Joe Satriani Surrenders to the Voices in His Head

January 30, 2014
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“I always have themes churning around my head before i compose an album,” says Joe Satriani, with an audible “wink” present in his speech. “the challenge is waiting to see which ones rise to the top and engage me. Then, it’s about preparation and having the guts to say, ‘I might fail, but I’m going to go out in a blaze of glory [laughs].’”

Sitting on a couch in one of the lounges at Skywalker Sound—George Lucas’ gorgeous technical facility in northern Marin County, California—Satriani has just finished the “pre-flight check” listen of his new album, Unstoppable Momentum [Epic]. Written on a long sheet of paper taped to a wall in the control room is a musical to-do list of elements that must be completed before the songs can be mixed, and Satch is almost giddy as he marks the final “Xs” in the last column of each song. Engineer and co-producer (with Satriani) Mike Fraser runs the rough mixes for the production team, and everyone is still bopping around, obviously enjoying the tracks—even after listening to these songs take shape from basics to overdubs to rough mixes for weeks. It’s a good sign.

It’s also a jam-packed day for the ceaselessly multitasking Satriani. In addition to his critical “make sure absolutely nothing more needs to be done to these songs” evaluation, he’s doing this interview for the Guitar Player community, and filming some video promos for the latest series of his Ibanez signature-model guitars. So when Fraser and Satriani nod that all is well, and the last “X” is drawn next to the last song, you can hear the exuberance, relief, and joy in the guitarist’s voice when he says, “Let’s pack it up!” It’s a quite literal command, actually, as an armada of Satriani’s amps and guitars has been left set up in the main studio, just in case another guitar part was deemed necessary after listening to each track. Moments later, the studio doors open up and road cases start rolling in and out.

“There’s a big pile of stuff in there,” says Satriani, nodding towards the studio’s enormous tracking room, “and I’m selling a bunch of it. There’s gear I’ve lugged around for like six albums, and every time we’ve plugged it in, we all say, ‘Nope.’ So what am I keeping it for? I have to remind myself that I’m not in the storage business.”

But the storage theme remains a factor in Satriani’s creative process, as he has absorbed myriad styles, licks, tones, song arrangements, and production concepts throughout his life as a guitarist. Often, like thinning out his herd of guitar gear, Satch has narrowed his musical focus to a few themes or ideas that wrap around a specific album. Then, he typically constructs comprehensive demos in his home studio that manifest the vision.

For Unstoppable Momentum, however, he kind of, well, stopped being strictly defined. He didn’t do charts for the studio players. He didn’t use his demos as a precise roadmap. He didn’t limit his compositions to a singular theme or concept. He didn’t reveal the actual titles of the songs during recording, because he didn’t want the musicians determining what a song was about before they started working on it. And, at times, he didn’t even view his own guitar as the main instrument to present a melody. As a result, Unstoppable Momentum is an almost living, breathing statement of not only a meticulous artist’s surrender to his muse, but also an example of what can happen when you allow outside forces to bend, shape, and evolve the creative elements you’ve birthed in solitude.

Even just hearing a few of the roughs in the control room, it’s obvious there are some surprises on this album. Was that your plan through pre-production and actual recording?
As soon as I finish mixing one record, I start thinking, “What am I going to do next?” Then, when I’m on tour playing the material, I’m seeing with hindsight where I really wished it had gone. It could have been faster. It could have been slower. It could have been sweeter or angrier. All of this “discontent” informs what I do on the next album [laughs]. So in the early stage of Unstoppable Momentum, I primarily focused on wanting to be more melodic, and to have more interesting harmony. I also wanted to work with players who would play things I didn’t expect. I thought that would be very challenging and a lot of fun. So it started at home, of course, because I had to push myself to write the material I had set my sights on. But when I got into the studio, I knew that to make the second part of the plan work, I couldn’t hand out charts. I would have to play my group of songs as they were setting up their gear, and then say, “By the way, these are the 16 songs we’re going to be working on.” They had to be free to interpret the music in their own way, make their own charts, and take me on a ride where I’d have to react to their performances as a player—rather than as the composer.

