Joe Satriani Talks Jimi Hendrix Influence and Legacy: Exclusive Interview
When UCR recently spoke with Joe Satriani, he admitted that even as he was about to release some of his earliest recordings with the April 5 release of Squares - Best of the Early ‘80s Demos, he’s already looking ahead to his next album of new material.
“I’m starting to put together some ideas,” he says. “I don’t really have a direction yet. I’m in that wonderful period where I’m just writing for anything. I’m just really reflecting what’s happening in the world and my life and I’m not worried about a schedule just yet.”
UCR caught Satriani on the road, where he's playing live on the 2019 Experience Hendrix tour with drummer Kenny Aronoff and longtime King’s X bassist and singer Doug Pinnick. All three members put a lot of work into getting ready for the trek, Satriani says, but it also forced him to put any new solo music temporarily on pause.
“We were not a band, so we had to really" work on songs, he says. "We got together last month and rehearsed and it felt really great. We all just said, ‘We’ll go home and we’ll rehearse and we’ll do our homework and when we hit the stage for that first show, we’re just going to bring it all down.’”
When it came time for the first show, they were more than ready, Satriani recalls. “It really was an explosive moment. It was just so great. Thirty minutes of super-high energy [Jimi] Hendrix [music]. It was really exciting for us. So now we feel like we’ve finally got our feet on the ground and we’re comfortable with the show that we’re doing.”
How did the band with Doug and Kenny come together? Was that something you arranged? Or were they already part of the planned tour lineup?
It was just something that popped into my head. We got a surprise call from John McDermott, who invited me to come out in any way that I wanted to for this tour. This is going back several months. I thought about it for a while, and I love playing Jimi Hendrix music, so I thought, “What would make it even better than the last time?” Because I was playing with Living Colour last time that I came out, almost nine years ago. So I thought, “Well, what would be great is if I had my own band and we were like the Experience somehow.” My current touring band, they’re all off working. Mike Keneally and Joe Travers are out playing with the [Frank] Zappa [hologram] tour, and Bryan Beller, my bass player, is out recording with the Aristocrats right now.
So I knew I wasn’t going to see those guys for a year. I thought, “Well, who would I love to play with?” I wanted to play with Kenny again. He had come out with us on the last Chickenfoot tour, and he’s an amazing drummer and just a great person to be around 24/7. He’s got fantastic energy. And then ever since I saw “Dogman” on MTV, performed by King’s X, I always thought, “I’ve got to play with Doug Pinnick somehow!” We actually toured [together] many years ago. We had a triple bill of Dream Theater, King’s X and myself. We did a good month of touring, so we were friends and we knew each other, but we never actually got to do a project together. I just thought, “This would be great.” I actually didn’t know that he had put out a Hendrix tribute record. Which is really kind of funny. I don’t know how that slipped by me. So when I called him, I think he thought that I was responding to the Hendrix record, but actually, I was just finally catching up to a longtime goal and finally found a spot. I thought, “I don’t know if he wants to do it, or if he’s over it.” But he was totally into it, and we knew within the first five minutes of playing with each other at Kenny’s rehearsal room in January that it was going to be great. We just clicked immediately. It’s really great, when you do it as a trio, the energy level and the communication has to be at 100 percent all of the time and it’s very exciting.
How did the combination of you, Doug and Kenny drive the material selection for this tour?
I knew that because Doug is an amazing vocalist and a fantastic bass player that we would be able to handle any of the tracks that we wanted to. The same goes for Kenny. I know from playing with him and hanging out with him that if there’s anyone who appreciates the Mitch Mitchell style of drumming, it’s Kenny. He knows that as well as what Buddy Miles laid down in the Band of Gypsys. I knew that we had some technical things that we brought with us that really made us the perfect three people to do these tracks. However, when you join this tour, it is a group effort, so there’s months of pitching ideas back and forth between the artist and [organizers] John McDermott and Janie Hendrix about which songs are going to be in the show and who is going to do them. You can imagine, everybody wants to do the most popular song and depending on which artist is playing with which backup band, they also start to think about that. And not everybody has the vocal range that’s perfect for every Hendrix song. Some guitar players don’t sound anything like Hendrix, but they still play with complete reverence and put on a great show. And other guitar players really like to try to nail the sound and playing style exactly. We kind of work with that. It kind of goes back and forth.
