Joe Satriani: The Human Touch
Originally printed in Guitar World Magazine, June 2008
Joe Satriani built his career on awe-inspiring supernatural talent for shredalicious guitar work. On the new Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock, he brings his humanity to the fore and shows the stuff of which real guitar heroes are made.
On his 13th studio album , the wackily-titled Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock, Joe Satriani does something extraordinary. Actually, he does it repeatedly. Amid all the wham-bam guitar gonz and the squeals and whoops that never fail to elicit head-shaking awe, Satriani injects heaping doses of humanity. Jacked-up self-amusement mixed with empathy, pathos, curiosity and the gravity of life’s burning questions—is this what it means to be a guitar hero in the 21st century? It is if you’re Joe Satriani. “I’m at a strange point in my life,” says the 51-year-old guitarist. “I don’t know if I intentionally set out to make a more ‘mature’ album, but I wasn’t going to run from the idea, either.” He lets out a self-conscious laugh, as if he’s already anticipating his next sentence. “I mean, there’s still a huge part of me that loves to play wild-and-crazy guitar. That will never, ever change. But I am getting older, and I’m starting to think about the bigger things. I watch my son grow, and I can’t believe he’s 15 already. I still feel like I’m 15! But when I listen to the songs on this record and the themes that are woven through it, I think I would have been lying to my audience if I kept the personal stuff out. I certainly would have been lying to myself.”
Only an artist willing to expose raw nerve endings could come up with a ballad as mesmerizing as “Revelation,” a song Satch started to write when he’d heard that his friend (guitarist) Steve Morse’s father had died. Halfway into the writing, however, the song revealed itself to be autobiographical: Satriani was exploring the grieving process related to his own father’s passing. “That’s when you know you have to keep writing,” he says. “Whether the song is good or not, it means something, and you have to see it through.”
And then there’s “Out of the Sunrise,” with complex guitar lines as bewitching as they are soothing. Like its subject matter, the song seems to travel through a fog until it becomes lighter and brighter. The answers are being revealed, and it’s a new day. “I very much pictured myself looking out at the dawn,” Satriani says, “when you say to yourself, ‘No matter what happened yesterday, today is a chance at making something good happen.’ ” He lets out a laugh. “Okay, maybe it’s not as corny as that, but hey, I like corny.”
On a pair of numbers, Satriani channels the soul of Asik Vaysel, Turkey’s master of the saz, an ancient four-stringed instrument. Satch had been greatly impressed with Vaysel’s music when he’d heard it on a recent tour of Turkey, so much so that he couldn’t shake its effects. “Finding myself obsessed, I did the only thing I know how to,” he says. “I wrote about it.” The results are the vaguely samba-ish “Andalusia” and a stylistically unclassifiable song that bears the saz master’s name.
But it is on the album’s first cut, “Musterion,” a song overflowing with ambition and the sheer joy of music making, that Satriani sets the tone for much of what is to follow. The recurring two-chord leitmotif, which he wrote on piano and transposed to guitar, vexed him during the song’s infancy. “It’s a mystery,” he wrote in his journal. Then, convinced of a connection between the chords and that phrase, he started to research the word “mystery.”
What Satriani discovered challenged many of the religious notions he’d been taught as a child. “The way we’re told one truth to substitute for the plainer, original truth,” he says. “Roman Catholicism has changed quite a bit from the First Testament to the New Testament, and some of the meanings get lost in translation.” Satch solves his mystery— or musterion—with one of his most memorable compositions, a number that seems to expand as it proceeds to an ending that is, somewhat miraculously, uncomplicated by the need for a musical resolution. “Which is kind of like life,” he says. “Even if you have what you think is an answer, tomorrow there may be a new one.”
But all is not metaphysical on Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock (any album weighted with such a title has to have some fun). The wild and woolly “Overdriver” is a punishing riff-o-matic hot rod about a pernicious funny car with a mind of its own. “I Just Wanna Rock” is a crunching, crowd-chanting anthem that answers the question on everybody’s minds: What would happen if a giant robot found himself at a stadium rock concert? And the first half of the album’s title, “Professor Satchafunkilus,” concerns itself with the sartorial silliness of a white mack-daddy wannabe (by the way, that sax you hear is courtesy of none other than Satch’s son, ZZ).
With the exception of the wistful love ballad “Come On, Baby,” which Satriani had started in 1993 but didn’t complete until last year, the songs were written in 2007 during a burst of late spring and summer activity. The autumn tracking sessions at the Plant in Sausalito, California, was, in Satriani’s words, “right up there with the greatest times I’ve had in the studio.” Longtime friends and musical cohorts John Cuniberti (engineer and co-producer), bassist Matt Bissonette and drummer Jeff Campitelli made the entire affair “the usual crazy, rebellious, maddening, and ultimately creative experience it always is. When you get a bunch of guys this talented together in a room, they’re going to push you. And I don’t mind being pushed, ’cause I know how to push back!”
GUITAR WORLD Since we last spoke for an extended interview, two of the biggest pop-culture phenomena have been Guitar Hero and Rock Band. What’s your take on them?
SATRIANI It’s funny you ask: Both game systems have just licensed “Satch Boogie” and “Surfing with the Alien” for upcoming versions. You know, I don’t see anything bad about the games. I certainly think it’s better for kids to be social and play with music-based video games than to warp their minds with these ridiculous, first-person fantasy shooter games—those kinds of things never appealed to me. But Guitar Hero and Rock Band are fun and light hearted, and they have great music on them, a lot of music from my generation.