Joe Satriani Interview: Joe vs Shockwave

By Aman Khosla

Joe Satriani needs no introduction, folks – but here it is anyway. The biggest-selling instrumental rock guitarist of all time, he’s had two platinum and four gold albums and received 15 Grammy nominations. He’s hit the billboard charts and actually had his stuff on the radio. Yep – instrumental rock guitar on the radio. He’s played and performed with Mick Jagger and Deep Purple, co-founded the supergroup Chickenfoot with Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith, and is the mastermind behind the epic G3 guitar extravaganzas that have featured Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, Yngwie Malmsteen, John Petrucci, Paul Gilbert, Steve Lukather, Brian May, Robert Fripp, Steve Morse … need I go on? And, of course, as if all this wasn’t enough, Joe spent part of his early years as a teacher and mentor to some of these great players – notably Steve Vai, Andy Timmons, Charlie Hunter and Kirk Hammett – and has carried his teaching legacy forward to create the G4 Experience camps.

But above and beyond all this, and perhaps the reason for his tremendous success, Joe is a masterful musician with an immaculate sense of melody. An absolute inspiration and a wonderful guy, I had an insightful conversation with him in anticipation of his upcoming album, “Shockwave Supernova,” that’s set for release later this month. The album is incredible, and – as you will soon find out – deeper than it seems. Our hero’s journey begins.

GC: I heard the album a couple days ago, and I loved it. It’s retained the “Satch” vibe that you have, and yet feels so fresh and alive. On that note – has the reason you make music evolved over the years? Do you still feel the same about creating and making music?

JS: Yeah, it’s kind of unexplainable. I have this urge when I get up everyday to write new music – to pull something out of me that needs explaining in a musical way and well, (laughs) I can’t even explain that! I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on in the world. What’s going on with me? What’s happened to me? What am I dreaming about? What am I wishing for? The way that I express that is with melody and harmony and rhythms, and the instruments that allow me to do that best are the guitar, the keyboard and the bass – so that’s what I do. I don’t really ask questions about it; I just blindly go ahead and write whatever comes. Afterwards, I sit back and see what I’ve done and try to pull it all together so that it’s cohesive for the audience.

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GC: I suppose that’s the purest form of inspiration there is, and you’re not questioning or digging into it – you’re just letting it be. I just talked to Steve Vai a couple of months ago, and it’s a similar sort of thing that we were chatting about – the source of inspiration. He mentioned a Bob Dylan interview he said he’d heard where people kept trying to ask him where his songs came from, and he kept saying, “I don’t know, they just come out!” In terms of the thought process that goes behind the inspiration, whether you’ve been stuck with it or you’ve chosen it, you’ve had this whole “science fiction” theme going on for a while. Are you tied into the meaning and the stories related to it, and that’s what inspires you? Or are they more like conceptual afterthoughts after you’ve gone in cold and made the music?

JS: Well, I think there’s been a lot of funny happenstance, like with anybody else’s life, you know? Sometimes things happen, and you scratch your head thinking, “Wow, that’s really funny that that happened to me again.” Just like the other day, somebody here at the camp was remarking about how I came out with the Silver Surfer on an album cover and then years later lost my hair and started shaving my head (laughs) – some sort of poetic justice or something! So I explained to him how it was purely by accident that we wound up with “Surfing With the Alien” as the title of the record, and then again, simply by coincidence that somebody at the record company was a fan of the Silver Surfer and knew somebody at Marvel and so on. So, before you know it, without my planning any of it, I’ve got this image tied in. But, you know, I have to say, I was into science as a kid, and I’ve always felt that the term “science fiction” really doesn’t do it justice. It makes people suspect science. To me, it was pretty plain very early on that we live on a spinning ball that’s part of a solar system, and we’re in a galaxy that’s part of this thing that we call the universe. Diving deeper into this stuff is more like waking up and seeing reality for what it really is, so every time that I would dip into that, it seemed to me like I was being more open – I wasn’t trying to be “spacey” or unusual or extra-scientific or something like that. It is actually just the reality of the world, and all you need to do is look around. NASA has a really great Google+ feed that gets updated everyday, and you can check it out to see what’s going on. There are people in space right now as we speak, there are people preparing to go into space, there are pictures of our planet floating in space – I can’t imagine how people would think that’s unnatural, unusual or somehow connected to science fiction. It’s absolute reality, you know? So anyway, besides that – if you look at the titles of the songs on this record, very few, if any, refer to that science fiction, in any case. The title track is really just a silly name concocted by an alter ego to try and make something of himself. (laughs)

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GC: (laughs) Well, I just thought it was interesting, because the thing that is reminiscent of it on this record is the thematic continuity in the sense that, well – it starts with “Hello” and ends with “Goodbye,” and I didn’t know if there was a deeper arc or journey – a sense of story to it.

