MUSIC WRITER IN JAPAN
22nd January 2016
Q: First off, please send my compliments to your art guy; it has one of the most original CD covers I’ve seen for a long time.
JS: Oh thank you! Todd Gallopo is an amazing artist. He has a company called Meat and Potatoes and they have tons of talented people there. He did all the Chickenfoot stuff, he did a lot of work for Sammy (Hagar) for his various businesses as well and he’s just a very creative guy. He does everything by hand so all that stuff with the cutouts, he does it with a knife and it’s all very artistic before it gets sent off to the record company and anyone who can get a picture of me anywhere and promote it I think is a genius (laughs). Then Sony were really great at putting the money behind the package which is always admirable.
Q: I read that Lost In A Memory was born around ‘87/’88 and add in that four other songs were from the Unstoppable Momentum sessions: is this the first time one of your albums has come together like this – across the eons so to speak?
JS: No. It follows a pattern where I do a lot of writing and then I start to gather it together. There will be a group of songs that are finished and then a sub-group that belong together and then a group that are not quite finished which would be perfect if I could only figure out how to finish them: Those are the ones that have to get left off. One of the earlier examples would be the song Time which was written and mostly recorded for Surfing With The Alien and I couldn’t figure out how to finish writing it and my engineer and co-producer John Cuniberti couldn’t figure out how to save it with editing and production. That ended up being kicked around for various records and then in the ‘90’s, Eric Valentine did a really great job adding his drums and production ideas until we did a full version mixed with the guitars from ’87 on it in ’95 but we couldn’t figure out how to get it on the ’95 record. It was Glyn Johns who said it was ‘beautiful but it just doesn’t fit’ and then for Crystal Planet (’98) I brought it to the guys I was recording with and said ‘Look, this thing is mixed, it just has these funny little moments in it – what can we do with it?’ and the engineer for that album, Mike Fraser, spent half an hour with it and said ‘I took out half a beat and did something else but I’m not going to tell you what or where’ (laughs) but it solved it for me. I was nit-picking – I admit it – but we wound up using that, a ’97 edit to a ’95 mix for tracks that I had written and recorded in ’87. So to answer your question, it happens a lot.
Q: So is there a lot of unfinished Joe Satriani tracks nicely shelved for the future?
JS: Yeah! Some of it is just sitting on a hard drive, some of it is on manuscript paper, a lot on QuickTime files on a computer and another good batch on my phone where I just push record and sit and play something and when I listen back I’ll think ‘Oh this is great’ but then every couple of weeks I go back and listen to all these scraps and I’ll often think ‘What was I thinking?’ but I keep revisiting them and they start to make more sense as I get more perspective on life and I think that’s what it is. For me, I’m writing music as an emotional response and sometimes I lose track off that or I don’t quite understand how I’m feeling about something until some time goes by. Then when I go back and listen to it again I go ‘Oh I know what this song is about’ and like with Lost In A memory, it just took more experience for me to handle such a potent set of memories and put it in perspective. It took quite a few musicians to help me interpret it as well.
Q: How do you name a track? I understand Cataclysmic which is an absolute aural assault but Butterfly and Zebra for example or Crazy Joe?
JS: The titles come first almost always. They are not necessarily as tidy, sometimes they are six words or a paragraph with a drawing but I generally get that title that arrives with the initial inspiration of the song and then focus on that and try not to stray and that’s what keeps the melody unique to that song. In the case of the two that you mentioned, Butterfly and Zebra has an interesting little story in that it’s about two people or two living things that fall in love and have a moment but realize that they are so different that the world will try to keep them apart. I was thinking about all the love songs that have touched me and in particular Little Wing by Jimi Hendrix and there is a line in there ‘Butterflies and zebras, that’s all she ever thinks about’ and that’s what it meant to me back then. It could be two young kids from two different groups in High School or two parents from different backgrounds. Like my parents for example: They are both from Italy but one was from the south and one was from the north and they refused to speak to each other! It seems silly right but I witnessed this growing up. I thought they were all Italians from the old country but still they carried this ‘he’s from the north/she’s from the south’ kind of thing and certainly when I was growing up in new York in the late ‘60‘s and early ‘70’s, race relations were very strong so you were reminded of this thing all the time. It has a very important meaning to me and so when I latched onto the idea of Butterfly and Zebra, I could see it. They were so different – it could be a Pixar film. (laughs)
Q: (laughs) Yeah it could! I get it!
JS: Now Crazy Joe, I started writing that for Chad Smith. I was writing a bunch of Chickenfoot songs and thought I had to write something that was just for Chad, something that would bring him out front. He’s irrepressible anyway – it’s not like you have to do something for him – but I started writing this thing and I quickly did a demo and wrote down the words Crazy Drummer and then I was called up for dinner. After dinner, I went back down into my studio and I realized it wasn’t about Chad – it was about me. It came to me because I realized Sam would never sing over a song like that so then I thought well if it’s about me, what should I do? How does it shift from being a showcase for a drummer to a showcase for a guitarist? Then I realized it had to be Crazy Joe, not Crazy Drummer.
