Joe Satriani Interview - Instrumental Hero
In conversation with Mike Blackburn from 1998 – This interview was recorded when I met Joe on March 25 1998 and was never published in it’s entirety, although some sections and quotes were used in various issues of ‘Brave Words and Bloody Knuckles’, a Toronto based heavy metal monthly of which I was the ‘riff meister’, interviewing guitarists and reviewing guitar oriented releases.
Joe and I met in the bar of his hotel and the interview got squeezed from 45 minutes to about 20 because he was running late and he had to get to soundcheck. This is a ‘verbatim’ transcript, with grammar uncorrected so gives you a real glimpse of the man after a decade at the top.
Joe Satriani is without a doubt the premier instrumental rock guitarist of the past two decades in terms of popularity and critical success, and was still surprised by that success and the success of instrumental rock by artists such as himself and fellow G3 mate Steve Vai in general. “I still think it’s pretty freaky that Steve and I wound up achieving what we set out to achieve when we were just young kids and that we’ve been signed to the same label for the same ten years and now we’re signed to the same new label. And the fact that and we even get to go out on tour together, you know it’s something we would never have dreamed of.”
This frank humbleness and sincere gratitude for his well deserved success appear to embody the personality of the man, who I had the great fortune of meeting prior to the Toronto performance of the warm-up tour to the next generation of the G3 experience (starting mid May in Europe with Michael Schenker and Uli Jon Roth and with a North American version to follow).
Crystal Planet has a rawer, more aggressive edge to it reminding many listeners of Surfing With The Alien, was this a concious effort?
There were a couple of things that lead me in that direction. One was the idea of calling the record Crystal Planet was using it like a metaphor to allow me to bring everything in that I’ve ever done to the record whereas the red record, Joe Satriani was more like an exclusive record. I purposely avoided using a lot of techniques and compositional and recording styles to create a mood very much like the Extremist where we had this sort of classic hard rock vision and so we downplayed certain aspects of the sound, we made the guitars thin and more bright and the drums really big and this all had a very live in the studio feel. With Surfing, that was a whole different vibe as well. This time I wanted the record to be able to accept anything from any of these records plus to accept some new things I wanted to try out, songs like ‘Raspberry Jam’, ‘Crystal Planet’, the song ‘Time’ a lot of songs on the record that have different things that I’ve never done before. And I purposely tried to avoid including any kind of composition that was about anything really depressing, like ‘Down, Down, Down’ or ‘Hill of the Skulls’ on Surfing. I just thought I’ve done that, lets move on and create an album with a different feeling.
Has the amount of on stage jamming and improvisation you’ve done in the last few years with people like Jon Lord of Deep Purple and the various G3 ensembles affected your songwriting and approach to this record?
We wanted to try and keep things as live as possible. On the G3 tour we had worked with the Canadian producer Mike Fraser and he captured us in our first month of being a trio, myself, Stu Hamm on bass and Jeff Campitelli on drums. And I wanted to get an album to reflect what was happening within the band and not just me, as well as focusing on the compositions I felt I wanted to write. So the effect of the tour and playing with these musicians every night, they kind of challenge you and that brings your excitement and interest level up. We recorded and worked on the album in a schedule where we on tour, then we wrote the record, then we were on tour, then we recorded the record, went back on tour, mixed the record, went on tour and mastered and put the finishing touches on the record, so a lot of that had a lot of effect and influence on how we reacted to our own performances, the environment of being in the studio and we tried to keep it live and that contributed to the energy level on the record. We’re currently hitting the stage with it and playing about 90% of the new album.
Describe the creative process of being an instrumental composer and performer.
Well this particular record was unique in how we got started for two reasons. I didn’t make demos number one and number two, I played the songs for the guys on a guitar in a rehearsal space, I just played and we talked about it. And then we rehearsed the record live like we could have played it as a live show. That had a profound difference because on the other records I gave people very detailed demos and right from the beginning they felt they perhaps had to copy something I had already laid down and we did a lot of overdubbing of peoples performances piece by piece. This one was done more in the spirit of experimentation. But the inspirations for songs come from everyday life.”