The studio band you assembled was Mike Keneally on keyboards, Chris Chaney on bass, and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums. Could you detail each player’s contribution to the album, and how their playing challenged and/or inspired you?
Mike is just an unbelievable musician with huge ears. He can handle the sweetest thing and the most cacophonous thing. He’s a person who adds and adds and adds, and refines the direction that maybe you weren’t even aware of. Even his decisions on which keyboard to play affected how everyone else played, and added to the moment, which was what Fraser was always looking for—magical moments where all of us came together and did something worth recording. It helps, of course, that Mike’s a virtuoso keyboard player, and also that he’s a virtuoso guitar player. He doesn’t question my weird guitarist’s way of thinking. He totally gets where I’m coming from.

You’ve played with a ton of great drummers. What did Vinnie bring to the table that informed your performances on the record?
I was just so excited that I was going to actually work on something new with him. We once did “Satch Boogie” and “House Full of Bullets” at a Les Paul birthday party, but that was just barely scratching the surface. I knew there was something between us that MAKE

we could capitalize on. It turned out—as with most really good pairings of musicians—that it’s the roots that tie you together. There’s a lot of soul and funk music that we really love, so we’d be doing that stuff in-between takes. We would go off on a tangent, and then get back down to the take.

My demos had loops or very simple drum machine patterns, and I tried not to be too suggestive during the sessions—other than to say, “Here are the accents.” But he turned things around with every take. There were times where I’d go, “Wow, Vinnie just played right through that part where I always stopped, and then he stopped at that part I always played through.” I’d wonder, “Why did he do that?” And then we’d give it a few listens and realize that Vinnie’s way was much better. He basically dismantled and rebuilt just about everything with a new feel that made each song more functional as an arrangement and more fun to listen to. He just added so much life and spice and pizzazz and wow factor on every track.

And Chris?
I was hoping to draw the desire out of the rhythm section to really dig deep. I wanted them to try to unlock the secret of the songs, and say, “I think this is really going to make it work.” So I knew I had to find a bass player who understood rock guitar and noise and managing noise and creating a moment in rock—none of which usually has anything to do with what you write down on a page. You have to learn to drift away from the chart, and also have the ability to pull yourself back. I think it’s the same muscle that sends you out into the stratosphere, because walking on the edge allows you to come back in. I had forgotten about Chris until Mike Boden, our editing engineer, mentioned him offhandedly. It was like, “Oh, of course! He does movie soundtracks every day, he’s in studios all the time, he has all the right instruments, he can play with a pick or his fingers, and he comes in and nails it. In addition, he knows 50 shades of Motown and can lay down a funk groove. Chris’ diversity and touch was important, because the feeling of the groove really allows you to bring in the melody, and I didn’t want just any old cookie-cutter groove with this guy playing lots of guitar on top.

The demos Chris heard had me playing bass on them, so they came with disclaimers: “That’s just me trying out an idea.” As we started to do takes, he’d realize the demo bass line didn’t work anymore because of what Vinnie was doing with the groove. We’d do six or seven takes, and the seventh one was always just so out there in how different it was from the first one. Everyone would grow, and then that seventh take would come, and we’d go, “Wow! The song has now reached its full potential.”

Skywalker Sound is simply an awesome studio. I mean, it seems as if you could fit an entire orchestra, a funk band with horns, and a barbershop quartet in this room without anyone getting in each other’s way. Did you utilize the space to record your basics live?
Yeah—it was just the four of us set up very close to each other in the back of the room. Mike was sometimes in his booth on acoustic piano, but, most of the time, he was outside playing the electric keyboards. We’d play along to a Pro Tools session file in order to understand the full scope of the song. There would be a click track along with some of the sounds or parts I wanted them to hear. Sometimes, I’d play the rhythm guitar part live to morph into what the band was doing. Other times, the rhythm parts that I played at home were really good, so there was no need to do them over, and we’d listen to the pre-recorded rhythms and focus on capturing a new way to phrase the melody or the solo.

