Joe Satriani Discusses His Most Heartfelt Album Yet
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.
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