Joe Satriani Lets His Imagination and Fingers Run Wild on New Album, 'Unstoppable Momentum'
A large painting by Metallica bassist Jason Newsted hangs prominently in the front room of Joe Satriani’s San Francisco townhouse, just above the black, upright piano where Satch composed some of the music for his newest album, Unstoppable Momentum.
The painting, titled Live to Kill Another Day, is an abstract depiction of a human figure viewed from the side and slumped forward in an state of weariness. The white figure is set against a bold red background, and there’s a vivid splatter of red paint, heavily suggestive of blood, in the region of the heart.
“For some reason, this painting really speaks to me,” Satriani says. “It always reminds me of how you feel when you’re walking offstage at the end of a show. You don’t have one ounce of anything left to give, but you need to save one ounce of blood for tomorrow’s show. Jason was nice enough to let me buy the painting, and my wife and I were thinking, Where do you put a blood-red painting? My wife said, ‘Just put it over there now.’ I’m in this room every day, so I see it all the time.”
When it comes to giving every last drop of blood, sweat, tears and soul to your music, Satriani has few equals. He is relentlessly hardworking. Over the past year, he’s undertaken three jaunts with G3, his long-running guitar tour, and three with Chickenfoot, his side band with vocalist Sammy Hagar, ex–Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith.
Satch also released a book, Joe’s Art 2013—available with Unstoppable Momentum as a part of a limited-edition bundle—which he describes as a “wildly colorful portfolio” of bizarre creatures he’s sketched over the years.
And yet, Satriani still found time to write and record Unstoppable Momentum. His 14th studio album to date, it is also one of his most wildly imaginative and stylistically diverse, from the 5/4 prog-rock lurch of the title track to the tipsy trombone whimsy of “Three Sheets to the Wind” to the mournful Celtic majesty of “I’ll Put a Stone on Your Cairn” and the fist-pumping, stadium-rock adrenaline rush of “A Door into Summer.” Unstoppable Momentum finds the 57-year-old guitarist still on top of his game.
“I wanted this record to have an enormous amount of character,” Satriani says. “I wanted it to be super melodic. I wanted the harmonies to be unique. I was trying to record stuff that was instantly composed while in the grips of a cathartic emotional event.”
The common denominator in all this, of course, is Satriani’s stun-gun guitar mastery. His playing can be brutal, tender, blazing or beautiful, depending on what the moment calls for. He is arguably the only shred/virtuoso guitar icon who understands how to construct massive, melodic pop hooks—which is why his music reaches beyond the guitar-geek ghetto and appeals to rock fans across the board.
Yet, when it’s time to rip, Satriani is not one to hold back.
“I think I’m at a point now where I don’t have to show people, ‘Look, I can play guitar!’ ” he says. “Which is something you would do when you’re in your twenties and trying to prove yourself. It’s great that that’s gone now, for everybody. Nobody really cares about that so much anymore. They really care about how you can reach them, how you can move them.”
Seated in an armchair in his living room, Satriani looks serene, almost zen, with his shaved head and plain black T-shirt. His place in the annals of rock guitar has been assured for some time. His late-Eighties albums Surfing with the Alien and Flying in a Blue Dream did much to ignite the era’s shred-guitar phenomenon.
His annual G3 tours have become the Lollapalooza of virtuoso rock guitar playing. And, of course, as a guitar instructor to influential ax men like Steve Vai and Kirk Hammett, he has deeply embedded his sensibility and perfectionist zeal into the fabric of contemporary guitar craft.
But success has hardly made Satriani complacent. He still digs deep and wrestles with demons of self-doubt every time he makes a new record. Unstoppable Momentum was no exception. “The creative part is always agonizing and intense,” he says. “I’m never quite sure of which way I’m going, and I keep pushing myself to make lively, creative tracks. But on the flip side of that, the actual recording of this album went without a hitch.”
Most of the songs on Unstoppable Momentum were born in the townhouse that Joe shares with Rubina, his wife of many years. It’s a spacious and homey place, tastefully appointed with antique furniture, contemporary art and decorative pieces from Tibet and China. When Joe’s not on the road, he shares cooking duties at home with Rubina.
“I’m good at Italian food,” he says. “Some great seafood, pastas and all kinds of stuff. I’ve always considered myself a practical cook, which means I can whip something up really fast. That really comes from my parents. In a family setting where both parents are working, meals have to be configured very quickly sometimes.”
And of course, he also whips up new music when he’s around the house. “I wound up writing a lot of the music on this album between tours,” he says, explaining that he doesn’t write much on the road. “When I’m touring, I just want to be a guy who plays music live, who experiences things in a new way. Because I’m not necessarily an outgoing person, I really have to rev up my energy to be a proper performer.”
And while he does some composing on the piano upstairs, most of the work takes place in his basement studio, a small room equipped with a Pro Tools rig, a keyboard controller, a brace of Satriani’s signature model Ibanez guitars and an enviable stash of vintage Fender amps, including old tweed and blackface Twins, Champs, Pros and Princetons.
