Engines of Creation
Andrián Pertout speaks to Joe Satriani from San Francisco about his beginnings, his guitar sound, and his latest release ‘Engines of Creation’.
The Epic Records viewpoint of Joe Satriani as being “perhaps the most successful rock instrumentalist in recent history, selling millions of records and consistently packing concert halls, yet always preserving a strong musical vision, as well as the respect of fellow musicians and forward-thinking music fans worldwide,” goes a long way in describing the awesome talent of this modern guitar hero. The Joe Satriani story begins in Westbury, New York, where he takes on the guitar at the age of fourteen, to later study with two modern jazz masters, guitarist Billy Bauer and pianist/composer Lennie Tristano. In the late 70s, he initiates a teaching career, and becomes duly responsible for shaping the musicality of students Steve Vai, Larry Le Londe (Primus), Kirk Hammett (Metallica) and Charlie Hunter, among many. In the late 80s, Joe then releases the classic debut follow-up of ‘Surfing with the Alien’, which not only achieves platinum status, but also becomes the most successful instrumental rock record since Jeff Beck’s Wired. He is then enlisted by Mick Jagger for his first solo tour in 1988, and some time later, by Deep Purple, as a replacement for Ritchie Blackmore. At the dawn of the new millennium, he participates in the G3 tours, which incorporates the guitar wizardry of Steve Vai, Michael Schenker, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Robert Fripp and Eric Johnson. ‘Engines of Creation’ is his latest musical adventure, and represents his tenth solo album.
How did your initial break come about?
JS: ”I think the real break came in 1988, very early, just as the year turned, because ‘Surfing’ (with the Alien) was released in October of ’87. And it was up against Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, and ‘Dr Feelgood’ by Motley Crue, so it was a strange time musically and I assumed that it was just going to fade away. And then when I was in New York on tour, which was destined to be my very last tour, because we were losing so much money, and playing small places – I got a surprise call by Bill Graham Presents, who was doing a tour for Mick Jagger, and needed a lead guitarist. And that really changed my professional life, because within a month I was in Rolling Stone Magazine. And the record just kept taking off on its own, and I suddenly went from losing ten thousand dollars a week to making ten thousand dollars a week! (laughs) And you know, from playing in front of five hundred people to playing in front of eighty thousand per night! It was so profoundly different. And then towards the end of that year we actually made it over to Australia, and I think arriving in Australia with Mick Jagger and having a CBS/Sony release, ‘Surfing with the Aliens’, as I was there, made that record go double platinum there. As a matter of fact I have a surfboard sitting here in my studio from CBS in Australia. When the record first went gold, they made a really interesting plaque, a big surfboard with ‘Surfing with the Aliens’ artwork on it, it’s pretty cool. People always ask me about it.”
‘Surfing with the Alien’ certainly put your face on magazine covers. To what extent did all this hype affect you personally?
JS: ”Well, it was really one hundred percent positive. I mean, I didn’t really sign with Relativity Records till I was thirty years old. So you can imagine, I started playing drums at nine, I started playing guitar at fourteen, so before I’d left high school I had already spent time on tour. When I was in tenth grade, I’d be picked up by my parents on Friday afternoons to go and do weekend tours, so by the time I was twenty I was kind of burnt out a little bit, about being a professional musician. But still another decade of paying my dues, it was quite intense. And so they were all lean years to say the least, that’s putting it lightly, just barely getting by. And then I got signed to a record label to do music that everyone had told me not to do, that no one would ever allow me to do, and that I had done purely for self-development. And it was a friend of mine, Steve Vai, who said, ‘You know, this guy in New York signed me, and if he signed me, he’ll definitely sign you.’ So he said, ‘Let me send him your tape.’ And then when ‘Surfing’ went on to become a platinum record in many countries, it was a validation of an artistic quest. I had invested so many years to being an oddball, and all of a sudden people were saying, ‘Hey, we like what you’re doing!’ And I’d say, ‘Wow, that’s great, ‘cause it’s like, I’m really good at doing this!’ (Laughs) But to tell you the truth, that year, in ’88, when I had to start touring, I had never really toured in front of an audience, first of all, as the focus of attention, and then, playing instrumental music. I had always been in rock bands with singers. And there I was – people are usually quitting and going to school to become something else at that age, but turning thirty for me was really getting a record deal, getting a couple of platinum records and embarking on a new life in a way. It was incredible, and it paved the way for this continuing artistic licence.”