JS: You’re absolutely right, though. See, I made the realization that the real Joe is shy and retiring and doesn’t seek out crowds, but I just happen to have this job where I seek out crowds. (laughs) So after I take a deep breath and get the courage to walk on stage, somebody else takes over. And I was having this thought process: “What if that was a real alter ego? Let’s say – as if I were making a movie in my head about this crazy alter ego that just gains power – and that leads to an internal struggle in the performer’s head. Sort of like “Joe vs. His Alter Ego.” And, of course, this guy calls himself “Shockwave Supernova,” which is a silly name but – why wouldn’t he, you know? It’s merely to draw attention to himself. So I felt that it would be interesting if there’s a struggle, and eventually the real artist convinces the alter ego that he has to evolve into something better. He has to stop playing with his teeth and doing all sorts of show-biz stuff and concentrate more on the music. The movie (album) would then be about Shockwave going through all of his memories of all the things that he did, and then coming to the realization towards the end of the record that “Okay, Joe is right – I’ve got to evolve into something better.” I put that theme into the songs and especially as you get towards the end of the record – in my mind, anyway – he really starts to fall apart and then rebuilds himself during the breakdown section of the last song. And, finally, he gets the courage to stand up and become something better. I left that unanswered – what does he become? Does he vanish? Do they merge into one? Is he going to turn into something else? I don’t know about that – I thought it was nice to leave that open as a question.

New York, NY - September 26: Joe Satriani performing at The Beacon Theater on September 26, 2013 in New York, NY. Photo credit: Rick Gilbert / Skyhook Entertainment.
New York, NY – September 26: Joe Satriani performing at The Beacon Theater on September 26, 2013 in New York, NY. Photo credit: Rick Gilbert / Skyhook Entertainment.

GC: That sounds incredible. I like the fact that you left it open-ended because I feel that’s part of the beauty of putting out work like this. You’re expressing a thought and the music is there, and then there’s this deeper journey to it – if you’re interested. And even deeper beyond that, there are these questions – if you’re interested.

JS: Yeah, yeah.

GC: You know, it’s funny that you mention this “shy side of Joe Satriani” – I know that’s something that’s been quite an important part of your persona over the years. How do you, as that entity, deal with the way that one interfaces with fans these days? It’s turning into much more of an interactive thing where people are connecting with artists on a deeper level and they want to know more of the “everyday” – Twitter and Facebook and the like all play into it pretty strongly, too. Does that figure into your life at all? Does it bother you, or do you play to it?

JS: Funnily enough – I have really benefited from the birth of social media on the Internet because of the kind of music that we do. There aren’t a lot of doors open to us in the media that, let’s say, a young pop artist would have. They get TV and movies and that kind of stuff. Instrumental rock guitar? (laughs) That’s a sub-genre, you know? So when the Internet revolution happened, it was a wonderful thing because it allowed us to talk directly to fans everywhere around the world at exactly the same moment. Certainly playing into my natural state of not wanting to be in front of crowds all the time, communicating with millions of people through the laptop was also a lot more appealing (laughs). We’ve used the social media to create our own community, and I actually really like that because you get direct feedback from the fans that’s not filtered through anybody else’s angle on any particular story or release. It’s simply been what I would call an additive thing. In other words, it’s really added to the experience of moving the music around, and since I’m a live performer and I get a charge out of just being on stage and being in the moment, crowds withstanding (laughs) – social media has opened up the world of touring for us, too. When I started out – I remember telling people and it was hard for them to believe – when “Surfing With the Alien” was hanging out high on the charts at top 40 for a very long time, my first European tour consisted of four shows – entirely. And one of them was an unannounced add-on because we had nothing to do and somebody canceled! That’s a direct explanation as to how we weren’t trusted in the entertainment world. Now, this is pre-Internet, so it was all based on what people were reading in magazines or what they heard on the radio – it really wasn’t what the fans were saying. They didn’t have so much of a voice back then. And now it’s completely different. We could literally stay on tour every day of the year and just keep circling the globe because the Internet has brought me close to all of them around the world. The Internet destroyed and built at the same time (laughs). So, on the positive side, it did, in a very backwards way, help expand my audience and make it easier for me to deal with, in terms of that shyness.

