Fresh from the success of his band Chickenfoot (with Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony from Van Halen and Chad Smith from Red Hot Chilli Peppers), JoeSatriani recently hit the studio to record Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards with longtime drummer Jeff Campitelli, bass player Allen Whitman from The Mermen, and Frank Zappa/Steve Vai multi-instrumentalist and solo artist Mike Keneally on keys It’s a different album for Satch, with the liveliness of The Extremeist minus the Led Zep stomp, and the melodicism of Super Colossal but with a more human element.
Hi Joe! This is our fourth interview together – I feel like I should put you on my Christmas card list.
Oh wow, please do!
First question: what prompted you to pursue such a live feel on the new album?
I guess I had these two extended live periods between the two records. We finished the Satchafunkilus tour, then went right into recording and touring with Chickenfoot, and right after doing a number of shows that spilled over into this year I also went out with the Experience Hendrix tour. So there was a lot of variety of live performances that were informing what I was trying to do. Initially I was just trying to figure out a way to get my music and performances to reach people more deeply, and I thought I needed to make sure we recorded a band playing real vital performances around me, and that I become part of that process, so the record would have that kind of feel to it. I wanted it to be a really nice-sounding studio project but I wanted the feel to be very lively. I brought this subject up to my co-producer and engineer, Mike Fraser, and he put together a plan about how we were going to do it that he didn’t really discuss with me, so he could surprise me when we got into the studio. I usually start the recording process at home. I do a lot of the guitars, bass, keyboards and solo material and home and I bring it into the studio with a band, and I add parts live as the rest of the band plays those performances. Some of the songs were done that way and some were done completely live. Mike made them all fit together very well, and it turned out really well. I’m really happy with it.
Mike Keneally is great on the album.
Mike is a genius. I’ve had the pleasure of hanging around with him when he’s been out playing with Steve Vai, and we’ve done a lot of touring together but this is the first time we’ve really worked together. I started thinking about getting a keyboard player when we were noticing a lot of the songs on this album had a very strong keyboard presence, and I was adding a lot of the keyboards in the home recordings. Some of them, because I don’t play very well, they take on a background or static quality to them. So I kept thinking, I’ve gotta find a keyboard player, but who’s going to understand the kind of guitar record I want to do? I generally do rock and roll instrumental things – they’re not fusion records or jazz records – and it’s hard to get other musicians to really understand the style of the record that I make. Mike’s name just popped into my head and I thought, if anyone can get it, it’ll be Mike, because he’s such a brilliant guitarist, he makes a lot of records, his solo work is great… so I just called him out of the blue and was very fortunate to find out that he was available. I was able to say ‘when we get to these 64 bars, that’s all you. Do whatever you want. Surprise me,’ y’know? It was all brilliant and it was all different, so we could just have fun picking the ones he liked.
Now, I’ve been a Joe Satriani fan for long enough that I know that when you call a song something simple like Dream Song, there’s probably a non-simple reason for it.
That one, I literally dreamt. I’ve never done that before. I had a dream that we me playing, writing and recording a song, and the sonic imagery was so strong that when I woke up abruptly that I remember turning to my wife and saying ‘I just dreamt an entire song! I’ve gotta go downstairs and record it!’ I just went right into the studio and before it evaporated from my memory, I recorded all the parts I had been dreaming, and in a few hours it was done. It was just incredible. After it was done I started to develop a lot of emotions about what I thought the song was about, but I thought it had to be called Dream Song because that’s as close to the truth as you could get.
What on earth are you doing in Wind In The Trees?
There are two things happening there. In the solo section I’m using a Sustainiac pickup on the guitar, with affords me the opportunity to play a little bit more like Coltrane or Jerry Mulligan or something like that, and less like a guitar player. And in the verses and chorus, I’m using this much-maligned piece of software called autotune. It’s a funny thing with me: when I get presented with something that I dislike, I very often think, ‘what would be the contrarian approach?’ We had that process back in 2000 when I did the electronica record Engines Of Creation. We used autotune on a few songs to try to make the guitar sound more robotic, and what we found was that people really weren’t affected by it. They just thought it was either a keyboard or something else. So I never thought about it again. But I was having a conversation with my manager just about general music business and he had brought up the fact that he noticed that in the top 10, in every pop song a vocalist was featured using the autotune software to its most grotesque. He said ‘When was the last time you were playing with it?’ and I said, ‘Well yeah, back in 2000…’ But after the conversation I thought maybe I should revisit it in a different way. Because most of the time people record their performances and then they use the software afterwards and it’s sort of like a producer’s tool to get people to sound like they can actually sing in tune when they can’t, y’know? So I thought, ‘What if it was a pedal?’ Guitar players are always plugging into pedals – choruses, octave dividers – and when we do that our performance reacts to the pedal. And I thought maybe that was what was missing. I’m not reacting to the autotune software. So I’ve gotta figure out a way to set it up so I could play with it live. That wasn’t so hard to set up. And so I realised after programming the software to be in the proper key that if I played really bad, really out of tune, the software would react violently to get me in tune, but if I finished the phrase completely in tune, then the software would back off. So that’s what you hear: me purposely playing out of tune and then in tune. The end result is this sort of very vocal, throaty-sounding melody that is going through scalar movements, and then at the very end it does its own natural vibrato. It took a while to get used to it but I started to really dig it after a while.
So what other guitar gear did you use?
I had a relatively small stable of amps and guitars I used. I was primarily using the Marshall JVM at home and in the studio – the 410 and the 210. I also had some handwired Marshall 100 watts and a 50 watt as well that I used quite a bit. They were doing about 80% of the work. And then every once in a while we’d use something different like a Wizard amp. They wound up being pretty nice for some rhythms. I used a Two Rock amp that the guys at Two Rock made for me. That’s got a really great tone for Stratty kind of things. And I used some plugins, actually. I used SansAmp or Guitar Rig. It’s all about balance. If the songs have several guitars on them, that’s when you’re gonna find a Marshall amp on one side, a SansAmp on the other, a Wizard tucked away just for the bridge or something like that. I was using my very first Ibanez JS2400, I had of course my 1200s, and I had the prototype of the JS guitar that I brought out on the Hendrix tour, which is a three single coil-style guitar that we haven’t put into production yet, and my usual assortment of pedals and things like that.
Any chance of another G3 tour some time soon?
I certainly hope so. I’ve been talking to Steve Vai about that. I know he’s doing some touring next year and he’s starting to work on a solo album. We might be able to get that together again. But in the future for me is the world tour for Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards, then I’m right in the studio with Chickenfoot recording the second album. Somewhere after all those tours we’ll try to put a G3 tour together.
Are you hitting Australia on the solo tour?
Y’know, I’m hoping that right after the recording of the Chickenfoot album and before we start any touring there might be time for me to hit the southern hemisphere.
LINK: Joe Satriani