Finally, with his twelfth album, Joe Satriani has gotten it right. That is, on Super Colossal, he has been able to achieve what he’s been working towards for so many years - instrumental music where the guitar becomes so transparent as to become non-existent. You forget you’re listening to an album sans vocals as you’re drawn into the sheer size and depth of the compositions themselves. This is an important step in the development of this highly-skilled player and in the following conversation he explains how he got there.
Ultimate-Guitar.com: Before we begin talking about the new album, can you fill us in about the G3 tour and how that’s going?
Joe Satriani: There was the Live In Tokyo DVD and CD. Those are not only out but are doing quite well. I got some kind of award for them. All of those DVDs really surprised us; they came out just as people were buying more DVDs. I suppose it’s the nature of it; I suppose there’s more attraction to look at it when you put together three guys who wouldn’t normally play together. I know the first G3 project went platinum with Eric Johnson and Steve and the second one with Yngwie and I think this other one is coming close. That means a lot to me and my manager Mick because we started the G3 thing and we manage and it became something that now we can count on. And it was started mainly so I could play with more guitar players.
Going to Japan was great because it was our first time bringing it to Japan. We’d only brought it to Europe and South America so I was excited about it. And I knew it was going to be filmed as well and John (Pettruci) Steve were going to be part of it. The venue was beautiful and the Japanese crew was just so on top of everything. The thing just looks beautiful.
And you put that behind you to concentrate on the new album?
I’ve got to say that I’m still slightly hurting that we had 'Smoke On the Water’ as part of the set and since I was the only guy there who actually played with Deep Purple, I was really looking forward to playing my homage to Ritchie. Everything is going great and John does a great solo, Steve does a great solo, and I go up to my pedal to get my solo tone and I start playing. And all I hear is my sound getting interrupted and these funny thunder sounds and I’m thinking, 'Oh, this is bad.’ Because I had already broken a string during our set and had to start a song over, a song called 'War.’ And I’m thinking, 'This is not my night’ but I know we only film and record one night, there’s no re-takes. And so the whole time I’m soloing I’m hearing this weird interruption and I keep thinking, 'You’re a professional, there are people out there, they want to see you play. Don’t let anything rock your world right now, don’t let anyone break your concentration. Maybe it’s just the monitors.’ And as it turned out, it was one of the connections in my little pedal board that suddenly became intermittent. And it’s on the DVD because I didn’t want to fix it. That’s the only thing that sort of sticks in my mind.
So the ghost of Ritchie Blackmore was coming back to haunt you.
I think you got that, Steven.
We’ll leave that behind us and move on to Super Colossal. It’s hard to describe it - a sonic comic book. Several interviews ago, I had made a comment to you which angered you a bit. I said something like, 'Does too much technique ever get in the way of making a simple, passionate statement?’ I think what this album reveals is exactly that element in your playing - technique taking a backseat to truly melodic playing.
|"Time moves on, styles change, and a sense of accomplishment makes you feel like you want to move into different spaces."|
It’s different, I know. I’m happy to hear you recognize these traits on the record; it’s like laboring in reverse and learning how to hold back. Time moves on, styles change, and I think a sense of accomplishment starts to make you feel like you want to move into different spaces. Lenny Tristano was a bebop piano player I took lessons from. He told me that Bird (Charlie Parker) had taken him aside once and said, 'Lenny, I think I’ve played every possible combination of notes over the bebop form. And I don’t know what else to play anymore.’ Lenny was re-telling me this story because he was trying to tell me that people who really could play really did explore all the different avenues of playing; it was like a religion to them. And it kind of ran through my head the last couple of years as we did a lot of G3s and I found myself on stage sometimes just having so much fun but afterwards listening to tape and thinking, 'Man, that’s a lot of notes.’ I was playing so many notes that I thought maybe I was missing something.
