Joe Satriani is at his home in San Francisco, enjoying “a sunny day, which is unusual in late July,” the guitar great explains when he calls in for our interview. “San Francisco is usually covered with fog. But it’s a sunny day. It’s nice.” When I asked him if this was actually a good time to visit the city, he laughed and advised, “I would skip July and August. Come out in September or October. I grew up in New York but I’ve been living here for over thirty years.”
But the weather is only one thing Satriani has to be happy about today. His latest album, Unstoppable Momentum, has been garnering some rave reviews as he adds another top notch group of songs to his already stellar repertoire. Energetic and reflective, speed racing and melody-driven, tunes such as first single “A Door Into Summer,” “Shine On American Dreamer,” “Can’t Go Back” and the double-punch of “Jumpin’ In” and “Jumpin’ Out” prove that twenty-five years down the line, Satch is better than ever.
On the day I spoke with Satriani, he was hugely in demand, with interviews filling up most of his agenda, so there was only time for a quick chat. We didn’t delve into his early days but we did get an insight into the creative part of what makes Satriani tick. Gaining his first dose of fame with the lightning speed of Surfing With The Alien in 1989, his talent has grown to almost unthinkable heights while also allowing his fun side to shine through as well. His side-tripping with Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith in Chickenfoot allows him to kick up his heels, and the G3 series of guitar tours, which he first put together in 1996, keeps his temporal juices on high alert as he shares the stage with such illustrious players as Steve Vai, John Petrucci and Steve Lukather.
As cliché as it may sound, the title of his current opus – Unstoppable Momentum – fits Joe Satriani to a tee.
You’ve said before that you’re never satisfied with your records. Unstoppable Momentum has been out a few months. How do you feel about it? Are you still happy with how it came out?
Well, you know, I haven’t listened to it a lot (laughs). I know it’s a funny thing to say but, yeah, the record came out in May and we were in Europe almost immediately on a nine week tour. So I thought, you know, I really need to focus on what the material sounds like live. We played all the songs from the new album in the new show, mixed with the fan favorites from the catalog. And I’ve just been focused on how everything sounds when we interpret it for the live stage. Usually I don’t go back to listening to my albums until a couple years later (laughs)
Have you changed any of these songs up during the live show?
No, not really but you play them in a different sequence, obviously. Let’s say you’re doing twenty-two songs in a show, you want to mix the new ones up. But I don’t think we do more than maybe two new ones in a row and then we play some more things that are more familiar to the audience. So that kind of changes maybe their intros and outros a bit. But for me, the songs being so melodic, I have to kind of stick to the melodies and the riffs. But they’ve been a joy to play. I mean, playing the music live, to me, is the best part of the three stage cycle: writing, recording and then performing them live. So I really enjoy it.
When you’re in the studio, what drives you crazy the most?
I think, maybe, all the different ideas you have about how to play something. You know when I’m sitting down and I’m playing a melody, let’s say I’m playing a melody for either the title track or I can remember laying down the melody for “A Door Into Summer.” I can say I spent maybe nine to twelve months meticulously going over every little guitar phrase until I thought I had come up with the perfect way of doing it. It even goes beyond the way the other guys in the band hear me play or my co-producer/engineer Mike Fraser, and I might turn to them and say, “What do you think I should slide and then hit? Should I do an upstroke and then a down stroke? Should I pick it here instead of there?” And they’re looking at me like I’m crazy but it’s at that point when I’m in the studio that I’m driving myself crazy with all the different ways that I can play these melodies. Because for me they’re like lyrics, and a lyricist would go over every little word and try to make it just perfect. So I’m going over my notes the same way.
Is it more perfectionism or is it more ambition to have the ultimate song or the ultimate sound?
I’d say it’s the latter, you’re absolutely right that it’s the ambition that I want to make sure that I can really reach people as much as I should with this particular melody or phrase because it means so much to me. And I think it will truly move people’s spirits if I do it just perfectly. That’s what I’m looking for. It’s not perfection, cause nothing’s perfect, especially with electric guitar. It’s a bit of a messy thing when you’re playing rock & roll guitar so it is about the ambition part.
Why did you pick “A Door Into Summer” as the first single to introduce this album to everybody?
I think those songs kind of picked themselves. You go in thinking this song has commercial appeal and this song is going to make people scratch their heads. And then by the time the record comes out you get surprised where people say, “No, that crazy song, that’s the one we love,” and the one you thought was the sleeper, that’s the one that should go to the radio. And the one you thought was a hit single, no one’s interested in (laughs). So I think all musicians go into a record with the best intentions but we realize that we don’t decide. It’s not our job to make those decisions. I think the audience does. When you’re in the music business, you realize there are people who specialize in picking these things and I’ve known Gary Jay from Land Shark for many years . Gary and the guys from Land Shark are really great at listening to an album and understanding what songs are going to really hit it off with people first, as a way to introduce them to a record. They were completely right with “A Door Into Summer” because I think it’s back in the top twenty of classic rock radio charts this week. So I’m very happy about that.
