Joe Satriani Radiates Sonic Energy on 'Shockwave Supernova'

In our world—meaning a plane of existence where guitars, guitar tones, guitar techniques, guitar music, and guitar mythology wrap themselves like psychic boas around every facet of our being—the cautionary tale of the great Jimi Hendrix is a mammoth tragedy, while simultaneously being a celebration of all we hold dear.
Author:
Publish date:

In our world—meaning a plane of existence where guitars, guitar tones, guitar techniques, guitar music, and guitar mythology wrap themselves like psychic boas around every facet of our being—the cautionary tale of the great Jimi Hendrix is a mammoth tragedy, while simultaneously being a celebration of all we hold dear. That Hendrix energized and changed guitar playing forever is a fact, and one that still reverberates within anyone who adores the guitar. But ascending to that previously unknowable zenith of divinity required Hendrix to make concessions to “entertainment.” Towards the end of his life, his grand and restless artistry seemed more and more hemmed in by the celebrity he attained, and by the public that embraced the seductive imagery of the sensual psychedelic rock and roll guitar legend.

Satriani and Shockwave Supernova bassist Bryan Beller.

We know this to be true. And so does Joe Satriani, who so idolized Hendrix that he allegedly dedicated himself to the guitar on September 18, 1970, the day of Jimi’s death.

Fast forward to 2015, and Satriani’s new album, Shockwave Supernova [Legacy] appears to be a tale of what could have been—not just about Hendrix, but also a sort of fable directed at all artists who might struggle with the formidable battle bots of artistry, celebrity, and entertainment. It’s a look at a fictional musician who did all the outrageous flash moves typically required to gain stardom—I mean, why do you think Satch called this guy “Shockwave Supernova” in the first place?—and who is now assessing his life, influences, music, and past deeds in the hopes of a kind of rebirth.

The album is also a mature musician’s acknowledgement of the Jekyll/Hyde duality of successful artists. As Satriani admits in this interview, the “Hendrix Dilemma” affected him so deeply that he always strove to abandon glam in all forms. This is, after all, an extremely private and somewhat retiring family man who loves working in his tiny home studio, painstakingly creating music. But he is also someone who lives to perform onstage, and who psyches himself up to become the larger-than-life JOE SATRIANI that thrills concert audiences. It was thinking about that persona during some downtime out of the public’s eye after his last tour that birthed the “Shockwave Supernova” alter ego, as well as the concept for a “non-concept concept album.” (Yeah, that doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but Joe explains it much better, so read on…)

With his alter ego in tow, Satriani kicked off his 15th solo album alone in his home studio, and then decamped to Skywalker Sound in Lucas Valley, California, with coproducer/engineer John Cuniberti to record the live-band tracks with bassist Bryan Beller, drummer Marco Minnemann, and guitarist/keyboardist Mike Keneally. Of course, as Satriani always keeps a rather large collection of songs and “tracks-in-progress” at the ready, Shockwave Supernova wasn’t totally made with the above crew. Some past sessions with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bassist Chris Chaney also came to the forefront, and were completed for the new album. Furthermore, a couple of songs have Satriani playing a Fender P-Bass through an Ampeg SVT “sounding like it’s about to blow up—which really wasn’t Bryan’s thing.” And bassist Bobby Vega makes an appearance on the song, “All of My Life.”

However the persona of Shockwave Supernova commanded attention during the creation of the album, it’s definitely one of the most diverse solo albums Satriani has ever made, and a worthy “artistic colleague” to Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland that Satch holds up as the touchstone of deep, expansive musical projects.

So who is this Shockwave Supernova guy…?

Shockwave Supernova embraces a theme, and yet it’s not the classic definition of a concept album. What was the seed that kicked off the whole idea?

Well, I didn’t want to do a conventional concept album. I didn’t want to burden people with sitting in a chair, listening to tracks one through 15. So I thought, “This will be an internal concept that somewhat guides the creation of the album.”

