Joe Satriani Discusses His Most Heartfelt Album Yet
Originally published in Guitar World, December 2010
Joe Satriani digs deep into personal tragedy and comes up with an album of uncharacteristic and deeply felt songs: Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards.
Joe Satriani opens the front door to his stylish, four-story house, located in the heart of San Francisco’s affluent Marina district, and smiles a warm yet slightly frazzled smile. It’s 10:30 in the morning, not exactly rock and roll hours by any stretch, and the guitarist admits that he’s operating on about four hours of sleep.
“I was up pretty late working on some music,” he says, leading me inside his spacious, well-appointed living room. “It’s weird: even though I just finished an album, I just can’t seem to stop writing sometimes. You get on a roll and all you can do is just go with it.”
The album Satriani is referring to is his 14th solo studio effort, Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards. It would be an unusual album title for anybody else, but for Satch, not so much. The big surprise, however, is the music itself, which the guitarist admits features the most deeply felt compositions he’s ever written. And with good reason: Although he enjoyed perhaps one of his greatest professional years in 2009 with the raging success of Chickenfoot—his party-hearty superstar band in which he rocked it old-school on stages across the globe with Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith—he also experienced a devastating personal tragedy that he’s still trying to process: the death of his mother, Katherine, who passed away unexpectedly weeks before the holiday season.
“Obviously, I’m not special when it comes to the loss of a parent,” he says as we head downstairs to his private lair, a home recording studio, newly renovated with a Pro Tools setup that he says was a long time coming. “But as an artist, I have a responsibility to myself to express myself as faithfully as I can. Making records just because I think they’ll sell—I can’t work like that. I never did. I’m not saying I would ever intentionally make an album that I thought people would hate. You always want people to like what you do. But I just didn’t feel like an album of ‘Satch Boogies’ was what I was supposed to do. I wasn’t in that frame of mind. I wanted to delve deeper inside myself. I had to, really; it’s like I had no choice in the matter. By going more inside myself, I realized that my responsibility as an artist was to try to touch people, to make them feel something profound. What was so surprising to me, after I’d finished the songs and recorded them, was how truly surprising they were to me. That’s why many of these songs are my ‘black swans,’ if you will.”
Taking a seat behind his recording console, Satriani expounds on the definition of the term that forms the first half of the new album’s title. “ ‘Black swans’ is something of an ancient expression,” he explains. “Basically, it means ‘unlikely things’—images, occurrences, extreme rarities in life. The term stuck with me. I realized that what I had written were my artistic black swans—songs that my audience probably might not be expecting.”
Case in point: “Littleworth Lane.” A glistening piece of pure blues with an elegant melody set atop a humming Hammond B3, it’s an unabashed ode to his mother, named after the street in Sea Cliff, New York, where she lived since the late Seventies in a colonial house built in 1689. “My mom was bobby-soxer, and she got into church music, R&B, jazz and blues. When I was coming up, she exposed me to a lot of that music. So I wanted to pay tribute to her by writing the kind of song that she would really like, one that summed up her spirit.”
The song came to Satriani as he drove from the house into New York City one night late last year. “I was in my car, thinking about the house and how it was such an extension of her,” he says. “My family and I had so many great times with her in that place. It’s a strange thing: As your parents advance into their later years and you become an adult, you begin to understand that your folks are people, and you realize that they have personalities, too. So there I was, driving, with all of these thoughts and mental photographs running through my mind, and suddenly there was this melody. I was writing the song without even trying to.”
Other such black swans abound, such as the jazzy “Two Sides to Every Story,” another affecting homage to Katherine Satriani and the music she adored, along with the Middle Eastern–flavored “The Golden Room.” Then there’s the wistful yet disorienting “Wind in the Trees,” which harkens back to Satch’s childhood in Long Island, and the gentle glide of “Dream Song” (so titled as it came to him fully formed while he was asleep), an ameliorating trip into the subconscious built around a simple and instantly memorable melody.
They’re the kinds of songs—mysterious, unorthodox and filled with shimmering moments of epic storytelling, many of them born from raw, exposed nerves—that will set pulses racing and senses reeling. That an artist, 25 years into his career, is still capable of walking down the corridors of imagination, courageously inviting reinvention and finding his true voice, is nothing short of remarkable. But even though, by his own admission, he exercised considerable restraint as a player, Satch can’t help but excel as an instrumentalist of the highest order, and Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards is brimming with enough guitar firepower to drop jaws and raise fists (the rocking first single, “Light Years Away,” is a five-alarm fret burner, and the dramatic album closer, “God Is Crying,” is a veritable six-string symphony).