Once you’re out on the road, someone will come out and say, “Hey, can I borrow that song for two weeks?” So we’re all trying to make a great show for the fans. But with all of that, I have to admit that I had an idea of what songs I wanted to play, because they were drawn from the observation that there was a lot of material that the fans really wanted to see Jimi play when he was alive, but he never played it. Because it was too difficult. It was more of an artistic recording piece, so you never got to hear him play “If 6 Was 9” or “Crosstown Traffic.” There were a lot of songs he just never attempted, because they couldn’t figure out how to do it as a trio. Back then, it was pretty Wild West, performing [with] hardly any monitors, no digital effects to bring the sound of the album to the audience. It was pretty raw. So it was mostly “Purple Haze,” “Fire,” that kind of thing.
When you first dove in years back, what was the most challenging thing for you about taking on Jimi’s music?
I think the hardest thing for every Hendrix fan who finds themselves onstage playing a Hendrix song is the difference between the sound you’re making and the strong memory in your mind of what the album sounds like. [Laughs] You start playing a song and you realize, This is the way Jimi sounded, I don’t sound like Jimi! But you still have to play the song. So I think everyone is always trying to pay the proper homage to Jimi and the sound. They want to give the audience the right sound, but at the same time, they can’t help but be themselves. That’s why I mentioned the whole thing about what Jimi was able to play live. Because if you spend a day just listening to live recordings of Jimi Hendrix, you realize that it was almost like a different Jimi Hendrix than the one that was on Axis: Bold as Love or Electric Ladyland. Those were artistic statements in the recording studio. But when you listen to Live at the Hollywood Bowl or Woodstock or something, you realize, this is something entirely different. So his attitude was, I’m live now, so I’m just going totally live and this is all we’ve got to work with. In the studio, he would go as far as he could.
That’s the hardest thing: You go to play a song like “Third Stone From the Sun” or “If 6 Was 9” and I find myself having to somehow encapsulate a few minutes of feedback and backwards guitars and backwards flutes and whistles and all kinds of funny things that they did back then, and I have to kind of represent it in real time in 2019 and then quickly get onto the next bit. I have found that brevity is important -- just being concise, I think, is better. Because when you’re starting “Voodoo Child,” if you’ve got the right wah-wah guitar tone, that’s all you kind of need to get it off. And then the audience says, “Okay, we buy it.” Now you can express yourself in your way. Each song has something about it. It might be a pedal, it might be the way you strum the guitar. It might just be playing the chord exactly the way he played the chord. That kind of thing.
You mentioned doing the Chickenfoot tour with Kenny. Was that the first time you had played with him? Had you worked with him in any capacity prior to that?
No, that was the first time. I think we had one day of fooling around. Because with Chickenfoot, you can’t really call it a rehearsal. Mainly just fooling around is what we always do. That was it and we hit the road. But Kenny’s such a pro. There’s never any issue with memorizing or anything like that. He was trying to figure out what a bunch of strange people we were, the three of us. [Laughs] And from a drummer’s point of view, he saw three completely different people in a state of constant chaos, which is kind of like what Chickenfoot always was. I thought he did just a remarkable job, herding the three cats.
Chickenfoot have been doing a gig here and a gig there. Has there been any talk regarding further music or anything?
I think there’s another “gig there” coming up. I’m waiting to hear about it. But I think that’s pretty much the way it’s going to be. Everyone is still really busy with their own things, and I’m always ready to do something. So we’ll see what happens. Maybe around September, I think they’re talking about getting together for something.