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.

GW Do you think video games can inspire kids to pick up real instruments?

SATRIANI In some cases. Not every kid will take up the guitar. But yeah, I think if their interest in music is there, the games can fan the flames in a positive way. Of course, those kids will find that playing a real guitar is a lot harder than manipulating a controller! [laughs] But if their passion is real and they have the drive to play guitar, they’ll get off on it as I did and they’ll learn to love the work involved.

GW Another rapidly accelerating change is the diminishing role CDs are playing in people’s lives. What are your thoughts on the music business of today?

SATRIANI Well, anyone who’s been in the business a while realizes that it’s time to tighten up the seatbelts, ’cause it’s going to be a bumpy ride. I don’t like seeing the monetary value of music being marginalized. People are listening to more music, but they’re not listening to entire albums, they’re not buying entire albums. And those albums they do buy, whether online or as hard CDs, they pick and choose the songs they want.

But you know, this isn’t new. Change always happens, especially in music. I remember when I was playing in high school bands and it seemed as if there was no place to play and try to make a living. People were going to clubs, but they only wanted to dance to disco music; the live rock thing was pretty much dead. So I thought, How can I proceed with my goal, which was to be the greatest rock guitar player in the world [laughs], but still make a buck, you know? And somebody told me that I could play guitar in a disco band, and as abhorrent as that sounded to me, I thought, Well, I’ll still be playing the guitar, and I’ll be in front of a crowd. And that’s what I did for a while.

GW The new album has only 10 songs, which is a relatively brief number these days for an album.

SATRIANI CDs have become so long and self-indulgent, and I wanted to go the opposite way: a clear, concise statement. That doesn’t mean there aren’t long songs on the album; some of them are five, six minutes long, and they’re full of guitar playing. [laughs] But I wanted to pare the information down. I didn’t want the ideas to get scattered and lose their impact. To me, 10 songs felt right. We did record an 11th song, but it didn’t feel right when we listened to the sequence. So my instincts were proved right.

GW Beyond making it a 10-song record, what were your other goals?

SATRIANI I’d have to go back to the way I presented the ideas to John Cuniberti. I played him all of my home recordings and told him, “I want the record to sound fat. I don’t want it to sound really bright and brassy. I want thick grooves. I want an eclectiveness to it. I want to figure out how to do some long, improvised songs. There’s going to be some piano on the record. Also, I want to push distortion to a new level. And there’s going to be some songs where I just play some very simple melodies.” So I threw out all of these directions and said, “Are you up for this?”

GW Let’s talk about the song “Musterion.” It started out with two chords that fascinated you.

SATRIANI That’s right. I stated playing these two chords on the piano. I’m not sure what they are, really.

GW Wait a minute. I thought you were Mr. Guitar Teacher God.

SATRIANI [laughs] Yeah, well…See, music theory isn’t a set of rules; it’s a set of parameters that offer up different ways of presenting themselves. I should know what the chords are, shouldn’t I? Hmmm. I hear both chords as being over C. You have a major seventh with a raised fourth—again, it’s a root and a minor third. On the piano, it looks cool geometrically; on the guitar, it’s different—you have some open-string muting problems. But I really liked the shape of the chords on the piano; I liked the way they looked. Because I’m not a real piano player, I get off on stuff like that. [laughs] Anyway, I love playing those chords on the guitar. They’re strange and mysterious and ominous. To me, that’s big-time!

GW It’s a very beguiling song. “Revelation,” too, has a similar quality, but it’s more soothing.

SATRIANI “Revelation” took me on a real emotional rollercoaster. It was a song I thought I was writing about one thing when, in fact, I was writing about something else. I had found out that a close friend, Steve Morse, had his father pass away rather suddenly, and it inspired me to write this piece of music. The chorus of the song is kind of an homage to Steve’s playing—all the things I love about his intricate yet simple chord patterns and arpeggiations. But as I dug deeper into the song, playing it for hours and hours a day, I realized that I was writing about my experience with my own father’s death. With that came the title, that it was a “revelation” to understand what death means, that we all go through it, and with each ending is a beginning. And that it’s about the love people leave you with, and out of that love comes the strength to keep going. That’s why the song is very cyclical. It’s like it could just go on and on.

GW Has Steve heard the song?