New York, NY - September 26: Joe Satriani performing at The Beacon Theater on September 26, 2013 in New York, NY. Photo credit: Rick Gilbert / Skyhook Entertainment.
New York, NY – September 26: Joe Satriani performing at The Beacon Theater on September 26, 2013 in New York, NY. Photo credit: Rick Gilbert / Skyhook Entertainment.

GC: That’s so great to hear. It seems to me that, actually, if you put aside the shock of the sudden changes the Internet has brought about, I think it’s a really positive evolution for the industry. There’re just certain things that we need to get on board with, but other than that it seems to have done so much good for music, objectively, as a whole. Talking about connecting with your fans, by the way – my dad is a huge fan, and I think he just wanted me to tell you that!

JS: That’s great! Well, tell him “Thank you!”

GC: (laughs) Well, you know, that got me thinking – your music appeals to such a wide demographic. There are kids and then there are older people, and then – girls are listening to instrumental guitar now, how’d you manage that? (laughs) Have you ever tried to identify what it is that people connect with in your music, or is that a stone best left unturned?

JS: (laughs) Good question! Well, I think I’ve asked that question of other composers and artists. The stone is certainly left unturned when it comes to myself – that kind of introspection, to me, is somewhat narcissistic. I think it would ruin it all, somehow. It would jinx it if I thought I could analyze myself and come up with a bunch of rules and guidelines to continue down my path. But, as a student of music – of course. I had a great music teacher where I went to school at Carle Place High School in Long Island. His name was Bill Wescott, and he taught me the history of music, along with music theory in those few years, and I looked at the works of the contemporary and classical composers with those questions in mind. What is it that makes people still want to hear “Moonlight Sonata”? What is it about Beethoven that infuriates some and puts a smile on others? Why do some people prefer Brahms over Wagner? It’s very interesting – as students of music, you go in and you analyze, and as lovers of music, you just turn that part of your brain off and you listen, and you try to feel the composer’s emotion behind the piece. So, I always identified with that and thought that there was more voodoo to it than science, and there’s no way to predict what we, as people, are going to respond to. So much of it is what’s happening in our hearts and in our minds when we hear that piece of music. Having said all that, I do approach it in the way that we should always look at our melodies and make them as strong as possible – edit them down to their barest possible components. If there’s anything I learned, from studying great composers, it’s that. That’s what they did. They just had this thing about economy that allowed them to hit an unbelievable sweet spot with the melody, and that would make every song so different because that editing process means that they’re just whittling it all the way down to “this song is about the color green and no other color,” you know? (laughs) And that leaves all the other colors for all the other songs! For instance, just an analogy that I’m using, if I would write a song called “Cryin,” then what am I really talking about? What’s the story behind it? Don’t stray – don’t play any other stuff that has nothing to do with it. Even though I could impress and put a section in the song that’s purely promotional, I don’t – I just never do that. So, sometimes the songs come out pretty simple in the technical department, and sometimes they come out very complicated and difficult – but it’s purely based on what I think is going to tell the story properly.

New York, NY - September 26: Joe Satriani performing at The Beacon Theater on September 26, 2013 in New York, NY. Photo credit: Rick Gilbert / Skyhook Entertainment.
New York, NY – September 26: Joe Satriani performing at The Beacon Theater on September 26, 2013 in New York, NY. Photo credit: Rick Gilbert / Skyhook Entertainment.

GC: You know, your melodies are my favorite thing. Of course, you can really play and you’ve innovated and done so many cool things, but I think if I were to analyze you, I would say your melodies are what grab people. Matter of fact, I’ve just got the melody from the opening track stuck on loop in my head.

JS: Oh, great! (laughs) I’m sorry about that, but –

GC: Yeah, well, (laughs) you shouldn’t complain about that! That’s really insightful stuff, though – so if you’re so true to your melodies, do they come to you? Do you just hear them in your head, or do you find them on the guitar or …?

JS: Well, you know, they just pop into my head, I guess! They accompany a feeling or a picture, or an internal movie. I could be fantasizing about something that could never happen, or maybe I’m remembering some big event in my life. Or something very simple that just took my fancy that one moment. I remember once I was on tour – gosh, this is going back a long time ago! I was standing in an airport somewhere in Europe, waiting for bags, and I was just gripped with this sadness and foreboding. This melody is coming out, and I’m thinking, “Why would I be doing that? There’s no reason for that, everything’s going well.” And then I realized that I was being inundated with these tones that were coming from the conveyor belts of the baggage carousel! Machinery makes noises, right? So there’s this lovely minor chord hitting me, and I just start hearing this melody that I guess just brought on that feeling. Of course, I wasn’t set up for any of this and suddenly had no awareness of what was going on around me at all, and I was with a representative who turned me and said, “Are you ok?” (laughs) But that’s how it is – sometimes it just comes to you!

