Unstoppable Momentum is the title of rock guitar god Joe Satriani’s new album.
“It’s a very truthful title,” says Satriani. “It’s all about recognizing I’ve had this drive in me to create music since I was a little kid. And it seems like instead of slowing down, it’s been gaining momentum over the years. So I started to write this song that was a celebration of that.”
For over 25 years, Satriani has traveled the world playing sold-out shows both as a headliner and as the founder of the touring all-star G3 guitar extravaganza.
His side project, Chickenfoot, featuring former Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar, former Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony, and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, reached Gold status with their debut album.
Selling more than 10 million records worldwide, Satriani has stretched the boundaries of guitar rock with his signature harmonics and innovative compositions on albums like Surfing with the Alien, Flying in a Blue Dream, and Crystal Planet.
Touring in support of his 14th studio release, Satriani kicks off his largest ever tour of Canada in New Brunswick on October 4.
Joining him on the road is Mike Kneally (Frank Zappa, Steve Vai) on keyboards, along with a new rhythm section featuring bassist Bryan Beller (Frank Zappa) and drummer Marco Minnemann (Adrian Belew).
In our exclusive interview with Joe Satriani, the guitar virtuoso chats at length about everything from Frank Zappa, Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix to comic books, Star Trek, and space age technology.
Enjoy the chat below.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What have you discovered about Unstoppable Momentum, performing the entire album live on this tour?
Joe Satriani: Most people may not think of it this way, but when an artist goes into the studio to record a new record it’s sort of their first blush attempt at trying to configure an idea into something tangible.
And then in the years that follow, as they play the music on stage, that’s when they actually figure out what it is that they’ve done and maybe how they should have done it differently (laughs), but by then it’s too late.
But that’s always what happens. I think most of the time though, you are rewarded in knowing that you did the right thing.
A typical thing I think that happens is, you go and you make a record, you want to make sure things are tight and succinct enough for people to be able to understand it on a first listen, but when you get on stage you start expanding. Everybody starts expanding. And by the end of the tour everyone has changed their parts a bit. Maybe they’re overplaying a bit, and it feels great and all, but then you listen back to the album version and you go, “No, this is the classic version and it’s probably a good idea we didn’t just let everyone run crazy with their parts on the album”.
But every once in a while the opposite can be true as well. Certainly, we’ve had that experience with some songs, but after nine weeks of being in Europe on tour with the new live band, and playing the entire record live, I think it’s been a fantastic experience to hear the music and watch the people enjoy it live.
RCM: Do you have a favorite venue to perform in?
Joe Satriani: Well, I think Royal Albert Hall in London is a beautiful experience. I’ve played there three times and it’s always just a beautiful experience. I can’t really put my finger on it, as I’ve played other venues like that, that are circular and have lots of balconies and have red velvet here and there. And the people are really close. But for some reason, that place just has this vibe that’s unique. I don’t know if it particularly sounds good, but it’s a great feeling to play there.
There was a place in Phoenix, a theatre in the round that I used to hate playing. When I’d see it come up on the itinerary I’d think, oh no, I’m going to get motion sickness again.
But the funniest thing is you get a great feeling from the audience because they’re all around you and you’re looking at everybody. And it’s very different than having 4,000 people laid out in front of you, where there’s people up front but most of them are further and further away. But in a circular theatre like that, everybody is pretty much at the same distance and it’s just a really different feeling.
I grew to really like it after a while, even though it’s just ridiculous when it comes to trying to project sound in a revolving…it doesn’t make any sense (laughs). The other disconcerting part is that at some point you’re facing your crew, because they’re in the pit and you’re performing and performing and all of a sudden you look and there’s your guitar techs. And they’re looking at you and thinking, what are you looking at me for?
RCM: How fun are those shows you play with Chickenfoot?
JS: We have a lot of fun, and we really naturally create that energy with each other. And because we’re not doing our normal gig, we feel like it’s a vacation or we’re off the leash or something. I feel like Chad plays differently ’cause he’s not playing with the Chili Peppers, and I think Chad probably says, wow, Joe’s playing a lot different than he does with his solo thing, and so on and so forth. So there’s something really liberating about it.