“The compositions fuel the playing, not the other way around,” Satch explains. “On a song like ‘God Is Crying,’ I found myself really going for it on the guitar. But that’s what the track required—it was entirely appropriate to pour out sheets of notes. Still, as a whole, it was an incredible feeling to step outside my comfort zone.”
With the exception of a few long-gestating songs, Satriani gave himself little time for writing. Much of it was done in hotel rooms on his iPhone while he took part in last spring’s Experience Hendrix tour; he says the jaunt was a welcome relief in the months following his mother’s death. And while a good portion of the album was recorded in Satriani’s comfort zone (he estimates that he personally cut 30 of the tracks at home), when it came time to enter Skywalker Studios with co-producer Mike Fraser (with whom he had worked on numerous albums, such as Crystal Planet and Super Colossal) and his longtime drummer Jeff Campitelli, he did so with two musicians new to his record-making process: bassist Allen Whitman from the San Francisco–based band the Mermen and keyboardist Mike Keneally, who has played with everyone from Steve Vai to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
“You always wonder what’s going to happen when you work with new guys,” Satriani says, “but Allen and Mike really helped bring the music to life. Their ideas, their talent—they would do the subtlest of things sometimes that would spark total epiphanies. We had such a great time in the studio, and I can’t wait to hit the road with them and play these songs live.”
As for Chickenfoot, Satriani is planning a couple of one-off shows with the group this year, and he promises a new album and tour in 2011. “Everybody’s schedules are so crazy,” he says, “but we all remain very committed to continuing what we started. We made a real dent last year during a very tough time for rock bands, so we’re not about to let the flame go out. Our attitude is, whatever we all do during our time away from Chickenfoot ultimately helps the band. If I have success on my own, it’s good for Chickenfoot. If the Chili Peppers come out with a great album and do well, it’s good for Chickenfoot. Same thing goes for Sammy. As for Mike… Well, nobody knows what Mike does on the side. I think he does top-secret work for the CIA or something.” He lets out a laugh. “But you know what I mean. Success breeds excitement, which then makes for a very happy band getting together again.”
Satch looks at the widescreen computer monitor in front of him and heaves a full-body sigh. “It’s a lot of work, but we’ll manage. If we did it once, we can do it again.”
GUITAR WORLD Let’s talk about the chronology of this record. Because you write all the time, when did you feel you had an actual album brewing as opposed to a batch of songs you were building and collecting?
JOE SATRIANI The origins of when an album starts are hard to define sometimes, particularly if you’re a guy like me, who tends to never turn off the creative motor. As an example of that, since the album’s been finished, I’ve already written about eight pieces of music and sent them off to Sammy. In my mind, they’re Chickenfoot songs. We’ll see if he thinks so. Some musicians can find that turnoff switch with music and lead normal lives. I don’t seem to be able to do that.
GW Another view would be, to you that is normal life. To not write, to not be driven by the need for inspiration and a creative outlet—that wouldn’t be like you.
SATRIANI No, it wouldn’t, and I’m probably too old and set in my ways to change anyway. And why would I want to? Even when making music is frustrating, it’s still a joy and a gift. Still, I do know people who can go months and months without playing music or even thinking about it, and somehow they can just sit down and it’s all right there.
GW Well, there’s playing while you wait for inspiration to hit you, and then there’s having the inspiration hit you and sitting down to capture it. There’s no right or wrong way, as long as you’re happy with what you’ve come up with.
SATRIANI That’s true. My way can be a bit more…“torturous” isn’t the right word. “Obsessive” maybe? [laughs] I can’t tell you how many dozens of spiral notebooks I’ve filled with ideas over the years. I’m always jotting things down on napkins and things, making tons of recordings. Goodness knows how many old cassette tapes I have. Some probably have some neat things on them; others are probably horrifying to listen to. [laughs] But you know, creativity isn’t always a clean and uncluttered undertaking. In fact, most of the time it’s quite messy. [He gestures to his sparse, orderly Pro Tools setup.] But at least I’ve got my studio pared down considerably, so that’s a start.
GW So back to the origins of the album…
SATRIANI In truth, I think it goes back to the Experience Hendrix tour. I would play songs onstage for only 20 or 25 minutes a night. Great songs, of course—it’s Hendrix. But I found that it wasn’t enough. I needed another musical outlet, which, of course, was writing. Actually, I wrote at a pretty fast clip during the tour.
