ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, NOV. 21, 2002
By Steve Newton
Joe Satriani named his latest CD Strange Beautiful Music, although the music on it isn’t much stranger or more beautiful than what the Bay Area guitar wizard has been conjuring over the past few years. The story behind the title has more to do with another hard-rock hotshot who made his unforgettable mark on the world in the late ’60s.
“It actually goes way back to when I was 12 or 13 years old,” says Satriani, on the line from his home in San Francisco. “I was having a cathartic experience trying to get through listening to all of Are You Experienced? by Jimi Hendrix, when I got stuck on ‘Third Stone from the Sun’. To me it was just the most amazing piece of music and sound, ever. And I remember there’s a spot where he’s sort of imitating the captain of an alien mother ship hovering over earth, speaking to its inhabitants, and the first thing he says is, ‘Strange beautiful, grass is green,’ and he goes on to have this little speech before takeoff, you know.
“It kinda stuck in my head all those years,” he continues, “and then many years ago I decided to use Strange Beautiful Music as the name of my publishing company, just as a connection to my beginnings, you know. And then a couple of times I tried to use it as a title for different albums, ’cause it was sort of like the natural title for the usual mixture of heavy and soft and straight-ahead and really outside music that I seem to stick on one album each time we go through. But this time it just seemed to be right.”
Although Satriani is not noted for covering other people’s material, he did make one exception on Strange Beautiful Music when he re-created Santo and Johnny’s dreamy 1959 hit “Sleep Walk”. “That came out of a dinner I had with record-company guys while we were doing the G3 tour,” he explains. “We were havin’ a funny conversation about the greatest guitar instrumentals of all time, and I just said, ‘You know, I think “Sleep Walk” is so perfect, everything about it—the composition, the performance, the recording, the arrangement.’ Then about a month later I’m at home and I’m starting to work on some demos, and I start thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t think I’ve ever played that song!’ I’ve listened to it since I was a kid, but I never actually sat down and played it.
“So I decided to record a version of it in my home studio, and when I was finished I was really pleased with how it turned out. I felt, ‘Wow, if there was just one more element on here, I’d even put it on a record.’ It was very beautiful, but it wasn’t strange at all, so I sent an e-mail to Robert Fripp, who’s a good friend of mine, and told him what I was up to, and said, ‘Would you be interested in laying something weird on top of this beautiful track?’ He was due to be in the San Francisco area with King Crimson a few weeks from then, so he just bopped on over one afternoon and recorded some of those unusual harmonies that start off and end the track.”
Apart from Fripp’s subtle “Frippitronic guitar” embellishments, Satriani’s version of “Sleep Walk” is quite true to the original, which has been played on the radio more than two million times. But there are no plans to cash in on the song’s relentless popularity and release it as a single. Satriani hasn’t been heard much on mainstream radio since the late-’80s instrumentals “Always With Me, Always With You” and “The Crush of Love” introduced his riveting instrumental music to the masses, but the suits at his long-time label, Sony, aren’t hounding him for another radio-friendly number.
“They’ve been very supportive of the strange space that I occupy in the music industry,” he relates. “When we get to that point where I’ve written a number of songs and I’m ready to start recording, though, I like to get together with the A&R person and show them the direction I’m going. Each record I try something different, so I’ll tell them, ‘I’m trying to achieve this particular synthesis,’ or ‘this combination of sounds’, and they might just come up with an odd comment that could galvanize the project. The A&R people are also helpful when you’re trying to get in touch with a particular artist or producer. They’re your conduit, your ‘can-do’ person, who can hook you up.”
One producer who has connected with Satriani is Vancouver’s Mike Fraser, who did triple duty—acting as producer, engineer, and mixer—on Satriani’s 1998 Crystal Planet CD. He also mixed the guitarist’s Live in San Francisco DVD, and produced the 1997 G3 Live in Concert album, which showcased Satriani on-stage with the extraordinary Steve Vai and tone-master Eric Johnson.
“Mike is one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met in the music industry,” Satch exclaims. “I mean, he’s one of those guys who really understands where an artist wants to go, and he seems to effortlessly guide you there. And he comes up with some really creative ideas, right on time. He’s just got a fantastic sound.”
Joe Satriani sounds off on the things enquiring minds want to know.
On when he likes to bring acoustic instruments into his mostly electric fold: “We’ve selected the use of acoustic instruments very carefully, and put them alongside electric guitar. You know, certain songs really lend themselves to having more harmonic information coming from the rhythm section, less heaviness, and [acoustic instruments] sorta set the melody apart a little bit more.”
On Favored Nations, the guitarists-only label headed by his former student and sometime collaborator, Steve Vai: “It’s a great idea. I know he’s got a lot of talented people working there, and he’s able to offer artists a more equitable deal than you’d get with a major label that’s more geared up towards pop groups.”
On how fans are reacting to the enlistment of bassist Matt Bissonette, who’s currently touring in the position previously held by virtuoso Stu Hamm: “Any time a solo artist changes band members, there’s always people that respond to the positive freshness of a new band, and then there’s always a couple who think, ‘Hey, I want that other guy.’ But I don’t think there’s been one ‘Stu!’ yelled from Bulgaria all the way to Hong Kong in the last six months.”