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Joe Satriani Looks Back on 30 Years of ‘Surfing With the Alien': Exclusive Interview

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It’s always an experience talking shop with Joe Satriani. The guitar virtuoso is soft spoken and humble, with a knack for telling a good story that will draw you in.

As a developing player in the ‘80s, he taught guitar to a diverse group of students, including musicians like Steve Vai and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, at a time when he was still learning things about the instrument himself. But even now, decades later, Satriani is still honing his craft, and still sharing the knowledge he’s acquired from years of touring and recording.

His annual guitar conference, the G4 Experience — which takes place this year from July 24 through July 28 in Carmel, Calif. — is billed as “four days of guitar magic.” He’ll have the chance to share plenty of stories and knowledge, even if, as he acknowledges, some of his earlier experiences might come across as foreign territory for some.

“As you can imagine, to a young person, I’m talking about some sort of foreign ancient history,” he tells Ultimate Classic Rock. “There will be a couple of old-timers in the audience like me and they’ll be shaking their heads like, ‘I remember that — that’s why I got out of the music business’ or ‘I’m still doing that to some degree.’”

As outdated as it can sound, there are still bits and pieces of the methodology he applied in those days that are still relevant. “I still believe that to have a lasting career, you have to play in front of people,” he notes. “To learn how to play in front of people, you have to play in front of people. There’s no video to teach you how to be a performer. You basically just have to throw yourself out there, and as I’ve told the many G4 audiences, take every gig. I’ve played in kindergarten classes, and I’ve played free concerts in the park and every kind of church and school and temple you can think of, and I’ve played every kind of bar. I’ve done shows at the Tokyo Dome and old castles in Europe. I’ve just played everywhere. But it’s never the same. Every time you walk onstage, you’ve got to work to make it happen for those people, and you can draw on your experience and all of the gigs that you’ve played to make it a special night for that particular audience.”

Satriani is also celebrating the 30th anniversary of the landmark Surfing With the Alien album with a reunion of his touring band from that era at G4. He also covers other subjects, like the time that he allegedly sent some of his early music to Queen guitarist Brian May, who eventually wrote the foreword to Satriani’s 2014 book, Strange Beautiful Music, the future of Chickenfoot, working with Todd Rundgren and the status of his next solo album.

You’ve got your G4 Experience Camp coming up, and what I think is kind of cool about this is that, unlike some folks who do these camps, you’ve got actual experience from your younger years, teaching all sorts of folks as they were learning to play guitar. It has to be kind of a trip for you, doing something like this all of these years later.
It is. One of the really nice things about it is that I get to control parts of what I didn’t like about one-on-one teaching and the clinic situation. I was never good at clinics and I never liked clinics. You know, they were kind of like micro-concerts — showing off. You can’t really teach, you know? When you’re doing the one on one teaching thing, you really do need a couple of months of sitting down with somebody, investigating what they’re good at, what they’re not good at and developing a plan. The fact that you’re doing it over a period of months in itself can sort of put a drag on the creative mind for both the student and teacher. With this format, it’s kind of like a holiday. So the mindset changes. They’re not rushed, because they’re there for four or five days. But they know that this is not going to be months and months and years and years. They know that so much is going to happen. They’re not stuck with one teacher. They’ve got like eight or something. Besides the four G4 guys, there’s other staff of teachers like Doug Doppler or Stig Mathisen — amazing players who not only do they deliver original teaching content everyday throughout the day and during the jams. But they’re also doing follow-ups for what any of the G4 guys had gone over during their master classes that needed further explanation. It’s a combination of a holiday, a concert, the best clinic you’ve ever been to, some hands on one-on-one, and then there’s just that whole thing about hanging out with other guitar players that is priceless. It’s the kind of things that a lot of guitar players don’t do, because they’re more guarded about their tricks.

