Guitar wizard Joe Satriani has experienced an intense year of both reflection and evolution. Last spring he unleashed one of the best albums of his career, Unstoppable Momentum, for which he is currently on the second half of a world tour, and he just released the book Strange Beautiful Music: A Musical Memoir, coauthored with veteran music writer Jake Brown. It’s not a salacious tell-all—the man is about the music not the rock ‘n’ roll circus—but an insightful career history that plunges deep into the making of every studio album and how his creative process works. As an appropriate companion, his entire discography has been reissued by Sony Music in a massive, budget-priced, 15-disc box set called The Complete Studio Recordings.
Satch has always distinguished himself from like-minded guitar shredders by writing hook-laden music that has space. Many of his early albums generated hit radio singles despite mostly being instrumental, and he continues to create music that expresses his personal musical vision while also appealing to a wide global audience. He is one of the only ’80s shredders to still be playing to sizable audiences and scoring solid sales.
There is certainly a need for his new book. Strange Beautiful Music journeys in-depth into the making of his albums, the specific techniques that he used, and behind-the-scenes stories. Contrasting with the first-person narrative voice, the book also highlights numerous quotes from his musical collaborators on all of his albums and from his recent output with Chickenfoot. For many people today, music journalism is much less about music than it is about celebrity and personality.
“I noticed it starting back in ’98 when I released Crystal Planet, which actually had a lot of technical stuff going on just as it pertains to me and my development,” acknowledges Satriani. “There was a lot of stepping forward for me in that record, and nobody in the music journo community really asked me about anything. It suddenly became superficial, and I thought it was really just about the video game culture taking over being the most exciting thing to talk about. Suddenly interviews that had been very technical—people asking me about harmonic innovations and unusual pairings of microphones, speakers, and pickups—the guitar magazines didn’t ask me about that. They wanted to know about budgets and all sorts of other music business things that were so boring that you could answer them in two sentences. It wasn’t anything I thought about.”
The new box set is a great and affordable way to explore the man’s 14 studio albums and a bonus disc called Additional Creations And Bonus Tracks, which includes B-sides and alternate mixes from various releases. One of the standout tracks is “Slick,” which starts out with a big band style drum opening before launching into a swinging blues-rock tune. It calls to mind “Killer Bee Bop” from his self-titled 1995 album. Satch is always open to trying new things—take the 16-minute avant-garde track “Woodstock Jam” from 1993’s Time Machine—as evidenced in the book as well.
“I come up with crazy ideas like that probably on a weekly basis,” remarks the guitarist. “I chart the design out in my little production book and think about it for a while. Eventually I’ll bring it up and then the reality sets in about how it might derail from the normal process of accomplishing all the other goals. A good example is the story I mentioned in the book about back at the turn of the century when I approached Epic about doing one of three records. I could do a classical style record with an orchestra and me playing the melodies on top; then a straight ahead rock record, a real return to bonehead rock which is a big part of my past; or a techno record. I had everything written and my partner Eric Caudieux ready to go. I asked them what would be more fun to do, and everybody chimed in, ‘Do a techno record! We’d love to have a techno record. We definitely don’t want a classical thing or another rock record.'”
The resultant Engines Of Creation in 2000 was difficult for Sony to place in a niche. When the label took it to radio, nobody would play it. “[They asked if] I could do some rock drums and this song, maybe remix it, and then maybe they could get it to radio,” says Satriani. “It was an album that in the promotion phase got shunned by rock radio and shunned by the techno community for totally different reasons. Obviously techno for rock promotion of any kind—it had electric guitar all over it, which the techno community hated at that point in time. It had gotten to the point where they didn’t really want to hear that and didn’t trust someone like me who wasn’t in that community. So the whole promotion machine fell apart.”
According to Satriani, the silver lining to the whole experience was that the album sold very well and continues to be a top five seller in his catalog because it added new fans. “But it rocked the boat because 90 percent of the time I’m on tour I’m playing songs from my catalog, so when you do an album that is a departure like that, you have to follow through with it to meet the fans that decided to buy the music,” he asserts. “In other words, if I decided to do an acoustic guitar album I’d have to do it well and follow it up with an extensive tour. What do I do about ‘Satch Boogie,’ ‘Flying In A Blue Dream,’ and ‘Summer Song’? Do I just not play them?”
