By Steve Newton
On January 25, 1990, Joe Satriani made his Vancouver debut, performing at the 86 Street Music Hall on his Flying in a Blue Dream Tour.
I didn’t review that show–the assignment fell to my guitar-crazed colleague Alex Varty–but I did get to interview Satch beforehand, and man was I psyched about that.
Decades later I’m still a huge fan of Satriani, so while I’m waiting for the bacon & tomato sangie I’ve been promised to get me through this cloudy Saturday afternoon I’m gonna retype the lengthy story that ran in the Jan. 19-26 issue of the Georgia Straight, under the headline “Satriani Gains from Mandibular Pain.”
Hope he appreciates it.
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.”