INTERVIEW: Joe Satriani

IK Multimedia's MODO BASS

Joe Satriani

Across 14 studio albums Joe Satriani has redefined instrumental guitar, led the charge in popularising shred, introduced all sorts of techniques to the guitarists’ lexicon, and spearheaded innovations in gear that have influenced countless luthiers and modders. While Joe is always looking forward – to the next guitar, the next gig, the next album – 2014 finds him also taking stock of how he got to this point, if only for a moment. This year has already seen the release of TThe Complete Studio Recordings, a 15-disc box set which brings together each of his albums (the studio disc of the two-CD Time Machine album is represented) plus a disc of alternate mixes, unheard tracks and rarities. And he has also released Strange Beautiful Music: A Musical Memoir, which explores his creative output album-by-album, offering unprecedented incites into the conception and execution of his albums, the origins of the G3 tour, the success of Chickenfoot and of course those early days teaching guitar to the likes of Steve Vai, Alex Skolnick, Kirk Hammett and Larry LaLonde. With plenty of touring booked for this year already, Joe has just announced a tour of Australia for November, which means it’s high time we had another chat.

So, you’re heading back to Australia! 

We are, finally! We’re back on a solo tour. By the time we get to you guys it’ll be the final lap of the Unstoppable Momentum tour that we started last year. It’ll be great – we’ll be well-seasoned by the time we play those shows.

Well with the guys you’ve got in the band I can imagine that it’s always evolving. You don’t hire guys like this unless you’re going to use what they bring to the table. 

Yeah! They’re always fun to play with. Marco [Minnemann, drums] and Bryan [Beller, bass] are of course in The Aristocrats, who are touring when we’re not touring.They have this musical telepathy which is great, and they’ve all worked together with Mike [Keneally, keys and guitar]. As a matter of fact they’ve all worked together in a variety of formats including a trio [KMB], and of course Mike and I have a long history. So there’s a lot of good stuff between all four of us and we can draw it out of each other.

How do you pull together a setlist for these shows? 

I guess the way that we put together a setlist for us – or I should say for me – reflects the fact that I’ve been hanging around a long time, and the success that I’ve had means that my audience has known me for the decades. So on the one hand you don’t want to play the same songs that you’ve played over and over because there are some people who have seen me very often. But the audience on any given night is divided in many different ways. There are people who have never seen me before and probably will never see me again, this is the one time. And if they go to see you and all you do is play the weirdest, most obscure music you can, you’ll lose them! And as a performer you’ll notice that halfway through the show. “This just isn’t working,” y’know? And also, on the flip side of that is when you’re playing “Satch Boogie” again, some people will drift off because they’ve seen it already! So you can’t really please everybody because everybody’s got a right to expect something very different. I remember, this stuck in my head on this one tour, we were playing the song “Always With Me, Always With You,” it was a fan favourite and one of the top three memorable songs from my catalog that the average listener wants me to play. And we started to jam on the end of it. We thought as musicians that it would be fun to play something like “With A Little Help From My Friends” and go off into this crazy jam and then bring it back home. And then one time, after a really good performance, I noticed on some social media sites some people were saying “Oh, they played my favourite song but then they went off at the end. What were they playing? I didn’t like that!” So that’s the other level, which is, some people in the audience want you to play exactly what they know you for and others want you to absolutely blow it out. It’s best to go with your feelings. What do you want as an artist? All you can do is go in that direction and if people like it, great, and if they don’t …just say sorry! What else can you do, y’know?

Well also with you, we as the audience understand that you have an exploratory musical mind and we want you to take it where you’re going to take it. 

Well that’s good news for me! I love to hear that. I think all my favourite concerts have been where I’ve been sitting in the audience and I’ve been so surprised by how faithful some songs are to the record and how far out some others are. Last time I saw the Rolling Stones in Oakland it was really a great night for the Stones. They did “Ruby Tuesday” and it sounded just like the album. It was truly remarkable. And other songs, they really jammed out and did some really cool stuff. That happens a lot on stage.

Joe SatrianiDo you ever listen back to your own stuff purely for its own sake? For me, I listen to my stuff a lot because it’s like, I wrote it because I wanted to hear it. 

It’s a funny thing. I gotta say that I don’t listen to my own music once I’ve made the record. I move on. My family will tell ya that they hear me playing music that I’m working on way too much, y’know? I remember I was working on the song “Three Sheets To The Wind” from the last album, and that song took a very unusual journey because I wrote it on guitar and it had a nice palatable melody on guitar, but when I got the idea to use horns I literally spent like three weeks, five hours a day, just doing all sorts of different horn arrangements and blending the guitar in. And of course I drove my wife crazy cos she’d hear that song way too much. Y’know, the average person does not consume music in the same way a musician does. We can sort of focus in and let all the other stuff go by us while we listen to the attack of the trumpet. So that’s what I’ll do. But once we recorded it and I gave myself a hi-five for completing the vision, I thought “Well now I have to forget about it because my reality is now what it sounds like live.” And that’s my reality as a performer: I walk out on stage with a band and I have to forget what we achieved on the album and think about what I can achieve with the live band night after night. So the album tracks can be sort of confusing to me.