GW Did you have any pieces of music demoed prior to the tour?
SATRIANI Some things. A few were potential Chickenfoot songs. At least to me they were. I might write a song that I think is destined for Chickenfoot, but that doesn’t mean Sammy is going to be able to sing over it. [laughs] But once the Hendrix tour was over and I realized that Chickenfoot were going to take a while to get into the studio—you know, what with Chad doing the Chili Peppers again and all—that’s when I said, Okay, Joe, get these new songs written and get a plan together for the next solo record. A little kick in one’s own pants is a good thing now and then.
GW I’m curious how you separate your songwriting. When you’re working on music, how do you know what’s a Chickenfoot song and what’s an instrumental for a solo album?
SATRIANI To me, it’s pretty obvious—most of the time. There are always those songs that surprise you, though. Like I said, I might send Sammy a song that I think is an absolute slam-dunk Chickenfoot song, and he just won’t feel it. He’ll even say, “This sounds like an instrumental to me, Joe.” That actually happened with “Light Years Away.” I wrote it, demoed it and laid down a guitar over the top. Not that I was trying to indicate to Sammy what to sing; I just did it as the barest of guides. Anyway, he came back to me and said, “What am I going to sing over that?” I think it was too complete or something. Sammy’s ideas of melodies are very different from mine, and I’m kind of learning that you can’t guide him too much in that department. He has a way of singing and writing, and it’s something that’s exclusively his. So that was a potential Chickenfoot song that became an instrumental.
Generally, if I have a strong melody line in my head, I’m going to think “instrumental,” because it feels so fully formed. On the other hand, if I have a cool riff and chord progression, I’m going to think “Chickenfoot,” because I’m going to assume that Sammy will come up with something great to sing over it all. Or it could be the groove, and I’ll say, “Wow, Mike and Chad can bring this to a whole new level.” It’s a process that’s still evolving, but the two musical worlds aren’t as difficult to separate as people would probably assume.
GW Speaking of “Light Years Away,” it has a vibe like ZZ Top’s “La Grange,” mixed in with some Jeff Beck–type jazzy guitar.
SATRIANI Yeah, that was a weird and fun song to put together, but it was something of a puzzle. I like to think of it as kind of a history of rock riffs. It swings, it’s got a cool groove, but it’s got what I like to call “big rock moments.” I had to work on that one a while to get it right.
GW “Wind in the Trees” was also something you’ve been working on for quite some time. Why did it sit for so long?
SATRIANI I don’t know. There is that thing that is difficult to explain—timing. When I came up with that song, it was right around the time when I was doing Not of this Earth and Surfing with the Alien [circa 1986-’87], and those were the kinds of records it could have fit on. But I couldn’t figure out rhythmically how I was going to get it done. At the same time, I had other songs, like “Echo,” that were much more fully formed and used the same harmonics. The journey of a song can be a long and winding one. Sometimes a tune comes together fast and makes total sense; other times it sits as an idea on a piece of paper. “Wind in the Trees” was the latter—it sat for a long time. For some reason, and maybe it was the reflective mood I was in while writing this album, it started to feel right and make sense.
Like I said, I have a box filled with manuscripts, and there’s just pages and pages of song ideas. I look through them from time to time and think, Where was I when I came up with that? Or I’ll be like, What the hell was I thinking here? Sometimes the spark of the idea comes flooding back so vividly and I can put something together; but most of the time…nothing. Or nothing for a long while at least. But I have to write my ideas down the second I think of them, or else I’ll forget them and something else will fill up my brain.
GW After the Hendrix tour, you gave yourself a very small window in which to get this record done.
SATRIANI That’s right, and that pressure was a very good thing for me. Some musicians take long periods of time between projects. I’m not like that. I’m weird in that I welcome deadlines. [laughs] So I felt ready to get going, and that was that. Mike Fraser and I talked about how to get the record done, and things fell together pretty quickly.
GW How many pieces of music did you have going into this project? Also, how did you come to work with Allen Whitman and Mike Keneally?
SATRIANI With me, there’s always a pile of 30 to 40 pieces of songs, but they’re very scattered. Some are sketches that need to be fleshed out, some are just not very good [laughs], while others are fully formed and they’re right there. Then I look at them and figure out the real contenders, which are probably 20 songs. It’s all a process of whittling things down. Eventually, I wind up with a dozen songs that, in my view, make up the album, and that’s when I start sending demos around. Actually, with this record, I gave the guys 14 songs and only 11 made the album.