But, going back a bit, the Unstoppable Momentum sessions [2012-2013] were very fruitful. I had almost another half a record done, as well as all these other songs I didn’t finish. What did it all mean? Usually, I purposefully don’t answer that question. I like that I don’t know what I’m writing as I’m doing it. Ultimately, someone calls me up and says, “By the way, you need to make a record,” and then I look at what I have, and I try to see some kind of trend or theme. This time, that process happened a little earlier than usual as I was touring behind Unstoppable. And, as I had a lot of extra material from the sessions, I found that I was listening to the tracks and asking myself, “Why didn’t I put that song on the record? What’s wrong with it? Too many verses? Bridge not strong enough? Wrong key?”

So all of this started me thinking about what material really represents me as a performer—the situation where I take a deep breath before I step onstage and puff myself up a bit. I look in the dressing-room mirror and ask myself, “What can I pull out of my multiple performing personalities to deliver what the audience deserves—a great show?” That’s the guy the public sees—not the guy who likes to hang out in his little home studio and create music.

Some performers are more or less exactly who they are onstage, and others are vastly different from their public persona.

Yes—for the most part. But I found that during the Unstoppable Momentum tour, I was acting very differently onstage.

How so?

I blame Mike Keneally [laughs]. The two of us would trade solos, and we were having a blast doing the stupidest things. It was just having fun with your buddies, right? But that’s when you get into trouble. Suddenly, I’m playing with my teeth four or five times a night, and it became part of the show. I realized quickly that this was a very effective device as an entertainer, but, at the same time, it was also kind of destructive.

Destructive?

It was the thing I promised myself I would never do as a kid of 14 was trying to come to grips with Hendrix dying. I realized that he worked himself into a corner very quickly, and it bummed him out so bad. And look what happened—Hendrix couldn’t reconcile the musician he wanted to be with the rock-and-roll clown that people expected him to be. So I always thought, “Don’t get too dressed up. Be ‘Joe’ backstage and onstage. Don’t resort to silly things like playing with your teeth.” But there I was—and my teeth hurt.

That’s one of those tragic questions: What would the future have held for Hendrix if he could have successfully abandoned audience expectations back in 1970?

It would have been so cathartic and tumultuous for him! Can you imagine? It would be really hard, of course, because his fans were kids like me who loved his records to death. If he suddenly came out looking completely different, and said, “Look, I’m really sorry, but I’m going to play this kind of music for now,” we’d be like, “Whoa!” But just think if he had a couple of years to really work on it. When artists come out with good material, the audience is very forgiving. It’s just bad material that ruins plans to morph, to get better, to change direction.

Well, I imagine that then, as now, it would be quite a gamble for a musician to take a chance and change styles or musical direction.

I would have to say that an artist should take the chance. But the artist should also know they might get ridiculed. But that’s okay. There’s no contract between artist and audience, and there’s no justice in the entertainment business whatsoever. The audience has the right to walk away at any time. So you take artistic chances, and you take the hit when it comes. And, once in a while, you get lucky that what you want to do is what the audience wants to hear. Then, you celebrate.

So is this the main engine behind the Shockwave Supernova persona, the journey from being a talented entertainer to transforming into a serious musician?

It’s probably how I wound up with this ridiculous name. “Shockwave Supernova.” Who would call themselves that? That is someone who would wear a multicolored wig and flashy clothes, and resort to every flamboyant trick in the book. And I realized that, through the songs on Shockwave Supernova, I could represent the different facets this character would go through as they were realizing that guy was done. He’s changing. He’s thinking, “I’m not a clown. I can be better. I can be reborn.”

So the songs, as a collection, represent his reminiscing about all the different things he did, and all the things that inspired him over the years. It’s not a specific theme of “I’m morphing into this,” or something corny like that. It’s about someone thinking about their career, and realizing that the process of change is going to be strange. That’s what the last song, “Goodbye Supernova,” is about. It starts off pretty, and then it gets dark. There’s a sort of blues testifying, and then a weird breakdown, where this strange guitar thing is him sort of going through this period of rebirth. He walks into the light, so to speak, but I don’t provide the answer to where he’s going, because I didn’t presume to know that.

