize the fact that I played on it, I just do it because they’re friends.
Are there any albums that we would know about?
Probably not. A lot of it is pretty low key stuff.
You sound like you’re pretty down-to-earth after all these years. A lot of people get caught up in the rock star trip.
Don’t get me wrong — [we did] in the early days. If people say they never get caught up in that kind of thing that’s been in a band like me, they’re lying because everybody does to a certain extent. Hopefully you realize it at a certain point and are able to keep it contained. I was brought up a middle-class guy, and I’m close to my whole family. We live pretty close together. After a while, you want to be a guy that can go out there and be pretty anonymous in the crowd. I consider myself a musician not a rock star. People put that tag on you at some point, I guess. There are times I’ll go out and dress up — and not play the rockstar attitude/ego thing — but I’ll go out there and be a rock star every now
Beyond the hot sauce, are there outside projects you’re pursuing?
I am part owner of a wheel company that builds aluminum wheels for cars. It’s called Bonspeed. My partner is Brad Fanshaw. I’ve grown up with cars my whole life. I know a friend who worked at the Irwindale dragstrip, close to where I lived out here in California, and this guy that I met, Brad Fanshaw, was president of Boyd Cottington‘s company. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Hot Rods by Boyd. He was a huge hot rod builder here on the West Coast. He was one of the innovators and just passed away a couple of years ago. I met this guy, and I had a few hot rods that he had built. We formed this company, and we do wheels for cars. I’m a big car nut. I go to all the car shows and will take my cars out there and hang out with these guys because for the most part they don’t care if you’re in a band. They’re all a bunch of lug nuts, so it’s kind of cool because I can be out there and just be another one of the guys hanging out.
I remember seeing Chuck D speak at CMJ a few years ago, and he commented upon the fact that up until the early ’80s the record industry tended to be run more by people with an artistic sensibility. Then in the ’80s the bean counters and the lawyers came in. Do you remember when that shift happened?
I don’t remember if it was when we were working on our 1984 album, but I remember Mo Austin, who was chairman of Warner Brothers at the time, came to the studio and we played a bunch of our rough stuff and watched the reaction. Back then record companies took an interest in nurturing a band and helping them along, rather than saying, “Hey, if you don’t have a good single then we’re onto the next band.” He came in, and I remember him saying, “Sounds like money to me.” We weren’t actually making a lot of money until Sammy joined the band, and we didn’t know any better because we were getting to live and do whatever the hell we wanted. I was able to buy a nice Porsche.
You didn’t make a lot of money even with the 1984 album?
Then we started to make a little bit of money, but we still didn’t have a really good contract until Sammy came in and brought his manager with us. He went in and said, “What the fuck. Let’s redo your contract.” Then all of a sudden it was really poppin’. We would look around and a lot of the guys at Warner Bros. got their summer houses and nice vacations, and I guess we were paying for all that.
So I guess it’s hard to feel sorry for the major labels now?
I don’t feel sorry for any of them. For some of them, it’s a karma thing. It’s all coming back to them. With the way that technology has grown, it was bound to happen anyway. There won’t be any record labels at some point here in the future.
What does this mean for you, Chickenfoot and everybody else in the future?
Hey, Redline Entertainment out of Best Buy put out our record, so you really don’t need them [labels]. With the Internet, Prince was one of the guys who first forged ahead with that, and he released it to his website.
The Chickenfoot album is still only through Best Buy?
It was exclusive through Best Buy [initially], then after that we dealt with iTunes and certain other stores. But it was primarily exclusive, and that’s what these guys want. They’re paying the big money for you to be their exclusive band when you release the CD. Gary Arnold heads up the division, and these guys are so great because they treat us almost better than Warner Bros. ever treated us. They’re so nice. Over the holidays you couldn’t even walk into one of those places without hearing our stuff spinning or seeing it on the TVs. A couple of days ago I went into our local Best Buys here, and we had a nice holiday display that had our product and actual T-shirts. They still have those set up at key locations in the stores where you walk right by them. They believe in us, and they’re going to push this thing platinum.
That seems like more of an exception for them. While the Guns ‘N Roses album sold around 700,000 copies when it came out, that was still a big disappointment given what people thought it would sell.
I don’t want to say anything bad about Guns ‘N Roses. They released Chinese Democracy through Best Buy.
It seems like Wal-Mart can almost guarantee that certain artists that they sell exclusively can hit gold or platinum. It worked for Journey, KISS, the Eagles and AC/DC. But then Christina Aguilera put out a greatest hits CD through Target that did not sell well.
