In 1988, we were introduced to Joe Satriani with the summer surf instrumental of the year “Always With Me, Always With You”. Satriani, a accomplished San Francisco guitar teacher had worked with a steady stream of students including Steve Vai, Kirk Hammit and Counting Crows Dave Bryson.
That year he also went on tour with Mick Jagger playing lead in Jagger’s band at that time of separation from The Rolling Stones.
Everything changed for Joe after that. A hit album in ‘Surfing With The Alien’ and the high profile job in Jagger’s band meant he never had to return to teaching again.
Joe Satriani spoke with Paul Cashmere
Paul Cashmere: Joe, I’ve lost count of the number of Joe Satriani albums there have been over the years and I bet you have too.
Joe Satriani: Yes I have too but someone was breaking it up into categories the other day. The Japanese were telling me it was my 10th studio but 13th actual release. I started thinking I don’t know if they are counting the DVDs. You know, we put out the Live In San Francisco and the G3 DVD and there is an EP called Dreaming #11, so I’m confused. All I know, this is the one that is freshest in my mind because I just did it.
PC: And freshest in my mind as well, so that will make this interview easy for both of us. One of the things that you have developed over the years is your own distinct sound.
JS: Oh that’s good to hear, thankyou. I often think I am the one person in the world that can’t tell what that sound is because for me it is a cathartic experience going from a feeling that you have and bringing it out and turning it into a sound. It is chords and rhythm and melody and then adjusting your guitar around your fingers to get the sound out. By the time it comes out it has been an intense experience. I can’t really look at it very analytically. I wish I could because then I would probably be able to do it more regularly. Instead I am like most artists where we are not really totally in control of it. From the inside it is very chaotic and like although I know the people on the receiving end often say it looks effortless, like I have it totally worked out and under control but it is really not that way at all.
PC: If I go back to Surfing With The Alien (1987) and play it back to back with Strange Beautiful Music (2002) there is that Satriani stamp the whole way through.
JS: That’s great. I am glad you would notice that. The two albums have a couple of similarities in that they were both created in the spirit where melody was very big in my mind at the time. I wasn’t thinking of, let’s say, creating the largest synth sound or the wackiest arrangements. All I kept thinking of is that every song has got to have a super melody. Even the guitar solos have to be melodic. I just wanted everything to be melodic. That was what was in my mind when I was doing ‘Surfing’ and it sort of resurfaced again as a desire when I started working on this record. The instrumentation is a little different and there are quite a few years between the records but I would agree with you. There are some really close similarities in how the records just fly out.
PC: There’s a real surf sound as well to ‘Strange Beautiful Music’.
JS: Well, I’ve got Jeff Campetelli on drums who was the main drummer on ‘Surfing’ and John Cuniberti engineering and co-producing who was also the guy behind the controls for the first three or four records almost entirely. He’s been involved on every record I have done to some degree but on those ones he did all the work. I brought him back to do just about all the technical work on this one as well.
PC: You talked before about working for that melody. Is it difficult as a songwriter who doesn’t work with lyrics to come up with a melody?
JS: It is a bit harder. If you want that melody to be as strong as some of the best vocal melodies that you hear then you really have taken on a really difficult task. For instance, about two years ago Sony had talked to me about writing some music for video games and the guy came over and I had a bunch of music I was having fun with. It was this really intense kind of stuff. He said “okay that is really okay but we have to get rid of this and rid of that”. By the time he finished getting rid of all the cool stuff it didn’t sound like it was interesting at all. I said “there’s no melody, there’s no nothing”. He said “Yeah, you can’t burn gamers out with real music. You have to strip it down to the level where you would never listen to it if there wasn’t a video game you were playing”. It struck me how certain kinds of instrumental music actually thrive on the absence of melody. Sometimes it is just the ambient quality that is more important. Music has a context, you know. If you are driving in your car you want a certain kind of music. If you are driving for 8 hours you want a different kind you music than if you are driving for just 10 minutes. I would tend to think music while you are making love is going to be a different choice to the music you choose when you are barbequing something in the backyard. I think in the same way ‘Strange Beautiful Music’ is a Joe Satriani record but I insisted in putting these elements in as if it were a record with vocals. In other words, it comes off as a rock record. It comes off as if there is a band playing and you hear these melodies that demand to be heard and brought into your heart. That is the distinction behind it.