I had planned to do a live record in the studio. Up until the Japanese G3 performance, we went to India for three shows and when I came back I had a change of heart. I didn’t want to go into the studio and jam with a live band; I wanted to really make something that had some interesting qualities I’ve been yearning for but I haven’t yet really accomplished.
And I was writing down words like tone and vibe and grooves and interesting sounds and then of course, songs. I realized this was all gonna come from the material; if I write the right material, maybe I’ll learn how to ease into these things. It was a learning experience and it started with the songs and it took quite a while to come up with the right songs that wouldn’t push me to be the player that I was trying to be in ’86 or in ’92 or whatever.
What were some of the first songs that developed?
There was a framework for 'Just Like Lightnin’’ that was there although that song took quite a long time to figure out how to produce the rhythm section. I had the main riff that I recorded with just me playing my fingers on the guitar and sort of thumping a rhythm. It has a little bit of humor to it because of the melody in the verse section is kind of goofy with that fast flurry of notes. But the chord section, the chorus, is actually very brooding-like. And I thought this could be the start of something.
Then I moved into something like 'The Meaning of Love’ which really was more complex and something like I might have done on The Extremist. And then I’d force myself to do an opposite thing like the title track. I remember when I wrote it, I was thinking of the Dandy Warhols for some reason. I was just thinking of the eighth note stuff and then I started thinking of Robert Fripp. I’m always talking to Robert and I was thinking of that era of Robert and Eno and David Bowie. And that eighth note thing ended up being in 'Ten Words.’
Slowly I realized that these elements were going to be the bedrock of the album. And it’s gonna allow me to be much groovier than before. It won’t be the nerd, technical guitar player. I knew that I was gonna be able to be much more tasteful and because of that the sound of the guitar could be much better because the playing would be more lyrical and you’d have to work on the sound more. The sound would have to be better for the notes to be less in quantity.
While we’re here why don’t you explain about all these guitar sounds.
Sure, yeah. This time I limited myself - anytime you hear an electric 12-string that’s a vintage ’66 Fender Electric 12. I used a ’64 P bass or a ’74 P bass that’s got this strange maple Jazz neck on it that I found at a guitar show. Keyboards I was just using my Triton and some of the stuff I recorded MIDI and later on Eric Caudieux (editing/sound design) found some other tones for me to use. I used my ’48 Martin small-bodied .000 acoustic on a couple of songs. The rest were JS11200s and JS1000s so I didn’t any of the Strats or Tellys that I’d been using for the last four or five records. I kind of kept it that way and it helped me focus on my signal chain and invariably I forced myself to plug the effects in first. So, if you hear a Rotovibe, it’s a Fulltone DejaVibe; if you hear a tremolo, it’s a Supertrem. Then I would go into a couple of (Peavey) JSXs of different vintage and some of the different prototypes. I’m building this small amp with Hartley Peavey that’s like a Fender Champ in a way. And I used that for the big sound on 'Super Colossal.’ And I used an Electro Harmonix POG pedal (polyphonic octave generator). It gives a really funky three-octave sound so it sounds like you have Leslie West in a little box. I think my old 5150 wound up on a couple of tracks.
I don’t use speakers; I recorded about 99% of the guitars and basses and keyboards all at home. The guitars would go into a Palmer Speaker Simulator then into a Millennia STT1 which is both a tube and solid-state parametric mike pre with octo compression. So it’s almost like it’s own little full strip. Sometimes I’d go into two of them, sometimes one, and after those guys I’d go into a Universal Audio LA-2A which is my favorite limiter. And then it would go into Pro Tools; I have an HD rig and we recorded the album at 96k.
Is the absence of speakers a sound that you’ve cultivated on this album?
The solos on 'Cool New Way,’ 'One Robot’s Dream,’ 'The Meaning of Love’ and 'Made of Tears’ sound like there’s a room somewhere and there was. We did those songs up in Vancouver where we did the majority of the drums, where we recorded the audience ('Crowd Chant’) and where we did the mixing. It’s called the Armoury.