That said, Satriani and his band have been playing most of his latest album on tour, and it’s not hard to hear why. Satriani’s latest epic Unstoppable Momentum is one of the best albums of his career, which is no small feat for a veteran rocker in his late 50s. While many of his peers have slowed down, the six-string wizard is still playing at the top of his game. His group on the album included keyboardist Mike Keneally, bassist Chris Chaney, and drummer extraordinaire Vinnie Colaiuta, whose diverse grooves really fleshed out the tunes.
“We were really spoiled for choice,” confesses Satriani of Colaiuta’s contributions. “We would get maybe a half hour to go over a new song that they would hear in the morning, and in less than 10 takes we’d be wondering which take we were going to pick because they were all amazing. Listen to that fill, listen to the groove. He played with timing in so many ways to make the song become exciting at different parts. He has a way of manipulating time that is unbelievable. I don’t think I’ve ever heard or certainly played with another drummer that could manipulate time that way or make you feel good just on a pure physical level. It’s quite remarkable.”
Satch’s current touring lineup includes Keneally and The Aristocrats members Bryan Beller (bass) and Marco Minnemann (drums). “I really liked what they were doing with Guthrie [Govan] in The Aristocrats, so that came together very quickly,” recalls the guitarist of his touring rhythm section. “They were available, and we came to the agreement that we would structure the tour so that I wouldn’t take up all their time and The Aristocrats would have plenty of time to tour behind their album. Marco is an amazing drummer. He’s the perfect guy to reflect all of the work by all of the drummers across the catalog, from Vinnie to all the way back. He’s that kind of drummer and is a pure improviser, which I really love. It’s great having a guy like that who can improvise and keep the structure together.”
Despite the dearth of good instrumental music—or any instrumental music, for that matter—on mainstream radio or video outlets, Satriani and a few peers keep carving out their own niche. When he first emerged back in the mid-to-late ’80s, there was more acceptance of shred and instrumental tracks being played, with fellow guitar slingers Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, and a few others making waves. The last major instrumental music movement to hit big was contemporary instrumental back during the ’90s, and by later in that decade even Satch was not generating radio hits anymore.
“What happened is the number of rock stations dwindled,” explains Satriani. “There used to be hundreds of them. I remember when I was doing promotion for the first two records that had radio hits, for Surfing [With The Alien] and Flying [In A Blue Dream], I was doing up to 200 radio spots per album. I would put them on cassettes in a hotel room somewhere on tour. ‘Hi, this is Joe Satriani, you are listening the K207, the home of rock ‘n’ roll…’ You would just do hundreds of those things, and the radio department at the label would go and visit all of these places and send these things out. There were so many stations that were potentially thinking about playing your song, and it dwindled and dwindled to the point where all of a sudden somewhere in the ’90s those radio stations literally disappeared and became new formats.”
That change also placed players like Satriani in an odd musical limbo. “You got classic rock stations which I’m too young for, and then you got active rock stations which I’m too old for and wouldn’t play instrumental music anyway,” he observes. “It all segmented more and more, and then [you had] the rise of talk radio, so those stations aren’t there anymore. That’s why if Aerosmith releases a rock track, where’s it going to get played? Think about it. Next time you get in your car, search around. Where do you find a rock station that will play contemporary rock? You really won’t find one. You’ll just find a good classic rock station, and they’re playing the usual stuff: Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Doors, ZZ Top. That’s the generation before me. The active rock station will be playing Fall Out Boy and whatever, which is two generations after me.”
None of this really matters given the fact that Satriani keeps plugging away, converting new fans, releasing new material, and touring the world over and over again. Yet even with his extensive discography and all of his musical accomplishments, one imagines that Satriani still has other musical vistas he might like to explore. Having signed another multi-album deal with Sony, he has a home for his music for years to come. Even then, when asked if he might like to release something on a personally curated music label, something perhaps out in left field that people might be surprised by, he says he does not need to do that.
“The label has been completely supportive of my artistic endeavors,” stresses Satriani. “They leave me alone to do whatever I want to do, and then once I’m ready to release something they rally around me to mass produce, distribute, and promote, which is a perfect situation for me. I’m not a band, I’m a solo artist. I’m in control of my publishing, so it is very advantageous for me to work with a big label that has fantastic distribution worldwide. There is a lot of great talent in the label itself. They have employees that are really great at all sorts of stuff that artists like myself like to tap into, [such as the] art department and promotion department. That still works out for me, so I don’t feel the need to break out and release something on my own label because they allow me to do that.”
Joe Satriani will be playing at The Space At Westbury on June 7 and the Iridium Jazz Club on June 9. His new box set, The Complete Studio Recordings, is available now through Legacy Recordings. For more information, go to satriani.com.