Did you go as far as to choose gear for certain songs based on what you thought Shockwave would use? Such as specific guitars or amps?

No. I think I truly adopted the concept much later in the process of writing the record. It was a seed of an idea, and then I’d go, “Oh, that’s silly,” and I’d drop it for a while. I don’t think I came to grips with the concept until I had all the song charts pinned to an acoustic panel in my home studio. I was recording freeform without restraint, so I didn’t take the concept as far as thinking, “Shockwave would never use a vintage Fender Champ.” Or, “Shockwave would always use a fuzz wah.” However, I think the Shockwave idea allowed me to think more broadly for the record—especially later on in the recording process.

You see, everything had already been recorded in a demo form, and, actually, a lot of the keeper performances were done here in this room. But when we set up at Skywalker Sound for the live tracks with the band, I knew I would be adding live performances along with the other players. Then, when we moved to 25th Street Recording [Oakland, California] for overdubs, I figured we’d be reamping the guitars a lot—whether they were played at Skywalker or in my home studio. So I was ready to rethink or replay anything at that point. It still wasn’t a question of, “What would Shockwave do?” But the concept definitely kept me more open to trying different things.

Let’s talk about the live sessions at Skywalker with bassist Bryan Beller, drummer Marco Minnemann, and, of course, keyboardist and guitarist Mike Keneally. Your process always has so many layers—the already-completed home-studio tracks, whatever you and the band record live, and then the overdubs. So it appears that you’re constantly evaluating all these different versions in Pro Tools throughout every phase of the recording sessions. Wow.

I don’t see it as much different than a composer sitting in front of an orchestra with a score, saying, “I have a problem with measure 187,” and then rewriting the part and taping the new music over the old. Musicians change things. It’s what we do. Erasers and pencils—or, in my case, nondestructive digital editing.

It still seems like a brutal workflow to keep track of tons of different parts with each one representing a certain musical direction or arrangement.

I keep notes on what I record, but the tracks sometimes change as the process unfolds. John will refer to things, and ask, “What are we doing with this guitar or that guitar?” I also have to keep an open mind, because Keneally might say, “Boy, I don’t like that guitar that’s hanging around. Is that a keeper?” So I would move things around for the guys depending on what they wanted to hear as they were tracking. I was constantly surprised at what they decided to listen to.

Another benefit of this method is that if the live band is pulling the song in a different direction than I had envisioned at home, if I like that direction, I can kill the recorded guitar that’s in the session file and create a new guitar part that follows where they are going. There are always surprises, too. For example, on “San Francisco Blue,” I played a 12-string, open-tuning thing that inspired Mike to play these chords a certain way. I joked, “It sounds like a keyboard player with a White Russian in one hand, and he won’t put his drink down to play the song.” Ultimately, my guitar part turned out to be horrid—every other chord was way sharp or something—so we decided to get rid of the guitar and feature his keyboard part more. But this is part of the process, as well. Sometimes, my recorded performances are more “catalytic.” They’re not necessarily keepers, but they set a mood for the band.

You’re never tempted to go, “Well, boys, I recorded all my parts at home, and my work is done. So I’m just going to hang out in the control room and evaluate your performances”?

Oh, no. It’s good for me to be out there with the band playing. I want John sitting in the control room listening to see if it’s all working. It’s great to work with John, because he’ll point out things I’d never think of. You either need a split personality when you’re working on your own records, or a talented friend, like John, who can be honest and tell you when you’re obsessing over something, or going off the deep end, or hearing something in your memory that’s not actually what’s happening in the present. Anyway, Glyn Johns once told me, “You’re either in the band, or you’re not in the band—which side of the glass are you going to be on?” That was good advice.

Did Shockwave seep into the Skywalker sessions for the record at all?

