Joe Satriani: New LP Inspired by Urge to Do ‘Something Different’
As guitarist Joe Satriani launches into the beginning of another new year, it’s no surprise to find him already juggling a large load of projects and commitments. Currently on the road with his annual G3 Tour, sharing the stage with fellow guitar gurus Phil Collen of Def Leppard and Dream Theater’s John Petrucci, Satriani also recently released his latest album, What Happens Next.
A new documentary, Beyond the Supernova, helmed by Satriani’s son, ZZ, takes fans behind the scenes on the touring cycle for his Shockwave Supernova album, but also delves deep into the inner workings of Satriani’s creative process. There’s also talk of some renewed activity with Chickenfoot -- Satriani's side band that includes Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith -- this year. But what happens next? When it comes to Satriani, there are always plenty of options.
With his new album, the guitarist was ready, as always, to shake things up. “It’s not unusual for me to feel the pull in the opposite direction as I’m getting to the end of a touring cycle,” he explains. “When you’re on tour and you’re playing a set like we were doing, serving the Shockwave tour, [doing a] big retrospective, plus new album stuff, after two years, you think, ‘Well okay, I’ve done it. I’ve really accomplished what I set out to do.’ The last couple of legs of the tour are kind of spread out and so you’ve also got your team asking you, what’s happening next? The record company, management, everybody. That became a phrase that just kept popping up in my head is, What happens next? I’d ask myself that question. I think that it’s a natural thing, as you’re listening to new music coming from artists around the world or you’re discovering older music that somehow passed you by, you can’t help but feel the pull to do something completely different to re-energize yourself, to reinvigorate the creative process. That’s kind of the space I was in.”
Listen to Joe Satriani's 'What Happens Next'
As Satriani was submerged in the interview process for the documentary, he says he discovered that he was “really just trying to return to who I really was.” A good amount of self-examination helped him to see that he hadn’t left his preferred orbit -- the real “me” was still intact -- but he realized that he “wanted to go back to the earliest version” of himself, “where I was the most excited about playing guitar. That, he says, was a “cathartic” realization, which became the basis for the new album.
“Possibly, I think if it was somebody else, a stranger, a professional documentarian or something like that, I’m sure the process would have been 50 percent less real and important and certainly less cathartic,” he notes. “But because it was my son and you can’t fake it with your family, he immediately unlocked my true self. I found myself revealing things to myself and as well to him that I wouldn’t normally have done to a professional film crew. So that process was very interesting. We didn’t go into it thinking, ‘We’re going to do a documentary so that Joe can open up and figure out what he’s doing.’ We didn’t do that. We were trying to have fun and make a really cool film. But the byproduct, the surprise secondary effect, was that it did in fact help complete this journey to create a new album. Ultimately, I wanted the album simply to be just a lot of fun and fun to listen to and fun to play. I wanted it to be what I’ve always tried to do on records, which, coincidentally, was the theme of the record we were just finished celebrating -- Surfing With the Alien, which was all about excitement and fun about guitar and my roots. It was very fitting in a way, but we didn’t know that until the documentary was finished.”
Working as a power trio with his Chickenfoot bandmate Chad Smith on drums and former Deep Purple bassist Glenn Hughes, Satriani was able to wrangle both musicians -- who keep busy schedules -- for about a week to focus in on the project at hand. The album is an all-instrumental affair, but, he says, if the time had been there, he would have loved to have done a vocal album with Hughes -- and it’s something the pair still wants to make happen sometime in the future. Both Hughes and Smith have already popped up for guest appearances on the current G3 run.
Satriani says he and Hughes hit it off well. "We’d never really worked together," he points out. "We just would run into each other around the world while we were on tour. We were onstage only once prior to this record, which was at the Marshall 50th anniversary in London. But I think that ever since the first time we met each other, we knew that there was a future in our future. [Laughs] That we could possibly really hit it off and make some great music together. Once I got over just being a super-fan of Glenn Hughes, we were able to really sit down and talk about what might we accomplish in the future sometime. So we’ve promised each other that we’re going to get together and see if we can write an album of vocal material. We were going to do it this [past] September, but events transpired against us, so now we’re focusing on sometime [in 2018]."
Listen to Joe Satriani's 'Energy'
The album has a live feel to it that recalls the raw energy of some of the best classic power trios -- something Satriani says is a deceptive perception. While it sounds like they might have cut the album live, that wasn’t the case. For a good amount of the music, he had actually done a lot of homework and advance recording in his home studio prior to getting the band together.
“I have some theories about how this whole thing worked out. It centers around the weird, crazy magic of Chad Smith,” he explains. “When he locks into something, he does something that’s so unique that i just don’t hear other drummers doing. I haven’t heard any other drummer doing [the things that he does] in the last 30 years. It’s really interesting. It reminds me, in a way, of Keith Moon and the Who, where Townshend would bring in demos and then Keith Moon would put his drums on last. Because I remember listening to the Who records and I’m thinking, 'How can anybody in the band follow Keith Moon?' He’s not playing anything that you follow. It’s like he’s soloing while the rest of the band is playing, right? I later found out that in fact, the drums would be added last. Because [Pete] Townshend was a master at making these demos at home. They were so good that they decided to use them as the basis of quite a few of the recordings.”
