Joe Satriani's G4 Experience to Celebrate “Surfing at 30”

June 5, 2017
Above photo of John Cuniberti (left) and Joe Satriani during the Surfing With the Alien sessions by Jon Seivert.
 
   Joe Satriani has an interplanetary gala planned for attendees of his 2017 G4 Experience, July 24-28, at the Asilomar Center in Carmel, California.
 
   For the 30th anniversary of his monumental 1987 release, Surfing With the Alien, Satch is bringing together the team that brought the studio-overdubbed album to life on stage—bassist Stuart Hamm and drummer Jonathan Mover. This is the first time since 1995 that the trio has performed together.
 
   “The album was a super studio affair—an overdub fest,” explains Satriani, “and it was left to me to find two guys to make it work live. I had no experience being an instrumental-rock guitarist, so at the first gig, it was like, ‘How are we going to play this record as a show?’ And Stu, Jonathan, and I decided, ‘We may not have money for lights and video, but we can definitely play, so let’s just go crazy and see what people think.’ It was pretty obvious from the very beginning that, as soon as everyone was allowed to just do their thing, it became very appealing.”
 
   “Well, it wasn’t exactly open season,” remembers Hamm. “Joe’s records are always very orchestrated, and I respect that. I believe what separates him from a lot of other guitarists is how wonderful and memorable his melodies are, and you don’t want to mess that up with an overactive rhythm section. But there were moments that were open to interpretation. For example, when we did ‘Always With Me, Always With You,’ I figured out I could play B, D, and A on the E string, and tap the rhythm guitar line on the D and G strings to play both parts simultaneously. I didn’t invent that technique, of course, but I was one of the first guys to get there on the bass, and it blew people’s minds.”
 
   “Stu and I came from a more progressive rock and fusion background,” adds Mover. “So we were accustomed to listening to the other musicians, making spur-of-the-moment decisions, and jumping on their band wagons when they went off in different directions. We were very lucky to be playing with a guitar player who was totally open to that. Joe could follow us if we went somewhere, and if he went off on a tangent, we’d hear it and immediately go with him. The benefit there is that new things happen every night. I think all three of us encouraged each other—which was really nice.”
 
   The 2017 G4 Experience will allow its campers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get deep inside the studio and stage secrets of Surfing With the Alien—and all shared by the people who created it.
 
   “This is an intimate venue, and there will be no secrets,” promises Satriani. “Everything will be revealed.”
 
   (G4 2017 Updates: Paul Gilbert, Phil Collen, Andy McKee, and Warren DiMartini have been added to the event.) 
 
   Here are the complete, unedited interviews with Satriani, Hamm, and Mover — all promised as bonus content in the July 2017 issue of Guitar Player.
 