In the process of preparing the box set, was that something that became apparent – the arc of your career, the way songs have changed over time on stage, and the hidden gems that are tucked away in there? Cos you’ve done some weird little things, y’know?

Yeah! Yeah. I think it was easier for John Cuniberti, who did most of the hard work of actually moving boxes, putting the tapes on the machines, dealing with all the digital drives and doing the actual mastering itself. And I was the guy who would receive the end product and say, “Yes, no, more dynamics.” But early on I told him I would lose my mind. I did not want to listen to my old albums. And he understood. I mean, he’s been working with me forever, and he would say “Let it go by… how does it feel?” Because I’d hear a mistake and immediately want to call him up and say “Hey do you think I can come in there and fix that part?” and his answer was always “No! We’re leaving it alone. Your fans like it just the way it is.” Luckily I listened to his advice. I didn’t go in and try to change anything. And we came up with the bonus disc which has some early recording mistakes and ideas.

Joe Satriani bookSpeaking of your creative process, the book is really great. What I like is that you’re not dishing dirt or getting too sidetracked from music. Anyone who’s a creative person can get something out of it. 

I’m happy to hear you say that. Jake Brown approached me with the idea of doing a book almost two years ago and I just didn’t want to do it! But his original idea was pretty intriguing to me. It was, let’s just talk about each album as a separate story about the creative process behind the material, and then lets get everybody involved in giving their perspective of what went on in the studio. That way you don’t have to brainstorm ‘the story of my life,’ y’know? Because I’d be too bored with that! But I was kind of energised. After kicking and screaming a bit until halfway through the process the publisher said ‘We want Joe to rewrite this in the first person.’ And I was guided by Jake and he provided me with all of the transcripts of all of the interviews and I had to go in and just shape the transcripts of my interviews so there was a flow to it. I’ve got to say that in the end I was very happy it was done because I don’t want to look back – I want to keep moving forward – but I’m glad we could set the record straight and tell the story.

One thing that really stands out in the book is that in some ways it’s almost like the city of San Francisco itself is a character in story. What’s it like there now compared to when you first moved there?

Well San Francisco’s a funny little town. I grew up in New York, right outside the city but New York City was my main city, and it’s where I was born and raised. I moved out west and it was so different. So different. So you’re calling from Melbourne? Well I would say there’s a huge difference between, say, Melbourne and Sydney, and Sydney and Perth. It’s just remarkably different. Then multiply it by the sheer size of New York and how small San Francisco is. There are less than a million people in the city here where I live. And then you have Los Angeles which is 400 miles to the south and that is really the huge magnet of what I would call the great homogenising of the entertainment business. That’s where it’s all really happening, but I found San Francisco to be a great place for me because I could really escape the business when I was not out on tour. San Francisco is still a one-horse town, it’s still a bit funky. I caught the spirit of it, and it worked its magic into the records I’ve made.

We’d better talk some guitar specifics while I’ve got you. How’s the three-pickup JS model coming along? 

Yeah, it got pushed a little in line. We have another guitar that we’re working on but I have finally passed that pickup hurdle and a lot of other considerations. They are on it! It’s great that we have had so much happening in the last six months with the JS line and I’m still pursuing that one with the three pickups. I’m hopeful! They make some great, great guitars. They played into the rebirth of the seven-string for that generation and now they’re into eight, and that’s just mind-boggling. I’m not sure I’ll ever purchase one because I figure I don’t want to hurt my hand. It’s too much to think about, eight strings, y’know? I was thinking by the time I figure out how to play eight-string, some guy will come out with a nine-string.

Ibanez did that at NAMM this year! They’ve now got two nine-string models. 

They do? Wow. They did me a favour by not telling me. So is it a lower and an upper string compared to a seven-string?

Now, it’s a lower string and another lower string.

Wow. Goodbye bass player.

JOE SATRIANI AUSTRALIAN TOUR 2014

AUCKLAND | ASB THEATRE | SATURDAY NOV 1
WELLINGTON | OPERA HOUSE | SUNDAY NOV 2
THE TIVOLI, BRISBANE | TUESDAY NOV 4
STATE THEATRE, SYDNEY | THURSDAY NOV 6
PALAIS THEATRE, MELBOURNE | SATURDAY NOV 8
HER MAJESTY’S THEATRE, ADELAIDE | SUNDAY NOV 9
ASTOR THEATRE, PERTH | TUESDAY NOV 11

Tickets for all shows go on sale 10am Friday June 27. My Live Nation members can be amongst the first to secure tickets during the exclusive pre-sale commencing midday Monday June 23. VIP Packages, including Meet & Greets, are also available for purchase through VIP Nation Australia & New Zealand. For the full list of dates and on-sale times, head to the official tour page here: http://bit.ly/SV4Q1I