Joe Satriani Strikes Back With New LP ‘Shapeshifting’ – Guitar Master Shares All (INTERVIEW)

Satch is back! Just when you thought that Joe Satriani might actually be relaxing and taking a break, it shouldn’t be a surprise anyone that the celebrated six-string virtuoso is currently busy prepping a new world tour in support of his amazing, new, record – Shapeshifting. He enlisted an eclectic, all-star cast of collaborators, that include rock and roll’s legendary go-to drummer Kenny Aronoff, bassist Chris Chaney and keyboardist Eric Caudieux for the recording sessions. Lisa Coleman (The Revolution) and Christopher Guest (Spinal Tap) were invited to contribute their talents as well. Jim Scott, best known for his work with Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers co-produced the album with Satriani. Longtime associate John Cuniberti handled the mastering duties as well. Recently, Joe took some time to speak with Glide about the genesis of the album, the music, the musicians, influences and inspirations, as well as the special working relationship he has with his son, ZZ. Shapeshifting is set for release on April 10, 2020 via Sony Music/Legacy Recordings.  

Joe, thank you for making time to discuss Shapeshifting. It is such a wonderful record! Along with the title track, a few songs standout for me. “Perfect Dust” is really fun. “All My Friends” is brilliant. And, of course, I’m very curious about “Ali Farka, Dick Dale, An Alien And Me”.

Oh yeah! Ha, I know. The title alone for that one will get people asking questions.

Alright, so right from the beginning of the album the music is just fantastic. From the very first listen, it took me on this incredible, imaginary journey right off the bat. Overall, Shapeshifting is such a fun listen, chock full of warm and organic tones. It sounds like you recorded it live as opposed to some of your work in the past that was very processed. Am I my far off on that observation? 

Oh no, you are right on target. It was my intention to really go organic and that led me to Jim Scott and to record at his very friendly and fun studio in Valencia, CA. I had the concept for the album and had most of it written. I had sort of focused on Kenny as the drummer. But, I hadn’t really thought about the bass player at the time. Last year, out on the experience Hendrix tour, Kenny, myself, along with Doug Pinnick were spending a lot of time together and one afternoon Kenny was texting me about some Hendrix tour business and he just happened to mention that he finished a session at Jim’s studio. He mentioned how much fun it was it was and how great Jim is. The sounds are always crazy and everything and it was just one of those things where I thought well a guy like him Scott doesn’t do instrumental guitar records so like why would he even think about doing that with me? I thought, well maybe not, maybe he’s just waiting for my call. I just called him and said that I was interested, and he said to come on down. So, my wife and I just stopped by the studio on our way down to L.A. before visiting my son. 

The studio is amazing, and he’s got this warehouse that’s just like a funhouse for musicians. It’s crazy looking. There are instruments everywhere and they’re all plugged in ready to go. He’s got a really cool control room a beautiful music room that’s not too big so everyone’s close to each-other. Everyone maintains that physical connection while they’re playing and of course everything that I’ve ever heard of his that he’s worked on always sounded great. It always had a fantastic organic sound to it a good feel. We talked a little bit about what I was trying to get to and to achieve and he was right on board from the beginning and so yeah his you know he’s been making records for decades for the greatest artists out there and that man knows where to put a microphone and what to do with it he records it it’s really remarkable to see how you know he gets sounds recorded and how he likes to manipulate them and how he feels about mixes and arrangements. I had a great time collaborating with him and giving him free reign to mix things in a certain way or while recording, make me play something over and over again 300 times I would like yeah do it I’m ready after this and let’s do it!

That’s great. Thank you. Let’s explore a couple of tracks from the album. So first off, “Ali Farka, Dick Dale, an Alien and Me”. The title alone just stands out from the rest and with throwing ‘alien’ in the title, lending itself to the sci-fi theme that tends to pop up in your catalog – not only does it ooze intrigue – but it has a very interesting, complex and dynamic arrangement. Could you elaborate on this track? 

Yeah! It had a very interesting way of developing. It’s a bit of a long story. But, I’ll try to make it as succinct as possible. So, for years I’ve been working on an animated sci-fi story with fellow guitar player and comrade in writing. His name is Ned Evett and there is a story called Crystal Planet and it came out in the Heavy Metal Magazine – just a few months ago. We’re working with the magazine to develop a graphic novel at the moment. Anyway, so as Ned and I’ve been working on this, along with Brendon Small who’s part of the production team, I started to record musical cues just in case we got a deal with Netflix, Adult Swim or something like that – we wanted it ready with material. 

