INTERVIEW: Joe Satriani
You have to have been living in some kind of coop to not have heard about Chickenfoot, the new supergroup featuring Joe Satriani, Sammy Hagar, Mike Anthony and Chad Smith. Far from just being a mixture of Van Halen, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and a certain surfing alien guitarist, Chickenfoot rocks with a distinctive band sound. You get the feeling the ‘foot is in it for the long run,
I Heart Guitar: Hi Joe! Peter from I Heart Guitar here. This is the third time I’ve interviewed you and also, you replied to me on Twitter a couple of weeks ago.
Joe Satriani: (Laughs) Oh fantastic. It’s funny how I’ve taken to doing Twitter while I’m sitting here in my studio practicing, just a crazy thing to do while I’m taking 60 seconds off.
I Heart Guitar: Same, if I’m typing up an article I’m sometimes like, ‘Eh, I just need to blab about stuff for a few seconds.’
Satriani: It’s a strange modern neurosis, isn’t it? Twitter is made for people like us who need to somehow get things out. It’s funny, before these interviews started I posted a picture that I got from these guys at Vox – someone’s girlfriend had given her boyfriend a birthday cake in the shape of a giant Satchurator pedal. It was the funniest picture.
I Heart Guitar: I saw that! So, first question: The album debuted at number 4, how cool is that!
Satriani: Yeah, I swear, I was thinking we were going to be 100-something. So when someone said “You know, I think we might be in the top 20” I was like, “Yeah, right.” Then, “No it’s going to be in the top 10.” Then as it came closer and closer I started getting emails from Gary Arnold at Best Buy saying “You’d better be ready, this is coming out at number 4.” Dave Matthews, Green Day, Black Eyed Peas. Classic rock up against those guys, it’s a great moment for rock.
I Heart Guitar: So you just wrapped up a mini tour?
Satriani: We did this little club tour. We called it a Road Test tour and we played in places that held 400 people, little sweat boxes, and it was so much fun, to take a real rock band like this with a brand new record that no-one had heard and just try to make them hear it and understand it. There’s nothing like feedback from a few hundred people who can scratch your nose during the show if they want (laughs). I mean, you really do have to do your work, but the feedback you get is great, and the fans who came to see us can take pride in being part of the experience that told us how to do it. I’m glad we did it and we’ll take that experience to Europe for this festival tour that’s starting later this week.
I Heart Guitar: Did you learn anything new about the songs after playing them on the tour?
Satriani: What you learn about is which part should stay the same and which parts are flexible. And you learn that with every album. I’ve learned that every time I’ve taken an instrumental record on the road. For instance, you learn that Flying In A Blue Dream has got to be handled very carefully but Ice 9 can be played a million different ways and it still works. You just never really know until you try. It was good for us to get this happening because let me tell you something: between February 2008 when we first played together and then a year later, we had still only spent 43 days making a record and about a week more playing together. We had never played all the songs top to bottom, let alone do a show. So we really were a band that against all odds recorded an album, and then all of a sudden we had to get experience like a normal band would. We condensed it into that little two-week club tour.
I Heart Guitar: And I hear you guys might possibly be coming down here to Australia sooner or later?
Satriani: You know I have made it my personal quest to convince the guys in the band that Chickenfoot needs to tour the world twice before it thinks about taking a break or going in to record another album. I’m the kind of guy who’s toured almost everywhere and I keep telling them, “We’ve gotta go to Australia, we’ve gotta go to New Zealand. I want to take you guys to India and the Pacific Rim. And we might as well do South Africa while we’re at it, let alone South America, North America and Europe.” Sammy doesn’t have a whole bunch of experience touring outside of America. He started out that way in Montrose but Van Halen wasn’t really that adventurous when it came to international touring. I think Chad is the only other one with a lot of international experience because the Chilli Peppers are a worldwide phenomenon.
Satriani: The biggest difference is that in a band like this with the kind of music we’re writing, I knew from the start that the rhythm guitar, the guitar that plays the riff, the intro guitar, the guitar that really plays with the rhythm section, has got to be the heart and soul of the band. It really does. It’s not about the soloist. To me that’s more like an 80s kind of a thing, where the guitarist is always on a self-promotion trip. And that was cool back then. Eddie Van Halen was the star of that: he had the true chops to pull that off. But I didn’t want to just revisit that era. Having lived through it myself I’m not interested in that. So I looked further back, and Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, they created these amazing records with their amazing rhythm guitar parts that really embodied the soul of the music. Then when the solo part came they would freak out and go crazy, but then they’d get back to what you really wanted which was the band rocking riffs. I made it my personal quest to make sure that happened. I wasn’t thinking Chickenfoot was a vehicle for Joe Satriani to fuse his solo stuff with a singer. I wanted it to be something totally Chickenfoot, something totally original with the band. I think everybody felt the same way in their own right. They weren’t out to try to reproduce what they were famous for. They wanted to use the band as impetus to do something new that they hadn’t done before.
