Hard to believe it’s been nearly forty-five years since Joe Satriani traded in football pads for an electric guitar.
The Long Islander swore off high school athletics and took up his axe in 1970, on the very day Jimi Hendrix died. He studied music theory with renowned jazzmen—but it wasn’t long before the student became the master. Relocating to Berkley, California, Satriani gave guys like Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett (Metallica), Alex Skolnick (Testament), and Larry LaLonde (Primus) their first lessons in rock.
Joe played with San Francisco New Wave trio The Squares and gigged with Greg Kihn (of “Jeopardy” and “Breakup Song” fame) before cutting his first solo album for Relativity. 1986’s Not of This Earth served notice to Van Halen clones that a new string king had arrived, and when 1988’s Surfing With the Alien brought the virtuoso’s melodic guitar mettle and chops galore to FM radio, well…people spent a lot of time staring at their boom-boxes in disbelief.
Satriani’s cut over a dozen albums since (along with a few live sets), played with Mick Jagger and Deep Purple, and founded G3—the semiannual touring package featuring himself and a rotating roster of other guitar heroes. Joe’s also one of the all-stars in Chickenfoot, the super-group he formed in 2008 with Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony (Van Halen), and Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers).
Through it all, however, Satriani’s done the nearly impossible by maintaining a successful solo career with his own signature brand of wordless (notwithstanding 1990’s Flying in a Blue Dream) space rock. Sure, there are lots of guitar shredders out there, but few establish themselves outside the context of a full band. Joe’s sold millions of records, been nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental a whopping 15 times, had his tunes licensed for use in movies, video games, and television commercials, and inked endorsements with equipment manufacturers like Peavey, Vox, and Marshall.
Hell, “Satch” even made it cool to be a “chrome dome” at the height of the hair band craze.
Despite his creative and commercial triumphs, Satriani remains refreshingly ego-free and muse-driven. We had a chance to catch up with the maestro in advance of a major U.S. tour behind his new Epic release, Unstoppable Momentum, whose itinerary drops Joe at Lakewood Civic Auditorium on September 19th. And we set aside talking points on pitch axis theory and the circle of fifths in favor of topics even us “Guitar for Dummies” novices can grasp—like funny song names and notepad doodles.
CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: Great to be talking with you, Joe—thanks for taking the time out! So, you finished the European tour and are taking a break now before hitting the States?
SATRIANI: Yeah, we did nine weeks in Europe. I’m home, kinda off—but I did the national anthem for the Moto GP [Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix at Mazda Raceway, Laguna Seca] yesterday and I’ve got a Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp coming up in a few weeks. But pretty much I’m home overseeing painting and all sorts of domestic stuff!
Watch Joe perform the anthem here: http://vimeo.com/70743618
CME: Home for you is San Francisco now, but you’re originally from New York, yes? How long have you been out there?
SATRIANI: I’ve been living in San Francisco for over thirty years now, so yeah, this is home.
CME: You’ve already covered half the world on tour behind your new Unstoppable Momentum album. Can you talk about the group you’ve got with you? There are a couple changes in personnel from the recording.
SATRIANI: I was fortunate enough to bring to together a band that could bring this new record to life onstage, but also who could look back to the catalog and put a fresh sound to all the stuff that’s been out there since—wow—’87. Also, which was kinda cool, I knew going in that Chris and Vinnie wouldn’t be available for the tour. But I didn’t really think about it until the end of the record. So in a strange twist of fate I would up having Bryan Beller and Marco Minnemann on bass and drums, respectively, together with Mike Kenneally, my keyboard player. And together these guys have been in several bands….
CME: Bryan and Marco are two-thirds of The Aristocrats.
SATRIANI: Right! Bryan and Marco are in The Aristocrats with Guthrie Govan, and Mike Kenneally and Bryan did some stuff way back with Frank Zappa. And then Marco’s been in a solo band with Mike Kenneally as well. So they’ve all been together and work really well. It’s a really great feeling when you step into a band that’s been together playing with each other for twenty years. There are a lot of mental shortcuts they’ve already got worked out. They just groove together really well! So it’s worked out.
CME: Mike’s great. I caught him on your last tour for Black Swans & Wormhole Wizards, and also saw him years ago with his own Beer for Dolphins band.
SATRIANI: He’s just great. And on this last tour I think he’s playing, like, 50% guitar. Maybe more. I’ve never really counted it up. But sometimes I look over, and he’s got his guitar on while he’s playing keyboards—sometimes doing both at the same time. A few songs I’ll bring him out and we trade solos. He’s just a really brilliant guitarist and I love having him in the band for both keyboards and guitar because he’s just so inspirational. He makes you play better every night.
Watch the video clip for Joe Satriani’s “A Door Into Summer:” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5M4BGpdU3pY
CME: Could you tell us a bit about a couple of the new songs? “Door Into Summer” is great. Then there’s “Jumpin’ In” and “Jumpin’ Out,” which are kind of like sister songs on the album….
