Guitar World – Joe Satriani Feature
How Joe Satriani Found Inspiration from His Fictional Alter-Ego on New Album, ‘Shockwave Supernova’
Posted 07/28/2015 at 10:29am by Joshua Miller
For many artists who reach the “double digit albums” stage of their career, inspiration often can be hard to come by.
However, for Joe Satriani—who released his 15th studio album, Shockwave Supernova, July 24—each album is seen as a chance to reinvent himself and test the limits of his guitar playing. The results don’t lie; he’s one of the most successful and innovative solo and instrumental guitarists playing today.
“I just approach each record like it’s a new thing and throw myself into it with total dedication,” he says during our phone interview from the G4 Experience in Cambria, California.
As a result of playing guitar with his teeth and a daydream, Satriani crafted up an alter-ego called Shockwave Supernova. The alter-ego, he says, is “a rock and roll animal” that tries to “draw attention to himself.” Throughout the album the alter-ego battles with his real self.
We talked with Satriani about how he still manages to keep things interesting. You can check out our interview below.
GUITAR WORLD: How’s the G4 Experience going?
I’m having such a great time in Cambria. It’s so hard to explain the people. It sounds funny when I say it out loud, but the sense of community here with all the guitar players is invigorating; it’s exciting, it’s funny but it’s chill at the same time. Everybody’s in a great space. The vibe is good and everyone’s chilled but the guitar playing going on is extraordinary. It’s been a really great G4 Experience, no doubt.
It must help keep things exciting and interesting for you.
Absolutely. Mike Keneally, Tosin Abasi and Guthrie Govan and I have been doing clinics with Marco Minnemann and Matt Garstka and, of course, Bryan Beller. There’s a concert at the end. It’s funny as the guys from the Aristocrats played last night and, of course, they look over to the side and a few feet from Guthrie all of the guitar players are sitting there staring at him. It’s a very interesting environment where everyone is being incredibly supportive but at the same time we’re all fascinated by how everyone plays because everyone plays in such a different way and everyone does stuff the others can’t do. We’re just so excited to see it just a few feet away from us.
It’s a very intimate thing where you get 200 guitar players together and put them in a beautiful setting in a place. And there’s so much sharing going on with musical information. People are walking around the grounds with their guitars on. It’s a lot of fun. I find it extremely exciting. I come away thinking there’s so much more stuff I want to work on.
As a matter of fact, Javier Reyes from Animals as Leaders was saying last night after the Aristocrats show and after everyone’s show, “Wow, there’s so much stuff I don’t do that I could be working on. I have to figure out when I’m going to have time to work on it.” Everyone ended up being invigorated and inspired by everyone else’s performances.
Shockwave Supernova is your 15th studio album. What do you feel about reaching that milestone in your career?
Well, the number doesn’t mean anything. I never think about it like I’m trying to reach a particular benchmark in quantity. I don’t think it really matters really. The Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa had so many records out that it’s hard to count. Jimi Hendrix only had a handful. But each of them had such a huge impact on the world of music. So I don’t really think about the number. I just approach each record like it’s a new thing and I throw myself into it with total dedication. And then when it’s finished I hand it over to the fans and then move on. I don’t cling to that number 15. Although it just makes my head spin thinking about that I’ve been allowed to make so many records. I’m very grateful about that.
How do you get yourself in the creative mindset these days? Are there any habits or activities that help?
I think every day I’m pretty much overwhelmed with what is happening around me in the world. The world keeps coming at all of us. It never stops. It’s an unbelievable tidal wave of stuff that comes at all of us in our lives. It’s normal but sometimes you have to deal with it in real time and at the same time you’re still trying to sort through all the things that have happened to you in the past. You have those moments of reflection. I never seem to run out of inspiration. It’s really quite the opposite. There never seems to be enough time to musically interpret all the stuff that is inspiring me.
With it being instrumental music, does it get tricky sometimes with avoiding replicating yourself?
I don’t know. All songwriters face the same problem. You’ve got to write a good song. It has to spark the imagination of people in the present. That’s who you write for. But at the same time we are creatures that need reassurance. So we dig back into our areas of comfort, our comfort areas of music. Very often I think if you were in a country band or you’re in a blues band or you were in a thrash metal band, you’d be able to recognize that most of your songs have these similar structure and parts.
