By Mike Bax
There isn’t really too much preamble one can put down for Joe Satriani that hasn’t already been said. He is a world renowned living guitar legend, arguably the best technical guitarist on the planet. As a teacher, some of the guitarists Satriani has taught include Steve Vai, Larry LaLonde, Rick Hunolt, Kirk Hammett, Andy Timmons, Charlie Hunter, Kevin Cadogan, and Alex Skolnick. Satriani was recruited by Mick Jagger as lead guitarist for his first solo tour in 1988. In 1994, Satriani toured with Deep Purple as their lead guitarist.
The guy kicks ass. He makes only instumental albums, and has a new one coming out on July 24th called Shockwave Supernova. It will be his 15th commercial release. And it is his best in years. You can take that to the bank.
Satriani was good enough to call me at 1:30pm on June 3rd and talk with me about his new album, his creative process, his ability to retrofit ideas, and his upcoming animated project Crystal Planet.
Joe: Hi Mike. This is Joe.
Mike: Music to my ears, right there.
Joe: Alright then. (laughter)
Mike: What’s today looking like for you, Joe? Is today a big press day for you?
Joe: Lots of press today. Then off to Soundwave Studios to do some video thing. And I’ve noticed they are tearing the street up in front of my house. I’m not quite sure how I’m going to get out of here.
Mike: That’s a concern.
Joe: San Francisco decided to work on my street today.
Mike: Can you talk about how long you have known John Cuniberti?
Joe: John Cuniberti and I met back in 1980. I was in a band called The Squares, a power-pop trio with Jeff Campatelli on drums and Andy Milton on bass. We were looking for a live sound engineer. We’d heard him working with a number of local bands in the Berkley California club scene and we approached him. He did become out live sound engineer, then brought us into the studio because he was just starting his career as a studio engineer at this point. He recorded all of our demos that eventually were unsuccessful… because we really weren’t that good. (laughs) However, John’s recording chops were amazing and, after I recorded my first EP I approached John with co-producing a real full-length album of instrumental music, and that became Not Of This Earth. So we started working together in 1985 and making records together, it would have been around 1986 when Not Of This Earth came out. As far as being co-producers and that relationship between engineering and musician, that started back in 1985.
Mike: Wow. Would it be easy for you to articulate now what it is that makes working with John such a joy for you?
Joe: There’s lots of reasons. He’s just damn good, you know? You can’t underestimate or downplay the quality of somebody’s talent and work ethic. And John’s got both. He’s got a great set of ears. He knows the studio. He’s always been very proactive learning the latest thing. He is not fazed by the silly fad approaches to making music in the studio. He is a classic engineer, or I should say he is a recording engineer in the classic sense. Me on the other hand, I’m a guitar player who gets lost in the moment. It’s good to have somebody with a clear head to look at the VU meters and everything and make sure everything is getting recorded properly. He’s also a very creative person. He never gets in the way of a creative moment, but at the same time he’s one of the few guys that I trust to tap me on the shoulder and tell me that I suck and that I should do it again. (laughs) When you are in the middle of a creative moment you really can’t listen to yourself and be the player at the same time. You have to just let yourself go off, and you need someone you trust to tell you if you are just going off the deep end or if you are really onto something. So that relationship is very important because he’s been able to enhance the moment rather than spoil it. But he has also been there to bring me down to earth when things are just getting out of hand. That’s been really great. He’s taught me how to engineer myself at home. He’s helped me design my home studio and he’s been my guide in that world.
Mike: Would you describe yourself as somebody who is always writing, Joe?
Joe: Yeah. The brief period where as soon as a record is done I have a moment of shut-down, I exhale and say, ‘Wow. I’m so happy THAT’S over.” It’s very emotionally cathartic to go through working on songs that mean a lot to you in a concentrated form like that. Especially when you are making a record, it’s just so expensive, you know? You are trying every day to squeeze everything out of every minute you are in a studio. So once that gets finished I shut down, but the reality is that’s only for about a day or two. Then suddenly I feel the need to walk away for a bit and start writing something different. That is where the other projects really help – to be involved in other projects simultaneously and be able to put something aside like an album project and work with another collaborator or a TV show or something else, that pulls your creative mind away from what you just did and lets you apply it to something different.
