Between his solo career and Chickenfoot, guitar wunderkind Joe Satriani is a busy man. And over 25 years into his career, his passion and power have not diminished. His latest album Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards has been selling well, and after he finishes up his current solo tour he will jump into the studio with Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith to record the second Chickenfoot album. Life is good for the legendary six-string slinger.
During his recent tour, I spoke with Satriani for a feature in the Aquarian Weekly, and we discussed many things for A.D.D. as well.
You opened up your recent tour with a bang, with that show in Northern California where the fire alarm went off.
That was pretty funny, but when you sit back and recount stories of tours, you realize things like that are happening all the time. It was kind of nice to get a break in between because it was our first show, and it gave us 10 minutes to check with each other and see how it was going. Luckily we were in this beautiful little town of Napa, and it was a very nice night to stand out on the street. It could’ve been worse. It could have been St. Petersburg on a freezing cold, wet night, which would’ve made it really bad.
How many minutes into the set did it go off, how much did you play afterward?
We were into song number eight, and that’s out of 22 songs. We just waited. We knew there wasn’t a fire, but we knew by law everybody had to get out. It was a small theater that only holds 800 people, so it didn’t take long to deal with. We said hi to everybody and waited. We later found out that there were two girls that were partying a bit too hard, and one of them decided to pull the fire alarm as a joke. It’s a serious offense, but they blamed it on a smoke machine at the time, when in fact it wasn’t. It was a false alarm.
Did you talk to fans on the street?
I started guiding people out the door, and then I was called back in to confer with the theater owners, just to make sure everything was cool. That way when everybody came back in we just started the show again. Everybody had a good laugh about it.
You went vegetarian about a year ago, but I heard that you recently started to eat fish a few times a week. Have you become a pescetarian now?
Yes, because I found it very difficult to maintain a high-quality vegetarian diet while touring the way we do. A bad vegetarian diet is really bad. You just wind up with too many carbohydrates and not enough energy basically. The other things have worked their way back into the diet, but I feel great.
Some people become a vegetarian for ethical reasons, other for health reasons. What was your initial reason for becoming a vegetarian?
It was purely on a whim. I was actually invited to a foot reflexologist to try a 10-day visit for 20 minutes a day to have this painful, traditional Chinese foot massage, and I kind of liked it. I really got to like the doctor, Angie Chan, who was doing the massaging, and she said it would go a lot easier if I gave up sugar, caffeine, all animal protein and a couple of other unusual things, because it was a process of her being able to get rid of things built up in your body. To tell the truth, I had a few weeks off and thought, “Why not.” I wasn’t thinking it was going to change my life, but it seemed like a reasonable thing to do. I would always walk out of her office feeling great. It was certainly better than acupuncture. It kind of stuck. I kind of got into it. I didn’t mind it so much, but the traveling is just really hard. To do it right, it’s a serious subject if you cut out animal protein, and that means you’ve got to combine a large variety of vegetables, which when you’re traveling in a rock ‘n roll band is very hard to come by. A rock ‘n roll tour is when you need the most amount of energy because you rarely get sleep, you’re always moving and you’re putting out 110% every night.
Is it harder touring in Europe or Japan than in America?
I don’t know yet. It was tough on the Hendrix tour I did through the States [this past March]. It was very difficult, and I came back from the tour feeling kind of week. I was only playing 20 minutes a night. Now I’m playing two and a half hours, and it’s tough. You need a lot of food.
“It’s better to do [your own thing] and then have no regrets. It would be worse if you thought that you cut corners to be successful and then weren’t; then you would just feel really bad about the whole thing.”
I’m listening to “The Golden Room” off of your new album right now, and I’m enjoying you bringing in some Eastern elements. It sounds kind of Indian actually.
It’s got some Indian percussion, and it’s a fusion of southern Spanish music — which is Moorish influenced and where the Middle Eastern vibe comes from — mixed with a very light dose of Indian music. Westerners just don’t get real Indian classical music; it’s just so heavy. It’s so hard for us to really understand, even all the rules associated with ascending scales versus descending scales. Their music is very deep. I almost cringe when I hear myself say that it’s Indian style because it’s really Indian influenced. That song is really about going back and forth between those two geographies of music.