JOE SATRIANI
 
Photo by John Umphrey
 
   Are there any firm plans about how you’re going to unveil this Surfing with the Alien anniversary to the campers? Are you going to go through every song, or are you going to invite people into the process? What are some of the things that the G4 Experience is going to offer this year?
    Satriani: That’s a good question. Generally, we do a bunch of planning. And then every time I show up at these things, I just sort of really feel it out hour to hour, and we make changes based on who shows up, because it’s not like a concert that you’re doing every night where you want to have some sort of rigid scheduled setlist so the lighting guy and the sound guy and everyone is all together on the same page. This format of doing one of these per year really allows me to make subtle and even sweeping changes right at the moment that I’m showing up. The second day after doing a whole day with 200 campers, you certainly get a great idea based on that, because you’re hanging out with all the campers. And you can respond to their needs in a much quicker way, and make something happen really fast, and put together a new kind of a show or something with some of the other players you’ve invited along.
   This is what attracted me initially to doing the clinic thing, anyway, because I really don’t like doing the clinic tour thing where you show up and you do an hour in this town and an hour in that town. That gets repetitive. As I said, the cool thing about this is you kind of all show up, and you’re all kind of in it together. As the leader of the G4 event, I can actually shape it as we go along. So what I like to do is stack the deck with as many cool things as possible, and obviously prepare a lot, but to make sure that we can respond and have fun based on the feedback we’re getting immediately from campers.
   So with that in mind, I’ve got Stu Hamm and Jonathan Mover coming. They will be my band to play with. The reason behind that was because we were trying to think—there were two things that really happened with Surfing with the Alien. There was the album, which was a super studio affair—tons of overdubbing, drum machines, Jeff Campitelli and Bongo Bob Smith adding different parts of drums here and there and percussion. But those guys really didn’t bring the sound of the record and the meaning of the record out to the people around the world. That actually was sort of left to me to find two other guys to do that—to make it work live. And as we were thinking about how to celebrate the anniversary, we thought, "Well, you can’t really just do a whole clinic around a bunch of guys in the studio." That wouldn’t make sense. So I thought this was kind of weird, because Jonathan and Stu didn’t play on the album, but that’s not really how everyone was introduced in person to what I was doing. It was through the tours, all the club shows that we did, and the small theaters across the U.S. and Canada and Europe. So it made sense to bring them, number one, to celebrate what we were doing back then in ’88 on tour. And then, I think it got to be interesting to think about how they had to approach this as musicians. Becoming a live band for a guy who put together something in the studio that was an overdub fest—how do they turn it into something really live? And that I think has a lot more appeal to musicians that show up wanting to know how to do it, and that’s kind of what these clinics are all about.
 
   It’s almost like a whole other album production really to get the thing out live.
   Satriani: It’s totally different. There were two things that were so striking right at the beginning. Well, maybe there were three. The first one was that I’d never done it before. I had no experience being an instrumental-rock guitarist. And I suppose Stu had a little bit more experience with that, being a guy that went to Berklee School of Music and played with Steve Vai. Jonathan came from the progressive rock world. He was on the ground floor when that band Asia got started and couldn’t stick around because of an unexpected illness. But he came sort of out of the blue like me—not really knowing how we were going to play it.
    I didn’t even have enough material to put on a real show. Obviously, there are some tracks—like on Surfing, there’s a song “Echo” that’s just a drum machine loop with some improvised percussion on top. A drummer can’t do that for seven minutes. So right at the first gig it was like, "How are we going to do that?" And we said, “Well, let’s just go crazy.” We can do that. We may not be able to act and put on a show. We may not have money for lights and video and all that kind of stuff, but we can definitely play, so let’s just play and see what people think. It was pretty obvious from the very beginning as soon as everyone was allowed to just do their thing, it became very appealing. It was a struggle, because it totally relied on what kind of magic we could muster every night—which is really dangerous. It’s better to have a very tight show where you repeat things so that every place you play, the audience gets the same incredible show. But we couldn’t do that. Everyone was really relied upon to just bring their mojo down really hard every single night with their playing. That, I thought, became the attraction, the added attraction, to the campaign, so to speak, because the album didn’t really have that obviously. It was just a new way of putting together a studio record with new kinds of songs, but it was missing that one component, which was the sound of musicians going crazy in a room.
   So that was the main thing. And this is perfect for the G4 Experience because campers come to see musicians do it, and in a very casual way point out to the campers, “Hey, look how I did that. I’m going to show you exactly how I did that.” And you’re looking at it really up close here, because this is a small, tight, intimate venue we’re dealing with, and there are no secrets. Everything will be revealed. So I’m excited about that. And John Cuniberti will be there to discuss all things engineering and producing, and how I drive him crazy album after album—which is really cool.
 
   It’s awesome that you’re being so open and sharing of everything.
   Satriani: It’ll be a lot of fun, and I suppose the craziest thing, and sort of random but really cool, is that Tommy Emanuel is having his clinic at the same venue at the same time. It seems like a conflict, but we worked this out where obviously the people that would go to a Tommy camp are probably looking for something totally different than what we’re doing on our side of the venue. But we will get together at some point and play, Tommy and myself. I just think he’s the greatest living acoustic guitar player ever. I’m going to be so nervous playing with him, but I hope to just learn something like everybody else. I hope to learn a lot, actually.
 