It’s a weird thing making an album: I go into every project loving all of my songs, and there are the ones that just explode when the band starts playing them. That’s tremendously exciting. But there are always a couple or a few that don’t explode, for whatever reason, and that’s frustrating. Everybody takes it personally. But the responsibility lies with the composition, never the players. If the song isn’t meant to be, it isn’t meant to be. Or else it’s meant to be at another time.
As far as the band goes, I knew Jeff was going to be playing drums—that was a given. Before the Hendrix tour—I think it was back in February—I started thinking of Allen. He’s been in local bands, we’ve known each other for 20 years, and I always liked the way he played. So I went to see him play a gig with the Mermen, and I thought he was just fantastic—better than ever, in fact. He was playing with a trio, and he just knew what to do. After the show I talked to him about possibly working together. He came over, I played him some tunes, and we realized that we had the same ideas about how the songs could go.
At this point, I still wasn’t thinking of a keyboard player. But when I came back from the Hendrix tour, I made some rough recordings, and because I was using Pro Tools I was able to make some keyboard sounds that I wasn’t able to in the past. That kind of opened things up, and I realized that I was going to need a really great keyboard player to bring these songs to life. Mike’s name popped into my head. We’d jammed together on some of the G3 shows, and he played in Steve Vai’s band for a while, so I knew he had the goods. I knew he could play soulful piano on “Littleworth Lane,” get funky on stuff like “Pyrrhic Victoria” and do all the symphonic stuff elsewhere. So I called Mike and locked him in.
GW How long did it take for everybody to gel in the studio?
SATRIANI Not long. Allen brought so much energy to the album. His grooves, his creativity—the guy’s really, really solid. Plus, his playing had a cool impact on Jeff, which opened him up in new ways—all of which then spread over to me and allowed me to just go with the tunes and play my heart out. I was able to focus, too, because I wasn’t thinking that one guy wasn’t quite doing what I wanted or something. And Mike Keneally, well, he’s such a gifted musician. Any time you hear some basic synth-y parts, that’s me; that’s the stuff I recorded with Pro Tools at home. Any time you hear really amazing and tasteful keyboards and piano, that’s Mike. [laughs] Believe me, the difference is obvious.
GW What does Mike Fraser bring to what you do?
SATRIANI A lot! [laughs] His technical talents are many. One of the biggest things—and this is no small feat—is that he has the ability to manage a bunch of crazy musicians who are bouncing all the walls, all thinking that they’re playing the greatest stuff in the world. He bottles energy and gets people focused. And his ears are fantastic. He knows how music should sound, how arrangements should go. Whether it’s hard or soft or round or angular, he knows what the finished product should be. He’s incredible.
GW The record doesn’t feel overproduced or fussed over. I don’t hear 30 overdubbed guitars and all kinds of bells and whistles. The overall impact is very immediate and direct.
SATRIANI “Immediate”—I like that. Yeah, that was definitely the plan. See, like I said, these aren’t my usual songs, but they’re all meant to evoke a visceral emotional response from the listener. So yeah, that immediacy, that lack of overproduction…that’s what I was going for.
GW Going into this record, what were your goals as a guitarist?
SATRIANI Well, like we discussed, I really wanted to reach people, and I wanted to reach them in a way that I never did before. It had nothing to do with technique or “Hey, check out these licks I’ve been working on,” or any of that kind of thing. It went way beyond that. This time, I wanted to really grab hold of people in a very powerful way. [pauses and chuckles] I know that might sound corny, but it’s the truth.
GW It’s certainly understandable. You went through a very emotional time with the death of your mother. If that hadn’t happened, do you feel you would have made a different kind of record?
SATRIANI Yeah. Absolutely. I don’t know what kind, but it wouldn’t have been this record. It wouldn’t have had “Littleworth Lane” or “Two Sides to Every Story,” I can tell you that. You know, whenever you go through an event like that, it changes you profoundly. And to try to ignore that, to say to myself, No, I’m supposed to make a “happy” kind of record because that’s what I do, it would have been a lie. Her death…it still feels strange to talk about her in the past tense…it impacted the whole record. Which isn’t to say it’s a mournful album, but it’s one from the heart. As a writer and certainly as a guitar player, it made me try to do more with less.
In the past, I probably would’ve floored everything a bit more. This time, I was really looking at the songs and searching for the spaces and saying, “Did I say it here? Do I need to put in more? Has the message come through?” I was applying a bit more restraint as a guitarist, but hopefully in a way that allows the songs to work the way they’re intended.