Ultimately, the songs helped to lay out a proper map for the musical paths that Satriani, Smith and Hughes would travel together.
“The last song on the record, ‘Forever and Ever,’ the only thing I think that we were listening to was the pizzicato strings," he says. " So that song needed to be the three of us trying to make as much music as possible as a trio, because it’s such a delicate piece of music that has a loud sound. To me, it really informed Glenn and Chad, and gave them license as to how much to play. So t hey had to be very expressive. Glenn could make his bass wind through all of these changes. He didn’t have to be conservative and Chad had to really create the vibe of big but super-loving drums. With a song like ‘Catbot,’ they knew there was going to be this synthesizer that was doubling the guitar, so they realized, “We’d better be tight.” That’s the main difference, I think, and the benefit of having tracks pre-recorded that can make you sound like there’s seven of you in the room. It allows you to define your part a little bit better. Some of the songs like ‘Looper,’ I don’t think anything live of mine was used. I think that was all stuff that I had recorded earlier.”
As the new record finally hit the shelves, Satriani was already on the road for the beginning of the G3 tour -- and he played an interesting card, inviting Phil Collen to join him on the tour as one of the featured guitarists. As he recalls, the Def Leppard member surprised a lot of people when he showed up to Satriani’s G4 Camp last year.
“He blew everybody away. Because what I don’t think anybody expected, was that he could switch into full shredder mode and go toe to toe with Paul Gilbert. It was insane,” he recalls. “I think those were the greatest moments, where we’d be just about to take the stage and he’d say, ‘Hey, what do you want me to play on?’ I’d say, ‘You know what, I think we might do this song, do you know how to play it?’ He goes, ‘How does it go?’ I’d [show him the chords] and he’d say, ‘Great, let’s do it.’ Just like that, he’d walk on stage, plug in his guitar and blow you away. He was that relaxed and confident and could just wing it, but go beyond that.”
As far as how the rest of the year will lay out for Satriani, there may be a return of Chickenfoot now that Sammy Hagar has expressed interest in doing something with the band. But, as Satriani laughs, "in typical Chickenfoot fashion, there are more dares than there are actual events written in ink in the calendar. But that’s okay, because we actually put together quite a lot of recorded music over the years with just the faintest idea that we might get together. Usually what will happen is that any given Thursday, someone will say, ‘I’m going to be in town, so is he. Can we meet up here for a day and a half and record something?’ And then, all of the sudden, that’s what happens. That’s how the first record kind of got started. We start emailing demos, and before you know it, we’ve got half a record done. I know that Sammy sent that sort of message out to me and he’s expecting me to bring an album’s worth of songs pretty soon, so I’m going to get busy writing.”
Listen to Joe Satriani's 'Thunder High on the Mountain'
Satriani isn’t really sure what changed Hagar's mind about the band, since he has been hesitant about committing to the project lately.
“He doesn’t do stuff unless he’s really inspired, which is really great," Satriani notes. "You never have to worry that he’s doing something for the wrong reason. His heart’s always in it. I think he really felt like he wanted to get his TV show set in stone. He was really enjoying that, meeting other people and mixing it up. I think to some degree, since he’s had a really fantastic career, I think maybe he was feeling like he wanted to celebrate more of it. Part of the thing with Chickenfoot, early on we decided, ‘Let’s say we’re not going to do Van Halen songs, [Red Hot] Chili Peppers songs, [my] songs. We’re just going to say no to that. If we do any covers, we’ll do a Montrose cover or anything older than that.’ It was just like a rule that we had as a way of not forcing us to sort of bend to the most recent successes of each person’s other bands. Perhaps Sammy was thinking, ‘Oh, I miss playing those great Van Halen songs that I had number one successes with.’ He had to figure out a way to do that. Just from an emotional level, I think he wanted to go on stage and do that. So he put together [the Circle with], Mikey, Vic Johnson and Jason Bonham.”
But, Satriani says with a laugh, he’s always the one “arguing” with Hagar to do something more with Chickenfoot: “I’m always saying, ‘Sam, stop doing that stuff and let’s put a band on the road, please!’”
He says his ideas about putting another band together during Chickenfoot's hiatus still resonate with him and Hagar. “I’m still of that mindset, and Sammy knows that," he says. "There’s no secret there and it’s not really a source of contention. I’m very mindful of the fact that he’s got a family and he’s got several successful businesses and he actually performs quite a bit, where our lives are intertwined anyway, so it’s a friendly rub when we rub each other about all of that stuff! I mean, he let me record the [new] album in his studio. So it’s all good!”