Q: One technical question and I appreciate it may be a secret.: Would you care to let us know the tuning for acoustic part on Stars Race Across The Sky?
JS: Oh good question! Ermm…I know I wrote it down somewhere…(laughs)
Q: That’d be useful if you want to do it live.
JS: (laughs) Yeah…ermmm…I believe it’s like an E minor 7th…maybe suspended…kind of a tuning…
Q: Wow! That’s why I was lost on it.
JS: …and a half-step lower as well. I got on a thing of remembering this song called Clouds Race Across The Sky which I composed and recorded for record in 1999 which was the Techno record, Engines Of Creation. I always felt very strongly about the metaphysical feelings that created that song which was originally going to be called As They Sleep – it has a long story behind it – but anyway I really wanted to write more on that subject and I was spending some time in the house when I was getting over really bad flu, playing acoustic guitar everyday whilst I watched some guys working on one of the rooms of my house. I came across this tuning, wrote this song and realized that the guitar could not be played in tune with all these voicings – it exposed the acoustic guitar for being the mess that it is. (laughs) You know, it’s buzzy, it doesn’t stay in tune, it doesn’t intonate well when you play up the neck but I worked on this thing for three weeks and I wrote the melody only as a vocal melody and then once the housework was finished and I was over my flu I got back into my studio. Two things revealed themselves than which was that I was going to have to work hard to learn how to play in such a vocal manner which was going to take some training and that I was going to have to program the keyboard because the guitar so out of tune everywhere: There was no way to play that part from beginning to end and not have some clams in there. So to expedite the composing, I programmed the keyboard, playing it roughly and fixing it in MIDI (I’m not a very good keyboard player) and created a synth part for it. Then I brought it to the guys and said ‘Ok, here’s this weird song. I have no idea what the drums are going to do and Mike Keneally, I’m very sorry but you’ve got this part that is so repetitive (laughs) but I’m going to have to play this guitar part so I’m going to ask you to give me a beautiful piano performance.’ And you know, he’s such a genius, I handed him the sheet music and he just went right into it, learned it in ten seconds and there you have it. Then Bryan (Beller) and Marco (Minnemann) came up with beautiful way of interpreting the song. Bryan new that he had to be very stream of consciousness about it but I think Marco understood that he was the one who was allowed to flow. He had to keep the rhythm going but he could be very expressive while the rest of us were doing a dreamy stream of consciousness thing. Eventually I did work out the guitar part but I had to punch myself in all over the place and we mixed it quite low because it was kind of distracting. Very weird fingering and finger-picking once again was punching in and out – I’m no Tommy Emmanuel that’s for sure! (laughs)
Not of this Earth (1986)
Surfing With The Alien (1987)
Flying in a Blue Dream (1989)
The Extremist (1992)
Time Machine (1993)
Q: Each one of your albums starts with a different style of music and played back to back, they flow almost seamlessly into each other. There seems to be no formulae in your running orders, for example always opening with a fast track or a particular genre, is that something you were aware of when you were sequencing those albums?
JS: We took great pains to create different directions, new sonic palates and a listening experience in the listening that would be engaging from track one all the way to the last track. The fifth album, Time Machine, was a bit unusual in itself because it was such a strange compilation of everything. Mainly in that period you had John Cuniberti doing most of it and John with Andy Johns for The Extremist. There were incredible amounts of change in my life during that period where I went from obscurity to getting a brand new career playing with Mick Jagger, becoming a father, playing with Deep Purple…so much happened in such a short period of time and my artistic lifestyle gave me the opportunity to interpret everything. I do think I have been especially looked after – especially by John Cuniberti. He has gone to extreme measures to maintain the catalogue and re-master the catalogue. He’ll remind me when I’m a total idiot (laughs), he’s very good at saying ‘That sucks’ or ‘Do it again’ or ‘I’m not going to let you erase that’ – he’s really brilliant that way. In a completely different style, Andy Johns would recognize when I was good and when I sucked and reminding me of it. I enjoy collaborating with people who don’t mince words, people who truly get excited and stand up for what they think is remarkable. You know when you’re making a record, all sorts of stuff happens. When we were doing Chickenfoot, Andy totally went off the deep end and had to be hospitalized for two months; so many things can happen, children are born, people die, people fall in love. Real life goes on just within the microcosm of the studio group while you’re just trying to get ten songs recorded so the thought that I would have had the foresight to string all these records together – never! (laughs) Can’t happen!