Maybe not explicitly, but he was definitely guiding our thought process at times. When you’re recording an album, there are millions of little decisions you have to make. I think Shockwave may have gotten his ideas in there a few times. For example, my demo for “Cataclysmic” was just brutal—a simple drum-machine pattern and a lot of guitars—and it sounded like a metal song. I said to the guys, “What if you could play this song, have fun with it, and not live up to the demo or any other standard?” So Marco came up with this funny little snare thing that completely changed the vibe of the song. And then, John added some echo to the snare to make the part even more of a hook. Soon, I was really getting into the whole idea of making the rhythm section sound more arty and unusual. We were kind of making it up as we went along, and all the little decisions we made about the guitar, the drum pattern, the role of the demo, and so on happened because we were getting excited about the snowballing of the Shockwave Supernova concept. Every time a song suddenly became unique, we’d go. “Wow—we just put another one right into the basket.”

Do you have any other session stories related to the songs?

I had a very simple, blues-oriented thing that I was going to do with Sammy Hagar, called “All of My Life.” It had a very underplayed guide melody, which I thought was really nice. So we figured out how to play it, and I ended up with these twangy guitar parts that don’t sound like anything I’ve done before on a record. What is that stuff doing on a record called Shockwave Supernova? That question alone made it very attractive for me.

Originally, “All of My Life” didn’t have a beat or anything. There were just some bongos, claves, and strangely tuned acoustic guitars—all of which had to go when we started to reconstruct the song. Marco and Bryan came up with a spooky and beautiful beat, and Mike played a really cool Wurlitzer bit. But, ultimately, with the acoustic guitars gone, I felt there was a ballad boogaloo rhythm thing missing that reminded me of ’60s music. When we started overdubbing at 25th Street, I thought, “Bobby Vega [bassist] is this guy.” The way he plays with a pick is amazing, and I knew he could make the song swing—especially if the bass was cranked up very loud, because everyone else is playing kind of light.

Then, there’s “Lost in a Memory.” Jonathan Mover, Stu Hamm, and I used to jam on that back in 1988. It didn’t have a melody then—just these two chord progressions that were stuck together. I worked on that song a million times, and every time it would fall flat. But, suddenly, I figured out what it needed. Unfortunately, when I originally recorded it with Vinnie Colaiuta and Chris Chaney for Unstoppable Momentum, I was too attracted to the ’80s-throwback beat on the demo—which I assumed was part of the song’s charm—and my direction to Vinnie and Chris to play that style was way off. When I revisited the track for this album, I decided to pull down the rhythm section, and just listen to the guitars and these weird keyboards. Finally, it made sense! So I had Marco and Bryan match their parts to the guitars and keyboards. That was the only song where we actually had to replace the rhythm section to make the track work.

There are a lot of different vibes, approaches, grooves, and feels on the new record. Perhaps we can attribute that somewhat to Shockwave’s “influence,” but you’ve never been shy to display versatility on your records.

True. I’ve always liked listening to records that are broad in their scope, rather than hearing a bunch of songs that do the same thing. To me, that’s like a playlist on Spotify. I want to make records like Electric Ladyland—which is such a broad record, that you may not like side three for the first six months, but, after that, you might go, “This is my favorite side.” So I want all my records to be very broad, but this one is super broad. Take “Butterfly and Zebra” and “Cataclysmic.” What are those two songs doing on one record?

Okay, so you’ve released Joe records, and now you’ve released, let’s say, a Joe/Shockwave collaboration. Can you step back at this early stage and determine the differences between another Joe Satriani album and a Shockwave Supernova record?

That’s a great question. I think I would answer it differently just about every day. I could see that if I called the record something else—made it a “normal” record by chopping a couple of songs off—that no one would be the wiser. They’d just think it’s another record from Joe. But I think there is magic in the presentation of something. Context is very important.

I did an interview yesterday where they were talking about the contestants for a TV competition, and it came to mind that when you’re performing on television for something like that, there isn’t a singular context. It’s television. It’s very uncomfortable. There are time limits. You’re rushed out there. You’re probably not with your band or your buddies. It’s a competition. And then your performance is being seen in living rooms, in bedrooms, and on teeny little screens on people’s phones. How do you play to all those different audiences? It’s impossible. This was something Brian Eno mentioned many years ago—how the context for recorded music has become so fractured that you can’t possibly create one recording that can work in every venue.