SATRIANI: Those are two very different stories there. “Door Into Summer” was something I brought into the Chickenfoot III sessions. I thought it would be a great kind of thing for me, Chad [Smith, drums] and Mike [Anthony, bass] to groove behind Sam, who could talk—not quite talk, but not sing, either—and then come up with a melody for the chorus. But for some reason, maybe how I displayed the song to them, they didn’t quite get it, and I stuck it in the back of my pocket. When I got home I thought, “This song is really great. I’ve just got to figure out what the mystery of it is.” So for the next year I kept working on it and found out what the secret of the song was: It was just the phrasing, and a strong melody. So that’s funny how that turned out, how it started there and then came back into my solo world. And the two songs “Jumpin’ In” and “Jumpin’ Out” were written together, and for some reason I pursued “Jumpin’ In” first and finished it, but then forgot that there was a bookend song called “Jumpin’ Out.” Because I record with Pro Tools, one day I’m looking in the file folder and I see this session template there and I thought, “What’s that?” You know?
CME: Sounds kinda like when you find loose change in your sofa cushions. It’s like, “Hey, look what we have here!”
SATRIANI: Exactly! So I’d written the evil twin version of “Jumpin’ In.” And I thought it was so crazy and wondered who could play it, and that’s why I sought out [drummer] Vinnie Colaiuta for the album, because I knew I’d need a drummer who’s got a lot of finesse to approach these two songs the right way.
CME: Being a longtime fan, I’m aware that sometimes when you’re working on these songs in the studio, they don’t often have the names they end up with on record. You often give them goofy working titles based on what modes they’re in, or what scales are used. Any examples like that this time around?
SATRIANI: Yeah, I think…hold on a second [voice fades as if he’s walking away]. I’m in my studio now, and I’ve got these cards I just pulled out…. [voice picks up again] “Unstoppable Momentum” was always “Unstoppable,” and “Can’t Go Back” was always “Can’t Go Back.” “Three Sheets to the Wind” was a tough one to name. “I’ll Put a Stone on Your Cairn” started out as “Farewell,” but then I realized it was too melodramatic a name for what I was thinking of. “Shine On American Dreamer,” now that one had a typical guitar player’s title: “Drop-D Idea.” Then it looks like I’ve got six or seven titles here, because the idea behind that was for all Americans to get together every day and—with our actions—we have to make the American dream work. We have to fix what’s wrong with it and admit what we did wrong in the past, and make sure we don’t do it again. And it was also brought about by the criminal attitude of Wall Street that brought the crash in 2008. Basically, greed—no surprise there! And I thought, “How do you tell that story in an instrumental?” That’s probably why I wrote “Drop-D Idea” first. Then I thought perhaps the story is just for me, so I’ll call it “Shine On American Dreamer” and it’ll have more of a positive effect on people. But I’m looking through these songs…. Oh! This is a good insight. The song “A Celebration” that ends the record—I got this instrument, like a resonator guitar, and I pulled it out of the box and instantly wrote two songs. One I wrote had a Texas influence, and the other was more eastern, or Indian. So they wound up as little laptop recordings called “Texas” and “India.” Eventually I thought, “Well, these two could work together really well,” so I did a very slow version, a slow acoustic drifting version—at like half the tempo of what’s on the album now. The demo existed for almost nine months, and I was convinced it was going to be on the album, and then around Christmas vacation I was getting ready to do a lobster dinner. And you’ve got to start those early, so it was that kind of day. And I thought maybe I’d been wrong all those months, and that the song needed to be double-speed. So I ran downstairs to the studio, and in about two hours I reworked a demo that pretty much ended up on the album—because all the songs I recorded that day stayed on it. Then I realized, “Well, you can’t call it ‘Texas / India’ anymore,” because I’d taken that aspect out of it, and now it had this locomotive thing going on. So that’s why I changed it to “A Celebration,” for what I got out of it by changing the tempo!
CME: You always balance your set list out nicely with a good mix of new material and old favorites. Does that get trickier with each new tour? Can fans still look forward to a healthy dose of new versus old?
SATRIANI: We started the tour with the entire album in the new set, because we wanted to see what was really going to work live—because not everything on a record sounds as good onstage. And we play such a variety of places—like we played Czechoslovakia, at this outdoor show on the border there, and it was at night, and there was this castle lit up behind a river…. That’s just a very different kind of stage, where you can play something very different than if, say, you’re in Moscow playing a 5,000-seater club. They’ve got these crazy clubs that they jam people into over there. 5,000 people in a club! Then when we played the U.K. we did a lot of symphony halls where everyone is sitting down. So the conventional logic says, if everyone’s sitting comfortably, you can do some thrifty music—but if it’s a standing club in Moscow, you better keep things pumping! So we learned what songs we needed, and getting close to finalizing what we’d call “The Hits” from yesterday. So we’re definitely gonna play “Always With Me, Always With You,” “Satch Boogie,” “Ice 9,” “Summer Song.” Stuff like that. “Flying in a Blue Dream.” Stuff from the first five or six albums that were big radio hits for us, we’re definitely gonna play them, because we try to balance it out. So I think we wind up with, like, nine new songs out of the eleven that are still in the set.