   Looking back on the record from your standpoint of 30 years later, did you ever think that Surfing With the Alien was going to have this much of a resonance across the guitar community?
   Satriani: Not at all—no. Wow. John and I finished that record, and we were kind of shellshocked from the whole experience of trying to convince Relativity Records that what we were doing was really cool. I think by the time we were finished, we were so beaten down and it had taken so long. We had never worked on anything so long. We were used to going in and doing records in a week. This thing took half a year or more, and then the release was also delayed. We really thought that they’d take the record, and they’d say, “Thank you very much and we don’t ever want to talk to you again” [laughs]. I just assumed that I’ll go back to teaching and Jonathan will just go back to being an engineer with other bands. I mean, he was already working with bands like the Dead Kennedys and stuff. He had a whole different thing going. So we didn’t really think anything of it. We were happy with it, and we were very proud that we stuck to our guns, so to speak, and finally did a record the way we thought it could be done—a new kind of rock-guitar instrumental record. We were very proud of the weird, quirky things that we worked into the production, and how we got things recorded. We really were expecting the worst. I was just waiting for the phone call to say, “You’re dropped from the label.” But instead, I got that call like, “Hey, this thing’s charting.” And I was like, “What chart?” And then the president of the company, Barry Kobrin, called and said, “You know you’re going to have to go on tour.” And I said, “I don’t have a band. I don’t have an act. What do I do?” And he said, “Well, figure it out. We got to set you up with somebody." And it was Cliff Cultreri who really helped me find someone who would be my agent and sort of tour manager temporarily while we tried to see if it could be done. I did it for about two and a half weeks and then all of a sudden I was in the Mick Jagger band. So there were things that happened that were just crazy and you could never dream it up and think it would work, but that’s what happened. It reflects I think on the fact that we were so enthusiastic, but at the same time we were realists and we were expecting to be run out of town any moment [laughs].
 
   I had forgotten that you didn’t even have a live thing rocking and ready to go.
   Satriani: You knew me from being a guitarist in the Squares. I spent a short amount of time with the Greg Kihn Band. But I was teaching guitar. The beginning of 1988 was my 10th year teaching guitar at Secondhand Guitars in Berkeley—small store. I was the only teacher there. So I wasn’t thinking Surfing with the Alien, Billboard charts, platinum records, touring the world. It’s like, that doesn’t make any sense. I just could not imagine that. I was just thinking that, "Well, someone will hear the record and they’ll like what I’m doing and maybe I’ll get a call to do some session work or someone will invite me into their band or something like that." I wasn’t imagining this at al
 
STU HAMM
 
 
   It’s kind of cool and interesting to have you and Jonathan in a guitar magazine...
   Hamm: Well, I remember back in the day when Bass Player magazine was just strictly a 10-page insert in back of Guitar Player, right? That’s where the whole thing started.
 
