By Andrew Daly
I’ve always said that with some guitarists, all you need to hear is one note, and you’ll know exactly who is wielding the pick. To that end, Joe Satriani needs no introduction.
Satriani burst on the scene with his 1986 debut record, Not of This Earth. At the time, instrumental guitar music was a bustling scene, loaded with shredders from across the globe, all trying to make a name for themselves, but it was Satriani who stood out.
Never one to compromise his vision, style, or aesthetic, the six-stringer continued his run to glory through a successive wave of increasingly mind-blowing and commercially successful records in Surfing with the Alien (1987), Flying in a Blue Dream (1989), and The Extremist (1992), before a two-year detour with Deep Purple into the mid-90s, culminating in Satriani being asked to join the veteran outfit, and the guitarist politely declining.
In the ensuing years, Satriani has released fourteen more solo records leading up to his most recent effort, The Elephants from Mars, which serves as a stout followup to 2020’s Shapeshifting. The album also posts notice to the guitar community that Satriani not only has his sights set on continued personal and artistic growth but that he’s taking the genre along with him.
I recently sat down with the veteran axe-slinger to touch on his latest music, his approach to songwriting, as well as the ever-present Van Halen rumors swirling around him.
Joe, thanks for digging in with me today. The last time we heard from you as a solo artist was 2020’s Shapeshifting. Fill in the gaps between that period leading up to the genesis of The Elephants of Mars.
So, in January of 2020, we were down in LA, and we had just finished the video for the first single for Shapeshifting, “Nineteen Eighty.” We wrapped that up, I did two appearances with Steve Vai at the NAMM show and then came back home to San Francisco. And then within a couple of weeks, all of a sudden there was locked down, but we decided to go ahead and release Shapeshifting anyway. Initially, we were thinking there would be a three or six-month delay before we could hit the road to support Shapeshifting. And during that period, I was thinking, “Well, let’s release the album, and when we finally do hit the road in the fall, the world will have at least heard it.” But of course, the lockdowns continued, the pandemic got worse, and I realized that by the next time I hit the road, I had this feeling that the fans were going to expect another album because they would have lived with Shapeshifting for quite a while. So, I had to scrap those plans, and I thought, “Okay, time to really rethink my strategy creatively. What is it that I want to do?” And I set a couple of goals for myself that were kind of crazy, I just said, “I’ve got to write better songs, come up with crazy arrangements, better guitar sounds, way better guitar performances, and figure out a way to get everybody in the band to take their time, and to think about their parts the same way that I’m doing it.”
Now, the reason why I mentioned this is because most of the time, you invite a bunch of musicians into a professional studio, you’ve got ten days, you’ve got fifteen or sixteen songs to do, and everybody kind of stays on their best behavior, so they can get through the song without screwing up. [Laughs]. It’s usually just, “Let’s help the artists stay on schedule, get paid, say goodbye, and be done.” Well, that creates a certain kind of album, and those are great, but I didn’t want that kind of an album. This time, I thought, “We’re all stuck at home, there’s no clock ticking on the wall, there’s no due date on the calendar, so we have no excuse not to come up with our craziest ideas, and take our time recording our best performances.” And that became the new method, the new idea. I didn’t even think about style. It isn’t about the style of the album. I just said to myself, “I’m just not going to think about those sort of restraints. I just want to focus on quality.” And then slowly, it started to come together, and every time we finished a piece we’d go, “This is going to work.” And even though the rest of my team is down in the greater Los Angeles area, and I’m up here in San Francisco, it worked, and we were able to create what eventually became The Elephants of Mars.
From a compositional standpoint, one of the things I noticed is the fantastic balance between melody-driven songwriting and outright shred. Can you expand on that for me?
