Charlie Greenwald ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Contributor
Last Wednesday, Emertainment Monthly had the privilege to chat on the phone with Joe Satriani: guitar wizard, master teacher, and best-selling instrumental rock guitarist. The fifty-nine-year-old shredder, who just wrapped and released his fifteenth record, Shockwave Supernova, is embarking on a US tour after having melted all sorts of faces across Europe. He’ll be in Boston on March 26 at the Orpheum Theatre. We chatted about his new album, his fascination with space and science, and which of his songs is on his son’s iPod.
Emertainment Monthly: Hey Joe, thanks for talking with Emertainment Monthly. How has the New Year been for you?
Joe Satriani: I’ve been busy, man! I wanted to bring out some different guitars for the tour—you think it would be easy but actually, the set list determines all the subtleties of what the guitar needs to be able to do. Once you arrange the songs in groups of three or four, you start to get some interesting requirements. Sometimes even just heightened strings can really make or break a performance. So I’ve been trying to pick six or seven guitars that would be the best possible representation of each one of the songs in the set list.
It’s interesting to hear you discussing all of the preparation you put into your shows, weeks and months away. It’s really rigorous.
Not to mention practicing!
Right! You do need to practice the actual songs themselves, too!
Having worked with singers, I know that the preparation for the vocal chords is also as intense as the preparation for memorization of lyrics. Certain types of music, whether it is classic rock or hip-hop, it’s a lot of lyrics to remember. If you’re going to go out there and do two hours of Bob Dylan songs, good luck! The moment I hit the stage I just play melodies and solos and melodies and solos, song after song. And in order to keep them all unique and different, I have to keep the surfing of the melodies and solos separate from all the other songs, so they all tell a different story. So when I rehearse, I’m not only trying to get my physical chops together, but I’m also getting the nuances together, sort of like a singer memorizing the lyrics.
How do you know what songs to improvise on and what songs to play note for note?
I think you learn pretty early on what songs are pliable and what songs work best when you stick to the script and find different ways to make them unique every night. I’d say a song like “Flying in a Blue Dream” is very interesting in that respect. I’ve had a lot of drummers and bassists play it and begin to realize that it’s not in their favor, or the song’s favor, for them to be improvising around. That song definitely needs those parts to be stream of consciousness. To tell you the truth I think I stick to the script more than [touring guitarist] Mike Keneally who is sort of representing the acoustic guitar chords that are on the album, as well as throwing in a new element that isn’t on the album, which is keyboards. On a song like “Ice 9,” however, you can kind of go crazy every night. It’s one of those songs that can be a bit of a free-for-all but still sound good. Maybe because it’s a little more blues oriented.
An old professor of mine once saw Paul McCartney live and I asked him how he was. He said McCartney was good, but boring, since he plays every song exactly as he does on the records and doesn’t jam at all. Another friend of mine once said the opposite about Counting Crows, who play all their songs in different keys. So I think you want a nice mix, with some songs being verbatim for what you hear on the record, and other songs you do some fun exploring. I could find three different versions of “Summer Song” on YouTube, whereas cuts like “Raspberry Jam Delta-V,” you’re very note-for-note.
It’s interesting—with that song, “Raspberry Jam,” there’s almost nothing to it. It’s just this long jam, and then there’s this breakdown and suddenly it gets very specific when the orchestra comes in. But the rest of it, these guys are just grooving on one note. So it puts all the pressure on my note selection. I’m trying to create a melodic story with soloing. Let’s say you’ve got a melody. Very strict melody, guys playing chords behind you, dah-dah-dah. Everybody knows the melody. And if you don’t play those notes, suddenly it’s not the song anymore. “Always With Me, Always With You” has a very specific melody. You know it’s not a solo, you know it’s just a melody. Now, “Raspberry Jam,” like, where is the melody? In essence, there really isn’t a strong verse, bridge, and chorus kind of arrangement of a melody. There’s a cumulative melodic story being told by the cadence of all my notes, and that’s what I’m doing. It’s a more modern approach to creating a form of music where your improvisation is like I’m threading together a chord progression that nobody is playing but I’m following it in my own head.
Some people think instrumental guitarists just solo in every song but it’s not the case. It’s very mathematical. Some songs cater really well to improvisation, and others just don’t. Speaking of touring, you’ve been around for a few decades now. Does touring still invigorate you? I know a few months ago you gigged with Paul Rodgers and Buddy Guy. So I imagine performing itself always has new surprises. But what about touring itself? Exhausting or revitalizing?