   Regarding Surfing With the Alien, Joe kind of did all this stuff in the studio with a couple of percussionists and a drummer and drum programming and all that. And then you’re the guy who has to figure out how to bring that record to the masses as far as the bass stuff. Were there any challenges that way? Was Joe particularly specific about things he wanted from you, or did you just interpret the songs the way you thought was best?
   Hamm: That original Surfing tour and that band—it was such a different time. I mean, the way that I met Joe was that I invited Cliff Cultreri to come down and see some of my solo bass shows when I was living in Los Angeles and worked with Steve Vai. They came and saw me play I think at my place in Santa Monica. They liked it and they said, “Hey, could you do a record for hardly any money,” and they gave me like a $2,000 budget. And I did my first record, Radio Free Albemuth, and surprisingly, I ran out of money really quickly. So I was out of money and I needed someone to play a couple solos on the record so I called up Cliff and he said, “We just signed this new guy, so how about get ready to play on this record, we’ll pay for him to play on your record.” I never met Joe and I flew up to San Francisco on Relativity’s dime. The deal was I was going to play the fretless bass track on "Always with Me, Always with You.” And I walked into Hyde Street Studios and I met him and John. Joe ended up playing on like three tracks of that, did a great solo on "Sexually Active” and "Flow My Tears.” I remember we had a little problem from his pickup on his guitar, because it was getting some feedback, and it took longer than we thought, so I never got around to actually putting fretless on "Always with Me, Always with You.” And the first three gigs we did were like the NAMM show and one in Chicago. I would say that it was sort of a more improvisational thing, because it was right before Joe really hit it big. Part of the super fun was playing this little club like the Belly Up in Solana Beach, and I think we played The Palomino in L.A. And then he gets a gig with Jagger, and the record hits, and then, all of a sudden, we’re playing small theaters. Joe would give us some space, but part of my job as a bass player is figuring out when to play the part, and when to add my own characteristics and my own part.
 
   So I guess you obviously listened to the tapes and then when you guys actually got together to rehearse the live show, it was kind of open season for the most part?
   Hamm: Well, I wouldn’t say open season. Joe’s records are always very orchestrated, and I respect that. But there were moments that were open to interpretation. For the bass parts on Surfing, he plays every bass note on that record, and, if I’m not mistaken, every bass line is just pretty much doubling the rhythm guitar part. That’s what the songs require and that’s the beauty and of what separates him in my mind from a lot of the other guys—it's how wonderful and memorable his melodies are. You don’t want to mess that up with an overactive rhythm section. And it was really great to play rock, you know, with Jonathan just pounding it up. But there were sections, like in the end of “Memories” and some of the middle solo sections, where, at that time, we would group improvise and it was all open to interpretation. I was free to add stuff.
 
   For the G4 thing, when I talked to Joe a couple of days ago, he said he plans everything out, and then you guys get there, and it kind of depends on what the attendees want. What do you anticipate people are going to be asking you to show as you, Joe, and Jonathan open the kimono, so to speak, to let everybody in to the creative process of that record?
   Hamm: I think there will be a lot of discussion about, like mainly when you listen to Dreaming #11 and some of the live cuts, and how we as a trio—Joe, Jonathan and I—tried to interpret those songs on the record that are being played straight to a live environment, and how to balance the energy of rock, and to play the part and be able to expand it and add our own personalities to it. 
 
Of course, you’re always prepared for whatever musical challenge is in front of you. But did you guys have to get together to rehearse this stuff out for the G4 Experience, or is Surfing just so locked into your DNA that you can walk onto that G4 stage and remember everything?
   Hamm: I’ve played those songs for so long that I’ll bet if I had to, I could walk onstage and play the record top to bottom. But the last time I toured with them was 2008, and that was great. And I’ve seen Joe since—I did his G4 camp a couple years ago. I’m sure we’ll get together to rehearse, and I’m looking forward to revisiting the record for this anniversary, as well as diving into a bunch of the live tapes that we did. We have the Montreal concert—which is sort of the famous one. We were certainly a band at that point, but more improvisational. And Jonathan, I’ve worked with Jonathan a lot. So I imagine it will be like riding a bike.
 