I always start with the song. I always try to get what I think is the best composition first. I like a good idea first and foremost. I have plenty of contemporaries that are absolutely stunningly amazing at their technical approach to the guitar, and I’ve invited them on stage to stand next to me over the last few decades at G3 concerts just to show that. You know, it’s pretty thrilling when you get to see it firsthand, and as a result, I’ve always known where I sat in that hierarchy of players. And I’ve always felt that I play better when I really believe in the song I’m playing over, so I always start with the song first. And then as the song gets laid out, I ask myself, “Does this song benefit from having a lot of notes or less? What kind of performance is really going to make this song pop?” And sometimes it’s both, like with “Sailing the Seas of Ganymede,” it’s just got like everything in it, and it’s really kind of weird. [Laughs]. I didn’t plan it that way, but as I kept working on it, I thought, “Wow, this melody is like one of the slowest melodies ever for the chorus, but the solo section is really out there.” It’s got almost like three different personalities of me playing during that solo section, and that’s something that was kind of surprising. At the same time, that’s how I build an album – I start with the song, and then I see where it pushes me. And if it pushes me to a spot where I’ve got to try harder, or let’s say, learn something that I haven’t done before, then I take that as a really good constructive challenge. And then I’ll teach myself how to make the leap into that new technical area to make the song work. But I won’t build a song around technique or something like that. I never do that.
I saw a very interesting quote where you mentioned that with this album, your intent was to, “Set a new standard for instrumental guitar albums to be measured against.” Do you feel you’ve accomplished that?
Well, I think the original set of goals included that idea. Why shouldn’t instrumental guitar records be as dense with creative ideas, from the recording, mixing, arranging, and writing point of view as other kinds of albums? Like, why is it that just because it’s electric guitar, it’s got to be more show off the technical? It’s just an observation, and I looked at my catalog, and I thought, “Do I do that?” Because sometimes I see other players doing that, and if they’re good at it, then it’s a good result, but if they’re not good at it, it’s just sort of like something that should have been a minute on Instagram, it shouldn’t have been an album, you know? And so this is where Brian Eno’s ideas about context are so important because many years ago, he pointed out that as context increases where music is available. He said that music does have to change to meet the challenge of the context. So, in other words, if Dark Side of the Moon in an elevator doesn’t work, well maybe something by Captain & Tennille works better. [Laughs]. You know, because it’s simple, it’s pop, you get the message within an elevator ride going from floor one to floor four. You’ve heard the song, and that’s all you really need. But, with metal, or something like Pink Floyd, you’d have to go one thousand floors to even begin to get the musical message. If you’re in an airport, what kind of music makes sense for the number of hours you spend there, and the ambient noise that the music competes with?
To me, Eno had some brilliant, forward-thinking ideas, and I suppose that was what affected my observations to where I wanted to create a new standard for myself. Number one: I wanted to make the best album of my career. And number two: the observation that what I liked on Instagram, while I was watching a fourteen-year-old play for thirty seconds – things that I could never play – well, that excites me, but I don’t want to hear an album of it. But watching it for thirty seconds? I love it. And then I turn my phone off, and I go pick up my guitar, and I start practicing. It’s very motivational, but I thought, “What’s my context?” My context is making an album. I like making an album’s worth of music that will become the soundtrack to people’s lives. That’s motivating, and that’s the context that I think is the most enjoyable for me. I’m not making music for airports, or elevators, and I’m certainly not trying to make a name for myself on social media. This is album studio album number eighteen for me. I’ve been around for a long time. Everybody knows I play guitar. So, it’s not like I have to continue to introduce myself.
In the end, for me, the focus has to be on the highest quality compositions, the highest quality arrangements, and to just make the album not about showing off, because that’s something you do on your first album when you’re twenty. And it’s great, we need that so we can grasp the newcomer that comes along. But for somebody like myself, who has a history of not only playing on and producing albums as a solo artist, but playing with lots of other artists, and releasing albums with them, it makes sense that I would move into this territory. It makes sense that I would enter a space where I’m expecting more of myself. I am hoping to create a new standard where other artists like myself will concentrate more on the whole thing, not just, “Listen to my guitar. I’ve got the craziest new guitar. I got the amp everybody wants. I recorded in the famous studio, and I played faster than anybody,” you know, that kind of stuff. None of that interests me.
I think your objective observation of your own work seems to have created a very varied and multi-faceted album bred from an environment where you challenged yourself. And it seems like you’re pushing the boundaries of your creativity, but what’s most interesting is how listenable it all is. How did you go about striking a balance between creating something exciting, and making something it’s also very listenable?
I don’t know if I can put words to it. It’s almost dangerous. Sometimes, when you look at something long enough, you’ll find things aesthetically that you don’t like because you’re comparing it to something else. And the difference in approach would be to just sit back like a normal person, which is hard to do when you’re a musician in the middle of an album. I have to try to take the perspective of a normal human being, who just turned on their streaming service, and this came over, and then think to myself, “Is it listenable? Does it provide inspiration for the day? Will it help somebody celebrate or commiserate? Will it make them feel more creative? Will it calm them down?” These are the things that are important for 99.9% of the population. We use music to get us through life, and so if you’re making an album, and it’s not helping anybody get through life, then you really do have to sort of scratch your head and say, “Why am I doing this?” It’s the music that’s the most important.