One of the things I had come up with one day was this funny sort of African-trance, alien-sounding, computer performance. I would just set up a bunch of gears from software plugins and I would just improvise these performances based on the episode that I was working with. I was going through a bunch of the cues, after a few months of not listening to literally the hundreds of cues that I had done, and I come across this thing. All of a sudden, I’m thinking, this really reminds me of Ali Farka Touré. Maybe I’d been listening to one of the albums or something and so I just I just picked up my guitar and I started improvising along with this synthesizer piece and it started to gel. So, I turned on my iPhone and I ambiently recorded myself playing live to this computerized improvisation from a year previous. I took that recording with me out on the Hendrix tour last year and I kept thinking, this is a great piece of music. I should do this as an homage to the great Ali Farka Touré. And then, as I’m sort of thinking about it, how I could turn this into a piece of music. Then we got the sad news that Dick Dale had passed away. I don’t know why I put the two together to tell you the truth but, I wanted to do a tribute to Dick Dale and then I thought well, what if there’s like an imaginary movie in your mind of a late night party out in an oasis in the desert and it’s Ali Farka, Dick Dale, me and there’s… an alien. I don’t know why. But, I just had to give a name to that synthesizer part that you hear weaving in and out. I would just keep developing that in my mind while on tour. 

When I got back, I laid it out in Pro Tools and started to write everybody’s part. I had to figure out a way to stick myself in there and then how Ali Farka would pass the baton to Dick and how he would pass it to me and so on and so forth. The funniest part was when I brought it to the guys, and they were all asking me the same questions you did. Like, “What is this song? How did you come with it? How are we gonna do it?” We just had a lot of fun doing it. I mean, every time we did a take, everyone was laughing ’cause it was so much fun. But, then of course, the excitement really built as we started to finally add the final touches to the guitar tracks, followed by editing to see if we could shorten some bits here there to make it more powerful of an arrangement. 

The very end is something I came up with off the top of my head. We were just sitting there, and we thought we were finished, and I said, “Hey, I got one more thing I want to try.” I just threw some of these crazy arpeggios out there and suddenly we had a song. It was finished. So, I’m very excited to play that live. Not only ’cause it’s close to my heart, but, I guess I want people to know about these two other guitar players. They really influenced the course of music in a huge way and they still do. Their presence on the scene is huge and they should get some props.

Thank you very much. Now, onto the first single off the album “Nineteen Eighty”. You have already made it known in the press release, that the song is a nod to the great Eddie Van Halen. How did he and his playing have an impact or influence on your music and craft?

Technically, you know, we’re the same age group with same generation. But, he really hit it big ten years before I had. In ’78, he changed the course of guitar playing and thank God. I always used to tell people that he put the smile back into heavy guitar playing ’cause it was getting kind of dark and morose. No one was having fun. It was all anger or no guitar at all! Then this guy starts playing. It’s brilliant, feels good, sounds good and he’s smiling! He’s having a good time! I thought, well this is what it’s always been about. Surfing With The Alien didn’t really hit the charts until ’88. So, it was ten years, there was a big difference. But, listen, I was so happy the first moment I heard “Eruption” come on the radio. You just can’t imagine how happy I was ’cause I almost felt like, as part of the guitar community, we were kind of under siege in a way. I thought, I didn’t really like what was going on.

A few years earlier, I was on tour with a disco band. So, I’ve been through the demoralizing process of sitting there and not being paid attention to ’cause everyone just paid attention to the kick drum while they did the hustle or something like that. When I landed out here in California, I was thinking, I just gotta do something different. Eddie just continued on in such a beautiful way and he wrote great, played great and it was different. The songs were fun and there weren’t these long trilogies with a million parts. It was just good, rock music. I played that record for so many of my friends trying to get them all on board. 

I was starting this band called the Squares and we did have this idea of, not copying Van Halen, but, borrowing from a lot of different elements that were part of the bands make up. Our bass player was really into rockabilly and Elvis Presley. He was not into Van Halen or any kind of heavy metal at all. Certainly not my background, fusion, bebop, heavy metal, psychedelic music that’s where my head was. I was classically trained in music theory in high school. I had a whole different thing. We had a drummer that was just out of high school and he just liked Bruce Springsteen. So, we were an odd band and we kind of met in the middle deciding to be not as flamboyant as Eddie or Randy Rhoads and not to be as punk as The Ramones, the Sex Pistols or Gang of Four. We tried to kind of combined the Everly Brothers with the fun elements of Van Halen. 

