Joe Satriani Opens Up in His First Guitar World Interview from 1987
In this feature from the December 1987 issue of Guitar World, Joe Satriani discusses his latest album, Not of This World, and his upcoming album, Surfing With The Alien.
So, much to my drummer's surprise, I told him I didn't want the kick drum on the upbeats; as a result, a lot of people feel that the one is in the wrong place in that song, because the kick drum is continually and-and-and. I wanted it to be like someone pushing you on the back -- and those people never push you at the right moment, know what I mean [laughs]?
"It's always when you're off balance. So the snare is always on two and four, and the hi-hats and shakers are going tsk-tsk-tsk very evenly, and there's that kick drum-just enough to make you snap your spine [laughs ]. Kinda like the Miami Vice chase scene music. We had a good time doing that.
"Most of the time I write songs with the arrangements all at once, in my head. There's the producer side of me that's always thinking sounds, like 'wouldn't this be a great sound if it existed to put in front of a song, to open it up, and then when it did its thing something else would happen?"
"Then I'll fool around and get a noise that's like that, then say, 'Okay, how am I gonna write a song where I can put this to use somehow.' Sometimes I've done it that way, other times I'll have a beautiful melody or a rhythm pattern and go over it and over it trying to figure out how to present it. 'Not Of This Earth' is a good example, of that: it started as three chords, and I was so intrigued by how new it sounded when it got back to the first chord again that I thought, 'How can I pull this off so people aren't saying, 'Oh God, those same three chords over and over again.'
"So I thought, 'What if I could get the bass guitar to play only one note" I eventually had to add one other, just for a release, but I tried to make it as simple as possible. Then I thought, 'I want really strange drums, really big, but I wanted them to change.' So we used the nonlinear reverb, and [drummer ] Jeff Campitelli just hit the snare as irregularly as he could, sometimes a solid hit, sometimes a rim shot, and that opened up the linear sound in different ways.
"Then I decided, after playing over it, that what I needed were two melodies that could be good enough on their own, and could then eventually be played together. That was a bit of a trick; to my mind, that song was like a sleight-of-hand, like something by Eric Satie, playing with you by using as few notes as possible and getting you to realize that it really is a song.
"Whereas something like 'Hordes Of Locusts' is a huge arrangement, more like Beethoven, where everything is exaggerated, lots of different melodies. The middle section after the main melody-not the sitar part, where it starts with the D chord-I had written this heavy part, because I thought everybody's gonna be expecting your average heavy thing, but listen to this [laughs].
"So I threw in a chord and a bass line that to most people would sound like it made no sense at all, but to me it was a release to hear it at the time. In my mind the chord sequence is like a long melody and it takes until you get back to that C#. I'd have to say that sequence was part Chopin, like his use of the minor sixth chord with the raised eleventh, and part John McLaughlin, around the time of Inner Mounting Flame, where he'd use chords like the C major seventh with the seventh in the bass, "C/B," as some people call it.
"So I thought, 'I'm gonna take Chopin and McLaughlin and put 'em to this heavy song where I've got scratches and sitars and I'm gonna try to make it work.' That's the part of me that's producing that says this is gonna sound good to you, that wants to make it a sound event as well as a piece of music."
Nor does he view his music as just a frame surrounding his guitar excursions: "There are a couple of different types of solos I play. There are some that I personally can't rehearse; they don't have any meaning or function in the song other than to be totally improvised. So 'Ice Nine' [on Surfing] has two solos that are just completely off-the-cuff, because they come at a point where there's guitar everywhere in the song.
"So when the solos hit, the last thing you want to hear is organized tones [laughs]. So I do my best to create these two different guitar players, one cuts the other one off right toward the end of the solo and does something else; what finishes it up is a backwards thing that's really wild. Similar is 'The Enigmatic,' where the solo is even more chaotic than the song, which is pretty chaotic [laughs ].
"So I used techniques that have nothing to do with normal playing- scraping the strings, using metallic objects on them, tapping them weirdly -- and built a pattern as I went along. So that way it's like improvising. Lennie Tristano used to say; 'Never be judgmental about your improvising,' and so I try to remember that, try to be free and let it go. I've had the experience of going into the studio, being totally prepared, playing the first three notes and saying, 'I'm bored, I've heard this already so I'm not excited about playing it.'
"So even the solos that I'd prepared for the album, that I thought were necessary for the song as a melodic pattern, I might start that way but then change around once I start playing. Like the first few notes in 'Rubina' or 'Hordes Of Locusts' came right out of my head, I just can't seem to hear anything different; but what follows doesn't matter, it's just something I fill up."
Now that he's finished with the studio, he’s hungry to take his new trio on the road. "We've only played together twice, one show in Chicago [at the NAMM show] and here in New York. We didn't rehearse or anything. The chemistry is really good. We have a good time simply going off. Generally I'll tell them, 'You can do whatever you want, use your vocabulary, just don't screw the song up. And when we get to the end of the song, let's go somewhere.'
"The rule is, Whoever plays first, wins [laughs]. If you wait to set; where the other person is going, and you're worrying about what he's gonna do, you might as well go first, and then everybody has to follow you [laughs ]. 'Cause with the people that I play with, I like to hear them continually pour out whatever they know.
"It's an instrumental trio, but I don't want it to be a jazz thing; it's a rock instrumental gig, really At the same time, we're players who have played a lot of music, we like a lot of music, and when we play we like to throw in lots of things. Live, it explodes."
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