Q: On your website it says that the box set has ‘brand-new digital re-masters for the best sound reproduction overseen by Joe himself’. Does that mean you were hands on in the studio?
JS: No. The way that it had to work because I was busy doing other things was the way I work with a lot of mixers and engineers which is primarily the four – the Johns brothers Andy and Glyn, Mike Fraser and John Cuniberti. After I have done recording all the parts and they really have gotten to know what each song is all about and what Joe wants, I leave them alone and go back in when they say ‘Come on in and listen to what I’ve got going.’ They’ll ask if I want anything changing but almost always it sounds great and I’ll just say ‘make sure this happens’ or ‘keep going here’ and then I’ll leave them to it because you’ve got to get away from it. Eventually, if you’re there, the guitar will be too loud or something you are enamored with will lose its perspective in the mix. All those guys I work with are very good at understanding how a finished mix should sound so in this particular case, I said to John just go and bring back the dynamics that were there before the insanity of mastering of yesteryear like ten years ago when everything was getting squished or when people didn’t understand Dolby SR. All sorts of things happened and things got tweaked because they had to be either mastered for an LP or a cassette or the beginning of CDs which were horrifying (laughs). So that was our theme. We agreed that we were going to let the listener hear these mixes like they sounded to us when we were at Hyde Street or Fantasy studios or wherever we were mixing. We wanted people to hear how it was before it had to be somehow contained in the media of the day. So John would send me these files or he’d come over because he lives right across the bridge and we’d turn it up and I’d listen to it carefully and if I heard something that really still bugged me I’d say ‘Yeah at 2 mins 30 secs, that guitar is poking out – I don’t like it’ or I’d comment that something should have been brighter or darker or something.
Q: There are two bonus tracks from the first five albums and personally I’m glad that you resisted the trend to add numerous bonus tracks to each disc because I always think albums should be a moment in time like a photograph rather than showing the evolution of it with demos, etc. Was that you intention?
JS: Yes and I agree with you. As I said before, there were two songs Dweller On The Threshold and Time that were considered and recorded and almost finished for the Surfing record but we couldn’t sequence the album with them even before we finished them. We felt like they were oddballs and when we removed them, suddenly the album felt so perfect to us. So there was a good reason why we felt that way then and I feel we should respect how we felt and how we made those artistic decisions and if there are leftovers, put them on a disc that says ‘Leftovers’. (laughs)
Q: Any plans afoot to head to Japan any time in the near future with any of your projects?
JS: We put it on schedule for sometime after October and it’s a big question mark because we generally do Europe, The States, Europe and then we start looking at the southern hemisphere. Asia is the funniest thing because we get these weird requests from China, Korea and all of South-East Asia and spreading out to India and it’s really one of those things that we have to think about the political situation, the disease situation and various other things: it’s not like planning a tour of Canada where it’s almost always ok. So right now we have no concrete plans but I do miss it. I have a history in Japan and love going there.
Q: You were here with Mick Jagger and Deep Purple of course back in that life changing period you mentioned. I recently spoke to Colin Hart, Deep Purple’s tour manager and he told me the story of when you turned up to play with them the first time and blew everybody away by playing the entire set note perfect.
JS: Well I love Deep Purple and I prepared myself. I had a week to learn the show and it was a labour of love. Not only do I love them but I love Ritchie and I didn’t want to tarnish the legacy of such an amazing band and they were all great. From Colin all the way to the guys in the band, they are a great group of people and good organization. I had a great time playing with them.
Q: Another topic entirely, it’s pretty well known that you’re a bit of a Science Fiction fan; do you think we are alone in the universe?
JS: My guess is that if I look at the diversity of life on earth, it is so weird, so incomprehensible that the pipedream that aliens have arms and legs and eyeballs and eras and tongues and are interested in probing our orifices is just laughable. What’s more than likely is that alien life is around us, we just don’t know how to see it. Hear it, smell it or touch it and they perhaps are also having a problem seeing that we exist as well. I tell people, take your dog and expose it to the internet and see what happens – absolutely nothing! there are billions of life forms in our guts right now that have no idea that you and I are doing an interview – they will never understand it – but it’s part of our reality and we are using the internet but most life on the planet couldn’t give a shit. They’ll never be a part of it but they are as alive as we are so that’s what I’m thinking. There was a book called The Demon Haunted World that came out many years ago and it really explained the fascination with extra forms of life and boiled it down to collective neurosis. There used to be lots of fairies and Leprechauns and you notice how there aren’t any anymore? Then there were gremlins and now they’re gone and now they’ve been replaced by flying saucers and little green men and sooner or later they’ll be gone and they’ll be replaced by another kind of collective anxiety in society but that doesn’t actually reflect where we are in the universe.
Q: Joe, I think we read a lot of the same books. Thank you very much for your time.
JS: A pleasure Glenn – nice to talk to you.