Joe Satriani explains how he overcame pain and suffering to fulfill his new Blue Dream

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JAN. 19, 1990

By Steve Newton

Just as almost everyone can recall where they were when news broke of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a lot of rock fans can vividly remember that day in 1970 when the news of Jimi Hendrix’s death came down. Joe Satriani was in high school at the time. He was standing out by the school gym in his football uniform when somebody walked by, made a crass remark about Hendrix, and then mentioned that he was dead.

That was it for Satriani.

He gave up football on the spot and devoted himself to the instrument that was such a living, breathing force in the hands of his mentor.

“I’d been a drummer before,” says Satriani, over the wires from his home in Berkeley, California, “and tinkered around with a little bit of piano and ukelele and folk guitar. But that day it was very clear to me what I wanted to do and what I was gonna do.”

And now he has done it. Currently Satriani, 33, is the most raved-about guitarist in rock. His mastery of technique and inventive approach to creating wild sounds has made him numero uno among fans and critics. But for all his drive and ambition–and obvious talent–Satriani might have remained in six-string obscurity to this day if he hadn’t overcome the broke-musician syndrome by using his own credit card to finance the recording of his debut album, Not of This Earth. It seems no one in the music biz wanted to know about him at first.

“When I was looking to do a full album project, I couldn’t get any spec time in the local studios,” says Satch, explaining that no one was prepared to go near an instrumental rock record. ‘”And just sort of by chance I got one of those credit-card letters in the mail that says, ‘Mister Joseph Satriani, you have been selected…’ You know. It had a $5,000 credit limit and came with cheques, so I called up Jon Cuniberti, my co-producer and engineer, and we went to a studio and pulled together a deal. I wrote everybody cheques ahead of time, and that’s how we made Not of This Earth.”

Satriani was originally going to release the album on his own record label, Rubina Records, but his former guitar student Steve Vai–who by this time was David Lee Roth‘s axeman–told him to send a copy to the independent Relativity Records, the only company that had reacted favourably to Vai’s previous instrumental solo attempt. Satriani followed Vai’s advice and Relativity released Not of This Earth. While it wasn’t a huge hit, the album made enough noise in guitar-nut circles that Relativity granted Satriani a modest budget for the follow-up album, Surfing with the Alien.

That’s when the buzz really started for Satriani.

After it’s 1987 release, Surfing went on to sell in excess of a million units worldwide, and became the highest-charting rock instrumental LP since Jeff Beck’s landmark Blow by Blow in ’76. Ironically, that Beck album, along with the Hendrix LPs, had been a huge influence on the young Satriani.

“I’ve always been a fan of Jeff Beck‘s, and when Blow by Blow came out it was a great step in a new direction for a lot of people. Because it wasn’t quite fusion, and it had a lot of rock ‘n’ roll attitude. And there were a lot of kids–I was one of them at the time–who really felt that that kind of music was what we wanted to hear, but nobody was doing it. And when he came out with it it was almost like what all of us were doing at home with our friends–except he was doing it really well.”

The inspiration Satriani got from Beck and Hendrix was only part of what led to his current stature in the field–he would also put in gruelling, 15-hour practice days. But he had to stop those marathon sessions because of his habit of clenching his teeth while playing. That led to the displacement of his jaw or what is known medically as temporal mandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ). It doesn’t tickle.

“I think a lot of the aggression of Surfing with the Alien had to do with the fact I was in pain,” says Satriani. “I really went for those nasty tunes. That’s when [the TMJ] really kicked in, and I’ve had it ever since. I have braces now–the kind of things you wear when you’re 11, except I still have ’em. Weeks go by where it’s pretty horrible, then it clears up again.”

As if the physical pain that Satriani suffered during the Surfing sessions weren’t enough, he had to deal with a whole lot of emotional distress while recording his latest LP, Flying in a Blue Dream.

“My father had gone into a coma at the beginning of the record, and passed away just as we were mixing it. And his mother–my grandmother–passed away a few days after he died. So it was almost like extra added emotional fuel, you know, to get more feeling onto the tape. And the songs on the record that are happy songs I think wound up having more of a good-time feel because we all needed it so much. We all needed a boost.

