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Joe Satriani on His New Solo Album and Hanging Out With Mick Jagger

Ethan Miller, Getty Images

When we met up with Joe Satriani backstage before a show last month, he was reviewing the latest manuscript edits for his upcoming memoir. Appropriately, his guitar rides shotgun on the couch.

Satriani’s eyes light up at a random mention of former Eagles guitarist Don Felder, and he says that he’s spent the past couple of months revisiting the catalog of the legendary California band and, in particular, he’s been examining Felder’s work on those records. The conversation reveals that, at the center of everything, Satriani is still a music fan like the rest of us, searching through albums, songs and liner notes to uncover the stories.

It’s impressive that he can find the time, because as he points out, the past few years have been busy, with plenty of onstage activity, thanks to a series of solo jaunts, Chickenfoot tours and guest appearances at other artists’ shows. Factor in additional plans for the new book plus a career-summarizing box set, and it’s safe to say that there haven’t been a lot of idle moments in Satriani’s life lately.

Maybe that’s why the title of his new album, ‘Unstoppable Momentum,’ feels so appropriate. At a time when many artists find their careers stagnating, Satriani continues to move forward at a relentless pace. Even as he tours in support of his latest LP, he’s already looking down the road toward his next few moves, including a new album with Chickenfoot.

Twenty-one years after the release of ‘The Extremist,’ an album that brought Satriani’s music to many new fans, the guitarist’s most recent work sounds no less vital. He continues to release albums that are remarkably consistent. Working with a rotating cast of musicians, it seems that Satriani is continually creating new adventures with every step he takes. ‘Unstoppable Momentum’ is just the latest proof that there are still many journeys to come.

Closing in on his sixth decade, Satriani plays with an energy that’s hard to believe, with every note perfectly in place. But he’s still not satisfied. He continually works to get better and move past the flaws that are evident only to him. As a teacher, he continues to recognize that there’s still much for him to learn. During our talk with Satriani, he chats about the new album, plans for Chickenfoot and what it was like to be in a band with Mick Jagger.

Let’s talk about this new album. You had Vinnie Colaiuta (Sting) and Chris Chaney (Jane’s Addiction) in the mix this time as part of the band lineup. How much do players like that influence whatever masterplan you might have in place for the record that you’re conspiring to make?

I like that you say masterplan. It lends an air of authenticity to the whole thing! You know, you just go in swinging for the stars — that’s the way you do it. I take a big gamble when I put together a band — I don’t know if they’re going to be compatible [and] if sparks are going to fly. Are they going to inspire each other? But I think like a matchmaker, and I kind of see the environment and not only the people, but where we’re going to do it, and I’m hoping it’s all going to be very inspiring for all of us. So this time around, with probably the fact that I had done three G3 [tours], a couple of Chickenfoot tours, some Montrose tribute concerts, all in the space of maybe 12 months and writing in between, I thought like “Wow, I’ve played with all of these different players and had these different experiences — I want to keep that vibe going. I want to do something new and different.”

Once I started getting over the thought that I wasn’t going to have my usual guys with me, that kind of freed me up to write a little bit differently. And then I just made some calls. The first one [was] to Vinnie, because we had played together once a few years ago and said, “We should do something together in the future.” But we were always so busy doing something else. So I shot him an e-mail, and I was really lucky that he had just come to a break with Sting and he was open. All I needed was 10 days, so he put us down for those 10 days in the second week of January. Once I had Vinnie, I thought, “OK, this is going to be extremely different. It’s going to be great.” I started thinking [about] who else would be very different, and Chris Chaney’s name came up and I thought, “This would be great to get another rocker in here who likes to play with sound as well as [someone who] can read.” I know he can hang with the best of drummers, so that was a really cool thing that he was also available on a break from doing movie soundtracks and Jane’s Addiction.

And then of course I wanted to bring Mike [Keneally] back, because I just think that he’s one of those keyboard players that really understands guitar and guitarists, because he’s a virtuoso [guitar] player himself with those strings and it did work out — he gets me. He knows what I’m trying to do, even before I know what I’m trying to do, he’s kind of figured it out.

On the drummer tip, your choice of Vinnie for this album reminded me a lot of when you grabbed Manu Katche from Peter Gabriel’s band for your self-titled album. In both cases, I couldn’t wait to hear what was going to come out as a result of the choice.

Very different — very, very different, yeah.

Do you tend to write with folks in mind to play the parts as the songs start to take shape, or is that something that comes along later?