What can you tell me about “Can’t Go Back” and why does the title fit it?
You know, it’s funny, there was a day not unlike today where I wound up relegated to one room because there were a lot of workers in the house painting and hammering and stuff. And I had my guitar and I was just thinking about a couple of things: friends who have come and gone and I was thinking back to my youth, the very first road trip that I did and when I came back home. I think I was seventeen and I came back from my first musical tour and I realized that I’d grown up so profoundly in that span of a few weeks that the home I was returning to was different. It wasn’t that anything had really changed, it was me that had changed. I later learned about a famous book about not being able to go back and it’s really about how we grow up during those moments in our life when we go through a major shift. And I suppose for young men and women when they get out of the teens and into their early twenties, it’s a big deal. So the song really reflects about how you really can’t return home again the same way it was in your youth because you grow up and you have to make roots somewhere else.
What can tell us about “Shine On American Dreamer?”
Well, that is a funny thing. Sometimes I love telling people the stories behind the songs and other times I’m always afraid that I might change their feeling about the song. But here it goes (laughs) – The financial crisis of 2008 really angered me because it was really the run amuck greed of a very few of our fellow citizens that ruined the lives of hundreds of millions of people all over the world and hit our fellow citizens really hard. I read a lot of books about it and understanding how these things have happened and, you know, things like this happen in teeny little increments. In this particular case, every administration going back even from Nixon, Carter, all the way through the current administration thought that it was a good idea to let commerce really go crazy. They eased restrictions put into place by Franklin Roosevelt after the Stock Market crash in 1929 and the Depression that followed.
And what really angered me was that the majority of American citizens, people like us who work really hard, who are very focused every day on just trying to do, work our life, raise our kids and do a good job and be good in our community. We have no control over this massive economy that is going on. And to think there’s a handful of people who feel that they’re allowed to make these bets and basically be dishonest with chunks of money that are so big you can’t even figure out how to write it down, you know. I started to think, it really does take effort from all of us every day to make sure that the American Dream stays alive and that we correct the things that have been done in this country that were wrong. It’s a work in progress, basically. But I’m still proud to be an American and I want to see it work. And I thought, how do you possibly put that into a song? So I was thinking about my experience with driving around the country a lot so I just kind of put it to that music. And the song wound up sounding much more heroic than what got me going on it (laughs). That’s why I said sometimes I don’t want to tell people what got me to that point.
You’re a multi-instrumentalist, but what makes a guitar piece into a great guitar piece? What element does it need to have?
It needs to have a great melody somewhere in there. It doesn’t have to be an entire melodic song but it needs to have parts that are just super melodic that are unique. I think it helps if there is something novel in the song. It could be the arrangement or it could be the way that the guitar is played. I think through history you can see that we’ve had beautiful instrumentals that have just had sweeping melodies, like “Sleepwalk” from whenever that was, 1958 or 1959, way before my time but we all know that song as soon as we hear it. But then you think of a song like “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter, which is a multi-instrumental kind of a song but it’s got a great melody, it’s got novelty in the arrangement that makes the whole thing stick out. I think I’ve tried to respect and take notes from those instrumental guitar pieces that I thought have been really remarkable in how strong they are. Some of them, I think, lay down artistic markers that say, this is a new pinnacle, like Jimi Hendrix with “Third Stone From The Sun.” It’s an absolutely incredible guitar instrumental. It really veers way out and crosses boundaries but it’s got that one beautiful melody that every guitar player knows. It pops up in the middle of it and I think I aspire to do that with every record.
In your opinion, what is your strongest asset as a musician?
I’d like to think the strongest asset would be my ability to compose. That’s what I’ve been working on the hardest since I’ve been in high school. That’s what my high school Music Theory teacher drilled into me at a very early age. He said, “It may turn out your fingers don’t move as well as you had hoped but your brain, however, probably has limitless potential. So train your brain to interpret your feelings in a musical way.” And he was right because, like any other musician, you realize very quickly in the first three or four years that you may not be able to stretch as far as the next guy or play as fast as the next one, or play as long as the guy across the street. There is always someone who can do something physically a little bit better than you. And each new generation of players, of course, grow up trying to reach a higher standard. So it’s not unusual that today we have guitar players who are three times as fast as the players of the sixties or seventies. That’s just the way the world works. I think I focus on the good points, obviously, which is the writing, the composing.