SATRIANI No. I’m too shy to play it for him. I don’t even know if I should be talking about it. I guess it would come up eventually.

GW When you’re writing, how much of a fight do you allow a song to give you? Sometimes songs come easily and other times you labor over them, but how much of a beating do you give them before you say it’s not working?

SATRIANI It’s song by song. I struggle with a lot of them. Each record has a handful of songs that just don’t work out. When we’re in the recording studio, it takes courage for somebody in the room to point out the gorilla in the corner and go, “Hey, you know what? I don’t think this song’s happening.” Usually, a small argument ensues, but eventually I’ll realize the same thing and move on.

GW How did your son, ZZ, come to play sax on “Professor Satchafunkilus”?

SATRIANI Well, I should say that he’s still just beginning on the instrument, but he’s learning fast. The whole thing was very simple: I went to him one day and said, “Hey, I think you should play sax on this song.” So I set up a microphone and he started improvising, and it worked out great for the intro. He did these unusual fluttering- like noises, and I was just floored. I would never have thought of such a thing. It totally rocked with the humor of the song.

GW It’s strange: Most of the album is quite serious, but you have moments of comedy that don’t feel out of place.

SATRIANI I think if you have the tone of the album right, most anything can fly. Look at the [Beatles’] White Album: You have some very serious, beautiful songs, but you have things like “Wild Honey Pie” and “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road,” and they work beautifully. A serious album doesn’t have to be this heavy, burdensome thing.

GW Your picking on “Askil Vaysel” is quite different.

SATRIANI I was trying to recreate the feel of a saz without actually playing one. That would’ve been too obvious. Also, Asik’s playing has nothing to do with what we would call timing in Western music, another thing that makes it so beautiful. His phrasing is all his own. I wanted to get into that. What I did was, I used the split-coil on the JS1000 to give me this humbucking kind of sound. And you’re right, I changed the way I pick: I picked extremely light. Not only that but I fretted the notes very lightly, too, as light as I possibly could. But the amp was cranked as loud as it could go, so the notes really rang out. It got me close to the way Asik sings. The sound of the guitar totally changed. People were asking me what kind of guitar I used, and I said, “Same one I always use [an Ibanez Joe Satriani signature].”

GW You have some typically rocking Joe Satriani songs, too. There’s “Overdriver.”

SATRIANI Yeah, I was inspired by the idea of Frank Kozik’s posters of funny cars for that one. I was going for the all-out riff on that one. Riffs are funny things: They come to me quickly, and I try to write them down fast so I don’t forget them. Or what happens sometimes is, I’ll come up with a riff, and if I don’t record it immediately, I’ll start to change it—and often not for the better. That’s just me tinkering too much. I have to know when to leave something alone. That almost happened with “Overdriver.” I came up with the riff and I told myself, “Okay, get this on tape now and don’t change it.”

GW Tell me about how you recorded all of the voices on the soon-to-be audience-participation favorite “I Just Wanna Rock.”

SATRIANI [laughs] It wasn’t as easy as you would think. People assume recording large groups of people is no biggie: you just gather everybody ’round a mic and—boom!—you’re done. Not so. After three or four passes, if you’re trying to record a crowd, or if you’re trying to make what sounds like a crowd with multiple tracks, the vocals can get in the way of the music.

GW And the voice of the robot on that track?

SATRIANI That’s my voice, recorded three times and heavily distorted, going [in a robotic voice]: “What is your purpose?” That’s what the robot is saying to the crowd. I was using low-fi distortion, a SansAmp and a couple of different plug-ins to change the intensity of my voice. But on the part where the robot is getting into it and saying, “I wanna rock! I wanna rock with you!” I used my Talk Box. I’d been threatening to use my Talk Box for years, but I couldn’t remember how to position the tube in my mouth. So I called ZZ in the room and said, “You gotta help me figure out how to work this thing.”

GW I’m trying to imagine what goes through a 15-year-old’s head: “Aw, jeez. I gotta help my dad with his damn Talk Box!” Are you “cool dad” when this happens, or “dorky dad”?

SATRIANI [laughs] Dorky dad, definitely! Face it: the human race has to progress, and that means that the younger generation will always be cooler than their parents.

GW Even if their parents are in the next room playing with a Talk Box?

SATRIANIEspecially if their parents are in the next room playing with a Talk Box! [laughs]

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