So, the song “Nineteen Eighty” came about because I’d spent last year going through the catalog with John Cuniberti and finally releasing a Squares record. The oddity of that whole experience, is that, finally after 40 years, we got a record deal! We were completely unsuccessful back in the early 80’s. But, it was a labor of love. We always thought there’s gotta be ten or eleven songs that are the best of what we did and let’s just make sure it gets out there for posterity. The process was cathartic, and I did go through some emotional changes just having to deal with listening to what we used to sound like, thinking of all the dreams that fell apart and just the losing Andy Milton – as he passed away a number of years ago. So, I guess it was a reaction to the enthusiasm we had right when we started, which was the end of ‘79 and the beginning of ’80. It wasn’t the ‘shred-like-crazy 1985 through ‘90 period’. It was still more like Billy Gibbons and Eddie Van Halen, there was still a lot of swing, swagger and smiling going on and so the song kind of reflects that – not being a total shredfest! 

One thing that I really appreciate about your style of playing, especially on this album, is that there’s a lot of feel and emotion emanating from your hands and fingers – not just a showy contest to see how many notes you can play in four minutes time.

Exactly! Yeah.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of instrumental rock music. But, for some reason, I can listen to your records and really enjoy them. I take in the melody lines like a painting and I can develop my own interpretation as to what you’re trying to say with your guitar and without words. That’s a beautiful facet of your music.

Oh, great. Cool. Thank you!

Your son ZZ, produced a killer video for “Nineteen Eighty”. Its visuals are right in tune with the song itself. It’s energetic, colorful, fun and it even exposes some insight on the behind the scenes action. Do you have plans for more videos? 

Yeah. We would love to do that. Budgets are really tiny these days for videos. So, it’s rough to finally get something like that together. But, this time around, the guys at Sony Legacy really wanted to help us come in strong and promote the video. It also gave my son a chance to hire some more people in a better studio. In the past, he’s always had a shoestring budget to do a lot of the work that he’s done for me. But, besides the obvious father and son relationship, he and I go way back – in terms of working together. 

He produced the earliest podcast we ever did from the road and he’s been on tour with us since he was four. He was really into making skate videos when he was young, and we sort of pressed him into service. He started doing all of our podcasts and then taught me how to do them, ’cause he got sick of following the old guys around. Then we eventually started to work more and more. 

We did “Beyond the Supernova”, the documentary that came out about two years ago and then he started working a little bit more with music. It wasn’t his primary focus. He really wanted to work on and comedy TV and feature length films. But, this music thing keeps coming back, obviously – ’cause of the connection with me and I’m always asking if he’s got a little more time and patience to point the camera at his old man.

It’s a great connection that you two have formed, not to mention the great memories that you’re creating together as father and son.

Yeah! It’s great. He’s really good to work with and he really doesn’t hold back in telling me what to do, how to do it, what he likes and what he doesn’t like. So, it’s great! There’s actually a long-form version of “Nineteen Eighty”. It’s really interesting. We learned, that when you put out a video these days, if there’s talking in the beginning of the video you lose like 50% of your viewership in the first six seconds. It’s a weird set of analytics that, if you’re open to listening to, it will change your world of promo. But, there’s actually a good thirty seconds or so in the beginning and at the end of the video that is all behind the scenes footage. But, the video that we put out, it’s truncated because we wanted to make sure people would stay tuned when they clicked on YouTube! Eventually, we will get that released, so people can see all the cool stuff that he did. 

“All My Friends Are Here” is glorious! Its opening riffs are appropriately celebratory and some of the melody lines and fills, remind me of my all-time favorite song of yours – “Always With Me Always With You” (Surfing With The Alien, 1987). Who or what event was the inspiration behind “Friends”? 

\Ahh, thank you! It was inspired by an event, that my son actually went back to the east coast for,  a friend’s wedding. He was just saying it was just so cool to see all the guys that he’d gone to preschool, middle school and high school with – a collection of about maybe 10 friends. They’re also really close and I was just thinking about that one day and how, when you get together for these big parties with your friends, if you’re lucky enough to last long enough – most of the time it’s great. You need music to help celebrate and to make and represent the joy of lasting friendships. But, as all these things go, there is always that part of reflection maybe somebody’s gone,  somebody’s missing or somebody couldn’t make it. Maybe there’s some conflict at some point. But, then it sort of resolves itself. So, I made sure that in in the song, there’s a point where it turns minor and there’s some reflection going on an before it resolves itself.

“Here The Blue River” was an unexpected venture into a reggae, which only adds the eclecticism of the album. In regard to your catalog,  you’ve covered rock and roll, blues, jazz, funk and now reggae! What’s left?

