Joe Satriani Discusses His Most Heartfelt Album Yet
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.