GP readers are aware that some of your home-studio tracks often make it on the final album. What did you end up keeping from home on Unstoppable Momentum?
The title track is a good example. We replaced all the melodies, all the solos, and all the rhythm guitars. What we kept was this funny little part that we called “leprechaun guitars.” They had such a sound! Every time we were tracking people would hear it and go, “Oh.” So I realized that’s an important sound for them. This was pretty typical for all the songs. If a home track was interesting, we’d use it for the final mix. If not, we’d usually go with the live-band tracks.

It’s obvious that your demos weren’t being followed precisely for the album sessions. Was that difficult for you?
I prepared myself for that mentally—to just let the demo go. I just thought, “I’m so lucky to be playing with these guys, and to be recorded by Mike Fraser. The last thing I’m going to do is start saying, ‘Hey, that’s not the part.’ I’m just going to let this roll, and I’m going to react, because I can do that. That’s my job—to play my guitar. I came in feeling so confident about the material, that I didn’t have to be a stickler about whether it matches the demo. Everyone has to go through that problem of being too deep into the demo. I think my process here was, “You’ve already done it—congratulations—now it’s time to move on and make a real record!”

And here’s another thing: I think everybody picked up on that mood. So when we were done—when the musicians left—we realized we had amazing performances. We don’t have copy performances of the demo. We have people who came in, made up their own minds about how the songs should go, and they gave us incredible performances, and all with great enthusiasm about their parts. It turned out—no surprise— that they were right. All the choices they made, made the songs better.

Would you ever tempt fate by listening to your demos now and go, “Crap! I had it right. I should have made those guys play it the way I originally heard it”?
No way. Playing the material with Mike, Chris, and Vinnie gave me a new understanding of these pieces of music I’d written. I don’t think I’ll ever go back and listen to the demos, but if I did, I’d probably hear something that seemed way “untaught” for some reason. Perhaps it’s because when I’m writing, I often struggle with the playing because I don’t have my stuff together technically yet. Very often, the demos are first takes. It’s remarkable to me how much everyone’s in the pocket now. The songs are so much more enjoyable—less nerdy sounding, like a guitar part trying to gain your attention.

During the composing and pre-production process, were you at all concerned that some of the directions you were taking might shock some of your fans in an uncomfortable way?
I might have mentioned this when you interviewed me about Chickenfoot, but [producer] Glyn Johns once said to me, “It’s not your job to decide what your audience likes or doesn’t like. Your job is to play guitar and make music.” That was a very simple way of saying, “Don’t even go in that direction.” It’s just not productive at all. People know what they like, but they don’t really want to tell you what to do, and I’ve always felt an artist should just do what they want to do. For example, if I’m waiting for a new record by an artist I’ve followed for a long time, I don’t want to think about what I think they should do. I really just want them to surprise me with something that I like. For me, I don’t engage in anything that would stop me from writing any kind of song that I want. I just keep going until someone tells me it’s not working.

Was that one of Mike Fraser’s responsibilities— to tell you if something was a bad idea?
He never said, “That one’s not working.” He looked at every song and said things like, “This could be a lot of fun— let’s try it.” Then, he’d push us to elevate it and crystallize the ideas. Mike isn’t a musician, but he hears things better than most musicians. And he’s recording us. He’s the guy making all the sounds. He also finds energy in moments, and he’ll say, “That’s the thing! That’s the sh*t!”