Z.Z. your son inspired one song and is credited on three songs on Crystal Planet. The three songs all have percussive intros, what was his input, how old is he and what is the origin of his name?
That’s quite a coincidence actually. Just a coincidence. There are funny coincidences on the record. Someone said to me it’s really cool that track five and track ten were both in 5/4 and 10/8 time, it was purely by coincidence. They thought it was some master plan. Z.Z., he comes up with some funny things as children always do. Interesting statements that are improvised in the funniest of situations but wound up sounding very profound to a grownup. He’s five and a half now, but ‘Psycho Monkey’ was something he came up with two or three years ago waking up in the middle of the afternoon after a bad dream and I was working on a song at the time so it was a coincidence of things. ‘A Piece of Liquid’ was something he just said trying to describe his level of thirst. And then one day we were looking at clouds and I was teaching him the names of the different kinds of clouds cumulus, nimbus, stratus and then he just said well daddy look at that those clouds they look like a ‘Train of Angels’ and I thought it was really beautiful so that’s how he contributed to the songs. ‘Z.Z.‘s Song’ was actually something I had written when my wife was pregnant with him and we used to plug in with this little amp and some headphones and put the headphones on my wife’s stomach. It was a song we used to use to calm him down to stop kicking. His name stands for Zachariah Zane, a loose translation means God has remembered John which is my fathers name and that’s how we arrived at that.”
The next leg (European) of G3 is mid May through June, describe how it came about.
My idea is to keep G3 going and have it evolve in radically different forms. The last one that we did we finished up in the U.S. and Canada with Robert Fripp, Steve Vai and Kenny Wayne Sheppard unfortunately missing Toronto, but playing in Quebec and Montreal. We will come back but I don’t know who will be on the U.S. leg yet. But we try to attract a unique group of people that will bring diversification to the whole G3 idea so that people can come back to it knowing that they are going to get something completely different and that there is a certain element of unknown and surprise. We got great reaction from all the independent promoters all over Europe when they were given the opportunity to be a part of it all with Michael Schenker and Uli Jon Roth and some of the countries are also providing a fourth member. My set list will be in large part Crystal Planet, we have an unusual production involved using this Planet and unusual lighting effects. We don’t have it yet it takes about two months to program the DVD for the digital projection. I know the last time we went out with G3 everyone had 45 minutes for their set but I think this time around we’re going to take the lions share of the time and just ask for an extended show so the other guys will still get their 45 minutes but we’ll be on stage for over an hour before we invite the jamming. Michael will have a singer on stage at all times, he in fact will have two different singers and I know Uli will also have a female vocalist on tour. I met with Michael a little bit at the beginning of this tour down in Los Angeles and started to talk about different songs for the jams. We have a large list of songs we haven’t settled on yet, like ‘Freeway Jam’ by Jeff Beck and I was thinking ‘Bridge of Sighs’ ( Robin Trower) would be a really great song since Uli particularly is very Hendrix influenced, but I thought instead of picking a Hendrix song, a song in Hendrix style like that could be really beautiful. Maybe ‘The Thrill is Gone’ by B.B. King could be another.”
Ever considered covers yourself?
Once, on the Time Machine record I covered a Billie Holiday song called ‘All Alone’, that was a special song to me. But its funny, it’s harder to create an environment that’s unique for a listener sometimes when you’re doing a cover song because you are always reminding them of the original context of the song. I think it’s harder for an instrumentalist because you may be covering a song that’s a vocal song so you are already at a disadvantage whereas instrumental songs that were written instrumentally and started off that way are much more powerful. When you know the lyrics and they’re missing, you feel like something’s missing. When you hear lyrics put to an instrumental song they sound kind of goofy, they are two different kinds of music.”
Any videos planned of the European Tour?