The solo on Super Colossal has that sort of minimalist technique approach which is what I was referring to in that interview several years ago.
That was really contrary to what I thought I was gonna do. I thought that the solo would be bigger and I would get this gargantuan sound and I was still really vamping on this mental movie on this 100-foot person. And so I was here in my room (home studio) and plugging this in and I tried something that was really huge and that was OK. And I wasn’t really inspired. And I wound up plugging into that Peavey amp again but instead of having the volume on 10, I cleaned it up quite a bit. So it was barely on and I was using the Speaker Simulator and I was using the neck pickup on JS1200 so the low end is super tight. If I pull up the volume knob on the JS guitars it engages a filter that only passes the high end as you turn the volume down. So I did a little of that and had a little filtering going on and I just got this tone that makes you think it’s a single coil Strat, neck pickup but there’ something more to it. It’s got a bit more body to it and it’s less pokey sounding. I’d say that sound went through both Millennias so I warmed it up twice before it even hit the limiter.
In a goofy way you have this big monster who’s playing this huge guitar and this big melody but when the solo comes it reveals something more tender inside. I think this is what I like about other artist’s material. And it might not necessarily be a nice sounding thing. It might be Iggy Pop and the Stooges or Velvet Underground. It can be so strange but it has this quality. I kind of stumbled into it in other words.
'Just Like Lightnin’’ has a sort of funky swamp feel to it.
|"This record is more about unusual quirky moments that you don’t expect."|
Yeah, that one didn’t have rhythm guitars at all; it just had melody, bass line and drums. I was playing around again with the teeny amp prototype and I thought I had to put some kind of rhythm on here. And I came up with two guys left and right just being kind of nasty. I wrote the middle section after I’d come up with the part for the verse and the chorus. And then in one half-hour moment of frantic recording, I suddenly realized what the solo section should do. And it was really based on the rhythm guitars, I wasn’t even thinking about the solos. The first solo had me playing through a SansAmp and RMC wah-wah pedal and it was wall-to-wall notes. I was so proud of this solo. Jeff Campitelli (drummer) came over to get a demo of the record about a week before we went to Vancouver and the song comes up on Pro Tools and the solo comes on and I instantly hated it. It was like, 'Oh, Jeff, I’m so sorry. I loved this solo yesterday.’ And he looks at me and goes, 'Here’s another solo with a wah-wah pedal.’ I remember I pulled it way down in his demo mix and I said, 'Don’t play anything around that solo.’ After he left I was so embarrassed that I liked something that was so heinous. So I went back and got a very mild sound with a JSX crunch channel and didn’t turn the gain up very high, didn’t check the battery in my wah-wah pedal; I just thought, 'Let’s try grooving with the band here.’ Not like stepping up in front of the lights and saying, 'It’s my turn to solo.’ And I came up with something I thought had some strange character and those weird harmonics with the whammy bar bends came and I thought that was it. That was more what the record was about, unusual quirky moments that you don’t expect. But yeah, that first solo was pretty bad. I should make a CD of it.
'It’s So Good’ is another rhythmically intriguing cut.
In the last few years, I’ve had a chance to get closer to Steve Miller. We’ve done some playing together; we’ve done quite a few of these mini-shows and I’ve been a guest at some of his larger shows. The first time I ever went to the Fillmore East in New York City was to see a Steve Miller show. I’ve always been a great fan of his sense of his melody, the way he plays his style of Chicago blues, and he’s just an original. I first went on tour with him in 1990 and one day I was here in the studio working on the record and I started to play something and I thought, 'Oh, this is like a Steve Miller song.’ And I made myself finish writing it right there and recording it. Of course I listened to it back and said, 'That’s not a Joe Satriani song.’ People are gonna say, 'Well, that’s too happy.’ It sounded like a jam band song or something. But me talking to me, I said, 'Yeah, but that’s me. I wanna fill this up with cool guitar sounds.’ And I just had so much fun playing every single instrument that had a string on it; every time I laid a part down, I had this big grin on my face. The bass part, the little wah-wah part, the little octave part, all those little sections, and finally putting the melody on top using that (Fulltone) Ultimate Octave pedal I like so much that Mike Fuller made for me. And I used a Boss DM2 (analog delay) for the delay regeneration in the beginning and the end. To be able to record that in itself was a milestone because I generally record very conservative stuff at home and try not to get too whacky until I’m in a real studio but this time I thought, 'No, let’s just record everything the way you want it to sound here before you bring it to the engineer or the drummer.’
