Joe Satriani is heading out on tour in the US and Canada to support his latest CD, Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock, a psychedelic mish-mash of funky grooves, wild improvisations, punchy riffs and exotic melodies. I caught up with Satch to chat about the new album, his latest distortion box, and his new band with some familiar faces…
Peter: Did you have an overall goal for this album?
Peter: I noticed that in a lot of spaces there’s not much reverb, which encourages you to crank it up because the reverb on the recording isn’t clashing with the reverb of the room at higher volumes.
Satriani: Yeah. It’s a very interesting concept. Every age, every generation maybe has two or three movements in its recording era. There seems to be more as time goes on and life is accelerated: media has so many more contexts now that you’re kinda spoiled for choice in how you’re going to present your record. Is it supposed to sound good on a laptop, in a car, in an elevator, on television, on multimedia speakers, in a home theatre system, surround sound, stereo, or mono? And you can’t, y’know? You really can’t make it sound good on every single one of those. At some point the stereo falls apart or the 5.1 falls apart. At some point the compressed pop mix doesn’t work, and other times it’s great. Sometimes the audiophile, very dynamic recording sounds great, and other times it doesn’t work. So modern artists kinda navigate through that little minefield of ‘Boy what am I doing?” Some artists can create several different mixes for different media, but generally you can’t these days, and no-one knows what people are going to listen to five years from now, so we’re not really sure what to do about it. But the whole thing about mastering and mixing a record with only 3-to-2dB dynamic range is driving people crazy. The average person can’t turn that up, you can only listen to it quietly because it sounds loud when it’s quiet. But we took our concept all the way to mastering, in a sense. We wanted at least double what people are doing, as far as dynamic range, so that they can turn it up.
I noticed there’s a lot of space in the sound even if there are quite a few overdubs, like in Professor Satchafunkilus. I heard several guitar tracks going on at once there, yet you can hear them all clearly.
Satriani: Yeah, about 12 guitars but I don’t think there’s reverb or delay on anything except just one little introduction of one guitar in the second chorus or something. That was really a lot of fun to do that because, man, in the studio, up loud, that was such a wonderful thing to listen to.
Peter: ‘Revelation’ sounds really touching – the phrasing in the guitar is very vocal, then these big, elegant harmonies come in. What were you hoping to get across with that one?
Satriani: It was a very unusual way of writing a song. I started with the chorus, which has an odd meter. It’s a very long measure of 14/4, but it doesn’t sound that way to the listener, because of the way it’s broken up. I was moved to write it in response to thinking about my friend Steve Morse and the weekend that I learned his father had passed away. I was at a NAMM show and we were supposed to get together, then I heard from (Dregs/former Satriani bass player) Dave LaRue that his father passed away and he had to fly back home. When I got home I was still thinking about it, and I wrote this passage that was very Steve Morse inspired, musically, and I was thinking about feeling sorry for his family and what they’re going through, and I knew because I lost my father many years ago. Then as I started working on the song I realized I was actually thinking a lot more about myself: learning of the event of his father’s passing reminded me of some feelings I still had about the nature of the way my father had passed away, and the title reflects that the writing process was the revelation. I was revealing to myself that I still had these feelings I was still working out. So that made me think “This is a real song, I need to write a verse that expresses these things I’m feeling.” I wound up recording the very first performance of that melody in my home studio, and we never did anything to it, we just worked around it.
Peter: One thing I’ve always appreciated about your music over the years, reading interviews, and conducting them myself these days, is finding out just what’s behind the songs, and finding out there’s so much more behind it, and I think that’s why you’ve endured for so long: because there is more to your music than ‘here’s the guitar.’
Satriani: I’m glad you say that because I spend 99% of my time composing, and that’s what it’s all about. I’m composing and editing and making sure that I’m telling a story, an important story, a strong story. Even if it’s just a ridiculous, humourous fantasy, I want to tell it the right way.
Peter: One song I really enjoyed was ‘Come On Baby.’ It reminded me a lot of your self-titled album, that kind of open, almost dry guitar sound. Are we hearing single coils on that song?