What was the cast of guitars for this record?
Most of my Ibanez signature guitars on the record were part prototypes and part production models. I used my orange JS2400 prototype and a stock JS2400 that had many different DiMarzio prototype pickups installed in preparation for this year’s release of the JS2410. We call that one “Willie,” because it has Willie Nelson’s signature on it. There may have been one song with my old JS1200 on it, and a couple of JS1000s—some with Sustainiac pickups installed. There’s also a ’58 Fender Esquire, a Jimmy Page model Les Paul, a resonator, and a gorgeous, all-maple 1983 Gibson ES-335.

How about the amps?
It’s no surprise that my signature Marshall JVM410HJS did most of the heavy lifting. But Mike [Fraser] and I agreed that for a guitar record with a lot of guitar coming at you all the time, it’s really nice to have a ’59 Fender Champ bark at you at some point. We had ten vintage Fender amps ranging from ’53 to about ’66—Champs, Princetons, Twins, and so on—that were used for playing parts such as chime-y chords. Then, we had a couple of other amps around to use if we had a guitar part with harmonies, because we didn’t want a buildup of the same tones. Then, we might say, “Marshall, Fargen, old 5150.” It almost sounds like three different guys—especially if I were to, say, play the main melody on the JS, the low harmony on the Les Paul, and use the Esquire for the sting-y high-harmony bits.

A lot of the stuff I do at home will be recorded direct and monitored using a Tech 21 SansAmp. This allows me to forget about amps when I’m recording and concentrate on the songwriting. Then, when we get in the studio, we can use John Cuniberti’s Reamp to run the direct signal into any amp we choose—whatever is going to be good for the part. This is great if we say, “Joe, six months ago when you were in your basement wearing your pajamas, you just happened to do the best solo you ever could have done so we need to rescue that.” Every once in a while— maybe on two songs for this album—the original SansAmp sound wins out because of the nature of the part. The good thing about the SansAmp is it’s always in your face. The downside is that it can also stick out and be hard to mix in with organic drums and bass and all. So that’s why we generally Reamp the parts I play at home, and mic them here in the studio to get the guitar sounds to fit in better with the rest of the track.

Can you be more specific about the role of the Marshall JVM?
Yes. We had the prototype here and five production models. We probably had two that had never been played through, but had been plugged in on every stage during last year’s tours. And then we had one that was played to death. So the tube life varied and, as a result, some of the amps were a little browner sounding than the others— like, “Hey! I’m new!”

As I mentioned, I used a lot of amps for bit parts, but the JVM was the one we used for the big sounds—the ’80s JCM800 sound, the JTM45 sound, and so on. It’s just a big sound, and yet it doesn’t stab you in the eye with an ice pick. I find that some other amps are good for a single job, but outside of that job, they’re very pointy or boomy. The JVM is very full, and I like its ability to do all these shades of rock guitar. It’s so versatile. You can play melodies on it and have them really loud in the mix. You can do scary solos with it. It has a lot of gain, but it also has channels that sound really great with very little gain dialed in. When we got into the overdub stage, the JVM wound up being the amp that always sat on the stools right behind the mixing board.

It also seems to jump out of the mix no matter how it’s deployed.
That’s essential! I’m always looking for the edge, the scary sound, the balls, the heft. But I can’t lose the clarity. My job, so to speak, depends on the melody being pure. It might be angry sometimes, and sometimes it’s sweet, but it has to be pure and punchy.

Can you share the stories behind a couple of the songs?
Sure. For “I’ll Put a Stone on Your Cairn,” I sat down and improvised an organ performance one day, and then picked up my guitar—which has a Sustainiac in it [an infinite sustain device]—and played over it. I thought the piece sounded very emotional, but I didn’t really know what it was, so I put it away to work on some other songs. But we’d keep bringing this thing back, and one day I started to focus on the main part of the improv, which was sort of church-y organ and this sustained guitar. Finally, I started to realize what the story behind the performance was, and it had nothing to do with the organ part. So I improvised other instruments over it—doing all sorts of things I had never done before, playing with English horn, trumpet, trombone, flute, double bass, and other samples. Eventually, I came up with this piece that confirmed what I was thinking about right from the beginning, though I didn’t know it, because the original intro was me saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t know where I’m going.” I had to do a lot of stuff to convince myself that I could write the piece, and then clear out all the parts that didn’t get me to a pure statement of melody. For me, composing and improvising and having the two come together is extremely important. I can’t second guess myself during this process, and I can’t be observing it while it’s happening. I just have to do it. It can take a period of months or years for me to understand some of these things that come out of me.