Oh, it’s definitely both. Sixteen hours per city is exhausting for sure. You never really get to eat or sleep when you should. And you don’t get enough of it. You could, however, get too much food—too much pizza floating around. It’s terrible! But thank God there’s whiskey at the end of the night! I can get anxious before a show, but as soon as one foot is on the pedal, suddenly I am in the most comfortable place I could ever be in the world. And physically I’m always trying to play better than I did the night before. It’s kind of a neurosis, you know, this artistic outlook on life, striving to do something different and be better. Gigging really takes a lot out of me. Sometimes I’ve done shows where I can walk off stage and I really feel like I haven’t broken a sweat or something but not when I’m touring like this. When I play that final note every night, I know it’s my last note.
And then you’re on to the whiskey.
(Laughs) Right, right.
Before you get out there on stage, how much warming up do you do? I feel like you have such control over your instrument, you have to create your own little exercises to stay on top of it.
Well, certainly, I have to do a good amount of prep. I really have to avoid doing anything that would use up crucial strength and energy in my hands and fingers prior to the show. So I do about thirty to forty minutes of just light playing. It can be anything from just strumming chords and pushing a few strings around or even shuffling chords. Anything to keep the hands warm and get the blood flowing, especially in the winter. It can be challenging, because when you’re beginning to feel that anticipation, you get nervous, and tensing up is a natural by-product of being excited, and nervous and adrenalized. But then once the show is done I don’t do anything as far as guitar goes. I put it away and I don’t touch it until the next evening. I used to be very industrious on tours, like when I played with Mick Jagger, or Deep Purple, or even when I’m playing with G3, where you play remarkably less per night. Situations arise where you have a guitar and you can play in the hotel room or set up a studio on the bus or something. But I sort of felt like I would creatively peak. You can’t be in the hotel room, laying down your best stuff, and then you get to the gig and you’re like, well, I’ve already done it. Many years ago I decided not to do that anymore. I wanted to reach my peak in front of the audience. I never go on tour thinking, I’m gonna record this, I’m gonna perform that. It’s all about the people who sacrifice quite a bit to get to the show. I don’t want anything to interfere with that. And when I come home, I can record and do all that other stuff.
You’re a man for others, Joe.
The worst thing ever is going on stage and feeling uninspired. It’s like being at a party you don’t want to be at. That only happened to me once, and I quickly figured out what it was and quickly stopped jamming in hotel rooms.
I feel like you’re overflowing with inspiration, though. You’re not yet sixty and you’ve churned out fifteen albums, with hundreds of songs. You’ve got enough music for two lifetimes.
Fifteen albums, that’s right.
I feel like there’s got to be a basket of songs that never see the light of day.
Since 2008, I’ve also been working with Chickenfoot. We haven’t been incredibly prolific in terms of putting out records, we’ve just got the two albums [Chickenfoot and Chickenfoot III], but I do write a lot of stuff for them and I’ll show Sammy and the guys some songs, and they’ll just look at me like, what is that? They don’t always love what I send them, but I do continue to write. [There’s a] new thing I’ve been working on called Crystal Planet, which is this adventure, noir, sci-fi, animated show that I created with a friend of mine, a fellow guitar player named Ned Evans. Brendon Small from Metalocalypse now is also part of our team. And it’s a great, fun, science fiction story that I’ve been writing music for. And I find that really liberating in a way, now that I don’t have to think about three and a half, four and a half minutes. You can just create music that fits one particular feeling. One character’s sentiment that lasts for twenty seconds or a minute or something like that. It really frees you up.
That sounds like a cool project!
Yeah, I’ll be down in LA next week to meet with the guys. I remember thinking, boy, getting a record deal is hard, but man, getting a deal for a TV show, that’s really hard! Every week there’s a twist and a turn. I’m not a resident of Hollywood so every time I go down there I feel like a kid from up north, suddenly in the movie mecca, having to interface with a different industry. But it’s still exciting.
You bring up this sci-fi theme in this new project of yours. I was looking at the career and discography of David Bowie recently, who tragically passed away a few weeks ago, and he was, like you, really into that whole theme, and so innovative in terms of bringing those elements to his music. At what point in your life did you decide to really integrate the world of science and space into your music?
