January 18, 2011
By David Huff
JAM Magazine Speaks with Legendary Guitar Wizard
Over the past quarter a century, Satriani has risen from guitar teacher to guitar guru. He may not be mentioned in the same breadth as Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton, but among his peers in the industry, Joe has their utmost respect.
The guitarist first gained prominence when student Steve Vai couldn't stop raving about his former teacher, in numerous interviews he granted during his stint as David Lee Roth's guitarist, in the mid-80s. With the 1988 release of his second solo album, Surfing with the Aliens, Satriani proved Vai to be a wise sage about his close friend. The teacher turned performer received two Grammy nominations from his album for Best Rock Instrumental on"Surfing with the Alien" and Best Pop Instrumental for "Without Me, Without You". Though he lost out to David Sanborn and Carlos Santana respectively, Satriani's reputation as a rock guitarist was secure.
Over the years, Satriani has been involved with several projects outside his solo realm. Not only has he been a guest guitarist on a number of albums, he's even contributed, believe it or not, his voice as well. When he's not writing, recording and touring on his own behalf, Joe's other side project, Chickenfoot, (with Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith) takes up the rest of his time. The guitarist is also an avid supporter of the non profit organization, Little Kids Rock, that provides free musical instruments and instruction to children in underserved public schools throughout the country.
JAM: Looking at the personnel you worked with on your last four solo projects, I noticed outside of mainstay Jeff Campinelli, you had a full band working with you instead of just drummers. What caused the shift in gears on Black Swans?
Joe Satriani – Every time I do a record, and get half way or three quarters through the writing and demo process, I start to really zone in on who I want to be playing with on my album. I do everything in my home studio, including instruments, so until the record starts to take shape, I'm not sure what direction I'm going to take. I wrote 40 to 50 songs this time out; then whittled it down to 20.
JAM: You wrote almost 50 instrumental tunes for one album. Does it really take that many songs for you to figure out a direction, or theme, for your record?
I know it sounds like a bit of overkill, but that's the way I work. When it came to laying down the final tracks, I noticed I'd played a lot of keyboards on the demos. I thought to myself, "It sure would sound better if I had a real keyboard player instead of my very slow hand approach." The catch was I needed someone who understood guitar. Immediately Mike Kennealy's name popped into my head because he's a brilliant guitarist. Steve Vai and I toured with him on G3 many years ago, and he also played keyboard and guitars with Frank Zappa. Since he's such a brilliant all-around musician, I knew he would be a great guy to have. As for bass, I've known Allen Whitman for some 20 years. He plays in The Mermen, and the two of us had done a lot of gigs with our respective bands. For some reason, we never played together. I really liked those two working with me because they are such strong improvisers who operate from two different ends of the music spectrum. Allen is very experimental and at the same time very straight ahead rock. Mike, I don't know how you categorize how he plays. He can do anything, and I mean that sincerely. When we all got together to rehearse, it clicked, the whole band together. I got extremely lucky with all the guys.
JAM: Inspiration is a funny word simply because it can come at any time from any place. For myself, I have to write down a key word or phrase quickly so I can recall the thought later. I'm curious, what do you do to keep yourself from forgetting when lightning strikes?
Just like you, I write things down and record them immediately, with any type of recording devise that happens to be around me. I try to finish the inspiration as far as I can so I don't forget that initial spark. That is very important. As you well know, if you don't finish that initial thought, or put down a sufficient amount of information to help you recall what got you excited by the idea initially, you'll lose it.
JAM: You mentioned in an interview that in between Dr. Satchafunkilus and Black Swans you went through some wonderful things and some tough times. What were you talking about?
Well, I had a lot happen to me the past couple of years. I had the Chickenfoot thing come together, which was a very surprising, random event. We were able to start off with a new band, and funded the entire project using our own money. The album went gold and we bonded as a band and with an audience, which is phenomenal. My solo career also moved forward at the same time. I don't take any of these things for granted. I can't believe how lucky I am as a musician to have the audience that I have. They really are responsible for my success. My family life is great.
JAM: Things were obviously different on the other side of the fence?