You all have to work together. I remember Gary Arnold telling me part way through our tour that he never even met Axl or anybody in Guns ‘N Roses. The whole time. We played a show in May in New York when we were doing our club tour, at Irving Plaza. Guns ‘N Roses’ guitarist Bumblefoot is good friends with Joe, and he came to the show. Gary Arnold was over the moon because he finally met somebody in Guns ‘N Roses. It depends on how much work the band wants to put into it. You can’t just sit back and let the record company do it for you. I don’t know if Best Buy is as big as Wal-Mart — they certainly have got to be close at this point because they’re growing huge — but the day that the Chickenfoot CD came out we did the Conan O’Brien show out here, and then after that we went straight to a Best Buy in Los Angeles and did a big CD signing. It’s those kind of things that motivates them, too. A lot of times if they figure a band is not willing to do certain things, why should they be excited? Gary has thrown numerous parties for the company during the Chickenfoot tour, and he had us do meet and greets with them. We were glad to do it because they’re putting 110% in for us, so why shouldn’t we do the same for them?
Now if they can just carry your hot sauce.
[laughs] I don’t know how they’d take to getting some kind of a food line.
You could get Sammy’s tequila, your hot sauce and some other rocker products. By the way, have you tried Joe Perry’s hot sauce?
I’ve got a bottle of his Boneyard Brew in my fridge right now.
What do you think of it?
It’s okay. It’s weird; hot sauce is a very personalized thing. What one person hates, the next person thinks is the best thing in the world. Some of his stuff I like, some of it not so much. He did a great marketing thing with that sauce where he took a specialized pick and embedded it in the bottle. Even if you don’t like a hot sauce but are a fan of Joe Perry, you’ll go out and buy that bottle of hot sauce for the pick. I thought that was a great marketing angle that he came up with. I don’t know how involved he is in the making of the sauce. We’ve never actually sat down and talked about it.
You look like you’ve aged well. It seems like a lot of people I know in the music industry or who go out to shows regularly — rather than being sedentary and watching a lot of TV — are aging well. I think that going out helps keep you young.
Probably because when you’re working your same job day in and day out, you know what to expect and what’s going to happen. You’ve got your paycheck and just fall into that thing. In my business, you could be making money one day, and the next day you could be serving up burgers at McDonald’s. So if you want to be able to stay on top of your game, you’ve got to keep with it. I hate to exercise. I’ve got a bike at my house. My best exercise is going on stage and playing, but I stay active. I don’t just sit around on my butt all day and do nothing.
After all of these years, what do you think your fans would be surprised to learn about you?
I love my facials. My wife turned me on [to this] — and she tried to do this for years and years, and I said I would never do it — but I go in and get facials.
Oh yeah. I always said to my wife, “That’s for sissies. Girls get facials.” The first time I tried it I said, “Oh man, what the hell have I been missing all these years.” Let me tell you, I go in there for about an hour and a half, and the girl does my facial and also massages my neck and my arms. They’ll put this mask thing on you and leave for a while, and it never fails that when she comes back in I’m full on snoring. It’s the most relaxing thing. You ought to try one if you get a chance. I kid you not.
It’s cool that you can admit that and not care. There are a lot of rockers today who would be too macho to do that, especially as the stereotypes of masculinity and femininity these days have become even more exaggerated.
Well, let them be macho because, believe me, when I’m laying on that table getting my facial, I don’t think about shit except how good it feels. [laughs] Once you break down that little macho barrier right there, why not? I figure I’ve been beating up my body for how many years. Why not pamper myself a little bit? When I first went in and did that, I told my wife she was right and I was wrong. I never knew what I was missing.
What is your favorite band of all time?
Oh man, you put it to me there. I’d probably have to say Led Zeppelin, only because musically they were always everything I loved in a band. But it’s kind of tough because I love The Who, too. But John Paul Jones was my big influence growing up.
Being a drummer, I know that the rhythm section usually gets the shaft because people think we’re just timekeepers.
I knew when I first picked up a bass — and everybody said, “Ok, you’re Bill Wyman, you just hold that thing, stand in the corner, don’t move and play” — that it was not the glamour instrument. Everybody wanted to play guitar or be a lead singer. Then it spilled over into drummers. Nobody wanted to play bass. So I never had a problem finding a band.
But you also sing, and your harmonies were integral to Van Halen.
Don’t get me wrong. That was the stereotype of what I should be. I never felt the need to just stand there and play. I loved jumping around and singing. I loved singing. I never had formal training. I’d never be a lead singer because I don’t have the personality for that. When I first joined Van Halen, I was singing lead in every band before that, and I didn’t want to sing lead. I didn’t even want to sing background, and then they said they had a new song and wanted me to try a harmony on it. And there you go. But, hey, I enjoy it.