RCM: What’s it like performing alongside Michael Anthony and Sammy Hagar?
Joe Satriani: Boy, if you’ve ever heard Sammy sing soul music — he does James Brown and Sly Stone, and that kind of stuff — it’s absolutely amazing. He’s got a great soul voice.
And Michael, too, is an amazing musician. A lot of people don’t know he played trumpet through high school and college, so he’s got a musician’s brain, you know, he can see notes and chords and stuff. I mean, he can visualize it in his brain and he doesn’t have to look at it on the fret board, so to speak. So he’s a great musician to play with — him on bass and me on guitar — and it just feels so natural.
And of course his personality, he’s just fun and unpredictable and always creative in the studio. It’s been a real pleasure to get to know him and play with him.
RCM: You also played with Grace Potter in New York City a few years back, performing Cortez the Killer.
Joe Satriani: That was one of those crazy one-off things in a very interesting venue, in The Theater at Madison Square Garden. It’s a really cool venue with a nice big stage. Somebody called me, it might have been my agent who had said I was invited to play at the Jammys this one year and I said, well I’ll be there. I didn’t know who I was going to play with yet, and then as time went on I realized who was going to be playing and I just figured I’ll show up and see what happens.
And that was put together really quickly. We just sort of talked about it backstage for a few moments and all of a sudden the show started and that was it (laughs). So everyone’s just looking at each other trying to figure out, okay what’s next, where do we go, but everyone was just playing so great.
RCM: You’re a lifelong Neil Young fan, right?
Joe Satriani: Oh yeah, he’s got something that has kept me as a fan ever since I was a little kid. I mean, I can’t tell you how many hours I spent listening to the first Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young record, and then the Neil Young record that followed. That’s just a part of my DNA now.
Neil Young is a very special musician, without a doubt. I think of Neil Young as an institution.
RCM: Tell us about the G3 concert tour you organize, featuring the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Morse (Deep Purple), Eric Johnson, Joe Petrucci (Dream Theater), Robert Fripp (King Krimson), and Brian May (Queen).
Joe Satriani: I started G3 back in ’95. It took me a year to convince all the musicians that it was a good idea to stand next to each other and play together, because most people were afraid to stand next to someone who might show them up, you know. But after I convinced all the guitar players that the audience had already made up their minds who they liked best, and that’s not what this show was going to be about, but rather it was really going to be a celebration and we were going to be comrades, it really kicked off.
RCM: You’ve also had Steve Lukather join the G3 tour in recent years, despite his busy touring schedule with Toto, and Ringo Starr & his All-Starr Band.
Joe Satriani: Yeah, I’ve known Steve for a very long time but, like you said, it wasn’t until the last few years that we’ve been able to get him on the G3 tour. Steve is just one of those musicians that, if you know him, what you know about him is that his musicianship is at the highest level. His sense of timing and harmony and melody is just absolutely amazing. And while he doesn’t figure into a lot of those guitar polls — I think because he’s just so good at what he does that he hides the mechanics of what he’s doing — he’s actually a brilliant musician.
And he’s such a great guy, one of the funniest guys to talk to. He’s a very warm and humorous person to hang around with, so anytime you’re touring with him, you know your face is going to hurt from laughing all the time. He’s a very special person, a unique individual, and I look forward to playing with him more.
RCM: Early in your career, you were a guitar instructor and taught Steve Vai and Kirk Hammett. You must feel a sense of pride seeing your students go on to achieve great fame.
Joe Satriani: I’ve known Kirk since he was a young kid, when I was teaching at this little store in Berkeley, California. He was just out of high school I think, or maybe in high school, and playing in the band Exodus. And it was during the course of our lessons that he got the gig for Metallica, so I knew him at a really fun time.
