The reason somebody gets to be a guitar hero would appear to be fairly obvious: He can do things on the instrument that most mere mortals simply can't. Joe Satriani
passed that test handily over 23 years ago when he released the multi-platinum Surfing With The Alien
. Jaws were dropped, fists were raised and millions of music fans the world over picked up guitars both real and imaginary to celebrate and emulate a shred god who would continue to thrill and amaze, dazzle and delight.
But this business of guitar hero-dom is a funny thing, and for Satriani, who has received about every guitar award there is to hand out (he's also a multiple Grammy Award nominee), it's a strange, beautiful and uniquely challenging one, as well. Making six strings scream and wail while flurries of notes dance into the heavens is all very well and good; making music that matters, and more importantly, sharing deeply personal emotions, that's his true raison d'etre. On his 14th studio album, Black Swans And Wormhole Wizards
, Joe Satriani exposes his soul in ways even he never believed were possible. The new album, co-produced by Satriani and Mike Fraser
(whose credits include AC/DC, Metallica, Aerosmith, as well as several Satriani albums, such as Crystal Planet, Is There Love in Space? and Super Colossal) is Satriani's most introspective and emotive to date and is destined to become another Satch classic in his canon of work. On the eve of the album's release, Joe Matera
spoke to Joe Satriani
about the new album, writing instrumentals and his influence upon countless of contemporary guitarists.
UG: Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards is your fourteen studio album to date, with so many albums under your belt now, do making albums get any easier now?
I have to say no, but then I would add as my second answer, that this album was very easy to make. I'm still waiting for something to go wrong (laughs) it just went so right. I mean everybody was available, I wrote all the music in time, we got the studio we wanted to use, we finished recording early, we finished mixing early and we delivered the record early. And on top of that Epic/Sony did a great job in turning around the manufacturing and everything else with this record.
Last year was one of phenomenal change for you, both professionally and personally, obviously that would have influenced the writing process for the album?
Oh definitely, yes it did. I'd say 98% of last year was just a lot of music work between my own touring and Chickenfoot. And then right at the end of the year my mother Katherine passed away and that was really hard to take for me and my whole family. But we were all with her when she passed away. But it was a beautiful a death as you could possibly imagine, you know, if you were a mother leaving her family and you were surrounded by the kids. But it did affect me profoundly. And it convinced more than ever, that I needed to make an album and an album where I really needed to get the feeling of each of the songs closer to the audience and make them more accessible to the people somehow. And by that I don't mean just turning up the guitar or making it more aggressive because, sometimes that is the worst thing you can do. So I had to write the songs and pick the right songs to include on the album. And I had to provide as well as the other musicians, really interesting performances to make the songs come alive so that people would feel the energy and emotion behind the music.
I hear that you had written over fifty songs in preparation for this album?
"These songs being so different from each other, really constituted an album that you could listen to a million times for decades."
Yeah so I had a lot of material to pick from, which was really great. I'm usually pretty prolific so it was nice to have a lot of material to choose from, but ultimately, I thought that these songs being so different from each other, really constituted an album that you could listen to a million times for decades to come, which is what I wanted to do and always aim to do. I like to make a record that will really stand up to the test of time. The records aren't always very commercial, but sometimes you do get lucky with what you're trying to do where it happens to be, whats part of the trend as well. But more importantly, the record has to stand on its own, as a piece of art.
Was there any material recycled for this album, leftovers from the recording sessions you did for the Chickenfoot album?
There are a couple songs on this record that actually have a real long history. Wind In The Trees' was a song I started working on, back when I was a teenager. It has taken me all this time to work out exactly how to do it. That has got to be a record for the longest time spent on working on a song (laughs). I think Lights Years Away' was a riff that I originally had shown to Mike Anthony and Sammy Hagar and Mike was really into it. But Sammy couldn't figure out how he was going to sing over something like that so it was passed up. But it is not unusual for me to have too many songs for a record. Like for example, just recently after I finished making this record, I wrote another ten songs and sent them off to Sammy for the next Chickenfoot record. But it is just something I just do. I like to constantly write so it is not unusual to have songs that have been kicking around for months or even a year or so.