Do you have folks that come to this thing that don’t play?
Yes. There’s a certain contingent that is my age or younger. So they’ve been playing for 30 years and they’re doctors, lawyers, carpenters, whatever. So their family might make a whole vacation of it. And so very often, the husband, wife or kids will show up and hang out. Because they’re there. They’re staying at the resort, and we’re all hanging out. So you sort of get to meet the family. So that’s really cool. I think the family members gain an insight into the student’s’ passion. A spouse may see somebody practicing in the basement for 20 years on the weekends or something and go, “Why is he doing that?” Or “Where is this going?” All of a sudden, they meet all of these other people that young and old, male and female, have the same passion. They also have other lives. Some of them are pro musicians, some of them are semi-pro and some of them are just enthusiasts. It really makes no difference. It’s really about the music. So we do have people come who don’t play that are accompanying the hardcore enthusiasts.

You’ve got a diverse lineup of folks who will join you — and I want to start with the guitar players — Phil Collen, Warren DeMartini and Paul Gilbert. How did you pull this year’s lineup together? Was there something unique about each one of them that you thought they brought to the table? They’ve all got their own thing as players.
There’s always a magic in the combination of players. I’ve worked with Paul a lot. We’ve toured together and we’ve done these before. I’ve always been upfront with the campers, letting them know how amazed I am at a lot of things about Paul, besides that he’s incredibly tall and makes me feel incredibly short every time we’re playing next to each other. Paul’s one of those guys that can really play anything, and I’m not. And I’m always telling the students, “It’s okay.” This part of what they see over the course of G4 is that they see these “guitar heroes” and they begin to see, “Well, this guy can do this, but that guy can do that.” We’re upfront with what we’re good at and what maybe we’re not so good at, what we’re working on and how we admire the other G4 guys who are standing next to us and what we wish we could do that they could do. Paul’s one of those guys who covers so much ground. He’s so good at playing so many things. I definitely express to the campers how much I’m hoping to pick up, even at this late stage in my development. I’m always hoping that I’m going to pick something up from Paul that’s going to improve my playing, because he plays so well. Besides the fact that his attitude and positive energy is so infectious that it’s just fantastic to have him there as part of the proceedings. He just lifts everybody up.

How do you know Warren?
I don’t. I think I’m going to be meeting him for the first time. I sort of became aware of him like most of the world, as just a fan of his guitar playing and beautiful tone and phrasing and vibrato. He actually was a neighbor of Steve Vai’s for many years in Steve’s older neighborhood in Hollywood. So every once in a while, Steve would say, “Oh, do you know Warren? I just had dinner with him. He’s such a cool guy.” We never actually were able to get our paths to actually cross. So I’m excited that I’m finally going to be able to meet him and hang out with him and watch and listen up close to that magic that he makes.

I know when I spoke to Phil Collen, Phil was pretty excited because he honestly didn’t have that much of an idea what he was going to be doing at this thing. So he was kind of excited to come to this and see what transpires.
That’s great. I love that. Because we’ve told everyone that we’ve invited in the past, just come and be yourself. You’ll find out that the best material is what’s going to be drawn out from you by the campers themselves. They’re going to ask you a question that you weren’t ready for, but you’ll be so happy when you get it and you realize that you’ll realize that you have so much unique experience to share with them. I always point out, if someone doesn’t know how to play a harmonic minor scale, they can find out in about two seconds. [Laughs] They can get onto YouTube and see 100 different ways of fingering it and playing it on every instrument in the world. So that’s not what it’s really about. But his experience being a stadium playing rock ‘n’ roll guitar player, multi-platinum selling artist, is something that is a rarefied experience and we all want to know what that’s like. It’s an amazing insight into how to apply musicianship. It doesn’t seem very technical to him — I know it’s not, because he’s just living it. He’s being himself.

But to people who have never done it before, it almost appears like a technique, like you could write a book about how to be a part of such a big thing and how to follow up big records with bigger records. The experience of working with producers. It’s pretty remarkable, when you think about it. But I’m always surprised at how the people that are in the middle of it don’t realize what the enormity of their insight is that they have that they can share. They have a lot to share and they may not realize it, but once they sit down and they start getting the questions, they go, “Oh man, all of these notes I’ve prepared, they probably aren’t necessary.”