Mike: Cool. I would describe you as a musician that doesn’t really need to prove himself anymore. I think your back catalog and your skillset speak for themselves. You somehow manage to find new and creative ways to express yourself album after album which never ceases to amaze me.
Joe: Oh great. Thank you.
Mike: Considering the type of music that I tend to gravitate towards from you… the more guitar-wanky sound, I’m surprised that ‘San Francisco Blue’ is the song that I keep playing off of your new album. (Joe laughs) Because it’s such a bluesy jazz sound, you know?
Joe: Yeah I know. The guys came up with a phrase for that in the studio. I think they called it the ear worm. I remember the first time I played it for John he said, ‘I’m really worried about recording that one. We’ve got to avoid having you sound like Stevie Ray Vaughn or something’. I knew what he meant, but I still wanted him to listen to the song for what it was, and not worry about what it sounds like just yet, as far as the recording style. And a couple of days later he said the same thing to me you just said. “I can’t get that song out of my head, damn it”. It was almost like he was complaining that the melody just kept sticking in his head. That’s what got me to include it in the project. I wrote it one day just dreaming about San Francisco, which is quite foggy most of the time. But when the sky is clear and blue, it’s quite beautiful. So it’s a bit of a play on words in that’s it’s about being blue in San Francisco but it’s also really hard to get a blue sky here. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t be able to record it without sounding like some of my best friends who are blues artists, but thinking I should find a way to do it. I definitely brought up some of my foundation influences on that track. Oddly enough though, I think some people would be surprised if they heard me say it was Steve Miller I was thinking about. Steve is, in a way, very much like Billy Gibbons. Miller and Billy, they are super respectful blues enthusiasts. They have a love of traditional American blues. They’re wrote the book on how to compose modern day blues songs, and continually reinvent. I grew up listening to ZZ Top and Steve Miller. Driving around as a kid, that was what was on the radio. I noticed that their blues compositions were like a modern approach to what they grew up listening to, whether it was Howling Wolf or Jimmy Reed or Muddy Waters, they brought something different to it. They were my foundation. I’ve played with both of those guys several times now and they are truly amazing musicians. In this particular case (San Francisco Blue) I was thinking Steve Miller’s really smooth and tight approach being a modernization of what was traditionally something very rough. But he created a new space for that kind of blues composition.
Mike: ‘Scarborough Stomp’ jumped out at me as well. I liked the Syd Barrett little piano ditty that intertwined throughout the song. I found that both interesting and somewhat different for you.
Joe: Yeah. (chuckles) That’s funny, I had composed something like that earlier. I can’t play keyboards that fast, but I can play something really slow and then re-arrange the MIDI information for Mike Keneally in the studio. It always sounds like Lurch – very Addams Family. But I told him to try something like that and he recorded that bit that you’ve mentioned in about two minutes. It was pretty amazing. He worked off an idea that I put out there on a little synth part. Mike’s amazing. He can be very explosive when it comes to playing. You say to him that this little window in the song is like an alternative ‘you’. It’s almost like the ultimate bridge moment. Sometimes that is very stream of consciousness, it keeps going, there really isn’t a heavy bridge until that moment comes. It takes a big personality like Keneally to do something and pull it off like that, to give it an authentic shine.