Western ears have a hard time with microtonal music, especially dealing with just intonation and scales that have more than 12 notes.
That’s right, yeah.
On “Wind In The Trees,” you use the dreaded Auto-Tune function, but you make it sound interesting. What got you into Auto-Tune mode?
I was having a conversation with my manager Mick Brigden, and we were just going over general business music stuff. He made a comment that he noticed that every song in the Top 10 had a vocal that was using and abusing Auto-Tune. It was just a funny little comment that usually goes over your head and is just an observation, and then we started talking about it. It turned out that I’d used the Auto-Tune function on the trance techno record that I did, Engines Of Creation, in 2000, but nobody really noticed it. They figured they were synthesizer parts or something. It didn’t really make anything extra happen. Then we went on to talk about other things, and afterwards I thought that maybe I had approached it the wrong way. As I often do when I’m getting intellectual about something, I’ll think about what if I have a contrary feeling about it? Then I took the contrarian view: What if I liked it instead of hating it? What would I do with it? So I got the idea to play the software as if it were a pedal. A lot of guitarists plug into a pedal, step on it and go crazy. It actually opened up a new way of dealing with the program. Usually people lay down and then use the program to correct [anything that’s out of tune]. I used it the other way around: I purposely played out [of tune] to force the pedal to work for me. I did it in a live situation, and we would up with this unusual sound.
The title track reminds me a little of Ozric Tentacles. What inspired its conception? Any particular piece of sci-fi lit?
I was just thinking about space travel and how far away everything is from our little planet. Everything is light years away, and so any journey we take will have to take a very long time. The riff just seemed right for the soundtrack to a long space trip.
Would you ever consider doing fusion?
That was sort of a thing that happened when I was younger, and I kind of got disillusioned with it. It became rather cheesy sounding. I always avoid it right now. To me it was a style of music that got baked a little bit too much in the oven and then never went anywhere, but it held so much promise when it started out. The earlier guys that were practicing that had a big influence on my playing, like Allan Holdsworth and John McLaughlin, fantastic players and amazing composers. Their technical abilities and the way that they did things was innovative. But ultimately the style didn’t appeal to me at all.
“We later found out that there were two girls that were partying a bit too hard, and one of them decided to pull the fire alarm as a joke. It’s a serious offense, but they blamed it on a smoke machine at the time.”
Shred became popular in the mid-to-late ‘80s, and then it became a dirty word. With video games like Guitar Hero out, do you think there will be a shred resurgence, or will it just be music karaoke?
I don’t know. I’ve never been in that group. I just get associated with it because there’s no other place to put me, I suppose. If you look at it on the good side, it just means that somebody can really play, so it’s not all bad news.
You have been reading Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, which your current keyboardist Mike Keneally turned you on to. What’s the book like?
It’s a good book, but I’m frustrated by the fact that it’s not fast enough. I’m just dying for the thing to get to some faster conclusion, and maybe it’s because I’m used to these other writers like China Miéville and Dan Simmons who have more going on page after page. Or maybe it’s just because I’m on tour and I’m revving to go and not ready for a slow-paced book. I like the ideas expressed in the book, and I think he’s a good writer. The story is actually very compelling. It centers around a large event happening in the world where the Earth gets encapsulated by some force, by beings or some being that no one can figure out, and they don’t even know what the purpose of it is. As it turns out, time slows down inside of this bubble, and there are some really brilliant people working outside of the bubble. They start a colony on Mars, and then Mars gets put in one of these bubbles. It’s pretty interesting. I’ve got a fifth of the book left, and I wish it was faster.
We live in a fast-paced world now. Do you consider that when you’re writing music, or do you just do your thing? It seems that you’re given free creative control over your albums.
I got lucky for that. It’s better to do that and then have no regrets. It would be worse if you thought that you cut corners to be successful and then weren’t; then you would just feel really bad about the whole thing. I’m grateful for all the help and support Sony has given me over the years. They’ve always let me do as I wish and have done a wonderful job getting my music spread around the globe.