GW When you say “restraint,” that shouldn’t be mistaken for “holding back.”
SATRIANI No, because “holding back” implies something totally different. What I was trying to do was get more bang for the buck. I was trying to play less and say more, so in that way, I wasn’t trying to hold back. In fact, I was trying to give more. But again, I wanted to make as honest a record as I could, and I think that’s established from the very first song, “Premonition.” It’s interesting, because without me even thinking about it as I wrote it—and that song, too, started out as a potential Chickenfoot song—it served as the perfect album opener. Originally, it didn’t have such a dark, minor-key melody; I rewrote it and explored the ominous nature of it all. I do a bit of shredding on it—
GW Oh! There’s that word—“shred.” [laughs]
SATRIANI [laughs] Yeah, well, it just needed to build. I was thinking for a second, Ooh, too many notes. But Mike Fraser said, “I’m using that pass, Joe. That’s the one.”
GW It has a great breakdown section, that gritty little riff.
SATRIANI Thanks. That, too, was left over from when I thought it was going to be a Chickenfoot song. Those kinds of parts work well for that band.
GW Your guitar tone on “Premonition,” and on a lot of the songs, in fact, is very different than on your previous albums. It’s fatter, in some ways.
SATRIANI It is. I was trying to get away from what I had done in the past. Although I was still trying to sound like myself. I didn’t want to sound like somebody else entirely. But part of that, too, was just serving the nature of the composition and giving it what it needed. Because the song is called “Premonition,” it called for something heavier, fatter, more…dangerous.
GW Going back to shredding, you pull out the stops on “God Is Crying.”
SATRIANI Yeah, I do. That song is just an explosion of emotion, really. I know this sounds all heavy, but I was thinking about God—the whole concept of God, actually. Where is he? Why do we need him? So many questions. And then I started thinking…see, this is going to sound so heavy…but I started to think, What would happen if God came down to earth? Not just as a spirit, but really came down here physically and walked around and took a look at what we’ve done to the world. And all I could think was, he would cry. He wouldn’t be too pleased at what we’d done with the planet.
Anyway, musically, it’s got some big rock moments, but they’re not there for superficial impact; they’re there for real drama. That’s going to be an amazing song to play live.
GW Tell me about “Dream Song” and how it actually came to you in a dream.
SATRIANI That was amazing. I was having a dream, and in the dream was this song. I wasn’t playing the song in the dream, but I could hear the song—it was all right there, pretty much complete. I woke up and told my wife, Rubina, “I just dreamed a whole song. I have to go downstairs and work on it right now.” And that’s what I did. I started with the melody and the chord changes and the groove—Pro Tools is great!—and then I put on a gritty rhythm part. The wah-wah guitar opener that floats through the tune came later. I tried to not make it so “Shaft”-like; I knew I had to come up with a different kind of pattern. I thought it was just an opener, but Mike Fraser convinced me to keep it going.
GW “Solitude” is gorgeous. It sounds like you’re playing an acoustic, and there’s a great room ambience.
SATRIANI [laughs] Yeah, it does sound like that, but it’s not. I’m playing an Ibanez JS2400—the very first one, the prototype—straight into the Millennia STT-1 [preamp], and I recorded it right into Pro Tools. It’s an incredible sound. The Mo’ Joe [bridge] pickup is remarkable; it has so much depth to it. I did two passes of the song, and then I got the right take. It’s just me using three or four right-hand fingers lightly picking—there’s no tapping or anything like that. Again, and I keep going back to this, but it’s me trying to be economical and saying what I need to say.
I was working on this song called “Heartbeats,” and I was at something of a low point. “Solitude” was supposed to be the intro to “Heartbeats,” but I got into Skywalker [Studios] with the band and “Heartbeats” just wouldn’t work—everybody felt a little funny about it. But I didn’t want to lose the intro, so it became apparent to me and to everybody else that “Solitude” could stand on its on. Mike Keneally said it first, and then everybody else went, “Yeah!” I was a little nervous about it; I thought it was too naked and unadorned, but everybody fell in love with it and made me realize that it worked all by itself. This is a record where I was really taking some chances. Sometimes that’s a scary place, but oftentimes that’s where you have the greatest victories.
GW Which leads me back to “Littleworth Lane” and “Two Sides to Every Story.“ The first is pure blues, and on the second you’re playing in a very jazzy, George Benson–ish fashion.
