Interview with Joe Satriani

MER: Earlier this month you released your latest album Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards. You’ve clearly won the award for the strangest title of the year. What does it mean?

JOE: When I’m working on a record I start by looking through a book that I have of all possible album titles and come up with ideas of what I think the musical themes are. What was very obvious to me when I was looking over my song list was that every song was very different compared to each other. Some of them are very different to anything I had released before and that got me thinking of the phrase “Black Swan” that I’d written down years earlier after coming across it in a book. The phrase is used to explain something very unexpected that happens and once it has happened it becomes the normal or part of the new reality. There are songs on here that may feel like that to my fans and when they hear them they’ll go “Who is that?” and then go “Oh, it’s Joe” … then it’ll become part of what they’ll see as my style.

I got attracted to the phrase, but didn’t want to use it by itself as it was just too severe and I had visions of artists coming up with pictures of me surrounded by lots of black birds or me with wings and I thought I didn’t want to do that. I often look at a contrarian way of looking at things and think of the opposite thing to see if I can come up with something creative about it. I looked over the song list to see if there was anything totally different and “Wormhole Wizards” just jumped out at me. This is a song about the likelihood of there being a band of guys in the future who have this talent for opening up subatomic wormholes in space and travelling from one universe to another, and I thought that there was no way that these two concepts went together, but when I said the name out loud it just sounded very strong and it made me want to keep on saying it, so it ended up as the album title.

MER: It’s certainly a very varied album; in fact every track is totally different. “Dream Song” has a Funky vibe to it; “Premonition” is classic Satriani, while “Littleworth Lane” is a beautiful, laidback Bluesy affair, and “The Golden Room” has a mystical middle eastern feel to it. Were you looking to make an album that covered a lot of ground musically when you started writing?

JOE: When I start the writing process I don’t think about album production at all. I don’t want to put a jinx on the writing. I have found over the years that it’s better to write freeform and generate as much material as possible, then at some point I’ll review everything that I’ve done to see if there’s a trend, or a group of songs that work well together. This time I worked up 50 or so songs, and some of them were destined to become Chickenfoot songs, and some for my own albums. I then try to work it down to 20, then 15, and as I was doing this I realized that the ones I was picking out were very different compared to each other and some were new territory for me. I had, without thinking about it, created this theme that was the Black Swan idea where the songs sort of popped out and surprised you and brought you to a new reality.

MER: It may contain very diverse material but it still comes across as a very cohesive album …

JOE: I have to give a lot of credit to my producer, Mike Fraser, and the band for coming along to the party and for understanding what I was trying to do. In many ways when I present them with the idea they all thought about their own individual jobs and they were also looking to make it work together as a whole from their unique perspectives.

MER: “Pyrrhic Victory” could almost be something ZZ Top would do. Is Billy Gibbons one of your influences?

JOE: Absolutely!! Not only is his playing amazing, but his songwriting is truly visionary. He’s probably one of the only writers out there who’s taken Blues-based music and taken it into a whole new millennium. He’s absolutely incredible if you look at what he’s done with song structures. He doesn’t really stray from his Blues down home Boogie roots, but at the same time he’s a brilliant writer as he keeps moving the art form into the future.

MER: Many instrumental albums can be pretty hard work to listen to, but Black Swans is very easy to listen to. Are you conscious when you write to make your material based on strong melodies rather than just as a vehicle to show your technique?

JOE: I never write from a guitar technique viewpoint. Technique is so transitory. As soon as you put out something that has an unusual technique, everybody learns it and it’s value becomes deflated, so it should only be applied when it makes a song work. If you look at “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” all by itself, it’s nothing as everybody can do it, but without the composition the song falls flat, so for me it’s always about the melody first and then create a really good song structure around the melody. You can then look at your technique afterwards when you can ask yourself “What does this song beg for here? Does it need a slow or fast passage or does it need something more unusual or something that will help and enhance the melody.” That’s how I’ve always done it.

MER: It’s one of those albums that you can sit back to and really get lost in and let your imagination wander. When you are writing do you have images in mind that fit with the music or do you focus more on the music side of things?

