Interview: Joe Satriani

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HIT CHANNEL EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: April 2022. We had the great honour to talk with a legendary guitarist: Joe Satriani. He has released several critically acclaimed instrumental albums and has collaborated with Mick Jagger and Deep Purple. He has also been a member of the supergroup Chickenfoot. Joe just released his brilliant new studio album called “The Elephants of Mars” (earMUSIC). Read below the very interesting things he told us:


Was it liberating for you to record “The Elephants of Mars” at home?

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Definitely! I ‘ve got to say that it was really interesting to be able to let my guard down emotionally and then just relax technically because it was nobody watching. Usually, when you are in the studio you are having a lot of fun and if you make mistakes it’s something that is celebrated by the rest of the band; they never let you forget it and it’s all in good fun, but you do wind up pulling back a little bit to make sure that you don’t make any mistakes and when you do that, you kind of limit some surprises that might come out. So, by being less self-conscious recording in a private environment, some surprises come out, things that you would never play before and I think that’s evident on the album. Everybody had a chance to relax and just explore some other parts of their musicianship that wouldn’t have come out unless they were alone.


Would you like to tell us a few words about the concept of the album?

It’s interesting: The concept of the album is different than the concept of the title track. So, the title track “The Elephants of Mars” is built around a humourous science fiction story that I came up with about how our scientists terraformed Mars in the future and by accident they created a species of sentient giant elephants who can play music with their trunks and communicate telepathically to the colonists that have been working on the planet. These elephants and the colonists get together and decide that they should free Mars from Earth’s evil corporations that are just taking all their raw materials of this new, beautiful planet. So, that story informed me how I wanted to play and how the rest of the guys in the band to approach their parts with a little bit of science fiction, a little bit of humour about how to make the song really work. Now, the album itself though, the concept had nothing to do with that song. The concepts were very personal goal-oriented. I really wanted to make an album that had my best songs, my best writing, my best arranging, best guitar sounds, best playing, so I had to really spend a lot of time working on my own personal craft and that was the idea. I knew it was gonna be called “The Elephants of Mars” even before I had an album title. The idea was to finally create my personal best and again that was something that I wanted to share with the rest of the band, so they understood why the album had so many different styles, why was so long and why all the material sounded the way it did.


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I am addicted to “Faceless” melody. How did you come up with this?

That came really fast! I was really thinking about how sad people feel when they are not being recognized for their true self. Coincidently, during the lockdowns here in San Francisco, you ‘d go outside and you know, strangers really wouldn’t look at each other, everybody was wearing masks, was covered up and staying far apart. I noticed even neighbours that normally would say “hello” across the street, they were almost just so afraid and one of the side effects of that was that people were becoming faceless: Human beings with no actual personality because they were all covered up. You don’t know if they are happy or sad, if they are smiling or smirking, what they are doing. I related that to that story about how sad it is when you feel unrecognized at home or in your neighbourhood, in your city, in your country. You feel like you are different and therefore people are treating you not as a unique personality, so I kind of exaggerated those feelings and put it all into that one song. The melody came, like I said, very fast and I think quite a bit of the original first takes of the melody are actually part of the guitar that you hear on the album. That’s very often the performances that contain the most of our emotion.


I think “Blue Foot Groovy” is one of the best songs you have ever written. Please tell us everything we should know about this amazing song.

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(Laughs) Thank you. This is a very upbeat, good-feeling kind of a song and it was really about a guy who was trying to sell himself to this woman that he meets for the first time. So, he is just trying to impress with how great he is, how good he feels and it’s all good. I just really did try to create a song that was very light, that was really about feeling good and promoting yourself in a situation like that, in a social interaction like that. I had never really written a song like that before. I write science fiction and things about sadness, loss and crazy ideas, but this was about to just really focus on that one moment when you are trying to sell yourself to a potential partner. I just thought it’s really unique and it requires getting in touch with your physical body more than let’s say your brain and heart. But out of that experience came a lot of positive playing and I was really surprised because it had that effect on everybody. I sent the track to Rai (ed: Thistlethwayte -keyboards), to Kenny (ed: Aronoff -drums) and to Bryan (ed: Beller -bass), everybody had the same kind of feeling. I didn’t really explain the song to them. They just thought it was a piece of music, but the way they reacted was the way that I did when I first started writing it, so I thought: “OK, I’m on the right track here”.


