Guitar wizard Joe Satriani is totally cool being The Extremist



By Steve Newton

Joe Satriani doesn’t do anything halfway. Whether writing, recording, or playing live, the New York-born, San Francisco-based guitar wizard always strives for musical perfection. If there were a rock ’n’ roll army, Satriani would surely be all that he could be.

“One of my friends once called me a musical extremist,” says Satriani, “because he was amazed at the extremes I went to to create my records and to follow the meaning of a song completely in the studio so that I would be able to transfer that feeling to the listener. He once said that I should write a song called ‘The Extremist’ that was about myself.”

Satriani took his friend’s advice one step further, making “The Extremist” both a song and the title of his latest release. He spent two years getting The Extremist to the point where he was satisfied with it, juggling producers and musicians alike.

“The performances that everyone was giving were good performances, and these were excellent musicians, but they didn’t meet my…how do I say it?…they didn’t meet the emotional goal I was trying to get out of the music. And, unfortunately, I couldn’t seem to direct them in a way that would get them to understand what I was tryin’ to get out of them. So I took some time off and changed the arrangements a little bit, and I decided to bring in some other people to augment it.”

Throughout The Extremist—and on the tour that brings Satriani to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday (November 5)—his flaming guitar workouts are augmented by the bass and drum talents of brothers Matt and Gregg Bissonette, who rock fans might recognize as the former rhythm section for David Lee Roth.

“They were friends of [former Roth guitarist] Steve Vai,” says Satch, “so that was sort of our connection. But we hadn’t played together before until, gee, I guess it was January of this year. I just brought them in for an audition—I was auditioning about 30 different rhythm sections, looking for that magical group of people—and these guys just showed up and played brilliantly and in such a relaxed way. We didn’t have to say very much to each other: everything was understood.”

As Satriani’s new bottom-end, Matt Bissonette had to follow in the sizeable footsteps of virtuoso bassist Stu Hamm, whose technical skills played an important part in Satriani’s previous recordings and live shows. But Satriani doesn’t feel his music is suffering at all from Hamm’s absence.

“It’s a completely different ball game,” he says when asked to play favourites. “Stu plays everything with his thumb and his fingers, and he does a lot of two-hand tapping, and Matt comes from a completely different avenue of bass playing. Stu Hamm’s roots seem to be more in Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius, and I think Matt’s probably got his roots in players like Chris Squire and John Entwistle and Paul McCartney. Matt has a huge catalogue of music inside of him, but he’s never gone for flash techniques, primarily because he’s a writer himself and he spends a lot of time composing.”

When the newly renovated Satriani band hits town, it will also be sporting a fourth member in keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Phil Ashley, who toured with Satch in 1988 when they were in Mick Jagger’s band. Satriani says he’s excited about the musical prospects that a fourth member brings to the live show.

“Aw, it’ll be great, ya know. And I think it’ll free up the drums and bass, because on the last tour, unfortunately, Stu and [drummer] Jonathan Mover had a lot of pressure on them to do more than their share—the three of us had to go out and do a little more than maybe what was humanly possible. Stu had to do a lot of rhythm tapping and it cut into some of the soulful bass playing that he wanted to do, and Jonathan very often had to activate a sampler with some rhythm chords in it, and that would cut into the drumming he was tryin’ to accomplish.

“So this time out, I wanted to make sure that the bass player just had to play bass and the drummer just had to play drums. Phil is gonna handle all the special effects and keyboard parts.”

Satriani confides that his group is performing the entire Extremist album on this tour, as well as “the coolest tunes” from Not of this Earth, Flying in a Blue Dream, Dreaming #11, and Surfing with the Alien, the explosive 1987 release that remains his best-selling disc so far.

So, is the fact that Surfing is Satriani’s heaviest, most intense, shred-till-your-fingers-bleed album the main reason for its immense popularity?

“You could be right there, but I think timing with anybody’s albums is the most important thing, and that’s something an artist can’t manufacture. There’s a lot of luck involved when you write the right kind of music and it gets released at the right time—and in relation to other records that are being released that year.

“Surfing was a great record, it really was, and it was the first of its kind in about 17 years. In a way, it was the first record that a lot of people caught wind of what I was doing, and I think it really typified my style so completely at that time. It wound up being the most successful record here in the States, but in Europe, Flying in a Blue Dream outsold it two-to-one. And The Extremist has now proved to be the most successful out of all the five records in Europe.”

The way the music industry works, not many instrumental rock artists ever get the opportunity to wonder how many warehouses their millions of CDs and tapes could fill. Satriani doesn’t wonder about it too much, either.

“It’s completely mind-blowing,” he says with a laugh, “so I don’t think about it. I mean, it’s great because it means that a lotta people enjoy your music, but other than that, it’s just sort of a strange, surreal kind of concept, you know.”

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