He was a very dedicated fan of guitar and of music, he had great taste in guitar players and he was at the forefront of a new generation of players that had some difficult things to figure out, because the song structures for that kind of thrash metal didn’t allow you to just play what everybody else had been playing. You couldn’t play like Van Halen or Michael Schenker over these chord progressions, because they were just kind of odd and they had so much aggression to the rhythm that he had to come up with something new. And it took, and Kirk was one of those guys along with Alex Skolnick (Testament) and a few other players that really created that thrash style of lead guitar playing. So of course his rhythm playing is great as well. He’s always been such a great guy too.
And Steve Vai, I saw Steve play with just about every band he’s been in. I think I missed him with Whitesnake, but I did see him play with Frank Zappa, Alcatraz, and David Lee Roth. And of course we toured together a lot, and to see the real Steve Vai is really to see him do his solo shows. It’s really just all inspiring.
RCM: Were you a fan of Frank Zappa growing up?
Joe Satriani: The funny thing is, I remember being the first person to show Steve Vai a Zappa record, and I was shocked at how much he fell in love with Zappa and that sound. And myself, I wasn’t too crazy about it. I grew up listening to a more serious, sort of third generation electric blues rock, you know.
So when I heard Zappa I thought, well, this is kind of like a comedy act. I mean, this guy’s brilliant and the guys playing in the band are all amazing, but how come it’s all sarcastic?
I remember thinking, I don’t know when I’m ever going to listen to this. Maybe I’d watch it on television but my soul did not resonate, let’s say, with the attitude that Frank liked to put into his songs — the lyrical attitude and the vocal attitude.
So I kind of admired Frank from a distance, but it’s kind of funny that a lot of people that I’ve played with were fanatics like Steve and Mike Keneally. They really gravitate towards Frank’s genius and his sense of humor, and the irony that he puts into his music along with the intensity as a musician. Frank was just fantastic. He was larger than life and difficult to put into one category. But I loved listening to Hendrix and Black Sabbath and Humble Pie and Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin. I mean from those bands, there were a lot of things that, to me, were real serious attempts to move people. So that was where I was coming from in the early days.
RCM: What was the first record you ever purchased?
Joe Satriani: I think it was…(long pause), I bought Led Zeppelin’s single for Communication Breakdown. I think that’s what it was. But a lot of the first records I owned I got sort of by default, as I was the youngest of five kids.
So my older siblings were always giving me records and eventually by the time I became a guitar player, I had inherited most of their records because they all left the house and had grown up.
So they left me all the 45s, and I would listen to 45s from the ’50s and ’60s, along with LPs they left.
So as a result my background in music is very varied, my parents listened to jazz all the time and classical, so I heard all this music and it wound up making me want to reflect all of that in my style, instead of just being a guitar player that played just one kind of music. I wound up always wanting to reflect the kind of music I grew up listening to in the music that I play.
RCM: Do you take the time to reflect back on your career in music, having released 14 solo studio albums and toured the world?
Joe Satriani: I don’t think I ever…well, let’s say every once in a while I may allow myself to feel really great about how things turned out. But I always figure that’s always a bit of a dangerous road to go down, because I think in order to really succeed both artistically and in the industry, you’ve got to keep workin’.
You’ve got to keep your nose down and keep focusing on being as creative as you were yesterday, today, that kind of attitude.
But yeah, I think because I spent so many years sluggin’ it out in the clubs and teaching guitar that by the time I had Surfing with the Alien on the Billboard charts and I was playing with Mick Jagger, I was like, wow, this is quite the turn of fortune here! (laughs) I’ve gone from obscurity to a really good position where I’m going to be doing another record. And I think that’s what I always wanted to focus on. It was like, if I can maintain a certain amount of success where record companies will extend the creative license for me to do another record, then that’s what I’ve got to do. I just got extremely lucky that I ran into managers, agents, and record companies that were really supportive.
RCM: Your first full length album, Not of this Earth, was a highly experimental and eclectic collection of songs to release during the heyday of ’80s hair metal.