But in my favorite venue—the concert stage—you have to make the venue perfect for the people who have come to see you. I’m working, but the audience is free to walk the halls and do whatever they want. They’re in control, but you have some control, as well. They are stuck in the building, so you have to block out all the crappy stuff by putting on a great show. You don’t want people thinking about parking. Once the show starts, it has to be magical. So, whatever the venue, the whole thing about context and the presentation of your art is extremely important.

This is a very long answer, but I want to bring in one other element—which is when a song comes out, or any kind of art, it is seen in context with what’s happening in the world. A song can come out as one thing and people may see it as something entirely different—all because of how it was used to accompany a great moment of triumph or a horrible tragedy. Ultimately, once you release an album, it leaves itself open for interpretation based on the relative nature of the world.

If six of my friends release records that all have “Space” in their title, it might dilute things. When Surfing with the Alien came out, perhaps I was helped because there was nothing out there like it, and that’s what made it stick out. The genre was dead, and nobody was stupid enough to put out a record like that. But, in relation to the world, all of a sudden, it was, “Whoa. What’s that?” So even though at some point I adopted “Shockwave Supernova” as the album’s theme for me, I wasn’t thinking that it was necessary for anybody else to accept it in order to enjoy the record. I just wanted to make a great instrumental guitar album.

Eno’s concept is interesting, because, on one side, an artist does have some control. They make a record. It’s theirs. They put it out there. They stand by it. But the other side is, like, “I made this record. It’s mine. I put it out there. And—oh my God—somebody just curated it in a way I never expected.” Scary.

I understand what you’re saying. You’re echoing what took me about five minutes to explain. Yes. You don’t know it, and you should never think about it. Why would we write a single note if we were paranoid about how people were going to reuse something? No artist wants to stand up and say, “Hey, that’s not what this song is about,” because they actually want their fans to freely associate with it to some degree. But I must admit that I think about that a lot—how things can get so twisted. No one wants “Born in the USA” used in a car commercial or in a political campaign.

Are there any songs on the record that you’ll fear performing live?

Oh yeah. Having to perform some of the stuff I did in this room every night on tour could be challenging. What if fans start asking to hear the crazier songs? Then, start thinking, “Maybe I shouldn’t have written that. Maybe I should have written something nice and easy going [laughs].”

There are some songs that might have me looking at my fretboard a little bit more, like “Crazy Joey.” It’s a funny little repetitive part, but you either play it right, or you blow it, and not blowing it requires me staring at the fretboard. Also, I did a slide part on the title track, and, of course, when we got to the overdubs, Cuniberti says, “Oh, I like the slide. You must do it on slide.” Well, that means if people like the song, then I’ll have to do it in front of an audience every night, and that means really practicing my slide game. I mean, slide is just something I pick up when I need it. Then, I worry that the band can pull off “Goodbye Supernova” with the gravity it has on the recorded version. It’s quite an exercise to distill six guitar parts and four keyboard parts into an arrangement you can pull off live.

Believe it or not, the challenges are usually with the subtle pieces. They’re not technical challenges, per se, but I always worry if we can quiet down the show enough to convey a tender song.

Were there any gear stars on the album?