JOE: I often like to write music that makes me feel that I’m moving forward at a brisk pace. A lot of people complain that they get speeding tickets when they listen to my music. I do like the idea of moving forward, whether it’s with your hands on the wheel of a really nice car or snowboarding or maybe you’re just fantasising of riding on the wind or flying or going through space or anything about moving forward. It is very attractive to me and I like to put that into my music.

MER: How different is it for you playing in historic U.K. buildings compared to the more modern venues in the States?

JOE: In a musicians career we wind up playing in all sorts of places, but every room needs to be attended to. I’ve played at my son’s kindergarten class, at private parties, and at theatres and clubs and in stadiums that hold 100,000 people. There’s something about the performance that’s always the same and that is you have to be true to yourself and connect with people that are there and the room can sometimes just fade away. At the same time though, when you’re in a big venue you have to gesticulate a lot. Mick Jagger once said to me when we were about to play the Tokyo Dome that it wasn’t like playing a theatre. He said he wanted everyone on stage to wave a lot so those people at the back knew we were thinking about them. If you’re in a smaller theatre, you really must make eye contact with everyone, even if you’re wearing sunglasses.

MER: Do you find that the acoustics in these halls tends to be better than the modern arenas?

JOE: They certainly do. These bigger arenas are made for sporting events, so the sound can be a bit tricky. I do enjoy the theatres as they tend to have great sound, and for instrumental music it’s great as everybody can hear and everybody can see.

MER: Have you been interacting with your fans to help you choose the set list through your Website?

JOE: We had a show last week in California as a warm up show and we played right through our set, which featured a lot of new material and a lot of material that we’ve never played live before all mixed up with some of our favorites. It was a really good set list and I have to say I’m extremely happy to be able to get all that feedback from the fans and put together a set list that we all felt really good about.

MER: Have you noticed the type of fans attending your concerts have changed over the years, or is there still a large number of guitar musos in the crowd?

JOE: It’s always been a very diverse audience. The venue sometimes dictates the type of audience, though, so if it’s an all ages show, then all sorts of people show up, but if restricted to over 21’s in a funky part of town, then you’re only going to get a certain crew coming along. In general, outside of the US, you get a much more diverse audience. That diversity proves that Instrumental music is a very powerful force and it has been for hundreds of years. It has its own unique power.

MER: Earlier this year you played on the Experience Hendrix tour with the likes of Brad Whitford from Aerosmith, Living Color, and also Billy Cox from Hendrix’s group Band of Gypsies. That must have been a lot of fun for you …

JOE: I absolutely love playing Hendrix music and to be able to watch those guys every night and stand next to Billy and Hubert Sumlin, who was Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist, Brad Whitford from Aerosmith … it was a real thrill every night.

MER: As well as your own solo work, you are of course also a member of Chickenfoot with Sammy and Mike from Van Halen, and Chad from the Chili Peppers. Your debut album reached No. 4 in the US Top 100. Have you started the follow up yet?

JOE: The songs are pretty much written. I wrote a number of songs after I finished mixing the Black Swans album and sent them off to Sammy Hagar and he’s sitting on about 10 or 15 songs, and he’ll be writing melodies and lyrics and we’ll meet up at the end of January to record Chickenfoot II.

MER: There are rumors that Chad will be tied up with the Chili Peppers next year. Will you be going on the road with a different drummer?

JOE: We’re just going to wait and see. Ever since we got together as a band we had the worst scheduling problems ever. It’s been a total nightmare but what we’ve learned is to not worry about that until it comes. We know that while I’m on tour now, Chad is in the studio recording with the Chili Peppers, and he sees a big window of opportunity open up at the end of the year and beginning of next year as all of his drum duties are finished for the recording. We’ll address the tour once we finish the album, but we are all committed to doing the album for now.

MER: Once your tour ends what have you got lined up for the rest of the year?

JOE: I have a week for the tour and then I have some shows in the States in December and January, and then I’ll be straight in the studio with Chickenfoot, and after that I’ll be on tour as a solo artist or with Chickenfoot.


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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