You mentioned about how you hope to go to one of these things and pick up something from Paul Gilbert that you didn’t previously know. I think that’s something that I find talking to musicians, guys who are considered to be virtuosos on their instrument. I think that’s something that would be surprising to the average person, to find out that you guys are always looking to learn and continue to improve what you do and what you know how to do.
Oh, it’s constant, it’s ongoing. Every time I do an album cycle and I’m doing interviews, I’m always confronted with the fact that there’s a misconception about how I feel about my musicianship. They assume that I’m a perfectionist and that I wake up feeling like the maestro. [Laughs] I always say, “No, that’s not it at all.” I’m always thinking, like, “Can I play today? Am I going to play as good as yesterday? Will I write a song? Will I write a better song?” I’m just always trying to get it going again. I’m never feeling like I’ve arrived and I don’t need improvement. I’m always looking to these experiences, which led me to create G3. I realized it was a recipe for professional suicide to stand onstage next to people who are better than you. [Laughs] But I thought, “Is there a better way to learn? I don’t think so.” So that became my inspiration to carry me through the ridiculous hoops that we had to jump through to try to get G3 off the ground, bucking that hardened conception in the music industry, besides never working with children and animals, [that] you never stand next to someone like Steve Vai. [Laughs] I thought, “No, it’s the opposite.” The contrarian way of doing it is actually the way that you grow as a musician and I thought if I’m 14 and I’m sitting in the audience, I would want to see Page and Hendrix and Clapton and Jeff Beck all next to each other, having fun and trying to shred each other in the most positive way. Unfortunately, I never got to see that, but I thought, “I’m going to pursue that as the guy onstage.” In a wonderful twist of fate, G4 became the teaching version of G3.

It’s interesting and scary to think that G3 rolled out 21 years ago in 1996. But that was a really eclectic and cool lineup when you look at that now. It was you and it was Vai and it was Eric Johnson and opening things up, it was Adrian Legg. That’s a really diverse slate of guitar players for anybody to get their head around. If they just went in as a Satriani fan or if they just went in as a Vai fan. Certainly, I think there was a large contingent that went in as fans of three out of the four, whether or not they were familiar with Adrian Legg. It was a cool evening for folks to step into.
Not only did they get treated to something that they hadn’t seen before, but it was exhilarating for us. We had Robert Fripp opening for the very first run and Robert had insisted on not being announced and playing while people were walking in and taking their seats.

Wow!
The experiences were amazing. At some point, there should be like some sort of documentary about the whole G3 experience, because it was so unique. You know, at the heart of it always is that musicians get surprised, how much they enjoy the experience once it’s done and they can’t believe they ever thought it wasn’t going to work.

I just remember that I’d never seen Steve Vai before, and he stepped onstage with his band and just blew me away. It was blistering. They made an impression.
The last G4 that we held last year, was on Long Island and Steve showed up for one day as a special guest. He played with my band, Mike Keneally and Brian Beller, who he has played with a lot, and Marco [Minnemann]. I had the distinct pleasure of sitting right on the side of the stage and watching the show. I swore it was the best that I’d ever seen Steve play.

I saw him last year and I thought the same thing.
It was really nice, because it was no show and Steve is well known for his theatricality, but this was Steve just being a regular guy. No costume changes, no video projections. The shows that we do at G4 are really intimate. There’s just about 150 people in a small room and it’s all about the musicianship. And just to sit there and watch him play with my band was such a unique experience. He continually blows me away. I hope we can do more in the future.