JS: Well, I was just looking to sound different from everybody. There was a lot of shredding, hairy guitar players at the time, and I thought, you know this is too one dimensional. I liked Allan Holdsworth and John McLaughlin, but I also like The Ramones and Stevie Ray Vaughan and B.B. King.
And so, I think what all of these artists have in common is integrity as they stay true to themselves, and they’re not jumping on a bandwagon. So yeah, the first full length LP didn’t fit with anybody else.
I remember when I brought my first EP to Shrapnel Records and I was told, well, you don’t fit in, you got to grow your hair and play more notes (laughs).
And I thought, oh that’s terrible, because you’d listen to someone like Jason Becker and you’d go, well he’s already done it, you know. Jason was so talented and he was so relaxed and effortless in the way he played that kind of stuff.
And he was the perfect age, and so I thought, why would you go chasing someone like that?
So I decided I’m just going to continue along my path that I started when I was in high school, which was really just trying to create a harmonic situation that people hadn’t thought of before.
I tried to be innovative compositionally and then tried not to overplay unless the composition called for it. So certainly, there are songs where I do my fair amount of shredding, but I try to make it count.
I don’t want to be gratuitous. I don’t want it to be just like an advertisement for my technique, because I always thought that was bad taste. And I hope I achieved that.
RCM: JJ Cale died a couple months ago. Was he someone you emulated when you were learning to play guitar?
Joe Satriani: Yeah, I kind of grew up with his music. I always think of that period as when I was half way through high school, and a lot of that music started to come out and was maybe popularized through Eric Clapton. That’s how we started to know more and more about him. Like I said, I was a young player that started out playing songs by Hendrix, Zeppelin and Sabbath in my high school, but as my musical horizons were broadening, I was really drawn to his laid back style, which started showing up on my radar.
But when I think about the career of JJ Cale, I think of him as a guy who eventually represented a sound that, for me, was exotic. I mean, I grew up in New York, so what did I know about Oklahoma (laughs), except what I read in history books. But this guy, I guess he created that whole Tulsa sound, and he probably played Cain’s Ballroom which is this famous crazy ballroom there. And yeah, it was really, really sad to hear of his passing.
RCM: JJ Cale was a musician of great integrity and, like you, certainly wasn’t an image-obsessed artist concerned with following trends.
Joe Satriani: Well, I’ve never really thought about the image stuff. I guess I’ve always tried to follow the muse, the thing that’s so difficult to put into words and explain, as the driving force of my musical life. And then I try to clean up as much as I can for the gig, but when people do comment on my image and tell me something I hadn’t considered I go, “Oh, that’s interesting. I don’t really think about it.”
I guess I figured, because I was a Hendrix fanatic — I started playing the day he died — that the one thing I’ve got to remember is to not fall victim to whatever took him from us. And it was that image thing that drove him crazy, eventually. And I thought, maybe you don’t need one.
Just be yourself, so that way you don’t fight this schizophrenic battle like, the performer is not me and yet the me always wants to come out.
So why not just be yourself and be done with it?
RCM: What do you do for fun when you’re not in the studio or on tour?
Joe Satriani: Right up until about the age of 50, I loved snowboarding. But once I officially crossed over I said, you know what, I think I’ve got to think about my fingers and my wrists and my arms a little bit more carefully. And I thought, this hobby of mine is a bit dangerous because you get kind of goofy as you get older, and snowboarding is definitely a sport for the young.
So I switched to more sedate pursuits like collecting some old American instruments, which is more my speed at this state of the game. I’ve got some vintage guitars and some old fenders and some old amps here in the studio. I guess I’m just all-consumed with my creative lifestyle and making art.
RCM: You have a rabid fan base all around the world, some of whom make fan art based on famous album covers like Surfing with the Alien. Were you a big fan of the Silver Surfer comic books growing up?
Joe Satriani: You know, I did not know who the Silver Surfer was when I decided to call my second full length record Surfing with the Alien. It’s funny, I was doing an interview before the release of the album with a British journalist who had very favorable things to say about the album to me except that he hated the title. And the title of the album at that time was “Lords of Karma”.
