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Joe Satriani On His New Book, Box Set + A Lifetime Of ‘Strange Beautiful Music’

Photo credit: Chapman Baehler

During a conversation last year with Joe Satriani, he talked about the “big gamble” that he takes when he puts together a band for an album that he’s working on.

“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.”

As you look back at Satriani’s career to date, a lot of those gambles, whether they were musical or otherwise, have certainly paid off. His new box set ‘Joe Satriani: The Complete Studio Recordings’ offers ample proof of his success.

Satriani’s journey towards his future guitar hero status began with his 1986 album ‘Not Of This Earth,’ which he funded using a pre-approved credit card with a $5000 limit, a method, he told us, that he doesn’t recommend to others. A year later, his album ‘Surfing With The Alien’ was released. Although it’s now regarded as a classic, Satriani was still scraping to make ends meet during the tour to support the album when divine musical intervention came in the form of an invitation to play guitar for Mick Jagger.

Flash forward to the release of last year’s ‘Unstoppable Momentum,’ the 14th studio album from the virtuoso guitarist. The title is an appropriate one to describe the hailstorm of activity which has carried Satriani from that first album to where he is today. There’s no end in sight, but he’s stopping down at least for a moment to take stock of everything that has happened so far with both the box set and a new book, ‘Strange Beautiful Music.’

Although not an autobiography in the traditional way, ‘Strange Beautiful Music’ is instead a “musical memoir” that goes album-by-album to reveal the story behind his career. Satriani shares specifics that will satisfy those who have long wondered how he achieved certain sounds and effects on songs and albums. It’s also a frank look at Satriani’s own experiences as a developing player, navigating his way through the music industry at the same time that he was also learning about recording techniques and working to hone his sound and style.

We spoke with Satriani to talk about the new book and also the new box set, which was released on April 22 and made available in several different configurations. In addition to being available digitally and as a physical release, there is also a limited edition “Chrome Dome” USB edition available from his website. Inside his “head” are two USB drives that contain high resolution 24-bit/ 96kHz audio of all of the albums from the box set.

This new “Chrome Dome” USB edition of the box set might be the coolest addition to your catalog.

[Laughs] That is so weird. First of all, I’ve got to tell you. I can’t have that thing in the house. It just kind of creeps me out. I keep thinking I’m going to start hearing voices or something. The process was interesting. We can’t figure out whose idea it was. Because back in New York [talking to the guys at Sony/Legacy], I said “It was your idea, right?” and they’re saying “No, we thought it was your idea!” So that’s sort of been lost in time there — we don’t know whose idea it actually was. But these photographers came and they setup this funny little tent in my living room and photographed me 360 [degrees].

They provided the modeling and then I think it’s a place somewhere outside of the U.S. that did the actual molding for it. All of the prototypes along the way got even creepier and creepier because they started looking exactly like me! But it was a hit in New York. We only have one prototype as of last week, so we used to bring this thing, it was in a bag and it was a person from Legacy who was the keeper of the head. So every time we would go to a TV studio, they’d say “Would you like to see the head?” I started to feel kind of marginalized, like the head was more important than the actual human. I’m beginning to think in the future that all artists will be replaced by chrome heads that have all of the information stored in them. They’ll say the right things and show up on time. [Laughs]

In your book, you talk about your early dreams of being a Jimmy Page-type guitar player in a traditional rock band. To get to where you are now, you had to embrace the idea of being able to have success playing instrumental music, you had to continue to learn about recording techniques and learn how to trust a producer with your vision. That’s a lot to work through.

You know, when you put it in one sentence like that, it sounds very neat and tidy. It sounds like a straight line and a very purposeful way of doing things. But in fact, what the book ‘Strange Beautiful Music’ points out is that my line has been all over the map and in fact a lot of interesting things come out of missteps and tragedy as well as good fortune and crazy good luck. Sometimes they’re happening right alongside each other and the trick as a human being is trying to figure out how to process the good luck and the bad luck at the same time.

As I’ve said before, I think I coined it as my “accidental career” as an instrumentalist and it’s really quite true. Out of frustration of not succeeding in a band, I decided just as an exercise in human development to start a record company and record a record over my band’s Christmas holiday and release it myself, just to see what it would be like to do it. I relate in the book a story where a friend at a band rehearsal brings in a ‘Guitar Player’ and says “Hey, you’re famous!” He’s joking of course and he says “You’re in this magazine!” I had no idea that anyone would review this, you know? I’m reading this very short review and I realize that they don’t know who I really am.

