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INTERVIEW – Joe Satriani, June 2014

| 29 June 2014 | 1 Reply

INTERVIEW – Joe Satriani, June 2014
By Shane Pinnegar

Joe Satriani is no stranger to Australian shores, first visiting here in 1988 during a stint playing guitar for Rolling Stone singer Mick Jagger’s solo band, and he’s made plenty of trips Down Under since then. November will see another opportunity for fans of what he terms ‘strange, beautiful music’ to get their rocks off, with a tour encompassing the five major capital cities.

Joe Satriani 01

Satriani says the Australian visit will mark the end of his Unstoppable Momentum tour, a jaunt which will have taken him far and wide for many months by the time he touches down in Brisbane.

“I’m looking forward to it. The cool thing is that it’s going to be the wrap-up leg of the tour, so we will be in a very celebratory state of mind.

“This tour has actually been pretty long,” he elaborates. “We hit the road as the record came out over a year ago. We had to take a break for not only for me to work on my animated series [more on this later!] but also with Chickenfoot. Then the other guys, Marco [Minnemann] and Bryan [Beller], my drummer & bass player, had a lot of touring to do with their band, The Aristocrats. [keyboard player/guitarist] Mike Keneally’s still out on tour with his own band… [So] it was an interesting break, but it wasn’t a vacation.”

Far from using the downtime to relax, the New Yorker kept riding the momentum – unstoppable, see – by compiling a box set of all of his extensive solo work (14 albums and a disc of previously unreleased work), which also comes in a deluxe package which is a life sized chrome sculpture of Satriani, with removable sunglasses that house two USB drives featuring all the above music.

As if that wasn’t enough, the man also known as Satch also collaborated with author Jake Brown on a 320 page retrospective book – titled Strange Beautiful Music after his 2002 album of that name – which tells the story of his career song by song. Both sound like amazing, not to mention comprehensive, works.

“Yes,” he agrees. “It’s funny. When we started those two projects, they were not linked – meaning Legacy [his record label, an imprint of Sony] and BenBella Books were not aware that this was going to be something that was going to be happening at the same time, but I’m beginning to think that Legacy actually had an idea of doing some kind of a box set prior to author Jake Brown reaching out to me about the book. We gave each other a lot of time to think about how we could do it so that it would be special and so that it would be different from other releases.

“Of course, once Sony and Legacy and myself came up with this idea of the Chrome Head having the high resolution music files on it,” Satriani continues, “as well as the box set with the traditional CDs, there was a lot of work to do. My producer, John Cunniberti became the guy who had to do all the re-mastering. That involved a lot of uncovering all of the tapes in the archives, reviewing them, making sure they were in perfect shape, doing all the transfers and in some cases doing some re-mixing for the bonus tracks.

“Then as this was happening, of course, Jake contacted me about doing a book. One thing led to another… we didn’t really finish it until about right at the last day of 2013. It was really crazy and we worked right up until New Year’s Eve, but it’s great to have the book – although I can’t really look at it! The pictures kind of freak me out, you know what I mean, with long hair and the clothes, all the funny things I was wearing. The book had lots of embarrassing photos that people could get pleasure out of.

“Although it was painful and cathartic at times to work on the book,” he laughs, “I’m happy that I was cajoled and had my arm twisted and convinced that it was a good thing to do, because in the end I agreed with them – but it was a bit tough at the beginning to be SO retrospective, you know.”

Joe Satriani 02

Satriani’s music has always been extremely forward thinking – in a sense it has evolved with him, and takes his audience on a journey from song to song, and from album to album. You never know what you’re going to get exactly. He agrees that looking backward was a very different thing to get used to.

“It is [hard]. It’s one of those things that just doesn’t feel like a natural thing for a musician who’s always trying to write the next song and working on a new piece. Of course, so much of my life is playing the music, and re-interpreting it on stage. So to have go back to the original versions – which I never listen to – that was hard enough. It’s weird – it’s like having to stare at Polaroids from a party where you misbehaved. Everybody says, ‘you have to come to terms with these,’ you know!”

Looking at the book and box set side-by-side, it’s surprising to realise that they happened independently of each other, seeing as they tie together so seamlessly.