'Red Shift Riders’ has this dark dance feel about it.
This one was written the way I would have written 'Surfing With the Alien’ or 'Flying In a Blue Dream’ or something. It’s really based on forcing yourself to run away with your imagination about a concept that may or may not be based in fact. I was thinking about the concept of cosmological shift where they say that space actually gets bent by large celestial objects. I tried to create a soundtrack to that and where it helped me trying to make this mini-video in my head was when you hit the shift is when the song cuts in half in time and you get into that heavy riff in half-time. I wanted to make sure there was a stretching sound and the first couple of solos I did sounded like I was hanging around with Yngwie a lot and that was not the effect I was looking for. And so I kind of used the effect I did on 'Just Like Lightnin’’ where I used a wah-wah guitar sound and it didn’t go to 11, it was like 6 or 7, so there some air in there and you had to really bend and phrase and create the drama from the note selection rather than the quantity.
'Ten Words’ has a different harmonic quality to it - this was written on piano?
I wrote it for relief, I guess, and it was just written on piano and it wound up in my stack of manuscripts. It was just a personal reflection (of 9/11) and I was going through material, I played it on guitar and I thought, 'OK, some time has passed and maybe other people can use it in another way.’ I don’t quite understand myself yet so that song’s a bit of a journey. Although it was written very starkly, I made sure there was at least 10 or 12 gurgling guitars playing rhythm and that the song had a very serious pace to it.
What are the ten words?
After writing pages and pages, I realized the listener should supply the ten words. The nature of instrumental music is more is left to the imagination. If they wanted words, they’d be a vocal album.
Then the experience you want people to come away with is one of their own making? You want each listener to bring their own set of values to a composition?
In a perfect world, they’d use the album as being both pleasurable to listen to but also cathartic. It would help identify feelings within them that are personal. Unlike vocal music where you’re stuck with the story the vocalist is telling you, the instrumental stuff allows you to sort of morph a song to your liking.
Were you always drawn more to the instrumental side of songs as opposed to the vocal realm?
Absolutely. And I think it was 'Third Stone From the Sun.’ Although I was a drummer from age 9 to 11and was exposed to instrumental music, I didn’t really have a moment with a piece of music until after listening to the shorter pieces on Are You Experienced? I vividly remember almost sweating over the record player at the time and trying to get through it. That was the most amazing thing that just happened in my whole life. And suddenly it was my favorite song. And then of course the middle section to the title track meant so much, it kind of changed my whole personality.
Had you ever seen Hendrix perform?
No, but I had seen at the Fillmore all the bands of that era that were continually touring around the east coast. So I’d see Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Jethro Tull and Edgar and Johnny Winter and Todd Rundren. There were so many bands and they all had a very big influence on my playing. You’d see John McLaughlin one night, then you’d see Jeff Beck and you’d go into the city and see George Benson playing.
