Joe Satriani has forged a career out of combining shredding, six-string histrionics with a penchant for ear-catching melodies, racking up 15 Grammy nominations (although oddly, no wins), millions in albums sales and accolades from across the globe. Thanks to his die-hard following, he has maintained a consistent career with Sony Music and is allowed free reign over his artistry, which is a rare and fortunate position to be in. But he has not rested on his laurels. On top of his solo career he has often toured with G3 (himself, Steve Vai and a different guitarist each tour), and he has recently been involved with Chickenfoot, the supergroup consisting of himself, frontman/guitarist Sammy Hagar, bassist Michael Anthony and drummer Chad Smith. They have a new live DVD out now and a second album in the works, while Satch himself has a new solo disc coming soon.
I recently chatted with the acclaimed axeman for a Grammy.com feature on paid meet and greets, and in the process we discovered everything from politics to rock stars hitting middle age to his recent picks in sci-fi literature.
A couple of months ago Sammy said the you guys were going into the studio in April. Did that happen?
Yes, we have. We spent four or five days together [about a month ago]. It was great. We just have this thing where we get together and instantly start playing, and it sounds just like Chickenfoot without any effort. It’s a four-way thing — four guys in a room. We start playing, Sammy goes up to the mic and starts screaming, and all of a sudden we go, “Wow! That’s great! What is that? Let’s record it.” Then we’ll jump back in the studio, listen to what did, arrange it and then we’ll finish a song a day. So we walked out of there with four really good songs that we’re hoping to polish up next time we get together. Since we live close to each other, Sammy and I are working on stuff. We’ve got a dialogue going with other song ideas as well. It’s great. It’s good to know that the band is excited as a unit to write another record, and the guys at Best Buy are behind us to accept another record from us, which is great. That relationship has been fantastic.
Are there new ideas on this record that we didn’t hear on the last one?
Yeah. On the last record I wrote a lot of music and threw it out to these guys. Since I didn’t really know them very well, I wanted to see what they would respond to, and I was really surprised. Like Sammy loving “Avenida Revolution,” which was called something else when I sent it to him. I didn’t think he’d actually like it. I thought he’d think it was too dark or something, but he had the whole thing in about five minutes because he was so inspired by it. It taught me to never try to second-guess what any of the guys are going to like. I tend to write sort of stream of consciousness. I write way inside and outside the bounds of what you would think a Chickenfoot song should be, and I see how the guys react to it. It might be something were Michael might say, “I really like that song, but could we do it in a different style?” Or Chad may want to change the beat around. Or Sam might say that he really has a set of lyrics and is searching for some kind of song, but he doesn’t know what it’s supposed to sound like. He’ll pick a piece of music that I thought was bright and cheerful and say, “I like that music. Can I write some dark lyrics for it?” I think it works that we all just throw stuff at each other, then we react naturally to it. People say, “Cool, great idea. I’ll try it your way.” That’s kind of how we do it.
Sammy seems like a laid-back, party guy, but once in a while he comes up with socially conscious lyrics. From what I’ve heard, politically he leans on the Republican side, but a song like “Avenida Revolution” looks at the plight of illegal immigrants coming across the border and goes against the stereotypical right wing stance on that topic.
I cannot figure out Sam’s politics at all. I know they can count on me to be the liberal.
It’s interesting because I’m a left-leaning independent, and I’ve come to believe that a majority of hard rock and metal fans are actually conservatives. I recall back in the ’80s how many of the thrash bands were really against nuclear war and conservative government politics, but when we had the Iraq war in the ’00s, we didn’t see that kind of antiauthoritarian stance right away. Many people kept silent. It was weird.
You know, the media gained ground in influencing people and how they felt about war and tying it in with patriotism, and it got kind of twisted up. A lot of people who make their living in the public eye really didn’t want to be cast as someone who was unpatriotic, of course. So even though they didn’t like war, and they thought diplomacy was the way to go, they realized that if they opened their mouth they would be branded as a traitor. We’re talking about people that need to get on planes every day, so I think that word got out in the traveling communities that if you want to be able to travel, whatever you do don’t say anything that gets you on the no-fly list. Or no touring for you.
That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way.
It gets twisted, and that’s part of the problem for anybody who’s liberal minded. They see that this erosion of civil rights is at the heart of what’s going wrong, and we understand why people are afraid. There is an undocumented war going on, but still the strength of the country comes by way, on many accounts, of the civil rights afforded to the citizens, and once you start to take those away, we start resemble those countries that we’re going to war with. And that’s no good. When you turn on the television, it’s this strange entertainment news battle going on, and it doesn’t really service us as citizens very well to have two cable news programs trying to out-sensationalize each other with their point of view. What we really need are facts and in-depth coverage of these very complicated and grave subjects. But we don’t get that, and I think that had a lot to do with that group of people that you were talking about suddenly clamming up.
Satriani on Hagar:
“Sammy calls me Gandhi half the time now.”
Getting back to Chickenfoot, the band has a good deal at Best Buy right now, but there are few bands that can have that level of success anymore.
The music business is still in the process of changing. It’s crazy. The music business has always been chaotic, but this particular thing is a downward chaos, whereas before it was always a chaos because new markets were opening up. If you go back to the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, there were these places to go. But now it’s sort of a retrograde chaotic thing going on here. I do believe that once again, as it was in so many other decades, that the musicians will just have a harder and harder time.
How do you think this is going to affect you and Chickenfoot?