So after the interview I thought, well — this was the first interview I had done about three or four months before the album came out — “this is really strange, why would anybody get upset about a title”?
So I thought I should change the title and I looked over the list of ideas and I though, want would be the funniest choice for a title, so that no one would take me seriously (laughs) and know I’m not taking the piss out of this whole album title thing?
So I called up the record company and I said, “you know I’ve had this experience with a journalist, so let’s change the name of the album to Surfing with the Alien”.
And the guy I was talking to was a guy named Jim Kozlowski, and he was the product manager who just happened to be about six-foot-four and had long platinum hair.
He just said to me, “Ah that’s a great title! We should put my namesake on the cover, the Silver Surfer”.
And I said, “What are you talking about?” And then basically he educated me during that phone call all about Norrin Radd and the Silver Surfer.
Then he sent me two original issues that came out that had the Silver Surfer being born from the hand of Galactus, or whatever, and then later I approved the image for the album cover.
RCM: How did you get permission from Marvel to use the images of the Silver Surfer and Galactus?
Joe Satriani: Marvel was right down the block from Jim Kozlowski in Manhattan, and he knew them, so he just went down the street and worked out a licensing deal with them. Marvel was about to go under, you know, and the Silver Surfer comic was dead at the time.
So suddenly, I had this unbelievable album cover and I got associated with the Silver Surfer from the success of that record. But the irony is, I actually didn’t know who the Silver Surfer was prior to that (laughs).
It’s funny how things happen like that. You just never can tell.
RCM: So you don’t have a Silver Surfer comic book collection?
Joe Satriani: What I have is maybe eight comics all centered around the Silver Surfer, and they’ve all been gifts. I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a comic book in my life!
RCM: Your songs are often inspired by science fiction themes. Why do you think these themes resonate?
Joe Satriani: I think it’s two things happening at once. Number one, sci-fi is always reporting and re-examining the human condition. It’s just the same old story, but that’s good, as we need that to help us organize life in our brains and our hearts and everything. And secondly, it has no shame in imagining what the future could look like. And that’s really what it’s all about.
When it shows people from another planet wearing lizard costumes and stuff like that, obviously, it’s not taking that seriously (laughs). It’s just saying that people are different. We look different from each other, but aside from that you may think about — let’s say from an early Star Trek episode, which would be talking about this — how we relate to computers. Which is what we do every minute of every day now, we walk around with little computers. And they’re kind of like the communicator in Star Trek, or the database.
All that kind of stuff that people would laugh at back in the mid-’60s, is actually now part of our reality. And these phones we carry around now are actually an extension of what we consider our intellect.
It’s really strange, but that’s what science fiction does. It dares to imagine very boldly alternate ideas for future life. And it does in fact spur creativity and innovation in those who are capable of taking a crazy idea and turning it into reality.
RCM: Yes, the world’s first test-tube hamburger patty was created in a laboratory from a living cow’s stem cells a few months back…
Joe Satriani: Food replicators — that’s crazy, I know! (laughs) They’re also able to grow tissue to help burn victims now, and able to grow tissue from other animals and help people with tissue related diseases and organ related diseases. That’s totally Star Trek! And if you think about it, microwave ovens — which most people wouldn’t know how to cook a dinner without one — is kind of space age technology, right? Because you can’t even see it.
But I think if people are interested in this kind of stuff, they should go out and read Dan Simmons or China Meiville. These are fantastic writers that are alive today writing amazing science fiction, and in other styles as well. I think it’s such a creative space in writing right now, especially Dan Simmons, he’s written so many amazing books — your basic fiction, non-fiction, science and fantasy, and horror. He’s an amazing writer.
RCM: As an artist, what are your hopes for the future?
The hope is that you wake up every morning and there’s another song just sittin’ there waiting to be written. You’ve got to follow the muse and work it and be tenacious about not letting it slip past you.