PC: One of the things I have noticed that is particularly absent from the Joe Satriani career is you working in film. I would have thought that someone like you would be quite sort after for the movie industry.
JS: You know we actually signed with an agency back in ’88 or 1990. The process of signing on to do films is not like “he’s on tour and he’ll do this film when he gets to it”. You kind of have to move to L.A. and really devote your life to being the film guy for a while. The competition is pretty stiff and there are people who know the ropes down there. For the three years I was signed to that company they never really brought me anything, but we were approached by other filmmakers. Cameron Crowe had called me directly to write a song for a movie called ‘Say Anything’. I wrote it and recorded it in a week and a half and it was on the movie. We had better luck just doing what we do, which is act like a rock and roll band, go around the world and let people come to you than to try and really be serious. To tell you the truth I really love music and film. I am not sure I want to slow down my other career though to where that’s what I’d do full-time. I know quite a few people who do it full time like Stewart Copeland. It is something you do when you’ve got to stay at home. You can’t be saying “I’ve got to go on tour for 6 weeks. I’ll finish it when I get back”.
PC: I know you have always been a big fan of Jimi Hendrix and he is one of the people who inspired you to become who you have become. The track ‘Chords of Life’ on ‘Strange Beautiful Music’ sounds like a bit of a nod to Jimi.
JS: Really, you think so? That is really interesting. That song sort of brings back all sorts of artists. I am just an absolute Jimi Hendrix nut. He was just the reason I started playing guitar and I can’t help but let that influence come out in my music. It is totally uncontrollable.
PC: It doesn’t sound like anything Jimi has done, it sounds more like Hendrix is being channelled through you or something.
JS: That’s great, I love that. You know, when that was being written I was just sitting down in my bedroom playing guitar and I noticed how I was playing these chords that any student guitar player would learn how to play. I was just getting in to playing them because they were so simple. I was thinking this reminds me of being 14 years old, sitting on my bed and trying to learn how to play chords. You get to a particular pattern and you play for hours and hours and you think it is the greatest song in the world, you know. That experience and that feeling coming over me got me to turning that into a song. When I brought it into the studio it was a bit of a challenge because it is an electric song that has harps in it, for crying out loud. Then when the chorus comes, it is just acoustic guitars. It was an interesting song to work on from a technical point. But when I wrote it, it was just like being 14 years old and playing guitar.
PC: Are you still teaching guitar?
JS: No, I really don’t have time for that right now.
PC: Who was your last most famous student?
JS: It was Kirk Hammett from Metallica in January of 1988. He was the last lesson I gave.
PC: How much did you charge him?
JS: Probably $25. I should have charged $100.
PC: That was a bloody good investment on Kirk’s behalf. You mentioned before you are off to see the Stones. You were the lead guitarist in Mick Jagger’s solo band tour of the late 80’s. What was your favourite Stones song to perform?
JS: I think “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” was a great one. Boy, there was hardly a song that wasn’t fun to play. There was hardly a Stones song that wasn’t part of that show as you may remember and they were all great. It’s pretty intense when you look at the list and you go “oh my god, they wrote all those great, great songs”. We used to joke in the band that the songs played themselves. You don’t really have to play very much. The audience goes crazy. You even feel the song taking over. You play ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, that was a great one to play live. ‘Satisfaction’ was great. ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ was great to play live.
PC: I would imagine telling Mick Jagger that the songs play themselves wouldn’t be a great idea on pay day.
JS: (laughs) I’m sure he has heard it all before. I think he knew that in a way. He has got the greatest vibe in the world. He was so much fun not only on stage but off stage. He was just a great guy to work with. He was full of energy and ideas. No wonder he keeps going. It is a wonder.
PC: It’s been a while since you have been down here Joe.
JS: Yeah, we haven’t done a proper tour since 1990. We came over there and did a couple of cities in ’96, but it hasn’t worked out where we can come down and do it the right way. We generally stay away until we get all of our ducks lined up, you know. One way or another, we have a Plan A and a Plan B. Plan A is to come there and tour and tour with the band. Play B is I will come alone and maybe do an extensive clinic tour just so I can represent the new record and at least shake hands with Australians again and get the process rolling again so we can come back with a full band.
Joe Satriani’s latest album Strange Beautiful Music is out now through Sony Music.
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