By Alan Brostoff
Joe Satriani is considered by many to be the measuring stick for guitarists. Having sold more than 10 million records makes him the best-selling instrumental rock guitarist of all time. Satriani's new album, Shapeshifting, comes out this spring (April 10) and the guitarist will be on a tour in Europe. Before heading out to Europe, Satriani sat down with Goldmine to talk new and old releases, Record Store Day and the upcoming tour.
GOLDMINE: The new album, Shapeshifting, comes out soon. What can you share about it with our readers?
JOE SATRIANI: Yeah, it probably needs a little bit of explanation on the title. It's really an introduction into the idea that I wanted to sort of musically 'shapeshift' into a lot of songs that go in their own unique directions and not only require different guitar techniques but, more importantly, very different stylistic approaches to playing that required me to really leave part of me on the other side of the room, so I could become this other guitarist charged with playing this song. I guess I got hooked on that title Shapeshifting because it seems like that's what I was doing. The shifting of musical styles just seems like a guitar player who kept turning into some other guitar player. You know, I brought 15 songs to the band and we wound up using 13 on the album, and then added one more for a bonus track, so it wound up being a very successful experiment; and dreaming up a concept for an album and seeing it to its conclusion. But that's what the whole Shapeshifting idea is. It's really about changing the shape of myself as a musician to more properly address the stories that I'm telling through the guitar.
GM: I could hear all the different styles of music on this album. Tell me about the song "Ali Farka, Dick Dale, an Alien and Me." It almost sounds like the start of a joke about four guitarists walking into a bar.
JS: First and foremost I'm trying to pay homage and show some deep respect to two players that, although they were worlds apart in their style and where they came from, how they grew up and work their way into our world. Their affect on me has been very profound. The song started out quite innocently. I was fooling around with some software synthesizers, writing Q. music for a science fiction show called Crystal Planet that my writing partner Ned Evett and I have been working on for years along with Brendon Small, and I had this one thing, one patch that I thought was so unusual and it was the strangest combination of sort of west African/north African rhythms with this obvious robotic trance kind of tonality to it and texture. I was just going through it one day and I had my guitar on and I was just sort of moved to start playing like Ali Farka Touré. I was picking the guitar in a certain way and I thought, I got to do a song where I pay tribute to his style of guitar playing. I just thought it was so unique and there's so much that you hear in his playing that obviously was picked up by rock guitarists and sort of turned into things that we think were started somewhere else, but actually this stuff is coming from Africa, from a long history of rhythm and melody and harmony. So as I'm playing it, I decide, okay, I got to do the whole thing and I have to figure out a way where my character interacts with Ali Farka in some way. So I laid out this whole song which was kind of incomplete. And I was working on it last year while we were out on tour doing the Experience Hendrix tour and then the sad news came that Dick Dale had passed away and for some reason it clicked in my mind that I needed to expand the tribute song to include Dick Dale but I just didn't know how because they're so different. So, when I got home from the first leg of the tour I sat down and I thought, you know, it's like we were talking about the three of us who play the same guitar. We play electric guitars that got six strings on it, surely there is common ground somewhere and I can work this out. So I had to come up with this concept in my mind, like a little movie, that we were out in the desert at an oasis, late at night, it's a great party and Dick Dale, Ali Farka, a crazy alien and myself are just playing and having fun. Playing music for a party... and so what would it sound like, how would we trade back and forth when Ali Farka looks back at Dick Dale and says “Take it.” Where would Dick take it? And so that was like my mindset, and then I just try to make it as fun and energetic as possible. The funniest part was explaining this to the band and to (producer) Jim Scott. The looks on their faces was pretty funny, but they all got the idea, and everybody did their very best to make the whole thing a successful recording. That was the hardest part. To play like Dick Dale is so hard for me and it really required a lot of muscle. I don't know how he did it.
GM: You have a tour starting in April that takes you to Europe. Are we going to get this tour in the United States?
JS: Yes, absolutely. Yeah, the world tour starts in Europe, as you mentioned before, and we get back I think, mid-June. We take a few weeks off, there's a South American run that we do and then we will take about a month off and then we start the North American run in September. Those dates haven’t been published yet.
GM: Can you share with us what went into the Surfing with the Alien Black Friday Record Store Day release?
