Six-string master Joe Satriani resides in an unusual place in the music industry these days. At a time when the divide between gold and platinum selling artists and cult musicians is widening, the middle tier has been eroding, but the Long Island native has managed to maintain his position there comfortably and profitably. His records sell well all over the world, and he does not require the same level of promotion as similar artists because of his devout fanbase, which is undoubtedly a big reason why Sony has kept him on their roster for nearly two decades.
The agile axeman’s excellent new solo release, Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards, cracked the U.S. Top 50 (the first time since 1998’s Crystal Planet), while his world tour has been drawing good crowds. He has fifteen Grammy nominations under his belt (maybe give him an award sometime soon, guys?), and he has sold millions of albums worldwide; take a look at his Facebook page for proof of his enduring popularity—750,000 global followers and rising. Beyond his steady solo career, the sci-fi influenced Satch is also lead guitarist in the classic rock “supergroup” Chickenfoot with Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith, and their eponymous 2009 debut is on the way to being a million seller in the U.S. They are going to record a second album in early 2011.
The guitarist’s membership in Chickenfoot has certainly influenced him towards a bluesier style of playing on his new album. It’s not that that long-time influence has been absent, but some fans see this latest CD as his bluesiest effort since his self-titled 1995 album. “Everything you do affects the next thing that you do, and you can’t escape it,” said Satriani, calling The Aquarian from a tour stop in Budapest. “Being with Chickenfoot for quite a bit of time there, doing a record and all the touring, then going right into the Experience Hendrix tour, sort of delivered me back home with a few months to write a record.”
Satriani remarked that a lot had happened to him since the release of his 2008 studio album Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock. “There were wonderful things and tough times and lots of new things that blossomed during that whole period. It felt like a lifetime by the time I got back into my studio to write stuff, so there was no shortage of inspiration. I wrote about 50 songs and at one point had to stop to see where I was going. That’s just the way the album came out. All I wanted to do thematically was to reach people more deeply somehow.” He told his co-producer Mike Fraser that he wanted the album to sound great, but people also needed to be touched by his guitar playing.
The new album encompasses a wide range of styles and moods, from the laid back, country-inflected blues tune “Littleworth Lane,” the atmospheric rock of the title track to the “The Golden Room,” which combines Spanish music with Indian influences, and the delicate guitar interlude “Solitude.” He even makes the dreaded, pitch-correcting Auto-Tune function sound interesting on “Wind In The Trees.”
“When I look back at it, some of it is very abstract sounding, and then other stuff is the total opposite of it,” observed Satriani of his new album, noting the difference between the abstract “Wind In The Trees” to a solo section in the bluesy classic rock of “Two Sides To Every Story” and the very bluesy “Phyrric Victoria.”
There was clearly a multidimensional approach taken in creating Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards. “It’s funny how some records you just get a direction and stick with it for some reason,” mused Satriani. “It might be just because the best songs that you write in that period all happen to line up together, and then other records that I’ve done are just so different. They’re like big, eclectic celebrations, and the hard part is getting them all to exist together on the same piece of plastic. There’s not much you can do about it. Once you agree to a schedule and a certain day comes you say, ‘Well, these are my songs, and I guess that’s my album.’ I tell people that a record is very much like someone taking a Polaroid picture of you, and no matter what you say—like ‘I was having a bad day’ or ‘I never usually wear that shirt’—it’s a picture of you and where you were at that moment. Albums are very much the same way. I can get very intellectual about it and expound upon it, but at the end of the day that’s what I came up with in a [certain] period, and that says something about what I was going through.”
An important component to this album is the quartet who played it. Keyboardist Mike Keneally, bassist Allen Whitman and drummer Jeff Campitelli were integral to the sound and approach to the album. Keneally’s fluid playing, at times very jazzy, certainly made a nice contrast to Satriani’s axework. The two had met years ago when Keneally was touring with Steve Vai.
“I had seen him play keyboards and guitar, and he’s a brilliant guitarist,” stated Satriani. “Before he got involved with the band, I was making these demos at home and doing a lot of keyboard performances of guitar, bass and keyboards. I realize I was creating a solid theme to the record where there was always a B3, an acoustic piano or a distorted Fender Rhodes sound on the songs, and on some of them I could fake it, but I’m not really a keyboard player. At some point I knew I should get a real keyboard player to come in and play these parts for me and expand upon them, so I came to Mike and luckily enough he was available for the period that we were going to be recording. I told him what it was going to be like. He’d been playing guitar for three years and was ready to go back to keyboards for a bit, so he came in. It was great to hear him play again, and it was really the same with Jeff and Allen; every time I would throw out an idea, they would run with it. Mike and I would say that we’ve got to record that. So we made space for everybody in the band to do their stuff.”
It is interesting to note Keneally’s jazzy influence on tracks like “Wind In The Trees” and the title track. When asked what style of music he would like to master, Satriani replied, “Bebop.” In fact, when he was a budding guitarist at age 17, the Long Island rocker took lessons from the late legendary jazz pianist Lennie Tristano, who lived in Queens at the time.
“He was the father of cool jazz,” declared Satriani. “He was the first guy to ever record and perform free-form music anywhere in the world. He was just a huge figure in the jazz world. He taught all musicians of all types—singers, drummers, even guitar players who were into Black Sabbath, like me at the time—and they were fantastic lessons that you work on for your whole life. They were just tremendous. But I know what I am. I’m a kid from a Long Island, I’m a rock ‘n’ roll generation kid, and bebop is not something that is in my blood, but I know it to be one of the most difficult forms of music ever. Guys like Bird [aka Charlie Parker] and [John] Coltrane mastered it, and their level of improvisation was the highest ever. It would be great to wake up in the morning knowing that you can do that.”
When it comes to the generation following in the footsteps of people like himself and Steve Vai, Satriani sees and hears many players who are “truly amazing, and they’re changing the way that the guitar is used in its role with bands and how far they can go with the tools they’ve got.” He cited Stephen Carpenter from Deftones, who plays an eight-stringed guitar to create music with a group that is “really heavy but at the same time really beautiful, and that’s art.”
The 54 year-old Satriani will still be providing those younger guns with plenty of competition between his active solo career and work with Chickenfoot. The gifted guitarist has been playing between two and two-and-a-half hours per night on his current tour, and it is difficult material to boot. When queried about his current and future set lists, Satch wisely says little. “If I tell you then it won’t be a surprise!” he replied. “Rest assured there are many new songs in our live set list at the moment, even songs from my very first record.”
Joe Satriani will be playing at the Best Buy Theater in NYC Dec. 13 and 14. For more info, go to satriani.com.