Going through the album's track listing, one track in particular, Two Sides To Every Story' is a jazzy inspired affair, reminiscent of George Benson. Do you tend to get a lot of influence from that type of jazz background?
Well that song really stands out all by itself really. There is nothing quite like it on the rest of the album. It does have a weird dichotomy by itself because the middle section of the song is more like a Pink Floyd kind of thing. Yet the bookends, the beginning and the ending of it, is really a little bit more like an Eddie Harris piece, a 70s jazz kind of piece. I'm not sure if you're familiar with Eddie Harris but he was an American saxophone player. He made the most unique instrumental albums because he used to scream and sing and hum through his saxophone reeds. But the way that he played, was so unique he didn't sound like every other saxophone player that had studied Bird and Coltrane and sort of played like everybody else. Nobody sounded like Eddie. And he could write songs that were in odd time signatures that could make you feel that you could dance to them anytime. So that song is really a tribute to Eddie Harris.
What about some of the other songs on the albums, were any directly inspired by similar settings too?
Well Dream Song was' something that I wrote when I was dreaming and when I woke up, I had the whole song in my head. It was just perfect. So I quickly ran downstairs to my studio and recorded it immediately. Littleworth Lane' is a tribute song to this street where my mother's house was and where she lived for the last few decades of her life. She lived in a house that was built in the late 1600s. So the inspiration came from different facets of life.
You mentioned Dream Song', your classic Flying In A Blue Dream' was also inspired by a dream that you had, so do dreams play a major part in your creative process as well?
I guess so, as once in every few years a big one comes along. It is crazy. Dreams are very interesting and I don't really know what they are. I'm not sure that they're spiritual or foretell the future or anything like that, but all I know is, that every single human being that has ever lived has dreamt. And that it is a very interesting concept and also they are one of the things that binds us all together.
Moving onto gear, what did you use for this particular album?
"I'm still trying to get Jeff Beck out on tour and I would love to play with Jimmy Page."
I mostly used my Marshall amps which were the JVM 410s. I also used a100 and a 50 watt Marshall head. On just a few songs I also used a Wizard head and bottom and also a Sans Amp guitar rig, software stuff for some little parts here and there. I used my Ibanez guitars, my JS-2400 prototypes and my JS-1200, primarily those two guitars did most of the work. I did one song on another prototype that hasn't got a model number as yet as we're still working on it. It is something I've been working on for years with Ibanez, it is a three DiMarzio single coil guitar. I toured with it on the Experience Hendrix tour back in March and really fell in love with it.
Having already achieved so much in your career, have you got any other musical ambitions that you want to be able to achieve?
Well certainly, I hope to be making quite a few more records in my lifetime and I want to be able to tour every place on the planet. That would be great. I also love to work with some other people too, I'm still trying to get Jeff Beck out on tour and I would love to play with Jimmy Page. I'd love to spend more time playing with Brian May and Billy Gibbons, so that would be great too.
Finally I want to ask you, a lot of iconic guitar players such as Kirk Hammett, Steve Vai and Alex Skolnick were former students of yours. Listening to them today, can you hear your influence in their playing?
I never really do because you have to understand, I sat in a room with these guys for hours and hours and so, I know them more than most people know them. I know them in their bare bone settings. I heard them play without any stage lighting or big amps or anything like that. I saw them face to face plugged into a tiny little 8' inch speaker. So what I notice when I hear Kirk Hammett or Steve Vai or Larry LaLaLonde or Alex Skolnick or Charlie Hunter and all the other guys, is that they are so uniquely different from each other. So I really don't hear my influence. What I can hear though is remembering teaching them certain chord concepts, scalar concepts and teaching them how to figure out what were their options. From determining what key they're in and all the different things that I would give them as options. So what I'm very proud to say the most is that these guys all picked their own paths. And to this day, they sound totally different from each other which I think is really great and makes me very happy.
Photo credit: Francesco Castaldo
Interview by Joe Matera