Mike: Is that one of the tracks that Vinnie (Coliauta) did the drumming on? And Chris Chaney too, if I’ve got my information right there…
Joe: Yeah, we actually had five tracks from the last record that weren’t really complete. I had everybody play on them but I wasn’t finished with editing the arrangements, or adding melodies, or solos, or developing the bridges. We mixed them just to see where they would go, but that convinced us that they simply weren’t finished. So I threw them back into my work pile and I brought them to John Cuniberti to ask how to remix them? So he mixed them and then came back to me and said, ‘I agree, these songs are great and the performances are great, but you might want to look at what’s missing.’ So I looked all over them and had to add a melody here and a solo there, and I had to cut a verse in half. The most radical change was the song ‘Lost In Memory’ where I realized that I really liked all of the guitars and keyboards that Mike Keneally had added, but what I didn’t like was what I had written out for Vinnie and Chris. So I removed the drums and the bass and then re-imagined the song with a very different beat. I changed it from this mid-eighties beat into something different and in a way it was a newer beat and it was also like an older beat; a seventies kind of a thing. I brought it into the studio and I showed Marco (Minnemann) and Bryan (Beller) the original demo and said, ‘I really hate this, and it was all my fault, and what I’m asking now is THIS!’ And I played them the new demo with some of my machine drums on there and they looked it and said, ‘Ok, I kind of know where you are going with that.’ So they gave me their interpretation of that demo and suddenly the heart of the song finally came out. That’s why it’s important to be tenacious when you are working on a composition that you believe in. It could be something as simple as just chucking something. And I should point out that song (‘Lost In Memory’), I started writing that in 1988 and it used to have guitar arpeggios that went all the way through the song. And when I was preparing it for the studio as far back as two and half years ago, I had a contrarian moment where I just erased all of the guitar parts. And then I put on this really weird keyboard, and you hear it at the beginning of the song. It’s a very distorted keyboard sound. That was me sort of saying I hate guitar. I laid down that performance and that actually got me to the next creative plateau allowing me to create a melody that was strong enough to live on its own and wasn’t dependent on some silly eighties guitar part.
Mike: That was cool. Now, you had mentioned keeping yourself invested in other projects earlier. Are you at liberty to talk about Crystal Planet? Is that still at inception, or is there something there we can discuss?
Joe: Oh yeah. Me and my partner for this TV series, Ned Evett, we are finished with our pilot pretty much. I think we are up to episode six with the scripts, and I’m busy providing music every day. Crystal Planet is an animated sci-fi series in the American Anime style. So it’s multi-media HD shot and the characters come from stuff that I draw, things that were published in my Joe’s Art 2013 Book plus a lot of other work I’ve been doing. Ned is our animator. He also does about 90% of our character voices. He’s just insanely talented in that department. He’s the main script writer and it’s a story about this guy, Satchel Walker, who is a present day tech worker/guitar player/troubled individual who gets involved in a world that somehow turns out to be Earth in the future. This is the crystal planet. And of course love, sex and evildoers exist on either side of the time spectrum. He uses really strange electric guitar that he inherited from his father as the time shredding device that takes him almost against his will into two time zones. And he tries to rectify and solve the problem of the end of the world and all this other stuff. (chuckles) It’s so difficult to explain. We were looking at a lot of animated stuff and we were determined to not make it a bunch of one-liner joke things. We wanted to make it really serious. I really like the show Clone Wars. I don’t know if you are familiar with that or not. The Star Wars animated show?
Mike: Yes. Out of context. I have watched a couple of them. They seem pretty slick.
Joe: That show has such an epic storyline. I really love that. So we are very excited about the fact that the story is very heavy and it’s got legs; a potentially long future. It’s got crazy music on it! So we are hoping to have it picked up by a network, but if that doesn’t happen by the fall we will start to host it ourselves, which would be fun as we wouldn’t really have to worry about censors or anything like that. But I’m not worried about anything like that right now. We are just looking finish the animation and the voices of the whole season so we can offer it all as one package.
Mike: Do you think of Crystal Planet as something that is a story and imagery that you are scoring to?