“Yes, that’s a good point.” The guitarist concurs, “once we got our publisher, BenBella, together with the people at Legacy and Sony, they really worked great together as a team. They were able to give me the right amount of time to finish it. I was touring and recording an album while the whole thing was sort of gaining speed, so they had to wait for me to finish. By the time we finished, I guess it was fortuitous. We had already created a new album which was the Unstoppable Momentum record. It made sense to finally add that chapter to the book and also add it to the box set. I was happy about that because I felt, ‘wow, by the time this thing comes out, my new record will be a year old – that doesn’t make any sense to me!

“But that timing was very crucial in getting the two companies to work together.”

Joe Satriani 03

With the retrospective box set and book out wrapping up his entire solo career to date, once the Australian tour is over and done and the Unstoppable Momentum tour stops, that career has effectively had a line drawn under it. I wonder if Satriani feels that will give him the freedom to move on to do something different.

“I’ll tell you, one thing I learned from doing the book is that I’ve always been free,” he says, excitedly, “although I may not have noticed it… but I look back and I think, ‘I’ve always been free to change direction.’ I should do that more often because it always pays off. In the end, the book details the 14 studio albums and the trials and tribulations and the triumphs that are behind each project. When you review the stuff like that and listen to all the contributions by all the other musicians and the producers, you begin to realise that chances were taken. Crazy things were tried. In the end, it was all for good. It was good that we pushed ourselves to the edge.

“I keep thinking – as you suggested – I’ve sort of drawn that line and said, ‘that was then. Now I’m stepping right into the now.’ I’ve been moving forward. The other week I sent a full record’s worth of demos off to Sam, Mike and Chad from Chickenfoot, and I’ve been working with the guitarist Ned Evans on, of all things, a digital animation series based on characters from my art book from 2013.

“So every day we’ve been very busy writing a script, developing the pilot. I’ve been writing and recording lots of music at home that accompanies the show – so, I have been moving forward into crazy places. If anything, every once in a while I go, ‘what am I doing? This is insane!’”

There’s no denying that Joe Satriani is one dude who is walking the road less travelled into some amazing areas.

“Yeah!” he says with gusto. “That’s the way it should be. I always think that when you get to the end of the line, you should exhale and say, ‘I did it. I tried everything I could.’ Go out with a smile on your face.”

Satriani looks back on that first tour of the country in late ’88 with a lot of affection, though despite multiple return visits, he says he hasn’t had the chance to play tourist as much as he’d like.

“We were there late ’88 – or in the Fall as we call it. It was great. Wow. What an experience. [Though] I never have ventured into the interior – I’ve never seen Ayers Rock. I’ve never been up to Cairns or Darwin. I’m one of those guys that hits the coastal cities. I always feel like I’m missing out. We’re always on a tight schedule. One of these days… I think the most exotic place I’ve been maybe is Hamilton Island or Newcastle but mainly it’s all the major cities – which is great.

“When you’re on tour,” he goes on to explain, “that’s probably the most fun is when you pull into major towns. The US is filled with really small little towns. You can play them but there’s not much to do there except for your show. You do 60 of those. They start to drive you crazy. When we go to Australia, it’s always exciting. Every city is exciting, always. They’re all so different – each city has its own style.

Being a truly ground-breaking (mostly) instrumental guitarist, naturally a lot of technical guitar aficionados attend every Joe Satriani show – but it’s not just a six-string-nerdfest by a long shot. Much of his compositions are truly beautiful and emotional pieces of music, and many fans are there simply to hear the songs rather than gaze in awe at Satriani the virtuoso and figure out how to play a certain piece.

Joe Satriani 04

Satriani says he doesn’t feel the need to consciously bear the two groups in mind when composing or rehearsing the live show in order to keep everyone in the audience happy – the song always comes first.

“I don’t really think that ever enters into my mind,” he says thoughtfully. “I assume that in the audience there’s a small group of musicians, some of them are professional. Some of them are really great musicians but they also have other talents in the professional world. I started early on as a performer when I was 14. One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t really cater to an audience. If you think you can, you’re gravely mistaken because an audience is smarter than you can ever imagine. They don’t want to see you being clever. They just want to see you being really good.