I heard that one of your biggest influences was actually a jazz pianist. How did he help you be a better guitar player?
Well, Lennie Tristano, father of cool jazz, was really an exceptional musician. I think he really taught me what it meant to practice, to be honest with yourself about what you don’t know and what you need to know and what it’s going to take for you to get it into your thick skull (laughs). You know, a lot of people, we walk around with little bits of denial in our daily life but for a musician, in order to move forward, to say what am I lacking, where is my technique a little bit weak, and what do I need to do to strengthen it up and why am I not doing it right this second. I think he was good in just sort of reorienting myself in how I approached practicing, learning, being a musician as a way of life. His approach to improvising was just fabulous. He made a very big impression, positive impression, on me in many different ways.
I want to ask you about G3 because it is such a great idea and you’ve had so many great guitar players play with you. But when you throw all you guys together at the end, how does it not become one big clusterfuck?
(laughs) You know, all the players that we’ve had have been really good musicians and they know how to listen and I think that’s what it is. If musicians understand that they have to keep their ears open and stay out of somebody’s way when they’re going to do something, that’s going to be good. Now, obviously, we go over these things. I’m the band leader so I tell people, “Look, this is how it’s going to work. We’re going to do the song like this and then you’re going to play and you’re going to play and you’re going to play.” Everybody pretty much has to step up to the plate and be professional at that point so that’s what really saves it from just descending into chaos (laughs). But that’s a great question.
What do you have coming up for the rest of the year?
I am going to be embarking on another nine week US tour that’s going to cover the US and Canada. And then I think we’re going to try to get to Asia in December. Not quite sure about that yet. Then I’m going to leave sort of like Christmas/New Year’s/maybe January and February open for recording with Chickenfoot. Then my book comes out in March and I’ve got to go on a little book tour and then we’re going to release the box set after that. So there’s a lot of stuff going on.
Joe Satriani’s Unstoppable Momentum Tour Itinerary (* featuring Steve Morse Band as support thru Portland, ME):
August 29 Balboa Theatre San Diego, CA *
August 30 Pearl Concert Theater at Palms Casino Resort Las Vegas, NV *
August 31 Orpheum Theatre Los Angeles, CA *
September 1 Talking Stick Resort Ballroom Scottsdale, AZ *
September 2 Kiva Auditorium Albuquerque, NM *
September 4 Historic Paramount Theatre Denver, CO *
September 5 Wagner Noel Performing Arts Center Midland, TX *
September 6 Verizon Theatre at Grand Prairie Grand Prairie, TX *
September 7 House of Blues Houston, TX *
September 8 Austin City Limits – Moody Theatre Austin, TX *
September 10 House of Blues New Orleans, LA *
September 11 Ruth Eckerd Hall Clearwater, FL *
September 12 Parker Playhouse Ft. Lauderdale, FL *
September 13 Hard Rock Live Orlando, FL *
September 14 Saenger Theatre Pensacola, FL *
September 15 Symphony Hall Atlanta, GA *
September 17 War Memorial Auditorium Nashville, TN *
September 18 Chicago Theatre Chicago, IL *
September 19 Lakewood Civic Auditorium Lakewood, OH *
September 20 Taft Theatre Cincinnati, OH *
September 21 Wings Stadium Kalamazoo, MI *
September 22 Macomb Music Theatre Mt. Clemens, MI
September 24 Carolina Theatre Durham, NC *
September 25 Warner Theatre Washington, DC *
September 26 Beacon Theatre New York, NY *
September 27 Orpheum Theatre Boston, MA*
September 28 Tower Theatre Upper Darby, PA *
September 29 Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead Munhall, PA *
October 1 Center for the Arts Buffalo, NY *
October 2 Palace Theatre Albany, NY *
October 3 State Theatre Portland, ME *
October 4 Casino New Brunswick New Brunswick, NB
October 5 Rebecca Cohn Auditorium Halifax, NS
October 7 Le Capitole De Quebec Quebec City, QC
October 8 National Arts Centre Southam Hall Ottawa, ON
October 9 St. Denis Theatre Montreal, QC
October 10 Centre in the Square Kitchener, ON
October 11 Massey Hall Toronto, ON
October 14 Burton Cummings Theatre Winnipeg, MB
October 15 TCU Place Saskatoon, SK
October 16 Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium Edmonton, AB
October 17 Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium Calgary, AB
October 19 Vogue Theatre Vancouver, BC
October 21 The Fox Theater Spokane, WA
October 22 Paramount Theatre Seattle, WA
October 23 Historic Elsinore Theatre Salem, OR
October 25 Vina Robles Amphitheatre Paso Robles, CA
October 26 Fox Theater Oakland, CA