Joe: It’s definitely the story. Before it was called Crystal Planet it was called Tri-Divers and it was really entered around these characters called Tri-Divers on the future Earth. They are modified future humans who have to find an energy source and battle these evil forces to get it. We started to think that that might be too complicated for someone who happened to turn a magazine page or stumbled onto it online and then would they stick with it? It is a complicated story. But it reminded me that as writers for film or TV, you really do have to remember the story and then allow the music to be used. It has to be malleable to fit the essence of the story. In this case, people are looking at crazy images, artistic images that are being manipulated by animation software, so I think of it as my music serving the story. As a result Mike, here let me play you this… (Joe plays a bass/synthesizer prompt that sounds like something that could’ve been lifted from a Metal Gear Solid video game. Its dark sounding and ultimately cool) It comes on sounding like some really twisted techno thing. In the story, there are episodes that take place five hundred million years in the future, and so what’s THAT music going to sound like? So I try and write these soundscapes that allow us to move the music around and use just bits of it – those few seconds where that one character is talking to another. And that music could be coming out of a device that could be simply laying in the background. It might be the feature. It might be a part of a montage where the audio is the feature thing and there is just a lot of images behind it. The story also take place in modern day, and the past as well, the 1970s and 1980s. So I have to create music that is period correct as well. So I write like 300 pieces of music and I leave the spaces pretty wide open, not tight like an album or an instrumental record. This has to be more wide open. Lots of spaces where if you were just listening to the music you might think this was more like trance music or something. When you realize there might be somebody talking over it, or that your attention is going to be focused on something visual, then it becomes a very important component, this openness. I’m always thinking I’ll do three or four mixes of one song, I’ll send them to Ned with the explanation that he can mix and match them any way that he wants, however their importance in the scene dictates.
Mike: Cool. When was the last time that a piece of modern music touched you emotionally? What was it, and why do you think you reacted to it?
Joe: I have to say that’s a really good question. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that question exactly like that. (laughs) Good for you.
Mike: I try.
Joe: That doesn’t often happen. Um, I think… that’s really interesting. I had a moment, and this is a really different bunch of records… Yeah, there’s a band called Goodnight Texas. I don’t know how to describe them. They are like what you’d imagine a band to sound like around the time of the Civil War. Its acoustic guitars and banjos. All acoustic instruments and songs that are period stories. I believe the lead singer is James Hetfield’s tech. I don’t know the guy’s name, but the album was delivered to me while I was making the last record by Gary Brawer, who’s my main tech here. I was listening to that album every night driving home from the studio, and I thought it was really beautiful. The texture of it, and the musicianship was great. Just the fact that it was so out of my world to hear these songs that made me think more historically of that period in the USA. It was such a crazy moment of upheaval in North America. This moment of inception from colonial outpost to country, you know? And all the horrible things that went into getting the thing off the ground. They do it through every single age. There’s people who get up every morning and go to work. They’ve got to feed their kids and they fall in love and they fall out of love. People dying and babies being born. Meanwhile, the big things are happening; the stuff that makes the history books. But in actuality, minute to minute and day to day, it’s real life. That’s what a lot of great songs are written about, and that’s what drew me into that record. I was definitely touched by it. They’ve got two albums out.
At this point, I pointed out that Joe and I had been on the phone for 25 minutes, and I didn’t want to monopolize his morning. He had another call to make. We got through maybe 1/3 of my questions. I could easily have chatted with him for another 45 minutes.
Joe Satriani, as most people know, is one of the finest guitarists in the world. He is also one of the BEST interviewees out there. Satriani thinks about his answers, delivers a story with almost every answer if you give him the space to do so, and manages to convey a genuine connection with you the entire time you are dialoging with him. His upcoming album, Shockwave Supernova, could be the closest thing to Surfing With the Alien he’s put out since that album dropped 22 years ago. I certainly believe it’s the most unified and extroverted thing he’s put out in a while. His albums are always good, to be sure. Shockwave Supernova just seems to exude some real moxy. The album comes out on July 24th. There are some wonderful Shockwave Supernova pre-order packages available on Satriani’s website. If you are into that sort of thing, do take a look.