And you need those parts, number 1, to properly fix the style of recording or style of songwriting. It’s one of those things where if suddenly on a country record you had a song that was outfitted with guitars and rhythmic patterns it would be kind of a wrong move. So when you’re trying to do a [instrumental] album like that you try to stretch the boundaries with your new ideas but you also present it in a way that it makes sense to you as a musician and to all the music you’ve ever created.
In a way, I think a pop artist has a little bit of an advantage because they’re almost expected to make 180-degree changes now and then, where Lady Gaga can go from disco to playing with Tony Bennett. It’s seen as a career enhancer. It’s a little harder if you’re known as a fusion guitarist and suddenly you put out a punk record. I think that would be a harder sell. I think mainly it’s because there’s so much information in the human voice that when someone begins to sing you hear their personality first and then you start to listen to their message or their new style. A instrumentalist or even a guitarist, it’s a harder thing to do.
But it’s a challenge that I think faced all the classical composers and a lot of the jazz composers. They primarily worked in a instrumental form. So it’s not like it’s new, that no one’s ever done it before. You can learn a lot from 400 years of classical music and you can see how those composers shifted the form of their compositions but kept their unique composing personality in tact so you always knew when you heard Mozart that “Oh, Mozart only does that.” That’s unmistakably his touch even though he’s moving forward and pushing the boundaries of musical form for his era. I think of it in the same way. I want my guitar to sing. I want it to be very expressive. If I need to play a million notes, I’ll do it. If I need to play just three I’ll do it. I never argue with where the art wants to take me.
You got the idea for this album originally by playing the guitar with your teeth. Why do you think that help get the creative juices flowing?
It’s a funny thing, when you go out on tour and you grow into the gig. You sort of become a rock and roll animal. It’s different from hanging out at home and working in a studio and having a normal life. All you do out there is all about performing. And things happen to you. I did notice after awhile that something I used to do once a week for a goof, which is play the guitar with my teeth, I was maybe doing three, four, five, six times a night, and it was starting to feel really natural. So I was thinking like, “Well that’s really strange, who’s making me do that? Is it some alter ego inside of me?” That takes over when I hit the stage and is not embarrassed to be dropping to his knees and playing with his teeth. It makes for a fun night for the audience.
I guess out of that was a daydream that there would be a struggle at some point between the real Joe and the alter-ego that called itself Shockwave Supernova. Which is a ridiculous name, but somebody who was an outgoing, extravert performer, of course would pick a name like that to draw attention to himself. I sort of amplified the day dream where I felt if it were a movie it would be pretty funny to see this internal struggle between being the real person and their alter-ego. But eventually the real Joe convinces the alter-ego that in fact has to evolve into something better. You have to evolve into a better musician and a better player.
And the songs on the album, the 15 songs, are really the reflections of the alter-ego as he goes through all the things that he feels he accomplished and all the trials and tribulation he went through that was really his real life. He gets to the last song, “Goodbye Supernova,” and that’s where he protests once more time in those minor key verses but then eventually during the breakdown he succumbs to re-birth and he rides off into the sunset knowing that it was a good idea to evolve into something better.
I felt the story, although it’s a crazy and lofty story, the analogy is that we all go through that. We all do on a daily basis. You get home after a crazy day and you go, “Wow, I’m going to have to be a better person to get through more days like this.” You go through the whole day in your head and finally before you go to sleep you’re like, “OK, I’ve got to sort it all out, I know what I’m going to do tomorrow and I’m going to be able to deal with it better.” Or I’ll have better ideas or be a better person. I was fascinated by that whole daydream and how it inspired me to write new material and to look over the material I already had and rewrite and re-record and re-arrange so that it would help bring this narrative to the fans.
At the same time I was sensitive in that any of the songs could be taken out of context and they would be really enjoyable, where the audience didn’t need to know about the concept. I feel the concept was just for me and maybe the other guys in the band if I felt it was important to certain songs where I was asking them to play it a certain way. It’s a long explanation to your question but it’s one of those questions that takes a lot of explaining.
What was the hardest song to write?
I think the hardest song for me to write and perform is maybe “Stars Race Across the Sky.” From a guitar player’s point of view, it utilizes an unusual tuning on the acoustic guitar. The acoustic guitar pretty refused to behave as intended when doing this particular fingering, just because of the nature of guitars. And the constant finger-picking is very challenging. I wound up having Mike Keneally double my part on the piano because I felt I need something that was smoother and more stream of consciousness. Then this Latin swing of the melody…it took about three weeks of me playing and singing. That’s what I did.