There are some Eastern sounds on “Doors of Perception”. I am curious to learn more about this.

That song is really about when people decide to go deep into trying to understand how to perceive the mysteries of life. Very often it reveals both things: There is a yin and a yang to opening up your perception of the universe and there will be some doors that you open that lead to bliss or understanding, but there might be others that you open up that will expose you to fear and the negative things that exist in the universe, as well. They might be your own, that you have manufactured them or they might be real. I thought that people really don’t write about that. Usually, when they write about religion and mysticism it’s always an idealized thing like once you become enlightened, everything is beautiful. Actually, I believe that is possible that once you become enlightened, you actually see the light and dark, the good and the evil, as equal. It’s still up to every person to choose the right path. So, that’s why the song has a bit of darkness to it. It’s almost like a warning like: “When you open those doors of perception, be ready” (laughs).


Every time I listen to “Dance of the Spores”, I wonder if Ennio Morricone influenced you on this. It’s like a movie theme song.

(Laughs) Yes, it’s such a funny thing to write a song about that. I didn’t really think about it when I started writing it, it’s only when I started doing interviews that I realized how funny some of these songs are. But I was thinking that for you and me, everyday there are problems of the world that we have to think about, you know, work, family and politics; everything is going crazy in the world, but I bet if you had a microscope and you went way down to smaller parts of existence that they don’t care about any of it. They are free. They don’t watch CNN, they don’t care about any of it. They are having a great time down there and they are probably having a party because all they have to do is to just eat everything all the time and reproduce. I thought what it would be like if you get yourself down there, what those little spores would be like to you and then as you get to know them, you would be invited into this sort of circus celebration of life that is in existence. That’s why it has that twisted sound to it. It’s a waltz, which is always like really great, everybody is dancing together, a kind of a rhythmic feel, but I can’t explain why I had that thought. That’s just one of those things.


I love the artwork of “The Elephants of Mars” album. Do you think it captures the spirit of the music?

I have a copy of it right here (ed: he shows the LP version of the album) that looks so great. The art director, Todd Gallopo came up with this concept because I told him I didn’t want to be on the cover. My face and my body are on the cover album on just about every album and I thought: “Let’s try something different”. With a title like “The Elephants of Mars” maybe there is something else that we can do, because I didn’t want him to put me on an elephant or give me a trunk and big ears (laughs). So, this is great. His idea of using guitar parts to create the elephants is just brilliant, really brilliant. I love the fact that on the inside we get a view of what a terraformed Mars might look like. It’s really been a lot of fun putting this together and knowing that whether it’s on the album cover or just a little pick (ed: he shows me a pick on Zoom), the artwork really works well. It sends a fun, exotic, science fiction message whether it’s really small or really big, you know, a poster, a billboard on the side of a building. That’s what I really like about graphic arts when they can really capture the essence of something in any size.


Does the purple colour have a special significance in this album? I know that you are a Prince fan and you toured with Deep Purple.

(Laughs) I never thought of that until you just mention it. So, congratulations, you have a special insight. I never thought of it. I mean, we, the team -management and art direction- when we start to work on an album, we very often will look at very different colour combinations. We ‘ll have sometimes eight different versions of an album cover that each version might be very different. Or maybe the same concept in just four different colour schemes. You never know, but I think we got to this mainly because we were thinking about colours that we didn’t use recently. So, up on my wall I ‘ve got some pictures of “What Happens Next” (2018) which is all white and mirrors and chrome. I was on the cover, I had glasses, leather jacket with the chrome guitar. The next album, I was in the dark with the time-lapse photography with the light swirling around me for “Shapeshifting” (2020). So this time around we were thinking: “Let’s go with a different colour that would be simpler”, because I’m not on the cover anymore. So, we needed to have something that is truly bold and we were also having a discussion that on Mars, although people call it “the Red Planet”, now that we see these photographs and movies coming back from NASA, we are actually seeing that is orange. It’s more of an orange planet than it is red. So, that got us into this and we thought that it looked great with that Mars landscape colour. So, purple became the obvious thing, but I have to credit Todd Gallopo for putting together a package where we can use pure colours. This also makes the album package really print very well, when you can use simple colours that can be used directly to manufacture the product rather than having a complicated mix of colours to come up with one colour. When you do that you run the risk of having the printing turn out different all the time, because it’s very hard to get all those colours to work out. So, by using just these three colours we actually got a more pure looking piece of artwork.