Well, I would say sometimes I do. Besides ‘Unstoppable Momentum,’ there was a string of maybe three records there where I was specifically thinking about writing for the band, and mainly it was about [drummer] Jeff [Campitelli], I think. I was thinking about how Jeff was getting better and better at his particular Campitelli world, and I wanted to make sure that I wrote things that would allow him to do that. So like on [2010's 'Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards'], we had stuff like ‘Two Sides to Every Story,’ ‘Littleworth Lane’ — things that he’s really beautiful at. He just does one-take flawless performances, because the groove and the sound of his cymbals and everything, I mean, that’s so much a part of what he can lay down. But other times, as I explained before, I go in thinking [that] I just want to get whacked in the head with something totally different and I want to get caught reacting.

So [that was the case with] the eponymous release with Manu Katche, and I did the same thing when I hired the Bissonette brothers back in ‘92 to do ‘The Extremist’ album, and [at] the start of that album, I actually had Simon Phillips playing, and he wound up on a couple of tracks on the record as well. So I’ve had a long list of drummers and bass players coming and going who were remarkably different from each other.

I read an interview with you about this album, and I liked your statement that “when you write down “Mike Keneally, Chris Chaney and Vinnie Colaiuta,” you don’t really know if this is going to work. But you just have to trust a feeling that everybody is going to play off of one another, and it’s going to click. That helps to make sense out of the way you rotate certain players in and out from album to album. It would seem to add the necessary elements of adventure and unknown to keep the process of making albums interesting for you.

Yes, yeah. I think it has to make me feel a little nervous, but that wonderful feeling of anticipation of getting to the studio every morning and wondering, like in this case, “Well, how is Vinnie going to interpret this thing?” Because he wouldn’t hear it until about 11:30 in the morning, we’d be sitting around nibbling on something, drinking some coffee and I’d say, “OK guys, this is the song we’re doing today,” and they’d all put on their earbuds and they’d be listening to an MP3 of one of my home demos. And I’d see them all go to their corners and they’d be fiddling with their gear and coming up with ideas based on what they’re thinking without consulting me or anybody. And then Mike Fraser would say, “OK guys, do you want to try something? Let’s do it!” I was always knocked out by the choices that they made and they of course were reacting to each other. So after six or seven or eight takes, we’d have some amazing performances and amazingly different takes on the same song. I would just sit there and Mike would be recording me reacting to all of it, so it was fun.

You wrote 60 songs for this album, which is a pretty hefty amount of material. Is that typical for you and how do you go about whittling that down?

It’s typical for me to be prolific that way. They’re not all good! I wish they were. But I don’t discriminate when I’m writing, in terms of style or things like that. I’ve learned that you’re so lucky if you get an idea, you might as well just chase it down [and] finish it. When you’re writing it, you may not know that there’s a place for it, but a year and a half later, you might go, “Oh, now I’m doing a country album and that song, it’s a good idea that I wrote it that way.” As I said about 2012, I did a lot of tours with different people, and I’d be home for two or three weeks and I’d write a lot of music and then I’d go off on tour [and] I’d come back a changed person with some different ideas, and I’d write some other music. So the process of editing out of that [collection of] 60 [songs], a lot of it was based on style.

There might be things that were really vocal-oriented, and I’d say, “Oh, that’s a Chickenfoot song — I’m going to save that for Sammy [Hagar]” and then other songs I’d think, “Well, that’s not quite done yet, is it?” or “That’s a terrible idea!” So I’d have the piles — the question mark pile, the Chickenfoot pile, the pile of “that’s a good idea but it may not be finished” and then “these songs are great — let’s work on them.” From there, I start to think [about] what songs relate to each other because of their similarities or maybe their differences. You know, maybe there’s a way to get ‘Lies & Truths’ and ‘I’ll Put a Stone on Your Cairn’ together on one record, there’s something [linking the two]. So I’m looking for the things that connect them — maybe they can be a call-and-response kind of a situation on the album. I still think in the antiquated album mentality, because I’m a live performer who tours around the world. So releasing singles and stuff like that means nothing to me — it doesn’t help me and my audience at all. What makes sense is the big canvas — 10 songs and then you go out on tour and you’ve got this new message to add to the experience of the catalog. To me, I think the fans who come to the shows really love that.