My brand new Marshall JVM signature amp probably did the bulk of the work—and the Roland JC-120 I’ve had since the Squares [Satch’s 1980-era band] has been on every record I’ve ever made doing something—but the Marshall head below the JVM on the rack over there has a great story. On the last tour, we were going through Washington or Oregon, and Greg Montgomery—a guitar player who was a fan of the Squares and who lived in the Bay Area at the time—came to the meet and greet, and said, “I loved the two Marshalls in stereo that you used with the Squares, and I started doing the same thing.” When one of his Marshalls died, he went on a hunt to replace it, and a friend told him, “Hey, I’ve got this Marshall. I think it’s the exact year you want, but it’s painted orange.” So he gets the amp, sees a crack in the faceplate, and goes, “I know this amp from somewhere.” So he decides to take off the orange paint, and, underneath is a stencil that says “Squares Number 6.” This was a ’71 plexi that was stolen from me back in the ’80s! So we made a mutually beneficial exchange. He sent me the amp, and I sent him a guitar. I had [guitar tech] Bill Schneider fix it up, and that amp is just crazy sounding! You have to turn it up to 10, so you can’t be in the same room with it, but it’s a very powerful, not-very-broken- up-sounding Marshall with a lot of heart and soul.

What are the other Marshalls in the rack?

There’s a ’68, and a reissue of a ’68 Marshall. We did a lot of reamping on the album using those guys.

How would you typically cast your vintage plexis or your new JVM signature for parts?

If I had to do a lot of legato playing—and I needed the tone to be really fat all the way up and down the neck—I would use the JVM-410HJS head. It makes you feel good—you’re not self-conscious when you’re playing through something like that. When you plug into a vintage amp, you can hear yourself breathe. Every little thing you do is right there, but, sometimes, that’s what you need. For instance, on the song “San Francisco Blue,” we had around eight guitar tracks, and we choose the amps—a ’59 Fender Champ, a ’63 Gibson Discoverer, some Fender Deluxes, a Vox AC10, and perhaps a SansAmp—to ensure every sound would remain very distinct when spread across the stereo spectrum. Having some vintage amps in the mix always helps you achieve clarity and articulation when you’re building guitar textures.

The older the amp is, the more in your face the sound is, and the more transient response it seems to have. The really old Marshalls give you a whack in the head, and as an amp gets more modern, the sound becomes like a caress, and it’s also forgiving in a certain way. So if I’m doing a guitar part that requires super highs and lows, but that also has to be melodic, I would tend to use a modern amp that tapers everything off and presents the sound in a more listenable format. But if I want to claw your face off for a couple of seconds, I’ll go for an old amp that is uncultured and raw.

I couldn’t help but notice that there are ton of wonderful sustaining lines on the record.

Oh, there is a lot of Sustainiac on this record—so much, in fact, that I started putting those pickups in all the guitars we’ll bring on tour.

Typically, how do you approach a Sustainiac pickup from a creative standpoint? What’s your mojo?

I approach it very cautiously, because, many years ago, Robert Fripp was in this very room, and I was recording him using his Sustainiac when we were doing the song “Sleep Walk.” I thought, “It’s amazing how that pickup makes him be creative in a different way.” Neal Schon uses a Sustainiac in a very seamless way, and then, touring with Steve Vai a lot, he would go out there and just do brilliant things with a Sustainer—a different pickup that does much the same thing. He’s very lyrical. I love that the Sustainiac lets me get feedback at any volume, and from anywhere I stand on stage. My new Ibanez JS2450 over there in muscle-car purple—I put a Sustainiac on it, and it’s a very comfortable guitar to play, but when I flip the switch for the Sustainiac, it becomes something else. It’s like wrestling with a snake that’s writhing out of control and screaming. Moments like that helped me think that I could carve out my own identity with this piece of gear that doesn’t sound like I’m stepping on Robert’s, Neal’s, or Steve’s shoes.

Can you elaborate a bit more on what you do to carve out techniques with a sustaining pickup that’s different from how Neal, Steve, and Robert might use it?

Well, I’m not sure yet [laughs]. I guess it stimulates me to play certain kinds of melodies and achieve a certain kind of phrasing. The silliest trick is to hit a note, hold it forever, and point to the audience. Everybody can do that, but it’s really when you do it, and what note you hit. Is it truly an uplifting moment when you hit that note, or are you just being annoying? You wrestle with that. You toy with it. And, hopefully, you achieve something interesting. Obviously, “Butterfly and Zebra” could only be achieved with a Sustainiac. When he heard it, Joe Bosso [music journalist] said something like, “Boy, if guitar notes were like droplets of water melting from large icicles, that’s what it would sound like.”