You had mentioned earlier that tracks 6, 7, 8 and 9 had a little different treatment.
|"Unlike vocal music, the instrumental stuff allows you to sort of morph a song to your liking."|
They were written as a group separate from the album; they were going to be arranged differently and weren’t going to have verse/chorus or the other forms that I had used. I wanted a more open format. And I decided that what I should do is try to remove myself from some of the recording which was another wacky idea that came over me. So I recorded the melody sections and the basic structures of the songs which were rather long and you can tell by the times. And I sent them to Simon Phillips who has a studio of his own in Los Angeles. I called him one day and told him he could record whatever he wanted. He found a couple of days and came up with different attitudes on the drums that I thought he was gonna be doing and it really did work in getting me to stop going in this one direction. Because I have a set of V-Drums here in my studio and I still suck as a drummer. So it’s tough when I do these demos for drummers; I have to remind myself not to go overboard. And sometimes my drum parts will have too many accents in them.
'One Robot’s Dream’ is very atypical for my kind of instrumental. You’re not quite which is the verse melody, there isn’t really a chorus, but there is a bridge. And then a whole verse section comes in after that and the solo is at the end of the song. There are keyboards which I did on the Triton.
And there are keys on 'The Meaning of Love.’ On the left are pizzicato strings and on the right there’s a piano. They were going to be rhythm guitars but I felt it would be too busy sounding to have me plucking this guitar part. I played one take melody through the JSX and whatever wah-wah was on the floor and I got this really wailing, very smooth sound out of the melody and I was done.
And then 'Theme For A Strange World’ was a one-take thing. I really constructed the whole song then I thought I better put a melody on this so I remember what it is I’m trying to do. So I did this one take and that’s why it’s got the same guitar sound for the melody and the solo. Three weeks later it was time to go back to the song, memorize the melody, and I started to record and it sounded really bad, really hokey. And I realized I had done it. I should just move on and no pun intended but that is the title of the next song.
Right. 'Movin’ On’ has this very ZZ Top texture to it.
Ya know, I layered with playing with the volume control on the JS1200 again. I added the ZZ Top elements later. I’ve got this little watercolor that Billy Gibbons painted for me of a Flying V and it sits right on my desk in my studio so he’s always looking at me. It was like, 'OK, Billy, I get the message, add some Gibbons in there.’ This is like focused control to maintain that vibe of drivin’ down the open road and the wind in your face.
'A Love Eternal’ features that Martin acoustic?
There’s a Martin and I used a Line 6 Roto (Machine) pedal for one channel and a re-issue MXR (Phase) 100 in another, and a Deja Vibe in another. It’s another song like 'Ten Words’ where I piled on all sorts of distorted guitars through the stereo field but we kept the guitar melody very up and person. Jeff played just like mallets and tried to make a new style of recording for what could have been a power ballad. We wanted to come up with a cool new production concept.
And the final track, 'Party On the Enterprise.’
That’s actually called 'Crowd Chant.’ I had loops made that had little samples of the Star Trek TV show in it; just like the sound of sick bay, the doors, and stuff. And for about 5 seconds you heard that in the introductory drum beat and the call and response between me and the audience. I was imaging a big rock and roll party out in space on the Enterprise. And it just took months and months to try and get Paramount to give us clearance. Eventually Sony said, 'We want you to sign waivers saying we’re not responsible.’ And I said, 'Screw that. Who needs the samples?’ So we just took 'em off. I had all the guitars recorded here in San Francisco, we went up to Vancouver, Jeff did the drums and we brought in 35 people. We recorded them 10 times and had some fun with it.
After all of this, is Super Colossal a reflection of Joe Satriani circa 2006? Would Charlie Parker be proud of what you’ve done?
For the artist, there are so many levels of a project. Number one, we’re never finished so we never feel like we’re done. We basically surrender. When I listen back to the stuff, I’ve got to say that this sounds more like a record than just about any other record I’ve ever made. Some of the other records I think sometimes they sound more like guitar records. I think this time Mike Fraser did such an amazing job mixing the record and George Marino mastering it that it just plays like a really cool sounding album. And that’s what I was trying to do - focus on the sound, the vibe, the grooves, and the quirkiness of the material. So you’d think it was evocative and not methodical or didactic or anything.
2006 © Steven Rosen