Yeah, I would say so. And you’re always one of those guys who plays a lot of material from the new album in your live set. I looked at the set list, and it looks like you’ve got about eight songs from the new album in there. It has to be both interesting and fun for you, working to integrate that material in there with the rest of the songs that perhaps you have to play.

I love having it there. And the thing I talked about, the call-and-response and the songs having a relation to each other, you know, having ‘I’ll Put a Stone on Your Cairn’ on the set list really gives us license to go in another direction. So I’m looking for that as well. I still feel like when I’m out there and I’m playing ‘Summer Song’ or ‘Satch Boogie,’ that I’m still working on it. I still feel like “I know I can do this better.” So I love playing it and I love to experience the response that it gets from the audience. These songs really work well in the context of a Joe Satriani show. And then when we put in ‘A Door Into Summer’ or we put in the title track of the new record, it’s remarkable to see how it fits in and how it makes the older songs look. A few weeks ago, we put in ‘Time Machine,’ which I hadn’t played in many years. It really changed the set remarkably, because once we played it live, we went, “Wow, there’s nothing like it in the show!”

Beforehand, it was just another Joe song that we might put in the set. But once we had the experience of playing it live and we felt the response from the audience, we realized that, “Wow, this is a different song!” It’s nothing like ‘Surfing With the Alien,’ it’s not like ‘Flying in a Blue Dream,’ it’s not like ‘Summer Song,’ it’s not like ‘Cryin’ — it’s not like any of the stuff, so it’s nice to have a balance. We can do heavy reflective songs that crush my heart a little bit every time that we play them, and then we have ‘Crowd Chant,’ which is [a] completely uplifting live performance thing.

It’s funny to hear you mention ‘Time Machine,’ because I was going to ask you if there are songs from this new album that cause you to think of and pull out other songs from your catalog. Because ‘Time Machine’ is a song that I think a lot of Satriani fans would consider to be a deep cut in your catalog, and it’s really cool to see that one in your set.

You know, [the] ‘Time Machine’ [album] was obviously a very large record. It was a double album and it only had three tracks that were recorded in the studio with Stu Hamm and Jonathan Mover. It’s the only time that we were ever in the studio together as a trio. We were mainly just a live act, and it didn’t last very long. So there’s a funny little extra buzz about that and it was the pre-Pro-Tools days, and those sessions I was playing a ‘58 Fender Esquire. There were a lot of things about it that were very odd, but we all decided to try to do something different. I think all three of us just showed up and said, “Let’s just play like we’ve never played before” on the last two tours. So that added also to the effect of the song having its peculiar sonic signature. I could go on and on about where we recorded it, the gear or the fact that I wrote it up in the Sierra Mountains on a keyboard actually, way up above Lake Tahoe. There were a lot of things that made that song very important to me and the fact that it was in the early ‘90s. Having it in the set, like we said before, it does this reflection thing on the other songs and I think it brings out some more serious elements of the newer material. I’m not sure how it does it — it’s some sort of weird song voodoo, you know?

Oh, yeah. Hearing ‘Three Sheets to the Wind,’ there are elements of that song that suggest that you could have one heck of a career scoring films and things like that, if you wanted to.

[Laughs] Yeah.

That’s one thing that a lot of folks might not hear on the surface right away, is how much work you put into the orchestration and construction of a song. It’s really interesting to uncover the layers of that stuff.

Yeah, yeah. That song started out so innocently as more of a vintage-guitar kind of a vibe, and I quickly thought, “Oh, you know, Eric Johnson and Stevie Ray Vaughan, they’ve done this a million times, and they’re masters at it.” I don’t want to be taking such a strong melody and just watering it down trying to copy some holy ground. So I started to think that maybe if I played it on another instrument, it would change my view of it. So once I started playing on keyboards, I thought, “Wow, you know if I wasn’t a solo artist, and I was in a band, and we were trying to be different … ” And the thought in my mind came up to the Beatles during the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ era — we would freely associate, almost with a total sense of humor, about what kind of instrumentation to use, just to get a rise out of people.

So I thought, “Well, what shouldn’t Joe Satriani have on his album?” And I thought, “Horn section — yes!” and honky-tonk piano, and the more I got into it, the funnier it got for me, and I just thought, “This is so powerful when I’m not playing it, when it’s just the horns.” I remember the first time I did the orchestration, I sat back and I listened to it and I thought, “Wow!” It’s like, the guitar doesn’t come close. It’s always going to be the guitar and the personality of the players in your face, but when that same melody is coming at you from horns, it kind of takes away the stigma of the lead guitar player and I love that.