“Don’t worry about trying to be smart or figuring out what they want. Just go out there and be the best version of yourself you can ever be. That, I think, is what will get people to come back to see you over and over again. That’s the only way to do it. I look at a lot of performers that have been on the road since they were in their teens, and they’re maybe 60 or 70 years old now – and they’re still doing it.

“That’s really part of it: you have to feel good as an artist every night you get on stage, that you’re doing something that you believe in even on the specific level. Obviously, you’re out there because you believe in the whole thing as an entity, but in reference to your question specifically, I don’t think I would ever get down on my knees and play twice as fast so I could impress a small group of shredders in the 20th row. I would be like, ‘that would be weird,’ because the rest of the audience is probably going, ‘what’s he doing?’”

Satriani has defied the prevailing cries of music industry doom in the rock media by re-signing with Sony’s subsidiary Legacy rather than tackle the business head-on as a totally independent artist. It’s an arrangement he’s completely comfortable with and sees no reason to tinker with.

“There’s lot of reasons – great reasons, to stay with the Sony family,” he explains. “Number One, as a record company they have a lot of talent in their affiliates all around the world. I primarily deal with the guys in New York, and they just have a great team. They’re very creative. They’re smart, very supportive, and on a nuts and bolts level, they have an unbelievable distribution machine, and they have been great custodians of my catalogue. To me, it’s a specific thing – I don’t like to generalise about the music business because I think it makes for bad decisions.

“So when someone says, ‘do you go with a big company or you go independent?’ I go, “well, which big company? who are you talking about?’ – because it matters, you know.

“It seems to be a good fit. The people who have been working at Sony around the world that I run into – because we tour internationally so much – have always been doing really good things for me and supporting me. So that’s what I really enjoy about working with a large group. The other thing is that I’m sort of a self-sufficient kind of artist. I write the music. I perform it. I own my publishing. I’m kind of independent already, you know what I mean? So it’s different. If I was a 7-piece band, I might think about starting my own label and doing it that way, but I’m an established solo artist. It’s almost like I’m an independent entity that has a special agreement with a major label.

“And I’ll tell you, the team is great. A perfect example is this box set and the Chrome Head that they’re putting out. I don’t know of any other label that would have been able to put that out correctly for somebody like me. They’ve been fantastic.”

With our time running out, there’s one last subject I want to tackle before we finish: in many previous interviews – including one with myself around the release of the Black Swans And Wormhole Wizards album in 2010 – Satriani has downplayed his singing ability. Put simply, despite breaking his ‘instrumentalist’ mold and releasing several songs with himself as vocalist on the Flying In A Blue Dream album from 1989 (including single Big Bad Moon), he doesn’t consider himself a singer, he doesn’t like the sound of his own voice.

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I put it to the guitarist that that is exactly what Jimi Hendrix used to say about his own songs, yet the late guitarist was the perfect singer for his own songs. He’s amused and laughs at the comparison, and let’s a little surprise slip as well.

“Yeah he was [the perfect singer for his songs]. Maybe so, but I always thought Jimi’s voice was beautiful. I loved it. I thought it was great – but I’m a different person altogether with a different set of vocal attributes – but it’s funny you should say that because I was singing today. I was singing Big Bad Moon to a voiceless remix that John Cunniberti had done for me. I thought, ‘I have to put this into the set.’ Maybe it will be in the set by the time we get to Australia?”

So there you have it – Joe Satriani touring Australia in November, Chickenfoot playing with ideas for their third album, and an animated series featuring Satriani’s artwork and new music. It all sounds strange, beautiful, and very exciting.


Tickets on sale 10am Friday June 27 (with pre-sales preceding)

The Tivoli, Brisbane – Tuesday November 4
State Theatre, Sydney – Thursday November 6
Palais Theatre, Melbourne – Saturday November 8
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide – Sunday November 9
Astor Theatre, Perth – Tuesday November 11


Category: Interviews

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Editor, 100% ROCK MAGAZINE

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  1. fallour says:

    i never knew he worked with Legacy. great article 🙂

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