JS: Well, it's kind of an unusual story. I mean, the whole idea of getting the Silver Surfer on the cover of Surfing with the Alien happened by accident. If you fast forward over the decades and after several million copies sold around the world, we were just getting enormous pressure from Marvel when it came to relicensing the images for the artwork. I believe they made us an offer that they wanted us to refuse. It was so draconian and it just didn't make any sense. We certainly couldn't pay them what they wanted and give them what they wanted. It was way beyond just sort of bad business and servitude to them. Whatever you want to call it. Like I said, I think they did it on purpose just to get me to go away, which was sad because when we resurrected that character... they just want to forget about that.
After I got over just sort of feeling that they had done the wrong thing and they could have done the right thing so easily, I moved on and thought, “What the fans love is the music and that cover could have been black it wouldn't really matter.” So let's just move on. We said, "Well, let's do a new cover and let's once again make sure that the master tapes are in great shape." This is a very old set of two-inch reels. The original recordings are done on analog and degrades over time and you have to be very careful. You've got to bake it to got it transferred as many times as you can, to the best possible new medium that there is. This is all under the careful direction of my good friend John (Cuniberti) who not only recorded the record but has been really taking care of my entire catalog and maintaining the quality of all the recordings. John and I got together and said, "Okay, well, let's transfer them again and let's make sure that we get the best possible version of the original mixes and let's remaster it so that it sounds absolutely the best for today." Today it’s mostly streaming and thank God you don't have to master it like you did 15 years ago for CDs, when everyone was trying to make it super loud. It doesn't really matter anymore, so it in a way we've been able to go back to a more normal audio file mastering which is the way it was originally done for the album.
And I think it was because we had also spent last year doing The Squares anthology that I got in this mood of just sort of letting people see a little bit more behind the curtain. Although I had said 'no' for so many decades, I said, "You know what? Let's do backing tracks." John said that I was crazy because he knew I hated the idea of backing tracks for so many years but this time around I just thought it would be the right time because of the whole unfortunate process of dealing with Marvel and then the wonderful process of bringing The Squares music to life finally. I guess I was in a very expansive mood and it turned out to be a lot of fun because when you do backing tracks you can't just remove the main thing and leave the rest of the tracks alone. You must do a little bit of remixing to make it sound like a piece of music you can listen to. It's basically rebalancing, and John did a great job of not really changing anything but doing a little bit of a balance so that it didn't sound like stuff was missing.
GM: And then you decided to release The Squares anthology?
JS: Yeah, that was another cathartic process. You know, getting to that emotional roller coaster to say “Okay, I think I'm ready to show people this.” And you then go through the up and down of your big decisions. I think the main catalyst was working with my son ZZ on the documentary Beyond the Supernova, because we started out with that thinking we were going to do some background footage for a live DVD and then we scraped that idea and then when I saw the footage of what he was getting, we both said, "Wow this is really a movie about something," and it turned into this pretty revealing, not only process, but obviously the end product was very revealing about the artistic process while being on the road. And examining oneself and going back over time so there was a sort of opening that started with the making, and then finally the debuting, of that film and then getting streaming and putting out the box set. The whole thing was very revealing for me. I think it started this process where I thought maybe it's time after all these years of being in the public eye to share a little bit more and to loosen a little bit, instead of just saying okay every two years, here's a new album with a new concept and here's a tour. I thought let's just broaden it up a little bit because I think people know who I am already, so let's have a little bit more fun with it. That meant that I had to again call John and say, “Hey, John, you know I said 'no' for 14 years, well I think I've changed my mind entirely.” So, we decided to go with the concept that we're not going to release everything because not everything was good. So, let's just do the greatest hits like (The Squares) were a successful band, which we weren't. Let's make believe we were and take the greatest hits, the best recordings; let's remix them as much as we can and let's see if we can get a record deal and that's what I think was the ultimate irony. We finally got a record deal, after I think it was 39 years. I finally got the deal they wanted.
GM: Tell me about your record collection.
JS: Actually, I stopped collecting records when CDs started. The first time I heard the Surfing record I just said, “You know what? This is where everybody's going. I'm not going to waste my time with records anymore.” It was driving me insane. I remember, maybe more than the general public, because it the absolute headache of getting your record on an LP. All of the compromises you have to make and then all the things that go wrong with the pressing of an LP and all the returns, and they scratch, and nobody hooks up your record player in the same way. It's just kind of crazy, and so when CD came along, I thought 'great.' There is basically one format and I thought I'm just going to concentrate on this because this is what everybody's listening to and I have to really get into what my fans are expecting. I just went fully into CDs and I put all my records in boxes that went to storage. People always ask me “What's your record collection like?” and I go, "I don't know." It's a bunch of boxes. I have no idea if they're warped or whatever, but yeah I don't actually own a record player. Right now I'm looking at the double disk (record) of Surfing with the Alien and I'm loving it but I'm also very happy that it's available for streaming. People need music wherever they go.
