Joe Satriani Discusses His Most Heartfelt Album Yet
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.