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.”