There’s a song that will really shock people called “Three Sheets to the Wind.” It started on guitar—kind of like an Eric Johnson thing. I was playing a Strat into a very old Fender amp, and I was just having one of those vintage moments, like, “Look at me, I’m Eric Johnson!” I was having a great time, and I came up with this song that I really liked, so I made a little phone recording of it. Then, I went through the process of recording this song with others, and I just found that something was wrong. I got rid of the guitar part—which was really hard, because I liked the whole Eric vibe. I thought, “This is a really strong melody— it just doesn’t belong on a guitar part where the melody and the rhythm are played at the same time. It’s too bluesy. Maybe I should farm out the parts to other instruments.” I tried piano, trombone, and trumpet, and I wound up with a whole different feeling from the song, but none of the notes had changed. I hadn’t changed the melody. All I did was change who plays what.

That’s a big benefit of working with MIDI— you can reassign sounds and check out how they affect the track. Now if your song sucks, it’s going to suck no matter what you do. So you kind of have to face the music there. But if it’s good, you can get very excited, because you realize, “Wow, I can introduce a flavor that might serve the guitar up in a very unique way.” That’s eventually what happened on this song.

It’s interesting how your songs evolve throughout the writing and recording phases. Do you continue to “find” the song during the mixing, and mixing process?
Not from a compositional side. Of course, you can do rough mixes as you go along, and you have the benefit of getting rid of that guy, muting that track, maybe the drums are the culprit, maybe I should turn off all the reverb, maybe there’s not enough reverb, and so on. You can sit there for hours and experiment. But I don’t think a mix can save a song. It’s either a good song or it’s not a good song. Mixes titillate, but they don’t really satisfy. But how the act of mixing is useful is that it stimulates more opinion. As the composer, I’m deciding if this is a good chord change. Is the harmony deep enough? Is it too dense? Does my melody have too many notes, or too few?

Obviously, that is the main reason for the listening session today—to provide the last opportunity for opinions and changes before all the elements are locked in at the final mix.
For the most part, yes—though I can always panic and change something at the last minute [laughs]. I want to ensure the songs are ready to really come alive in their final mixes. I hope listeners will hear the energy on this album—that the positive stuff that I do is even more positive sounding. The up stuff is more up. The songs that are smiles are broader smiles, and the great brooding songs I love to write are even deeper into that. I hope I went deeper in every direction. Also, with this band, we’ve achieved a new level of groove and a natural, more enjoyable music sound. I don’t know how else to put it. It just sounds really gorgeous, and, rhythmically, it sounds so natural and deep. That’s something I’m always searching for.

Is it hard to let go once the album is wrapped, released, and no more tweaks are possible?
You know, the idea of the “definitive version” of my songs started to be a really big question to me. Like, is the demo the definitive version, and I have to convince everybody to stick to it exactly? But then I had to admit to myself that after the albums are released, I hardly ever listen to my own records. I go out on stage to perform, and my reality is, “How did I play that song tonight?” And as I play it over and over and over again, I just assume that people will say, “This is Joe’s new definitive version—how we all heard it tonight.”

What happens is, you realize the song will reveal its weaknesses and its strengths as it gets reinterpreted. If a song is really great, you can just play that thing any old way, and it’s still a great song. It’s like when you hear a great jazz player reinterpret a melody that was originally a vocal song, and they just kill you with it. Or Johnny Cash doing “Hurt,” which is a Nine Inch Nails song. The melody and the harmony—those are always the most important things. Everything else is of the moment.

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