New York, NY - September 26: Joe Satriani performing at The Beacon Theater on September 26, 2013 in New York, NY. Photo credit: Rick Gilbert / Skyhook Entertainment.
New York, NY – September 26: Joe Satriani performing at The Beacon Theater on September 26, 2013 in New York, NY. Photo credit: Rick Gilbert / Skyhook Entertainment.

GC: I guess that’s the beauty of inspiration – it just kind of hits when it hits and you’ve got to eat it up, I suppose.

JS: Yes – you hold on to it. I always tell people it’s sort of like a snake that’s trying to get out from your grip. You’ve just got to hold onto it because it’s going to get away eventually. Like a dream you’re trying to remember, it fades – it dissolves.

GC: Well, I use my iPhone for that – it’s something that’s usually around, so anytime I have an idea, I just pick it up and go. You can’t always capture the magic, but you can capture the notes that make you feel the magic or remind you of it, at least.

JS: Yeah, anything that works. Use your iPhone, scribble on a napkin, dial your own number and leave a message. (laughs) It’s always great if you’ve got your guitar strapped on and you’re in front of your Pro Tools, though.

GC: Somehow that never happens. (laughs) Well, not never, but – I suppose it’s a question of inspiration doing its thing when you’re most open to it. I always find it fascinating to hear people talk about the source of their inspiration. There are never really any “answers,” per se, but there’s so much to be gained from it. It’s inspiring, if you will. And speaking of being inspiring, I believe you’re in the middle of one of your G4 camps?

JS: Yeah – this has been really great! It’s our second one – we’re back at the Cambria Pines Lodge and it’s a beautiful, idyllic Central California coast setting. Beautiful sunny days and rolling hills. And so, if you walk around, you hear Guthrie over here, and Tosin and Javier over there, and Mike Keneally over there in the gazebo, and Stu Hamm and Bryan Beller over there, and Marco and Matt, our drum tech and – you know what I mean? (laughs) We’re all jamming early in the morning all the way up to about 1 a.m.! The vibe is really great, and every night there’s a concert by one of the bands, and on the side of the stage all the other guitar payers are there just staring (laughs) because we’re just loving it! We never get a chance to do this where it’s such causal hang and, at the same time, because it’s all guitar players, everyone’s showing just everything. Everybody’s an open book, and we’re all learning from each other even while we’re putting on these clinics for the campers, so it’s really been a wonderful experience.

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GC: It’s pretty fantastic that you can put this kind of stuff together. The education thing is kind of taking off, don’t you think? Everyone is getting into master classes and clinics and such, and I think it’s pretty great. It just adds to that communal sharing of knowledge and expression and creativity. 

JS: Yes, well, as the arts get somewhat clipped from school programs, it’s been thrown into the private sector! I mean, that’s kind of what’s been happening, and I was surprised a couple of years ago when I saw these things coming up as offers. I’ve usually resisted clinics unless they were for some promotional purpose where they seemed to be the best fit, so when I got together with my manager and the promoter, Danny Hughes, we said if we’re going to do something like this, it’s got to be better than anything that’s been done before. We have to create a really comfortable, friendly atmosphere, and I don’t want it to be show-biz oriented. Sometimes the rock ’n’ roll fantasy camps can be that way – it’s a bit more of a celebrity angle. That’s really not what’s going to be good for the student – they need to hang out with us. They need to jam with us; they need to see us up close and telling the truth, pulling the curtain away from the wizard, and they’ll get so much more out of that. And then we had to figure out a way where they would make connections with each other. That’s something that is sometimes lacking. There should be a community. There should be connections made and friendships maintained, because that’s part of the artistic process – to have people to collaborate with. It’s something I’ve always liked doing, so I wanted it to be part of the G4 experience. So I think we’ve been able to do that, and the location has really helped in finding that together as a group. You know – putting on a clinic is a daunting task, especially when you’re providing room and board and meals and all that for 200 people! Then you invite these bands – we have Animals As Leaders, The Aristocrats and then my band, as well as Mike Keneally’s solo band, and it’s – well, it’s a show! It’s spread out over four days, but it’s a show. So it’s great that it’s come off well, and with all this big stuff it’s still very intimate. When we do our little concerts at night, there’s just about enough room for 200 people to slip into the dining hall. We’ve got a little stage – there’s no production, we’ve got a small PA. (laughs) The cool thing is that you can carry on a conversation with the audience almost while you’re playing, and that’s what it’s all about – it’s not only the lessons during the day and the jam sessions late at night, but it’s also sort of a more open and inclusive type of live performance where campers can feel that they’re really part of something. This sort of real world experience is invaluable, and you can’t really describe that kind of thing on Internet lessons. One-hour lessons in a small room once a week are also a different kind of a thing. So we try to accomplish both – the one-on-one lessons, including the clinic situation, as well as the live performance and the jamming. I guess that’s more like three or four things …(laughs)