On the tragic side of things, I lost my mother over a year ago rather suddenly to cancer. That was very traumatic, as it would be for any family. It hit all us kids pretty hard. When you lose a loved one, especially someone who's had a major influence on you your entire life, it takes time to work things out. It takes a toll on you mentally. To this day, my mom's death impacts me. Exactly how, I can't explain it to you or myself. I'm sure it figured into my songwriting and my live performance. To this day, I carry the weight of her loss around with me.
JAM: You were extremely lucky to have grown up in a musical household that understood every quirk and nuance of the profession you elected to pursue, because without that support, you may not be where you are today.
I agree completely. My parents were big supporters. I have to admit as the youngest of five kids, they may have been worn out by the time I came around. I naively think I may have been afforded some leniency in my decisions with them, especially when I announced to them, on the day that Jimi Hendrix died, I was going to be a guitarist.
JAM: So that story is really true?
Yes it is. I came home from school and told my mom and dad I had quit the football team. I was going to follow in the footsteps of Jimi Hendrix and be a guitar player. I think they were both horrified, and relieved, that I had found a passion so early in life. However, since they were both musically inclined, they fully understood the commitment that was involved with my decision. They made it their mission to keep track of my practicing and were supportive all the way. My mom came to all my performances, even the Chickenfoot shows, all the way up until last summer.
JAM: That truly is remarkable.
She came to my first performance at a high school gym and kept right on going for the next 40 years. It's so funny, last year when Chickenfoot was playing at the Beacon Theater in New York, Chad Smith dragged her out on stage in the middle of our set. My mom was sitting on the side of the stage for the very first time, because she wasn't walking so well that day. Sammy and I were doing the song "In the Future and the Past" when Chad, being the mischievous character that he is, decided to walk her on stage. Sam and I stopped and Chad introduced my mother to the audience. The two of us had a special moment together on stage and it's something I'll always remember.
JAM: Maybe you can answer a question that has puzzled me over the years. One of the interesting things about living in Dallas, and observing the music scene from my perch, is this. I can honestly say Texas has produced some of the greatest guitarists on the planet. The interesting thing about three of them I've interviewed – Billy Gibbons, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Johnson – is this. They all loved Jimi Hendrix. Do you understand where they are coming from, and why they would speak of him with such reverent tones when all three are considered guitar legends in their own right?
Oh absolutely. You know, Jimi was one of those total artists who surrendered himself completely to what he was trying to do. I think other guitar players notice that right away. Hendrix was someone who went up on stage, without any fear of crashing and burning. He could care less if he was going down in flames. He would do anything on stage with his guitar that portrayed what was in his heart.
JAM: Have you seen that passion in other guitarists?
Stevie was like that. The first time I worked with Stevie Ray Vaughan, I just couldn't believe it. I thought to myself, "Here's another one of those very unique individuals who lays it all out for you – no barrier, doesn't hold back that ten percent for personal safety, he just lays it all out for you." Hendrix was exactly like that.
JAM: You're a teacher as well as a student of the guitar. What did you learn from the playing of Jimi Hendrix you've passed on to students and grown learned to admire over the years?
Jimi was a virtuoso with his instrument who never showed any inkling that he had ever practiced a day in his life. In other words, there was nothing methodical or didactic about the way he played. He sounded like a guy who just woke up, grabbed a guitar for the first time, and just played. You couldn't hear any practicing in what he did. Hendrix was a human being pouring all his feelings into a guitar. Along the way, he managed to do things mechanically with his fingers to the instrument that others at the time hadn't done. He just twisted and tortured those guitar strings into submission, leaving the average guitar player scratching their heads. That's not even mentioning the great songs he wrote, his power as a producer, his dedication to tried and true performing. Hendrix did it all from dressing up, rolling on the ground, playing behind his back, with his teeth, setting his instrument on fire, you name it. But you want to know the real secret all guitar players know and get about this man? At the core of Hendrix, he played from the heart and laid it out for us all to see.
JAM: I always thought another intriguing aspect of Jimi Hendrix career was the fact he never was seen by people as some sort of a freakish black guitar musician who performed rock and roll. He was just Jimi Hendrix. Does that add to his legacy the fact he crossed all racial lines and barriers?