GM: When you decided to record Surfing with the Alien, an instrumental album, was there any push back from the record label, did they question what could be played on the radio?
JS: It was a very interesting time. It is very difficult to describe the people and atmosphere, but you're right... I mean, there was no real market for instrumental rock guitar, that's for sure. There was kind of a niche market for total shred heavy metal stuff and there was an even smaller but strong market for fusion and jazz and things like that. But I've come along after doing a P&D (press & distribution)) deal with Relativity Records from my first album, Not of this Earth, which was a totally weird record. They didn't know if they wanted to really sign me as an artist and I did a showcase for them at the China Club in New York City, December 1986. It was a make-or-break kind of a show. So the president and everybody else with the company was there at this private party in Manhattan and I said “Look, this is my idea. I'm going to celebrate all the things I like about rock guitar from Chuck Berry to Jimi Hendrix and it's not going to be this evil sounding thrash metal thing." It's not going to be a fusion record. It's really gonna be just me showing what I really love about guitar. And of course, they did not like any of it and the president of the company really did not like the way I looked. He literally told the whole company that I didn't look like a rock star and he didn't understand why we were signed to his label. It was such a weird moment. I’m standing in the office there it in front of everybody and I thought, okay this is a weird start. But I played for him. I performed for him with (bassist) Mark Egan and and (drummer) Danny Gottlieb. Both of them had just learned the songs that afternoon, like "Satch Boogie," maybe "Crushing Day," a few other songs that were like a third of the Surfing record that I had just started finishing the compositions for and he totally got it. I think it was "Satch Boogie" — just suddenly the whole thing clicked in his mind that that was what I was. I wasn't like Steve Vai, or Yngwie Malmsteen. I wasn't Allan Holdsworth or John McLaughlin and he was just trying to figure out who the hell is this Joe Satriani. That show really did it and they approved the budget and that night we shook hands on a deal, and when I got back to San Francisco I started recording what became Surfing with the Alien. But it's stayed sort of dark until a year later and you know a few weeks after the record's release they started to call me and say “Hey, you know your record charted?” That was a big surprise and then right before Christmas of 1987, Barry Kobrin called, the president of Relativity Records, and he said “We have to figure this out. You should put a band together and go on tour.” And that's when I told him there is no band. I have never gone on tour with an instrumental act. I don't do that. So, he said “Well, you better figure it out.” It was really funny how the whole thing started and the fans just loved the record so much that they created this open road for me and I jumped on it because it was so much fun to have a record to promote that was truly reflective of my true musical heart. It was just a real gift.
GM: Do you remember what it was like the first time you heard one of your songs on the radio?
JS: I couldn't believe it. I mean, I think that happens over and over again to people and it is a singular experience that you could talk about for hours because when it's happening, your first thought is 'this can't be happening.' You grow up listening to everybody else on the radio, not yourself. It's just about as weird as hearing a recording of your speaking voice. You just can't quite figure it out. You know that doesn't sound like you, but you know it’s you. I've heard that quite a bit and it's so exciting and so great to hear and just to imagine that it's being heard over the airwaves by millions of people. It's really something. I think the internet was so exciting when it started because of the sheer numbers of listeners was something that was even more difficult to fathom than radio, because you know radio... you really don't know what's happening city to city. People can tell you ”we have to get charts” and they get published here and there and all that was totally old school when there were lots of rock and roll radio stations. The internet is real time, it's all around the world and when you put something out on Instagram and Twitter or Facebook of you playing something, the numbers come back right away in real time and it's very exciting. It’s one of those things where I have to say you ask yourself as an artist 'why do I care' and you can’t answer that, but you're so happy that it's happening.
GM: Finally, is there anybody out there that you would still love to get together and record something with?
JS: So many. You know, I've been thinking recently: another year went by and I didn't make a record with Robert Fripp and I really wanted to do that. And it’s always been my dream to be able to put together a G3 where we would have at least Eddie Van Halen or maybe Jeff Beck. You know, players I really admire for their total musicianship.