I have to say we’re part of a very lucky group of people. Sammy, Chad and myself have other bands that we play with that are successful. Sammy has other businesses. I have other businesses with the instruments that I design and sell through other companies. It’s not like this is our only job and we’re working at the local supermarket to pay for personal time. We’re in a very fortunate little group. We’ve been working for a long time, so we have stable lives. What I’m talking about is that group that I used to belong to, when you’re in your 20s and 30s and working really hard just to get your foot in the door. When the door opens now, it just barely creaks open. Very few people get through the door, and even when you’re there, the amount of money that it takes to keep your place is just phenomenal. It’s very, very difficult. I’ve got to say that on the flip side of it, being the optimist that I am, I do believe that if Joe Satriani can have a career playing instrumental guitar, then anybody can make it. I started out by selling my self-produced EP through Sonic Option Network Magazine, and then I signed to a very small independent label that had a horrible office in Jamaica, Queens. We sold millions of records that way because we found our audience, and I was never asked to do anything different by either Relativity Records or even when I signed with Sony. [After] all these years they basically give me autonomy and just want to know when I’m handing it in. I can tour the Americas, Europe and Asia and can go from Québec City to Prague. It doesn’t matter where I’m playing — my audience will trickle out, and I get to play for them. I look back and go, “How is that even possible?” It was a long shot when my career launched in ’86 or ’87, so I figure that it is probably the same now. I’ve got to say that back then people took a longer time to consider stuff, and some art forms, even certain kinds of music, take a little more time than 15 seconds to evaluate. But the amount of time people spend evaluating music now is really short. YouTube equals the playing field. You can go on and see an unknown or see Beyoncé, and it’s the same venue. It’s your computer basically. After that, the way that the successful person operates puts them at such a severe advantage, moreso than ever before in the music industry.
When do you think the next Chickenfoot record is actually going to come out?
Sometime early next year. I’ve got about three or four weeks to finish making demos from a solo record, and then I’m in the studio in June and July. I’ll hand in my record to Sony in August, and in September, Chickenfoot gets together for a month of recording. I go on tour in October, November and part of December. I may do a little bit in January, and I think in February we’re going to do the last Chickenfoot sessions to finish up the album.
“If Joe Satriani can have a career
playing instrumental guitar,
then anybody can make it.”
Are there any new song titles yet?
I don’t think any of the song titles are the actual song titles. Except for maybe one. I wrote a song around a set of lyrics that Sam had given me called “Come Closer”. It’s a really great song. A typical story about how things get written — he had given me the lyrics when I went on the “Experience Hendrix” tour, so I was looking at them every other day for about a month, and I was writing all sorts of different songs. It was a long set of lyrics, unedited. Then we got together, and one morning before we started recording a few weeks ago, I recorded a different version of what I thought the song could be on piano. It was really kind of dark and dreamy sounding, and I just recorded it on my iPhone and e-mailed it to Sam. By the time I got to rehearsal, he was going crazy saying, “That’s the shit. That’s a song. That’s how we’re going to do it. Show the rest of the guys.” So I sat down on piano and played it for the guys, and they were like, “Cool, cool, cool.” I picked up the guitar and had to transfer the song to guitar. Then we made a recording of it, and everybody still loves that first recording we did as being a very definitive recording about where that song’s going to go. That’s how things get done with Chickenfoot. Any idea that somebody has gotten that they throw out and is cool and other band members respond to it, we go with it. It can happen just like that, really fast.
Chickenfoot has obviously been doing well, wouldn’t you say?
Yes. We found our audience, our audience found us. I didn’t think it was a stretch at all. I thought that it would be easy once we had the support of Best Buy behind us. I’m out here in the world, just like you and everybody else, and I know what people really like. It’s not all about what they see on TV, and the numbers would suggest to anybody out there, with almost any kind of music, that there is such a large population of people who are into music that even if you belong to a sub niche, that’s still a lot of people. And you can still have a good time and a great exchange with your audience and not have to keep a day job at the same time.
And it’s not like we’re seeing Chickenfoot videos being played all over the place either, right?
I don’t think the traditional support and the mindset of 20 years ago means anything to us anymore. Clearly the video support has moved on to Lady Gaga Land, and that’s great. All the production values that she has and the attention to detail of what she’s doing is great. She obviously found the largest audience out there that’s into standing up and screaming and shouting. Chickenfoot doesn’t really fit into that, but we fit in enough, otherwise we wouldn’t have had the success that we’ve had. I think it will grow as long as we keep delivering really good music. [I think] we can grow that audience.
We’re seeing a lot of rock stars hit middle age now, but it seems like the guys in Chickenfoot are aging pretty well.
We’re not doing too bad.
Sammy and Michael sound like they spend a lot of time in the sun, so it’s almost surprising that they look so good since some people don’t look great after baking in the sun for years.
I suspect that they use a lot of sunscreen and don’t go out in the sun as much as you think. I’m just not one of those guys that does well in the sun. I just stay out of it myself. Currently those guys are giving me a hard time because I went vegetarian about six months ago, so Sammy calls me Gandhi half the time now. I dropped 20 pounds since we did the last European tour, and they thought I just shrunk. But I was just trying to get back to the weight I was at about 15 years ago. It creeps up on you when you’re really busy making records and staying indoors. But all of us have different ways of having fun and staying thin. Chad is probably the most active, and he is the youngest in the band as well. He’s still in his 40s. He’s just a spring chicken.