JONATHAN MOVER
 
 
   I talked to Joe and Stu already, and one of the things I wanted to get from your perspective back from the Surfing With the Alien days, is that it was kind of a one-man recording project, and then you and Stu had to interpret that music for the live audiences. So how did you interpret what was on tape, and figure out the best way to bring it to the people?
   Mover: It’s funny, I was speaking to Mick Brigden, Joe’s manager, about this recently. We never really got together and rehearsed, per se, for a tour. We all met at the last minute onstage for a, I think it was an Ibanez performance or something at the Chicago NAMM show back in ’87, and we’d never played together before. I think Joe may have sent a cassette of a couple of tunes, and we just pretty much made everything up. We didn’t get into a rehearsal studio and really shed everything out. We just showed up and started playing. But the roadmap was there with the album, and we were just doing what any “normal” fusion or progressive type of players would do—which was interpret the material, extrapolate on it, and take it out there to really give a performance. I don’t recall ever talking about it. I don’t think Joe ever said, “I need you guys to take it to this level.” I don’t think I ever went to Joe and said, “The drum machine programming [on the album] is extremely basic. Do you mind if I do this?” It was all just kind of thrown together, and it worked, and it made sense, and the audiences ate it up, so we just kept on feeding them more.
 
   But still, when you interpret a recording by a creator, the creator could always be displeased by how the other musicians interpret their vision...  
   Mover: I think the two factors that need to be taken into consideration are that Stu and I came from a more progressive rock and fusion background—everything from Yes and King Crimson and Genesis to Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report. And so when you grow up with that stuff, and practice that stuff, and dream of playing music like that, or even playing with some of those musicians—which Stu and I have—then you’re accustomed to spur-of-the-moment decision making, and listening to the other people around you, and jumping on their bandwagon when they go off in one direction. So the two of us had that naturally in our background—to do that with whoever we’d be playing with.
   The second thing to factor in—which was great and very lucky for Stu and I—is that we were playing with a guitar player who was totally open to it, and that would jump on the bandwagon if we went somewhere, and then knew that if he was going to go off on a tangent, the two of us could hear it immediately and go with him. And certainly, without question, two really cool things that happened from that are, one, you get new things happening all night—every night, all of the time. Sometimes, they’re mind-blowing, and you remember it and you love it, and you point it out, and then you continue to do that, and that becomes the next plateau. It becomes the next kind of framework that you’re working in, and it just grows from there.
   I don’t remember Joe ever saying, “What the hell were you guys thinking? Don’t ever do that again.” I think we all knew when things were really happening. And, yeah, every once in a while somebody would do something onstage—Joe included—that was a little bit of what we would call a clam, and everybody would look around and have a chuckle. It was never a difficult situation musically. It was very open, and it was very free, and all three of us encouraged each other—which was really nice.
   
   We talk about that a fair amount in Guitar Player—this whole art-of-listening thing that has kind of been diminished somewhat, especially in pop or pop/rock music.
   Mover: Trusting your bandmates certainly has a lot to do with it, because, coming from a drummer's perspective—and one who is really into polyrhythms and odd time and stuff—there’s nothing more frightening than going out on a limb and not knowing that your bandmates are going to be there when you land there. So having two players like that, was for me, a very comforting situation. Hopefully, they feel the same way.
   I’ll tell you two great stories. One is a pat on my back, and one is embarrassing, but I don’t mind admitting both. When we first started playing together, you know, you could ask me about a particular passage out of Tarkus with ELP, and I could tell you exactly what it was. Same thing for Van der Graaf Generator or Gentle Giant. But if you’d ask me about half of Hendrix’s catalog, I couldn’t tell you, because I didn’t listen to Hendrix when I was growing up. I got into him much later when I heard him with Buddy Miles, and then I went back, and I rediscovered him. Anyway, we’re at the Bottom Line playing a week of double nights—sold out every show—and this is back when Beck had just quit Jagger. One of my dear friends and favorite drummers, Simon Phillips, was playing with Jeff Beck, and he knew I was playing the Bottom Line with Joe. So he told Mick, “You’ve got to come out and see this guitar player that my friend Jonathan Mover is playing with, because he’s the guy who up and coming.” Anyway, Simon calls me up and tells me that he’s coming down with Mick and Doug Wimbish. It comes back that Mick wants to come up and sing an encore song with us. So we finish the set, we go off stage, and Joe goes, “Mick Jagger is here, and he’s going to come up and sing a tune. We’re going to do ‘Red House.’” And I said, “What’s that?” And Joe just looked at me like he wanted to chop my head off. You know, how could you not know “Red House”? And I really didn’t know it. So he basically said, “It’s blues. It’s this. It’s Hendrix. Just get up there and follow me”—which I did and it was amazing. I had the opportunity for the first time to play with Mick Jagger. So that was embarrassing, but it was fine. We got through it.
   The next thing, though, I think it may have been the same tour, but Joe and I were going off on a tangent at the end of some tune, “Circles,” or whatever it was, where we used to make it a jam odyssey. He started playing a theme, and I started to go along with it. He looked at me, and I looked at him, and we both had this amazing connection. And after the gig, he walked up to me and said, “You know when we were doing…” And I said, “Oh, you mean when you went into ‘Gnossiennes’ by Erik Satie?” And he just looked at me, and it blew his mind that I knew what he was doing. I didn’t know Hendrix, but I knew Erik Satie. So that was the type of things that we connected on, and it was really cool.
 