“The Elephants of Mars” is your first album released by earMUSIC. Is this a new era for Joe Satriani?

Oh, it definitely is and I’m really happy to be working with everybody at earMUSIC. It’s been a great kick-off association. I ‘ve known them for a long time. I’ve known Max Vaccaro over 10 years, since he picked up the Chickenfoot catalogue, outside of the US and we ‘ve always seen eye to eye on the kind of music we like and what kind of albums we really enjoy. So, this is great that we finally got to work together and having this: “The Elephants of Mars” as the first album, is really great.


How challenging is it for you to come up with titles for instrumental pieces?

Oh, it’s not challenging at all. The titles almost always come first and if they don’t come first, they come almost a couple of seconds later, once I realise what it is what I’m writing about. Sometimes the titles are longer, because I’m trying to create a title that keeps me focused on the original inspiration of the song until I get it totally finished and then I can look at the title and say: “Well, eight words. That’s maybe too long”, so I’ll try to trim it down, so it’s a little bit more memorable to the fans. A song like “Faceless” would be like that. I might have written down “Faceless Isolation Feeling Alone”, that kind of thing that really doesn’t work as a title, but it’s a great way to keep me on track when I’m writing and then I can look at the title later and edit it down, just the way you ‘d edit a song, let’s say, if you think it maybe goes on a few seconds too longer or something like that. You slowly work on the editing process. Or like a story. You know what it is like as a journalist, you have to edit down to make everything just right.


How much has your perspective on guitar changed over the years?

Oh, a lot! I think I learn something every week about my playing and what I am capable of doing. I’m still really working hard to overcome things that don’t come naturally to me and in that process I discover other talents that I might have not realised or fully implemented into my playing. So, that together with the fact that every day it seems like I’m made aware of other players that are doing amazing things with the guitar, that always gives me encouragement that the harder you work, the more rewards you get. So, it’s important just to keep practicing no matter how long you ‘ve been playing.


How important was the contribution of Glyn Johns (legendary producer, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones engineer) on “Joe Satriani” album in 1995?

It’s really funny that I went on working with both brothers. Andy Johns (ed: died in 2013) produced “The Extremist” (1992) album and the first Chickenfoot album (2009) and Glyn Johns produced the 1995 album, my eponymous release (“Joe Satriani”). Two giants in the engineering and music world, responsible for making some of the greatest albums ever, but they are so different from each other. They are so completely different. Glyn is the older brother and I would say that he is less crazy but equally talented in a very broad way as a producer as well as a brilliant engineer. Andy Johns was the younger brother and he was like a rock star and lived the life and had that kind of flair and style; equally talented as an engineer, as his brother, Glyn, but with a completely different style. Although they didn’t get along very well, professionally they really admired each other completely.


Would you like to share with us the story behind the recording of “Woodstock Jam” from “Time Machine” (1993) album?

(Laughs) Again, you surprise me, you are the first person to ever ask me that. It’s crazy. That was the beginning of three attempts to record “The Extremist” album, so it started at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York and I was with Simon Phillips  (ed: Toto, Jeff Beck, The Who –drums), Phil Ashley (keyboards) and Doug Wimbish (ed: Mick Jagger, Madonna, Billy Idol –bass). John Cuniberti was engineering and we would rehearse in this barn that was on the property before we go over to the studio itself. Sometimes we were working all day and then we ‘d go out to dinner and drink a lot of wine and have a really good time and then we ‘d come back to the barn and we would play some crazy music, just to relax. One evening, we got into the preparation of a song that I’ve written that had this one really crazy riff and I was hoping that we would approach it like the way Miles Davis had approached the “Bitches Brew” (1970) and “On the Corner” (1972) albums, which really involves people freely improvising and using just one theme as the catalyst. So, we decided to start playing that particular song and John Cuniberti had us all miked up in the barn, so he recorded us in stereo through his Neve preamps directly to DAT.