I thought, “Wow, if I can fit this in on the record … ” and like most songs, I don’t know if they’re going to work until that day we’re in the studio. And as I told you before, I’m watching Vinnie and Chris and Mike, and they’ve got their earbuds on and they’re listening to the song for the first time. I see a couple of looks when we get to the solo section, I remember Vinnie looking at me like, “Whoooa.” But they gravitated toward the outrageous approach to the arrangement, which was great, and they really rocked out in that middle part. I told them it was about a dapper guy going out on the town and having the gift of being so inebriated and lucky that as he was walking through very difficult dangerous situations, he somehow emerges unscathed. He winds up as the sun comes up, with his tux a little bit tattered, but [he’s] on his front steps with a little bit more champagne left. So how else could we do it without just going all of the way with the arrangement?

Were there other things that you really had fun with on this album that you felt like you were going somewhere that was different for you?

We had a bunch of things that I could really depend on. We had my signature amp, my signature guitars — you know, these are the things that give confidence in live performance, which was part of it. I was taking the risk that as we performed in the studio that the stuff that Mike Fraser was recording of me playing would also be useful. Very often, you’re just there to get the drums and then it’s overdub sessions for weeks. But we wanted to keep everything, so that meant [that] everyone had to have a good setup that they were very comfortable with and if there was an audience, they’d feel just as comfortable. I think that in itself was the biggest crystal of excitement that was really thrown into the mix. That’s the way I was looking at it.

Because you know, I’ve done so many albums, and I’d done albums at home and I’ve done albums in other people’s living rooms and I’ve done them in big studios. I’ve done them at Skywalker [Sound], and here we were again [at the] same absolutely outrageous place to record. I mean, [there’s this] huge scoring room and you’re just there in Lucas’ world and it’s a fascinating place to be. But ultimately it came down to me and I’m standing there with my guitar and playing, and Vinnie Colaiuta, Chris Chaney and Mike Keneally are staring at me, so you feel the pressure to deliver the goods. To me, that was pretty all-encompassing. I knew I had the material — I felt very strong about the music [and] I was emotionally attached to the music, which was very important. So I figured even if it doesn’t work out with these guys, I love this music [and] I believe in it and I’m going to make it work. But I didn’t need to — they just brought so much and they surprised me and I let them change my mind about how to go about it with their performances.

You see Skywalker Sound listed in the liner notes and you know that the band or artist didn’t skimp on recording expenses, when you’re reading that as the listener.

Well, let me say this, though. Skywalker Sound is not as expensive as you may think. Like, 20 years ago, no one would think of going there, right? Because it would be like, “Oh my God, it’s going to cost an arm and a leg.” But now there are very few studios operating and of the ones that are, I don’t know if you’d ever want to go there. And then you’ve got Skywalker, which has been maintained beautifully and it has a fantastically talented staff. It’s a beautiful place just to be, even if you just want to go somewhere and hang out. It’s its own little village in the middle of Northern California, and it’s so beautiful just to be there. But it’s very inspiring. You go there and there’s nothing to do but your work. There are no distractions, and you feel the weight of everybody else doing really good work around you. You know, the blockbuster movies are being mixed right across the hall, and two or three times a week, there’s George [Lucas] walking through the rooms going, “Hey, hi.” It’s a pretty remarkable environment. But it is affordable. I’d like to let people know that, and I’d like to see more people go there. I think it would boost their output, rather than struggling with some of the studios that are left dangling right now.

We talked a little bit before this interview about the book that you’ve been working on. What has that been like for you to take a bit of a forced look at each piece of your catalog like that?

Well, it’s been doubly painful, because prior to the book getting started, where I thought it was really going to happen, John Cuniberti, my friend and co-producer for many years, got the job of remastering my entire catalog. So we had started down this path of not only remastering the entire catalog, but also bringing alternate takes and unreleased things that we still had laying around for this box set that Epic / Sony wanted to release. And it was going to be released last year, but then the book came about and Sony said, “Oh, this will be great, because the two should come together,” and we thought that’s really good, because we’d love to have a little bit more time anyway, because I was touring the entire time. I’d come back for a few weeks, and John would have another album done. So now we’ve had more time to work on this unusual package that the box set will come in. [As far as the process,] which was bad enough as you said, the close examination of the catalog just reminds you of how many records you’ve abandoned, due to schedule and budget. But here’s the best piece of advice I ever got and it came from John Cuniberti — he sent it to me one day while I was agonizing over one of the records. It was an Andy Warhol quote, and he said, “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”

I stuck it on my phone, and every once in a while I’ll bring it up and I’ll look at it, and I go, “That’s it,” and I’ll just keep moving forward. It echoed sentiments that I’d gotten from other very smart producers to not be judgmental — it’s not my job. But the book is another story, you know, when you walked in I was agonizing over a paragraph about when I was 10 years old or something. And then I start to remember, and it’s like, “Oh my God, that’s right, I was that person.” It’s either a terrible thing or everybody should do it — I’m not quite sure.