Oh, well, I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff that I could try. But, I don’t do it as a as a kind of method. I’m not thinking methodically. As if, on record number 19, I’ll do… these styles. It’s gotta come naturally and it’s gotta come from a moment where I’m just completely being absorbed by a feeling in my heart about something. Then however that manifests itself, I just follow it and I don’t turn that off and I don’t try to turn my back against it. For “River”, I just happen to come across this poem by Emerson that was called “the River” and I read through it and it was beautiful. It was just really beautiful and evocative. It had me thinking of memories of my childhood in the country, going to the mountains and rivers and lakes with my family. Upon reading it through a second time, I paused and reread that second half of the second sentence which is “here the blue river”, and I thought this should be my jumping off point you. This is why I should write this phrase down and put to music what I’m feeling and that’s how it just came out that way. 

I didn’t wake up that morning and say, “Okay, Joe. It’s time for a reggae song.” It just seemed like the right thing. I tried to evoke all the things I love about Bob Marley and the Wailers and how the vocal arrangements were between Bob and the background singers and how the guitars were arranged. It’s just such a beautiful kind of music and what Bob Marley was able to sing about was just really great! The interplay within the band was really special. So, I was very careful to make sure that those things were reflected and that my love of those reggae roots were reflected as well.

Thank you. One last song to talk about and it’s the last track, “Yesterday’s Yesterday”. What a wonderful, whimsical introduction and interesting musicianship with the percussion and the mandolin. I’m guessing the song was very special to you. 

Yeah! It was one of those songs where I pulled out an acoustic guitar and I was just checking it. I was in my studio and as a typical thing, you put up on one foot up on a chair, holding the acoustic, tuning it up and I just started playing this piece. And I thought, wow – this really feels good. So, I quickly just set up a Pro Tools session and I recorded it against a click. It kind of just wrote itself right there. 

I was in that phase of my life, a two or three year cycle, where I was writing a lot of music and I made sure that I never discriminated against any style. I’d write, finish it and then put it aside. Then later, I’d start to review them to see if it fits with the current project. If it does, great. If it doesn’t, then it just gets put in the Later file. This allows me to just pour 100% enthusiasm into whatever it is I’m doing and enjoy it at the same time. So, that’s what I was doing. I just kind of played it and then after a while I thought this this would be a great way to finish an album that’s called Shapeshifting and to end on a really upbeat, happy and yet an introspective, memory-evoking note.

It’s the kind of thing I like with albums where, when you get to the end of it, you really do want to start at the top again and relive that whole journey that the music gifts to you. But, then of course, getting it instrumentated and getting the right people to play on it – was really a lot of fun. I did reach out to my friend, Christopher Guest, ’cause he’s actually a really killer musician. He plays mandolin like crazy, every day. He literally will play two hours a day. People think he’s just busy writing jokes. But, he’s really dedicated. So I sent him the track and he sent me something back right away. He actually sent two really great performances that we were able to use. At the time that he sent them to us, we weren’t quite sure if Lisa Coleman (the Revolution) was going to play on it. We didn’t hear all of the other instruments that Eric Caudieux had prepared. So, when we went sat down to mix it, it was like – wow! We’ve got marxophone, we had Jim went outside with a hammer, whacking it against all sorts of things and all this stuff going on. We started joking around about how funny this song is and how my audience is going to be kind of surprised by it. 

I don’t know who started whistling. But, we all started whistling at one point and then we all looked at each other and asked each other when the last time a hit song had whistling in it? Then everyone pulled out their phones and started Googling it. Then after lunch, Eric had gone upstairs to his editing Bay. He later came down and said, “Okay. I’ve got everything organized, including the mandolin, Joe’s banjos, the acoustic and everything worked out. He pushes play and all of the sudden, we hear this whistling come on at the end and we all start laughing and he did it just as a joke. But, of course everyone looked at each other and agreed that we’re definitely going to do that! I think they were also looking at me, wondering if I was gonna get mad or is he is he laughing with us? I surprised them all by saying, “No. We’re going to do this for real!” I’m not much of a whistler. But, Jim and Eric are great whistlers. So, we just basically stood around Kenny’s drums and recorded ourselves whistling for about ten rounds. 

The way that I work, is that I’m busy downstairs in the studio doing endless guitar overdubs and upstairs, Eric is upstairs – cleaning up the tracks and getting everything organized to get them ready for mixing. Later on, he brings us upstairs and he said that he wanted to show us and that it was as good as it’s gonna get – in terms of whistling. So, we’re sitting there listening to it all by itself, not within the song. He was just playing it so we could evaluate if it was recorded properly and all that kind of technical stuff. I immediately said that this is how the song should begin. It should begin like it’s a memory and that the whistling is coming at you from a distance – from deep in memory. Then it delivers you to this acoustic guitar that feels like it’s right in front of you. That’s how that all came about it. It was really a fun process of everybody having a good time with the song.