I would work on that acoustic guitar part and would sing the melody until I thought it was completely singable. And then I went to play and I was like “wow.” When you’re a guitar player you don’t want to play that way so I had to instruct my playing to be more vocal like. But I didn’t want it to be like I was imitating a singer. I still made it very guitar like. I find it hard to explain to people, but when you come up with a new melody that you know demands a very special set of playing parameters it really does take a long time to get rid of all the other things. So that particular performance of the melody does not sound like any other song that you’ve done.
And the reason why I think about it this way is that I always think a singer writes a song and their lyrics and that song, they’d never sing the same song two or three times on an album. They have a song about a sunny day and have a song about driving in the car, song about I met a new girl, a song where I had a cigarette looking out into space.
Unless you’re in a blues band where it’s OK to write the same song a couple times, those lyricists are always looking to be as original as possible with their song. They have to come up with a unique chorus and the lyric approach is poured over as the most important thing. And for I look it the way I display the melody on the guitar. It’s almost like I have to find a unique set of words and the allegory or connection or similarity between vocabulary is what I’m really focusing on. So a lyricist has to have a great command of the language and I think somebody that’s going to play melodies on the guitar has to have a great command of their language. The musical language and how you pick it when you slide, what kind of vibrato when you do vibrato, what pickup do you use, all that kind of stuff that you may think is more general. For me it’s ultra-specific song after song after song.
As you’ve written more music has songwriting come quicker or is it on a song by song basis on quickness?
I’m always surprised by how songs you think are going to be easy wind up being tricky. The ones you think conceptually when you start that are going to be hard they seem to fall into place really easy. Starting out I wouldn’t ever try to guess and change my method of writing based on expectation of success. I would go into it blindly like whatever I’m writing was the best thing ever. And why wouldn’t it turn out glorious? I was approaching it with the most positive attitude so that I feel that I can bring all my experience to there on the process. But you never know. Sometimes it’s very subtle.
For this record, I did have five tracks that were almost completed by the last record’s band with Vinnie Colaiuta and Chris Chaney and Mike Keneally. We had 16 tracks completed for the album but I really felt that those five were not really ready yet. So I pulled them from that record and asked John Cuniberti to remix them for so I could get a different perspective on maybe what I had left out. And sure enough, that’s what it took. When I heard John’s different approach from the one I had taken with Mike Fraser, I realized “Oh that part has to go” or “I need an extra melody here” or “I need a solo here and take that that solo.” We started to edit it like you were still in the writing process but that took two years, really, of thinking and reimagining the story that I was trying to tell. But back when I started doing those songs I just thought they were going to fall into place, easy as pie. But I was surprised, a good surprise in the end I suppose.
Can you talk a little bit about the guitars you used on the album?
Although we bring a ridiculous amount of guitars to the sessions, I think I only used a handful. I used primarily my 2410 and 2450 [Ibanez JS Series guitars] so that would be the orange and purple. Older bodies and some of them had sustainers in the neck pickups. I’ve been favoring these guitars the past few years. I like the older wood and how the JS body sounds. We had some unusual guitars that would show up. Like for the title track, along with those guitars, that also features an Epiphone Les Paul 12-string and an old Fender electric 12-string that were all part of the ensemble.
I also used once again a prototype that Iabanez and I have been working on which is basically a JS guitar that looks like it has three separate coils. It’s actually 3 Satch Tracks that Steve Blucher at DiMarzio made for me. We’re almost at the finishing stage of those guitar design. So I’m hoping maybe within a year we get to release that. It’s like a Strat with something extra. We’ve brought some more slap and power and I took a wider palate of 3 thing pickup design. And my acoustics are on there. I’m sure there’s one track of my teley and strat, maybe a Les Paul here and there.
At the beginning and end of the song “If There Is No Heaven” I borrowed a friend’s 59 Gretsch Chet Atkins guitar but you can barely tell because it’s backwards. It sounds like it’s from outer space. It’s funny – you use instruments because of their straight-up sound and other times you use them only because they’re inspiring you to do something different and you’re not really recording them in a way that shows their unique personality. You’re actually using it as a device to physically and emotionally get you to play something different. So I think that’s the best explanation of why the unusual guitar shows up. The Epiphone 12-string makes no sense but I got to the studio that day John said “you should really listen to your demo and play slide on electric 12-string.” And I was totally unprepared for it. But the two electric 12-strings I had in the studio were my old Fender and a 1998 Epiphone 12-string. So we were like “Let’s try it.” We were able to circumvent the problems the two guitars brought and came up with a composite recording that features not only those two guitars but also my JS 2410. So now when I listen I can hardly tell the difference except for the solo which is pretty obvious.