I’m not sure. You know what, the chances of getting a video played to where it pays for itself in some way is really slim for an instrumental artist especially in the last year lets say for someone who plays the kind of music I do. We spent some money on an E.P.K. that’s about nine minutes long a great little almost a commercial, that was intended to educate the Epic record staff in the U.S. which I’m new to. But the press in various countries jumped on it because they thought it was a great little video documentary about me. I’d like to get a TV commercial going and I’m putting a lot of money into the production of the tour hoping to attract film deals which we’ve already got one happening. In other words if you tell someone you’re going on tour and you’ve got this crazy Crystal Ball and you’ve got this show and it’s going to revolve around new material, you’d be surprised people call up and say we’ll film you for free if you give us a one time viewing rights for TV or something. So I’m looking to maybe release some kind of a live Crystal Planet video at the end of the year.
What inspired a teenaged Long Islander to first pick up a guitar, what were the influences during your formative years (the early ’70’s)?
Jimi Hendrix. I was a big fan. I’d been a drummer at age nine took lessons, learned how to practice, learned how to read music. I took a year off of playing music and was really getting into the music, the guitar playing of Jimi Hendrix. I grew up as the youngest of five children in a household where both my parents were also playing music all the time so I heard classical and jazz, R & B, and early American rock and roll, Motown, British Invasion music and then it all started turning into rock and I inherited all the records from my older sisters and brother. So it seemed like a very rounded musical environment but Hendrix was the one that inspired me to become a guitarist.
Why have the bedroom communities around the Big Apple spawned such great musicians, you, Steve Vai, Steve Stevens, Springsteen, Al Dimeola and Bon Jovi? Is it accessibility to all the big city has to offer musically or just young kids with stars in their eyes wanting to make it there?
I’m not sure, that’s a really great question, even when you grow up in your own world there is always the exception to the rule, you know, very talented people coming from unlikely places.
What prompted your move west in the late ’70’s and why the San Francisco Bay area in particular?
My two older sisters had somehow wound up out there and they had phoned back saying the west was crazy and that it was a lot more open environment than Long Island. And I traveled out there one summer for a three week vacation and I really loved it. It seemed to allow more individuality out there and I went out after some touring. I started touring quite young I was like seventeen and I turned eighteen somewhere on tour in the U.S. and I was looking for some new thing and my parents were always very encouraging about going out and seeking your dream you know so I wound up in California for a few months and then I lived in Japan for about six months before coming back and deciding to settle in the town of Berkeley in the Bay area, but then eventually moved into the city ( San Francisco) where I still live.
Any other band involvement or opportunities other than the Greg Kihn Band or the Squares, or were you always committed to doing your own thing?
Each of the guys in the Squares was interested in taking a chance with any opportunity that came by. I had a chance to work with Tony Williams (Miles Davis drummer) in the studio. The singer in the band and I did background vocals on the Crowded House debut album, which became their biggest album. I mean we had funny little jobs that came our way. One of them for me was the Greg Kihn Band which came at a time when I had recorded Not of This Earth on a credit card and was a few days away from being turned over to a credit agency and I was just completely broke and this gig just fell in my lap. And they had this big budget and they were very generous so it’s funny how things like that happen. I should also mention that just as Not of This Earth was being released by Relativity I was on tour in Scandinavia with Jonas Hellborg (bass) and Danny Gottlieb (drums). We were doing this sort of a fusion avant garde sort of a thing.
You’ve been very loyal to the same group of musicians and vice versa since those early days, why?
John Cuniberti, in around 1980 was our live sound man for the Squares. And when I started to get interested in doing what would be for me my second record, I turned to him because he was trying to become an engineer and he was already working with some bands like the Dead Kennedy’s so he was experienced. You know I find it’s good to work with friend’s cause your friend will turn to you in a second and say that really sucks; you know you’re kidding yourself if you think that’s good. And I’ve always relied on the camaraderie and the honesty and the talent of those guys around me. Jeff Campitelli has been on all the solo records playing drums or percussion to some degree and sometimes I needed a third hand to play the keyboard and he would be there. We were all experimenting and we really didn’t know what we were doing, and we still don’t and I try to keep that attitude going that yeah, we really don’t know how to do it right but we know how to have fun doing it.