So, if you gave Shapeshifting to a first time listener, or even a veteran fan of yours, what would you want them to walk away with after listening to it? 

I want them to feel good. I’ve always wanted people to forget about the technicality of the guitar playing. I understand why I’m introduced to the public that way, because I don’t sing. So, it’s difficult for publications to figure out what to call me. Since it’s instrumental, they immediately just start talking about technique. I don’t know why. That’s the way they do it. So, that’s cool. Everyone’s got a job to do. 

But, I always think, I just want people to love the music and forget about that there’s this guy playing guitar. It might be difficult, or it might be easy. It doesn’t matter. I just want them to love the song, like when people tell me they use “Always With Me Always With You” as their wedding song. I know they’re not thinking about the technicality of the song. Or, the fact that we didn’t use the drum tracks that Jeff Campitelli played and all these things that we did in that song to technically get it recorded and to play properly. I’d never want them to even think about that for a second. I just want them to concentrate on how the music makes them feel. 

If you had to choose just one song off of Shapeshifting to release, the song that encapsulates the album – which song would that be?

Argh! That’s a terrible question! You should be ashamed of yourself for asking that and making me choose.

No pressure.

I don’t know. You know, it’s funny, I’ve been here in my studio everyday – forcing myself to play through the live set. I think it has eight or ten of the tracks from the album there currently and I’ve been kind of reliving them and having to take a lot of the parts and condense them down. So, I’ve been sort of reliving the music and it’s been a great process ’cause I’m just so happy to hear it. Most of the time, I cringe when I hear my own records. But, this record has got something special going on with it. It makes it really fun to play along with as well as listen to. But, I don’t know if I’ve got that one song, because I’m such a moody person. 

Well, there is “Teardrops”. I could listen to that song for like an hour and never get enough. It’s just so intense for me. But, that’s because I know there’s a story behind it. But, then, I’m very grateful that there’s a song like “Big Distortion”. It’s just so much fun and it just exactly a representation of how great it feels to play a really loud, distorted guitar. There’s no deep story behind it. So, ha! I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer that. 

Let me twist the question a little bit then. You mentioned that you’re going through the tracks that you’re going to perform live, which I can’t wait to see. So, what song from Shapeshifting are you most looking forward to performing live? 

I can tell you, that the song that I’ll dread the most, will be the first one. I’m not sure what that is yet. This comes, I think, because of a few years ago when we started out with the What Happens Next tour, which was a G3 tour and it was in the winter. On the second day, the second show, I had split open the callouses on my ring finger. Anyway, it was so painful to bend the notes. But, the first song was a song called “Energy” which had some of the highest notes of the entire night and I had to play them like within the first 45 seconds of the show. I’d go out there just cringing ’cause I knew it was coming. It was the most painful thing and I just had to play through the pain. Then, by the time John Petrucci and Phil Collen would come out to do the jam, they’d look at my finger bleeding and they go, “Oh my God! What happened?” and it just stayed that way for two months. 

I keep telling myself to remember to write this set list with the most comfortable song first. But, I’m sure I won’t! I think the big songs like “Big Distortion” might be the most fun thing to play ’cause it’s got those big chords with the breakdowns and it’s very celebratory. But, “All My Friends Are Here”, I mean, that’s something that – the bigger the venue the better that’s gonna sound! It’s one of those songs that needs like a stadium. Not that we’re going to fill one but, you know! Very often, musicians will tell you that certain songs, in certain venues really are like the perfect match.

That’s wonderful! Joe, thank you again for your time. I wish you nothing but the best and I hope everything goes well with the tour preparation and the record’s release! 

Thank you, Marc! It’s always cool when people want to talk about a new record, and it was nice to talk with you. 


Statement From JOE SATRIANI:

“The current COVID-19 virus has now reached pandemic proportions and is making daily life for all of us very challenging. As always, my concern for the health and safety of my fans, my band and crew always takes precedence when touring, and now is no exception. Today I’ve had to make the difficult but necessary decision to postpone our upcoming European Shapeshifting Tour* to insure that very safety. Let’s band together to beat this virus and rock another day. Hold your tickets for the rescheduled date(s), which we will be announcing shortly. I look forward to seeing you all very soon.”

– Joe Satriani, San Francisco

March 25, 2020

*US tour dates will be planned accordingly.

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