From reading over your book, is there an album that sticks out to you as the most colorful period of your career, as far as one that you can’t believe it came together and actually happened?

Well, it would have to be [1987's 'Surfing With the Alien']. It was probably the most cathartic and there was the most riding on it. I think the oddest thing that I get from it is that it was completely my own perception of reality that made it such a cathartic record. Now that I step back, if I had been like a wizard I would have said, “Well, there’s going to be trouble there, but then there’s going to be all of this great stuff for the next 40 years!” Of course, I didn’t know it back then, because we were so over-budget and nobody believed in the record except for one guy at the record company, Cliff Cultreri. Money was tight and it was just like everything was working against us.

The record came out the day that the stock market crashed in October of ‘87 and it was just like everything was bad. And then all of the sudden in less than three weeks, hey, things are getting really good. I’ll never forget that phone call from the president of Relativity [Records] who said, “You know, you’re going to have to go out on tour.” I had already been prepared to leave town and hide from society. I thought they were going to drop me from the label, and my recording career was over. I thought, “They’ll never let me make another record like this again, so what’s the point?” And instead he said, “No, your record has entered the charts — it’s got a bullet on it — we’re getting all of these stations playing it. You have to go on the road.” And I told him, “You realize I’ve never done this before … ” I’d never stood onstage, played instrumental music and then tried to be the star of the show. I had no idea how to do it. I’d always been the guitar player in rock bands where we sang every song.

Boy, the next couple of weeks was so intense. The first tour, getting the gig with Mick Jagger [and] going on that crazy tour and then returning to the U.S. with a hit record that was going platinum and then getting on TV, it was just insane. So the making of the record and the becoming of the record in the public’s eye — that was unbelievable. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing that happens.

I remember reading about the money struggles in that period, and you get the Jagger gig, which helps out a lot, without question. But that had to be really intimidating to step into that gig.

It was. Although, I grew up listening to the [Rolling] Stones, and I knew every Stones song. That period, I didn’t. All of a sudden I get this call out of the blue and my tour wasn’t going very well. It was really rough — two shows a night [in] small clubs, we were losing money and it was just insane. Then I get this improbable call and I get the gig, and I realize that I haven’t thought about playing these songs in ages. Luckily, there was another guitar player in the band whose position was to be Keith Richards, basically. He had all of the open tunings, he dressed like Keith and he did the whole thing. I could be all of the lead guitar players that had come and gone through the Stones’ and Mick’s career.

So it took a little bit of pressure [off], and Mick said to me, “Oh, just play however you want to play — that’s fine. Don’t worry about that — just be yourself.” He was a great, unbelievable career booster and gave me carte blanche to use anybody on the staff to help promote the album anywhere we were in the world and it was really fantastic, and he gave me a solo spot in the show as well.

What was the most important thing you walked away with from that experience?

Oh, just that Mick was all that and more. You never know when you meet a star, if you’re going to be extremely disappointed — if they’re going to be horrible or you realize that it’s not them, it’s the guy standing next to them that did all of the work. But Mick turned out to be a really good musician and a really funny guy to hang out with. He was interesting and generous and man when he hit the stage. I’d never performed with anybody like that before. He just gave everything he had every single night. During a show, he’d still be talking to you about how we can make the show better — let’s do this, let’s try that. He really liked performing, and he had a crazy bunch of guys in the band to handle as well. But I think he held us together. The whole experience was great, and he remains a good friend, which is really cool.

Obviously, there’s been talk of a new Chickenfoot album around the corner. What’s the plan there?

[I’m going] to get together with [Hagar] around Thanksgiving and knock around some ideas, and then pull the guys together in January. That’s the plan — I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but that’s what I’m working toward.

Next: Joe Satriani's 'Surfing With the Alien' Released

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