They think I’m Joe Satriani, avant-garde guitar player, who is in his own world doing instrumental records. They don’t know I’m a wanna-be professional guitar player struggling in bands. I thought “Why don’t I just become that guy?” That was one of those forks in the road that you come up against. One of them is dark and scary and it leads into the unknown and the other is a well-worn path that you’re familiar with that maybe just goes in circles. I decided to go into the unknown. Sometimes I think that’s what youth and hard times contribute to your decision-making process. Sometimes you just say, “Oh, f– it. I’m going to try it.” That’s what I did. Because the next record, I recorded [it] on my credit card, which I wouldn’t recommend anyone ever do, ever. But that was out of desperation — that’s what I did.

Vocally, you’ve done a few things over the years — and they’re songs that are highly regarded in your catalog, I think. What has kept you from doing more songs with vocals?

The sound of my voice, I’ve gotta say. [Laughs] That’s the biggest thing. I think when you hear your voice back….maybe some people love the sound of their voice, but I found it very hard to take. Which is why I always sang in character. I mean, if you listen to…

‘Big Bad Moon’….

Yeah, ‘Big Bad Moon,’ ‘Strange,’ ‘I Believe,’ I mean, that’s not really me…that’s me, but it’s me adopting a sort of a character so I can not hear my real speaking voice. That’s how I’ve always done it. I wish I could sing better, because the experience of singing to an audience is really beautiful. It really does get you closer to the audience and I always found that really great. The only problem is that I can’t really sing, so at some point I really had to think about, “Well, why would I put these things on here?” The reason really was to create a more interesting album listening experience — that’s what I was interested in.

I wanted ‘Flying In A Blue Dream’ specifically to be a real crazy musical emotional trip to hear all of that stuff. And I couldn’t play guitar the way I did on let’s say, ‘I Believe,’ which had a lot of tender, emotional, very delicate guitar playing on, there. And I couldn’t do that on a song like ‘Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing.’ [Laughs] So I felt like, “Well, I need to write music that allows me to share this side of my emotional playing. So if that means that I’ve got to create lyrics and sing them, then I’ll do that. That was really the reason to do that. I wasn’t trying to become a famous vocalist. And I think my audience knew that right away — they could either take it as comic relief or they could learn to just relate to the lyrics and the melody.

When I spoke with Sammy [Hagar], he talked about you slowing down your solos and listening to them note by note. That’s about as analytical as it gets. How do you let go?

You know, Sammy’s always doing that. First of all, I have to tell you, Sammy never sticks around. So I think he’s imagining a lot of that stuff. You know, Sam, we all aspire to operate like Sam, because he loves to just blow in like a hurricane and do his part which is always amazing and then he leaves! He leaves and he’s like, “I’ve got to get out of here — I’m going crazy — I’m going to a party” and off he goes.

And then you’re kind of left with, “Wow, Sam’s gone and everybody’s gone” and basically that’s how the band recorded and then I was always left with Andy Johns or Mike Fraser to add the keyboard part, add the harmonica part, the banjo part, the acoustic guitar part — so I did spend a lot of time doing the overdubs, but I wasn’t after perfection. It was just that nobody else was there and the stuff had to be finished. So yeah, he imagines that I was poring over everything, but actually, I let him think that. [Laughs] I would actually just play a couple of things and then move onto the next. I didn’t want to labor over that stuff, because I thought that Chickenfoot should be off the cuff.

I’ve read several of the books that your co-author Jake Brown has done in the past, notably the Heart one that he did with the participation of the Wilson sisters. It’s a really interesting approach, tackling things album by album and it makes for a great read. How much work did it take to sell you on the concept of doing it that way?

The way that it started was that Jake approached me sort of out of the blue and introduced himself. “I’m Jake Brown, I’ve written 30 of these books, I’d love to do one on you and bring to your fans the story of how you create this music and how you work in the studio.” I thought, “Well, maybe,” you know? I wasn’t too crazy about doing the book — I thought that was something I’d do when I was 70 or something.

I started thinking about it and then coincidentally over the next few months, the guys at Legacy/Sony were saying, “Hey, we’d really like to do some kind of a complete studio retrospective box set. Let’s start talking about it.” I started thinking about the two together and eventually I said yes to Jake and we started down that road of an enormous amount of interviews. I mean, he just interviewed me about everything — just hours and hours. I was sort of removed from the process, so I was sort of like getting a free ride here.

I kept thinking, “This guy’s going to write the book and it’s going to be ‘Strange Beautiful Music,’ a musical memoir by Jake Brown and then Joe Satriani in small letters underneath.” But by the time it got to the publishers, they said, “We love this book, but Joe, you’ve got to make it yours. You have to create the language and you have to tell the story in your own voice.” The first thing I said was, “Hey, I don’t know how to do that!” [Laughs] I’m a musician, not a writer — Jake’s the writer. But Jake was like “You can do it — I’ll just give you all of the transcripts.”