One of the other things about this camp is you’re going to be putting your Surfing touring band of Stu Hamm and Jonathan Mover back together. What do you guys have on deck? Will you be playing the full record as a band?
I think what makes more sense is to play the things that were the most successful on tour. Because the odd story behind the record and the tour and sort of the blossoming of my unlikely career was that the record was such an in-studio overdub project. You know, there were only two songs with live drums. Only one song with live drums for the whole track. So it really wasn’t a band on Surfing With the Alien. I played guitar, bass and keyboards, and I had Jeff Campitelli playing a little bit of drums and he and Bongo Bob [Smith] sharing duties playing percussion. I think John Cuniberti, my co-producer, played some tambourine. When we went to hit the road, not only was I playing with two guys I’d never played with before, but we had no idea how we were supposed to interpret this very “studio” recording project into a live show. What we found out very quickly was that some songs just couldn’t be played live in a club.

That’s an interesting thing to learn as a player.
You go to play a song like “Midnight” in a 400-seat club where people are literally two feet away from you, holding beer and chasers, it just doesn’t work. [Laughs] “Ice 9” works — as a matter of fact, if you play “Ice 9” faster and longer and louder, it’s a success. Every entertainer learns that not all songs work in all venues at all times of the night. Some songs you can do on TV and some songs you can’t. And some songs are perfect for that “middle of the stadium show” when the lights go down or something like that. The memory of those early days of interpreting the album as a live shows, with a trio, which was tough — no rhythm guitars, no keyboards, that is such a large part of the story that has to be told. The other thing that’s interesting that is maybe very unique to that period, pre-internet, is that people would show up for these concerts having only heard one song on the radio. In other words, a lot of people didn’t actually have access to the album. They didn’t hear it, and they might see you once. They’re five people joining one of their friends, who is an enthusiast and he’s the only one with the actual vinyl, CD or cassette. It’s very different now, because if I tell you that I’ve heard this new band called the Lawnmowers, after the interview, you can find out and preview their entire catalog in a matter of minutes. And that was not a viable option back in 1987. We walk around right now, very informed about everything about an artist. We can educate ourselves in seconds. Back then, it was a slower world and that live show was so important. They’d come and they’d see Stu, Jonathan and myself.

I think very often what would happen is that they would see the show and they’d go and buy the record and they’d scratch their heads and they’d go, “Huh? Where’s that crazy f—ing thing I just heard at the club last night? What’s this controlled instrumental guitar album with drum machines and stuff?” Part of our struggle was to try to bridge the gap, to bring the music to the stage. So I want that to be the focus of our live performance. Not three guys trying to reproduce a studio record. I don’t see that as interesting at all.

That makes a lot of sense. You guys went through a lot of different things. You’ve told me in the past that prior to you going on tour with Mick Jagger, playing guitar for him, you were on tour, doing two shows a night. And it’s surprising to me to hear that now. That’s just really grinding it out, trying to make something happen, it seems like.
Yeah, it was tough. It was very tough. It was hard on my fingers. It was hard on all three of us. It was the band and crew in a small, cheesy bus. Terrible hotels when we could get them and being worked to death. From stinky laundry to never getting any food or drink supplied to us by the club, we just worked ourselves to death. I was the oldest guy in the group, I was aware of it. Because I’d been doing club work since before I was even legal. I was doing clubs when I was 16. I grew up in New York, so back then, you could do that. I knew what it was like, so it didn’t surprise me that we were going to have to engage in some old-school entertainment business stuff, which is go out there and play as much as you can for as many people as possible and grow your audience, and that’s what we did.

How did you connect with Stu and Jonathan?
There were two sides of it. One was that I was talking to Steve Vai one day on the phone. I said, “You know, the record company wants me to go on tour.” We were laughing about how I’d never played instrumental music onstage before. I certainly was never the focus of the band, the leader of the band. And so I said, “Besides that, Steve, I need a bass player.” He said, “I play with this guy, Stu Hamm. He’s really crazy. Maybe you’ll like him.” So I said, “Okay, give me his phone number.” I reached out to Stu and said, “Can you meet me here? I’ll send you a cassette of some songs.” That was it. Later that week, I flew out to Bensalem, Penn., to the Hoshino USA office to meet with the guys there about a guitar. I’m sitting there in the waiting room, and there’s this one other guy sitting there. I introduced myself and we started talking, and he says, “I’m Jonathan Mover, I’m a drummer.” I said, “You know, I need a drummer next week in Chicago.” I said, “If I give you this cassette, will you learn, like, four songs? And if you’re going to be at the NAMM show in Chicago, I’m doing this gig and this guy named Stu Hamm is going to play bass.” He didn’t know Stu Hamm, so it was like, “All right.” That night, we played a couple of songs from Surfing, and then Steve Vai came on and joined us and it was an amazing evening. It was really the beginning of us and our sort of partnership, taking Surfing on tour.