So, we just kept playing, we didn’t know that we were recording and everybody was just working their parts trying to figure out how we can make this song work, but when it was all over, I think we were all happily exhausted and spent. We didn’t really know what we had played until the next day over breakfast when John Cuniberti said: “Hey, you have to listen to what you played last night”. Of course, it was completely uncommercial, something like you would never want the public to hear, but as I got things together for that particular album, the “Time Machine” compilation, I thought: “I am gonna do the completely unexpected”, which is to show the fans behind the curtain, behind the scenes what can happen when musicians are really digging deep and trying to work something out, because I thought it had a beautiful spirit to it. You ‘d never hear when people are working on a song that might have the potential to be on the radio or something. This had no pretense to it whatsoever. There was nothing commercial about it, so it had its own beauty and the fact that it was a completely live recording, I thought it sounded gorgeous. So, yeah, that’s why I put it on the record. I mean, very few people that I know actually sit through it (laughs). I find it incredibly beautiful, though.


How emotional was it for you to write your autobiography “Strange Beautiful Music” (2014)?

That was really hard. I got into it thinking that I wasn’t actually going to write it. So, I gave a number of really long interviews about the subject and I really thought that was it; that my biographer was actually going to put that book together with the publisher. But then, when I got the first edit, I was horrified because I thought it didn’t make any sense whatsoever. I just didn’t see the point, so I changed the way I thought the book should go, which is I had to really go in and rewrite every chapter myself, drawing from the interviews that were done and then following the outline that my biographer at first brought to me. He agreed with me that I was too young to really do an autobiography and this wasn’t going to be about one story, one event, so let’s make it about a short autobiography that then it goes wide into talking about each album in detail, behind the scenes, blending interviews of the people who were there, who were working on the album and then also a technical component, where you show the fans and you tell ‘em exactly every guitar, pedal, amp, studio and who was working on it. But, I was exhausted by the end of it -to tell you the truth- because sometimes self-examination is painful because you have to relive so many memories. I ‘ve made a point as an artist: “Always move forward” and when I’m finished with an album, I have to leave it, give it to the fans, then walk away and then start work on some new stuff, just the way I believe any artist has to live, otherwise they are trapped by their own past work. But when you go to write an autobiography you have to actually go back and remember every detail, all those things you didn’t want to remember, you have to remember them and come face to face with and it was difficult.


Was it an interesting experience to tour with Mick Jagger in 1988?

Fantastic! Always great! He was so much fun, he is a great musician, people don’t know that. He ‘s a really good guitarist, you can sit around and play guitar with him all day. He was always very relaxed when he was hanging out with the band. I think that was when he had the most fun. He wasn’t really the kind of guy that liked to rehearse over and over again. He ‘d like to do a song once or twice and then play other music and then go out and have some dinner and just have fun. But he also had a way of making sure that everybody understood they had an important job to do which is to make to best show for the fans. My experience playing with him on stage was really amazing. He is probably the most dedicated performer I ‘ve ever worked with. He just loves performing, he loves the idea of a show, he loves his audience and he always gives every ounce that he has to everybody in the audience on every show. It’s really amazing. He was great, he was a good bandleader and he treated everybody really well. Somebody like Mick, wherever he goes, people are all over him. I learned a lot of great lessons about how to be a good rock star, I guess. I don’t want to say I am, he is a rock star, you know, but you can do it the right way and he does it the right way; let’s put it that way.


What is the secret of your longtime friendship and collaboration with Steve Vai?

What’s the secret of it? (laughs) I don’t think there is a secret. Steve and I, we ‘ve known each other since he were kids. I started giving Steve guitar lessons when he was 12 years old, we went to the same high school, so we ‘ve known each other a very long time. We are the best of friends, we ‘ve played on stage together -I don’t know- maybe more than any other guitar players and we ‘ve been on tour so many times and we made lots of live albums. We hope to tour perhaps at some time in 2023 together. We are trying to do a reunion of the original G3 concert with Steve, Eric Johnson and myself. So, hopefully that will happen.


Is it a bit surreal to be accused by Ritchie Blackmore for playing the correct notes?

I’ve no idea what that is. I think Ritchie Blackmore is a really great musician, but I’ve never met him, so maybe when I meet him he will tell me what he thinks (laughs).


Are you optimistic about the future of instrumental music?

Yeah, it’s never been in danger. I think people need instrumental music because after a while they get tired of people screaming at them (laughs). They want to make up their own words.


A huge “THANK YOU” to Mr. Joe Satriani for his time. I should also thank Leonhard Janssen for his valuable help.

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