SATRIANI But George Benson would never play that middle section, which is more…I don’t know…Pink Floyd–y meets Hendrix, because it goes into a minor key. I was just over the moon at how well those turned out. “Two Sides to Every Story” had some rhythm guitars and a solo and some Moog that I had already done, so as a band we had to play around it. We didn’t have to work on it very long, though, and the take that the band did live was the one we went with. Which is pretty remarkable. Finding rock musicians who can relax and play in that kind of time signature and sound at ease—that’s really something. This is a very special group of guys.
As far as “Littleworth Lane” goes, the melody guitars and the rhythm and the organ I had already recorded at home, so Mike was playing live piano, Allen live bass, Jeff was on live drums, and I played acoustic guitar. That’s how we tracked that one. It was a difficult song to get right. It’s a powerful song, but nobody wanted to overplay it. Getting the right take that wasn’t heavy handed was key.
GW Let’s go back to “Wind in the Trees.” Like the last two you mentioned, it’s very reflective on a personal level, but musically you went pretty crazy with it.
SATRIANI [laughs] I did. It’s a funny story. I got a call from my manager, Mick Brigden, and we started talking about popular artists and how prevalent Auto-Tune was. Then he just said, “Have you ever played your guitar through Auto-Tune, Joe?” And I told him I did on a few occasions, but nobody really noticed it. But that got me thinking: Well, what if I really went nuts with Auto-Tune? It’s like a contrarian view—because so many people have a negative view of Auto-Tune, I decided to embrace it. So I put the guitar through Auto-Tune, and I turned it to the most radical, full-on setting, and I used it as an effect. As I played the song I used the vibrato bar, and what would happen was, Auto-Tune, which was tuned to Eb, was “fixing” what I was playing, so I got this incredible effect, which really does sound like tree branches scraping against a house or windows. It’s wild! Sometimes the most innocent of ideas presents you with an opportunity to try something cool.
But yes, as you mentioned, it’s a very personal song, too. I remember when I was growing up how I used to love to look out my window in my bedroom in Long Island. It’s such a wistful memory, but I always loved watching the trees blow around in the wind and the sound they would make. Some things just stay with you, you know? [laughs] It’s funny to think that a memory like that would wind up one day with me playing my guitar through Auto-Tune!
GW What guitars did you use on the album? Were there a lot?
SATRIANI Not too many. My main guitars were the JS2400. Plus, I used an orange prototype of that guitar with an alder body, which has more of an upper midrange to it. The hallmark of the JS line, however, is the basswood body, which is more balanced tonally. I also used a blue Ibanez Strat-type prototype. I played that guitar on the Hendrix tour, but I don’t know if we’re going to go into production with it. The one acoustic that I used on “Littleworth Lane” was a 1948 Martin 000-41. And I used a JS1200 with a Sustainiac pickup on the solos to “Wind in the Trees” and “Dream Song.”
I was very intrigued by the Sustainiac, but I didn’t want to sound like other guitarists who have done so many great things with it. What I ended up doing, though, was play with a SansAmp [plugin]. I really enjoy the tactile feedback I get using that plug-in; it gives me a different kind of response, so I don’t feel as though I’m aping other guitar players who have used the Sustainiac.
GW I know you said you can’t write to please your audience, but with an album like Black Swans, which is a heavier and more demanding record than a lot of fans might expect from you—
SATRIANI [smiles] That’s the idea.
GW I know. But still, isn’t there a part of you—even a tiny part—that is concerned how it will do commercially?
SATRIANI That’s the last thing I think about. Believe me, I love my fans and appreciate them—I have the greatest fans in the world. But an artist has a duty to please himself first. Art is expression, as lofty as that sounds. If you’re not expressing what it is you’re feeling, if you’re not pushing yourself to do something that matters, then you have to ask yourself why you’re even doing it. And sometimes you have to take your lumps. Fans love some records; others they don’t love so much. I know how important this record is to me, so hopefully it’ll resonate with other people. That’s really all I can do: create, put it out there, then create some more.
GW One last question: you’ve explained what “blacks swans” mean in regard to the album title, but what the hell is a “wormhole wizard”?
SATRIANI [laughs] Oh, that! Well, it’s nothing as high-minded. Or maybe it is. Basically, I’m fascinated by the idea of wormholes. Think about the whole idea of crawling from one universe to another through a wormhole. We might never be able to do so in this lifetime, but maybe one day people will. I wish I could now. Getting from gig to gig would be a breeze!