Satriani: It’s funny you should ask that because I’ve done a lot of interviews and no-one really asked me about that particular technical aspect, but I was just using my usual JS1000 with the coil split feature, just lifting up the tone control. You can hear me shifting pickups during the solo. I swear, you can even hear the switch as I go between, not only the single coil, but I’ve also got the high pass filter engaged by lifting up the volume control. So I’m playing with starving the amplifier, which is set up to give me a ‘classic rock’ level of gain, but I’m starving it of information. I’m using the single coil, which lowers the output and gives it a less midrangy sound, and by using the high pass filter in there I’m stealing more low end from it, so the amp isn’t really breaking up that much and I get a smoother tone. And that’s all I was using. It’s funny, I did the first clean guitar in the left channel, one pass, then on the second pass I did the right channel, then I went back on the left and put the gains up a little more, then I did guitar number 4, then I did a guitar for the middle, and I didn’t really change much, I was just playing around with the volume control and the high pass filter.
Peter: It’s such a lost art, I think people get so bogged down with all these effects and things, that you forget you have these controls on your guitar which do these amazing things.
Satriani: Yeah. I was playing through a prototype amp which an older style, with 6V6 tubes in it, so it’s a vintage style smaller head. Those things are basically Class A designs, and they really react to what’s coming to the input. In other words, what you’re sending into that input jack, which means, as you said, playing with the volume control really changes the nature of the amp, and you can get hundreds of tones just by playing with the volume control.
Peter: Was there anything unusual gear-wise you used on the album?
I used just a regular Korg piano for the piano parts I used at home. We used a lot of speaker simulators: the Palmer and an old Marshall SE 100 and an SPL Transducer, which basically replaces your speaker bottom: you go from your speaker jack of your amp into one of these things, then right into Pro Tools or whatever you want to go into. About 85% of the guitars were done at home, so that was my system. In the studio we had the Peavey JSX bottoms and some old vintage bottoms I’ve had for a couple of decades, and we would sometimes go back to going direct, or we would use some combination of the cabinets with mics and stuff like that.
Peter: What can you tell me about your Vox Satchurator distortion pedal?
Satriani: We started a little over a year ago, trying to finally get a pedal for me that I could really be comfortable with and say ‘this is my signature sound.’ There were a lot of pedals I used to like but they use chips that are no longer RHOS compliant: they’ve got lead in them and other nasty things – they don’t make them any more and if they did, they couldn’t sell them. The guitar player is at the mercy of larger industries that make millions of chips for communication satellites and stuff, and it trickles down to the mad scientists that make pedals for us, but when the technology moves on we’re screwed, we’ve gotta look for some other pedal. I wanted to take some of those old distortion boxed I used to use. I used to use a very old set of Boss DS-1s, and they never, for me, went to 10, and it was always annoying, and they were always scooped out, and it took so much in the studio to get them to sound good. It was very diffucult, and we barely used them in the studio, just once in a while. And live it was a bit of a struggle, because I never felt 100% comfortable. So we went in and said ‘if we had all these pedals that are out there, and we had our choice of components, what would we do?’ So we figured, we’ve got to have a pedal that can not only go to 12, let’s say, but it also sounds great at 4 or 6. So that means one thing electronically. Then when you’re on 12, we want it to be able to go to 24. So we added a switch that says ‘More’ on it. And that’s what it does: It doesn’t increase the volume, it just increases the saturation of the distortion. Everything in it had to be completely reliable, but also I wanted the sustain to be increased, but not the aggressiveness of it, and that took a very, very long time, because it’s a combination of diodes, op amps and transistors and the way they’re wired together, and myself, Mike Bradley, the head of the team in New York, Masahiro Lee in Tokyo, and Steve Grimrod in London, we met several times at my house, and we’d be in my basement playing for 12 hours a day. All four of us guitar players, we all play different, and we’d just keep playing, agreeing, arguing. We’d scratch our heads and the soldering gun would come out and new components would get put in, and we just kept working on it. We didn’t rush it. The prototypes wound up on the end of my last tour. They wound up being used on the album in many different situations.
Peter: What can you tell me about this band, Chickenfoot, with Chad Smith (Red Hot Chilli Peppers) and Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony?
Satriani: We’re trading songs and working on ideas, and we hope something really cool will come out of it.
Peter: Do you think it will tour?
Peter: You’re playing a new replica of your ‘Black Dog’ guitar from the ‘Flying In A Blue Dream’ back cover.
Satriani: Yeah! I’ve been playing the one and only one that I’ve seen on this tour. They meticulously copied my very first prototype. They hired an artist to copy how it looked before it was stolen, and everything got rubbed off and it’s a joy to look at because it reminds me of good times.