One of the things I like about the album is that it’s so sonically diverse track to track. It’s kind of a bit of everything.
Yeah. When you want to tell a story like this you have to have a lot of variety. So you’re going to go from “Crazy Joey” to “Butterfly and Zebra.” It’s just a lot of music thrown at you to try to tell the story of this emotional turmoil of this alter-ego. Like I said it’s a crazy concept and the audience doesn’t need to know about it one of the things we did to unify it was the recording style was very dynamic and high-fi all the way through the mastering. So we didn’t want to present a heavily limited or compressed sounding record. We actually thought, “Let’s go the other way and give the audience a treat so they hear the way it sounds to us when we’re in the studio. Very dynamic, lot’s of volume changes.
I think that’s what makes great records last a long time because they hold up to repeat listens at all volumes, especially if you listen to it loud. It always sounds better if it’s a dynamically recorded record. So that was part our MO for doing this record was it’s going to be long and since we’re going to be telling this complex story we’ve better make this the most wonderful thing to listen to. That can be challenging when it’s distorted guitar you’re dealing with. So it was a labor of love and task we were really excited to take on.
Can you talk about your backing band a little bit?
The album contains two or three bands. There’s four or five songs that feature Chris Chaney, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, and the majority of the material has Marco Minnemann on drums and the song “All My Life” has Bobby Vega on bass and Tony Menjivar on percussion. Bryan Beller played on it too. Mike Keneally and I are on everything. I think John is on there with tambourine and percussion. They lend their talents to the songs to make them work.
Are there any qualities you look for in backing musicians?
You want them to be good. You want them to come in with the attitude that they’re coming into to create some magic somehow. You want them to be musicians with big ears and a lot of experience. And the most important thing is to elicit unique performances from people. So they having to be very giving, very daring, have to be honest and I think a good nature goes a long ways when you’re in the studio and live.
You’ve worked a lot with John as a producer over the years. Why do you think you two work so well together? Why did you think he could help you pull off your vision for this album?
John has great engineering chops and amazing ears, which sets me free to be the artist, composer and performer when in the studio. When we work together he always provides me with the right blend of encouragement, prodding and even a good argument now and then. Collaborating with him helped make the concept of “Shockwave Supernova” a reality.
You have a sci-fi animation series in the works. What’s it been like working on that? How is music involved?
Writer and animator Ned Evett and I have jumped into this animated series “Crystal Planet” like two kids with their first rock band! We bring different talents to the project as we try to tell the story of our hero Satchel Walker. Writing and recording the music for the show has been liberating. Whether it’s a bank of short, 10 second sci-fi-guitar noises or song length tracks with free-from solo improvs, the whole process is new enough to inspire me to play and produce in new ways. The series is music driven as much as it is an epic tale of good versus evil.
How do you think you’ve been able to keep shred guitar alive during eras like the ’90s when it wasn’t as popular? How does it feel to have players bringing shred guitar mainstream again?
It’s always been about the song. Write the best songs you can with strong melodies, inspiring grooves and unique harmonies. The right technique will follow. I’ve never been interested in technique for techniques sake.
You did a tribute to B.B. King with Steve Vai and a few other players recently. Could you talk about that and the importance of paying tribute to fellow guitarists?
Paying tribute to B.B. King with Mike Keneally, Tosin Abasi, Steve Vai and Brendon Small was important to me. To be with my friends on stage, all great musicians in their own right, with their own unique styles, paying respect to one of our heroes made the night special. B.B. King should be saluted, remembered and honored.
You’re planning on touring the U.S. next year. Could you tell me a little bit about those plans? Any plans for Chickenfoot?
The Shockwave Tour will start in Europe this September, then continue in the U.S. starting late February. The band will feature Bryan Beller on bass, Marco Minnemann on drums and Mike Keneally on guitar and keyboards. I love playing with this band! They are awesome players and always hit the stage with a good vibe ready to try something new and bring the audience to their feet. Chickenfoot? Not likely.