   When you stepped into this thing, did you have any idea that Surfing was going to be kind of a watershed moment for guitar?
   Mover: No. I had no idea. The short story is I had no idea who Joe was, and he had no idea who I was. We happened to find ourselves at the Hoshino offices in Pennsylvania at the same time. They were courting me to play Tama drums, and they were courting him to sign to Ibanez, and we met at the very end of the day. He just happened to say, “By the way, I’m playing at the NAMM show for Ibanez, and if you’re going to be there, I need a drummer to play with me and Steve Vai.” And I said, “Yeah, sure. That would be great. I’d be happy to.” I was still living in London at the time, but I was home in the States visiting my folks, so I showed up at NAMM, and we played that night at the Limelight. I didn’t even go out with the guys afterwards. I thought that was it, I did my job, it was nice meeting you, I got to play with Steve Vai, and I went off on a date with a girl that I knew in Chicago. I never thought anything more of it. Maybe a month later, Joe telephoned again, and said, “Hoshino would like us to go play in Tokyo at a music festival. Would you like to go do that, too?” I said, "yes" for that, and it was while we were over there that Joe's record broke. I don’t think anybody expected anything like that to happen. But I think—and I may be wrong, but I don’t think Joe would disagree with me—that when he got the gig playing with Jagger, there was a snippet on CNN Worldwide about Joe. "Who is this unknown guitar player from San Francisco who did his own record by charging it on his credit card, and who just replaced Jeff Beck?" Every guitar player in the world called for that gig when Jeff quit, and then—boom—Joe gets it. I would imagine that had to be a massive catalyst for him. We took a break from the tour we were on to wait for him to do the Jagger gig and come back. I think that was a massive turning point for him, and, of course, for me and Stu, because we were playing with him. By the time we gassed up again, gigs were getting bigger, more records were selling, the audience was growing, and we were all along for the ride. I had figured this was going to be a fun little instrumental gig for a few dates, and then when I was done, I’d go back to London and continue what I was doing there. But Joe's record ended up getting so big and so great that I left London, and I moved back to the States to continue working with Joe.
 
   Is there anything else about the anniversary performance at G4 you'd like to mention?
  Mover: Only that when left the gig back in ’96, my resignation didn't go down well with Joe. As a result, we did not speak for almost 20 years, and it really bothered me. We were good friends, and it was a drag not being friends with him anymore. My leaving wasn't meant to be a personal thing—it was business—but we never spoke again. Then, he called me about a year ago, and we had a wonderful phone conversation, and we buried the hatchet, so to speak. It was great. I was very, very happy about that. So it was a bonus when Mick Brigden [Satriani's manager] called and said, “Would you consider playing again?” That was the icing on the cake. But as much as I’m looking forward to going to Carmel and playing with Joe again—and I really am looking forward to that—I’m even more happy that we’re friends again. That means more to me than picking up sticks. 
 
 
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