“Maybe the record helped,” he ponders, “maybe it was cathartic. It didn’t seem like it at the time, but there was just a lot going on in my head that I had to get on record. On the one hand, I was excited to be back in the studio, but then there was the reality side of it–the sadness and feelings of deprivation. There was a lot more intensity in my playing.”

Intensity is one thing that Joe Satriani has plenty of. And when he cranks that feeling into this customized Ibanez, through his wah-wah pedal and distortion box, and then out at you through a Marshall amp, look out! Satriani’s playing is hot enough to singe a polar bear’s whiskers, but it’s a beautiful noise with a lot of soul. As Satch sees it, it’s a music of discovery.

“A lotta the songs I write deal with the fact that I don’t know what the hell’s going on and I’m trying to find out,” he says. “I don’t profess to have any answers to the questions of life, and I suppose my art form is really an expression of the questions and the angst. You know sometimes I’m rejoicing and other times I’m sort of stewing in sadness about all these things All of us go through the same thing–we have ones close to us pass away–but when it happens to you it’s so unique and there’s never any rehearsal for it. It’s very difficult to deal with that.”

On one Flying in a Blue Dream track in particular, “Strange”, some of the fearsome emotions Satriani was experiencing come through in his paranoic vocals. But the album is far from downbeat–it’s a very diverse collection of instrumental and lyrical arrangements which reflect a wide range of emotions and musical styles. It’s also a lot longer than your typical rock album, clocking in at an unheard-of 65 minutes.

“I started with the idea that I was gonna do something very challenging, artistically, for myself. I wanted to play better than I had ever played before. I wanted to work in some vocals and lyrics, and I wanted to try my hand at some new textural forms as far as production goes–using the banjo and playing harmonica and stuff like that. I didn’t want to make another 38-minute, 10-song kinda thing. I wanted to make a record that would be as challenging as, say, Exile on Main Street or Electric Ladyland. Something heavy, something deep.”

As well as past masterworks by the Stones and Hendrix, Satriani says that he emulates the artistic stylings of Canada’s favourite son, Neil Young. Though he’s not normally seen as a guitar hero, Young is precisely that in Satriani’s eyes.

“What I hear from him is that when he goes to play a song like ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’, I mean that guitar part that he plays just on acoustic is perfect–I can’t imagine it different. And it doesn’t confuse the song he’s singing. And when he does ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ it’s the same thing. I think that’s what makes a great guitarist–someone who doesn’t bore you with things that have nothing to do with the song. It’s like Steve Vai, who’s got probably the best facility of any player out there, yet has a really good handle on how to make sure he doesn’t overdo it. In that way, I see Steve and Neil Young in the same light: they know their abilities, and they govern them with a real artistic sense.”

Satriani’s own artistry has recently shown up on the big screen in Say Anything. “One Big Rush”, the most explosive track on Flying, is played during a kickboxing scene in the film, and in a house-party scene later on.

“I was looking for movies to add my music to,” says Satriani, “and I was getting all these movies that had ‘Alien’ in the title–you wouldn’t believe how many scripts I got like that. And finally when this one came by, it was a good movie. It didn’t have gratuitous violence or sex in it, and it was very well acted. And I thought, ‘This is something where it makes sense.’ Because other people like Peter Gabriel, Living Colour, and the Replacements were adding to the soundtrack as well.”

With all the praise that Satriani has received from the music press lately, and the groundswell of support that has been building since the release of the Grammy-nominated Surfing LP, he is undeniably a Guitar God of the first order. But he’s the last person to be affected by all the well-deserved hype.

“I don’t really feel it, you know. I was always one of those kids, growing up, who was always off in my own world, and so in this part of my life it’s become a really nice protective shell. I know people tell me these things, and I get the magazines delivered to my place, and I go, ‘Oh there’s my picture, yeah, I’ve done that.’ But I really do sort of exist in my own little sphere.”