In due course, Satch’s new songs made their way to Skywalker Ranch, the state-of-the-art Bay Area recording studio where he tracked Unstoppable Momentum with an all-star backing band, featuring session drum ace Vinnie Colaiuta, Jane’s Addiction bassist Chris Chaney and Mike Keneally on keyboards. A highly accomplished guitarist in his own right, Keneally is in many ways an ideal collaborator for someone like Satriani: a keyboardist who can think like a guitarist and who possesses an intimate understanding of guitar voicings.
“Mike has a way of always understanding what each song is about and just playing these parts that take my breath away every time I hear them,” Satriani says. “And it’s not like he says, ‘Give me an hour to come up with something.’ You push ‘record,’ and he’s got it instantly. We did have an amp set up for him to play guitar as well, but somehow it never came to that.”
Satriani first jammed with Colaiuta in the early Nineties at a Les Paul birthday tribute. They’ve stayed in touch ever since. “Listening to this material, I said, ‘I bet Vinnie will come up with something that I’m just not expecting or haven’t thought of yet,’ ” Satriani says. “It was a leap of faith that paid off. He totally knew when to freak out and when not to freak out.”
This is the first time that Satriani has recorded with this particular group of players. “You gotta find the right people for the material,” he says. “As a solo artist, I have the luxury of doing that—of just working with different people for different projects and seeing where it takes us. Honestly, I didn’t know if it was going to work between Chris, Mike and Vinnie. But as we mixed the record, the amazing chemistry between them became more and more apparent. The three of them really work together well. They were jumping around and improvising but still nailing the parts that they had to nail.”
The musicians often played along to Satriani’s home demos, using them as a basic template. While Satriani’s material is carefully composed, he does allow his accompanists a great deal of freedom to create their own parts.
“Everybody listens to the demo,” he says. “They write down any kind of chart they want. Then we do a take and they give me something. We do as many takes as we want, and every time we do a take, they can give me something different. On this album, the first take was usually kind of funny, but by the third or fourth take, things would start to happen. And by the sixth take, I’d usually be going, ‘That’s the shit! I love it! Let’s move on.’ ”
Always a master of tone and sustain, Satriani hits new heights of expressive finesse on Unstoppable Momentum. Two key ingredients in his guitar sounds for the record were his new 24-fret Ibanez JS2410 signature model and his new signature Marshall JVM410H amp.
“I mainly used my orange JS2410 guitar with the bubinga stripe in the neck and an alder body, instead of basswood,” he says. “That has a bit of sting and more sustain. And the Marshall amp allows us to apply that bold Marshall tone in so many different shades. The amp has four channels and three modes per channel, so when you’re trying to dial in a tone for a song like the title track, which has some specific needs for the guitar, you can do it. And if you’re doing a completely different kind of song, you’ve got that covered as well.
"There are so many different ways you can utilize what the amp is giving you. A lot of modern amps are not very malleable in their tone, because they’re really great at just one sound. Which is fine, if that’s your gig. But that’s not my gig. When you stick a mic in front of a Marshall cabinet, you’re getting so much tonal information that the engineer is going to be able to carve whatever he wants from it, because he’s getting everything, not a prefabricated tone that can only be used one way.
“We record the old fashioned way,” he adds. “The guitar through the amp is really very loud, and we generally have two or three cabinets set up: one that’s a little brighter, one that’s a little saggier, or completely unsaggy. The lower the wattage of the speakers, the more sag and natural EQ you get. And with more wattage on the speakers, you get more punch and fuller frequency.”
Part of the goal was to get all four musicians playing together to achieve a full, “live-in-the-studio” feel. “We were able to record not only the rhythm section playing live but also me doing a rhythm part, a solo, a melody or something else, all played live,” Satriani says. “It’s no surprise, because that’s what I do onstage all the time—playing live and getting recorded every time we play. In the studio, there’s always the feeling that you have to be more complicated for some reason, but it’s unnecessary.”
Some of the guitar performances from Satch’s home demos turned out to be keepers and were retained on the final recording. To that end, he fed those recorded parts to his Marshall amp using a Reamp impedance matcher, designed by his longtime engineer John Cuniberti. The reamplified sound was then recorded from the Marshall. As the project moved into overdub mode, Satriani also began to use amps from his collection of vintage Fenders to achieve tonal variety.
“Every once in a while, you just want something different,” he says. “A little ear candy—that little surprise that people aren’t expecting to hear. We had maybe 11 or 12 of my vintage Fender amps there, everything from a 1960 Champ to my 1959 Twin. I think we only used about two or three in the end, but we tried everything.”
For all of the great guitar tones on Unstoppable Momentum, the album’s appeal lies in Satriani’s unmistakable and masterful way with the instrument, a graceful and eternal dance of tasteful restraint and technical exuberance. “When you play the right amount of notes, the band and the arrangement come to the fore,” he says.
“If you play too many, you’re covering all that up. It spoils our own ability to inject ourselves into the music. And that’s where the power of instrumental music really lies. Because there are no words, we provide the meaning of the song. We make it our story. The music is now the soundtrack to our story. I’m always very careful about enabling that to happen.”
Photo: Neil Zlozower