CME: Over the last decade you’ve always issued a live disc and / or DVD to sort of document—and cap off—that particular album and touring cycle. Any plans to shoot or record a live “Unstoppable” concert for release in 2014?
SATRIANI: I think that’d be a cool idea to pull of. I have to work on that to see what would be the best way to do that. On one side it’s always fun to do a new live record. But it’s also sort of a bummer in a way, because when I walk out onstage these days I see hundreds of camera-phones. I’m instantly being recorded. So I’ve lost a little of the joy of going out and feeling that everyone is truly present and participating in the show, and that we can try anything crazy that we want, because it’s just this one night, wherever we might be that night. But now the reality is that no matter where you are, you’re being documented and uploaded within hours after the concert. So there is no fun little town in some corner of the world anymore where you could, you know, do something crazy just for those people. It doesn’t exist anymore. And it costs so much to make a live film, a concert film, and even when we’re filming it there’s people recording it, you know [laughs]? I wonder why we bother anymore, with these phones! I don’t know [laughs]. Maybe we’ll talk again in six months and my attitude will change, but right now I’m sitting on the fence with that one!
CME: I just read somewhere that you’ve got a book in the works for next year, though. Is this the Satriani biog everyone’s been waiting for, or an encyclopedia of your tunes and equipment, or some combination?
SATRIANI: I was approached by Jake Brown, who is an author of many books on musicians and engineers and producers. He said, “Let’s try to do some kind of book. What would you like to do?” And I felt sort of self-conscious about doing an autobiography, so we came up with the idea of making it really about the music, so that fans who already know me will really be getting something new, and might learn something they didn’t know before. So this past year we interviewed all the musicians, all the engineers, all the producers—everyone involved with every one of my records. There’s a short biography at the beginning. Jake has interviewed me exhaustively, and there’s still more to come. So then we’ll rewrite the book in my own words and throw all these images and photos in there, and it’ll be called “Strange Beautiful Music.” And it really will be focused on all the music, all the songs from all the albums and the stories behind them and the sessions and the participants. It’s just a way to give something to the fans that, I think, they’ve been really interested in for a few years, being the great fans that they are!
CME: I know you’re a bit of an artist and that you like to doodle and come up with these silly cosmic characters—like the ones appearing on your Planet Waves line of picks and guitar straps. Now you’ve got those in a book, too.
SATRIANI: Yeah, I was thinking after staring at these guitar picks…and with these straps you’ve got to come up with like, thirteen inches of repeating patterns! It boggles the artistic mind! So when I look at these things on my computer screen, nobody else is seeing them like that—unless we put them on the screen at a show. So I wondered what it would be like to have them in a book, and—without telling anyone—I ordered up two books on my iPhoto program and one to my wife and one to my manager and said, “Tell me what you think. What’s it like to sit down and open up a book and see each one of these things.” And they both came back saying, “This is great, you have to do this. You have to figure out how to put this together for the fans somehow.” So I went about using the Book Creator program…I had to edit it—I had thousands of drawings that I thought would be fun, evocative, and whimsical. Not too serious! And it’s been a great success, so now we’re looking at coming out with a postcards version of it. It’s a smaller version of the book with like thirty postcards in it that you can tear out and mail if you want…if you can find any stamps left!
CME: And to sort of complete the Joe Satriani multimedia circus, there’s also a new video game coming out—Eternal Descent—in which you appear as a character that fights zombies and monsters.
SATRIANI: Yeah, Lexie [Leon, graphic comic illustrator]. Eternal Descent is a crazy videogame fantasy thing, and he approached me about a year ago asking, “Can we use your image and work you into the story?” I just thought it was a cool game. But I contributed a bunch of guitar sounds and mimicked a lot of sounds from the Surfing With the Alien Record, and it turned out really great. I don’t know if you like that kind of game, but it’s got a cool retro vibe to it, yet the play is very modern.
CME: If I’m playing this game and I choose the Joe Satriani avatar, what kind of abilities do I have? Will I be able to zap bad guys with the Power Cosmic, like Silver Surfer?
SATRIANI: I think he’s done stuff like that, but along the stages of the game he hasn’t kept us in the loop as far as what kinds of powers. I think he wanted to surprise us. And I didn’t actually meet him until this past tour, when we were in the U.K. and met Lexi in person. It was interesting to deal with this person via email for over a year and then finally see he was a real human being! But once I get hold of the game I’ll see what those powers are. And if they’re not strong enough, I’m going to insist that he gives me more powers [laughs]!
Watch Joe play “Surfing With the Alien” live in concert: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al6HLIap5cc
Joe Satriani with Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs, Deep Purple, Kansas). Thursday, September 19, 2013 at Lakewood Civic Auditorium. Tickets $35.00-$75.00.