Your short list of former students includes Steve Vai, Larry Le Londe, Kirk Hammett and Charlie Hunter. What effect did ten years of teaching have on you as a musician and as a guitar player?
JS: ”Well, you’ve definitely gotta get your chops together when you’ve got some great students, some of which are making and selling records as they’re coming to lessons. That’s pretty trippy in itself. But the bulk of teaching is really hard work; it’s being attentive to eight year olds, sixty year olds, and people who are actually dentists, lawyers or carpenters. And it’s giving them what they want, and trying to teach them to get in touch with their anatomy, but at the same time learning that it’s very important to give them the gift of music, to make them feel better, which was my quest. When a guy who works the cable cars in San Francisco came in and said, ‘Look, I just wanna be able to play some really nice songs when I get home from work,’ (Chuckles) I thought, ‘That’s great! That’s my job, I’m a guitar teacher you know.’ And then after him would be Larry Le Londe, or Kirk Hammett, so it was quite unusual, the variety of students that I had. But it was good work, because my fingers were on the guitar, and I had a lot of time to think about what I really wanted to do in music. And I got very good at honing my understanding of music, because when you have to explain it over and over again, you start to get better at it, and then you start to understand it perhaps a little better yourself.”
Guitarists are bound to write nasty letters to the editor if I don’t ask you about your sound. What is behind the Satriani mask?
JS: ”It’s funny, right now I’m in this small room I call a studio in my house – somehow my son got the bigger room for all his stuff (chuckles). I’ve got the small room at the end of the hall, but I’m looking at this thing that costs about forty dollars, it’s a Boss distortion, a DS-1. And you know, for years I searched for the perfect Marshall amp, I used to perform with them endlessly, and they’d get stolen, they’d get dropped, or break, and someone would fix them and change them forever. I started to get frustrated about that whole thing. I used to use those little pedals at home, and then one day I thought to myself, ‘I should just bring these out with me whenever I have to play, ‘cause I’m getting sick and tired of this vintage amp stuff.’ And I thought, ‘You’re not gonna sound like Angus Young using this, you’re not gonna sound like these other guitar players.’ But one that I knew I loved more than any other guitar player in the world was Jimi Hendrix. And one day it dawned on me, that my hero was using a loud clean amp, and that he was stepping on the funkiest pedals he could find to make his guitar not sound like the era that he had just grown up in. He was trying so desperately to get out of rock n’ roll, R&B and blues. He wanted to step on something that made outer space noises, and I thought to myself, ‘That’s what I should do!’
“So I went out looking for a loud clean amp, and ended up with a series of Marshalls that had channels on them with no distortion. I then I started looking for that all-round combination of guitar and distortion pedal. I happened upon the first run made Japanese Boss DS-1 distortion pedal, and found that if you set it up in a certain way, if you’ve got a guitar that was sort of like a Strat but had a pick-up configuration more like a Les Paul, if you had a certain kind of string, and if you didn’t have to play chunky rhythm all the time, you had to play melodies, solos and stuff like that – I found that this was an unbelievable set up. Because it was quiet, and it was self-compressed, so it lent itself more towards the way that you hear melodies on records, which are limited and compressed in the studio. You know, by the time they get onto vinyl. And this is going back years ago, when there was vinyl; you’ll have to explain that to your readers (laughs). But of course now the sound of distorted guitar is totally different to the way it was back then. It was a bit more vintage-orientated; there was a lot of guilt about that with guitarists. But I just said, ‘This orange box is my friend, and any other box that sounds weirder is also my friend.’ I didn’t get back into vintage amps till 1995, because I was thinking, ‘No, it’s the guitar and the pedal, and I’m gonna create an unique dialogue between the two.’
“And then Ibanez knocked on my door and said, ‘We heard this little strange record you made and we’d like to make guitars for you.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t want a big fat distorted guitar, I want a kind of thin, responsive guitar that I can play melodies with. I don’t know if anybody else in the world’s got that job, so I don’t know if you’ll sell any of them, but that’s the one that I want.’ And of course we wound up selling hundreds of thousands of guitars, built on a very simple idea, a simple guitar with really no bells or whistles – these great pickups from DiMarzio, small frets and a compact radius neck. This was completely the opposite from a lot of my friends and what the trend was, which was broad necks, flat huge frets and heavy powered pickups. But I said, ‘I don’t want that at all. I want a round neck, small frets and pick ups that sound hollow, tubular and biting.’ So that I can use it with my pedals, ‘cause I wasn’t trying to drive an amp. So that really is what set up that sound, that people say, ‘How did you get that sound for that melody on Surfing with the Alien?’ And that’s what it’s really all about, it’s the use of that.