So that’s where I really had to move into a new area. I learned quite a lot from Jake and the editors at BenBella, because it was new for me. I had to sift through hundreds and hundreds of pages of interviews with all of the questions removed and I had to sort through it like, “What was I trying to say here?” And the way that I’m speaking to you now, I wouldn’t allow that to be the voice of the book, because my natural speaking pattern dates back to me growing up on Long Island. There’s lots of parenthetical phrases and me saying “uh” and “like” and “so” and I thought, “Oh, you can’t read a book like that. So I thought “Well, I don’t want to change it.”

One of the things that I liked about Sammy’s book was that it really sounded like Sammy Hagar talking to you. And that was [co-author] Joel Selvin not editing the hell out of him — he wanted to make sure that Sammy’s natural voice came through in the book. I had read maybe about 10 rock and roll biographies and what I got out of it was that Keith Richards’ book was just too much information and it didn’t really sound like Keith at all and there was no mention of gear, which is what all of the music nerds really wanted. “What guitar did you use on that solo?” That kind of thing.

Sam’s story was so compelling, but my story was so very different. So I thought, “Well, somewhere in between, I have to create my writing style and voice and I’ve got to figure out a way to include the equipment detail, the recording detail, the writing process, you know, the kind of stuff that wasn’t in Sam’s book [and] it wasn’t in Keith’s book.

I found little pieces in Levon Helm’s book [and] Don Felder’s book. There were some books that I thought were crossing back and forth in that world and I really enjoyed it. But it was a lot of work, I’ve gotta say. I finished it right over this past holiday season and I let out a huge exhale. I thought, “Oh my God, it’s finished.” Me and [producer] John Cuniberti finished the remastering of the catalog, we finished editing the book and I was just about to re-sign with Sony for a multiple record deal. It was really like, “My God, this is really a new chapter in my life.” It was pretty cathartic, I think, once I reached that end.

That’s a lot of events coming together that suggest you’re going to keep being an artist.

Yes, as a matter of fact, I started to rage against everybody saying, “Hey look, I need to go back to writing songs and practicing my guitar!” I was like, “I don’t want to be looking at manuscripts, I don’t want to be reviewing past records — I just want to go back to playing guitar.” An odd thing happened to me, which is while I’d been home for two months doing absolutely nothing but the work on these projects, I suddenly came down with H1N1 — I don’t know where I picked it up — probably shopping at the local market or something like that.

But I came down with swine flu and it just knocked me out. So for the two months that I had sort of laid out for Chickenfoot, which wound up not happening anyway — I wound up mostly horizontal at home going through a major regrouping process. But during that period, I think I wrote about 100 songs. It was a very interesting thing. I was closing the chapters so to speak on all of the work that I had done in 2013 and the sort of forced slowing down by the flu actually was sort of a creative period for me. So now that I’m up and running around again, I’m sifting through all of these little recordings that I made all over the house while I was recuperating. I feel energized by the whole process.

This book is cool, because reading it, it definitely does read in your voice. It’s almost like you and I had interviews with no time limits and we got to talk about everything. As you referenced, what’s great is the amount of technical stuff in this book. Because that’s what folks want to know. They want to know how you achieved some of these weird sounds and you really go deep on a lot of that stuff.

I do, yeah. I’ve always felt that my audience is just like me. That’s what got me to do the G3 thing, because that we were going to look at three guitar players the same way and we were going to love it the same way. I know when I meet fans in all sorts of situations, they confirm that.

Let me tell you a little story — the last thing that I did in New York City was a taping of ‘That Metal Show’ and at the end of the show it was a bit celebratory because it was their last show of this particular season. So it was kind of odd, I was holding onto Yngwie [Malmsteen's] guitar while Yngwie was doing a photo and I just grabbed it and started playing it. I walk over to a bunch of fans and I’m signing autographs and taking pictures. There’s a kid that I’m going to guess he is 16 or 17 years old and he comes up to me and he says, “I’ve just got to tell you, I really love the song called ‘Love Thing’” and this was a song that I’d put out on the ‘Crystal Planet’ record.

I just thought it was so unusual first of all that there was a fan that was so young and that he was so impressed with that one particular song and he had direct technical questions for me right there in the TV studio. He’s asking me “How did you set the wah-wah, what wah-wah was it and how were you able to record the melody and still have that amount of gain on the guitar.”

