Joe Satriani has been exploring and playing instrumental rock/funk/world music (really any genre) since trading in a football for a guitar in 1970. This Saturday, he is rolling into Philly to play the Tower Theatre in support of his fourteenth studio album, “Unstoppable Momentum.”
Since releasing his first studio album 27 years ago, the 57 year old has been quite literally unstoppable. The guitar virtuoso has been nominated 15 times for a Grammy, toured with Mick Jagger and has sold more than 10 million albums.
He formed the concert tour G3 in 1995, which includes himself and two other guitarists (originally Steve Vai and Eric Johnson). While not performing as a solo artist, Satriani plays in the supergroup Chickenfoot (with Sammy Hager and Michael Anthony of Van Halen and Chad Smith of Red Hot Chili Peppers).
“Unstoppable Momentum” reached number 42 on the Billboard Top 100, his highest in more than 20 years.
Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to him over the phone to discuss his new album, creative process and tour.
How have you evolved as a guitarist and songwriter since you released "Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards" three years ago?
I think if I look at the major differences, back then I was thinking that it was probably the last album in a series of records where I was really focusing on a band sound and working with the individual strengths and high points of each of the different musicians. When I got around to doing this record ("Unstoppable Momentum"), it was following a year of playing with Chickenfoot. We did three G3 concerts, I did a bunch of Montrose Memorial shows and I kind of felt like I played with so many different musicians than I have ever done in a one year period that I wanted to do a record that was kind of free of a band vibe and really focused on the material. I had to bring in new players that I hadn’t played with before. That was sort of like the inspiration to bring out other sides of my playing. In the end, the biggest thing that distinguished the two records, that change that you asked me about between the "Black Swans" record and "Unstoppable Momentum," was this sort of recommitment to doing something really fresh, to start on a new trajectory.
How do you approach the guitar differently when playing with a singer in Chickenfoot as opposed to making an instrumental album?
Well the obvious thing is when you got someone as dynamic as Sammy Hager singing you got to make some room, but you also have to provide a really big environment for him to sit his vocals in, so that sort of puts the guitar player back into really locking in with the drums and bass and creating a really dynamic rhythm section. When I’m working as a solo artist, of course I’m the one doing all the melody work. Since I don’t have lyrics, I have to be really descriptive with my melodic playing. It’s very different from getting 8 bars in the middle of a rock song and just going crazy with attitude. Instrumental songs generally need a lot more than just attitude and the right tone for the times. You’re trying to make up for the fact that there isn’t a story being told with language. They’re both so interesting for me because I’m basically a rock n’ roll generation player. I kind of feel very comfortable doing both. Most of the rock records I grew up listening to always had an instrumental on it and so for me it all fits together naturally.
How do you prepare for an album before going in to record?
I think as time goes on I tried different ways of being 100 percent prepared. For the Chickenfoot records, I try to make demos at home. I make some MP3’s. I email them to Chad, Mike and Sammy. That was the only way we could be prepared because everyone was always busy with some other band right up until the four days we had to work together, so email was the way to be prepared. When I’m working on the solo records, since I’m the one dictating the schedule, I can sit down and create very elaborate Pro Tool sessions, create demos that are very complete, and then actually have those files in sessions available to us to play to while we’re in the studio tracking. There’s such a difference of being in a band and being a solo artist. As a solo artist, you got responsibility to come up with the direction, the vibe, the pacing, not only the material and the performance, but all that other stuff. When you’re Chickenfoot you kind of give that up, and you’re just part of a crazy party and you just hope that things get taken care of. That’s the difference you know.
Which do you enjoy more: touring or recording?
Let me put it to you this way. I’ve broken it up into a three point cycle. There’s the writing period which is really great because it’s totally private. It’s the only thing when there isn’t some camera phone in my face or somebody interviewing me or whatever you know. It’s just me and my instrument. I get to experience the wonder of creativity all to myself and that’s great, but after that I realize I really need to hear this thing exist in the real world and that’s the recording phase. So phase two of course is extremely exciting, challenging, nerve wracking, but in the end it’s one of the coolest things ever to sit in a recording studio and hear your music come back at you on the best sound system ever you know. But I tell you, by the end of the sessions you want to get out of the studio and you want to get on stage, so that’s phase three, which is playing to audiences around the world and there’s nothing quite like it. But then at some point at the end of your tour you’re so sick of touring you really want to crawl into a small room and just write by yourself. I’d say all three phases are equally important to me and I enjoy them in their own special way.
What can fans expect on your tour?
We have a new band. Bryan Beller on bass guitar, Marco Minnemann on drums, Mike Keneally is back on keys, but he’s also playing guitar on more than half the stuff, which is really exciting. He’s a brilliant guitar player. The band is probably the most different band I had ever to tour with. I guess it’s mainly because we’ve got two guys that are in Dethklok, we got two guys also that are in a band called the Aristocrats, a really progressive band, international band. Also, the three guys Mike and Brian and Marco have been playing together in different situations and in different bands for over 20 years, so they got great shorthand. They don’t really have to give each other more than a nod or a wink to do something incredible and in sync together and it's brought a whole new side of the live performance out of the catalog and especially they’re reinterpreting the new album. I really enjoy it. It’s just everything I’ve hoped for. It’s a lot more energetic than what I’ve been doing in the past and it seems to be electrifying the audiences, which is what we want.
Do you have any plans for after the tour?
We were toying with the idea of Asia, but I think it’s too late to spring that on everybody, so I’m going to leave a couple of months open for the possibility of a Chickenfoot set of sessions. I went out to dinner with Sam and Chad the other night and we were talking about how we might be able to get something happening at the beginning of the year, so I want to be careful that I have a couple of months off for that in case it happens.