 

To hear the full audio of my 1990 interview with Joe Satriani–and my interview with him from 2018 as well–subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 250 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

Sean Costello, 2006
Roger Hodgson from Supertramp, 1998
Tommy Stinson from the Replacements, 1993
Brian Blush of the Refreshments, 1997
Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, 2003
Craig Northey of Strippers Union, 2021
Melissa Etheridge, 1990
Joe Jackson, 2003
Pepper Keenan of Corrosion of Conformity, 2001
David Ellefson of Megadeth, 1992
David Lee Roth, 2003
Grant Walmsley of the Screaming Jets, 1991
John Popper of Blues Traveler, 1991
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 2012
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1993
Ellen McIlwaine, 2001
Derek Trucks of Tedeschi Trucks, 2012
J.D. Fortune of INXS, 2006
Fernando von Arb of Krokus, 1984
Gary Holt of Exodus, 1985
Dizzy Reed of Guns N’ Roses, 1992
Scott Ian of Anthrax, 2012
Gary Lee Conner of Screaming Trees, 1992
Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, 1985
David “Honeyboy” Edwards, 2003
Rudolf Schenker of Scorpions, 1992
Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, 2001
Jeff Keith of Tesla, 1988
Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton of Arc Angels, 1992
Marc Bonilla, 1992
Mike Smith of Sandbox (and Trailer Park Boys), 1996
Dewey Bunnell of America, 1983
Robert Randolph of the Family Band, 2003
Keith Strickland of the B-52s, 2008
David Johansen of the New York Dolls, 2005
Nathan Followill of Kings of Leon, 2003
Todd Kerns, 2016
Bill Payne of Little Feat, 2002
Robbin Crosby of Ratt, 1989
Tommy Shannon of SRV & Double Trouble, 1998
Alejandro Escovedo, 1997
Billy Duffy of the Cult, 1989
Dave Martone, 2020
Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, 2006
Joss Stone, 2012
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Jack Blades of Night Ranger, 1984
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Colin James, 1995
Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, 1998
Tom Cochrane of Red Rider, 1983
Ed Roland of Collective Soul, 1995
Taj Mahal, 2001
Tom Wilson of Junkhouse, 1995
Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, 2003
David Lindley, 2002
Marty Friedman of Megadeth, 1991
John Hiatt, 2010
Nancy Wilson of Heart, 2006
Jeff Golub, 1989
Moe Berg of the Pursuit of Happiness, 1990
Todd Rundgren, 2006
Chad Kroeger of Nickelback, 2001
Steve Earle, 1987
Gabby Gaborno of the Cadillac Tramps, 1991
Terry Bozzio, 2003
Roger Glover, 1985
Matthew Sweet, 1995
Jim McCarty of the Yardbirds, 2003
Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars, 2001
John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, 1995
Steve Hackett from Genesis, 1993
Grace Potter, 2008
Buddy Guy, 1993
Steve Lynch of Autograph, 1985
Don Wilson of the Ventures, 1997
Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar, 1998
Trevor Rabin of Yes, 1984
Albert Lee, 1986
Yngwie Malmsteen, 1985
Robert Cray, 1996
Tony Carey, 1984
Ian Hunter, 1988
Kate Bush, 1985
David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, 1984
Jeff Healey, 1988
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1996
Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, 1993
Colin Linden, 1993
Kenny Wayne Shepherd, 1995
Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, 1986
Elliot Easton from the Cars, 1996
Wayne Kramer from the MC5, 2004
Bob Rock, 1992
Nick Gilder, 1985
Klaus Meine of Scorpions, 1988
Jason Bonham, 1989
Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers, 1991
Joey Spampinato of NRBQ, 1985
Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, 2003
Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash, 2003
Steve Kilbey of the Church, 1990
Edgar Winter, 2005
Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, 1990
Randy Hansen, 2001
Dan McCafferty of Nazareth, 1984
Davy Knowles of Back Door Slam, 2007
Jimmy Barnes from Cold Chisel, 1986
Steve Stevens of Atomic Playboys, 1989
Billy Idol, 1984
Stuart Adamson of Big Country, 1993
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, 1992
Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, 1998
John Bell of Widespread Panic, 1992
Robben Ford, 1993
Barry Hay of Golden Earring, 1984
Jason Isbell, 2007
Joey Belladonna of Anthrax, 1991
Joe Satriani, 1990
Vernon Reid of Living Colour, 1988
Brad Delp of Boston, 1988
Zakk Wylde of Pride & Glory, 1994