Part of Jimi's legacy was the fact he was embraced by all people, all races, from around the world. He was also part Native American as well. Jimi Hendrix was regular people like us. He wasn't born into a perfect family. He didn't live in the greatest part of town, but somehow through his journey as a kid, joining the Army, struggling in New York City, playing with Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, I mean he had quite a life before we got to know him as Jimi Hendrix the guitar player. He lived what we call the American dream, and that should be celebrated as well.
JAM: I was recently watching and listening to this Internet drama play out between the similarities of a Lady Antebellum song and Alan Parson's hit single "Eye in the Sky". The songs were strikingly similar in production, arrangement and groove but I found it hard to find any substantial similarities in lyrics or melody to make a case against the country group. You have a tremendous body of work Joe, and I know you had a big issue with Coldplay that was eventually settled out of court.
The laws about plagiarism are really quite clear. You can't copyright a chord progression, a song title, an album title and you can't copyright a rhythm. Now, once rhythm, melody and chord progression start to coalesce, you start to enter dangerous territory – whether on purpose or without forethought – where you're copying somebody else. That's why these things wind up going to court, or to arbitration, because it gets uncomfortably close. Today, more than ever, we are exposed to so much music so quickly, that it is hard to believe that one artist does not get exposed to another artists' work. We can't help hearing something because music is everywhere. It's on our phones, on the elevator, television, the Internet; it accompanies us wherever we go.
JAM: What do you consider crossing the line? Where does the word 'coincidence' not cut it with you?
If an artist realizes, either by accident or in a roundabout way, that they have copied another person's work, or excerpted something they did, those people should be upfront about it and do the right thing. Recently Nicki Minaj sampled a song of mine, "Always With You, Always with Me" for her hit single, "Right Through Me". Her management did it the right way. They used part of the song, put it together with something they had written, and then sent it to me. They laid out a very kindly worded request to me about putting the song on their record. I liked what she did with it. As an artist, you should let your music grow, as long as people are upfront about it and do everything legally, I have no problem with that.
JAM: Do you time stamp all the work that you create?
Yes. Most everybody records everything digitally so a timeline gets created by default. We certainly follow all the government guidelines for copyrighting. When you make an infringement claim, you just can't state you thought about it back when, especially if you have no evidence to back you up. With so much technology available to musicians today, whether it is recorded or filmed, there's plenty of ways to document everything you create. If somebody is going to make a claim of plagiarism, they are going to have to have some proof to refute the mountain of evidence they are going to be up against.
JAM: One time when I was talking to Jon Bon Jovi toward the end of one of his demanding marathon tours, I asked how he kept from blowing out his voice. He said a lady had taught him a trick to sing down his voice in the shower after a performance to help relax his vocal chords. What about yourself? Are there precautions you take to protect your fingers and wrist especially when you are playing different types of guitars which I assume require different hand techniques?
You know, different guitars can throw you. I have always been surprised by that. You go along and everything is great, and one afternoon you pick up a different guitar and play it for an hour. By the time you go to perform that evening, you have a new pain in your hand. What I've learned after these many years is this. There is no substitute for ice.
JAM: I thought that was for baseball pitchers only?
I use ice all the time. I have a way of squeezing the strings that I shouldn't, but I do it without thinking. We play a long show, over two hours every night, six or seven shows a weeks, and I am playing all the melodies and all the solos of every song, so my hand gets a work out. Yeah, a good tray of ice for soaking is always welcomed at the end of the night.
JAM: In the '90s, when this huge scene of grunge, hip hop and the Seattle movement sprang up seemingly out of nowhere, it not only killed off the hard rock industry but even traditional rock and roll suffered, literally disappearing overnight. During this rather extreme transition period, or maybe I should say overhaul of the music business – you released Surfing with the Alien, Flying in a Blue Dream and The Extremist – to critical acclaim and success. What was it about your particular style of music that helped you weather the storm that claimed so many victims during that difficult period for rock music?
I can only say that I was rescued by the fans – who in spite of what was fashionable at the time – were still seeking out what I was doing. You mentioned The Extremist album. That record was so out of time, it was ludicrous. I released that during the height of the Seattle movement where Nirvana and Pearl Jam were ruling the charts. Next thing you know, here comes an instrumental album celebrating rock and roll that knocked the socks off these grunge bands. It was hysterical in a way, but I credit my record company for always letting me do whatever I wanted to do. I connected with a large group of people around the world, who eventually afforded me the ability to sell over 10 million albums, despite all these trends. I can't claim responsibility for that. I'd like to say my vision allowed me to trump the trends, but I just do what I do. The fans are the ones that reward whatever success an album of mine has.