GC: Well, that’s what you want, isn’t it? Combining that connection and the intimate feel with the grandiose nature of the live performances, and then have them experience what it’s like on your end. It’s a feat to be able to put it together, so kudos to you guys!

JS: Yeah, we’re enjoying it!

GC: It must a blast with the guys you’ve got out there, too. Actually, the band you’re playing with is fairly fresh, isn’t it? Tell me a little bit about the whole changeup.

JS: I don’t know – I guess I’m always looking for new ways to flesh out the music, and as I come towards the end of a touring cycle, I’m already in that phase where maybe I’ve written half the record. And so I start to get a feeling about what I’m writing and whether or not it’s going to sit well with the band that I’ve just been touring with. I found myself in that situation towards the end of the “Wormhole” record, and after doing the 3D concert movie, I was thinking “Wow, I think I’m moving in some other direction.” I didn’t really know until just about two weeks before I got to the studio! It was pretty sudden, but I had to eventually put my foot down. It was going to be kind of disruptive to the guys I play with and am close with, but it’s just something that had to be done. And, interestingly enough, I knew when I got Vinnie and Chris to come to the “Unstoppable” sessions that I wasn’t going to be able to tour with them. So I just put that out of my mind, and using Marco and Bryan for the tour didn’t really come up until Mike Keneally and I were doing some of the overdubs towards the end of those sessions. I just said to him, “You know what, I have no idea who’s going to go on the road with us,” and he brought up Marco and Bryan. That’s how I got introduced to those guys. I’d known Bryan for a couple of years because he’d been playing with Steve, but I’d never actually met Marco, and that turned out to be such a fantastic moment. It turned out that we were musicians that really enjoyed playing with each other, and there was such a connection that it invigorated the whole thing. They did the tour with me, and we’ve been playing together since, and they’re on the record.

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GC: Yeah, I think it works really well – it’s great how connections like that inspire and invigorate, isn’t it? Plus it must be fun to be on tour. Marco’s one of the best goofballs that I know.

JS: Yes! We’ve always got a great sense of humor and he’s an extremely creative guy – you know he’s got 14 solo records out? I mean, it’s insane! It’s just really nice to go out with people who can play like crazy – he’s such an advanced player – but he also has such a playful attitude towards music, so the doors open for everyone to try something new, and that’s what keeps us laughing and excited about hitting the stage every night.

GC: That’s the sweet spot. It’s nice to hear that you’re still invigorated night after night! I look forward to the next run of shows. Now, we’ve talked about a good few things, and it’s been a real pleasure, Joe, but before you get back to camp, let me just ask you real quick – have you heard the new Jeff Beck record?

JS: Has it just been released?

GC: It was released maybe a couple of months ago – it’s called “Live +.”

JS: No, I guess I haven’t! I didn’t even know it came out!

GC: Yeah – they’re mostly live tracks, but there’re two new studio tracks at the end of the record and – boy, oh boy – that’s all I’m going to say!

JS: Oh, that’s great! He is one of my heroes – I’ve always loved watching him play live and it’s amazing. If there’s anybody for guitar players to look up to, Jeff Beck is one of those guys who becomes more Jeff Beck-like and better and better every year – it’s just uncanny! Most people kind of fade and relax – they start to sit back in the lounge chair and enjoy their success, but Jeff just keeps innovating. He’s such an inspiration and he’s always fun to listen to. Always.

GC: Absolutely. Somehow it always sounds brand-spanking new – and yet he’s just so strongly Jeff Beck, there’s no denying it.

JS: Yes – that’s so great. Well, I’ll definitely take your recommendation and go listen to that!

GC: And with that, off goes Joe Satriani to his campers for what I’m sure will be another tremendously successful G4 camp experience. But has the master of melody finally overcome his powerful alter ego? Find out for yourself this July – stay tuned.

To see what Joe Satriani is up to please visit: satriani.com

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