Where there any surprises from an effects or pedal standpoint during the sessions?

“Cataclysmic” has a very long solo section that sounds kind of flange-y, but it’s actually an Avid DigiRack Doubler. I opened up the software on a whim, because I wanted the solo section to just be bass and drums for a very long time, and, as a result, I felt the guitar needed to have more impact than just sitting in the center of the mix. So I tried this vocal patch, and I thought it was kind of cool, because the solo is very Coltranelike—long lines and stuff. I was surprised that the effect started during the demo process, and went all the way through the recording of the band, until, ultimately, John said, “I really like whatever the hell that thing is.” So we left it on.

There’s a weird patch on the Fractal Axe-FX II—I wish I remembered what it’s called—that really made “Goodbye Supernova” work. It’s a swelling kind of upper-midrange reverb thing that I used for the chords. I was being “Joe the bad recording engineer” when I did the song, because I printed the part with the effect, rather than track a dry guitar part that we could mess with and change later. I just plugged right into it, started playing, and, all of a sudden, I wrote a song. So I turned on Pro Tools and recorded this thing.

Perhaps that was Shockwave imposing himself on the proceedings again. “Screw options, dude—you’re going to commit!”

Could be. You know, that song sat actually around for about two years. It was a demo for Unstoppable Momentum. When I sent it to John as one of the songs to consider for Shockwave Supernova, he said, “I really love this song, but what’s happening in the breakdown?” I said, “What do you mean what’s happening? It’s a breakdown.” And John goes, “Not yet. You need to do something there.” So I went back to my studio, and started fooling around, and I found that Axe-FX II patch. I sent it back to John with the new part, and said, “The good news is that I saved it. The bad news is it is what it is—there’s not much we can do with it.” Happily, John thought it was great, and it’s a beautiful little piece. But maybe that is the Shockwave influence, because if I was being “Joe the good recording engineer,” I would have talked myself out of doing it. It was very lucky that I pushed Record right away and played something in the throes of inspiration.

You’ve been able to have a long and successful career while working outside the mainstream pop channels. It’s kind of incredible—and inspirational.

Listen, it’s a tragedy and a gift to work outside of the mainstream. The tragedy part is obvious—it has to do with work and exposure. The gift is that I don’t have to compromise, and I have a direct line to fans who don’t want me to compromise. Think how awful it would be for an artist to tell a fan that the ten-song album they just bought would have been so much better with five other songs, but I left them off due to some business decision. Can you imagine the audience going, “What the hell is that all about? I don’t want to hear about the problems with the music business. Who gives a sh*t about that? I’m the fan, you’re the artist, give me the best stuff you have!” In that way, I can sort of relax. People will hopefully like what I release, but whether they do or not, at least it’s just them and me. There are no excuses. I can’t blame it on some mystical industry problem.

Sure. But perhaps a lot of artists these days—especially with the record industry in such awful shape—may be afraid of not following convention. To keep their career moving, they may surrender to business and management strategies out of survival instinct, rather than musical inspiration.

I don’t think it’s so cut and dried, and I don’t think any artist has ever been made to do anything. I think, ultimately, they made their own choices. You always have the power to do what you want—you just have to accept the consequences. That’s just part of growing up. I’m a big fan of A&R departments—they can be extremely creative—but I don’t always agree with their advice. However, I always listen to what they say, because their suggestions have been nothing but helpful for all the crazy ideas I’ve had throughout my career.

After all these years of being in the public eye, do you get hurt by bad reviews online or in the mainstream press?

Sure, but there’s always a part of me that can take it. When you’re a musician as a teenager—as I was—and you start performing early, you get used to people telling you they don’t like what you’re doing. I didn’t start putting out records until I was close to 30 years old, so I had a lot of practice getting kicked down. I still get wounded by bad reviews, but they don’t bother me that much. They don’t stop me—let’s put it that way.

RELATED