I have so many wonderful stories that fans have sent to me over the years about how they’ve used my music – and it’s always the songs that are not technically astounding – they tell me about how they use the music in their lives, and it’s really profound. It really touches me, and it reaffirms how I feel about it when I sit back and listen to what I’m working on. If it doesn’t hit me like that, then I know that I’m not finished with it. It’s as you said, it’s got to be enjoyable to listen to. If you have to force yourself to say, “I’m going to listen to this, because somebody told me that this person playing is doing something technically brilliant, and I’ve got to pay attention,” to me, you’ve already lost. You’ve lost your fan. If it takes that much explaining, it’s no good. You should just be able to turn it on and have someone go, “I love this sound. I love this group. It makes me feel this way. And it makes me think of this or that.” That’s what you want.
Obviously, the album is an instrumental album, so there are no lyrics. To that end, what story does the instrumentation on the record tell in reference to the album’s title?
That’s a very interesting point you bring up because it’s something that I’ve always sort of juggled when making instrumental records. With instrumental songs specifically, it’s how much suggestion are you going to use with the sound of the guitar? In the title track “The Elephants of Mars,” do you hear the sound of outer space or another planet? Do you hear elephants? Of course, we didn’t sample elephants and put them into the track, and a song like “Sahara” doesn’t have wind or the sound of sand being thrown at high velocity against windows. [Laughs]. So, what is it that suggests “Sahara” in the song? It’s maybe just the microtonal twelve-string guitars, and that’s about it, really. Honestly, there’s not much else. There are a couple of sections where we throw in some North African percussion, but we’re careful not to force the idea onto somebody that it’s a song about a desert. It’s not. It’s a song about a person who’s so lost, they might as well be in their own Sahara Desert. It’s a suggestion, and it’s a poetic license we’re taking there.
With “The Elephants of Mars,” in fact, it did start with a funny sound that I thought sounded like alien elephants. [Laughs]. I don’t know why, but it got me thinking about this whole story where in the future, these scientists terraform Mars, create a garden planet out of it, and start to exploit it. Unbeknownst to them, there are these sentient gigantic elephants that were created as a result of the terraforming. They get together with the colonists – as they can communicate with them telepathically – and they decide to create a revolution to rescue Mars from the evil corporations of Earth, and make it an independent planet. Now, that’s a crazy story. [Laughs]. You know, when I got that story together, and I told the rest of the band, of course, everybody laughed, but it was a good way of getting everybody in the right mood to think how funny it could be.
It’s funny how it all spills over, because when I eventually approached my son about doing a second video for the album, and we decided to do the title track, he knew what the story was. Being with me for years and years, he knows how I work, so he thought, “Well, okay, let’s just expand on the story,” and he turned the whole story into a video game to save the elephants. In a way, the instrumental kind of suggests things sometimes, but it’s just a little nudge, you’re not telling your audience, “You have to think about elephants.” The instrumentals have this special power because no lyrics are being shoved down your throat, or your ear canals. Ultimately, you can do whatever you want. It’s just like when people listen to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” they don’t know what he was thinking, and they don’t care. They’re just going to use that song however they like, and that’s why instrumental music is so cool. That’s why it’s been around for thousands of years.
On the subject of elephants, many fans were surprised to hear that you may or may not be in conversations to play with the remaining members of Van Halen. Can you give us the rundown as to what’s happening there?