I Heart Guitar: One thing I think is really cool about the band is hearing Mike Anthony right up there in the mix, and it’s so great to hear those backing vocals again too. Listening to Chickenfoot reminds me of how absolutely important he was to Van Halen.
Satriani: Yeah I know, he’s the sound, really, the sound of that band. That vocal blend is amazing. His playing, I remember every time we’d finish doing a song I’d say “How come I never heard that on a Van Halen song?” Musically I can see it because Eddie was a more adventurous player and maybe they thought the bass should be simpler so Eddie could be crazier, but the way we structure our stuff, no-one ever said a word to Mike. We just figured he’d play whatever he wants because everything he plays, we love it. It’s great. And then of course, having Andy Johns engineering for us was great because he loves Mike’s playing. He loves to hear that bass sounding big and fat. I think it’s so important.
I Heart Guitar: Well the Van Halen album Andy produced (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, 1991) was the only one where you could really hear Mike. So why did you choose Andy this time?
Satriani: It was one of these things where we had this weird schedule where every two months we’d get together for two days and try to learn as many new songs as I had written, and we knew that at some point we were going to want to be in the studio for a month and really finish the record. I was thinking we needed a producer who was a big tall guy with a loud voice who could really take control of this. I thought Andy would be the perfect guy for the things we just talked about with Mike. I thought he was the only guy who could capture Chad, because Chad’s drumming is so intense. When you’re in a room with him it sounds nothing like the Chilli Peppers. It sounds like the craziest, biggest rock drummer you’ve ever heard. So I thought I need a big guy who knows how to record other big guys to capture this. Now, I’d made a record with Andy before (The Extremist, 1992) and I’d made a record with his brother (Glyn Johns), and he’d made a Van Halen record before – although Sammy had fired him at one point! But when I brought his name up everyone was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I guess everyone was feeling the same way. Andy came in and he really did bring a lot of wonderful sounds and a lot of great arrangement ideas. He really knew how to capture us when we were good, and he refused to record us if he thought we were sucking (laughs), which was great. When everybody left and it was just Andy and myself in the studio we had a great time doing the overdubs because we felt the same way: that this was a record that, if you needed a banjo, then you would play it. If you needed eight harmonicas, you would play it. If you needed a piano, an organ and twelve electric 12-strings, you just did it. So that’s what we did. We spent about three or four weeks just going crazy every day trying anything to make the songs that much better. He has great experience at that. He really knows how to pick the right instruments for the right job.
He’s got this funny thing where you’ll be trying to do a part and he’s looking at ya, giving you attitude, like, “No, that sucks, don’t play that. Do something else.” Then you play something and he’ll just get so excited, and he’ll say “You know what? That’s it. I’m leaving. You can stay here and waste your time but I’m leaving.” And he’ll just go. And you go “Wow, he’s the weirdest guy ever,” you know? But two days later you listen back and you go, “Oh he was right! Everything else after that did suck. That was the take!” It was good to have him around.
I Heart Guitar: So I wouldn’t be much of a guitar geek if I didn’t ask you what stuff you used on the album.
Satriani: Oh yes, a long list of crazy things. There are songs like Oh Yeah, Soap On A Rope and Get It Up, which basically was my live rig recorded at Sam’s studio. We really thought we were doing demos but they were so charismatic that we used them as our main recording. So that would be the Ibanez JS1000, the Vox pedals and the Peavey JSX. Probably just one head and cabinet, and it was probably just mic’d with whatever was there at Sam’s studio. Then there were songs that were done at the Skywalker studios where we had some other vintage 4X12 cabinets, and we had this Peavey 50 watt prototype that we were working on. The channel switching didn’t work and the effects loop wasn’t wired up – it was really an ugly-looking thing, but it did do this one thing great, which was it had this clean-yet-distorted, right on the edge sound that was just perfect for what we were doing.
I Heart Guitar: Is this the JSX 50 that was announced at Winter NAMM?
