Joe Satriani Is Done Writing ‘Love Letters to the Classic Rock Era’
Joe Satriani is sitting in front of a wall of bank-breaking amps — Marshall, Peavey and EVH rigs that would make the average bedroom shredder weep — and for the umpteenth time in this press cycle, he is explaining that he didn't use any of them on his new album, The Elephants of Mars.
Satriani recorded all of the guitars on his 19th studio record using a digital SansAmp plugin. "I didn't use any of the amps, which is really a perfect example of not being affected by things that you might be inured in," he tells UCR. "The collector's attitude, or the 'I'm cool because I own that' kind of attitude. It has nothing to do with whether or not somebody likes your music. And that's what you're really trying to do, right? You're trying to create music, a melody, a sound, a groove that really touches people. So who cares how you do it?"
He is quick to add: "But being that I'm still a live performer, I do like plugging into the front of a loud amp and turning it up. So that's also my curse."
Satriani has not had the opportunity to crank a loud amp and play for a live audience since 2019, as he canceled his 2020 tour in support of that year's Shapeshifting due to the coronavirus pandemic. He used the unexpected downtime to make The Elephants of Mars, which he and his bandmates — drummer Kenny Aronoff, bassist Bryan Beller and newly recruited keyboardist Rai Thistlethwayte — recorded completely remotely. "I still haven't met my keyboard player face to face," Satriani says with a laugh. "He's been in the band for two years and I have not met Rai Thistlethwayte yet."
Watch Joe Satriani's 'Sahara' Video
While Satriani has typically preferred to make albums in a room with other musicians, this time he embraced the limitations imposed by the pandemic. Liberated from deadlines and pressure to conform to a certain sound, Satriani abandoned the classic rock stylings of his past several albums and set out to shift the paradigm for instrumental guitar records, just like he did 35 years ago with the space-metal tour de force Surfing With the Alien.
"I thought, 'I don't want to write any more love letters to the classic rock era that I always thought I missed because I was too young,'" Satriani says. "I want to push myself to write better, to arrange better, to have a more interesting kind of guitar album that is, again, so focused on the quality of the material that the whole guitar technique and showing off and proving is nowhere to be found."
Satriani is all too familiar with accusations of showing off. "It is the thing that us guitar players get thrown at us over and over again for no good reason at all, which is the whole 'technique versus feeling' thing, and it's so boring," he says. "They'll never put a classical pianist or violinist against these standards. Why is that? Why do they applaud technical excellence in different areas of music, but not to guitar players for some reason? So I thought, 'Forget about that. I'm gonna create a new standard where all the elements that are important to me are just way better than I've ever done before.'"
The guitarist also didn't feel the need to compete with the new generation of wizkid shredders dominating social media and releasing head-spinning tech-metal albums (and who were likely influenced by Satriani himself). "They have to kind of overplay on the albums that they put out because they're trying to get their career going,” he says. “They've taken guitar playing to this wonderful, historical level of complexity, technical ability and technical innovation. And I love the energy it gives me, even though I know I can't do it. It makes me feel like, 'Well, if they can do that, then I should be able to get my game better. So get busy.' I'm kind of shamed into practicing more, but not trying to copy or compete."
Listen to Joe Satriani's 'Tension and Release'
Don't be alarmed: The Elephants of Mars is still a Satriani album, and it has no shortage of atom-splitting guitar histrionics. But they're in service of hooks, melodies and overarching themes rather than an end unto themselves. Satriani slows things down on the yearning piano ballad "Faceless," travels halfway around the world on the Middle Eastern-flavored "Doors of Perception" and goes full jazz fusion on "E 104th St NYC 1973," which evokes the late avant-garde guitar sorcerer Allan Holdsworth. The aptly titled "Tension and Release" sucks listeners in with a meaty funk-rock groove before Satriani unleashes a tidal wave of wah-drenched shredding.
Satriani calls "Tension and Release" "a reaction to me pulling out a seven-string guitar that hadn't been played in years, and the strings were really floppy and boingy-sounding, and so I immediately wrote and recorded the song based on the sort of physical reaction I was getting from the strings." Despite his desire to make the most forward-thinking album possible, he did take cues from a classic rock legend on the track. "When it modulates to the minor key, I kept saying, 'Jimmy Page from "Achilles Last Stand."' Just the intensity of what he plays and how it's such a rough Led Zeppelin song, but at the same time, it's so unique that Jimmy would have stepped so far out on that album."
The lack of deadlines for The Elephants of Mars allowed Satriani and his bandmates to indulge every musical whim in pursuit of the greatest, weirdest, most grandiose passages they could imagine. To guide their journey, Satriani developed a story for the LP based on its industrial, Nine Inch Nails-esque title track, which is anchored around a sound he describes as "some sort of robotic or alien elephant." This kernel of an idea blossomed into a full narrative, which Satriani hopes to eventually turn into a comic book.
"I was thinking: What if, in the future, the Earth's scientists terraform Mars and turn it into a beautiful, lush garden planet, but unbeknownst to them, they create this race of gigantic sentient elephants?" he says. "And together with the colonists who have been working on Mars, developing all the raw materials for Earth's evil corporations, they decide they're going to have a revolution and make the planet a unique garden planet, and sort of separate and become independent from the corporations that had nefarious ideas about what to do about the planet. And of course, I figured out that the lead revolutionary would have to be a guitar player, and there would be music, and that's how they would communicate somehow."
Watch Joe Satriani's 'The Elephants of Mars' Video
Once Satriani established the story, he and his bandmates were off to the races. "When you get charged with working on an album, of course, you want to do your best and you want to be timely, and you want to follow the direction of the people that are hiring you," he says. "But very often you don't get told, 'Go completely nuts and do whatever you want, and entertain the craziest things you've ever thought of.'"
If any idea is fair game, does that mean the Silver Surfer that graced the original Surfing With the Alien cover (and was replaced on the 2019 deluxe reissue due to licensing costs) could make a cameo and help the elephants wrest control of their planet back from Earth's greedy corporate overlords?
"That could be true," Satriani says with a laugh. "However, we would get sued by Marvel, so we don't want to do that."