By Andrew Catania
For most musicians, just being nominated for a Grammy is a dream come true in itself. However, being nominated for the Grammy Award a total of fifteen times and selling over 10 million albums makes Joe Satriani incomparable to most musicians.
The Midas of all instrumentalists, it would be nothing but fair to say that Satriani indeed turns everything he touches to audio gold.
He’s the only guitarist left that has a deal with a major label. Not even Malmsteen does.
With his Shapeshifting Album, Satch sets on another career milestone of music excellence. I spoke with Satch this week to discuss the making of Shapeshifting.
You create your artistic expression differently with each album. I could pick up the Best of Joe Satriani, and its like a lesson in when you first came out and where you are now. And everything is just different.
JS: I try my best. It’s that drive that is difficult to put into words. I don’t try to understand it that much, but I just want to do something different, to break down any internal artistic and make myself uncomfortable so that I have to try harder to get the music out. It’s traumatic. It’s cathartic, I probably drive my family crazy during the periods where I’m trying to do something new, but I feel super fortunate, as you pointed out, I have the label, the people at Sony, for supporting me and never getting in my way. They never say don’t, and every time I come up with a crazy idea, they just say, how can we help? So it’s been a great relationship.
Sony has never offered or asked you to change the direction of one of your albums?
JS: The company is made up of some fascinating and creative people who excel in different parts of the music business that musicians like myself rely on. The A&R Department, the Promo Department, the Sales Department. When you break it down, there are people whom I’ve known for 30 years. This team is critical. I’ve got promoters around the world whom I’ve worked with exclusively. They are all part of the group, in a way. We enjoy music, and that is what we love, but everyone has a job to do, and it’s my job to come up with the stuff, play it, record it, and they help me in any way they can to get it done.
I get to together with my A&R guy at Sony Legacy, and we have lunch and dinner, and we talk about what we like and what’s cool and what I want to do and if I need help in finding personnel or locations. They come out during the recording process, and they hang out and just watch shit happen.
Your son ZZ did an excellent job on your video for Ninety Eighty.
JS: He is a super talented guy, and we pressed him into it. He was a teenager, and like lots of kids his age, he was doing a lot of skate videos. His skate videos were terrific, and he was out on tour at some point. People were telling us we should do these little videocasts, these podcasts, that you can put out on your website. I took a look at one of his skate videos and then asked him how we could do those, how do we go about it. So, he filmed the whole tour’s worth for us. He then taught me how to do the editing because, by that point, he was so bored with the camera and his dad that he said, here, this is how you do this so you can do it yourself. (Chuckling) That’s how that whole thing got started. He went to school and got a degree in moviemaking, and now he’s a young filmmaker in LA.
What creative direction did you want to go with your new album? Did you have one set in mind, or did you just play the guitar and let it go from there?
JS: it’s really involved, Early on, just showing up in a band in a setting and trying to write up some ideas can be really hit or miss. Recording is costly, and it’s a financial risk if you just show up, and you battle it out with band members. At the end of the week, you realize you didn’t win, and we still spent the money, and we don’t have a good result.
When I decided to work on being a solo artist, I thought, I’m going to solve that problem by being prepared and making a decision ahead of time. Presenting the tasks to the musicians, I designed to invite in and carefully detailing where their areas are where they can put in any ideas they want. If they’re going to change something, this is their space to do it in. I found out the musicians who within the parameters, these are your improvise parameters; this is where you can do whatever you want. And then for them to get through the session and apply themselves, and prepare themselves as well. This also allowed for people like myself, one person, a smaller budget, to go in there and get the biggest bang for your buck. You think about it, in the early days, I’d go into like a studio, a small room, not as expensive as some of the other places I’ve played and I’d be at. If you do the writing, making sure you’ve written the song the best you can, arranged it the best you can. You’ve laid it out in a perfect pro-tools file, and you make all the steps correctly, when the musicians come in, they appreciate it, and they are ready to apply themselves. I can relax, and I can start to enjoy it, and I can hand the reins over to my co-producer and let him take control so I can just be a musician.
How prepared were you when you went into the studio? So, before you went in there, did you know what you wanted to do? And if so, what was it?
JS: OH! I knew exactly what I wanted to do and had it 99% finished in terms of the composition and arrangement. They were about 50% done in terms of their guitars that were recorded. I had about a third of the keyboards that I had already recorded myself. I needed all new drums, all-new bass. The other two-thirds or more of new keyboards and I had to go in; if I didn’t play the guitar parts live, I did them during the overdub sessions. If there were things I recorded at home that we liked, then we would spend a few days re-amping, which is where you take the original direct guitar or recording, off of the hard drive, and send it out into an amplifier. You re-mic it, and you record it in an organic setting. There is a lot of organization that needs to be set up. You set up these drives to your editor and engineer.
I made all of these new and complete demos, which I sent to the musicians two weeks ahead of time so they could memorize their songs, write their charts and come up with different ideas. Pick the right instruments to bring to the session.
How would you put this album up against some of your earlier catalog? Would you say it ranks up there for you?
JS: It’s so hard because when I look back at the early stuff, my mind is flooded with memories of making it and why I wrote one song or another and where I was and what was happening. So, it’s hard for me to be objective about it. In a way, it’s easy for me because I’ve been around so long, and I can look back at the very first EP I did in 84. I can easily see my eagerness and my naiveté in the recording. When I listen to the Eponymous release, I can hear the slow maturity of a recording artist and how I’m starting to get more comfortable in the studio.
How do you think you’ve evolved as a musician?
JS: Hitting the right notes. I think that’s the most important thing, you know? Today, with the internet, the technique is….I use to tell my students, decades ago, that the technique is transitory. Whatever you do today that is brand new, everybody else in the world is going to learn it pretty soon. The power of a technical move is generally shared. It’s not the thing that the average, ordinary person wants from music. They want some kind of musical magic. And that takes a different type of practicing. It’s not like some trick of the fingers, and yes, if it’s the product of some foot pedal or amplifier or something, then definitely everybody else will do it. The turnaround is like 20 hours or something. Whatever you play, and you post, some eight year old in India has figured out how to do it better, and they’re going to
However, if you apply yourself and your unique individuality, to the instrument, especially the guitar, and you write something original, that can never be copied. Because you are you, and you are the only one. So that’s what I always try to grow into because I started playing when I was 14, and I’m 63 now, so I’ve been around a long time.
Will we ever see Chickenfoot again?
JS: I stopped asking everyone. I felt Chicken foot had a couple of albums world tours left. I loved my time in the band, but I think there will be no more Chickenfoot.