“And it’s survived as I’ve worked with different producers; like with certain producers we used to very quietly mike up the sound of this set up that I just described through a small Fender or Marshall amp. And we’d use different microphones, like C12As or Neumanns, that didn’t take a lot of sound pressure. And then of course I worked with Glyn and Andy Johns, the Johns brothers, separately; I don’t think you could ever get them in a room together. But Andy Johns with the Extremist record, and his thing was ‘turn that amp up loud, let’s put seven mikes on it, and I’ll mix the microphone blend in the control room.’ And that’s how we got that very classic rock sound. And with his brother Glyn it was quite the opposite, but Glyn got the fattest, warmest and most ‘you’re right in the room with the guys’ kind of sound that I’d ever heard in my life. Glyn by the way is the guy who recorded the Stones, the Who, the Beatles, the Eagles, the Clash and Joan Armatrading. Glyn has done so much amazing work. I did the album called ‘Joe Satriani’ in 1995 with him.”
Your latest release ‘Engines of Creation’ clearly marks phase two of your career. It also features a significant input from a second player; keyboardist, bassist and engineer Eric Caudieux. How did you collaborate together on the project?
JS: ”Eric and I met on the G3 live record, where he was called in to do digital editing, to bring together all the performances of Eric Johnson, Steve Vai and myself over the two or three nights we recorded. It was a lot of work just compiling. And then I invited him to the Crystal Planet recording sessions to do the same, because I wanted Mike Fraser to capture us live in the studio, which meant that we needed someone to be able to edit down all the performances. And I didn’t want to use tape editing with razor blades anymore, because I’d done that on so many records, and you know, once you make the wrong cut, that’s it, you ruin something, it’s very destructive. He helped out with what I would call techno electronic elements on some of the songs on Crystal Planet, which I wouldn’t say had one foot in the techno door, but half of a foot. And Mike Fraser would record us reacting to it, but the audience didn’t hear the techno part we were playing to, they just heard a rock band playing in a different way. So we were using the techno tracks as a sort of a catalyst to get us to play differently.
“And during that time, Eric and I were brainstorming, how we could do great classical, blues or electronic records just by getting out of the studio, and by getting in an environment where we didn’t have to worry about time and money. And a lot of musicians looking at us like they really wanted to go and have dinner (chuckles), instead of thinking about, ‘What can we do next on this song,’ which is what Eric and I really loved about making records, we just loved creating. It is just all the rest of the stuff that kind of wears you out, especially the nerves about how much money you spend per day in a studio. You can spend five to eight thousand dollars just being there, and not even get anything done, so we kept thinking, ‘There’s gotta be a better way, so that you can be more creative.’ And I brought some of these ideas to John Kalodner at Sony, and they were interested in me doing something in the techno vain. And I was like dying to do it; that was really the one that I was hoping they would pick up on. So they gave us the green light to just go in and experiment. Eric had rented a house on Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, and I lived here in San Francisco, so I would either email MIDI files, or send him DATs of some stuff I’d done, with no guitars, just on keyboards, and he would sort of open them up and develop them into longer canvasses. And then I’d fly down for a few days, and we’d just work on one song till we’d finished it; and then I’d fly back home. And we just kind of did that for four or five months. And it was great because sometimes I’d bring my family, and they’d be in the room while we were recording, because we didn’t use speakers or microphones, so my son could be sitting right next to me playing. And so we could be recording quietly something that would turn out to sound really savage. It was clearly a completely creative affair from top to bottom, it was really great.“
What have you got coming up in the near future?
JS: ”We have a tour that starts April 12, in the United States, first for about five or six weeks, and then we’ll be in Europe, starting June 20th, and that will last about the same amount of time. And once again we’re trying to put together a Pacific Rim tour, we hope to be able to get from Korea to all the way down to where you guys are…”
‘Engines of Creation’ out on Epic. For further information visit the Official Joe Satriani Web Site, or the Ibanez Guitars Web Site.
'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #72, April 1, 2000
BEAT MAGAZINE PTY LTD
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