Those were very important questions, because they really highlighted the problems that we had in the studio in getting the song to work. I actually recorded the song with three different bands, three different studios, three different key signatures, two separate melodies and eventually what wound up on the record was me playing this melody through a 535 Q Dunlop wah-wah pedal at an extremely low volume, which was the only volume that allowed me to phrase the melody with that amount of gain on the guitar, skipping all of the feedback that would come if I had recorded it at normal level.

The rhythm guitars were all acoustic guitars, a 1948 000-21 Martin that had been re-intonated by Buzzy Feiten and plugged into a Zoom. It was just insane what we had to do to get that song to work. But of course it sounds smoother than silk when you listen to the track. You don’t hear any of that work, of course. But he knew that something was going on, because that was the first thing that he asked me. He didn’t ask me about ‘Satch Boogie,’ playing with my teeth, why I shaved my head or any of those silly questions — he went right to a very deep and important song that probably instinctively he knew had to have taken a lot of work.

Well yeah, and I think you probably know that there are players out there that they get home with that pedal to try to reproduce it and they realize that they have it, but it’s not quite there. So they continue to search.

Yeah and the setup and boy, you know, every little thing — the guitar, the pickup selection, the cable, the pedal, the amplifier or the lack of, direct software or whatever. And then the environment where you record it, it’s incredible how complicated it can get. It might be followed up with a song that was recorded with just three guys in the studio turning up loud.

My catalog is filled with examples of how many different ways there are to record and we’ve done it all. [Laughs] We’ve tried everything and I’m sure we want to keep trying it, because we’re always just trying to complete the message of the song that we feel needs to be treated in a very unique way. So I wanted that to be in the book. I thought it was very important that the book really include that as part of its normal way of telling the story behind each album.

It’s hard to imagine that the bonus disc on this set even begins to clear the vaults. Obviously, the ‘Time Machine’ album collected some of the oddities previously. Was there a particular album where you went deep and recorded a lot more material than what made the final release?

Well you know, the process of creating demos is the real deep part. For the early records, we’re talking about stuff on cassettes. Because of economics, I couldn’t try every song. I really did have to think “I’ve got to keep it to just 10 to 12 maximum.” Certainly, the first two records, I literally had to wipe things off the two-inch tape to make room for another idea that I thought would work better. It’s a sad reality, but I could not afford to buy six reels of two-inch recording tape. So I had two for the first record and I had three for ‘Surfing With The Alien.’ That was how I had to do it.

‘Flying In A Blue Dream’ generated a few more ideas, but that record has got 18 tracks on it, so we pretty much put everything on there. I think there’s just one song, a song called ‘Lonely Heart’ that to this day, still sucks. I mean, I’ll never release it. I don’t know what I was thinking. It was more like a mood than it was a song and it took me almost eight months to finally admit to myself what to what Cuniberti had been saying all along, which is, “Hey buddy, that’s not a song — that’s just a mood or a sentiment.” But he’s always been good enough to let me follow it to the very end.

That’s what you have to do — you have to pursue it like it’s the best idea in the world until you realize it’s not. In our quest to pull things out of the vaults, I think what we discovered was that we actually have pulled almost everything out of the vault that was recorded in studios with other musicians. What’s left now is an enormous amount of demo information that I recorded at my home studio and that process started in 1999. That’s when I started to get into using Logic on a laptop and started to record electronically. It blossomed on the album ‘Strange Beautiful Music’ and it continued to grow, so now when I show up in the studio to do an album, I’m carrying with me a couple of hard drives that have got maybe 30 pieces of music on it and I have to sit down with my co-producer and really focus on what it is that we think is worth recording.

What fits together and what is going to fit with the musicians that we’ve invited this time? So I don’t necessarily think that it is stuff that is worth releasing yet. It might be stuff [that I’m] not finished writing. I think on my next record there will probably be a number of songs from the last sessions and that’s not unusual. I mean, ‘Crystal Planet’ had a song on it called ‘Time’ that I started recording during the ‘Surfing With The Alien’ sessions, but I just couldn’t figure out how to finish it until producer Eric Valentine had a unique vision of it. He started working on it while I was playing with Deep Purple.

I came back, finished it with him, but then that record fell apart, which was supposed to be the original ‘Crystal Planet’ and then I tried to get it on the eponymous release, but Glyn Johns didn’t think it fit, so I wound up hanging onto it and then introduced it to Mike Fraser when we were doing ‘Crystal Planet’ and he said, “I love this — this fits right in with everything else we’ve done.” So we wound up doing a little edit and it wound up finally getting released. So it’s not unusual that not even a composition but an actual recording may take a few albums to finally come together.

Next: 'Surfing With the Alien' Turns 26

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