John Sykes of Blue Murder, 1989
Alice Cooper, 1986
Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 1985
John Doe, 1990
Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, 1992
Myles Goodwyn of April Wine, 2001
John Mellencamp, 1999
Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1999
Kenny Aronoff, 1999
Doyle Bramhall II, 2001
Jon Bon Jovi, 1986
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1992
Randy Bachman, 2001
Little Steven, 1987
Stevie Salas, 1990
J.J. Cale, 2009
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
Tommy Emmanuel, 1994
Rob Baker of the Tragically Hip, 1997
John Petrucci of Dream Theater, 2010
Eric Johnson, 2001
Stu Hamm, 1991
Gene Simmons of Kiss, 1992
Ace Frehley from Kiss, 2008
David Lee Roth, 1994
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
John Mayall of the Bluesbreakers, 1988
Steve Vai, 1990
Tony Iommi of Heaven and Hell, 2007
Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1996
Geoff Tate of Queensryche, 1991
James Hetfield of Metallica, 1986
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1990
Rick Richards of the Georgia Satellites, 1988
Andy McCoy and Sam Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks, 1984
Steve Morse, 1991
Slash of Guns N’ Roses, 1994
Brian May from Queen, 1993
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1991
Jake E. Lee of Badlands, 1992
Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1997
John Fogerty, 1997
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
Rick Derringer, 1999
Robin Trower, 1990
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, 1994
Mick Ronson, 1988
Geddy Lee of Rush, 2002
Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, 1997
Michael Schenker, 1992
Vince Neil of Motley Crue, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
Joan Jett, 1992
Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, 1988
Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, 1989
Rob Halford of Judas Priest, 1984
Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, 1999
Paul Rodgers, 1997
R.L. Burnside, 1999
Guthrie Govan of the Aristocrats, 2015
Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe, 1985
Carlos Santana, 2011
Walter Trout, 2003
Rudy Sarzo of Quiet Riot, 1983
Rob Hirst of Midnight Oil, 2001
Tommy Aldridge, 2001
Donald “Duck” Dunn, 1985
Mark Farner of Grand Funk, 1991
Chris Robinson of Black Crowes, 1990
Jennifer Batten, 2002
Mike Fraser, 2014
Leo Kottke, 2002
Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, 2002
David Gogo, 1991
Booker T. Jones, 2016
Link Wray, 1997
James Reyne from Australian Crawl, 1988
Mike Rutherford of Genesis, 1983
Buddy Guy, 1991
Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, 1990
Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, 2016
Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1986
Lindsay Mitchell of Prism, 1988
Buddy Miles, 2001
Eddie Money, 1988
Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, 1983
Gaye Delorme, 1990
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 1984
Graham Bonnet of Alcatrazz, 1984
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, 2016
Doc Neeson of Angel City, 1985
Rik Emmett of Triumph, 1985
Sonny Landreth, 2016
Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, 2016
Jeff Beck, 2001
Albert King, 1990
Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, 1992
Peter Frampton, 1987
Otis Rush, 1997
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1989
Leslie West of Mountain, 2002
Steve Howe of Yes, 2017
Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, 1983
Uli Jon Roth, 2016
Poison Ivy of the Cramps, 1990
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1985
Greg Lake of ELP, 1992
Robert Plant, 1993
Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson of AC/DC, 1983
Warren Zevon, 1992
Tal Wilkenfeld, 2016
Steve Clark of Def Leppard, 1988
Ronnie Montrose, 1994
Danny Gatton, 1993
Alex Lifeson of Rush, 1992
Ann Wilson of Heart, 1985
J.J. Cale, 1990
Yngwie Malmsteen, 2014
Chris Cornell, 2008
Long John Baldry, 1985
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
Kim Mitchell, 1984
Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers, 1994
Susan Tedeschi, 1998
Joe Satriani, 2018
B.B. King, 1984
Albert Collins, 1985
Ronnie James Dio, 1985
Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, 1984
Dick Dale, 2000
Greg Allman, 1998
Dickey Betts, 2001

….with hundreds more to come

 

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