JAM: You know Joe, and I'm not saying this to be rude, but I am stunned that Sony has kept you on their label for nearly two decades. What is it you bring to the table the label sees a real need for on its roster?
I don't know.
JAM: Do you understand what I am talking about?
Yes I do. Believe it or not, we do sell a healthy amount of records for them. When I release an album for Sony, we are always in the black and the label makes a nice profit off of Joe Satriani. Listen, we're all grown ups here and both of us know that making money is part of the music business. If I wasn't showing a profit for the label, I wouldn't be making records for them. I think they appreciate the fact that my self, and my management team for over 20 years, have been self-sufficient.
JAM: The music business certainly has changed dramatically the past several years.
I create all my music at a home studio. Today, every artist has to be creative to survive. You literally have to be your own promo machine. You not only have to develop your own music, but your own interactive visual presence as well. At my web site (Satriani.com), we are always putting out films and podcasts and "webisodes" to nurture the community of fans that enjoy my music. We have been ahead of the curve on everything from a web presence to merchandising, and we don't cause Sony a lot of trouble. We deliver the records on time. We go out and promote the music to the best of our ability. Add that to the fact we are profitable, it would be silly for the label to drop us. Having said that, I realize it's their prerogative to one day say, "Joe, times have changed."
JAM: You said you were ahead of the curve when it comes to the web. I find that statement very interesting considering the Internet caught an entire industry with its pants down.
You know, the music industry is being destroyed right now because of the Internet. Big labels are having it really hard. They have had to fire so many people yet I keep going. Sony used to have an amazing staff of diversified talent that I could draw upon for every record I put out. Now they are operating on a skeleton crew of really great people who I can tell are stressed. They don't have all those talented people in the marketing and art department to help with artist careers anymore. People just aren't buying that many physical copies of records anymore.
JAM: Over the past ten years, the Internet has turned the music business upside down and inside out. It has also leveled the playing field between artists and labels. If your music is good, and you post it on the Internet, people will find you. As an established musician, how hard was it on you to accept the transition, and then figure out how to take advantage of all the technology at your disposal?
Well, we benefited from knowing people at ISP networks, particularly a guy named Jon Luini, who runs our website and his own Interactive company (chime.com). Jon has been tireless in coming up with concepts ahead of the curve for me and all of us at Satriani.com, to create a community. I remember I used to say to him, "What are you talking about Jon, create a community?" We did our first web cast in 1995. That's back when the Internet was crawling. We started embracing the web early. I don't think I would have done that if I hadn't known Jon, and allowed him to push me into being an Internet citizen and artist.
JAM: You put an awful lot of trust in one person back in 1995. Did you understand what he was wanting to actually do?
No, not at all. He had to argue his case with me. It was ridiculous how far ahead of the curve Jon was on how to use the Internet to bring artists and fans together. He is an upstanding and moral Internet citizen, but at the same time, he's conceptually light years ahead when it comes to using the web. He made my site a central place for all my fans to come together, and for me to broadcast my musical message.
JAM: A lot of today's great guitarists also had an equally talented singer to compliment their own creativity. Have you ever had regrets you didn't hook up with a talented voice early in your career to help interpret the music you were writing?
Yes. I think all guitarists that grew up when I did all thought it would be great to be in a band like Led Zeppelin, The Who or the Rolling Stones. I certainly grew up playing music by those groups in my early teen bands. In fact, I played in bands that are very much like Chickenfoot – three players and a stand up lead singer. But at the same time, to be releasing solo albums for 24 years is so remarkable, just thinking about it sometimes takes my breath away. I can tour the world whenever I want – India, South America, Europe, North America – anywhere I feel like going. That's amazing. There are times I can't believe an instrumental player like my self can do that. If you pressed me to think about a singer, then yeah, perhaps it was a missed opportunity. But you know, tonight I get to play two hours plus of my music for my fans. To me that is the real gift.
Check out Joe Satriani's Performing "Satch Boogie (G3 Live In Denver)" You Tube video
Joe Satriani will be live in concert Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at the Granada Theater in Dallas Texas