We did the Surfing tour and we did the Flying in a Blue Dream tour, and I think we lasted as a trio and then a four piece until the ‘95 tour. After that, Jeff, who was playing guitar on that last tour, moved back to drums. Jonathan went on to play with [all sorts of people] and Stu came and went a few times. I’ve had maybe three or four bass players and Stu came back a couple of times. But this will be the first time. I hadn’t talked to Jonathan in 20 years.

Oh wow.
Yeah. So I just called him on a whim, because I was talking to another drummer friend of mine who mentioned his name and he said “Oh, I spoke to this guy, Jonathan Mover. You guys used to play,” and I said, “Yeah, I haven’t talked to him in a long time, and it wasn’t good when it ended.” A friend said, “We should never have any hanging bad vibes,” and so I thought, “Yeah, that’s actually a good piece of advice.” I just called him and I said, “Hey, let’s have an awkward conversation!” [Laughs] “Let’s just see if we can get to know each other again.” I was very happy about that. Because we had some amazing moments where it was just musical with an audience where we never thought that we could accomplish those things, playing the simple rock instrumentals. And on those tours they really gave everything that they had. It was really quite remarkable. I can see that even more with the perspective of all of the years that have piled up after that, it becomes even more amazing when I think about it.

You guys were a unique lineup, for sure. And you got some significant radio airplay with this album, which seems like it was all pretty surreal for you in the moment.
It was surreal. There was back then a true and justified hope that whatever you did could become a hit, because there were less homogenized playlists. This is before the conglomerate radio station ownership really kicked in. Regional stuff really mattered, to have Redbeard in Texas, playing everything off the record, every night, was an unbelievable boost. Back then, I remember doing like 200 or 300 radio IDs, with a microphone and a cassette machine, because each individual DJ in these different markets played rock music. They would play new rock music by an unknown guy with a funny last name. That didn’t seem that unreasonable to me, although it was so exciting. I thought, “This is a once in a lifetime thing that happens,” when suddenly people want to hear your music and DJs want to give it to them. It was really unique. Today, there are very few rock stations, period, and the ones that exist are controlled heavily by media consulting to maximize advertising revenue. The possibility, I think, is nil, for someone to break into radio.

But the good news is that the internet came in and it both devastated getting paid for your work, but at the same time it democratized the ability to spread your music around the world. So it’s just a shift. I mean, the music industry the last 120 years has been insane. It’s just continual chaos. So it’s not unusual that something like the internet comes around, but as one door closes another one opens, and that certainly is the case where now, artists can have a lot of control over how they display to the world, all at once, their new record. You couldn’t do that back in ‘87.

In your book, you write about how you guys were excited because you felt like you were going to make a record that hadn’t been made by other guitarists at that point. What was it about the material that felt cutting edge to you at that time?
It wasn’t about the playing. It was about the music and the song structure. It didn’t really kowtow to the convention of “look what I can do.” And that was really what was going on at the time. I think you have a singer that has a great quality voice and they can’t sing really high that the singer, if they noticed that sitting on the charts is a singer of equal attributes and they have a hit song singing really high, says, “Well, I can’t compete with that guy. My register stops here. So what I’m going to do is I’m not going to bother trying to compete with that guy there. I’m going to focus on what I do well and what I want to do. What fulfills me artistically and what I know I can deliver with honesty and emotional impact.” All of the good things that surround art. You have to embrace the idea that it could be a complete disaster. I think that’s what gives it its artistic sparkle is that it really could crash and burn at any moment because you’re going out on a limb and being very personal. So that’s what we did. We just said, “You know what? Everyone’s always asking me, could you please play this way so you sound like you’re as good as that guy who is the guy of the moment.” John and I would just say, “No, we’re not going to do that. We’re just not going to jump in that arena. We’re going to just create our own arena and say this is music to listen to, to enjoy, to be inspired by. It’s music about something and I’m going to play the guitar the way I think it should be played for this song. It’s not about my career. It’s not about creating a calling card so I can get a bigger gig. It’s really just about this.” So when I wrote a song called “Hill of the Skull,” it was just about that.