Satriani: Yeah but I don’t know when it’s going to come out. We’re still working on it. We’re still trying to make it as good as we can. Then there were some other things thrown in there, like I have two 59 Fender Twin amps that are just great relics. When we need a little slide wah-wah part we plug into that. The harmonicas all went into my Peavey Mini Colossal amp, a great amp for harmonica. When we needed a little extra fairy dust I played a 1966 Fender electric 12-string and a not-so-old Rickenbacker 12-string. Sometimes we’d put them into a Vox AC30. I’ve got a vintage one from 1964. Sometimes we’d just record them direct and sometimes we’d do a blend. I had some other vintage guitars like a 69 Fender Strat, a 55 Gibson Les Paul, a 59 Gibson ES-335 and a 58 Fender Telecaster, and we would sprinkle them in among the songs to, what would you call it… I guess you’re widening the frequency range. There’s a song on the record called My Kind Of Girl, and the main guitar is a JS1000 from 1990. It’s got a snake pattern on it, drop D tuning into the 50 watt Peavey prototype. Then its brother guitar on the other side, on the right channel, is a 58 Esquire into the same amp with the treble attenuated quite a bit because that’s a really bright guitar. The two of them together was great. The Esquire really supported keeping the JS1000 as the main guitar. Then for the solo we used the prototype Ibanez JS24, which is a 24-fret model I’ve got coming out, which has a very thick, heavy sound. As soon as that solo comes on it’s like, “Whoa.” It has its own identity. I still like doing that, and Andy’s a big fan of that, of trying to balance the stereo field with different things. So sometimes we’d do it with guitars, sometimes I’d play piano, or organ, or Wurlitzer electric piano, and double my guitar part with a piano part. There are songs where, I kid you not, there’s three synths, an organ, a piano, six 12-strings and an acoustic, all on one side. You can barely hear them but they’re there, kinda gurgling about.
I Heart Guitar: What more can you tell us about the JS24?
Satriani: It’s a really cool thing. I’ve always liked the idea of having those frets up there but I never wanted to move the humbucking pickup. That’s always been the problem because the humbucking neck pickup really only works where Gibson stuck it on the Les Paul. To me, that’s the spot, and once you start moving it back towards the bridge it starts to become horrible-sounding. Other guitars that have had the 24 frets and they move that pickup, it’s like, you may as well get rid of it, you know? So I was determined to solve this. And what saved us was the DiMarzio Pro Track. Ibanez got this thing right up against the last fret. It’s amazing how they were able to do it. It’s got a little bit more generous cutaway to the body so you can get up there and play up there. We’re still experimenting with the bridge pickup. I’m thinking it might be a Norton, one of the pickups I designed along with the FRED and the Mo’Jo with DiMarzio. Steve Blucher at DiMarzio is a wizard, so when I say I designed the pickups, that’s a euphemism for me requesting something (laughs). I say “Steve, can you just give me something that goes, like, ‘KKRRR-RURRRR’?” and he goes “Okay. Gimmie a couple of days.”
I Heart Guitar: I interviewed him a little while ago and he was really entertaining.
Satriani: Oh he’s amazing. He’s a very knowledgeable yet incredibly funny person. He makes just the greatest pickups ever. He and Larry are just really fantastic people. So anyway, we were just talking about that today in fact, myself and Steve, about trying to just go that extra one last .1%, because we’re so close to having the guitar all finished out. We’ve already picked out the colour of this and the colour of that and all this sort of stuff. But I’m excited about it. It’s really nice. That neck pickup really is like, wow, it really just sounds like the biggest Strat you ever played.
CHICKENFOOT tour dates:
Jun. 20 – Austria Nova Rock Festival
Jun. 23 – Cork, Ireland: Live At The Marquee
Jun. 25 – London Shepherd’s Bush Empire
Jun. 26 – Holland: Heerhugowaard
Jun. 28 – Belgium Graspop Metal Meeting Festival
Jun. 29 – Paris: Olympia
Jul. 01 – Madrid (venue to be confirmed)
Jul. 03 – Pistoia, Italy: Blues Festival
Jul. 04 – Montreux, Switzerland: Stravinski Hall
Jul. 05 – Udine, Italy: Lignano Sbbiadoro
Jul. 07 – Hamburg: Grosse Freiheit
Jul. 08 – Copenhagen: Vega
Jul. 10 – Kilafors, Sweden: Rockweekend Festival
Jul. 12 – Weert, Holland: Bospop Festival