As a one time instructor, and currently regarded as the most renowned rock guitarists, why haven’t you made the obligatory instructional video?
I get asked all the time. I find those videos to be so demystifying, so unentertaining, so boring and so inept at teaching that I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. I’ve been offered, I’m not kidding you, millions of dollars to do them. I mean why not buy a guy’s record and go to a concert. You’d learn so much more just by hanging backstage, shaking someone’s hand and seeing the man yourself than you would by looking at a very flat video screen where someone says well this is a major scale, this is a minor scale, this is how I do it. I taught one on one for many years and that experience is exciting and you can really get something done in 60 or even 30 minutes and a video is a poor substitute.
Your guitars have always had elaborate design and finishes, your current Ibanez’s even have names why?
My wife and I did the first ones. We called it ‘Nouveau Expressionism’. It was always just something for fun. Back in those days it was the explosion of build it yourself and it was a reaction against the don’t touch it you’ll ruin the antique value attitude, it was more like who cares about that, lets make it an expression of your individual spirit and breaking boundaries. Ibanez has helped me continue that. The ‘Donnie’ series of guitars were painted by Donnie Hunt, before he passed away, a very good friend and a very prolific artist who painted everything; he painted clothing for me. If anyone saw me wearing the vests and jackets with skulls and things he had done them. He painted phones, shoes, refrigerators, canvas, walls and I convinced him that he had to paint guitars. He did at least 150 to 200 for Ibanez, each one different and unique. My sisters were professional artists, I convinced them once to do a few of them but it really wasn’t their cup of tea. I got them to do some abstract and some rain forest ones.
As a developer of guitars for over ten years (Ibanez) what’s the next technological breakthrough?
Well I think what’s gonna happen is that they’ll figure out another way to track sound. The pickups create a magnetic field and we use steel strings to disturb the magnetic field and that disturbance is sent through the wire to the amplifier and whammo you’ve got a guitar sound. That’s the only thing that hasn’t changed. They’ve changed the necks, the frets, the tuning gears, locking nut, locking vibrato bar, all different ways of setting up the pickups from ‘Sustainer’ pickups by Fernandes to vintage, to powered, to non-powered, to contact, to piezo, you know there’s just so many variations. But what they haven’t changed really is some new way of tracking the sound and I’m not talking about guitar synthesizers, some other thing that we haven’t thought of yet. Something that’s right in front of us but we haven’t yet recognized what it is.
Describe how your current ‘look’ and stage persona evolved?
Well its really quite simple. For as long as people have known about me I’ve been on a steady course of hair loss, and I got really tired of working around it. One day I was out jogging in San Francisco and my hair was quite long at the time (February 1996) and it was really bothering me and I jogged past a pharmacy store that had a hair clipper advertised in the window and I just went in and purchased it, ran back home and just shaved it all off. Then I went of course, oh my God I’ve just shaved my head. But I’ve had it for two years and I really enjoy it. It’s more fun for me and I’m not a weave, fake hair kind of guy, so it’s more honest and in line with my kind of music and my image of straight ahead.
What’s in your CD player these days?
There’s a lot of stuff. I’ve been listening to Charlie Hunter, a seven string jazz player, Ned Evett, an unusual guitarist from the Bay area who plays a guitar that’s got a neck with a mirrored fretboard with no frets on it, very unusual, Prodigy, ZZ Top. I’m still listening to all my old blues records and Bjork; I like their last record, which I think is brilliant.
Your relationship with John Kalodner?
He lists his name as John Kalodner: John Kalodner on every record he works as an A & R guy. He’s great, he’s a really very positive creative influence on a record sometimes just by saying you can just do what you want and I’ll make sure no one bugs you which is what he did for me. And when he had something interesting to say he just said it and didn’t mince words which I really appreciated. So let people know that he made things happen.