Yeah, it is true. I was contacted by Alex Van Halen, and Dave [Lee Roth] and had some conversations a little less than a year ago about putting together a full tour to celebrate Eddie and the Van Halen legacy. And yeah, it’s terrifying. I mean, I literally heard myself saying, “Yes,” and then the other part of my brain said, “Did you just say yes? Are you nuts?” I think I remember telling them that any sane guitar player would just turn around and start running away as fast as possible because you can’t measure up to Eddie. It’s like one of those jobs where you just try because you know it’s important to you, and a labor of love, but still, people are always going say, “It doesn’t sound like Eddie,” no matter what you do. I took on the challenge that way, and I did say, “Okay, I’ll agree to keep talking about this to see what happens.” But I’m not in the family, and I’ve never worked with Dave before. I’m just a guy that they called, and started the ball rolling. We were not supposed to talk about it, because it may never happen, and obviously, you know, Sammy [Hagar] and Mike [Anthony] were contacted, but I don’t really know what’s going on behind the scenes there. I can’t say I know exactly what’s going on. I do know that Jason [Newsted] was called at one point, and he was told – like I was – to not talk about it, because it may never happen. And so we were all shocked when he went public because he certainly wasn’t supposed to. And it’s only caused grief in the family, which is not nice, you know? So, yeah, that’s all I can really say about it. I don’t know much more today to tell you the truth. I do know that for the next year and a half I’m probably on tour starting in September, just doing The Elephants of Mars/Shapeshifting combo tour. So, whatever comes with this, it’s sometime in the future. I mean, in a way, now that the cats out of the bag, at least I don’t have to feel like I’m keeping something from people, you know?
In a hypothetical world, if it was to happen, would you play Eddie’s licks straight, or put your own spin on them?
I had a similar experience when I was touring with Deep Purple back in ’93 and ’94, and I was confronted with the same thing. I’d been comfortably doing my own stuff for years, and all of a sudden, I had to think about that very question, “Do I put my own spin on Ritchie Blackmore? Or do I pay my respects by just trying to nail what he did?” I had to pick and choose because there’s always something idiomatic about a player that will hit you like a brick wall. It’ll be one goofy little technique that only they can do, and even they don’t know why. It’s just something that they developed, and they leaned on it a lot, and it might be the one thing that you’re weak at. It’s one of those funny things, like, if you had to replace Ian Gillan, how would you do those screams? How would you sing “Child In Time?” You might be a great singer, but you may not have that high scream. It’s the same thing with Sammy Hagar, those high vocals, and there are plenty of amazing singers out there, but very few can do what Sammy was really great at. How do you work around that? With Eddie, there are a couple of things that came naturally to him that doesn’t come naturally to other players.
So, I just looked at the whole catalog at the time where we had started these conversations, and I knew right away, “Okay, I can nail 90% of this stuff because it’s almost the way I play.” But then there are these other things that he did that I thought, “That is so awkward. How do I even approach it?” And when you started looking at it, you realize that there’s a community of guitar players out there who work on this very issue. Which is like, for some reason, Eddie held his right hand over here, and he held his pick like that, and with most people, it hurts their hand, but with Eddie, it didn’t. It comes down to me thinking, “How am I going to do that really funny stuff?” I mean, it’s just nitpicking, nerdy guitar stuff, but once you get in the room with a bunch of guitar players, they can talk about it for hours about how they do the workaround to try to get the same sounds. In the end, I think that the spirit is the most important part.
I will say this in regards to Eddie, I think that the other biggest thing that people sometimes miss when they bring up Eddie Van Halen is that his writing was really the biggest expression of his talent. When you start to learn the songs, you start to see the genius of the compositions and the arrangements. Of course, there’s the solo or the intro that blows your mind, but it wouldn’t be there unless he had written the song. Whether it’s “Hot For Teacher, “Jump, or something, it’s the actual song that then forced him to whip out some crazy solo. The average person is gonna love those songs, whether it was Dave or Sammy singing. It’s all in the writing, you know? That’s what makes it so much fun and attractive. I guess that’s what attracted me to the gig, just the thought that I could go from playing “Atomic Punk,” to “Unchained” in one show. It’s just so much fun. The songs are just fun to play.
I supposed time will be the true test if it happens or not. Last one, what’s next for you, Joe?
Well, I still have ten more guitars to paint. I’ve been commissioned by the Wentworth Gallery to paint a few hundred pieces, and we’ve done three gallery shows so far this year. I’ve got another one coming up in June in Washington DC. Then, I am getting my gear together, I’m practicing, and getting ready for going back to my other life, you know, the one where I used to be on tour six months of every year. [Laughs]. Basically, you have to get really self-motivated when you’ve got these two careers going. But when I get tired, it’s been great to sit down and pour over more stories. Matt Owen and I are putting together our first book, and we decided to pick maybe ten or twelve of our best stories and publish a Sci-Fi book. When my fingers get tired, and I get tired of smelling paint, I work on the stories with Matt. [Laughs].
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