There’s no solo on it, there’s no harmony. There are no drum fills. No bass fills. There’s nobody on that track that’s trying to impress you with their musicianship so that they can become famous. It’s the opposite of that. It’s very hard for me to explain that to people, because it’s the antithesis of what they think they should be doing. But my idea was, “No, just don’t do that.” Don’t try to sell yourself — just do the song. And if that means slowing down, great. If that means playing a barrage of notes, then practice and get it done! I didn’t discriminate, you know, but at the same time, it works in the other way where you say, I’m not showing off just to show off. It’s not about me, it’s about the song.

I know that one of the other things you said in your book was that you were focused on a very particular type of record and that you weren’t going to make a shred record. When I spoke to Phil Collen, he talked about how interesting it was, hearing your music, that you had crossed the barrier and made something that was commercially viable. He’s hearing your music on commercial radio stations, which was a trip.
It’s great to hear players like Phil just relay his experience of listening and hearing my music for the first time and hearing the difference. That’s something that we had hoped for when we were working on the record. I’ll always tell the students at G4, there’s no good or bad or better or worse. There are no scales that are more important than other scales. Difficulty or complexity does not equal in any way, goodness. Nor does complexity mean anything negative. They’re just tools. It’s either the right tool or it’s the wrong tool for the song at the moment, and once you get over that, then you realize, “Wow, I shouldn’t be shredding here” or “Why do I have to use my signature sound all of the time?” Like, “What is a signature sound, anyway?”

There’s a mention at the beginning of your book in the foreword from Brian May, who talks about how their producer, Reinhold Mack, was working with you and sent your music to Brian upon your request. Which is a pretty ballsy request. What were you guys working on at that time?
I always wondered about his inclusion in Brian’s story. I can only surmise that Reinhold was spinning a bit of a yarn to get Brian to hear my record. [Laughs] I honestly don’t remember ever working with him. Brian is simply the nicest guy on the planet, a great musician, phenomenal guitarist and a rock star of epic proportions.

You got to collaborate with Todd Rundgren, on his latest record, on the song “This Is Not A Drill” with Kasim Sulton and Prairie Prince. That seems like it would have been a trip.
As a teenager I was a total Todd freak. Always loved his writing, singing and playing. The funny thing is we’ve never met face to face — only on the phone. It seems one day Gregg Bissonette mentioned to him that I was a big fan while they were on a Ringo Starr tour. Next thing I know he reached out and invited me to contribute to his album. I sent him a few full-blown demos of songs I had laying about, and he picked one and ran with it. So, I never attended any sessions — it was all done remotely!

Do you think there’s any light of the end of the tunnel at this point as far as doing something with Chickenfoot again as far as new music? The new song you guys did within the past couple of years, “Divine Termination” finally came out. Is there anything else on deck?
I just did a very cool and slightly experimental track with Sammy [Hagar], a beautiful original of his. I’m not sure how it will get released. Art first, commerce later! [Laughs]

What’s up ahead for you as far as new music and your next album?
I’m putting the finishing touches on a new solo record. It’s a big, fat, rock and soul album that I’m very excited about. We recorded at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles and at Sammy’s studio up here in the Bay Area, with Mike Fraser producing. It will be released on Legacy/Sony early next year.

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