It’s funny, you know, when I was a young kid, I grew up in the perfect era when the national neurosis for aliens and UFOs had made its way to daytime television. I was born in ’56, stuck in front of a television in the early 1960s, so all of those shows, Star Trek, One Step Beyond, The Twilight Zone, it was all in front of me. And then as I started to have some kind of a functioning brain, I started to read creative writers, Ray Bradbury and guys like that. Starting with the Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, I started becoming fascinated with not so much science fiction but the actual science, you know? It’s inescapable; we’re on a little ball, spinning around, and we’re part of a solar system, and we’re part of a galaxy, and we’re in a universe and nobody knows where it is or how big it is and that’s it! And when we die, we’ll probably have never known where the hell we were! A lot of people see that as “science fiction,” but it’s not, you know, it’s reality. For me, the planet Earth, the sun, the solar system, the space program, the Hubble Telescope, this is real, people, and this is where we are. And those authors who wrote about this stuff did a great job showing the conceptual outlook on life from a science fiction standpoint. Which is why we need the space program to allow these highly intelligent dreamers to try these things out. And eventually it all comes down to this—whether it’s microwave ovens, or cell phones, or medicines, not as sexy as a transporter beam, but that may happen sooner or later! But sometimes it takes the mind of a creative sci-fi writer, like China Miéville, or Dan Simmons, or Harlan Ellison, to think of something wild in the form of entertainment, but you know that they are bent on science and they really think that at some point this could be true. And then a brilliant mind who reads science fiction might see their literature and think, I can work on that! I bet I can do that!
That’s why I put these themes into my music. To me it is reality, you know. I like discussing it and I’m up front about it.
I think right now, in pop culture, there’s a strong presence of sci-fi elements. Star Wars, The Martian, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye… we’re talking about climate change, life on other planets all the time in the media. People are interested in this stuff and pop culture really does help, and that extends to music. And I’ve always dug how you have that consistently with all of your albums. On top of being obviously a well-respected guitar player.
I ask musicians I interview for a little bit of background on my favorite song of theirs. In your case, my favorite jam is “It’s So Good”—because, as the title suggests, it really is. It’s funky, bouncy, and deliciously upbeat. The tone is excellent. I love how you go from low notes to higher notes in your soloing as the song progresses. I think the best time for me to listen to it is just before I go out and get drinks with friends at a bar or something like that. And, not so secretly, I’m hoping you’ll play it live when you come to Boston.
(Laughs) Well, I’m so happy to hear that you like it. It’s very coincidental because the last time my son was back home for a little bit he came back from a run and he asked me about that song. He told me he really liked it. I was surprised, because as you can imagine, when your dad is playing guitar all the time, it’s the last thing you want to hear. And I always apologize to my wife and son for the endless barrage of notes that seems to be coming from my studio, because I have to play things like a million times, right? But he told me, he said, “Dad, I love this song, it really captures a great mood.” It’s probably the only song of mine that he actually listens to because of those same kind of feelings. And I’m glad you mentioned that because I often, in the G4 clinics that we’ve been doing the last few years, I try to tell students that come that all scales and all chords are equal. Just because something is more complicated or more exotic doesn’t make it better. I use the analogy of songs being like a six-lane highway, and you’re in a ’63 Cadillac. And you can roam and weave back and forth and drive through any lane you want and you can pretty much get to where you’re going. Other songs, however, are like a country road and it’s single lane and you have some mountain passes to get over so you have to stay right on that track or you lose your way. And that’s one of those songs that sounds light and breezy but it’s a pain to play because you really have to stay on that narrow road. And what I was focusing on when I was writing that song was, what does it feel like to feel good? Somebody close to you dies, or you’re contemplating the metaphysical questions of life, that’s easier to write. But no, how do you capture that feeling of boy, I feel good, it’s Friday night, I’m ready to have a good time, school’s finished, whatever… I thought this feeling that comes over us hopefully many times is just as valid as any other more complicated emotion, so why not write a song about it. So I recorded it in my home studio, except for the drums and the clapping, which were done up in Vancouver with Jeff Campitelli, who has a great set of hands for that stuff.
Thanks for the breakdown. It’s a sick song.
I appreciate it, thank you.
Thanks for chatting, Joe. So wonderful to hear you speak so eloquently about your craft. Looking forward to seeing you back at the Orpheum on March 26!
Can’t wait. See you then!